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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.

SF INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL

The 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival runs March 11-21 at the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Viz Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Clay, 2261 Fillmore, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 South Second St, San Jose. Tickets (most shows $12) available at www.asianamericanmedia.org. All times pm.

THURS/11

Castro Today's Special 7.

FRI/12

Clay In the Manner of Cha Jung Hee 6:45. Raspberry Magic 9. The Forbidden Door 11:59.

Pacific Film Archive Independencia 7. The Message 8:40.

Sundance Kabuki Agrarian Utopia 3:45. Talentime 4:30. City of Life and Death 6:30. Fog 7. "Scene/Unseen" (shorts program) 9:15. "Sweet Dreams and Beautiful Nightmares" (shorts program) 9:30.

SAT/13

Clay China Sings! 1:30. "An Afternoon with Aasif Madvi" (on-stage interview) 4. Dear Lemon Lima 6:15. Prince of Tears 8:45.

Pacific Film Archive In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee 3:30. Like You Know it All 5:30. City of Life and Death 8.

Sundance Kabuki "3rd I South Asian International Shorts" (shorts program) noon. State of Aloha 1. A Village Called Versailles 2:15. Insiang 3:15. Ninoy Aquino and the Rise of People Power 4:30. God is D-ad 6. A Moment in Time 7. Agrarian Utopia 8:30. "Wandering, Wondering" (shorts program) 9:15.

Viz "Up Close and Personal with the Asian American Film Industry" (workshop) 1. Aoki 3:30. "Classic Filipino American Shorts" (shorts program) 6. Make Yourself at Home 8:30.

SUN/14

Castro The Housemaid noon. The Message 2:45. The People I've Slept With 6. Love Aaj Kal 9.

Clay What We Talk About When We... 1. Lt. Watanda and conversation with director Freida Lee Mock 3:15. Cooking with Stella 6. Like You Know It All 8:45.

Pacific Film Archive Lessons of the Blood 3. Dear Doctor 5:30. Prince of Darkness 8.

Sundance Kabuki "Blueprints for a Generation" (shorts program) 1. Manilatown is in the Heart 2. Wo Ai Ni Mommy 3:30. Independencia 4:30. Take Me Anywhere 6. Tehran Without Permission 6:30. Mundane History 8:15. Talentime 8:30.

Viz Hold the Sun 1:15. The Mountain Thief 6. Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest: Part 4 8:15.

MON/15

Sundance Kabuki Take Me Anywhere 4. Raspberry Magic 4:30. "Memory Vessels and Phantom Traces" (shorts program) 6:45. Manilatown is in the Heart 7. About Elly 9. Dear Lemon Lima 9:15.

Viz Fog 4:30. Hold the Sun 6:45. Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest: Part 5 9.

TUES/16

Pacific Film Archive Tehran Without Permission 7. The People I've Slept With 8:45.

Sundance Kabuki "Scene/Unseen" (shorts program) 4:15. A Moment in Time 5. State of Aloha 6:45. Lessons of the Blood 7. The Mountain Theif 9. Hana, Dul, Sed... 9:30.

Viz Make Yourself at Home 4:15. The Bonesetter's Daughter (work-in-progress) 6:40. A Village Called Versailles 9.

OPENING

Ajami You may recognize the title of Yaron Shoni and Scandar Copti's debut collaboration as one of five films nominated for a 2010 Academy Award in the Foreign Category. Though it didn't bring home the grand prize, Ajami remains a complex and affecting story about desperation and its consequences in a religiously-mixed town in Israel. As we follow the lives of four of Ajami's residents the narrative shifts perspective almost maddeningly, switching characters seemingly at the height of each story's action. But once all of the stories fully intersect, the final product has the distinction of feeling both meticulously calculated and completely natural. I was most impressed to learn that Shani and Copti prepared their actors with improvised role-playing rather than scripts. By withholding what was going to happen in a scene before shooting, we are treated to looks of surprise and emotion on actor's faces that never feel unnatural. Attaining such a level of realism may be Ajami's crowning achievement; it can't have been easy to make a foreign world feel so familiar. (2:00) Embarcadero. (Galvin)

*The Art of the Steal How do you put a price on something that's literally priceless? The Art of the Steal takes an absorbing look at the Barnes Collection, a privately-amassed array of Post-Impressionist paintings (including 181 Renoirs) worth billions — and the many people and corporate interests who schemed to control it. Founder Albert C. Barnes was an singular character who took pride in his outsider status; he housed his art in a specially-constructed gallery far from downtown Philadelphia's museum scene, and he emphasized education and art appreciation first and foremost. But he had no heirs, and after his death in 1951, opportunists began circling his massive collection; the slippery political and legal dealings that have unfolded since then are nearly as jaw-dropping as Barnes' prize paintings. Philly documentarian Don Argott has a doozy of a subject here, and his skillful, even suspenseful film does it justice. (1:41) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

*The Good Guy Romantic comedies often have very simple premises predicated on familiarity — you know why you go to see them, and they make sure to deliver. Much of the early goings of The Good Guy feel clichéd, but as it turns out, that's kind of the point. Tommy (Scott Porter), a charming Wall Street investment banker, has been dating Beth (Alexis Bledel), and they're taking things slow and sweet. When he loses one of his top sellers to another firm, Tommy decides to be a nice guy and give bumbling temp Daniel (Bryan Greenberg) a chance to shine; he also takes the time to teach him how to dress and pick up girls. But when Daniel decides to use his newfound skills on Beth &ldots; well, you see the triangle coming a mile away. How it all unfolds, however, proves far less obvious. In his writing-directing debut, Julio Depietro delivers what is very much a writer's film, an experiment in form and expectation. Attempts to capture the culture of a Wall Street investment firm fare less well, but as a skewing of movie archetypes and presumptions, The Good Guy is surprisingly satisfying. It won't change the rom-com game, but it's something a little different in a genre that could use a kick in the pants. (1:31) Opera Plaza. (Galvin)

Green Zone Nope, it's not a new Jason Bourne movie, but it is an action thriller directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Matt Damon. (1:55) California, Piedmont.

Our Family Wedding This multi-culti comedy boasts an all-star cast, including Forest Whitaker, America Ferrara, Regina King, Taye Diggs, and Carlos Mencia. (1:41) tk.

Remember Me Robert Pattinson attempts to prove his range beyond suckin' blood. (2:08) tk.

She's Out of My League Tale as old as time: beauty and the geek. (1:44) Oaks.

*Sweetgrass See "Wild Yonder." (1:41) Lumiere, Shattuck.

ONGOING

*"Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Animated" Just because it's animation doesn't mean it's just for kids. Like the live-action Oscar-nominated shorts, this year's animated selections have got range, from the traditionally child-friendly to downright vulgar. Skewing heavily towards CG fare, the shorts vary from a Looney Tunes-style chase for an elderly woman's soul (The Lady and the Reaper) to the Wallace and Gromit BBC special, A Matter of Loaf and Death. Most entertaining by far is Logorama, an action-packed tale set in a world populated by familiar trademarked logos. Any film that casts the Michelin man as a garbage-mouthed cop on the case of a renegade Ronald McDonald deserves to win all the awards in the universe. (1:35) Shattuck. (Galvin)

*"Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Live Action" Aren't you tired of wondering what all the fuss is about when the Academy awards their Oscar for Best Short? In an effort to give audiences a chance to play along, Shorts International is screening these less-seen works together. Though one or two of the five nominated films threaten to adhere to the Academy's penchant for either heartbreaking or heartwarming, the majority are surprisingly oddball picks. Perhaps most odd of all is Denmark/U.S. submission The New Tenants. Feeling a tad forced but no less funny for it, Tenants draws on celebrities like Vincent D'Onofrio and comedian Kevin Corrigan to bring life to this surreal adaptation by Anders Thomas Jensen (2006's After the Wedding). My pick would be Sweden's gloriously goofy Instead of Abracadabra, which stars a stay-at-home slacker as he puts on a magic show for his father's birthday. Obviously, some selections are going to be better than others, but hey, they're shorts. If you don't like one, just wait 10 minutes and you'll find yourself somewhere completely different. (1:35) Shattuck. (Galvin)

Alice in Wonderland Tim Burton's take on the classic children's tale met my mediocre expectations exactly, given its months of pre-release hype (in the film world, fashion magazines, and even Sephora, for the love of brightly-colored eyeshadows). Most folks over a certain age will already know the story, and much of the dialogue, before the lights go down and the 3-D glasses go on; it's up to Burton and his all-star cast (including numerous big-name actors providing voices for animated characters) to make the tale seem newly enthralling. The visuals are nearly as striking as the CG, with Helena Bonham Carter's big-headed Red Queen a particularly marvelous human-computer creation. But Wonderland suffers from the style-over-substance dilemma that's plagued Burton before; all that spooky-pretty whimsy can't disguise the film's fairly tepid script. Teenage Alice (Mia Wasikowska) displaying girl-power tendencies is a nice, if not surprising, touch, but Johnny Depp's grating take on the Mad Hatter will please only those who were able to stomach his interpretation of Willy Wonka. (1:48) Castro, Empire, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

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) Oaks. (Daniel Alvarez)

Brooklyn's Finest "Really? I mean, really?" asked the moviegoer beside me as the final freeze-frame of Brooklyn's Finest slapped our eyeballs. Yes, that's the sound of letdown, despite the fact that Brooklyn's Finest initially resembled a promisingly gritty juggling act in the mode of The Wire and Cop Land (1997), Taxi Driver (1976) and Training Day (2001). Bitter irony flows from the title — and from the lives, loves, bad habits, pressure-cooker stress, and unavoidable moral dilemmas of three would-be everyday cops, all occupying several different rungs on a food chain where right and wrong have an unpleasant way of switching sides. Eddie (Richard Gere) is the veteran officer just biding his time till he gets his pension, all while comforting himself with the meager sensuous attentions of hooker Chantel (Shannon Kane). Sal (Ethan Hawke) is the bad detective, stealing from the dealers to fund a dream home for his growing family with Angela (Lili Taylor). Tango (Don Cheadle) is the undercover detective who has cultivated friendships with dealers like Caz (Wesley Snipes) and sacrificed his marriage for a long-promised promotion from his lieutenant (Will Patton) and his superior (Ellen Barkin, in likely the most misogynist portrayal of a lady with a badge to date). You spend most of Brooklyn's Finest waiting for these cops to collide in the most unfortunate, messiest way possible, but instead the denouement leaves will leave one wondering about unresolved threads and feeling vaguely unsatisfied. In any case, director Antoine Fuqua and company seem to pride themselves on their tough-minded if at times cartoonish take on law enforcement, with Hawke in particular turning in a memorably OTT and anguished performance. (2:13) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Chun)

Cop Out I think there was a plot to Cop Out — something involving a stolen baseball card and a drug ring and Jimmy (Bruce Willis) trying to pay for his daughter's wedding. Frankly, it's irrelevant. Kevin Smith's take on the buddy cop genre, which partners Willis with Tracy Morgan, is more a string of dick jokes and toilet humor than anything else. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Sometimes it's nice to sit back and turn off your brain, as Morgan's Paul describes his bowel movements or when hapless thief Dave (Seann William Scott) begins imitating everything our heroes say. At the same time, Cop Out is easily forgettable: Smith directed the film, but writing duties went to the Cullen Brothers of TV's Las Vegas. All judgments about that series aside, the script lacks Smith's trademark blend of heart and vulgarity. Even Mallrats (1995) had a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying end. Without Smith as auteur, Cop Out is worth a few laughs but destined for the bargain bin. (1:50) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

The Crazies Disease and anti-government paranoia dovetail in this competent yet overwhelmingly non-essential remake of one of George A. Romero's second-tier spook shows. In a small Iowa hamlet overseen by a benevolent sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) and his pregnant wife (Radha Mitchell), who's also the town doctor, a few odd incidents snowball into all-out chaos when a mysterious, unmarked plane crashes into the local water supply. Before long, the few residents who aren't acting like homicidal maniacs are rounded up by an uber-aggressive military invasion. Though our heroes convey frantic panic as they try to figure out what the hell is going on, The Crazies never achieves full terror mode. It's certainly watchable, and even enjoyable at times. But memorable? Not in the slightest. (1:41) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

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) Embarcadero, Empire, Piedmont, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

*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) SF Center, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

Formosa Betrayed The turbulent modern history of Taiwan is certainly deserving of increased international attention, but writer-producer Will Tao's strategy of structuring Formosa Betrayed as a political thriller is too often at odds with imparting facts and information. Set in the early 80s, the film thrusts viewers into an unraveling government conspiracy that has FBI agent Jake Kelly (James Van Der Beek) trailing the suspected murderers of a Chicago professor to Taipei. Initially, selling Dawson's Creek alum Van Der Beek as an FBI agent seems a strange choice, but undoubtedly his name will fill seats, and Formosa Betrayed is shooting for maximum awareness. There are some scenes of real tension, but just when you are beginning to get wrapped up in the inherent drama of conspiracy and murder, the suspense is interrupted by a long-winded bout of soapboxing. Formosa Betrayed might enlighten some audiences about Taiwan's controversial history, but it too often does so at the expense of its own watchability. You start to wonder why Tao didn't just make a documentary. (1:43) SF Center. (Galvin)

*The Ghost Writer Roman Polanski's never-ending legal woes have inspired endless debates on the interwebs and elsewhere; they also can't help but add subtext to the 76-year-old's new film, which is chock full o' anti-American vibes anyway. It's also a pretty nifty political thriller about a disgraced former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) who's hanging out in his Martha's Vineyard mansion with his whip-smart, bitter wife (Olivia Williams) and Joan Holloway-as-ice-queen assistant (Kim Cattrall), plus an eager young biographer (Ewan McGregor) recently hired to ghost-write his memoirs. But as the writer quickly discovers, the politician's past contains the kinds of secrets that cause strange cars with tinted windows to appear in one's rearview mirror when driving along deserted country roads. Polanski's long been an expert when it comes to escalating tension onscreen; he's also so good at adding offbeat moments that only seem tossed-off (as when the PM's groundskeeper attempts to rake leaves amid relentless sea breezes) and making the utmost of his top-notch actors (Tom Wilkinson and Eli Wallach have small, memorable roles). Though I found The Ghost Writer's ZOMG! third-act revelation to be a bit corny, I still didn't think it detracted from the finely crafted film that led up to it. (1:49) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (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) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*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, Empire, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

*Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 The dawn of the Me Decade saw the largest-ever music festival to that date —albeit one that was such a logistical, fiscal and hygenic disaster that it basically killed the development of similar events for years. This was the height of "music should be free" sentiments in the counterculture, with the result that many among the estimated six to eight hundred thousand attendees who overwhelmed this small U.K. island showed up without tickets, refused to pay, and protested in ways that included tearing down barrier walls and setting fires. It was a bummer, man. But after five days of starry acts often jeered by an antsy crowd — including everyone from Joni, Hendrix, Dylan, Sly Stone, the Who and the Doors to such odd bedfellows as Miles Davis, Tiny Tim, Voices of East Harlem, Supertramp, and Gilberto Gil — Canadian troubador Cohen appeared at 4 a.m. on a Monday to offer balm. Like director Murray Lerner's 1995 Message to Love, about the festival as a whole, this footage has been shelved for decades, but it bounces right back from the dead — albeit soothingly. Cohen seems blissed out, pupils like black marbles, his between-song musings are as poetical as those fascinating lyrics, and his voice is suppler than the rasp it would soon become. Kris Kristofferson, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and bandmate Bob Johnson offer reflections 40 years later. But the main attraction is obviously Cohen, who is magnetic even if an hour of (almost) nothing but ballads reveals how stylistically monotone his songwriting could be. (1:04) Roxie. (Harvey)

*The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers For many, Daniel Ellsberg is a hero — a savior of American First Amendment rights and one of the most outspoken opponents of the Vietnam war. But as this documentary (recently nominated for an Academy Award) shows, it's never an an easy decision to take on the U.S. government. Ellsberg himself narrates the film and details his sleepless nights leading up to the leak of the Pentagon Papers — the top secret government study on the Vietnam war — to the public. Though there are few new developments in understanding the particulars of the war or the impact the release of the Papers had on ending the conflict, the film allows audiences to experience the famous case from Ellsberg's point of view, adding a fresh and poignantly human element to the events; it's a political documentary that plays more like a character drama. Whether you were there when it happened or new to the story, there is something to be appreciated from this tale of a man who fell out of love with his country and decided to do something about it. (1:34) Lumiere, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Galvin)

*North Face You'll never think of outerwear the same way again — and in fact you might be reaching for your fleece and shivering through the more harrowing climbing scenes of this riveting historical adventure based on a true tale. Even those who consider themselves less than avid fans of outdoor survival drama will find their eyes frozen, if you will, on the screen when it comes to this retelling/re-envisioning of this story, legendary among mountaineers, of climbers, urged on by Nazi propaganda, to tackle the last "Alpine problem." At issue: the unclimbed north face of Switzerland's Eiger, a highly dangerous and unpredictable zone aptly nicknamed "Murder Wall." Two working-class friends, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann of 2008's Jerichow) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) — here portrayed as climbing fiends driven to reach summits rather than fight for the Nazis — take the challenge. There to document their achievement, or certain death, is childhood friend and Kurz's onetime sweetheart Luise (Johanna Wokalek, memorable in 2008's The Baader Meinhof Complex), eager to make her name as a photojournalist while fending off the advances of an editor (Ulrich Tukur) seeking to craft a narrative that positions the contestants as model Aryans. But the climb — and the Eiger, looming like a mythical ogre — is the main attraction here. Filmmaker Philipp Stölzl brings home the sheer heart-pumping exhilaration and terror associated with the sport — and this specific, legendarily tragic climb — by shooting in the mountains with his actors and crew, and the result goes a way in redeeming an adventure long-tainted by its fascist associations. (2:01) Smith Rafael. (Chun)

*Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief It would be easy to dismiss Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief as an unabashed Harry Potter knock-off. Trio of kids with magic powers goes on a quest to save the world in a Chris Columbus adaptation of a popular young adult series — sound familiar? But The Lightning Thief is sharp, witty, and a far cry from Columbus' joyless adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001). Logan Lerman stars as Percy Jackson, the illegitimate son of Poseidon and Catherine Keener. Once he learns his true identity at Camp Half-Blood, he sets off on a quest with his protector, a satyr named Grover, and potential love interest Annabeth, daughter of Athena. Along the way, they bump into gods and monsters from Greek mythology — with a twist. Think Percy using his iPhone to fight Medusa (Uma Thurman), or a land of the Lotus-Eaters disguised as a Lady Gaga-blasting casino. A worthy successor to Harry Potter? Too soon to say, but The Lightning Thief is at least a well-made diversion. (1:59) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

*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) Roxie, Shattuck. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

*Prodigal Sons Some of the best documentaries in recent years have been hijacked by their subject — or even by another subject the filmmaker wasn't planning on. Prodigal Sons was supposed to be Kimberly Reed's story about a high-school quarterback, basketball captain, class president, and valedictorian born to a family of Montana farmers, returning for a reunion 20 years later — albeit as a fully transitioned male-to-female transgender person attending with her female lover. That would have made for an interesting movie. What makes Sons a fascinating one is that Reed finds the camera focus stolen almost right away by a crisis in progress. Its name is Marc, adopted "problem child" of the McKerrow family (Kimberly changed her surname post-op). It's not so much that Marc grabs the spotlight out of a jealous need for attention, though that may be a factor. It's that he's still trapped in a sibling relationship that for her ceased to exist — at least in its original form — decades ago. Running a gamut from harrowing to miraculous, the remarkable Prodigal Sons grows stranger than fiction when abandoned-at-birth Marc discovers something jaw-dropping about his ancestry. Suffice it to say, this results in a trip to Croatia and biological link to some of Hollywood's starriest legends. If Kimberly's story is about repression forcing a mentally healthy transformation, Marc wrests us away from that inspirational self-portrait. He renders Sons a challenging, head-on glimpse of mental illness with no easy answers in sight. (1:26) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*A Prophet Filmmaker Jacques Audiard has described his new film, A Prophet, as "the anti-Scarface." Yet much like Scarface (1983), A Prophet bottles the heady euphoria that chases the empowerment of the powerless and the rise of the long-shot loner on the margins. In its almost-Dickensian attention to detail, devotion to its own narrative complexity, and passion for cinematic poetry, A Prophet rises above the ordinary and, through the prism of genre, finds its own power. The supremely opportunistic, pragmatically Machiavellian intellectual and spiritual education of a felon is the chief concern of here. Played by Tahar Rahim with guileless, open-faced charisma, Malik is half-Arab and half-Corsican — and distrusted or despised by both camps in the pen. When he lands in jail for his six-year sentence, he's 19, illiterate, friendless, and vulnerable. His deal with the devil — and means of survival — arrives with Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), temporarily locked up before his testifies against the mob. Corsican boss Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) wants him dead, and Malik is tagged to penetrate Reyeb's cell with a blade hidden in mouth. After Malik's gory rebirth, it turns out that the teenager's a seer in more ways than one. From his low-dog position, he can eyeball the connections linking the drugs entering the prison to those circulating outside, as well as the machinations intertwining the Arab and Corsican syndicates. It's no shock that when Cesar finds his power eroding and arranges prison leaves for his multilingual crossover star that Malik serves not only his Corsican master, but also his own interests, and begins to build a drug empire rivaling his teacher's. Throughout his pupil's progress, Audiard demonstrates a way with Henri Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment, and when Malik finally breaks with his Falstaffian patriarch, it makes your heart skip a beat in a move akin to the title of the director's last film. This Eurozone/Obama-age prophet is all about the profit — but he's imbued with grace, even while gaming for ill-gotten gain. (2:29) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

Shutter Island Director Martin Scorsese and muse du jour Leonardo DiCaprio draw from oft-filmed novelist Dennis Lehane (2003's Mystic River, 2007's Gone Baby Gone) for this B-movie thriller that, sadly, offers few thrills. DiCaprio's a 1950s U.S. marshal summoned to a misty island that houses a hospital for the criminally insane, overseen by a doctor (Ben Kingsley) who believes in humane, if experimental, therapy techniques. From the get-go we suspect something's not right with the G-man's own mind; as he investigates the case of a missing patient, he experiences frequent flashbacks to his World War II service (during which he helped liberate a concentration camp), and has recurring visions of his spooky dead wife (Michelle Williams). Whether or not you fall for Shutter Island's twisty game depends on the gullibility of your own mind. Despite high-quality performances and an effective, if overwrought, tone of certain doom, Shutter Island stumbles into a third act that exposes its inherently flawed and frustrating storytelling structure. If only David Lynch had directed Shutter Island — it could've been a classic of mindfuckery run amok. Instead, Scorsese's psychological drama is sapped of any mystery whatsoever by its stubbornly literal conclusion. (2:18) California, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

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) Bridge, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (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) Oaks, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Valentine's Day Genre moviemaking loves it a gimmick — and nothing gets more greeting-card gimmicky or sell-by-date corny than the technique of linking holidays and those mandatory date nights out. You're shocked that nobody thought of this chick flick notion sooner. Valentine's Day is no My Bloody Valentine (1981, 2009) — it aspires to an older, more yupscale lady's choice-crowd than the screaming teens that are ordinarily sought out by horror flicks. And its A-list-studded cast — including Oscar winners Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, and Kathy Bates as well as seemingly half of That '70s Show's players — is a cut above TV tween starlets' coming-out slasher slumber parties. It partly succeeds: bringing Valentine's haters into the game as well as lovers is a smart ploy (although who believes that the chic-cheekbones-and-fulsome-lips crew of Jessica Biel and Jennifer Garner would be dateless on V-Day?), and the first half is obviously structured around the punchlines that punctuate each scene — a winning if contrived device. Juggling multiple storylines with such a whopping cast lends an It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) quality to the Jessica- and Taylor-heavy shenanigans. And some tales get a wee bit more weight than others (the charisma-laden scenes with Bradley Cooper and Roberts cry out for added screentime), creating a strangely lopsided effect that adds unwanted tedium to an affair that should be as here-today-gone-tomorrow as a Whitman's Sampler. (1:57) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

*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) Opera Plaza. (Nicole Gluckstern)

The Wolfman Remember 2000's Hollow Man, an update of 1933's The Invisible Man so over-the-top that it could only have been brought to you by a post-Starship Troopers (1997) Paul Verhoeven? Fear not, Lon Chaney, Jr. fanclub members — The Wolfman sticks fairly true to its 1941 predecessor, setting its tale of a reluctant lycanthrope in Victorian England, where there are plenty of gypsies, foggy moors, silver bullets, angry villagers, and the like. Benicia Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, who's given an American childhood backstory to explain his out-of-place stateside accent (and a Mediterranean-looking mother to make up for the fact that he's supposed to be the son of Anthony Hopkins). Soon after returning to his estranged father's crumbling manor, Lawrence is chomped by a you-know-what. Next full moon, Lawrence realizes what he's become; murderous rampages and much angst ensue. (He's kind of like the Incredible Hulk, except much hairier). Director Joe Johnston (a tech whiz who worked on the original Star Wars movies, and helmed 2001's Jurassic Park III), doesn't offer much innovation on the werewolf legend (or any scares, for that matter). But the effects, including transformation scenes and claw-tastic gore, are predictably top-notch. (2:05) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)

The Yellow Handkerchief The Yellow Handkerchief is one of those quiet, character-driven dramas that get mistaken for subtle classics. It's not bad, just bland. In fact, there's something pleasant about the way the film's three unlikely friends forge a lasting bond, but the movie as a whole is never quite that cohesive. William Hurt stars as Brett Hanson, an ex-con with a dark past. (The Yellow Handkerchief tries to make this mysterious by way of vague flashbacks, but the audience gets there faster than the film does.) His inadvertent sidekicks are the troubled Martine (Kristen Stewart) and the awkward Gordy (Eddie Redmayne). The talented cast, rounded out by Maria Bello as the wife Brett left behind, does solid work with the material, but no one really stands out enough to elevate The Yellow Handkerchief to greatness. Redmayne is perhaps the most impressive, ditching his British accent to play a character so quirky, he's almost Rain Man. But after taking a step back, the big picture is muddled. People are fascinating, but what does it all mean? (1:36) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

REP PICKS

*"Ben Russell: Let Each One Go Where He May" See "Wild Yonder." San Francisco Cinematheque.<\!s>

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