Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.
The 12th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival runs June 6-23 at venues including the Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF; Balboa, 3630 Balboa, SF; Aquarius, 430 Emerson, Palo Alto; and New Parkway, 474 24th St, Oakl. For tickets (most shows $11; opening night $20; passes, $25-$160), additional venue information, and schedule, visit www.sfindie.com. For commentary, see “Realness.”
The East In Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling’s powerful second film collaboration (Batmanglij directs, and the pair co-wrote the screenplay, as in 2011’s Sound of My Voice), Marling plays Sarah, an intelligence agent working for a private firm whose client list consists mainly of havoc-wreaking multinationals. Sarah, presented as quietly ambitious and conservative, is tasked by the firm’s director (Patricia Clarkson) with infiltrating the East, an off-the-grid activist collective whose members, including Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), Izzy (Ellen Page), and Doc (Toby Kebbell), bring an eye-for-an-eye sensibility to their YouTube-publicized “jams.” Targeting an oil company responsible for a BP-style catastrophe, they engineer their own spill in the gated-community habitat of the company’s CEO, posting a video that juxtaposes grisly images of oil-coated shorebirds and the unsettling sight of gallons of crude seeping through the air-conditioning vents of a tidy McMansion. A newspaper headline offers a facile framework for understanding their activities, posing the alternatives as “Pranksters or Eco-Terrorists?” But as Sarah examines the gut-wrenching consequences of so-called white-collar crime and immerses herself in the day-to-day practices of the group, drawn in particular to the charismatic Benji, the film raises more complex questions. Much of its rhetorical force flows from Izzy, whom Page invests with a raw, anguished outrage, drawing our sympathies toward the group and its mission of laying bare what should be unbearable. (1:56) California, Embarcadero. (Rapoport)
Fill the Void Respectfully rendered and beautifully shot in warm hues, Fill the Void admirably fills the absence on many screens of stories from what might be considered a closed world: the Orthodox Hasidic community in Israel, where a complex web of family ties, duty, and obligation entangles pretty, accordion-playing Shira (Hada Yaron). An obedient daughter, she’s about to agree to an arranged marriage to a young suitor when her much-loved sister (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth. When Shira’s mother (Irit Sheleg) learns the widower Yochay (Yiftach Klein) might marry a woman abroad and take her only grandchild far away, she starts to make noises about fixing Shira up with her son-in-law. The journey the two must take, in possibly going from in-laws to newlyweds, is one that’s simultaneously infuriating, understandable, and touching, made all the more intimate given director Rama Burshtein’s preference for searching close-ups. Her affinity for the Orthodox world is obvious with each loving shot, ultimately infusing her debut feature with a beating heart of humanity. (1:30) Albany, Clay, Smith Rafael. (Chun)
The Internship Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn weasel their way into being Google’s oldest interns. Yes, but will they ride the GBUS to MTV? (1:59) Four Star, Marina.
Kings of Summer Ah, the easy-to-pluck, easy-to-love low-hanging fruit of summer — and a coming of age. Who can blame director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta, both TV vets, for thinking that a juicy, molasses-thick application of hee-hee-larious TV comedy actors to a Stand by Me-like boyish bildungsroman could only make matters that much more fun? When it comes to this wannabe-feral Frankenteen love child of Terrence Malick and Parks and Recreation, you certainly don’t want to fault them for original thinking, though you can understand why they keep lurching back to familiar, reliably entertaining turf, especially when it comes in the form of Nick Offerman of the aforementioned P&R, who gets to twist his Victorian doll features into new frustrated shapes alongside real-life spouse Megan Mullally. Joe (Nick Robinson) is tired of his single dad (Offerman) stepping on his emerging game, so he runs off with neurotic wrestling pal Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and stereotypically “weirdo foreign” kid Biaggio (Moises Arias) to a patch of woods. There, from scrap, they build a cool-looking house that resembles a Carmel boho shack and attempt to live off the land, which means mostly buying chicken from a Boston Market across a freeway. Pipes are pummeled, swimming holes are swum, a pathetically wispy mustachio is cultivated — read: real burly stuff, until the rising tide of testosterone threatens to poison the woodland well. Vogt-Roberts certainly captures the humid sensuality and ripe potential of a Midwestern summer — though some of the details, like the supposedly wild rabbit that looks like it came straight from Petco, look a bit canned — and who can gripe when, say, Portlandia‘s Kumail Nanjiani materializes to deliver monster wontons? You just accept it, though the effect of bouncing back and forth between the somewhat serious world of young men and the surprisingly playful world of adults, both equally unreal, grows jarring. Kings of Summer isn’t quite the stuff of genius that marketing would have you believe, but it might give the “weirdo foreign” art house crowd and TV comedy addicts something they can both stand by. (1:33) (Chun)
Much Ado About Nothing Joss Whedon (last year’s The Avengers) shifts focus for a minute to stage an adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy, drawing his players from 15 years’ worth of awesome fantasy/horror/sci-fi TV and film projects. When the Spanish prince Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) pays a post-battle visit to the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg) with his officers Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), Claudio falls for Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), while Benedick falls to verbal blows with Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker). Preserving the original language of the play while setting his production in the age of the iPhone and the random hookup, Whedon makes clever, inventive use of the juxtaposition, teasing out fresh sources of visual comedy as well as bringing forward the play’s oddities and darker elements. These shadows fall on Beatrice and Benedick, whose sparring — before they succumb to a playfully devious setup at the hands of their friends — has an ugly, resentful heat to it, as well as on Hero and Claudio, whose filmy romance is unsettlingly easy for their enemies, the malevolent Don John (Sean Maher) and his cohorts, to sabotage. Some of Acker and Denisof’s broader clowning doesn’t offer enough comic payoff for the hammy energy expenditure, but Nathan Fillion, heading up local law enforcement as the constable Dogberry, delivers a gleeful depiction of blundering idiocy, and the film as a whole has a warm, approachable humor while lightly exposing “all’s well that ends well”‘s wacky, dysfunctional side. (1:49) (Rapoport)
1 Mile Above When his brother dies suddenly, sheltered Taiwanese student Shuhao takes possession of the older boy’s “riding diaries,” determined to complete his sibling’s dream of biking to the highest point in Tibet. It’d be a perilous journey even for an experienced cyclist — but Shuhao’s got gutsy determination that (almost) makes up for his wobbly wheels. Fortunately, nearly everyone he meets en route to Lhasa is a kind-hearted soul, including a food-obsessed fellow traveler who doles out advice on how to avoid government checkpoints, prevent “crotch trouble” (from all that riding), and woo women, among other topics. (The cruel weather, steep inclines, and hostile wild dogs he faces, however, aren’t as welcoming.) Jiayi Du’s based-on-true-events drama doesn’t innovate much on similar adventure tales — spoiler alert: it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts — but it admirably avoids melodrama for the most part, and the gorgeous location photography is something to behold. (1:29) Metreon. (Eddy)
The Purge Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey star in this sci-fi thriller that imagines the United States has curbed its crime rate by allowing one completely lawless 12-hour period each year. Brilliant plan! What could possibly go wrong? (1:25) Shattuck. Shadow Dancer Watching the emotions flicker across the exquisitely smooth, pale plane of Andrea Riseborough’s face is one of the central pleasures of Shadow Dancer. Likely the surest step Madonna made in making 2011’s W.E. was choosing the actress as her Wallis Simpson — her features fall together with the sweet symmetry of a, well, Madonna, and even when words, or the script, fail her, the play of thoughts and feelings rippling across her brow can fill out a movie’s, or a character’s, failings admirably. The otherwise graceful, good-looking Shadow Dancer fumbles over a few in the course of resurrecting the Troubles tearing apart Belfast in the 1990s. After feeling responsible for the death of a younger brother who got caught in the crossfire, Collette (Riseborough) finds herself a single mom in league with the IRA. Caught after a scuttled bombing, the petite would-be terrorist is turned by Mac (Clive Owen) to become an informant for the MI5, though after getting quickly dragged into an attempted assassination, Collette appears to be way over her head and must be pulled out — something Mac’s boss (Gillian Anderson) won’t allow. Director James Marsh (2008’s Man on Wire) brings a keen attention to the machinations and tested loyalties among both the MI5 and IRA, an interest evident in his Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 (2009), and even imbues otherwise blanked-out, non-picturesque sites like hotel suites and gray coastal walks with a stark beauty. Unfortunately the funereal pacing and gaps in plotting, however eased by the focus on Riseborough’s responses, send the mind into the shadows. (1:44) Embarcadero. (Chun)
Violet and Daisy The 1990s revival has already infiltrated fashion and music; Violet and Daisy, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning Precious (2009) screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, suggests that cinema may be next. Unfortunately, not enough time has passed since the first wave of Pulp Fiction (1994) knockoffs to make the genre feel particularly interesting again. And yet here comes a pair of assassins dressed as nuns, cracking long-winded jokes before unloading on their targets with guns they’ve concealed in pizza boxes … as an AM radio hit (“Angel of the Morning”) swells in the background, and Danny Trejo stops by for a cameo. At least this Tarantino-lite exploration of crime and daddy issues has an appealing cast; besides Trejo, Alexis Bledel (sporting Mia Wallace bangs) and Saoirse Ronan play the jailbait titular killers, and James Gandolfini pops in as a sad-sack who manages to evade their bullets because, like, he’s nice and stuff. Despite their efforts, the over-stylized Violet and Daisy comes off like a plate of leftovers reheated too long after the fact. (1:28) (Eddy)
Wish You Were Here One of few bright spots in The Great Gatsby, Joel Edgerton returns in this Aussie import that doesn’t need to set off 3D glitter bombs to win over its audience — that’s the power of a well-acted, well-written thriller. Under the opening credits we witness married Sydney couple Dave and Alice (Edgerton and Felicity Price, who co-wrote the script with her husband, director Kieran Darcy-Smith), along with Alice’s sister Steph (Warm Bodies‘ Teresa Palmer) and new beau Jeremy (Antony Starr), having a blast on their Southeast Asian escape: sampling exotic food, dancing all night, spotting an elephant wandering the streets … oh, and guzzling drinks and gobbling drugs. Next scene: Dave and Alice returning home to their two young children, tension in the air, vacation bliss completely erased. It seems Jeremy is missing, somewhere in remote Cambodia — and that’s not the only lingering fallout from this journey gone terribly awry. Flashbacks mix with present-day scenes, including the police inquiry into Jeremy’s disappearance, to flesh out what happened; the end result is a suspenseful, surprising, precisely-assembled tale that only reveals what it needs to as the minutes tick by. (1:33) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)
After Earth In around a century, we’ll board penitentiary-style ships and evacuate Earth for a sexier planet. Let’s call it a middle-aged migration — we all saw this coming. It’ll be dour, and we’ll feel temporary guilt for all the trees we leveled, bombs we dropped, and oil refineries we taped for 1960s industrial films. Like any body post-divorce, our planet will develop defenses against its ex — us humans — so when Will Smith and son Jaden crash land on the crater it’s toxic to them, full of glorious beasts and free as the Amazon (because it was partly filmed there). Critically wounded General Raige (Will) has to direct physically incredible Kitai (Jaden) through the future’s most dangerous Ironman triathalon. It’s more than a Hollywood king guiding his prince through a life-or-death career obstacle course, it’s a too-aggressive metaphor for adolescence — something real-world Jaden may forfeit to work with dad. Call that the tragedy beneath After Earth: it makes you wonder why the family didn’t make a movie more like 1994’s The Lion King — they had to know that was an option. Director M. Night Shyamalan again courts the Last Airbender (2010) crowd with crazy CG fights and affecting father-son dynamics, but for once, Shyamalan is basically a hired gun here. The story comes straight from Papa Smith, and one gets the feeling the movie exists primarily to elevate Jaden’s rising star. (1:40) Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)
Before Midnight Proving (again) that not all sequels are autonomic responses to a marketplace that rewards the overfamiliar, director Richard Linklater and his cowriters Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke reconnect with the characters Céline and Jesse, whom we first encountered nearly 20 years ago on a train and trailed around Vienna for a night in Before Sunrise, then met again nine years later in Before Sunset. It’s been nine more years since we left them alone in a Paris apartment, Céline adorably dancing to Nina Simone and telling Jesse he’s going to miss his plane. And it looks like he did. The third film finds the two together, yes, and vacationing in Greece’s southern Peloponnese, where the expansive, meandering pace of their interactions — the only mode we’ve ever seen them in — is presented as an unaccustomed luxury amid a span of busy years filled with complications professional and personal. Over the course of a day and an evening, alone together and among friends, the two reveal both the quotidian intimacies of a shared life and the cracks and elisions in their love story. (1:48) Embarcadero, Piedmont, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
Elemental Even those suffering from environmental-doc fatigue (a very real condition, particularly in the eco-obsessed Bay Area) will find much to praise about Elemental, co-directed by Gayatri Roshan and NorCal native Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee (who also co-composed the film’s score). This elegantly shot and edited film approaches the issues via three “eco-warriors,” who despite working on different causes on various corners of the planet encounter similar roadblocks, and display like-minded determination, along the way: Rajendra Singh, on a mission to heal India’s heavily polluted Ganges River; Jay Harman, whose ingenious inventions are based on “nature’s blueprints”; and Eriel Deranger, who fights for her indigenous Canadian community in the face of Big Oil. Deranger cuts a particularly inspiring figure: a young, tattooed mother who juggles protests, her moody tween (while prepping for a new baby), and the more bureaucratic aspects of being a professional activist — from defending her grassroots methods when questioned by her skeptical employer, to deflecting a drunk, patronizing Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at a big-ticket fundraiser — with a calm, steely sense of purpose. (1:33) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Epic (1:42) Metreo, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio.
Fast and Furious 6 Forget the fast (that’s understood by now, anyway) — part six in this popcorny series is heavy on the “furious,” with constant near-death stunts that zoom past irrational and slam into batshit crazy. Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) lures the gang out of sunny retirement to bust a fast driver with a knack for strategy and an eye on world domination. Sure, Ludacris jokes their London locale doesn’t mean they’re in a Bond movie, but give cold-blooded Luke Evans some time and he’ll work his way up to antagonizing 007. Shaw (Evans) is smaller than our hero Toretto (Vin Diesel), but he’s convincing, throwing his King’s English at a man whose murky dialect is always delivered with a devilish baritone. If Shaw’s code is all business, Toretto’s is all family: that’s what holds together this cast, cobbled from five Fast and Furious installments shot all over the world. Hottie Gal Gadot (playing Sung Kang’s love interest) reassures Han (Kang) mid-crisis: “This is what we are.” It’s not for nothing the gang’s main weapon is a harpoon gun that, once shot, leaves an umbilicus from the shooter to whatever’s in the crosshairs. That’s Torreto for you. Meanwhile, the villain’s weapon is a car with a spatula-like front end, that flips cars like pancakes. The climactic battle on a cargo plane has to give a face time to every member of the eight-person team, so naturally they shot it on the world’s longest runway. Of course the parade features less car porn than previous editions but it’s got a wider reach now — it’s officially international intrigue, not just fun for gearheads. For my money, it’s some of the best action in theaters today. Stick around for the inevitable sequel-suggesting coda during the credits. (2:10) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Vizcarrondo)
Frances Ha Noah Baumbach isn’t exactly known for romance and bright-eyed optimism. Co-writing 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox with director Wes Anderson is maybe the closest to “whimsy” as he’s ever come; his own features (2010’s Greenberg, 2007’s Margot at the Wedding, 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, 1997’s Mr. Jealousy, and 1995’s Kicking and Screaming) tend to veer into grumpier, more intellectual realms. You might say his films are an acquired taste. But haters beware. Frances Ha — the black-and-white tale of a New York City hipster (Baumbach’s real-life squeeze, Greta Gerwig, who co-write the script with him) blundering her way into adulthood — is probably the least Baumbach-ian Baumbach movie ever. Owing stylistic debts to both vintage Woody Allen and the French New Wave, Frances Ha relies heavily on Gerwig’s adorable-disaster title character to propel its plot, which is little more than a timeline of Frances’ neverending micro-adventures: pursuing her nascent modern-dance career, bouncing from address to address, taking an impromptu trip to Paris, visiting her parents (portrayed by the Sacramento-raised Gerwig’s real-life parents), “breaking up” with her best friend. It’s so charming, poignant, and quotable (“Don’t treat me like a three-hour brunch friend!”) that even those who claim to be allergic to Baumbach just might find themselves succumbing to it. (1:26) Embarcadero, Piedmont, Shattuck, Smith Rafael, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
The Great Gatsby Every bit as flashy and in-your-face as you’d expect the combo of “Baz Luhrmann,” “Jazz Age,” and “3D” to be, this misguided interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale is, at least, overstuffed with visual delights. For that reason only, all the fashion-mag fawning over leading lady Carey Mulligan’s gowns and diamonds, and the opulent production design that surrounds them, seems warranted. And in scenes where spectacle is appropriate — Gatsby’s legendary parties; Tom Buchanan’s wild New York romp with his mistress — Luhrmann delivers in spades. The trade-off is that the subtler aspects of Fitzgerald’s novel are either pushed to the side or shouted from the rooftops. Leonardo DiCaprio, last seen cutting loose in last year’s Django Unchained, makes for a stiff, fumbling Gatsby, laying on the “Old Sports” as thickly as his pancake make-up. There’s nothing here so startlingly memorable as the actor and director’s 1996 prior collaboration, Romeo + Juliet — a more successful (if still lavish and self-consciously audacious) take on an oft-adapted, much-beloved literary work. (2:22) California, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
The Hangover Part III Even the friendliest little blackout bacchanal can get tiresome the third time around. The poster depicting Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis — stern in suits and ties — says it all: it’s grim men’s business, the care and maintenance of this Hangover franchise, this orgy of good times gone bad. Once a bad-taste love letter to male-bonding, Hangover Part III is ready for a chance, primed to sever some of those misbegotten ties. This time around, the unlikely troika — with the always dispensable normal-dude figurehead Doug (Justin Bartha) in tow — are captured by random sketchy figure Marshall (John Goodman, whose every utterance of the offensive “Chinaman” should bring back Big Lebowski warm-and-fuzzies). He holds Doug hostage in exchange for the amoral, cockfighting, coke-wallowing, whore-hiring, leather-wearing Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), who stole his gold, and it turns out Alan (Galifianakis) might be his only chum. Jeong, who continues to bring the hammy glee, is still the best thing here, even as the conscience-free instigator; he’s the dark counterpart to tweaked man-child Alan, who meets cute with mean-ass pawn-star soulmate Cassie (Melissa McCarthy). Meanwhile, Cooper and Helms look on, puzzled, no doubt pondering the prestige projects on their plates and wondering what they’re still doing here. (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
The Iceman Methody-y changeling Michael Shannon is pretty much the whole show in The Iceman, about a real-life hitman who purportedly killed over 100 people during his career. Despite some scarily violent moments, however, Ariel Vromen’s film doesn’t show much of that body count — he’s more interested in the double life Richard Kuklinski (Shannon) leads as a cold-blooded killer whose profession remains entirely unknown for years to his wife, daughters, and friends. The waitress he marries, Deborah (Winona Ryder), isn’t exactly a brainiac. But surely there’s some willful denial in the way she accepts his every excuse and fake profession, starting with “dubbing Disney movies” when he actually dupes prints of pornos. It’s in that capacity that he first meets Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), a volatile Newark mobster who, impressed by Kuklinski’s blasé demeanor at gunpoint, correctly surmises this guy would make a fine contract killer. When he has a falling out with Demeo, Kuklinski “freelances” his skill to collaborate with fellow hitman Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), so named because he drives an ice-cream truck — and puts his victims on ice for easier disposal. For the sake of a basic contrast defined by its ad line — “Loving husband. Devoted father. Ruthless killer.” — The Iceman simplifies Kuklinski’s saga, making him less of a monster. The movie only briefly suggests Kuklinski’s abused childhood, and it omits entirely other intriguing aspects of the real-life story. But Shannon creates a convincing whole character whose contradictions don’t seem so to him — or to us. (1:46) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
In the House In François Ozon’s first feature since the whimsical 2010 Potiche, he returns somewhat to the playful suspense intrigue of 2003’s Swimming Pool, albeit with a very different tone and context. Fabrice Luchini plays a high school French literature teacher disillusioned by his students’ ever-shrinking articulacy. But he is intrigued by one boy’s surprisingly rich description of his stealth invasion into a classmate’s envied “perfect” family — with lusty interest directed at the “middle class curves” of the mother (Emmanuelle Seigner). As the boy Claude’s writings continue in their possibly fictive, possibly stalker-ish provocations, his teacher grows increasingly unsure whether he’s dealing with a precocious bourgeoisie satirist or a literate budding sociopath — and ambivalent about his (and spouse Kristin Scott Thomas’ stressed gallery-curator’s) growing addiction to these artfully lurid possible exposé s of people he knows. And it escalates from there. Ozon is an expert filmmaker in nimble if not absolute peak form here, no doubt considerably helped by Juan Mayorga’s source play. It’s a smart mainstream entertainment that, had it been Hollywood feature, would doubtless be proclaimed brilliant for its clever tricks and turns. (1:45) Roxie. (Harvey)
Iron Man 3 Neither a sinister terrorist dubbed “the Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley) nor a spray-tanned mad scientist (Guy Pearce) are as formidable an enemy to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) as Tony Stark himself, the mega-rich playboy last seen in 2012’s Avengers donning his Iron Man suit and thwarting alien destruction. It’s been rough since his big New York minute; he’s been suffering panic attacks and burying himself in his workshop, shutting out his live-in love (Gwyneth Paltrow) in favor of tinkering on an ever-expanding array of manned and un-manned supersuits. But duty, and personal growth, beckon when the above-mentioned villains start behaving very badly. With some help (but not much) from Don Cheadle’s War Machine — now known as “Iron Patriot” thanks to a much-mocked PR campaign — Stark does his saving-the-world routine again. If the plot fails to hit many fresh beats (a few delicious twists aside), the 3D special effects are suitably dazzling, the direction (by series newcomer Shane Black) is appropriately snappy, and Downey, Jr. again makes Stark one of the most charismatic superheros to ever grace the big screen. For now, at least, the continuing Avengers spin-off extravaganza seems justified. (2:06) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Kon-Tiki In 1947 Norwegian explorer and anthropologist Thor Heyderdahl arranged an expedition on a homemade raft across the Pacific, recreating what he believed was a route by which South Americans traveled to Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. (Although this theory is now disputed.) The six-man crew (plus parrot) survived numerous perils to complete their 101-day, 4300-mile journey intact — winning enormous global attention, particularly through Heyderdahl’s subsequent book and documentary feature. Co-directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg’s dramatization is a big, impressive physical adventure most arresting for its handsome use of numerous far-flung locations. Where it’s less successful is in stirring much emotional involvement, with the character dynamics underwhelming despite a decent cast led by Pal Sverr Hagen as Thor (who, incredibly, was pretty much a non-swimmer). Nonetheless, this new Kon-Tiki offers all the pleasures of armchair travel, letting you vicariously experience a high-risk voyage few could ever hope (or want) to make in real life. (1:58) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Midnight’s Children Deepa Mehta (2005’s Water) directs and co-adapts with Salman Rushdie the author’s Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel, which mixes history (India’s 1947 independence, and the subsequent division of India and Pakistan) with magical elements — suggested from its fairy-tale-esque first lines: “I was born in the city of Bombay, once upon a time.” This droll voice-over (read by Rushdie) comes courtesy of Saleem Sinai, born to a poor street musician and his wife (who dies in childbirth; dad is actually an advantage-taking Brit played by Charles “Tywin Lannister” Dance) but switched (for vaguely revolutionary reasons) with Shiva, born at the same moment to rich parents who unknowingly raise the wrong son. Rich or poor, it seems all children born at the instant of India’s independence have shared psychic powers; over the years, they gather for “meetings” whenever Saleem summons them. And that’s just the 45 minutes or so of story. Though gorgeously shot, Midnight’s Children suffers from page-to-screen-itis; the source material is complex in both plot and theme, and it’s doubtful any film — even one as long as this — could translate its nuances and more fanciful elements (“I can smell feelings!,” Saleem insists) into a consistently compelling narrative. Last-act sentimentality doesn’t help, though it’s consistent with the fairy-tale vibe, I suppose. (2:20) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Mud (2:18) Piedmont.
Now You See Me Cheese can be a tough factor to quantify, but you get close to the levels Now You See Me strives for when you picture the hopelessly goofy, tragically coiffed Doug Henning lisping, “It’s magic!” somewhere between Bob “Happy Little Tree” Ross and a rainbow sprinkled with Care Bears. Now You See Me, however, is much less likely to be dusted off and adored by a Bronies-style cult. Four seemingly savvy street and stage magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco) are brought together by tarot card invite by a mysterious host. What follows is a series of corny performances by the crew, now dubbed the Four Horseman, that are linked to a series of Robin Hood-like, or not, thefts. Nipping at their heels are a loudly flustered FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo, working an overcooked Columbo impression), a waifish Interpol detective (Mélanie Laurent, as if slouching through a Sorbonne semester), and a professional debunker (Morgan Freeman, maintaining amusement). In the course of the investigation, the Horsemen’s way-too-elaborate and far-from-apocalyptic illusions are taken apart and at least one vigorously theatrical fight scene takes place — all of which sounds more riveting than what actually transpires under the action-by-the-book watch of director Louis Leterrier, who never succeeds in making the smug, besuited puppets, I mean Horsemen, who strut around like they’re in Ocean’s Eighteen 4D, anything remotely resembling cool. Or even characters we might give a magical rabbit’s ass about. For all its seemingly knowing pokes at the truth behind the curtain, Now You See Me lacks much of the smarts and wit of loving deconstructionists like Penn and Teller —glimmers of which can only be made out in the smirk of Harrelson and the knowing twinkle of Freeman — or even the tacky machismo of Criss Angel, as well as a will to get to a truth behind the mystery. Or is the mystery behind the truth? (1:56) California, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Oblivion Spoiler alert: the great alien invasion of 2017 does absolutely zilch to eliminate, or at least ameliorate, the problem of sci-fi movie plot holes. However, puny humans willing to shut down the logic-demanding portions of their brains just might enjoy Oblivion, which is set 60 years after that fateful date and imagines that Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by said invasion. Tom Cruise plays Jack, a repairman who zips down from his sterile housing pod (shared with comely companion Andrea Riseborough) to keep a fleet of drones — dispatched to guard the planet’s remaining resources from alien squatters — in working order. But Something is Not Quite Right; Jack’s been having nostalgia-drenched memories of a bustling, pre-war New York City, and the déjà vu gets worse when a beautiful astronaut (Olga Kurylenko) literally crash-lands into his life. After an inaugural gig helming 2010’s stinky Tron: Legacy, director Joseph Kosinski shows promise, if not perfection, bringing his original tale to the screen. (He does, however, borrow heavily from 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1996’s Independence Day, and 2008’s Wall-E, among others.) Still, Oblivion boasts sleek production design, a certain creative flair, and some surprisingly effective plot twists — though also, alas, an overlong running time. (2:05) Metreon. (Eddy)
Rebels with a Cause The huge string of parklands that have made Marin County a jewel of preserved California coastline might easily have become wall-to-wall development — just like the Peninsula — if not for the stubborn conservationists whose efforts are profiled in Nancy Kelly’s documentary. From Congressman Clem Miller — who died in a plane crash just after his Point Reyes National Seashore bill became a reality — to housewife Amy Meyer, who began championing the Golden Gate National Recreation Area because she “needed a project” to keep busy once her kids entered school, they’re testaments to the ability of citizen activism to arrest the seemingly unstoppable forces of money, power and political influence. Theirs is a hidden history of the Bay Area, and of what didn’t come to pass — numerous marinas, subdivisions, and other developments that would have made San Francisco and its surrounds into another Los Angeles. (1:12) Roxie. (Harvey)
Renoir The gorgeous, sun-dappled French Riviera setting is the high point of this otherwise low-key drama about the temperamental women (Christa Theret) who was the final muse to elderly painter Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), and who encouraged the filmmaking urges in his son, future cinema great Jean (Vincent Rottiers). Cinematographer Mark Ping Bin Lee (who’s worked with Hou Hsiao-hsein and Wong Kar Wai) lenses Renoir’s leafy, ramshackle estate to maximize its resemblance to the paintings it helped inspire; though her character, Dédée, could kindly be described as “conniving,” Theret could not have been better physically cast, with tumbling red curls and pale skin she’s none too shy about showing off. Though the specter of World War I looms in the background, the biggest conflicts in Gilles Bourdos’ film are contained within the household, as Jean frets about his future, Dédée faces the reality of her precarious position in the household (which is staffed by aging models-turned-maids), and Auguste battles ill health by continuing to paint, though he’s in a wheelchair and must have his brushes taped to his hands. Though not much really happens, Renoir is a pleasant, easy-on-the-eyes experience. (1:51) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s This glossy love letter to posh New York City department store Bergdorf Goodman — a place so expensive that shopping there is “an aspirational dream” for the grubby masses, according to one interviewee — would offend with its slobbering take on consumerism if it wasn’t so damn entertaining. The doc’s narrative of sorts is propelled by the small army assembled to create the store’s famed holiday windows; we watch as lavish scenes of upholstered polar bears and sea creatures covered in glittering mosaics (flanking, natch, couture gowns) take shape over the months leading up to the Christmas rush. Along the way, a cavalcade of top designers (Michael Kors, Vera Wang, Giorgio Armani, Jason Wu, Karl Lagerfeld) reminisce on how the store has impacted their respective careers, and longtime employees share anecdotes, the best of which is probably the tale of how John Lennon and Yoko Ono saved the season by buying over 70 fur coats one magical Christmas Eve. Though lip service is paid to the current economic downturn (the Madoff scandal precipitated a startling dropoff in personal-shopper clients), Scatter My Ashes is mostly just superficial fun. What do you expect from a store whose best-selling shoe is sparkly, teeteringly tall, and costs $6,000? (1:33) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)
Star Trek Into Darkness Do you remember 1982? There are more than a few echoes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in J. J. Abrams’ second film retooling the classic sci-fi property’s characters and adventures. Darkness retains the 2009 cast, including standouts Zachary Quinto as Spock and Simon Pegg as comic-relief Scotty, and brings in Benedict “Sherlock” Cumberbatch to play the villain (I think you can guess which one). The plot mostly pinballs between revenge and preventing/circumventing the destruction of the USS Enterprise, with added post-9/11, post-Dark Knight (2008) terrorism connotations that are de rigueur for all superhero or fantasy-type blockbusters these days. But Darkness isn’t totally, uh, dark: there’s quite a bit of fan service at work here (speak Klingon? You’re in luck). Abrams knows what audiences want, and he’s more than happy to give it to ’em, sometimes opening up massive plot holes in the process — but never veering from his own Prime Directive: providing an enjoyable ride. (2:07) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Stories We Tell Actor and director Sarah Polley (2011’s Take This Waltz) turns the camera on herself and her family for this poignant, moving, inventive, and expectation-upending blend of documentary and narrative. Her father, actor Michael Polley, provides the narration; our first hint that this film will take an unconventional form comes when we see Sarah directing Michael’s performance in a recording-studio booth, asking him to repeat certain phrases for emphasis. On one level, Stories We Tell is about Sarah’s own history, as she sets out to explore longstanding family rumors that Michael is not her biological father. The missing piece: her mother, actress Diane Polley (who died of cancer just days after Sarah’s 11th birthday), a vivacious character remembered by Sarah’s siblings and those who knew and loved her. Stories We Tell‘s deeper meaning emerges as the film becomes ever more meta, retooling the audience’s understanding of what they’re seeing via convincingly doc-like reenactments. To say more would lessen the power of Stories We Tell‘s multi-layered revelations. Just know that this is an impressively unique film — about family, memories, love, and (obviously) storytelling — and offers further proof of Polley’s tremendous talent. (1:48) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
What Maisie Knew In Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s adaptation of the 1897 Henry James novel, the story of a little girl caught between warring, self-involved parents is transported forward to modern-day New York City, with Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as the ill-suited pair responsible, in theory, for the care and upbringing of the title character, played by Onata Aprile. Moore’s Susanna is a rock singer making a slow, halting descent from some apex of stardom, as we gather from the snide comments of her partner in dysfunctionality, Beale (Coogan). As their relationship implodes and they move on to custody battle tactics, each takes on a new, inappropriate companion — Beale marrying in haste Maisie’s pretty young nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), and Susanna just as precipitously latching on to a handsome bartender named Lincoln (True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgård). The film mostly tracks the chaotic action — Susanna’s strung-out tantrums, both parents’ impulsive entrances and exits, Margo and Lincoln’s ambivalent acceptance of responsibility — from Maisie’s silent vantage, as details large and small convey, at least to us, the deficits of her caretakers, who shield her from none of the emotional shrapnel flying through the air and rarely bother to present an appropriate, comprehensible explanation. Yet Maisie understands plenty — though longtime writing-and-directing team McGehee and Siegel (2001’s The Deep End, 2005’s Bee Season, 2008’s Uncertainty) have taken pains in their script and their casting to present Maisie as a lovely, watchful child, not the precocious creep often favored in the picture shows. So we watch too, with a grinding anxiety, as she’s passed from hand to hand, forced to draw her own unvoiced conclusions. (1:38) Albany, Opera Plaza. (Rapoport) *