Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Matt Sussman. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For complete film listings, see www.sfbg.com.
Big Miracle Three gray whales trapped beneath the Beaufort Sea ice near the tiny town of Barrow, Alaska become an international cause célèbre through the uneasily combined efforts of an Anchorage reporter (John Krasinski), a Greenpeace activist (Drew Barrymore), a group of chainsaw-toting Inupiaq fishermen, a Greenpeace-hating oilman (Ted Danson), a Reagan-administration aide (Vinessa Shaw), a U.S. Army colonel (Dermot Mulroney), a pair of Minnesotan entrepreneurs (James LeGros and Rob Riggle) with a homemade deicing machine, and the crew of a Soviet icebreaking ship. The magical pixie dust of Hollywood has been sprinkled liberally over events that did indeed take place in 1988, but the media frenzy that blossoms out of one little local newscast is entirely believable. Everyone loves a good whale story, and this one is a tearjerker — though the kind that parents can bring their kids to without worrying overly much about subsequent weeks of deep-sea-set nightmares and having to explain terms like "critically endangered Western North Pacific gray whale" if they don't want to. The film makes clear that the weak-on-the-environment Reagan administration and Danson's oilman stand to gain some powerfully good PR from this feat, with potentially devastating ecological results down the line, and Barrymore's character gets to recite a quick litany of impending oceanic catastrophes. But this kind of talk is characterized as less useful than a nice, quick, visceral pull on the heartstrings, and while offering us the pleasurable sight of whales breaching in open water, the film avoids panning out too much farther, which may be why the miracle looks so big. (2:03) (Rapoport)
*Carol Channing: Larger Than Life See "Hello, Carol!" (1:27) Opera Plaza, Shattuck.
Chronicle A group of teens develop superpowers — fun times, until one of them turns to the dark side — in this sci-fi film shot in the ever-popular "found footage" style. (1:23)
*Come Back, Africa See "On the Township." (1:24) Roxie.
*Coriolanus For his film directing debut, Ralph Fiennes has chosen some pretty strong material: a military drama that is among Shakespeare's least popular works, not that adapting the Bard to the screen has ever been easy. (Look how many times Kenneth Branagh, an even more fabled Shakespearean Brit on stage than Ralph, has managed to fumble that task.) The titular war hero, raised to glory in battle and little else, is undone by political backstabbers and his own contempt for the "common people" when appointed to a governmental role requiring some diplomatic finesse. This turn of events puts him right back in the role he was born for: that of ruthless, furious avenger, no matter that now he aims to conquer the Rome he'd hitherto pledged to defend. The setting of a modern city in crisis (threadbare protesting masses vs. oppressive police state) works just fine, Elizabethan language and all, as does Fiennes' choice of a gritty contemporary action feel (using cinematographer Barry Ackroyd of 2006's United 93 and 2008's The Hurt Locker). He's got a strong supporting cast — particularly Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus' hawkish mother Volumnia — and an excellent lead in one Ralph Fiennes, who here becomes so warped by bloodthirst he seems to mutate into Lord Voldemort before our eyes, without need of any prosthetics. His crazy eyes under a razored bald pate are a special effect quite alarmingly inhuman enough. (2:03) Embarcadero. (Harvey)
Domain This moody French drama about the co-dependent relationship between a middle-aged-yet-still-glamorous alcoholic (Béatrice Dalle) and her just-coming-out teenage nephew, Pierre (Isaïe Sultan), had the distinction of topping John Waters' list of favorite movies in 2010 (Enter the Void was number two; Jackass 3D was number six). It's unclear if the Bordeaux-set Domain (released in 2009) would be hitting theaters now without Waters as its champion, but first-time feature director Patric Chiha — who wrote the screenplay especially for Dalle, a cult favorite for her role as a mentally disturbed beauty in 1986's Betty Blue — keeps the melodrama to a minimum, instead relying on subtle hints that cool, sophisticated Aunt Nadia's life is slowly disappearing into a bottle of white wine. Sultan is a little one-note, but Dalle proves heartbreaking as a good-time gal who doesn't quite have the strength to face her illness. (1:48) SF Film Society Cinema. (Eddy)
*The Innkeepers Horror fans who haven't yet discovered writer-director Ti West (2009's The House of the Devil) best get on it — this is a guy with an offbeat sense of humor who recognizes that formulaic stories and crappy CG are not necessary scary-movie ingredients. His latest concerns a rambling, Victorian-relic hotel about to shut its doors after one last weekend in business. Staffers Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are soon to be jobless, but they're more concerned with compiling evidence that the inn is haunted — as suggested by local legend and Luke's paranormal-themed website. Though there are some familiar tropes here (why is there always a creepy basement, and why won't scary-movie characters stay the hell out of it?), The Innkeepers does deliver a handful of genuine frights. Its main pleasure, though, is its tone, which is neither too jokey nor trying to take itself too seriously. Alongside the slacker duo played by Paxton and Healy are Kelly McGillis (last seen fighting zombies in 2010's Stake Land), who lends gravitas as a cranky psychic; and indie darling Lena Dunham (2010's Tiny Furniture), who has a brief but funny cameo as a neurotic barista. (1:42) Lumiere. (Eddy)
The New Metropolis Andrea Torrice's pair of half-hour docs explore an important yet oft-overlooked topic: America's "first suburbs," communities that sprang up just outside large cities in response to the post-war baby boom. Now that these towns are aging, and in need of infrastructure repair, they're finding that states would rather fund brand-new "inner rim suburbs" — where homebuyers reap the tax benefits of government-subsidized roads, for example, while enjoying their pre-fab McMansions. Both parts of the made-for-PBS doc offer hopeful solutions, particularly part two, The New Neighbors, which studies a multi-racial New Jersey community that is working together to insure "stable integration" in its neighborhoods. The results are remarkable, and inspiring. Both docs screen as part of a free event, "The New Metropolis: Building a Sustainable and Healthy Bay Area in the Age of Global Warming," featuring a post-film dialogue that frames issues raised by the films in a local context. Panelists include filmmaker Torrice; El Cerrito Councilmember Janet Aelson, a transit policy expert; regional design specialist Carl Anthony; and other community leaders. For more info and to register, visit el-cerrito.org/eqc/newmetropolis. (:54) Cerrito. (Eddy)
Norwegian Wood Haruki Murakami's global best-seller — a melancholic, late-1960s love story — hits the big screen thanks to Tran Anh Hung (1993's The Scent of the Green Papaya). Kenichi Matsuyama (2011's Gantz, 2005's Linda Linda Linda) and Rinko Kikuchi (2006's Babel) play Watanabe and Naoko, a young couple who reconnect in Tokyo after the suicide of his best friend, who was also her childhood sweetheart. There's love between them, but Naoko is mentally fragile; she flees town suddenly after they sleep together for the first time. Meanwhile, Watanabe meets the vivacious Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) — who is also already involved, though not quite so deeply as he — and they spark, though he's devoted to Naoko, and visits her at the rural hospital where she's (sort of) working through her emotional issues. Tran is an elegant filmmaker, and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood contributes an appropriately moody score. But amid all the breathless encounters, the uber-emo Norwegian Wood drags a bit at over two hours, and the film never quite crystallizes what it was about Murakami's book that inspired such international rapture. (2:13) Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
The Right to Love: An American Family This earnest doc springboards off the YouTube fame of the adorable, Star Wars-obsessed Leffew family, who started beaming videos from their Santa Rosa home (channel name: "Gay Family Values") as a response to attacks on marriage equality. Director Cassie Jaye wisely uses quite a bit of Bryan and Jay's own footage, which depicts a loving family going about their business under normal (family dinners) and special-occasion (excitedly plotting to leave tooth fairy loot under their young daughter's pillow) circumstances. But it's not all sunshine and rainbows, with the ugly reality of Prop 8 and, most troublingly, Bryan's own family members, staunchly set in their disapproval of same-sex marriage despite the highly functional example in their midst. This world-premiere Castro screening features in-person appearances by The Right to Love's director and subjects; visit www.R2Lmovie.com for additional information on the event. (1:30) Castro. (Eddy)
The Woman in Black Daniel Radcliffe plays a lawyer turned ghost buster in this Hammer Films thriller, adapted from Susan Hill's best-selling (and previously-adapted for stage and screen) novel. (1:36) Shattuck.
Albert Nobbs The titular character in Rodrigo Garcia's film is a butler of ideal bone-stiff propriety and subservience in a Dublin hotel whose well-to-do clients expect no less from the hired help. Even his fellow workers know almost nothing about middle aged Albert, and he's so dully harmless they don't even notice that lack. Yet Albert has a big secret: he is a she, played by Glenn Close, having decided this cross dressing disguise was the only way out of a Victorian pauper's life many years ago. Chance crosses Albert's path with housepainter Hubert (Janet McTeer), who turns out to be harboring precisely the same secret, albeit more merrily — "he" has even found happy domesticity with an understanding wife. Albert dreams of finding the same with a comely young housemaid (Mia Wasikowska), though she's already lost her silly head over a loutish but handsome handyman (Aaron Johnson) much closer to her age. This period piece is more interesting in concept rather than in execution, as the characters stay all too true to mostly one-dimensional types, and the story of minor intrigues and muffled tragedies springs very few surprises. It's an honorable but not especially rewarding affair that clearly exists mostly as a setting for Close's impeccable performance — and she knows it, having written the screenplay and produced; she's also played this part on stage before. Yet even that accomplishment has an airless feel; you never forget you're watching an actor "transform," and for all his luckless pathos, Albert is actually a pretty tedious fellow. (1:53) Shattuck. (Harvey)
The Grey Suicidally depressed after losing his spouse, Ottway (Liam Neeson) has to get pro-active about living in a hurry when his plane crashes en route to a oil company site in remotest Alaska. One of a handful of survivors, Ottway is the only one with an idea of the survival skills needed to survive in this subzero wilderness, including knowledge of wolf behavior — which is fortunate, given that the (rapidly dwindling) group of eight men has landed smack in the middle of a pack's den. Less fortunate is that these hairy, humongous predators are pretty fearless about attacking perceived intruders on their chosen terrain. Director and co-writer Joe Carnahan (2010's The A-Team, 2006's Smokin' Aces) labors to give this thriller some depth via quiet character-based scenes for Neeson and the other actors (including Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts and Dermot Mulroney) in addition to the expected bloodshed. The intended gravitas doesn't quite take, leaving The Grey and its imposing widescreen scenery (actually British Columbia) in a competent but unmemorable middle ground between serious, primal, life-or-death drama and a monster movie in wolf's clothing. (1:57) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Miss Bala You want to look away, but aided and abetted by director-cowriter Gerardo Naranjo's sober, elegant perspective on the ugly way that innocents get pulled into the Mexican drug wars, you must see it through. That's the case with Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), a naive Tijuana beauty contestant who signs up for the Miss Baja pageant with a friend, who almost immediately decides to game the system by partying with the police and DEA agents who could possibly help their chances of winning. Laura instantly falls into the hands of Lino (Noe Hernandez), a mafia boss in the process of crashing the party, and with his gang, killing all assembled. Desperately trying to find her friend, Laura takes a wrong turn that lands her back in the arms of Lino, who vows to help the would-be beauty queen and entangles her in his increasingly closed-in criminal world. Naranjo's cool-headed, almost stately compositions come as almost blessed relief as he pans slowly from the shadows, where you really don't want to know what's going on, to a girl, almost completely out of the frame, desperately wedging herself out a second floor window. His detachment undercuts the horror, while angel-faced, perpetually anguished-looking lead actress Sigman simultaneously compels and frustrates with her fatal errors in judgement as she grows more complicit and is literally caught in the crossfire between the rough gangsters who terrorize her and the government soldiers unafraid mete out punishment. The toughest part is watching Sigman's infuriatingly passive protagonist be used like a sexual puppet, but this raw and refined film — loosely based on the story of 2008's Miss Sinaloa, Laura Zuniga — doesn't pull many punches in indicting the pageant machine and the corrupt system that supports it. (1:53) Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)