Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Erik Morse, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, and Matt Sussman. The film intern is Peter Galvin. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.
The 12th San Francisco Independent Film Festival runs Feb. 4-18 at the Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF. For tickets (most shows $11), visit www.sfindie.com. For commentary, see "Hollywouldn't" and "Double Vision." All times pm.
Wah Do Dem 7:15, 9:30.
Limbo Lounge 7:15. Less Adolescent 7:15. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead 9:30. Beyond the Pole 9:30.
"Games of Telephone" (shorts program) 2:45. Less Adolescent 2:45. West of Pluto 5. "The End is Not the End" (shorts program) 5. City Island 7:15. A + D 7:15. My Movie Girl 9:30. Lilli and Secure Space 9:30.
"Life NorCal-Style" (shorts program) 2:45. Beyond the Pole 2:45. "None of the Above" (shorts program) 5. Bonecrusher 5. Oh My God! It's Harrod Blank! 7:15. "You're Not the Only, Lonely" (shorts program) 7:15. The Blood of Rebirth 9:30. Point Traverse 9:30.
"You're Not the Only, Lonely" (shorts program) 7:15. Bonecrusher 7:15. Point Traverse 9:30. "Life NorCal-Style" (shorts program) 9:30.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead 7:15. Lilli and Secure Space 7:15. A + D 9:30. "The End is Not the End" (shorts program) 9:30.
Dear John As long as you know what you're getting yourself into, Dear John is a solid effort. Not extraordinary by any means, it's your standard Nicholas Sparks book-turned-film: boy meets girl — drama, angst, and untimely death ensue. Here, Channing Tatum stars at the titular John, a soldier on leave who falls in love with the seemingly perfect Savannah (Amanda Seyfried). Both actors are likable enough that their romance is charming, if not always believable. And Dear John's plot turns, while not quite surprising, are at least dynamic enough to keep the audience engaged. But at the end of the day, this is still a Nicholas Sparks movie — even with the accomplished Lasse Hallström taking over directorial responsibilities. There are still plenty of eye-roll moments and, more often than not, Dear John employs the most predictable tearjerking techniques. By the time you realize why the film is set in 2001, it's September 11. Sad? Surely. Cheap? You betcha. (1:48) Presidio, Shattuck. (Peitzman)
District 13: Ultimatum The sequel to 2004's French action hit District 13 promises even more insane fights and high-flying stunts. (1:41) Lumiere, Shattuck.
44 Inch Chest You couldn't ask for a much better cast than the one 44 Inch Chest offers. The film's a veritable who's who of veteran British actors: Tom Wilkinson, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Ian McShane. The story's a bit less exceptional, though kudos to director Malcolm Venville and co-writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto for subverting expectations. While the movie's poster suggests a gritty crime thriller, 44 Inch Chest is actually a somewhat subtle character drama. Winstone stars as Colin, a man devastated after his wife Liz (Joanna Whalley) leaves him for a younger man. His mobster friends encourage him to kidnap her new squeeze, nicknamed Loverboy (Melvil Poupaud), as revenge. But don't expect any Tarantino-esque torture scenes: 44 Inch Chest spends most of its time revealing what's going on in Colin's head while he struggles to make sense of his friends' conflicting philosophies. Hurt's Old Man Peanut is the obvious standout, but McShane should also be commended for playing a character who is suave and confident, despite being a gay man named Meredith. (1:34) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Peitzman)
From Paris with Love John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers star as secret agents in this Luc Besson-produced thriller. (1:35)
*The Last Station Most of the buzz around The Last Station has focused on Helen Mirren, who takes the lead as the Countess Sofya, wife of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Mirren is indeed impressive — when is she not? — but there's more to the film than Sofya's Oscar-worthy outbursts. The Last Station follows Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), hired as Tolstoy's personal secretary at the end of the writer's life. Valentin struggles to reconcile his faith in the anarchist Christian Tolstoyan movement with his sympathy for Sofya and his budding feelings for fellow Tolstoyan Masha (Kerry Condon). For the first hour, The Last Station is charming and very funny. Once Tolstoy and Sofya's relationship reaches its most volatile, however, the tone shifts toward the serious — a trend that continues as Tolstoy falls ill. After all the lighthearted levity, it's a bit jarring, but the solid script and accomplished cast pull The Last Station together. Paul Giamatti is especially good as Vladimir Chertkov, who battles against Sofya for control of Tolstoy's will. You'll never feel guiltier for putting off War and Peace. (1:52) Albany, Embarcadero. (Peitzman)
Avatar James Cameron's Avatar takes place on planet Pandora, where human capitalists are prospecting for precious unobtainium, hampered only by the toxic atmosphere and a profusion of unfriendly wildlife, including the Na'vi, a nine-foot tall race of poorly disguised cliches. When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, arrives on the planet, he is recruited into the "Avatar" program, which enables him to cybernetically link with a part-human, part-Na'vi body and go traipsing through Pandora's psychedelic underbrush. Initially designed for botanical research, these avatars become the only means of diplomatic contact with the bright-blue natives, who live smack on top of all the bling. The special effects are revolutionary, but the story that ensues blends hollow "noble savage" dreck with events borrowed from Dances With Wolves (1990) and FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). When Sully falls in love with a Na'vi princess and undergoes a spirit journey so he can be inducted into the tribe and fight the evil miners, all I could think of was Kevin Bacon getting his belly sliced in The Air Up There (1994). (2:42) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Richardson)
The Blind Side When the New York Times Magazine published Michael Lewis' article "The Ballad of Big Mike" — which he expanded into the 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game —nobody could have predicated the cultural windfall it would spawn. Lewis told the incredible story of Michael Oher — a 6'4, 350-pound 16-year-old, who grew up functionally parentless, splitting time between friends' couches and the streets of one of Memphis' poorest neighborhoods. As a sophomore with a 0.4 GPA, Oher serendipitously hitched a ride with a friend's father to a ritzy private school across town and embarked on an unbelievable journey that led him into a upper-class, white family; the Dean's List at Ole Miss; and, finally, the NFL. The film itself effectively focuses on Oher's indomitable spirit and big heart, and the fearless devotion of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the matriarch of the family who adopted him (masterfully played by Sandra Bullock). While the movie will delight and touch moviegoers, its greatest success is that it will likely spur its viewers on to read Lewis' brilliant book. (2:06) Four Star, Marina, Oaks. (Daniel Alvarez)
The Book of Eli The Book of Eli isn't likely to win many prizes, but it could eventually be up for a lifetime achievement award in the "most sentimental movie to ever feature multiple decapitations by machete" category. Denzel Washington plays the titular hero, displaying scant charisma as a post-apocalyptic drifter with a beatific personality and talent for dismemberment. Eli squares off against an evil but urbane kleptocrat named Carnegie (Gary Oldman phoning in a familiar "loathsome reptile" performance). Convinced that possession of Eli's book will place humanity's few survivors in his thrall, Carnegie will do anything to get it, even pimping out the daughter (Mila Kunis, utterly unconvincing) of his blind girlfriend (Jennifer Beals, who should stick to playing people who can see). The two slumming lead actors chase each other down the highway, pausing for some spiritual hogwash and an exchange of gunfire before limping towards an execrable twist ending. At least there's a Tom Waits cameo. (1:58) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Richardson)
Broken Embraces Pedro Almodóvar has always dabbled in the Hitchcockian tropes of uxoricide, betrayal, and double-identity, but with Broken Embraces he has attained a polyglot, if slightly mimicking, fluency with the language of Hollywood noir. A story within a story and a movie within a movie, Embraces begins in the present day with middle-aged Catalan Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter who takes time between his successful writing career to seduce and bed young women sympathetic to his disability. "Everything's already happened to me," he explains to his manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo). "All that's left is to enjoy life." But this life of empty pleasures is brought to a sudden halt when local business magnate Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) has died; soon after, Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), who has renamed himself Ray X, visits Caine with an unusual request. The action retreats 14 years when Caine was a young (and visually abled) director named Mateo Blanco; he encounters a breathtaking femme fatale, Lena (Penelope Cruz) — an actress-turned-prostitute named Severine, turned secretary-turned-trophy wife of Ernesto Martel — when she appears to audition for his latest movie. If all of the narrative intricacies and multiplicitous identities in Broken Embraces appear a bit intimidating at first glance, it is because this is the cinema of Almodóvar taken to a kind of generic extreme. As with all of the director's post-'00 films, which are often referred to as Almodóvar's "mature" pictures, there is a microscopic attention to narrative development combined with a frenzied sub-plotting of nearly soap-operatic proportions. But, in Embraces, formalism attains such prominence that one might speculate the director is simply going through the motions. The effect is a purposely loquacious and overly-dramatized performance that pleasures itself as much by setting up the plot as unraveling it. (2:08) Clay, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Morse)
Crazy Heart "Oh, I love Jeff Bridges!" is the usual response when his name comes up every few years for Best Actor consideration, usually via some underdog movie no one saw, and the realization occurs that he's never won an Oscar. The oversight is painful because it could be argued that no leading American actor has been more versatile, consistently good, and true to that elusive concept "artistic integrity" than Bridges over the last 40 years. It's rumored Crazy Heart was slotted for cable or DVD premiere, then thrust into late-year theater release in hopes of attracting Best Actor momentum within a crowded field. Lucky for us, this performance shouldn't be overlooked. Bridges plays "Bad" Blake, a veteran country star reduced to playing bars with local pickup bands. His slide from grace hasn't been helped by lingering tastes for smoke and drink, let alone five defunct marriages. He meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), freelance journalist, fan, and single mother. They spark; though burnt by prior relationships, she's reluctant to take seriously a famous drunk twice her age. Can Bad handle even this much responsibility? Meanwhile, he gets his "comeback" break in the semi-humiliating form of opening for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) — a contemporary country superstar who was once Bad's backup boy. Tommy offers a belated shot at commercial redemption; Jean offers redemption of the strictly personal kind. There's nothing too surprising about the ways in which Crazy Heart both follows and finesses formula. You've seen this preordained road from wreckage to redemption before. But actor turned first-time director Scott Cooper's screenplay honors the flies in the windshield inherited from Thomas Cobb's novel — as does Bridges, needless to say. (1:51) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Creation Critically drubbed in its high-profile slot as the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival's opening-night film, this handsome costume drama isn't all that bad — but neither is it very good. Offscreen married couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly play Mr. and Mrs. Darwin in the mid-1850s, just as he's about to incite a still-active public firestorm with The Origin of the Species. Charles is hardly in any shape to face such controversy, as the death of favorite daughter Annie (Martha West) has had a grave impact on both his psychological and physical health. That event has only strengthened wife Emma's Christian faith, while destroying his own. Also arguing against the evolutionary tract's publication is their close friend Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam); contrarily urging Darwin to go ahead and "kill God" are fellow scientitific enthusiasts played by Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch. Director Jon Amiel lends considerable visual panache, but Creation ultimately misses the rare chance to meaningfully scrutinize rationalism vs. religious belief perhaps the industrial era's most importantly divisive issue — in favor of conventional dramatic dwelling on grief over a child's loss. The appealing Bettany is somewhat straitjacketed by a character that verges on being a sickly bore, while Connolly is, as usual, a humorless one. (1:58) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Edge of Darkness (1:57) California, Empire, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.
*An Education The pursuit of knowledge — both carnal and cultural — are at the tender core of this end-of-innocence valentine by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (who first made her well-tempered voice heard with her 2000 Dogme entry, Italian for Beginners), based on journalist Lynn Barber's memoir. Screenwriter Nick Hornby breaks further with his Peter Pan protagonists with this adaptation: no man-boy mopers or misfits here. Rather, 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a good girl and ace student. It's 1961, and England is only starting to stir from its somber, all-too-sober post-war slumber. The carefully cloistered Jenny is on track for Oxford, though swinging London and its high-style freedoms beckon just around the corner. Ushering in those freedoms — a new, more class-free world disorder — is the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), stopping to give Jenny and her cello a ride in the rain and soon proffering concerts and late-night suppers in the city. He's a sweet-faced, feline outsider: cultured, Jewish, and given to playing fast and loose in the margins of society. David can see Jenny for the gem she is and appreciate her innocence with the knowing pleasure of a decadent playing all the angles. The stakes are believably high, thanks to An Education's careful attention to time and place and its gently glamored performances. Scherfig revels in the smart, easy-on-eye curb appeal of David and his friends while giving a nod to the college-educated empowerment Jenny risks by skipping class to jet to Paris. And Mulligan lends it all credence by letting all those seduced, abandoned, conflicted, rebellious feelings flicker unbridled across her face. (1:35) Bridge, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)
Extraordinary Measures It's probably to early to name the worst movie of 2010, but Extraordinary Measures is surely the first serious contender. This would-be inspirational semi-true story focuses on John Crowley (a puffy Brendan Fraser), who employs Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford) to find a cure for his ailing children. The script is flat from start to finish, reducing this potentially powerful tearjerker to Lifetime Movie of the Week. The acting is just as misguided, which given the talent of the performers likely speaks to Tom Vaughan's directorial choices. While Fraser blubbers endlessly, Ford spends the entire film yelling. The only difference between Extraordinary Measures and Ford's other missteps is that here he's shouting on behalf of someone else's kids. It's hard to say how this film got made: it doesn't even look all that appealing on paper. There may have been potential at some point, but the finished product is downright unendurable — even with its heart in the right place. (1:52) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Peitzman)
*Fantastic Mr. Fox A lot of people have been busting filmmaker Wes Anderson's proverbial chops lately, lambasting him for recent cinematic self-indulgences hewing dangerously close to self-parody (and in the case of 2007's Darjeeling Limited, I'm one of them). Maybe he's been listening. Either way, his new animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, should keep the naysayer wolves at bay for a while — it's nothing short of a rollicking, deadpan-hilarious case study in artistic renewal. A kind of man-imal inversion of Anderson's other heist movie, his debut feature Bottle Rocket (1996), his latest revels in ramshackle spontaneity and childlike charm without sacrificing his adult preoccupations. Based on Roald Dahl's beloved 1970 book, Mr. Fox captures the essence of the source material but is still full of Anderson trademarks: meticulously staged mise en scène, bisected dollhouse-like sets, eccentric dysfunctional families coming to grips with their talent and success (or lack thereof).(1:27) SF Center. (Devereaux)
*Fish Tank There's been a string of movies lately pondering what Britney once called the not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman syndrome, including 2009's An Education and Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire. Enter Fish Tank, the gritty new drama from British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Her films (including 2006's Red Road) are heartbreaking, but in an unforced way that never feels manipulative; her characters, often portrayed by nonactors, feel completely organic. Fish Tank's 15-year-old heroine, Mia (played by first-time actor Katie Jarvis), lives with her party-gal single mom and tweenage sister in a public-housing high-rise; all three enjoy drinking, swearing, and shouting. But Mia has a secret passion: hip-hop dancing, which she practices with track-suited determination. When mom's foxy new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, from 2008's Hunger) encourages her talent, it's initially unclear what Connor's intentions are. Is he trying to be a cool father figure, or something far more inappropriate? Without giving away too much, it's hard to fear too much for a girl who headbutts a teenage rival within the film's first few minutes — though it soon becomes apparent Mia's hard façade masks a vulnerable core. Her desire to make human connections causes her to drop her guard when she needs it the most. In a movie about coming of age, a young girl's bumpy emotional journey is expected turf. But Fish Tank earns its poignant moments honestly — most coming courtesy of Jarvis, who has soulfullness to spare. Whether she's acting out in tough-girl mode or revealing a glimpse of her fragile inner life, Arnold's camera relays it all, with unglossy matter-of-factness. (2:02) Lumiere, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
The Hurt Locker When the leader of a close-knit U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad is killed in action, his subordinates have barely recovered from the shock when they're introduced to his replacement. In contrast to his predecessor, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) is no standard-procedure-following team player, but a cocky adrenaline junkie who puts himself and others at risk making gonzo gut-instinct decisions in the face of live bombs and insurgent gunfire. This is particularly galling to next-in-command Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). An apolitical war-in-Iraq movie that's won considerable praise for accuracy so far from vets (scenarist Mark Boal was "embedded" with an EOD unit there for several 2004 weeks), Kathryn Bigelow's film is arguably you-are-there purist to a fault. While we eventually get to know in the principals, The Hurt Locker is so dominated by its seven lengthy squad-mission setpieces that there's almost no time or attention left for building character development or a narrative arc. The result is often viscerally intense, yet less impactful than it would have been if we were more emotionally invested. Assured as her technique remains, don't expect familiar stylistic dazzle from action cult figure Bigelow (1987's Near Dark, 1989's Blue Steel, 1991's Point Break) — this vidcam-era war movie very much hews to the favored current genre approach of pseudo-documentary grainy handheld shaky-cam imagery. (2:11) Shattuck.. (Harvey)
*The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus From the title to the plot to the execution, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is the kind of movie you're told not to see sober. This is a film in which Tom Waits plays the Devil, in which characters' faces change repeatedly, in which Austin Powers' Verne Troyer makes his triumphant big-screen return. The story is your basic battle between good and evil, with Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) struggling to save souls from Mr. Nick (Waits) in order to protect his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). Meanwhile, Valentina is wooed by the mysterious Tony, played by Heath Ledger in his final film role — along with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. There are plenty of big important themes to be analyzed here, but it's honestly more fun to simply get lost in Doctor Parnassus' Imaginarium. Director and co-writer Terry Gilliam has created a world and a mythology that probably takes more than one viewing to fully comprehend. Might as well let yourself get distracted by all the shiny colors instead. (2:02) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)
Inglourious Basterds With Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino pulls off something that seemed not only impossible, but undesirable, and surely unnecessary: making yet another of his in-jokey movies about other movies, albeit one that also happens to be kinda about the Holocaust — or at least Jews getting their own back on the Nazis during World War II — and (the kicker) is not inherently repulsive. As Rube Goldbergian achievements go, this is up there. Nonetheless, Basterds is more fun, with less guilt, than it has any right to be. The "basterds" are Tennessee moonshiner Pvt. Brad Pitt's unit of Jewish soldiers committed to infuriating Der Fuhrer by literally scalping all the uniformed Nazis they can bag. Meanwhile a survivor (Mélanie Laurent) of one of insidious SS "Jew Hunter" Christoph Waltz's raids, now passing as racially "pure" and operating a Paris cinema (imagine the cineaste name-dropping possibilities!) finds her venue hosting a Third Reich hoedown that provides an opportunity to nuke Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, and Goering in one swoop. Tactically, Tarantino's movies have always been about the ventriloquizing of that yadadada-yadadada whose self-consciousness is bearable because the cleverness is actual; brief eruptions of lasciviously enjoyed violence aside, Basterds too almost entirely consists of lengthy dialogues or near-monologues in which characters pitch and receive tasty palaver amid lethal danger. Still, even if he's practically writing theatre now, Tarantino does understand the language of cinema. There isn't a pin-sharp edit, actor's raised eyebrow, artful design excess, or musical incongruity here that isn't just the business. (2:30) Oaks. (Harvey)
Invictus Elected President of South Africa in 1995 — just five years after his release from nearly three decades' imprisonment — Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) perceives a chance to forward his message of reconciliation and forgiveness by throwing support behind the low-ranked national rugby team. Trouble is, the Springboks are currently low-ranked, with the World Cup a very faint hope just one year away. Not to mention the fact that despite having one black member, they represent the all-too-recent Apartheid past for the country's non-white majority. Based on John Carlin's nonfiction tome, this latest Oscar bait by the indefatigable Clint Eastwood sports his usual plusses and minuses: An impressive scale, solid performances (Matt Damon co-stars as the team's Afrikaaner captain), deft handling of subplots, and solid craftsmanship on the one hand. A certain dull literal-minded earnestness, lack of style and excitement on the other. Anthony Peckham's screenplay hits the requisite inspirational notes (sometimes pretty bluntly), but even in the attenuated finals match, Eastwood's direction is steady as she goes — no peaks, no valleys, no faults but not much inspiration, either. It doesn't help that Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens contribute a score that's as rousing as a warm milk bath. This is an entertaining history lesson, but it should have been an exhilarating one. (2:14) Oaks, SF Center. (Harvey)
It's Complicated Allow me to spoil one line in It's Complicated, because I believe it sums up — better than I ever could — everything right and wrong with this movie: "I prefer a lot of semen." Bet you never thought you'd hear Meryl Streep say that. The thrill of movies like It's Complicated (see also: Nancy Meyer's 2003 senior romance Something's Gotta Give) is in seeing actors of a certain age get down and dirty. There is something fascinating (and for audiences of that same age, encouraging) about watching Alec Baldwin inadvertently flash a webcam or Streep and Steve Martin making croissants while stoned. Once the novelty wears off, however, It's Complicated is a fairly run-of-the-mill romcom. Sure, the story's a bit more unusual: 10 years after their divorce, Jane (Streep) and Jake (Baldwin) begin having an affair. But the execution is full of the same clichés you've come to expect from the genre, including plenty of slapstick, miscommunication, and raunchy humor. It's delightful to see such talented actors in a film together. Less delightful when they're shotgunning weed and saying "oh em gee." (2:00) Castro, Empire, Four Star, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)
Legion (1:40) 1000 Van Ness.
The Lovely Bones There comes a point when the boy with every toy should have some taken away, in order to improve focusing skills. Ergo, it seemed like a good idea when Peter Jackson became attached to The Lovely Bones. A (relatively) "small" story mixing real-world emotions with the otherworldly à la 1994's Heavenly Creatures? Perfect. His taste for the grotesque would surely toughen up the hugely popular novel's more gelatinous aspects. But no: these Bones heighten every mush-headed weakness in the book, sprinkling CGI sugar on top. Alice Sebold's tale of a 1970s suburban teenager murdered by a neighbor is one of those occasional books that becomes a sensation by wrapping real-world horror (i.e. the brutal, unsolved loss of a child) in the warm gingerbread odor of spiritual comfort food. Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan of 2007's Atonement) narrates from a soft-focus wish-fulfillment afterlife in which she can watch (and occasionally be seen by) those left behind. Bones is sentimentally exploitative in an ingenious way: it uses the protagonist's violent victimization to stir a vague New Age narcissism in the reader. Susie is, yes, an "ordinary" girl, but she (and we) are of course so loved and special that all heavenly rules must be suspended just for her. Ultimately, divine justice is wrought upon her killer (Stanley Tucci, whose appropriately creepy scenes are the film's best) — but why didn't it intervene in time to save his prior victims? Guess they weren't special enough. This is specious material — powerful in outline, woozy in specifics — that needed a grounding touch. But Jackson directs as if his inspirations were the worst of coproducer Steven Spielberg (i.e., those mawkish last reels) and Baz Luhrmann (in empty kitsch pictorialism). Seriously, after a while I was surprised no unicorns jumped o'er rainbows. (2:15) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Misconceptions This indie comedy starts out shrilly, relying overmuch on easy stereotyping of both born-agains and guppies. Small-town Georgia evangelicals Miranda (A.J. Cook) and Parker (David Sutcliffe) maintain a facade of nuclear-family-values perfection. But she's desperate for a child and he seems strangely evasive of the act which usually leads to one. She experiences an epiphany watching a TV program in which Boston gay couple Terry (Orlando Jones) and Sandy (David Moscow) express their own so-far-frustrated desire to raise a child. She abruptly decides it's God's will for her to play surrogate to the sperm-donating duo, even though their status as "godless atheistic Sodomites" would seem to contract her beliefs in a pretty big way. Annoyingly broad at first, the film's decent performances, good heart, and a few effective plot developments eventually make a pleasing impression. (1:35) Roxie. (Harvey)
Nine Though it has a terrific concept — translating Fellini's 1963 autobiographical fantasia 8 1/2 into musical terms — this Broadway entity owed its success to celebrity, not artistry. The 1982 edition starred Raul Julia and a host of stage-famed glamazons; the 2003 revival featured Antonio Banderas and ditto. Why did Rob Marshall choose it to follow up his celebrated-if-overrated film of 2002's Chicago (overlooking his underwhelming 2005 Memoirs of a Geisha)? Perhaps because it provided even greater opportunity for lingerie-clad post-Fosse gyrations, starry casting, and production numbers framed as mind's-eye fantasies just like his Chicago. (Today's audiences purportedly don't like characters simply bursting
into song — though doesn't the High School Musical series disprove that?) Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, an internationally famed, scandalous Italian film director who in 1965 is commencing production on his latest fantastical epic. But with crew and financiers breathing down his neck, he's creatively blocked — haunted by prior successes, recent flops, and a gallery of past and present muses. They include Marion Cotillard (long-suffering wife), Penélope Cruz (mercurial mistress), Nicole Kidman (his usual star), Judi Dench (costume designer-mother figure), Sophia Loren (his actual mamma), Fergie (his first putana), and Kate Hudson (a Vogue reporter). All can sing, pretty much, though Nine's trouble has always been Maury
Weston's generic songs. This is splashy entertainment, intelligently conceived (not least by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella's screenplay, which heightens the structural complexity of Arthur Kopit's original book) and staged. But despite taking place almost entirely in its protagonist's head, psychological depth is strictly two-dimensional. One longs for the suggestive intellectual nuance Marcello Mastroianni originally brought to Fellini's non-singing Guido — something Nine doesn't permit the estimable Day-Lewis. (2:00) Oaks. (Harvey)
*Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire This gut-wrenching, little-engine-that-could of a film shows the struggles of Precious, an overweight, illiterate 16-year-old girl from Harlem. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is so believably vigilant that her performance alone could bring together the art-house viewers as well as take the Oscars by storm. But people need to actually go and experience this film. While Precious did win Sundance's Grand Jury and Audience Award awards this year, there is a sad possibility that filmgoers will follow the current trend of "discussing" films that they've actually never seen. The daring casting choices of comedian Mo'Nique (as Precious' all-too-realistically abusive mother) and Mariah Carey (brilliantly understated as an undaunted and dedicated social counselor) are attempts to attract a wider audience, but cynics can hurdle just about anything these days. What's most significant about this Dancer in the Dark-esque chronicle is how Damien Paul's screenplay and director Lee Daniels have taken their time to confront the most difficult moments in Precious' story –- and if that sounds heavy-handed, so be it. Stop blahging for a moment and let this movie move you. (1:49) Four Star, Shattuck. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)
*Sherlock Holmes There is some perfunctory ass-kicking in director Guy Ritchie's big-ticket adaptation of the venerable franchise, but old-school Holmes fans will be pleased to learn that the fisticuffs soon give way to a more traditional detective adventure. For all his foibles, Ritchie is well-versed in the art of free-wheeling, entertaining, London-based crime capers. And though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary characters have been freshened up for a contemporary audience, the film has a comfortingly traditional feel to it. The director is lucky to have an actor as talented as Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, and the pair make good use of the American's talents to create a Holmes resplendent in diffident, pipe-smoking, idiosyncratic glory. Though the film takes liberal creative license with the literary character's offhand reference to martial prowess, it's all very English, very Victorian (flying bowler hats, walking sticks, and bare-knuckle boxing), and more or less grounded in the century or so of lore that has sprung up around the world's greatest detective. Jude Law's John Watson is a more charismatic character this time around, defying the franchise's tradition, and the byzantine dynamics of the pair's close friendship are perfectly calibrated. The script, by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg, suffers a little by borrowing from other Victorian crime fictions better left untouched, but they get the title character's inimitable "science of deduction" down pat, and the plot is rife with twists, turns, and inscrutable skullduggery. (2:20) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Richardson)
A Single Man In this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel, Colin Firth plays George, a middle-aged gay expat Brit and college professor in 1962 Los Angeles. Months after the accidental death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover for 16 years, George still feels worse than bereft; simply waking each morning is agony. So on this particular day he has decided to end it all, first going through a series of meticulous preparations and discreet leave-takings that include teaching one last class and having supper with the onetime paramour (Julianne Moore) turned best friend who's still stuck on him. The main problem with fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford's first feature is that he directs it like a fashion designer, fussing over surface style and irrelevant detail in a story whose tight focus on one hard, real-world thing--grief--cries for simplicity. Not pretentious overpackaging, which encompasses the way his camera slavers over the excessively pretty likes of Nicholas Hoult as a student and Jon Kortajarena as a hustler, as if they were models selling product rather than characters, or even actors. (In fact Kortajarena is a male supermodel; the shocker is that Hoult is not, though Hugh Grant's erstwhile About a Boy co-star is so preening here you'd never guess.) Eventually Ford stops showing off so much, and A Single Man is effective to the precise degree it lets good work by Goode, Moore and especially the reliably excellent Firth unfold without too much of his terribly artistic interference. (1:39) Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, Shattuck. (Harvey)
The Spy Next Door (1:32) 1000 Van Ness.
Tooth Fairy (1:41) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.
*Trimpin: The Sound of Invention The titular German-raised composer/inventor, who goes by just his last name, is a Seattle-based innovator whose mixings of avant-garde art and hands-on technology re-awaken a sense of the marvelous in both pricey concert and family museum-goers. He emigrated because he "couldn't believe what high junk you had here." Since then (1979) he's made rusty old machine parts and other detritus into original instruments and spectacular sculptural installations (which also play music in a combination of digital/acoustic design). The through-line to Peter Esmonde's documentary is Trimpin's collaboration with the Kronos Quartet on a multimedia performance that stretches even those veteran avant-gardists' ability to roll with idiosyncratic minds. Like the treasured Rivers and Tides (2001) about equally unclassifiable artist Andy Goldsworthy, this lovely documentary manages to capture the intoxicating excitement and originality of an artist whose work by any rights should/could be best appreciated live. (1:19) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
*A Town Called Panic A Town Called Panic is that rare movie for everybody — or at least those old enough to read subtitles and not too wrong-headedly "grown-up" to snub a cartoon. It's a feature expansion of a Belgian "puppetoon" series originating in a film-school project in 1991; a decade later, fellow graduates Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar decided to turn it into a series of five-minute shorts that wound up on TV networks worldwide. The titular town is an idyllic patch of cartoon countryside whose primary stop-motion residents are a couple of households on adjacent hills. On one abides tantrum-prone Farmer Stephen, his wife Jeanine, and their livestock. The other houses our real protagonists, Cheval (a.k.a. Horse), Indian, and Cowboy. All look like the kinds of not-so-high-action figures kids possessed in the first half of the 20th century, before TV commercials made the toy market explode. Of course they're animate, albeit in the most endearingly klutzy fashion imaginable — though A Town Called Panic the movie is, like 1999's South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, a significant visual upgrade from the broadcast version that nonetheless retains the air of cheerful crudity on which the concept's charm largely rests. (1:15) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Up in the Air After all the soldiers' stories and the cannibalism canards of late, Up in the Air's focus on a corporate ax-man — an everyday everyman sniper in full-throttle downsizing mode — is more than timely; it's downright eerie. But George Clooney does his best to inject likeable, if not quite soulful, humanity into Ryan Bingham, an all-pro mileage collector who prides himself in laying off employees en masse with as few tears, tantrums, and murder-suicide rages as possible. This terminator's smooth ride from airport terminal to terminal is interrupted not only by a possible soul mate, fellow smoothie and corporate traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), but a young tech-savvy upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who threatens to take the process to new reductionist lows (layoff via Web cam) and downsize Ryan along the way. With Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman, who oversaw Thank You for Smoking (2005) as well as Juno (2007), is threatening to become the bard of office parks, Casual Fridays, khaki-clad happy hours, and fly-over zones. But Up in the Air is no Death of a Salesman, and despite some memorable moments that capture the pain of downsizing and the flatness of real life, instances of snappily screwball dialogue, and some more than solid performances by all (and in particular, Kendrick), he never manages to quite sell us on the existence of Ryan's soul. (1:49) California, Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Watercolors Picked-on, arty gayboy Danny (Tye Olson), who comes complete with fag-hag friend, finds his domestic horizons suddenly changed when mom's AA-met new boyfriend introduces her own teen son. Rebellious, broody Carter (Kyle Clare) proves willing to indulge Danny's ill-hidden desires to a surprising degree, but not be his friend at school, as he's a champion swimmer already at odds with his homophobic teammates. The sensitive lad's formative crush on dreamboat jock is pretty hoary gay-cinema stuff, and writer-director David Oliveras' feature recycles all the expected clichés without any originality, irony, or lightness of touch. Despite Greg Louganis and Karen Black in support roles, plus a few unintentional laughs, Watercolors is too ponderous even to be so-bad-it's-good. (1:54) Roxie. (Harvey)
When in Rome From the esteemed director of Ghost Rider (2007) and Daredevil (2003) comes a romantic comedy about a New York workaholic (Kristen Bell) who drunkenly takes magic coins from a fountain of love while on a trip to Rome. She soon finds herself pursued by a gaggle of goons keen on winning her affection, incited by the ancient Roman magic. With a supporting cast that includes Danny DeVito, Will Arnett, and That Guy From Napoleon Dynamite, there's way too much going on for anyone to get a decent amount of screen time to strut their stuff. The budding relationship between Bell and charming sports reporter Nick (Josh Duhamel) is largely predictable fluff but pleasant enough for those of you who like that sort of thing. However, if you're looking for a romantic pre-Valentine's Day date movie, be warned that When in Rome is generally more interested in slapstick than sweetness. (1:31) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Galvin)
*The White Ribbon In Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, his first German-language film in ten years, violence descends on a small northern German village mired in an atmosphere of feudalism and protestant repression. When, over the course of a year, a spate of unaccountable tragedies strikes almost every prominent figure as well as a powerless family of tenant farmers, the village becomes a crucible for aspersion and unease. Meanwhile, a gang of preternaturally calm village children, led by the eerily intense daughter of the authoritarian pastor, keep appearing coincidentally near the sites of the mysterious crimes, lending this Teutonic morality play an unsettling Children of the Corn undertone. Only the schoolteacher, perhaps by virtue of his outsider status, seems capable of discerning the truth, but his low rank on the social pecking order prevent his suspicions from being made public. A protracted examination on the nature of evil — and the troubling moral absolutism from which it stems. (2:24) Albany, Embarcadero. (Nicole Gluckstern)
The Young Victoria Those who envision the Victorian Age as one of restraint and repression will likely be surprised by The Young Victoria, which places a vibrant Emily Blunt in the title role. Her Queen Victoria is headstrong and romantic — driven not only by her desire to stand tall against the men who would control her, but also by her love for the dashing Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). To be honest, the story itself is nothing spectacular, even for those who have imagined a different portrait of the queen. But The Young Victoria is still a spectacle to behold: the opulent palaces, the stunning gowns, and the flawless Blunt going regal. Her performance is rich and nuanced — and her chemistry with Prince Albert makes the film. No, it doesn't leave quite the impression that 1998's Elizabeth did, but it's a memorable costume drama and romance, worthy of at least a moderate reign in theaters. (1:40) Shattuck. (Peitzman)
Youth in Revolt At first glance, Youth in Revolt's tragically misunderstood teenage protagonist Nick Twisp is typical of actor Michael Cera's repertoire of lovesick, dryly funny, impossibly sensitive and meek characters, although his particularly miserable family life does ratchet up the pathos. The Sinatra-worshipping Nick spends his time being shuttled between his bitter, oversexed divorced parents (Jean Smart and Steve Buscemi), who generally view him as an afterthought. When Nick meets Sheeni Saunders (newcomer Portia Doubleday), a Francophile femme fatale in training, she instructs him to "be bad." Desperately in lust, he readily complies, developing a malevolent, supremely confident alter ego, François Dillinger. With his bad teenage moustache, crisp white yachting ensemble, and slow-burn swagger, François conjures notions of a pubescent Patricia Highsmith villain crossed with a dose of James Spader circa Pretty in Pink. While the film itself is tonally wobbly (whimsical Juno-esque animated sequences don't really mesh with a guy surreptitiously drugging his girlfriend), Cera's startlingly self-assured, deadpan-funny performance saves it from devolving into smarmy camp. In an added bonus, his split-personality character plays like an ironic commentary on Cera's career so far — imagine Arrested Development's George-Michael Bluth setting fire to a large swath of downtown Berkeley instead of the family banana stand. (1:30) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Devereaux)