GOLDIES If you want to see a filmmaker light up brighter than a brand-new projector bulb, ask him about his camera.
“For my 30th birthday, my cousin, Peter Miller, who’s also a filmmaker, sent me this big box,” Malic Amalya says of his Krasnogorsk-3, or K-3, camera. “As soon as I saw it, I was like, ‘The best present that could be in there is a 16mm camera.’ And it was! And it’s wonderful. It has different lenses, it can go at different speeds. I’ve been working with 16mm since 2006, and the process is so different than video. You have to set the focus, set the aperture. And it’s so heavy, and so expensive. Every shot that you take matters. That slowing-down really changed my practice, in making every shot intentional.”
That love of 16mm entered Amalya’s life while he was earning a filmmaking MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago. After graduating in 2009, he spent a few years in Seattle (he’s been the Experimental Film Curator for the city’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival since 2010) before the San Francisco Art Institute’s MA program lured him south. “I wanted to be re-engaged in the theory process,” he says.
At SFAI, he fell under the spell of legendary underground filmmaking brothers Mike and the late George Kuchar. “When I started there, I had known their work, but not super in-depth,” Amalya says. “Claire Daigle, the director of the MA program, was like, ‘You have to take a Kuchar class!’ So I took a class with Mike, and that informed my thesis in a lot of ways.”
He graduated in 2013, and his graduate thesis, “Divine Abjection,” explores the idea that artists like George Kuchar and John Waters “deploy the grotesque and the titillating to confront the violence targeted at queer bodies,” Amalya explains. “Building on psychoanalytic feminist theorist Julia Kristeva’s work on the subject, I assert that these filmmakers command their audience to either find elation within queer ‘perversion’ or eject themselves from the narrative via nausea.”
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
Given his enthusiastic pursuit of education, Amalya’s career goal is no surprise. “I would love to teach experimental filmmaking or queer filmmaking. I’d like to bring in a lot of theory and academic texts into my production classes.” And he’s on his way; this summer, he’ll be teaching Kuchar films, among others, in “Transgressive Transmissions: The Art of Lo-Fi and High-Horror,” offered as part of SFAI’s public education program.
But don’t get Amalya the film scholar (interested in “messy-grotesque” work) confused with Amalya the artist (who makes what he describes as “quiet-formal” films). “The films I write about are quite different from the work I’m making,” he says. “While my interest in film theory inspires my films, and my knowledge of filmmaking informs my analysis, the distinction in genre helps separate my working styles. My writing process is analytical, while my filmmaking process is very intuitive.”
“A lot of times, my process is filming things that I’m visually interested in. A gesture that I’m interested in capturing, or colors and movement. I’m always filming different things and then sitting with them. I still have rolls of film from years ago, where I’m like, ‘Someday this is going to come together.’ And then, in the editing process, it does.”
Local filmgoers have had a chance to see Amalya’s work at venues like Periwinkle Cinema at Artists’ Television Access and San Francisco Cinematheque’s Crossroads Festival. The latter’s 2013 incarnation is where I caught Amalya’s Gold Moon, Sharp Arrow, a 12-minute exploration of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s 1963 obedience experiment; it interweaves a re-creation of the experiment (in which participants, asked to administer electric shocks to subjects who faltered in a word game, followed instructions all too well) with shots of nature and decay — a bee’s nest, a chicken coop, smashed windows, an abandoned house. The film was created with Max Garnet, a performance artist and makeup artist Amalya shared a house with in Seattle.
“Max had the idea of working with the Milgram experiment. So I started reading up on it. On YouTube, you can watch the original footage,” he says. “We were interested in the power relationships that were played out in this experiment, and we were talking a lot about the different power engagements in our queer community in Seattle, and in the greater culture. What really captivated me was the word pairings they used in the original experiment and how seemingly arbitrary they were, but how loaded they were as far as gender norms and cultural expectations.”
Though Amalya enjoys working with others, “A lot of my filmmaking practice is me with a camera exploring different places,” he says. “My process of writing scripts, setting up shots, and editing feels very internal, and at times almost private.”
The theories of another experimental artist — musician Michel Chion — have provided further inspiration. “In his book, Audio Vision, Chion argues that sound never replicates an image, but rather adds a another dimension to the picture. [His notion of] ‘added value’ has become a mantra of sorts while I’m working. In my films, I work against illustration, as well as music videos and didactic polemics. Rather, I strive for movement, light, dialogue, and text to ricochet off each other, forging new and unforeseen connections.” *
The Goldies are silver! The San Francisco Bay Guardian celebrates the 25th annual Goldies — if you’re new here, that stands for Guardian Outstanding Local Discovery Awards — with a special issue celebrating nine emerging Bay Area artists and groups who’re producing exciting, intelligent, provocative work. Gazing into our glittery crystal ball, we predict great things ahead for their careers. And that’s not all: We also honor one veteran performer whose wide-reaching influence has been a beacon of inspiration for over three decades.
Join us and the 2014 winners Fri/21 at a GOLDIES PARTY ($10 gets you all the Lagunitas you can guzzle!) benefiting grassroots arts and culture venue CounterPULSE. Wear gold, because it’s time to shine!
This week’s big release, George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, is a dud. So what else should you see instead? Options include a pair of well-received foreign imports (Gloria and Stranger by the Lake), as well as a tribute to a 1980s comedy classic courtesy of SF Sketchfest. Read on!
GloriaThe titular figure in Sebastian Lelio’s film is a Santiago divorcee and white collar worker (Paulina Garcia) pushing 60, living alone in a condo apartment — well, almost alone, since like Inside Llewyn Davis, this movie involves the frequent, unwanted company of somebody else’s cat. (That somebody is an upstairs neighbor whose solo wailings against cruel fate disturb her sleep.) Her two children are grown up and preoccupied with their adult lives. Not quite ready for the glue factory yet, Gloria often goes to a disco for the “older crowd,” dancing by herself if she has to, but still hoping for some romantic prospects. She gets them in the form of Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), who’s more recently divorced but gratifyingly infatuated with her. Unfortunately, he’s also let his daughters and ex-wife remain ominously dependent on him, not just financially but in every emotional crisis that affects their apparently crisis-filled lives. The extent to which Gloria lets him into her life is not reciprocated, and she becomes increasingly aware how distant her second-place priority status is whenever Rodolfo’s other loved ones snap their fingers. There’s not a lot of plot but plenty of incident and insight to this character study, a portrait of a “spinster” that neither slathers on the sentimental uplift or piles on melodramatic victimizations. Instead, Gloria is memorably, satisfyingly just right. (1:50) (Dennis Harvey)
The Lego Movie The toy becomes a movie. Fun fact: Nick Offerman gives voice to a character named “Metalbeard,” a revenge-seeking pirate. So it’s got that going for it, which is nice. (1:41)
The Monuments Men The phrase “never judge a book by its cover” goes both ways. On paper, The Monuments Men — inspired by the men who recovered art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, and directed by George Clooney, who co-wrote and stars alongside a sparkling ensemble cast (Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh “Earl of Grantham” Bonneville, and Bill Fucking Murray) — rules. Onscreen, not so much. After they’re recruited to join the cause, the characters fan out across France and Germany following various leads, a structural choice that results in the film’s number one problem: it can’t settle on a tone. Men can’t decide if it wants to be a sentimental war movie (as in an overlong sequence in which Murray’s character weeps at the sound of his daughter’s recorded voice singing “White Christmas”); a tragic war movie (some of those marquee names die, y’all); a suspenseful war movie (as the men sneak into dangerous territory with Michelangelo on their minds); or a slapstick war comedy (look out for that land mine!) The only consistent element is that the villains are all one-note — and didn’t Inglourious Basterds (2009) teach us that nothing elevates a 21st century-made World War II flick like an eccentric bad guy? There’s one perfectly executed scene, when reluctant partners Balaban and Murray discover a trove of priceless paintings hidden in plain sight. One scene, out of a two-hour movie, that really works. The rest is a stitched-together pile of earnest intentions that suggests a complete lack of coherent vision. Still love you, Clooney, but you can do better — and this incredible true story deserved way better. (1:58) (Cheryl Eddy)
“Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Documentary” This year, the Oscar-nominated docs are presented in two separate feature-length programs. Program A contains The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, about a Holocaust survivor; Karama Has No Walls, about protestors in Yemen during the Arab Spring; and Facing Fear, about a gay man who encounters the neo-Nazi who terrorized him 25 years prior. Program B contains Cavedigger, about environmental sculptor Ra Paulette; and Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, about a dying prisoner being cared for by other prisoners.
Stranger by the Lake Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is an attractive young French guy spending his summer days hanging at the local gay beach, where he strikes up a platonic friendship with chunky older loner Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao). Still, the latter is obviously hurt when Franck practically gets whiplash neck swiveling at the sight of Michel (Christophe Paou), an old-school gay fantasy figure — think Sam Elliott in 1976’s Lifeguard, complete with Marlboro Man ‘stache and twinkling baby blues. No one else seems to be paying attention when Franck sees his lust object frolicking in the surf with an apparent boyfriend, one that doesn’t surface again after some playful “dunking” gets rather less playful. Eventually the police come around in the form of Inspector Damroder (Jerome Chappatte), but Franck stays mum — he isn’t sure what exactly he saw. Or maybe it’s that he’s quite sure he’s happy how things turned out, now that sex-on-wheels Michel is his sorta kinda boyfriend. You have to suspend considerable disbelief to accept that our protagonist would risk potentially serious danger for what seems pretty much a glorified fuck-buddy situation. But Alain Guiraudie’s meticulously schematic thriller- which limits all action to the terrain between parking lot and shore, keeping us almost wholly ignorant of the characters’ regular lives — repays that leap with an absorbing, ingenious structural rigor. Stranger is Hitchcockian, all right, even if the “Master of Suspense” might applaud its technique while blushing at its blunt homoeroticism. (1:37) (Dennis Harvey)
Top Secret! After the sleeper smash of 1980’s Airplane! (and the TV failure of 1982’s Police Squad! series, which nonetheless led directly to the later, successful Naked Gun movies), the Madison, Wisc.-spawned comedy trio of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker had one more exclamation point up their collective sleeves. That resulted in this hit 1984 parody of Cold War spy movies (and Elvis Presley musicals) starring Val Kilmer (in his perpetually open-mouthed film debut) as hip-swiveling American rock star Nick Rivers, who is dispatched to East Germany on a diplomatic entertainment mission. Instead, he gets yanked into major intrigue that includes kidnapped scientists, Omar Sharif, an elaborate Blue Lagoon (1980) spoof, and of course extremely realistic cow disguises. It also features this immortal exchange between Nazi-Commies, as they’re torturing captured Nick: “Do you vant me to bring out ze LeRoy Neiman paintings?” “No — ve cannot risk violating ze Geneva Convention!” Herrs Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker will reunite on the Castro stage to screen and discuss their incisive political classic as it enters its fourth decade of cultdom. The 30th anniversary afternoon program Sat/8 is co-presented by SF Sketchfest (www.sfsketchfest.com), Midnites for Maniacs, Noise Pop, and the Jewish Film Festival. Castro. (Dennis Harvey)
Vampire AcademyBloodsuckers go to high school in this adaptation of the YA series directed by Mark Waters (2004’s Mean Girls). (1:45)
“I didn’t know I was a Chicano until I met Jose.” — actor and activist Edward James Olmos at the Jose Montoya Memorial Celebration at Sacramento’s Crest Theater, Jan. 23, 2014. Photo by Fernando Andrés Torres.
Read Fernando Andrés Torres’ story on NorCal’s poesia en espanol revival in this week’s paper.
This week: August: Osage County(bumped from its previously-scheduled opening last week) unleashes 2014’s first bolt of LOOK AT ME I’M ACTING! Other choices you have while you count down to the Golden Globes (Sunday night) and the Oscar nominations (next Thursday) include Ralph Fiennes’ latest actor-director turn in Charles Dickens tale The Invisible Woman; Mark Wahlberg’s Navy SEALs drama Lone Survivor; and Renny Harlin’s CG’d-up action-tacular The Legend of Hercules.
August: Osage CountyConsidering the relative infrequency of theater-to-film translations today, it’s a bit of a surprise that Tracy Letts had two movies made from his plays before he even got to Broadway. Bug and Killer Joe proved a snug fit for director William Friedkin (in 2006 and 2011, respectively), but both plays were too outré for the kind of mainstream success accorded 2007’s August: Osage County, which won the Pulitzer, ran 18 months on Broadway, and toured the nation. As a result, August was destined — perhaps doomed — to be a big movie, the kind that shoehorns a distracting array of stars into an ensemble piece, playing jes’ plain folk. But what seemed bracingly rude as well as somewhat traditional under the proscenium lights just looks like a lot of reheated Country Gothic hash, and the possibility of profundity you might’ve been willing to consider before is now completely off the menu. If you haven’t seen August before (or even if you have), there may be sufficient fun watching stellar actors chew the scenery with varying degrees of panache — Meryl Streep (who else) as gorgon matriarch Violet Weston; Sam Shepard as her long-suffering spouse; Julia Roberts as pissed-off prodigal daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), etc. You know the beats: Late-night confessions, drunken hijinks, disastrous dinners, secrets (infidelity, etc.) spilling out everywhere like loose change from moth-eaten trousers. The film’s success story, I suppose, is Roberts: She seems very comfortable with her character’s bitter anger, and the four-letter words tumble past those jumbo lips like familiar friends. On the downside, there’s Streep, who’s a wizard and a wonder as usual yet also in that mode supporting the naysayers’ view that such conspicuous technique prevents our getting lost in her characters. If Streep can do anything, then logic decrees that includes being miscast. (2:10) (Dennis Harvey)
The Legend of Hercules Renny Harlin rises from the dead to direct Twilight series hunk Kellan Lutz in this 3D, CG-laden retelling of you know which myth. (1:38)
Lone Survivor Peter Berg (2012’s Battleship, 2007’s The Kingdom) may officially be structuring his directing career around muscular tails of bad-assery. This true story follows a team of Navy SEALs on a mission to find a Taliban group leader in an Afghani mountain village. Before we meet the actors playing our real-life action heroes we see training footage of actual SEALs being put through their paces; it’s physical hardship structured to separate the tourists from the lifers. The only proven action star in the group is Mark Wahlberg — as Marcus Luttrell, who wrote the film’s source-material book. His funky bunch is made of heartthrobs and sensitive types: Taylor Kitsch (TV’s Friday Night Lights); Ben Foster, who last portrayed William S. Burroughs in 2013’s Kill Your Darlings but made his name as an officer breaking bad news gently to war widows in 2009’s The Messenger; and Emile Hirsch, who wandered into the wilderness in 2007’s Into the Wild. We know from the outset who the lone survivors won’t be, but the film still manages to convey tension and suspense, and its relentlessness is stunning. Foster throws himself off a cliff, bounces off rocks, and gets caught in a tree — then runs to his also-bloody brothers to report, “That sucked.” (Yesterday I got a paper cut and tweeted about it.) But the takeaway from this brutal battle between the Taliban and America’s Real Heroes is that the man who lived to tell the tale also offers an olive branch to the other side — this survivor had help from the non-Taliban locals, a last-act detail that makes Lone Survivor this Oscar season’s nugget of political kumbaya. (2:01) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)
Liv and Ingmar You wouldn’t expect anything less than soul-scorching intimacy from a documentary on the relationship of acting icon Liv Ullmann and moviemaking maestro Ingmar Bergman. And Dheeraj Akolkar satisfies with the help of plentiful clips from Bergman’s filmography, disarmingly frank interviews with Ullmann, behind-the-scenes footage, and grainy images of and excerpts from letters and memoirs by Bergman. Ullmann was the unforgettable face and inspiration for Persona (1966) and other Bergman classics; he was her director, mentor, and teacher; and they were brought together by film and remained drawn to each other despite the scandal of their respective spouses. Their at-first-happy then increasingly jealously-filled and isolated life is translated into intensely personal, searing visions like Shame (1968), which sparks at least one close-to-the-bone anecdote from Ullmann. She shows Akolkar photos of a bundled-up Bergman in a boat beside a vessel carrying an underdressed, freezing Ullman and Max Von Sydow. “He was really angry that day,” she recounts. “You ask if he was ever cruel to me. This time, he was really cruel. I hated him so much and I was planning to leave him.” Some might criticize Akolkar for his loose hand with the couple’s story and his heavy reliance on invaluable Bergman works like 1973’s Scenes From a Marriage — no dates or clues to the films or productions used are given until the credits roll — but more irksome are the sentimental montages, “reenactments,” and score: one can picture Bergman convulsed in the beyond during the most saccharine moments. Liv and Ingmar’s strength is the woman at its center. Revealing mementos from her “dearest Pingmar,” as well as unguarded glimpses into her heart, the almost achingly sincere Ullmann gets the last word here, as befits a survivor and an actress who never hesitated to let the camera see every emotion flitting across her lush features — making this doc less about Ingmar and the specifics of his career, and more about Liv and her still living, breathing emotional life. (1:23) (Kimberly Chun)
As we move through tumultuous times in San Francisco and start a year with infinite political potential, we decided to stretch our imaginations a bit. While this is clearly a work of satire that appropriates some local media voices and perspectives, we hope that even its most fantastical moments will give this parable some resonance with our readers. Happy new year!
EDITORIAL The most exciting and promising political development we’ve seen in a long time in San Francisco is the sudden emergence of so-called Candidate X, who has quickly parlayed groundbreaking populist efforts to reform Muni and housing development into a full-blown campaign for mayor.
While the election is still 22 months away — an eternity in electoral politics — we’re going to go out on a limb here and offer the Candidate X campaign our early endorsement. Political movements like this one are once in a generation opportunities, and it will only be successful with strong, early support.
There’s just too much at stake for politics as usual, or to trust Mayor Ed Lee’s sudden recognition that his economic development policies and deference to market-rate housing developers were hurting San Francisco’s vitality and diversity and igniting a popular uprising, which Candidate X suddenly emerged to help lead.
In case you’ve been living in a cave for the last month, 2014 began with an explosion of progressive activism that finally began to bridge the gap between longtime San Francisco communities and a group of fairly apolitical but Internet-savvy new arrivals, many of whom work in the technology industry, which had been increasingly vilified as elitist and out-of-touch with the city’s values and history.
A mysterious, masked figure calling himself or herself (nobody is quite sure) Candidate X used social media on New Year’s Day to announce bold plans to “disrupt the streets of San Francisco,” calling for vaguely defined meet-ups at a dozen key spots around the city on the morning of Jan. 3.
The multi-pronged response was overwhelming and surprisingly coordinated, perhaps an indicator of offline organizing that exceeded the viral online phenomenon. Google and other corporate buses were commandeered into free public service (with the collusion of many drivers and regular riders) while Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other online funding drives raised at least $10 million for Muni to expand its service, a potent mix of fiscal and people power. And that epic day ended with an unpermitted rally of at least 10,000 people in Civic Center Plaza.
A week later, Candidate X followed up with a similar effort to jumpstart affordable housing construction in the city, using a combination of carrot and stick (humanist appeals to project backers and direct action at construction sites) to persuade a half-dozen market rate developments to substantially increase their affordable housing mix. And the candidate helped organize a mass mobilization that brought thousands of tenants to City Hall — and generated 10 times as many emails and calls — to force the supervisors to support a measure raising the relocation fees on Ellis Act evictions so high that the speculators were almost instantly driven out of the city.
Candidate X is now talking about raising even more money for Muni by quadrupling the mitigation fees developers pay to construct new offices.
Those campaigns were coupled with hundreds of activists using hoes, picks, and shovels on public land that was part of the 8 Washington luxury condo proposal, removing the parking lots and grading the land by hand for a communal housing project they intend to build on the site.
The next week, with the Candidate X movement gaining momentum at astonishing speed, Candidate X announced his/her intention to run for mayor in the November 2015 election, starting now. The campaign has already announced a series of radical but smart positions, from banning cars on Market and other key streets to reclaiming Treasure Island and Hunters Point Shipyard from Lennar’s control, and promising many more to come.
In some ways, it seems like a marriage between the surging housing rights movement — which has been challenging evictions and gentrification and fighting for the soul of San Francisco — and the social media-driven Batkid outpouring back in November. But rather than an apolitical one-off, this feels like a broad movement focused on shaping San Francisco in the public interest over the long term.
The whirlwind of exciting political energy has left many speechless, and we can only say: Candidate X for mayor!
While the Candidate X phenomenon has certainly captivated San Franciscans and attracted national media attention, giving the city’s far-left progressives a glimmer of hope in capturing the Mayor’s Office next year, those close to Mayor Ed Lee say they aren’t worried.
“Everybody’s having fun with this now, but at the end of the day, voters are going to prefer a proven leader like Mayor Lee and his successful jobs agenda to some kind of strange masked comic book character,” a source in the Mayor’s Office told us. “Whatever this thing is, it’ll be a footnote in the mayor’s race.”
The source cited internal polling indicating the Mayor Lee’s approval rating holding steady at more than 70 percent and unaffected by the last three months’ worth of headline-grabbing antics by Candidate X and his or her campaign. The polls also found the public is turned off by the candidate’s mask and secret identity.
Candidate X has certainly proven adept at using social media and other technological tools to generate support, but Angel investor Ron Conway and his sf.citi collaboration of technology industry leaders have pledged to help make tech-driven outreach and voter identification a centerpiece of Lee’s reelection campaign.
“Entrepreneurs have made this city what it is, and we’re not going to let this Candidate X creature undermine our agenda for San Francisco,” Conway said. “Let them have their fun for now, we’re not worried.”
Sometimes, revealing the fakers in politics can be easy.
And so it goes with the so-called “Candidate X.” The self-stylized Progressive Hero is a multi-racial, gender ambiguous second coming of Christ for the city’s super-lefties. The narrative began with a PR move that undoubtedly had Willie Brown weeping into his Wilkes Bashford handkerchief.
Brown promised to fix Muni in 100 days, and Candidate X fixed it with one glorifyingly stupid stunt.
Masked and spandex clad, Candidate X straddled two Muni buses while doing the splits, Van Damme style, between them. X rode the buses spread eagle, laughing like a demented Santa Claus, as streams of San Franciscans ran behind them down Geary Boulevard. Using the ploy to call for Kickstarter of America’s Worst Transit System, millions of streaming video gawkers nationwide flocked to and knocked out the crowd funder’s website.
The silliness ended before you could say “back door!”
It was seemingly successful. Defying the history of failed fixes from every ex-San Francisco mayor since forever, X single-handedly raised enough money to “expand Muni for the next three decades,” progressives claimed.
Some played it as a progressive spurning of Mayor Ed Lee’s proven political tactic — ignore Muni’s issues and glorify the Google buses. Some portrayed it as a socialist takeover of an already red or dead leaning City by the Bay. Your humble narrator knew better.
X is a ludicrous candidate no sane citizen would back, and that stunt was clearly that — a stunt. But still the quixotic charade marched on.
Last week, X sat Mark Zuckerberg and a team of star studded tech oligarchy down with progressive activists. The previously evicted Lee family was there, arm-in-arm with former Mayor Art Agnos and a cadre of lefty power in San Francisco, or what’s left of them anyway. With Candidate X in the center of the two contentious camps, the tableau was vaguely reminiscent of the Last Supper, save for the presence of Mission District burritos.
San Francisco’s problems were tastily tackled one by one.
Housing problems? Hacked and solved. The homeless? Software solutions streamlined shelters in a day. Even hunger among the city’s poor was licked, as the techies and lefties together crafted solutions mind-melding the best ideals of both. All throughout, a time bomb ticked away like a demented clock ready to strike “I told you so!” at midnight.
It’s difficult to watch impending doom stare well-meaning people in the face. Literally staring, as the problem came the person posing for all the cameras: Candidate X.
Last week the candidate’s violent history was revealed, and although the SF Weekly doesn’t have a stock of X-ray glasses, your humble narrator still saw this coming a long way back. X is a fraud. A charlatan. A wannabe in progressive clothing. And now we all know why.
In police records obtained by the City Attorney’s Office, Candidate X was revealed to be one of the Occupy San Francisco and Oakland protesters, maybe even from the pernicious Black Bloc. Way back when, the Bay Area was captivated by martyred rallier Scott Olsen and others who were wronged by the not-so-mighty Oakland Police Department. OPD tear gassed and grenaded the Occupy pests. At the same time, a more intimate, frightening drama played out across the bay in San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
The SFPD was mostly kind to their own Occupy camp, but one boy in blue was not: Officer Alex Murphy. He paid dearly for it. One night, sleeping in his tent at the Occupy camp, Candidate X was roused by Murphy and ushered to leave. Does that translate into the officer deserving a beating within an inch of his life? It seems Candidate X thought so, although he also seems to have got as good as he gave, and ended up in the hospital.
The Black Bloc folks aggressive ways led the public to link Occupy with violence, from hippies to rage rousers. Black Bloc and Candidate X were kindred souls. Even his heart was black.
X yanked Murphy behind the fountain at Justin Herman Plaza, and punched him repeatedly, savagely, in the face, Murphy said in police reports, eventually pinning the officer to the ground before he got his.
Candidate X put up the usual defenses. “Murphy was near murderous with protesters all night, he’d gone vigilante,” Candidate X told scads of TV crews in Aaron Sorkin-esque walk and talks, last week. Protesters said he saved their lives, hailing his heroism. San Francisco shouldn’t buy the story. It’s malarkey, plain and simple.
But good reasons or no, is a violent wacko the kind of candidate you want leading the new progressive movement? Not surprisingly, it seems the new progressive era is like the old one. Big dreams, empty promises, and a lot of rhetoric that will soar nowhere.
And no one, especially not your humble narrator, was surprised.
The electoral landscape today is much different than it was only last week, when the revelation of Candidate X’s brawl with police had pulled the mayoral hopeful’s poll numbers into the ground.
Now a new viral video released by members of the San Francisco Occupy camp from 2011 confirms X’s side of the story: Officer Alex Murphy broke ranks with the generally peaceful SFPD. Police Chief Greg Suhr had a mostly “hands off” policy, allowing the Occupiers their right to free speech.
Murphy did not follow those directives, however, and the video shows the officer swinging his baton wildly, throwing punches, and injuring several protesters in the night, only to be fought off by Candidate X.
The story of X’s fight with an SFPD officer during the Occupy encampments had many saying the candidate’s campaign was over.
“That’s not someone I’d trust to be the leader of San Francisco,” said Mayor Ed Lee Press Secretary Christine Falvey.
The release of the video casted doubt on Murphy’s side of the story, and changed the electoral climate in the city going into next month’s election, when five seats on the Board of Supervisors are on the ballot.
Progressives in San Francisco scored big victories in last night’s election, winning seats on the Board of the Supervisors that a year ago seemed secure for the incumbents, thanks largely to a populist surge triggered by the mysterious Candidate X mayoral campaign.
Although neither Mayor Ed Lee nor Candidate X will appear on the ballot until next year, this year’s legislative races clearly got caught up in the enthusiasm of that race, with David Campos defeating David Chiu in their Assembly race and three members of the Board of Supervisors replaced by progressives.
Attorney David Waggoner took Sup. Scott Wiener’s District 8 seat and previous political unknowns Jennifer Wong and Betty Jones scored improbable victories in the Districts 2 and 10, defeating Mark Farrell and Malia Cohen.
District 6 incumbent Jane Kim appears to have narrowly won reelection after being strongly challenged by three candidates to her left, who criticized her ties to Mayor Lee and her sponsorship of the big tax break for Twitter and other mid-Market businesses almost four years ago. But Kim appeared to blunt that criticism by leading this year’s repeal on that and other business tax breaks and firmly aligning herself with Candidate X.
Kim’s vote in favor of raising fees on Ellis Act evictions and more than tripling the fees charged to office developers for Muni and affordable housing almost certainly saved her seat — and the refusal of Farrell and Cohn to support the tenant and economic fairness agenda were major factors in the campaigns that unseated them.
Candidate X defies easy categorization, and confusion surrounding this political dynamo’s gender identity is just the tip of the iceberg.
Since announcing her candidacy, she’s been the subject of rampant speculation among the city’s political insiders. Is she a native Spanish speaker, or did she grow up speaking Cantonese? Was she born and raised in San Francisco, or is she a transplant from the Midwest, or a foreign-born resident? Which supervisorial district does she live in? What is her annual income? Does Candidate X have any tattoos?
For all the questions this rollercoaster-like campaign has raised, Candidate X has left little doubt about his stance on certain issues. He frequently spouts a philosophy of “radical inclusion,” which he says could be put into practice in San Francisco city government by creating an online platform where all residents could log in and vote directly on discretionary funding allocation. He’s proposed eliminating the system of mayoral commission appointments altogether, instead allowing residents to digitally cast votes for commissioners. And he’s floated the idea of making every single public document tagged, searchable, and readily available, to anyone, the moment it’s created.
Candidate X’s unique method of campaign fundraising has spurred several economic studies. She’s created partnerships with a wide network of independently owned, San Francisco small businesses to allow customers to chip in a bit extra when they make a purchase, then used her considerable social media reach to encourage supporters to shop at those businesses. The approach has helped her tap a broad pool of donors, while sending new clientele through the doors of struggling proprietors in every corner of the city, many of whom have been losing ground in the face of rising rents and competition from national chain stores.
Candidate X has also organized campaign fundraising events with sliding scale admission fees. They are rumored to draw large, diverse crowds and occasionally last until sunrise, with attendees lingering for impassioned political discussion long after the performers have left. The events tend to start early in the evening with talks by local artists and authors, followed by aerial circus arts performances and live sets by Bay Area bands spanning a wide range of musical genres.
Candidate X has met with experts on climate change and used their input to produce a comprehensive plan for developing city-owned renewable energy infrastructure, which she says could be staffed with graduates of a job-training program created for at-risk youth. She’s also undertaken a project of identifying every abandoned property in the city that could be converted to residential use, as part of a plan to open up new transitional housing for homeless residents, to be staffed with a veritable army of substance abuse counselors and mental health professionals.
Earlier this month, when baristas organized a citywide protest against gentrification — by withholding coffee and shutting down Wi-Fi networks — Candidate X rode his bike from café to café to stand with the aproned employees while bleary-eyed patrons lined up outside the doors in confusion, clutching their laptops.
“Today, you are going to have to make your own coffee and work from home,” Candidate X told the bewildered patrons, after baristas shared personal stories of facing eviction or anxiety over losing rental housing.
“These baristas have taken a courageous stand for economic justice, to defend San Francisco against real estate speculators and developers who hold no regard for this city’s long tradition of inclusion and equality. They will not make your Ethiopian pour-over coffee with complex flavors of lilac and lavender while you connect to their free Wi-Fi — until you join in the fight against real-estate speculators whose actions have threatened this city as a haven for people of all incomes and identities.”
Since then, rumors have surfaced that someone in the tech community who heard the baristas’ stories that day has since started collaborating with the San Francisco Tenants Union, to create an app to help apartment-hunting tech workers boycott landlords who are known to carry out evictions and harassment — and to track evictions and alert house-hunters to join in refusing to bid on properties emptied by eviction.
So it seems that Candidate X has done the unthinkable, and gotten the younger voters of San Francisco to actually give a damn.
In his (her? their?) latest headline-grabbing move, Candidate X registered nearly 100 percent of voters age 18-30 in San Francisco just in time for the next election.
How’d X do it? The SF Examiner explains:
“In what could become a regular afternoon ritual, Candidate X stopped by college campuses, hip coffee shops, and Dolores Park this week with representatives of the tech industry and every San Francisco constituent group in tow.
The elderly, the homeless, new immigrants and others volunteered their time to convince every young voter, one by one, why it was worth their time to register to vote.
“I’ve never felt like I had a reason to give a damn, really,” said Martin Collins, 22. “Maybe it was X’s energy, which felt like (President) Obama’s campaign… or maybe it was because Macklemore was there. Either way, I’m voting next election.”
There you have it folks. X is so revolutionary. All you have to do is bring famous people to your voting drive, or you know, tout “hope and change.”
That always works. Last time Ed Lee ran for mayor, only around 30 percent of San Franciscans turned out to vote. Now Lee really has something to worry about.
Candidate X has been an enigma from the beginning, a vessel of progressive hopes for finally winning the Mayor’s Office. And at tonight’s triumphant election night party, we learned that we’re all Candidate X.
As exciting as the political victory was the hope that the masked Candidate X would reveal her or his identity after winning the race, which the current 15-point margin all but assures. That made for a big moment when Candidate X came onstage in Bill Graham Civic Auditorium to address the large crowd.
“This election was a fight for the soul of San Francisco and beyond. It was a referendum on the belief that we should leave this great city and others like it to the mercies of market forces, and the people have now said they want to be in control. Politicians often claim their victories are really victories for the people, but tonight, that’s finally true,” Candidate X said.
At that moment, dozens of nearly identical Candidate Xs — with the ubiquitous mask, cape, and costume, that image that has so captivated the country over these last 22 months — streamed out from backstage and filled the stage.
“1, 2, 3,” they all said in unison, all of them pulling off their masks at the same moment, revealing themselves to be a broad cross-section of city residents: young and old, men and women, attractive and plain, black and white and every shade in between.
“You see,” said the Candidate X who had originally come to the microphone, who appeared to be an Asian woman around 40 years old. “From the very beginning of this campaign, there’s never been a single Candidate X. We’ve all worn the mask at different times, we’ve all stood on the stump to proclaim the progressive values that this election was about, and we’ve all run this race.”
“Some of us have been doing this for a long time,” said a costume-clad Tom Ammiano, the longtime local legislator who last ran for mayor in 1999, “and we knew this moment needed to be about more than just one leader. So we created a vehicle that we could all ride into Room 200.”
Ammiano told the Guardian that he had been part of the large team that conceived of Candidate X during a series of secret meetings in late 2013. He said the campaign hopes and believes that its entire X Factor Leadership Team will be allowed to legally govern the city, but that just in case the Lee team challenges the unconventional arrangement in court, Ammiano last year legally changed his name to Candidate X and that he will serve as the figurehead for that governing structure if necessary.
“To turn this city around and restore it as an example for the world is a job for all of us, not any one person or faction,” said another Candidate X, who appeared to be African American woman in her early 20s. “We face challenges ranging from unaffordable rents here to global warming and loss of biodiversity everywhere. And it’s going to take all of us, working and standing together, to solve these problems and create a just and inclusive society, today and for future generations.”
“Todos somos Candidate X,” declared an elderly Latino Candidate X. “We are all Candidate X.”
*All new items written by Steven T. Jones, Rebecca Bowe, and Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
Breathe easy, halfling: the middle installment in Peter Jackson’s Hobbittrilogy is a huge improvement over the first film. Also new this week: Emma Thompson turns in a cranky-yet-lovable performance as the woman who wrote Mary Poppins in Saving Mr. Banks (with Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney); Liev Schreiber battles oddly familiar space monsters in The Last Days on Mars; and Tyler Perry celebrates the holidays as only he can, with A Madea Christmas. Read on for reviews and trailers.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of SmaugJust when you’d managed to wipe 2012’s unwieldy The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey from your mind, here comes its sequel — and it’s actually good! Yes, it’s too long (Peter Jackson wouldn’t have it any other way); arachnophobes (and maybe small children) will have trouble with the creepy, giant-spider battle; and Orlando Bloom, reprising his Lord of the Rings role as Legolas the elf, has been CG’d to the point of looking like he’s carved out of plastic. But there’s much more to enjoy this time around, with a quicker pace (no long, drawn-out dinner parties); winning performances by Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Ian McKellan (Gandalf); and Benedict Cumberbatch (as the petulent voice of Smaug the dragon); and more shape to the quest, as the crew of dwarves seeks to reclaim their homeland, and Gandalf pokes into a deeper evil that’s starting to overtake Middle-earth. (We all know how that ends.) In addition to Cumberbatch, the cast now includes Lost‘s Evangeline Lilly as elf Tauriel, who doesn’t appear in J.R.R. Tolkien’s original story, but whose lady-warrior presence is a welcome one; and Luke Evans as Bard, a human poised to play a key role in defeating Smaug in next year’s trilogy-ender, There and Back Again. (2:36) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Last Days on Mars An eight-member crew of a multinational expedition to Mars are just wrapping up their six-month mission when they discover sign of life — well, “bacterial cell division,” albeit of a virulent strain that seems hellbent on turning anyone who comes in contact with it into violent un-dead. Hence the visiting humans are soon battling for survival, including Liev Schreiber (hero), Romola Garai (sorta-love interest), Olivia Williams (mean girl), and Elias Koteas. Though well crafted, this first feature by Irish director Ruairi Robinson (adapted by Clive Dawson from Sydney J. Bounds’ 1975 short story) can’t help but be a letdown as its menace turns out to be nothing more than transformed humans in pasty “monster” makeup lurching around grabbing the panicked, still-living specimens. You’ve seen all this before, in forms both scarier and cheesier, but either way often more memorably handled than here. (1:38) (Dennis Harvey)
Saving Mr. BanksHaving promised his daughters that he would make a movie of their beloved Mary Poppins books, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has laid polite siege to author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) for over 20 years. Now, in the early 1960s, she has finally consented to discuss the matter in Los Angeles — albeit with great reluctance, and only because royalty payments have dried up to the point where she might have to sell her London home. Bristling at being called “Pam” and everything else in this sunny SoCal and relentlessly cheery Mouse House environ, the acidic English spinster regards her creation as sacred. The least proposed changes earn her horrified dismissal, and the very notion of having Mary and company “prancing and chirping” out songs amid cartoon elements is taken as blasphemy. This clash of titans could have made for a barbed comedy with satirical elements, but god forbid this actual Disney production should get so cheeky. Instead, we get the formulaically dramatized tale of a shrew duly tamed by all-American enterprise, with flashbacks to the inevitable past traumas (involving Colin Farrell as a beloved but alcoholic ne’er-do-well father) that require healing of Travers’ wounded inner child by the magic of the Magic Kingdom. If you thought 2004’s Finding Neverland was contrived feel-good stuff, you’ll really choke on the spoons full of sugar force-fed here. (2:06) (Dennis Harvey)
This week, we feature a pair of excellent documentaries: Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley (review here) and The Punk Singer, about riot grrrl icon Kathleen Hanna (review and interview here). Read on for short takes on this week’s new releases!
Art Gods: An Oral History of the Tower Records Art Department Bay Area filmmaker Strephon Taylor (2012’s The Complete Bob Wilkins Creature Features) turns his lens on Tower Records circa its 1980s heyday, when the hard-partying bros of the store’s in-house art department crafted displays for the hottest new album releases. Taylor, himself a veteran of the crew, gathers its founding members to reminisce, including original store artist Steve Pollutro, who made eye-catching magic using everyday supplies (posters, foam board, X-Acto knives, spray paint, etc.) and spawned an art style that invaded record stores worldwide. An odd length at just over an hour, Art Gods could have been trimmed of some of its superfluous anecdotes (a story about Pollutro’s failed attempts to enter the UK to help Tower set up its London branch drags on forever) and presented as a more fine-tuned shorter doc — or made more substantial by widening its interview pool beyond nostalgic former artists. (1:12) Balboa. (Cheryl Eddy)
Bettie Page Reveals All Mark Mori’s affectionate Bettie Page Reveals All is narrated in the form of a rambling, chuckle-punctuated interview with the late pin-up icon herself. (We never actually see her except in archival film and images.) Even die-hards who already know the story behind the legend — a rough childhood, several unsuccessful marriages, mental-health issues — will likely learn some new tidbits. (A friend recalls watching 2005’s unauthorized biopic The Notorious Bettie Page with its subject, who hollered her opinion — “Lies! Lies!” — throughout.) Associates like Hugh Hefner and Dita Von Teese drop by to praise Page’s talents and legacy, but there’s no greater proof of lasting glamour than Page’s famous photographs, which she clearly loved posing for, and never regretted, even after embracing Christianity later in life. (1:41) (Cheryl Eddy)
Out of the Furnace Scott Cooper is best-known for directing Jeff Bridges to a long-overdue Oscar in 2009 country-music yarn Crazy Heart. Perhaps that’s why his follow-up contains so many stars: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard, Zoe Saldana, and Woody Harrelson. That cast is the main draw for Out of the Furnace, a glum fable of dying American dreams co-written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby. Furnace retains Crazy Heart‘s melodramatic tendencies and good ol’ boy milieu, though this time we’re deep in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt, which manages to be even more depressing than Crazy Horse‘s honky-tonks. Cue gray skies, repeated shots of train tracks and smoke stacks, an emo banjo score, and dialogue that casually mentions that “the mill,” the only source of income for miles around, is about to close. Probably the nicest guy in town is Bale’s character, arrested early on for causing a fatal car accident thanks to his inability to turn down a drink offered by the town heavy (Dafoe). Post-prison, he discovers that his girlfriend (Saldana) has taken up with another man, and that his money-troubled Iraq-vet brother (Affleck) has been entering high-stakes pit fights. Really, this can’t end well for anyone. Adding to Out of the Furnace‘s bleak take on modern masculinity is Harrelson, stealing all his scenes with ease as a psychotically violent redneck. Mickey Knox lives! (1:56) (Cheryl Eddy)
Sweet Dreams When the all-female drum troupe at the center of Sweet Dreams performs — and we hear some of the players’ stories about their battles to emerge from the enormity of the Rwandan genocide — we fully understand why Oscar-winning editor Lisa Fruchtman and her brother, documentary director Rob Fruchtman, gravitated toward this story. Ingoma Nshya is rooted in a tradition that was once reserved for men, and is composed of the orphans, widows, wives, and offspring of both the victims and perpetrators of the genocide. Music seems to be one of the sole sources of creative expression and healing for them, until founder and theater director Kiki Katese convinces the hipster owners of Brooklyn’s Blue Marble Ice Cream to start a collective with the women to open the country’s first ice cream shop. The Fruchtmans touch on the horrors of the past but devote most of the drama to the quietly emotional as well as physically tangible issues of opening the store and actually going about making its soft-serve treats. With that focus, Sweet Dreams sometimes seems to overlook the obvious — the ever-lingering specter of violence and trauma, the unanswered questions of justice, and the women’s daily struggle to coexist — and those with a journalistic, or even musically ethnographic, mindset, will be frustrated by some of the absences, like the lack of information about the performances and music itself. That’s not to say Sweet Dreams‘ story isn’t worth telling — or relishing. (1:23) (Kimberly Chun)
This week, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire stands poised to crush all who dare step to it, but there are some alternatives out there. There’s the San Francsico Film Society’s weekend-long Cinema By the Bay festival (my overview here), as well as the latest from acclaimed director Alexander Payne, the small-scale but still very moving Nebraska (Dennis Harvey’s review here.)
Plus: a festival favorite from Belgium, and Vince Vaughn’s sperm-bank comedy. Reviews for both (plus guaranteed big kahuna Catching Fire) below.
Broken Circle Breakdown This Belgian movie by director Felix Van Groeningen arrives bearing major awards (from the Berlin and Tribeca festivals) and promising to nab plenty more of them. Why, you ask? I haven’t the faintest idea. Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) is leader of a bluegrass group; Elise (Veerle Baetens) is a tattoo artist until she meets him, they get together, and it’s discovered that when she opens her mouth Alison Krauss falls out. They have a child, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), who develops cancer at age six or so, and whose prospects are grim. So far, so ordinary — Once (2007) meets Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), a tearjerker in which people sing high lonesome American roots music (in English, too) well enough, but not so well that you ever stop wondering “Why are these Belgians doing this?” The expected tragedy hits halfway through, and that’s when the movie really gets into trouble. Its protagonists fall apart, understandably, but in irksome ways — mostly picking on each other — with particularly annoying sequences occurring in both past and present tense. It’s hard to tell which one is worse, the arch flashback wedding scene, her deciding to rename herself “Alabama,” his endless onstage outburst about Yahweh, the climactic psychedelic flashback crisis montage, or the wholly gratuitous final … well, never mind. This was originally a stage play, and in the usual way that seeing musicians act and actors play instruments live is exciting, it probably worked well in that medium. But on film it seems like a contrived pileup of ill-matched ideas and plot devices. Don’t take my word for it, though: From Seattle to Osaka, apparently there’s been nary a dry eye in the house. So knock yerself out. (1:50) (Dennis Harvey)
Delivery ManTwenty years ago David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn) “put love in a cup” 600-plus times to finance a family trip to Italy. His mother was sick, his father couldn’t afford it, and with time running out, David embarked on a harebrained scheme to make (a lot of) “it” happen. The sperm bank that paid him $23K for his “seed” overused it, and 18 years later he has 533 kids, 143 of which are on a hunt to find their biological father, “Starbuck.” (This also the name of the 2011 Canadian comedy on which Delivery Man is based.) With a premise this quirky you’ll have a hard time finding something to hate, even if this is technically a film about runaway jizz. This heartwarming Thanksgiving release isn’t really appropriate for youngsters (unless you’re been trying to find a entrée to explain sperm banks) but the way Delivery Man deals with the seemingly limitless generosity contained in each of us is both touching and inspiring. Maybe David’s contribution to “Starbuck’s Kids” doesn’t obligate him to reveal his identity, but he’s desperately attached, and goes embarrassingly far outside his comfort zone to interact. The kids’ emotional stake in this is murky, but the way their search for identity finds a voice in tune with the current tech-confident yet socially-confused younger generation could make Delivery Man relevant to more generations than X or Y. (1:45) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)
The Hunger Games: Catching FireBefore succumbing to the hot and heavy action inside the arena (intensely directed by Francis Lawrence), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire force-feeds you a world of heinous concept fashions that’d make Lady Gaga laugh. But that’s ok, because the second film about one girl’s epic struggle to change the world of Panem may be even more exciting than the first. Suzanne Collins’ YA novel The Hunger Games was an over-literal metaphor for junior high social survival and the glory of Catching Fire is that it depicts what comes after you reach the cool kids’ table. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) inspired so much hope among the 12 districts she now faces pressures from President Snow (a portentous Donald Sutherland) and the fanatical press of Capital City (Stanley Tucci with big teeth and Toby Jones with big hair). After she’s forced to fake a romance with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the two watch with horror as they’re faced with a new Hunger Game: for returning victors, many of whom are too old to run. Amanda Plummer and Jeffrey Wright are fun as brainy wackjobs and Jena Malone is hilariously Amazonian as a serial axe grinder still screaming like an eighth grader. Inside the arena, alliances and rivalries shift but the winner’s circle could survive to see another revolution; to save this city, they may have to burn it down. (2:26) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)
Days later Batkid is still warming our hearts, and taking a look at the interwebs shows that Miles Scott, aka Batkid, warmed the hearts of many worldwide. Make-a-Wish turned parts of San Francisco into Gotham City for the day Friday, Nov. 15 and the Guardian was on hand for photos. Below we’ve also compiled some of our favorite Batkid photos and memes from the weekend. Guardian photos by Amanda Rhoades.
This week, doc lovers are in luck: not only is Chris Marker’s seminal 1962 Le Joli Mai making a return to theaters (Sam Stander’s take here), but Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney delves into cycling’s greatest scandal in The Armstrong Lie (my review here).
American Promise This remarkable look at race, education, parenting, and coming-of-age in contemporary America is the result of 13 years spent following African American youths Seun and Idris (the latter the son of filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson). At the beginning, the Brooklyn pals are both starting at the exclusive Dalton School, where most of their classmates are rich white kids. This translates into culture-clash experiences both comical (a 13-year-old Idris estimates he’s been to 20 bar mitzvahs) and distressing, as both boys struggle socially and academically for reasons that seem to have a lot to do with their minority status at the school. Culled from hundreds of hours of footage — a mix of interviews and cinéma vérité — Brewster and Stephenson’s film captures honest moments both mundane and monumental, sometimes simultaneously, as when Seun’s mother, driving the kids to school, discusses her battle with cancer as his younger siblings trill a Journey song in the back seat. (And even this seemingly light-hearted aside takes on heft later in the film.) Extra props to Brewster and Stephenson, who clearly made a conscious choice not to edit out any of their own foibles — for the most part, they’re caring, involved parents, but be warned: strident homework nagging is a recurrent theme. (2:20) Roxie. (Eddy)
The Best Man HolidayTaye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan lead an ensemble cast in this seasonal sequel to 1999 hit The Best Man. (2:00)
The Book Thief One of those novels that seems to have been categorized as “young adult” more for reasons of marketing than anything else, Markus Zusak’s international best seller gets an effective screen adaptation from director Brian Percival and scenarist Michael Petroni. Liesl (Sophie Nelisse) is an illiterate orphan — for all practical purposes, that is, given the likely fate of her left-leaning parents in a just-pre-World War II Nazi Germany — deposited by authorities on the doorstep of the middle-aged, childless Hubermanns in 1938. Rosa (Emily Watson) is a ceaseless nag and worrywart, even if her bark is worse than her bite; kindly housepainter Hans (Geoffrey Rush), who’s lost work by refusing to join “the Party,” makes a game of teacher Liesl how to read. Her subsequent fascination with books attracts the notice of the local Burgermeister’s wife (Barbara Auer), who under the nose of her stern husband lets the girl peruse tomes from her manse’s extensive library. But that secret is trivial compared to the Hubermanns’ hiding of Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), son of Jewish comrade who’d saved Hans’ life in the prior world war. When war breaks out anew, this harboring of a fugitive becomes even more dangerous, something Liesl can’t share even with her best friend Rudy (Nico Liersch). While some of the book’s subplots and secondary characters are sacrificed for the sake of expediency, the filmmakers have crafted a potent, intelligent drama whose judicious understatement extends to the subtlest (and first non-Spielberg) score John Williams has written in years. Rush, Watson, and newcomer Schnetzer are particularly good in the well-chosen cast. (2:11) (Dennis Harvey)
How I Live Now As 16-year-old Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) arrives to spend the summer with cousins she’s never met, England is on the brink of war with an unnamed adversary. Daisy wants nothing to do with her new family and their idyllic countryside home — she’s too caught up in self-loathing image and diet obsessions, which manifest in the movie as overwhelming voiceover chatter. Her eldest cousin, Eddie (George MacKay), begins to draw her out of her shell, but everything changes when a nuclear explosion hits the country. At first, the cousins’ post-apocalyptic life is a charming bucolic, soundtracked by British folk-rock. But the horrors of war soon find them, and the movie’s latter half takes on a quite different tone. Adapted from Meg Rosoff’s YA novel, How I Live Now is almost eager to tackle the ugliest aspects of wartime existence — mass graves, prisoner abuse, work camps — and this unflinching approach is compelling, despite some flaws in the acting and character development. (1:41) (Sam Stander)
Your Day Is My Night Multidisciplinary artist Lynne Sachs returns to SF with this feature set in the world of NYC’s Chinatown “shift bed” apartments — ones whose crowded tenants take turns using sleeping space, a phenomenon that exists in many US cities and immigrant communities. An experimental mix of documentary and staged narrative, Day’s cohabiting protagonists are primarily older émigrés from China with diverse current jobs and divergent memories of life back home — from fond family reminiscences to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. The individual stories told here are related not just in verbiage (both scripted and improvised), but song, dance, theater, poetical imagery, and composer-sound designer Stephen Vitiello’s collage soundtrack. At Other Cinema, Sachs will also present several of her short film works, including 2006’s Three Cheers for the Whale, a collaboration with the late Chris Marker that revised his 1972 Viva la Baleine, which was co-directed with Mario Ruspoli. In addition to its ATA screening Sat/16, Your Day Is My Night also plays the Pacific Film Archive Nov 20. (1:03) Artists’ Television Access. (Dennis Harvey)
Two big ‘uns this week: blockbuster-to-be Thor: The Dark World(reviewbelow), and the very fine drama Dallas Buyers Club,featuring standout performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto (Dennis Harvey’s review here). If you seek a respite from Hollywood, check out San Francisco’s own South Asian International Film Festival (some recommendations from me, here), or read on for more short takes on this week’s new offerings.
The Motel Life Brothers (Stephen Dorff, Emile Hirsch) go on the run after a tragic accident. Kris Kristofferson and Dakota Fanning co-star. (1:25) Roxie.
Running From Crazy Can one ever escape one’s toxic genetic legacy, especially when one’s makeup, and even one’s genius, is so entangled with mental illness, the shadow of substance abuse, and a kind of burden of history? Actor, author, healthy-living proponent, and now suicide prevention activist Mariel Hemingway seems cut out to try, as, eh, earnestly as she can, to offer up hope. Part of that involves opening the door to documentarian Barbara Kopple, in this look at the 20th century’s most infamous literary suicide, Mariel’s grandfather Ernest Hemingway, and just one of his familial threads, one full of lives cut deliberately short. For Running From Crazy, Kopple generally keeps the focus on Mariel, who displays all the disarming groundedness and humility of the youngest care-taking, “good” child. Her father, Ernest’s eldest son, Jack, regularly indulged in “wine time” with his ailing wife and, according to Mariel, had a pitch-black side of his own. But we don’t look to closely at him as the filmmaker favors the present, preferring to watch Mariel mountain climb and bicker with her stuntman boyfriend, meet up with her eldest sister Muffet, and ‘fess up about the depression that runs through the Hemingway line to her own daughters. Little is made of Mariel’s own artistic contributions in acting, though Kopple’s work is aided immeasurably by the footage Mariel’s rival middle sister Margaux shot for a documentary she planned to do on Ernest. Once the highest paid model in the world, Margaux leaves the viewer with a vivid impression of her brash, raw, eccentric, and endearingly goofy spirit — she’s courageous in her own way as she sips vino with her parents and older sister and tears up during a Spanish bull fight. Are these just first world problems for scions who never hesitated to trade on their name? Kopple is more interested in the humans behind the gloss of fame, spectacle and sensation — the women left in the wake of a literary patriarch’s monumental brand of masculinity and misogyny. And you feel like you get that here, plainly and honestly, in a way that even Papa might appreciate. (1:40) (Kimberly Chun)
Spinning Plates Joseph Levy’s enjoyable documentary contrasts life at three widely disparate U.S. restaurants: the Martinez family’s modest enterprise La Cocina de Gabby, a Tucson showcase for a wife and mother’s Mexican cooking; Breitbach’s Country Dining in rural Iowa, a 151-year-old purveyor of all-American comfort food; and superstar chef Grant Achatz’s Chicago Alinea, where a 24-course meal of culinary art/science experiments can set you back $800 (yes, that’s for one diner). The latter is a global destination for serious foodies, acclaimed by the industry’s most prestigious observers. (Its nearly 24/7 supply deliveries are also a noisy nightmare for someone I know whose apartment is next door.) The teensy town that’s grown up around Breitbach’s has a population of 70; on a busy weekend, the business attracts up to 2,000, many driving long distances to get there. Yet the people we get to know the best here, the émigré Martinezes, illustrate another side of restaurant life — the side in which a majority of new eateries fail within three years, despite (as seemingly is the case at Gabby’s) all palate-pleasing, reasonable pricing and tireless labor. Tying together these three stories is … well, nothing, really, beyond some vague notion that good food is something that breeds “community.” (Yet high-ticket Alinea can hardly be said to reflect that, while Levy doesn’t actually bother interviewing any patrons to let us know whether the other two establishments’ food is anything special.) Still, and despite some rather bogus dramatic chronology-manipulation of events that happened several years ago, Spinning Plates is an entertaining sampler plate of a movie. And the Martinez family’s story lends it a bit of real gravitas. (1:32) (Dennis Harvey)
Thor: The Dark World Since any tentacle of Marvel’s Avengers universe now comes equipped with its own money-printing factory, it’s likely we’ll keep seeing sequels and spin-offs for approximately the next 100 years. With its by-the-numbers plot and “Yeah, seen that before” 3D effects, Thor: The Dark World is forced to rely heavily on the charisma of its leads — Chris Hemsworth as the titular hammer-swinger; Tom Hiddleston as his brooding brother Loki — to hold audience interest. Fortunately, these two (along with Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Idris Elba, and the rest of the supporting cast, most of whom return from the first film) appear to be having a blast under the direction of Alan Taylor, a TV veteran whose credits include multiple Game of Thrones eps. Not that any Avengers flick carries much heft, but especially here, jokey asides far outweigh any moments of actual drama (the plot, about an alien race led by Christopher Eccleston in “dark elf” drag intent on capturing an ancient weapon with the power to destroy all the realms, etc. etc., matters very little). Fanboys and -girls, this one’s for you … and only you. (2:00) (Cheryl Eddy)
Tonight’s election is a showdown on the waterfront. Propositions B and C offer San Francisco voters the chance to shoot down the 8 Washington luxury condo project, which we’ve been covering for some time. Bay Guardian Editor Steven T. Jones and News Editor Rebecca Bowe are at the No on B&C and Yes on B&C parties, respectively, and you can catch their tweets here in this post. Just hit your browser’s “refresh” button for their latest tweets and the latest election numbers.
The most recent posts will be towards the top, and election numbers will be time stamped. Remember, hit “refresh” on your browser to see the latest.
Last numbers of the night (not official until final counts made and validated by Department of Elections):
Proposition A — Retiree Health Care Trust Fund: YES 68.7%
Proposition B — 8 Washington Street Initiative: NO 62.22%
Proposition C — Referendum: NO 66.56%
Proposition D — Prescription Drug Purchasing: YES 80.08%
Total registration and turnout: 21.73%
Read our full endorsements and explanations of propositions and unopposed candidacies here.
10:23pm: Guardian editors Steven T. Jones and Rebecca Bowe are signing off for the night and heading home, but as our last live refresh of this post, we’ll let you catch a glimpse of some of the reactions to the Props B&C defeat below.
Feels like tide is turning in SF. ’99 again. RT @sfbg: Jon Golinger: “It was only stopped because the people stopped it.”
10:16pm: With 98% of precincts reporting in, just 21.67% of San Francisco voters turned out for this election, a possible new record low. Though the results are not official just yet, as some mail-in ballots have yet to be counted.
Jon Golinger: “They rubber stamped it from the beginning and it was only stopped because the people stopped it.” pic.twitter.com/v7RpTOzeKc
The movie you need to see this weekend, ASAP, is 12 Years a Slave — one of the most important releases of the year, and a likely contender for all possible awards, including Best Actor and Best Picture. (Review here.) Also new to theaters is the Cannes-winning, controversy-stirring Blue is the Warmest Color. (Review here.)
Read on for more short takes on today’s new releases, plus a 1979 cult classic that’s ripe for rediscovery.
About Time Richard Curtis, the man behind 2003’s Love Actually, must be enjoying his days in England, rolling in large piles of money. Coinciding with the 10-year anniversary of that twee cinematic love fest comes Curtis’ latest ode to joy, About Time. The film begins in Cornwall at an idyllic stone beach house, as Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) describes his family members (Bill Nighy is dad; Richard Cordery is the crazy uncle) and their pleasures (rituals (tea on the beach, ping pong). Despite beachside bliss, Tim is lovelorn and ready to begin a career as a barrister (which feels as out of the blue as the coming first act break). Oh! And as it happens, the men in Tim’s family can travel back in time. There are no clear rules, though births and deaths are like no-trespass signs on the imaginary timeline. When he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams), he falls in love, but if he paves over his own evening by bouncing back and spending that night elsewhere, he loses the path he’s worn into the map and has to fix it. Again and again. Despite potential repetition, About Time moves smoothly, sweetly, slowly along, giving its audience time enough to feel for the characters, and then feel for the characters again, and then keep crying just because the ball’s already in motion. It’s the most nest-like catharsis any British film ever built. (2:03) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)
A.K.A. Doc Pomus “All greatness comes from pain.” The simple statement comes from Raoul Felder, brother of legendary R&B songwriter Doc Pomus, in the beautiful, crushing mediation on his brother’s life, A.K.A. Doc Pomus, opening theatrically this week after serving as the closing-night film of the 2012 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Doc wrote some of the greatest music of a generation: R&B and early rock’n’roll standards such as “This Magic Moment,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Save the Last Dance For Me,” and “Viva Las Vegas” — songs made famous by the likes of Dion, the Drifters, and Elvis Presley. Jewish, debilitated by polio, and vastly overweight, Doc defied expectations while struggling with a lifetime of outsider status and physical pain. William Hechter and Peter Miller’s doc offers a revealing look at his remarkable life. (1:38) Vogue. (Emily Savage)
Diana The final years of Diana, Princess of Wales are explored in what’s essentially a classed-up Lifetime drama, delving into the on-off romance between “the most famous woman in the world” (Naomi Watts) and heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews). Relationship roadblocks (his Muslim family, back home in Pakistan, is hesistant to accept a divorced, Christian Brit as their son’s partner) are further complicated by extraordinary circumstances (Diana’s fame, which leads to paparazzi intrusions on the very private doctor’s life), but there’s real love between the two, which keeps them returning to each other again and again. By the third or fourth tearful breakup — followed by a passionate reunion — Diana’s story becomes repetitive as it marches toward its inevitable tragic end. Still, director Oliver Hirschbiegel (2004’s Downfall, another last-days-in-the-life biopic, albeit of a slightly different nature) includes some light-hearted moments, as when a giggling Diana smuggles Hasnat through the palace gates (past guards who know exactly what she’s up to). As you’d expect, Watts is the best thing here, bringing warmth and complexity to a performance that strives to reach beyond imitation. (1:52) (Cheryl Eddy)
Ender’s Game Asa Butterfield (star of 2011’s Hugo), Harrison Ford, and Ben Kingsley appear in this adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi novel. (1:54)
Free Birds Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson lend their voices to this animated turkey tale. (1:31)
God Loves Uganda 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. 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. (1:23) Roxie. (Cheryl Eddy)
Kill Your Darlings Relieved to escape his Jersey home, dominated by the miseries of an oft-institutionalized mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and long-suffering father (David Cross), Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) enters Columbia University in 1944 as a freshman already interested in the new and avant-garde. He’s thus immediately enchanted by bad-boy fellow student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a veteran of numerous prestigious schools and well on the road to getting kicked out of this one. Charismatic and reckless, Carr has a circle of fellow eccentrics buzzing around him, including dyspeptic William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and merchant marine wild child Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Variably included in or ostracized from this training ground for future Beat luminaries is the older David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a disgraced former academic who’d known Carr since the latter was 14, and followed him around with pathetic, enamored devotion. It’s this last figure’s apparent murder by Carr that provides the bookending crux of John Krokidas’ impressive first feature, a tragedy whose motivations and means remain disputed. Partly blessed by being about a (comparatively) lesser-known chapter in an overexposed, much-mythologized history, Kill Your Darlings is easily one of the best dramatizations yet of Beat lore, with excellent performances all around. (Yes, Harry Potter actually does pass quite well as a somewhat cuter junior Ginsberg.) It’s sad if somewhat inevitable that the most intriguing figure here — Hall’s hapless, lovelorn stalker-slash-victim — is the one that remains least knowable to both the film and to the ages. (1:40) (Dennis Harvey)
Last Vegas This buddy film may look like a Bucket List-Hangover hybrid, but it’s got a lot more Spring Breakers in it than you’d expect — who beats Vegas for most bikinis per capita? Four old friends reunite for a wedding in Vegas, where they drink, gamble, and are confused for legendary men. Morgan Freeman sneaks out of his son’s house to go. Kevin Kline’s wife gave him a hall pass to regain his lost sense of fun. Kline and Freeman trick Robert De Niro into going — he’s got a grudge against Michael Douglas, so why celebrate that jerk’s nuptials to a 30-year-old? The conflicts are mostly safe and insubstantial, but the in-joke here is that all of these acting legends are confused for legends by their accidentally obtained VIP host (Romany Malco). These guys have earned their stature, so what gives? When De Niro flings fists you shudder inside remembering Jake LaMotta. Kline’s velvety comic delivery is just as swaggery as it was during his ’80s-era collaborations with Lawrence Kasdan. Douglas is “not as charming as he thinks he is,” yet again, and voice-of-God Freeman faces a conflict specific to paternal protective urges. Yes, Last Vegas jokes about the ravages of age and prescribes tenacity for all that ails us, but I want a cast this great celebrated at least as obviously as The Expendables films. Confuse these guys for better? Show me who. (1:44) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)
Let the Fire Burn In 1985 a long-simmering conflict between Philadelphia police and the local black liberation group MOVE came to a catastrophic conclusion. Ordered to leave their West Philly building after numerous neighborhood complaints about unsanitary conditions, incessant noise, child endangerment and more, the commune refused. An armed standoff came to a halt when a helicopter dropped two FBI-supplied water gel bombs on the roof, killing 11 MOVE members (including five kids) and creating an uncontrollable fire that destroyed some 60 nearby homes. It’s hard to deny after watching Jason Osder’s powerful documentary that MOVE then looked like one crazy cult — its representatives spouting extreme, paranoid rhetoric in and out of court; its child residents (their malnutrition-bloated stomachs nonsensically explained as being due to “eating so much”) in visibly poor health; its charismatic leader John Africa questionably stable. But whatever hazards they posed to themselves and the surrounding community, it’s also almost undeniable here that city law enforcement drastically overreacted, possibly in deliberate retaliation for an officer’s shootout death seven years earlier. The filmed and amply media-reported trials that ensued raised strong suspicions that the police even shot unarmed MOVE members trying to escape the blaze. This outrageous saga, with numerous key questions and injustices still dangling, is an American history chapter that should not be forgotten. Let the Fire Burn is an invaluable reminder. (1:35) (Dennis Harvey)
Man of Tai ChiKeanu Reeves directs and plays a supporting role in this contemporary Beijing-set martial-arts drama. (1:45)
The PinCanadian film about a romance between two Eastern European youths, in hiding during World War II. (1:23)
The VisitorDirected by “Michael J. Paradise” (aka Giulio Paradisi), this 1979 Italian-US. co-production is belatedly starting to acquire a cult following. Joanne Nail is Barbara, mother of Katy (Paige Conner), a seemingly normal little girl with a disconcerting tendency to swear like a longshoreman when out of ma’s earshot. Also unbeknownst to mom is that her boyfriend (Lance Henriksen, no less), as well as characters played by Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, John Huston, Sam Peckinpah, and the inimitable Shelley Winters are all very interested — on the good and the evil side — in Katy, a “miracle of nature” with “immense powers.” Those powers apparently include making Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s basketball explode at the hoop, and sending teenage boys through plate glass at an ice rink. Some of the adults nosing around Katy really, really want Barbara to give her a similarly gifted baby brother, others do not. It all involves some kind of interplanetary conspiracy to … well, beats me, frankly. Its utter senselessness part of the charm, The Visitor includes any number of bizarre moments, including Winters’ evident enjoyment of slapping some sense into Katy (the child thesp later confirmed that the Oscar winner went a little too Method in that scene), and crusty old Huston intoning the line “I’m, uh, the babysitter.” This glossy sci-fi horror mess. which the Roxie is showing in a new digital transfer, borrows elements freely from 1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (a fiasco that inspired very little imitation), 1976’s The Omen (or rather 1978’s Damien: Omen II) and, strangely, Orson Welles’ 1947 The Lady from Shanghai (directly ripping off its famous hall of mirrors scene). Yet there’s a certain undeniable originality to its incoherence. (1:48) Roxie. (Dennis Harvey)
Incredibly, Hollywood is allowing this hallowed weekend to pass without releasing a single horror movie. (Unless you count Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, which I don’t.) Frights galore exist in local rep houses, however (right this way for a calendar), and for those who’d simply like turn off the lights, pretend nobody’s home, and eat all the Fun Size Snickers themselves, there’s some non-seasonal fare worth checking out (plus, two of those rep-house chillers!) in the below reviews.
All Is Lost As other reviewers have pointed out, All is Lost‘s nearly dialogue-free script (OK, there is one really, really well-placed “Fuuuuuck!”) is about as far from J.C. Chandor’s Oscar-nominated script for 2011’s Margin Call as possible. Props to the filmmaker, then, for crafting as much pulse-pounding magic out of austerity as he did with that multi-character gabfest. Here, Robert Redford plays “Our Man,” a solo sailor whose race to survive begins along with the film, as his boat collides with a hunk of Indian Ocean detritus. Before long, he’s completely adrift, yet determined to outwit the forces of nature that seem intent on bringing him down. The 77-year-old Redford turns in a surprisingly physical performance that’s sure to be remembered as a late-career highlight. (1:46) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Counselor Ridley Scott directs Cormac McCarthy’s script about a lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who gets involved in the drug underground. The supporting cast includes Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt. (1:57)
I Am a Ghost In local director H.P. Mendoza’s latest, a young woman named Emily (Anna Ishida) wanders the claustrophobic corridors of a sumptuously decorated Victorian house, repeating her actions in each room in a perfunctory loop: frying eggs, flipping through old photographs, dusting the furniture, stretching in bed. Besides herself, the place initially appears to be uninhabited, until the house begins to creak and groan restlessly around her, and a disembodied voice begins to address her by name. It doesn’t give too much away to reveal at this point that Emily is a ghost, and the voice purportedly that of a professional medium (Jeannie Barroga) who has been hired to assist her out of the house and “into the light.” Unraveling who Emily is and what is keeping her from ascending to the next level takes up most of the rest of the film, and the eerie tension that builds as Emily’s memories return, filling in the unpleasant blanks, explodes at the end with a brutal chaos only otherwise hinted at in earlier scenes. Ishida’s Emily is full of complexity and confusion, and much of the movie’s real “horror” stems from her own sense of powerlessness and realization that the world that she’s inhabiting doesn’t appear to be one rooted in reality, or at least in other people’s realities. Experimental musician and Fringe Festival performer Rick Burkhardt makes a terrifying cameo as the presumed source of Emily’s inability to move on — and speaking of experimental music, the movie’s score, penned by Mendoza, does a lot to create the sense of creeping unease that characterizes most of the film. (1:14) Castro. (Nicole Gluckstern)
InformantLocal filmmaker Jamie Meltzer’s complex, compelling Informant makes its theatrical bow at the Roxie a year and a half after it premiered at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival (it’s been playing festivals nearly nonstop since). The doc explores the strange life of Brandon Darby, a lefty activist turned FBI informant turned Tea Party operator who helped send two 2008 Republican National Convention protestors to jail. He’s a polarizing guy, but the film, which is anchored by an extensive interview with Darby, invites the audience to draw their own conclusions. (Side note: if you conclude that you want to yell at the screen and give Darby a piece of your mind, chances are you won’t be alone.) (1:21) Roxie. (Cheryl Eddy)
Space Battleship Yamato The year is 2199, five years after mysterious aliens began bombarding Earth with radiation. The scrappy humans who’ve managed to survive by living underground are rapidly dying out — so a crew assembles for a deep-space “journey of hope” to a planet where a “radiation elimination device” might be acquired. Based on a 1974 Japanese anime series (it aired in the US under the name Star Blazers), this live-action adventure contains plenty of CG-enhanced battles and a cast stuffed with stock characters: the gifted, brash young pilot who’s haunted by a dark past (Takuya Kimura, whose flowing locks betray his teen-idol origins); the tough chick who gradually softens (Meisa Kuroki); the grizzled, wise captain (Tsutomu Yamazaki of 2009’s Departures), etc. Fans of the original series may gobble this up, but the casual viewer might find there’s not much to distinguish the overlong Space Battleship Yamato — saddled with a score that vacillates between bombastic and sentimental — from space operas (particularly Battlestar Galactica) that’ve come before. (2:18) Four Star. (Cheryl Eddy)
Spine Tingler! The William Castle StoryOther Cinema anticipates Halloween in vintage style with Jeffrey Schwarz’s 2007 documentary about the late, beloved Hollywood schlockmeister. After a mostly undistinguished early career in programmer mysteries, Westerns, and 3D features, William Castle found his métier in the late 1950s making horror thrillers with B budgets (and C scripts) but A-plus marketing gimmicks. Macabre (1958) offered life insurance policies to patrons who might die of fright; the next year’s The Tingler infamously gave patrons in select theater seats slight electric shocks; the same year’s House on Haunted Hill had ushers yank a plastic skeleton over the audience’s heads; Mr. Sardonicus (1961) gave ticket buyers a chance to vote on its title character’s fate. (It was so predictable that they’d vote for mortal punishment, an alternative “happy ending” never actually existed.) Straight-Jacket (1964) had Joan Crawford as a battle-ax axe murderess, a concept that could sell itself. Castle’s perpetual hopes to gain respect and make a “serious” picture were somewhat rewarded by Rosemary’s Baby, even if he wound up merely producing that 1968 smash. (He’d hoped to direct, but was smart enough to realize Roman Polanski was the more inspired choice.) This fond portrait includes input from various Castle collaborators, admirers and family members, as well as plenty of priceless clips. Guest host Christian Divine will offer additional retro horror goodies during this evening of cheap thrills. (1:22) Other Cinema at Artists’ Television Access. (Dennis Harvey)
Torn An explosion at a mall throws two families into turmoil in this locally-shot drama from director Jeremiah Birnbaum and scenarist Michael Richter. Maryam (Mahnoor Baloch) and Ali (Faran Tahir) are Pakistani-émigré professionals, Lea (Dendrie Taylor) a working-class single mother. Their paths cross in the wake of tragedy as both their teenage sons are killed in a shopping center blast that at first appears to have been caused by a gas-main accident. But then authorities begin to suspect a bombing, and worse, the principals’ dead offspring — one as a possible Islamic terrorist, another for perhaps plotting retaliation against school bullies. As the parents suffer stressful media scrutiny in addition to grief and doubt, they begin to take their frustrations out on each other. An earnest small-scale treatment of some large, timely issues, the well-acted Torn holds interest as far as it goes. But it proves less than fully satisfying, ending on a note that’s somewhat admirable, but also renders much of the preceding narrative one big red herring. (1:20) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Dennis Harvey)
The Trials of Muhammad Ali If you’ve seen an Ali doc before (or even the 2001 biopic), a lot of the material in The Trials of Muhammad Ali will feel familiar. But Bill Siegel’s lively investigation, which offers interviews with Louis Farrakhan and Ali’s former wife Khalilah, among others, does well to narrow its focus onto one specific — albeit complicated and controversial — aspect of Ali’s life: the boxing champ’s Nation of Islam conversion, name change, and refusal to fight in Vietnam. And as always, the young, firebrand Ali is so charismatic that even well-known footage makes for entertaining viewing. (1:26) (Cheryl Eddy)
This week’s fare includes a thoughtful doc about the debate over late-term abortions, Benedict Cumberbatch’s star turn as Julian Assange, the Carrie remake, and more.
After Tiller Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller is incredibly timely, as states like Texas and North Carolina continue to push forth increasingly restrictive abortion legislation. This doc focuses on the four (yes, only four) doctors in America who are able to perform late-term abortions — all colleagues of Dr. George Tiller, assassinated in 2009 by a militant anti-abortionist. The film highlights the struggles of what’s inherently a deeply difficult job; even without sign-toting (and possibly gun-toting) protestors lurking outside their offices, and ever-shifting laws dictating the legality of their practices, the situations the doctors confront on a daily basis are harrowing. We sit in as couples make the painful decision to abort babies with “horrific fetal abnormalities;” a rape victim feels guilt and relief after terminating a most unwanted pregnancy; a 16-year-old Catholic girl in no position to raise a child worries that her decision to abort will haunt her forever; and a European woman who decides she can’t handle another kid tries to buy her way into the procedure. The patients’ faces aren’t shown, but the doctors allow full access to their lives and emotions — heavy stuff. (1:25) Roxie. (Cheryl Eddy)
Broadway Idiot “I can’t act, I can’t dance … compared to a lot of these people, I can’t even sing,” Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong admits, moments before he’s seen taking the Broadway stage in the musical based on his band’s American Idiot. (He played the character of St. Jimmy for stints in both 2010 and 2011.) Director Doug Hamilton’s doc mixes concert, rehearsal, and full-on musical footage; interviews (with Armstrong, show director Michael Mayer, music supervisor Tom Kitt, and others); and behind-the-scenes moments to trace the evolution of American Idiot from concept album to Broadway show. Fans will feast on those behind-the-scenes moments, as when the band stops by Berkeley Rep — where the show had its pre-Broadway workshop performances — to hear new arrangements of their songs for the first time, or cast members prep to perform with Green Day at the Grammys. For everyone else, Broadway Idiot offers a slick, energetic, but not especially revealing look at the creative process. Good luck getting any of those catchy-ass songs out of your head, though. (1:20) Vogue. (Cheryl Eddy)
Carrie A high-school outcast (Chloë Grace Moritz) unleashes hell on her bullying classmates (and her controlling mother, played by Julianne Moore) in Kimberly Peirce’s take on the Stephen King classic. (1:32)
Concussion Robin Weigert (Deadwood, Sons of Anarchy) stars in this tale of a lesbian housewife who pursues a new career as a prostitute after suffering a bump on the head. (1:36)
Escape Plan Extreme prison breaking (from, naturally, an “escape-proof” facility) with Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, and Vincent D’Onofrio. (1:56)
The Fifth Estate After being our guide through the world of 1970s Formula One racing in Rush, Daniel Brühl is back serving that same role — and again grumbling in the shadows cast by a flashier character’s magnetism — for a more recent real life story’s dramatization. Here he’s German “technology activist” Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who in 2007 began collaborating with the enigmatic, elusive Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) on WikiLeaks’ airing of numerous anonymous whistleblowers’ explosive revelations: US military mayhem in Afghanistan; Kenyan ruling-regime corruption; a Swiss bank’s providing a “massive tax dodge” for wealthy clients worldwide; ugly truths behind Iceland’s economic collapse; and climactically, the leaking of a huge number of classified U.S. government documents. It was this last, almost exactly three years ago, that made Assange a wanted man here and in Sweden (the latter for alleged sexual assaults), as well as putting US Army leaker Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning in prison. The heat was most certainly on — although WikiLeaks was already suffering internal woes as Domscheit-Berg and a few other close associates grew disillusioned with Assange’s megalomania, instability, and questionable judgment. It’s a fascinating, many-sided saga that was told very well in Alex Gibney’s recent documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, and this narrative feature from director Bill Condon and scenarist Josh Singer feels disappointingly superficial by contrast. It tries to cram too information in without enough ballasting psychological insight, and the hyperkinetic editing and visual style intended to ape the sheer info-overload of our digital age simply makes the whole film seem like it’s trying way too hard. There are good moments, some sharp supporting turns, and Estate certainly doesn’t lack for ambition. But it’s at best a noble failure that in the end leaves you feeling fatigued and unenlightened. (2:04) (Dennis Harvey)
VinylWhen the surviving members of a long-defunct, once-popular Welsh pop punk outfit reunite for a less lucky member’s funeral, the squabbles that have kept them incommunicado for decades are forgotten — with the help of lots of alcohol. They even jam together, and lo and behold, the hungover next morning reveals recorded evidence that they’ve still “got it.” In fact, they’ve even thrown together an insanely catchy new song that would be a perfect comeback single. Only trouble is, when they shop it around to record companies (including their own old one), they’re invariably told that no matter how good the music is, audiences today don’t want old fogeys performing it. (That would be “like watching your parents have sex,” they’re told.) The all-important “tweens to twenties” demographic wants stars as young as themselves, only hotter. So Johnny (Phil Daniels) and company have the bright idea of assembling a quintet of barely-legal cuties to pose as a fake band and lipsynch the real band’s new tune. Needless to say, both take off like wildfire, and eventually the ruse must be exposed. Sara Sugarman’s comedy is loosely inspired by a real, similar hoax (pulled off by ’80s rockers the Alarm), and might have dug deeper into satire of an industry that has seldom deserved mocking evisceration more than it does now. Instead, Vinyl settles for being a brisk, breezy diversion, likable if a bit formulaic — though that single, “Free Rock ‘n’ Roll,” really is catchy in an early Clash-meets-Buzzcocks way. (1:25) Roxie. (Dennis Harvey)
ZaytounIt’s 1982 in war-torn Beirut, and on the semi-rare occasion that streetwise 12-year-old Palestinian refugee Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) attends school, he’s faced with an increasing number of empty desks, marked by photos of the dead classmates who used to sit there. His own father is killed in an airstrike as Zaytoun begins. When an Israeli pilot (Stephen Dorff — a surprising casting choice, but not a bad one) is shot down and becomes a PLO prisoner, Fahed’s feelings of hatred give way to curiosity, and he agrees to help the man escape back to Israel, so long as he brings Fahed, who’s intent on planting his father’s olive sapling in his family’s former village, along. It’s not an easy journey, and a bond inevitably forms — just as problems inevitably ensue when they reach the border. Israeli director Eran Riklis (2008’s Lemon Tree) avoids sentimentality in this tale that nonetheless travels a pretty predictable predictable path. (1:50) (Cheryl Eddy)
Zero Charisma Scott (Sam Eidson) is a raging nerd, of the staunchly old-school variety: he lives for the sacred ritual of “game night,” where as Game Master he guides his minions through Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy role-playing. His hobby, which is really more of a lifestyle, is the only thing he really likes; otherwise, he’s a self-described “loser,” in his late 20s but still living with his grandmother (a delightfully acidic Anne Gee Byrd) and working a crappy job delivering tacos and donuts, sometimes to his former co-workers (who all hate him) at a game shop straight out of The Simpsons. When “cool” nerd (and insufferable hipster) Miles (Garrett Graham) joins Scott’s game and threatens his fantasy world — at the exact moment his long-lost mother (Cyndi Williams) swoopes in, intent on selling Nana’s house out from under her — chaos reigns. Writer Andrew Matthews (who co-directed with Katie Graham) clearly knows Scott’s world well; the scenes revolving around gaming (“But we’re almost to the hall of the goblin queen!”) are stuffed with authentic and funny nerd-banter, and while Scott himself is often mocked, RPGs are treated with respect. Scott’s personal journey is a little less satisfying, but Zero Charisma — an Audience Award winner at SXSW — has at least as much quirky appeal as a pair of multi-sided dice. (1:27) Roxie. (Cheryl Eddy)
First things first: do not pass go or collect your turkey leg until you’ve seen Escape From Tomorrow, the shot-secretly-at-Disney sci-fi drama that will, in fact, blow your mind. Dennis Harvey’s review here. (Speaking of mind-blowing, have you seen Gravity yet? If not, why are you still reading this? Why aren’t you rushing to the theater RIGHT NOW?)
Elsewhere this week: two powerful tales of survival are told in doc The Summit and Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, which stars Tom Hanks and will make you glad your job doesn’t require you to traverse pirate-infested shipping lanes. My reviews of both here.
We’ve also got the latest exploitation-fan catnip from Robert Rodriguez, Machete Kills, starring Danny Trejo (fantasy role-swap: Danny Trejo as Captain Phillips), a comedy in which Amy Poehler plays Adam Scott’s stepmother, a Twilight-informed Shakespeare flick, and more. Read on!
A.C.O.D. When happy-go-lucky Trey (Clark Duke) announces rather suddenly that he’s getting married, cranky older bro Carter (Adam Scott), the Adult Child of Divorce of the title, is tasked with making peace between his parents (Richard Jenkins and Catherine O’Hara). Trouble is, they haaaate each other (Jenkins: “If I ever see that woman, I’m gonna kick her in the balls”) — or so Carter thinks, until he discovers (to his horror) that there’s long-dormant passion lurking beneath all the insults. He also discovers that he was part of a book about kids of divorce written by a nutty PhD (Jane Lynch), and is drawn into her follow-up project — through which he meets fellow A.C.O.D Michelle (Jessica Alba, trying way too hard as a bad girl), a foil to his level-headed girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). As the life he’s carefully constructed crumbles around him, Carter has to figure out what really matters, blah blah. Stu Zicherman’s comedy (co-scripted with Ben Karlin; both men are TV veterans) breaks no new ground in the dysfunctional-family genre — but it does boast a cast jammed with likable actors, nimble enough to sprinkle their characters’ sitcom-y conflicts with funny moments. Amy Poehler — Scott’s Parks and Recreation boo — is a particular highlight as Carter’s rich-bitch stepmother, aka “the Cuntessa.” (1:27) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and PeteJennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, and Anthony Mackie play the grown-ups and assorted parental figures in this drama about two young boys coming of age in New York City. George Tillman, Jr. (2009’s Notorious; 2000’s Men of Honor) directs. (2:00)
Machete Kills Herewith we have the first sequel to a film (2010’s Machete) spawned from a fake trailer (that appeared in 2007’s Grindhouse). Danny Trejo’s titular killer has been tasked by the POTUS (Charlie Sheen, cheekily billed by his birth name, Carlos Estevez) to take down a Mexican madman (Demian Bechir) who’s an enemy of both his country’s drug cartels and the good ol’ USA. But it’s soon revealed (can you have plot spoilers in a virtually plotless film?) that the real villain is weapons designer Voz (Mel Gibson), a space-obsessed nutcase who’d fit right into an Austin Powers movie. The rest of Machete Kills, which aims only to entertain (with less social commentary than the first film), plays like James Bond lite, albeit with a higher, bloodier body count, and with famous-face cameos and jokey soft-core innuendos coming as fast and furious as the bullets do. As always, Trejo keeps a straight face, but he’s clearly in on the joke with director Robert Rodriguez, who’d be a fool not to continue to have his exploitation cake and eat it too, so long as these films — easy on the eyes, knowingly dumb, and purely fun-seeking — remain successful. (1:47) (Cheryl Eddy)
Mother of George Fashion photographer and music video director Andrew Dosunmu’s second feature opens with one of the most rapturous setpieces in recent cinematic memory: a wedding ceremony and banquet in Brooklyn’s Nigerian expat community so sensuously rich it washes over the viewer like a scented bath. Afterward, restauranteur Adoydele (Isaach De Bankole) and his younger immigrant bride Adenike (Danai Gurira) live in a connubial bliss increasingly compromised by the pressure on her to bear children. When that doesn’t happen, it could be either party’s biological “fault;” but tradition and an imperious mother-in-law (Bukky Ajayi) place blame firmly on Adenike’s shoulders, till the latter considers a desperate, secret solution to the problem. Like Dosunmu and his cinematographer Bradford Young’s 2011 prior feature Restless City, this followup is so aesthetically transfixing (not least its Afropop soundtrack) you can easily forgive its lack of equally powerful narrative impact. Someday they’ll make a movie that works on both levels — but meanwhile, Mother of George is gorgeous enough to reward simply as an object of sumptuous beauty. (1:47) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Muscle Shoals Hard on the heels of Dave Grohl’s Sound City comes another documentary about a legendary American recording studio. Located in the titular podunk Northern Alabama burg, Fame Studio drew an extraordinary lineup of musicians and producers to make fabled hits from the early 1960s through the early ’80s. Among them: Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a slew of peak era Aretha Franklin smashes, the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” and those cornerstones of Southern rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” Tales of how particular tracks came about are entertaining, especially when related by the still-lively likes of Etta James, Wilson Pickett, and Keith Richards. (Richards is a hoot, while surprisingly Mick Jagger doesn’t have much to say.) Director Greg Camalier’s feature can be too worshipful and digressive at times, and he’s skittish about probing fallouts between Fame’s founder Rick Hall and some long-term collaborators (notably the local in-house session musicians known as the Swampers who were themselves a big lure for many artists, and who left Fame to start their own successful studio). Still, there’s enough fascinating material here — also including a lot of archival footage — that any music fan whose memory or interest stretches back a few decades will find much to enjoy. (1:51) (Dennis Harvey)
Romeo and JulietEvery director sees the star-crossed lovers differently: Zefferelli’s apporach was sensuous, while Luhrmann’s was hip. Carlo Carlei, director of the British-Swiss-Italian production hitting theaters this week, is so hamstrung by the soapy mechanics of the Twilight series and the firmament of high school productions he fails to add much vision — what he does instead is pander to tweens as much as possible. Which means tweens might like it. Hailee Steinfeld makes Juliet’s foolishness seem like the behavior of a highly functional teenager, while Douglas Booth’s chiseled Romeo can’t help resembling a cheerful Robert Pattinson. Juliet’s maid has never been more memorable than Leslie Mansfield and Paul Giamatti is occasionally not self-consciously Paul Giamatti as the cunning friar. Yet the syrupy score is miserably persistent, and the sword fights are abundant and laughable. Tybalt (Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick) leads a group that walks in slo-mo, hats flopping behind them. Carlei wrongheadedly stages the double suicide to resemble Michelangelo’s Pietà, but Romeo and Juliet aren’t martyrs for our fantasies, they’re the Adam and Eve of young love. Cinematic adaptations should remind you they’re original, but this Romeo and Juliet simply doesn’t know how. (1:58) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)
The 36th Mill Valley Film Festival opened last night and runs through Oct. 13, filling the North Bay’s travel-worthy venues (the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center is the main one) with must-see films. Check out our recs here, and read on for short takes on Hollywood’s offerings, including the season’s must-see sci-fi film.
Blind Detective Johnnie To’s latest makes its local debut as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s “Hong Kong Cinema” series, hot on the heels of his Drug War, which had a theatrical run earlier this year. Blind Detective shares Drug War’s crime theme and moody palette, but it also has — whimsy alert! — an accordion-inflected score. The cute quotient is further upped by Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng, who’ve been frequently paired in To’s lighter fare (perhaps most memorably in 2001’s Love on a Diet, which attired its attractive stars in fat suits). Lau plays a former cop who left the force after losing his vision, yet continues to solve crimes (in pursuit of reward money) using, among other unorthodox methods, his superior sense of smell. Cheng plays a scrappy policewoman who admires his investigative skills and asks him to track down a long-lost childhood friend. He agrees, but not before slyly tricking her into helping him pursue lucrative paydays on unrelated cases. Lau’s wannabe-Sherlock antics and Cheng’s lovelorn flailings wear thin after two-plus hours, but Blind Detective still manages to entertain despite its odd blend of broad comedy and serial-killer thrills. (2:10) Vogue. (Cheryl Eddy)
Gravity “Life in space is impossible,” begins Gravity, the latest from Alfonso Cuarón (2006’s Children of Men). Egghead Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is well aware of her precarious situation after a mangled satellite slams into her ship, then proceeds to demolition-derby everything (including the International Space Station) in its path. It’s not long before she’s utterly, terrifyingly alone, and forced to unearth near-superhuman reserves of physical and mental strength to survive. Bullock’s performance would be enough to recommend Gravity, but there’s more to praise, like the film’s tense pacing, spare-yet-layered script (Cuarón co-wrote with his son, Jonás), and spectacular 3D photography — not to mention George Clooney’s warm supporting turn as a career astronaut who loves country music almost as much as he loves telling stories about his misadventures. (1:31) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Institute In 2008, mysterious flyers began popping up around San Francisco that touted esoteric inventions such as “Poliwater” and the “Vital-Orbit Human Force Field” and included a phone number for the curiously-monikered Jejuene Institute. On the other side of the phone line, a recording would direct callers to a Financial District office building where they would undergo a mysterious induction process, embarking on an epic, multi-stage, years-long alternate reality game, designed primarily to reveal the magic in the mundane. In Spencer McCall’s documentary The Institute, viewers are introduced to the game in much the same way as prospective inductees, with few clues as to what lies in store ahead. A handful of seemingly random interviewees offer a play-by-play recap of their own experiences exploring rival game entities the Jejune Institute and Elsewhere Public Works Agency — while video footage of them dancing in the streets, warding off ninjas, befriending Sasquatches, spelunking sewers, and haunting iconic Bay Area edifices gives the viewer a taste of the wonders that lay in store for the intrepid few (out of 10,000 inductees) who made it all the way to the end of the storyline. Frustratingly, however, at least for this former inductee, McCall’s documentary focuses on fleshing out the fictions of the game, barely scratching the surface of what must surely be an even more intriguing set of facts. How did a group of scrappy East Bay artists manage to commandeer an office in the Financial District for so long in the first place? Who were the artists behind the art? And where am I supposed to cash in these wooden “hobo coins” now? (1:32) New Parkway, Roxie. (Nicole Gluckstern)
Parkland Timed to tie in with the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, writer-director Peter Landesman’s sprawling ensemble drama takes that tragedy as its starting point and spirals outward, highlighting ordinary folks who were caught up in the drama’s aftermath by virtue of their jobs or circumstance. There’s a lot going on here, with a huge cast of mostly-recognizable faces (Billy Bob Thornton as Secret Service Agent Forest Sorrells; Paul Giamatti as amateur filmmaker Abraham Zapruder; Ron Livingston as an FBI agent; hey, there’s Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden in two scenes as a stern nurse!), but the events depicted are so familiar that the plot never becomes confusing. Landesman — who favors scenes of breakneck-paced action punctuated by solemn moments of emotion — might’ve done better to narrow his focus a bit, perhaps keeping just to the law-enforcement characters or to Lee Harvey Oswald’s family (James Badge Dale plays his shell-shocked brother, while Jackie Weaver hams it up as his eccentric mother). But paired with 2006’s Bobby, Parkland — named for the hospital where both JFK and Oswald died — named for the hospital where both JFK and Oswald died — could make for an interesting, speculative-history double-feature for Camelot buffs. That said, Oliver Stone fans take note: Parkland is strictly Team Lone Gunman. (1:33) (Cheryl Eddy)
Runner Runner Launching his tale with a ripped-from-the-headlines montage of news reports and concerned-anchor sound bites, director Brad Furman (2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer) attempts to argue his online-gambling action thriller’s topicality, but not even Anderson Cooper can make a persuasive case for Runner Runner’s cultural relevance. Justin Timberlake plays Richie Furst, a post-2008 Wall Street casualty turned Princeton master’s candidate, who is putting himself through his finance program via the morally threadbare freelance gig of introducing his fellow students to Internet gambling. Perhaps in the service of supplying our unsympathetic protagonist with a psychological root, we are given a knocked-together scene reuniting Richie with his estranged gambling addict dad (John Heard). By the time we’ve digested this, plus the image of Justin Timberlake in the guise of a grad student with a TAship, Richie has blown through all his savings and, in a bewildering turn of events, made his way into the orbit of Ben Affleck’s Ivan Block, a shady online-gambling mogul taking shelter from an FBI investigation in Costa Rica, along with his lovely adjutant, Rebecca (Gemma Arterton). Richie’s rise through the ranks of Ivan’s dodgy empire is somewhat mysterious, partly a function of the plot and partly a function of the plot being piecemeal and incoherent. The dialogue and the deliveries are also unconvincing, possibly because we’re dealing with a pack of con artists and possibly because the players were dumbfounded by the script, which is clotted with lines we’ve heard before, from other brash FBI agents, other sketchily drawn temptresses, other derelict, regretful fathers, and other unscrupulous kingpins. (1:31) (Lynn Rapoport)
We Are What We AreThe title of Jim Mickle’s latest film sums up the attitude of the Parker family: We Are What We Are. We eat people. Our human-flesh cravings go back generations. Over the years, our dietary habits have become our religion. And that’s just the way it is — until teen sisters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) start to have some doubts. As We Are (a remake of Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 film) begins, the girls’ mother has suddenly died amid a punishing rainstorm — and their grief-stricken Dad (Bill Sage) has become awfully twitchy. As the local police, a suspicious doctor (Michael Parks), and a curious neighbor (Kelly McGillis) begin to poke into their business, the Parkers prep for “Lambs Day,” a feast that most definitely involves whoever is chained up in the basement. Though not all of the dots connect in the Parkers’ elaborate backstory (how do Mom and Dad have an obscure variation on mad-cow disease if they’re only eating man-meat once a year?), We Are still offers a refreshing change from indie horror’s most recent common denominators — no found-footage tricks here. The last-act dinner scene is required viewing for any self-respecting cannibal-flick connoisseur. Check out my interview with director Mickle here. (1:45) (Cheryl Eddy)
When Comedy Went to School This scattershot documentary by Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya is about two big subjects — the Catskill Mountains resorts that launched a couple generations of beloved Jewish entertainers, and mid-to-late 20th century Jewish comedians in general. There’s a lot of overlap between them, but the directors (and writer Lawrence Richards) can’t seem to find any organizing focus, so their film wanders all over the place, from the roles of resort social directors and busboys to clips from History of the World Part I (1981) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971) to the entirely irrelevant likes of Larry King. That said, there’s entertaining vintage performance footage (of Totie Fields, Woody Allen, etc.) and interview input from the still-kicking likes of Sid Ceasar, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, Jerry Stiller, and Jerry Lewis. For some this will be a welcome if not particularly well crafted nostalgic wallow. For others, though, the pandering tone set by one Lisa Dawn Miller’s (wife of Sandy Hackett, who’s son of Buddy) cringe-worthy opening rendition of “Make ‘Em Laugh” — to say nothing of her “Send in the Clowns” at the close — will sum up the pedestrian mindset that makes this doc a missed opportunity. (1:23) (Dennis Harvey)
Baggage Claim Robin Thicke may be having the year of a lifetime, but spouse Paula Patton is clearly making a bid to leap those “Blurred Lines” between second banana-dom and Jennifer Aniston-esque leading lady fame with this buppie chick flick. How competitive is the game? Patton has a sporting chance: she’s certainly easy on the eyes and ordinarily a welcome warm and sensual presence as arm candy or best girlfriend — too bad her bid to beat the crowd with Baggage Claim feels way too blurry and busy to study for very long. The camera turns to Patton only to find a hot, slightly charming mess of mussed hair, frenetic movement, and much earnest emoting. I know the mode is single-lady desperation, but you’re trying too hard, Paula. At least the earnestness kind of works — semi-translating in Baggage Claim as a bumbling ineptitude that offsets Patton’s too-polished-and-perfect-to-be-real beauty. After all, we’re asked to believe that Patton’s flight attendant Montana can’t find a good man, no matter how hard she tries. That’s the first stretch of imagination, made more implausible by pals Sam (Adam Brody) and Janine (singer-songwriter Jill Scott), who decide to try to fix her up with her old high-flying frequent-flier beaus in the quest to find a mate in time for her — humiliation incoming — younger sister’s wedding. Among the suitors are suave hotelier Quinton (Djimon Hounsou), Republican candidate Langston (Taye Diggs), and hip-hop mogul Damon (Trey Songz), though everyone realizes early on that she just can’t notice the old bestie (Derek Luke) lodged right beneath her well-tilted nose. Coming to the conclusion that any sane single gal would at the end of this exercise, Patton does her darnedest to pour on the quirk and charm — and that in itself is as endearing as watching any beautiful woman bend over backwards, tumbling as she goes, to win an audience over. The strenuous effort, however, seems wasted when one considers the flimsy material, played for little more than feather-light amusement by director-writer David E. Talbert. (1:33) (Kimberly Chun)
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 The sequel to the 2009 animated hit based on the children’s best-seller promises the introduction of “mutant food beasts,” including “tacodiles” and “shrimpanzees.” (1:35)
Don Jon Shouldering the duties of writer, director, and star for the comedy Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has also picked up a broad Jersey accent, the physique of a gym rat, and a grammar of meathead posturing — verbal, physical, and at times metaphysical. His character, Jon, is the reigning kingpin in a triad of nightclubbing douchebags who pass their evenings assessing their cocktail-sipping opposite numbers via a well-worn one-to-10 rating system. Sadly for pretty much everyone involved, Jon’s rote attempts to bed the high-scorers are spectacularly successful — the title refers to his prowess in the art of the random hookup — that is, until he meets an alluring “dime” named Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who institutes a waiting period so foreign to Jon that it comes to feel a bit like that thing called love. Amid the well-earned laughs, there are several repulsive-looking flies in the ointment, but the most conspicuous is Jon’s stealthy addiction to Internet porn, which he watches at all hours of the day, but with a particularly ritualistic regularity after each night’s IRL conquest has fallen asleep. These circumstances entail a fair amount of screen time with Jon’s O face and, eventually, after a season of growth — during which he befriends an older woman named Esther (Julianne Moore) and learns about the existence of arty retro Swedish porn — his “Ohhh…” face. Driven by deft, tight editing, Don Jon comically and capably sketches a web of bad habits, and Gordon-Levitt steers us through a transformation without straining our capacity to recognize the character we met at the outset — which makes the clumsy over-enunciations that mar the ending all the more jarring. (1:30) (Lynn Rapoport)
Enough Said Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a divorced LA masseuse who sees naked bodies all day but has become pretty wary of wanting any in her bed at night. She reluctantly changes her mind upon meeting the also-divorced Albert (James Gandolfini), a television archivist who, also like her, is about to see his only child off to college. He’s no Adonis, but their relationship develops rapidly — the only speed bumps being provided by the many nit-picking advisors Eva has in her orbit, which exacerbate her natural tendency toward glass-half-empty neurosis. This latest and least feature from writer-director Nicole Holofcener is a sitcom-y thing of the type that expects us to find characters all the more adorable the more abrasive and self-centered they are. That goes for Louis-Dreyfus’ annoying heroine as well as such wasted talents as Toni Colette as her kvetching best friend and Catherine Keener as a new client turned new pal so bitchy it makes no sense Eva would desire her company. The only nice person here is Albert, whom the late Gandolfini makes a charming, low-key teddy bear in an atypical turn. The revelation of an unexpected past tie between his figure and Keener’s puts Eva in an ethically disastrous position she handles dismally. In fact, while it’s certainly not Holofcener’s intention, Eva’s behavior becomes so indefensible that Enough Said commits rom-com suicide: The longer it goes on, the more fervently you hope its leads will not end up together. (1:33) (Dennis Harvey)
Haute Cuisine Director and co-writer Christian Vincent’s unassuming ode to French food takes for granted that we’re here to learn about the life, joys, and preoccupations of a working female chef, regardless of politically correct concerns (dig that foie gras reference) or gossipy tendencies. Precisely encapsulating a very un-haute attitude that falls in line with its mild-mannered protagonist, Haute Cuisine breaks its cool only when the country’s head of state comes into view or a testosterone-y rival pulls a power play. As the movie opens, Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot) is hard at work at a far humbler job — cooking fine food for the rough crowd of workers at the Alfred Faure base in Antarctica while dismissing the attentions of a visiting video crew. Flashback to the story they’re hot to uncover, as the country innkeeper, farmer, and cooking teacher is swept off her feet by none other President François Mitterrand, not for romance but to make home-cooked regional food for his personal meals. The halls of power — and Hortense’s passage through the labyrinthian bureaucracy and pecking order — threaten to blot out the identity of the little cook from the country, but she holds her own in her chaste relationship with Mitterrand as she coaxes him to let her source directly from farmers and producers. However, the mostly one-way, closed relationship between the two can’t last forever. Haute Cuisine doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel — much as Hortense would never claim to tweak her beloved St. Honoré —and it generally refrans from looking much deeper into its main character beyond what Frot offers in her acutely telling looks and her playful give-and-take with sous chef Nicholas (Arthur Dupont). But it does gently draw the food lover and the more oblivious eater alike into its spell, with a soupçon of tasteful, and tasty-looking, food porn and its obvious respect for chefs who are dedicated to giving pleasure to those they serve. (1:35) Opera Plaza. (Kimberly Chun)
Inuk Though the Greenlandic-language Inuk takes its name from its troubled Inuit protagonist, ice is arguably its central character. And the lyrical sweep and striking beauty of the icy expanses in Uummannaq Bay and Nuuk, Greenland, threaten to upstage the adventure story at Inuk’s heart. Seeking refuge from his alcoholic mother and her abusive friends and escaping into hip-hop, the teenage Inuk (Gaaba Petersen) has been found battered and sleeping his car far too often, so he’s taken to a in the north by teacher and foster care worker Aviaaja (Rebekka Jorgensen) to learn about the old ways of hunters and an ancient wisdom that is melting away with the polar icecap. A journey by dogsled with local hunters turns into a rite of passage when bear hunter Ikuma (Ole Jørgen Hammeken) takes Inuk under his damaged wing and attempts to reconnect him to his heritage. “The ice is no place for attitude,” he declares, as Inuk makes foolish choices, kills his first seal, and learns the hard way about survival north of the Arctic Circle. You can practically feel the freezing cold seeping off the frames of this gorgeous-looking film — a tribute to director Mike Magidson and his crew’s skills, even when the overt snow-blinding symbolism blots out clarity and threatens to swallow up Inuk. (1:30) Roxie. (Chun)
“Millie Perkins in the Exploitation Cinema of Matt Cimber” Millie Perkins was a successful 20-year-old model with no acting experience when she made her film debut in 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank, playing the title role. But her mainstream Hollywood career almost immediately foundered and soon she was playing much less angelic roles in B-movies — among them several subsequently cult-worshipped Monte Hellman films and the 1968 AIP counterculture-nightmare hit Wild in the Streets. In the mid-1970s she made two back-to-back movies for Italian exploitation maestro Matt Cimber (aka Thomas Vitale Ottaviano), who a decade earlier had briefly been married to Jayne Mansfield. The Film on Film Foundation is screening rare 35mm prints of both in this one-night tribute bill. The better known of the duo, The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976), is a bizarre psychochiller in which Perkins gets one hell of a role as SoCal cocktail waitress Molly, who seems normal enough (if a tad taciturn) but is prone to irrational rages, blackouts, drinking binges, indiscriminate pill-popping, and … murder, though we (and she) aren’t always sure whether her crimes are real or delusional. While Witch has gained some critical appreciation in recent years, the prior year’s Lady Cocoa (also released, even more improbably, as Pop Goes the Weasel) remains obscure — a late addition to the early ’70s blaxploitation craze with “First Lady of Las Vegas” Lola Falana in a non-singing role as a tough jailbird who gets a 24-hour pass to testify against her evil thug ex-boyfriend — or at least try to, if his goons (including NFL Hall of Famer “Mean” Joe Greene) don’t snuff her first. Perkins has a supporting role as one half of an alleged honeymooning couple who aren’t quite as harmless as they seem. Perhaps overwhelmed by the challenge of topping these two films, Perkins was inactive for several years afterward, then found herself welcomed back to Hollywood via numerous roles in TV movies and big-screen ones, plus recurring roles on primetime soap Knots Landing and the 1990 miniseries Elvis (as the King’s mom). Roxie. (Dennis Harvey)
On the Job Filipino director Erik Matti’s gritty crime thriller has such a clever hook that Hollywood is already circling it for a remake. No shock there. It is surprising, however, that On the Job is based on true events, in which prisoners were temporarily sprung to work as hired guns for well-connected politicos. (Kinda genius, if you think about it.) The big-screen version has veteran inmate Tang (Joel Torre) dreading his imminent parole; he’d rather have the steady income from his grisly gig than be unable to provide for his wife and daughter. As he counts down to his release, he trains volatile Daniel (Gerald Anderson) to take his place. Poking around on the other side of the law are world-weary local cop Acosta (Joey Marquez) and hotshot federal agent Francis (Piolo Pascual), who reluctantly team up when a hit cuts close to home for both of them. The case is particularly stressful for Francis, whose well-connected father-in-law turns out to be wallowing in corruption. Taut, thrilling, atmospheric, and graphic, On the Job makes up for an occasionally confusing storyline by offering bang-up (literally) entertainment from start to finish. Groovy score, too. (2:00) Metreon. (Cheryl Eddy)
Out in the DarkMeeting in a Tel Aviv gay bar, Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) and Roy (Michael Aloni) are instantly smitten with each other, though there’s much dividing them. Roy is a Jewish lawyer working at his father’s high-end firm, while the former is a Palestinian graduate psychology student who’s lucky just to get a temporary travel pass so he can take one prestigious course at an Israeli university. Even this small liberty brings him trouble, as his increasingly fanatical older brother considers any contact with Israelis borderline traitorous to their homeland and to conservative Muslim values. Needless to say, Nimr is not “out” to his family — and even though Roy is, his parents’ “tolerance” proves superficial at best. The men’s relationship soon runs into considerable, even life-imperiling difficulty from various political, cultural, religious and personal conflicts. Director and co-writer Michael Mayer’s first feature isn’t the first screen love story between star-crossed Israelis and Palestinians (or even the first gay one). It can be a bit clumsy and melodramatic, but nonetheless there’s enough chemistry between the leads and earnest urgency behind the issues addressed to make this a fairly powerful story about different kinds of oppression. (1:36) Elmwood. (Dennis Harvey)
Rush Ron Howard’s Formula One thriller Rush is a gripping bit of car porn, decked out with 1970s period details and goofily liberated camera moves to make sure you never forget how much happens under (and around, and on top of) the hood of these beastly vehicles. Real life drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda (played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, respectively) had a wicked rivalry through the ’70s; these characters are so oppositional you’d think Shane Black wrote them. Lauda’s an impersonal, methodical pro, while Hunt’s an aggressive, undisciplined playboy — but he’s so popular he can sway a group of racers to risk their lives on a rainy track, even as Lauda objects. It’s a lovely sight: all the testosterone in the world packed into a room bound by windows, egos threatening to bust the glass with the rumble of their voices. I’m no fan of Ron Howard, but maybe the thrill of Grand Theft Auto is in Rush like a spirit animal. (The moments of rush are the greatest; when Lauda’s lady friend asks him to drive fast, he does, and it’s glorious.) Hunt says that “being a pro kills the sport” — but Howard, an overly schmaltzy director with no gift for logic and too much reliance on suspension of disbelief, doesn’t heed that warning. The laughable voiceovers that bookend the film threaten to sink some great stuff, but the magic of the track is vibrant, dangerous, and teeming with greatness. (2:03) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)
C.O.G.The first feature adapted from David Sedaris’ writing, Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s film captures his acerbic autobiographical comedy while eventually revealing the misfit pain hidden behind that wit. Tightly wound David (Jonathan Groff), on the run from problematic family relations and his sexual identity, takes the bus from East Coast grad school to rural Oregon — his uninhibited fellow passengers providing the first of many mortifications here en route. Having decided that seasonal work as an apple picker will somehow be liberating, he’s viewed with suspicion by mostly Mexican co-workers and his crabby boss (Dean Stockwell). More fateful kinda-sorta friendships are forged with a sexy forklift operator (Corey Stoll) and a born-again war vet (Denis O’Hare). Under the latter’s volatile tutelage, David briefly becomes a C.O.G. — meaning “child of God.” Balancing the caustic, absurd, and bittersweet, gradually making us care about an amusingly dislikable, prickly protagonist, this is a refreshingly offbeat narrative that pulls off a lot of tricky, ambivalent mood shifts. (1:37) (Dennis Harvey)
Herb and Dorothy 50X50 Building upon her 2008 doc Herb and Dorothy, Megumi Sasaki revisits elderly Manhattan couple Herb and Dorothy Vogel, art-world legends for amassing a jaw-dropping collection of contemporary art despite holding modest jobs and living an otherwise low-key lifestyle. (Out of necessity, they favored smaller works on paper — and whatever they bought had to fit into their one-bedroom apartment.) Remarkably, in 1992, they donated the majority of their highly valuable collection to the National Gallery of Art, but it was so vast that most of it was put into storage rather than displayed. Sasaki’s camera picks back up with the couple (Herb now in a wheelchair, with Dorothy doing most of the talking) as they work with the National Gallery to select 50 museums nationwide, each of which will receive 50 pieces of the collection. Though the film chats with some of the Vogels’ favorite artists (Richard Tuttle, notably, was initially angered by the idea of the collection being broken up), its most compelling segments are those that focus on Vogel exhibitions in relatively far-flung places, Hawaii and North Dakota included. Of particular interest: scenes in which museums without modern-art traditions help skeptical patrons engage with the art — a towering challenge since much of it appears to be of the deceptively simple, “I-could-have-done-that” variety. (1:25) (Cheryl Eddy)
Ip Man: The Final Fight Yep, it’s yet another take on kung-fu icon Ip Man, whose real-life legacy as Wing Chun’s greatest ambassador (tl;dr, he taught Bruce Lee) has translated into pop-culture stardom, most recently with Donnie Yen’s Ip Man series and Wong Kar-wai’s still-in-theaters The Grandmaster. Final Fight is directed by the prolific Herman Yau, and though it lacks the slickness of Ip Man or the high-art trappings of The Grandmaster, it does have one heavy weapon: Hong Kong superstar Anthony Wong. A less-charismatic actor might get lost in Yau’s hectic take on Ip’s later years; it’s chockablock with plot threads (union strikes, police corruption, health woes, romantic drama, brawls with rival martial-arts schools, scar-faced gangsters …) that battle for supremacy. But that’s not a problem for Wong, who calmly rises above the chaos, infusing even corny one-liners (“You can’t buy kung fu like a bowl of rice!”) with gravitas. (1:42) (Cheryl Eddy)
Mademoiselle CFabien Constant’s portrait of French fashion editor-professional muse-stylish person Carine Roitfeld may be unabashedly fawning, but it does offer the rest of us slobs a peek into the glamorous life. The film begins as Roitfeld leaves her job at Vogue Paris; there’s passing mention of her subsequent feud with Condé Nast as she readies her own luxury magazine start-up, CR Fashion Book, but the only conflicts the film lingers on are 1) when a model cancels last-minute and 2) when Roitfeld goes double over budget on her first issue. (Looking at the lavish photo shoots in action, with big-name photogs and supermodels aplenty, it’s not hard to see why.) Mostly, though this is a fun ride-along with Roitfeld in action: hanging with “Karl” (Lagerfeld) and “Tom” (Ford); swooning over her first grandchild; sneaking a little cell phone footage inside the Met Ball; allowing celebs like Sarah Jessica Parker and designer Joseph Altuzarra to suck up to her, etc. There’s also a funny moment when her art-dealer son, Vladimir, recalls that he was never allowed to wear sweatpants as a kid — and her daughter, fashion-person Julia, remembers her mother’s horror when she dared to wear Doc Martens. (1:30) (Cheryl Eddy)
My Lucky Star Aspiring cartoonist Sophie (Ziyi Zhang) puts her romantic fantasies into her artwork — the bright spot in an otherwise dull life working in a Beijing call center and being hassled about her perma-single status by her mother and catty friends. As luck would have it, Sophie wins a trip to Singapore right when dreamy secret agent David (Leehom Wang) is dispatched there to recover the stolen “Lucky Star Diamond;” it doesn’t take long before our klutzy goofball stumbles into exactly the kind of adventure she’s been dreaming about. Romancing the Stone (1984) this ain’t, but Zhang, so often cast in brooding parts, is adorable, and occasional animated sequences add further enhancement to the silly James Bond/Charlie’s Angels-lite action. (1:53) (Cheryl Eddy)
PrisonersCanadian director Denis Villeneuve (2010’s Incendies) guides a big-name cast through this thriller about a father (Hugh Jackman) frantically searching for his missing daughter with the help of a cop (Jake Gyllenhaal). (2:33)
Salinger Documentary about the reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye. (2:00)
Thanks for Sharing Mark Ruffalo, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Tim Robbins star in this comedy about sex addicts from the co-writer of 2010’s The Kids Are All Right. (1:52)
Wadjda The first-ever feature directed by a female Saudi Arabian follows a young Saudi girl who dreams of buying a bicycle. (1:37)
You Will Be My Son Set at a Bordeaux vineyard that’s been in the same family for generations, Gilles Legrand’s drama hides delightfully trashy drama beneath its highbrow exterior. Patriarch Paul de Marseul (Niels Arestrup of 2009’s A Prophet) treats his only son, Martin (Lorànt Deutsch) with utter contempt — think the relationship between Tywin and Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones, only with even more petty digs and insults. Still hopeful that he’ll inherit the estate someday, despite Papa Jackass’ loud proclamations about his “lack of palate,” Martin sees his future prospects crumble when dapper Philippe (Nicolas Bridet) blows into town, having left his California gig as “Coppola’s head winemaker” to care for his dying father, Paul’s longtime second-in-command François (Patrick Chesnais). Things go from terrible to utterly shitty when Paul decides Philippe is the answer to his prayers (see: title). Melodrama is the only recourse here, and the film’s over-the-top last act delivers some gasp-inducing (or guffaw-inducing, your choice) twists. Heading up a classy cast, Arestrup manages to make what could’ve been a one-note character into a villain with seemingly endless layers, each more vile than the last. (1:41) (Cheryl Eddy)
Naturally, there’s at least one horror movie, Insidious: Chapter 2, opening in honor of Friday the 13th — two if you count Our Nixon — as well as a new series paying tribute to the singular Pier Paolo Pasolini (check out Dennis Harvey’s round-up here). Read on for more new reviews and one special holiday recommendation.
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-scripter 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) (Cheryl Eddy)
The FamilyIt’s hard to begrudge an acting monolith like Robert De Niro from cashing out in his golden years and essentially going gently into that good night amid a volley of mildish yuks. And when his mobster-in-witness-protection Giovanni Manzoni takes a film-club stage in his Normandy hideout to hold forth on the veracity of Goodfellas (1990), you yearn to be right there in the fictional audience, watching De Niro’s Brooklyn gangster take on his cinematic past. That’s the most memorable moment of this comedy about an organized criminal on the lam with his violent, conniving family unit. Director-cowriter Luc Besson aims to lightly demonstrate that you can extract a family from the mob but you can’t expunge the mob from the family. There’s a $20 million bounty on Giovanni’s head, and it’s up to his keeper Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) to keep him and his kin quiet and undercover. But the latter has his hands full with Gio penning his memoirs, wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) blowing up the local supermarket, daughter Belle (Dianna Agron, wrapped in bows like a soft-focus fantasy nymphet) given to punishing schoolyard transgressors with severe beatings, and son Warren (John D’Leo) working all the angles in class. Besson plays the Manzoni family’s violence for chuckles, while painting the mob family’s mayhem with more ominous colors, making for a tonal clash that’s as jarring as some of his edits. The pleasure here comes with watching the actors at play: much like his character, De Niro is on the run from his career-making albeit punishing past, though if he keeps finding refuge in subpar fare, one wonders if his “meh” fellas will eventually outweigh the Goodfellas. (1:51) (Kimberly Chun)
Insidious: Chapter 2Hot 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)
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 biogoted 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. (Cheryl Eddy)
PopulairePerhaps 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) (Lynn Rapoport)
And inhonor of Friday the 13th, here’s Crispin Glover rocking out in 1984’s Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, aka “the one with Corey Feldman,” the fourth (and despite the title, by no means final) entry in the series. RELAX, JIMBO!
Who dares to challenge the box-office supremacy of Vin Diesel, who returns yet again to play the titular night vision-gifted (but really socially awkward) escaped con in sci-fi actioner Riddick?
For masochists, there’s Brian De Palma’s latest, Passion, which checks in for a brief Castro run (Dennis Harvey gets bored talking about it here); there are also a couple of docs, a MILF drama, and a South Korean disaster-by-numbers flick about a disease that, shockingly, doesn’t spawn zombies, just bloody coughs and rapid death. Read on for our short takes (and take note of your best-bet new flick: “charming seriocomedy” Afternoon Delight).http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KWyEbmKHsY
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) (Dennis 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) (Dennis 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 midcentury’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) (Kimberly 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) (Cheryl 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) (Dennis Harvey)
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) (Sam Stander)
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) (Cheryl Eddy)
Archy “King Krule” Marshall may look like a callow school-kid, dressed up in his father’s suit, but the South Londoner has the soul and voice of a wise, world-weary bluesman three times his senior. 6 Feet Beneath the Moon — his long-awaited debut LP — is an astonishing achievement, displaying Marshall’s nuanced storytelling, exceptional jazz-based guitar work, and versatility. Over the album’s 14 tracks, he weaves affecting tales of urban ennui, malaise, and disaffection, balanced by fleeting moments of ardent love and nostalgic surrender. Though he wears his influences on his ill-fitting sleeve (Drury, Strummer, Morrissey, Dilla), the finished article sounds like nothing else out now — with dark wave, blues, punk, indie, and electro all thrown into the mix. It is all filtered through Marshall’s singular lens and mature perspective, creating a fresh, cohesive sound while painting an engulfing portrait of his London. — Daniel Alvarez
BELLE AND SEBASTIAN
THE THIRD EYE CENTRE
(MATADOR RECORDS, AUG. 27)
Belle and Sebastian, ’90s twee sweethearts, are at it again — kind of. This time, the band is serving the general public a tray of audible assorted snacks featuring b-sides from the latter half of its career. Dubbed The Third Eye Centre, no song sounds the same — one track will boast a rockabilly twang (“Last Trip”) and another will be a previously unreleased remix of fan-favorite “Your Cover’s Blown (Miaoux Miaoux Remix).” It’s a solid album, but it’s easy to suss out the dated songs, such as “Suicide Girl,” an anxious love song about the object of singer-guitarist Stuart Murdoch’s affections, an alternative girl that wants him to take nudes of her for the famed early-2000s “punky” soft-core porn site of the same name. But in all, the fun of The Third Eye Centre is getting the chance to hear songs you may have not had the chance to listen to from the back end of Belle and Sebastian’s jam-packed catalog. — Erin Dage
KING KHAN & THE SHRINES
IDLE NO MORE
(MERGE, SEPT. 3)
For those who have oft pondered “What if a soul band and a Southern rock group got together and made sweet, beautiful music?” weirdo psychedelic soul band King Khan & the Shrines has the answer with its latest release, Idle No More. Featuring dancey soul numbers like “Luckiest Man,” Stooges-esque songs such as “Thorn in Her Pride,” ditties with ’60s girl group-esque guest spot vocals like “Pray for Lil” — Idle No More combines many genres and musical elements to form a cohesive, well produced album. The album can easily be separated into three acts: dance numbers, slow-ballad interlude, and soul revival resolution. Six years have passed since previous album, What Is!?, and Idle No More has definitely been worth the wait. — Dage
PAIN IS BEAUTY
(SARGENT HOUSE, SEPT. 3)
There’s always been this brutal, animalistic thread woven throughout Chelsea Wolfe’s output, and Pain is Beauty is no exception. The LA-via-Sacramento artist’s otherworldly vocals tend often to translate into a wild creature elegantly whipping through a foggy forest. (Indeed, Wolfe described her newest LP as a “love-letter to nature.”) Her powerful soprano hollers are matched to ethereal whispery echoes, maintaining a balance between lightness and darkness, which has become a common theme in her work, as it is in nature. And this vocal balance is a mainstay in Wolfe’s music, no matter what’s backing it instrumentally. Her previous release, 2012’s Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs, was, obviously, acoustic, but the sparse record is still deeply unsettling. With Pain is Beauty, the singer-songwriter returns to a darker, grittier sound. And yet, there’s a more electronic twist on her early doomy experimental guitarwork (as with breakout 2011 record Apokalypsis), bursting with both synths and strings this time, without missing the black-hearted emotional core rooted in all living things. — Emily Savage
(SLUMBERLAND, SEPT. 10)
Jangly noisepop cacophony with pro-feminist and anti-homophobia lyrics — this Cardiff band’s debut full-length, Weird Sister, hits all the right hot spots and makes them tingle. Plus there’s the name, Joanna Gruesome, a cheeky play on a gentle fellow musician. But Weird Sister speaks for itself, with standout tracks like opener “Anti Parent Cowboy Killers” matching dissonant guitars and pounding drums with lovely melodious vocals that rise into screams at the hook, akin to the Vaselines in bed with L7. There’s also classic K Records-evoking twee ode “Wussy Void,” and jagged noiseball “Graveyard,” which starts off with what sounds like helium seeping out of a balloon. The record includes songs from a 2011 EP, “Sugarcrush,” “Madison,” and “Candy,” further deepening the getting-to-know-you state of the Welsh quintet, a group to which you do need to start paying attention. —Savage
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)
Drinking BuddiesMumblecore 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. (Cheryl 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 GrandmasterThe 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) (Sam 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) (Kimberly Chun)
The Patience Stone “You’re the one that’s wounded, yet I’m the one that’s suffering,” complains the good Afghan wife 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) (Kimberly 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) (Cheryl 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) (Kimberly Chun)