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.
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 Artist With the charisma-oozing agility of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way past opponents and the supreme confidence of Rudolph Valentino leaning, mid-swoon, into a maiden, French director-writer Michel Hazanavicius hits a sweet spot, or beauty mark of sorts, with his radiant new film The Artist. In a feat worthy of Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, Hazanavicius juggles a marvelously layered love story between a man and a woman, tensions between the silents and the talkies, and a movie buff's appreciation of the power of film — embodied in particular by early Hollywood's union of European artistry and American commerce. Dashing silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, who channels Fairbanks, Flynn, and William Powell — and won this year's Cannes best actor prize) is at the height of his career, adorable Jack Russell by his side, until the talkies threaten to relegate him to yesterday's news. The talent nurtured in the thick of the studio system yearns for real power, telling the newspapers, "I'm not a puppet anymore — I'm an artist," and finances and directs his own melodrama, while his youthful protégé Peppy Miller (Bérénice Béjo) becomes a yakky flapper age's new It Girl. Both a crowd-pleasing entertainment and a loving précis on early film history, The Artist never checks its brains at the door, remaining self-aware of its own conceit and its forebears, yet unashamed to touch the audience, without an ounce of cynicism. (1:40) California, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Beauty and the Beast 3D (1:24) 1000 Van Ness..
Carnage Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) have arrived in the apartment of Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) to discuss proper follow-up to a playground incident in which one of their children went ballistic on another. But this grownup discussion about conduct between children quickly degenerates into a four-way living room sandbox melee, as the couples reveal snobbish disdain toward one another's presumed values and the cracks in each marriage are duly bared. Roman Polanski's unnecessary screen translation of Yasmina Reza's play remains awkwardly rooted to the stage, where its contrivances would have seemed less obvious, or at least apt for the medium. There's some fun to be had watching these actors play variously self-involved, accusatory Manhattanites who enact a very lite Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? amid way too much single-malt Scotch ingestion. But the text gets crudely farcical after a while, and its critiques of the characters' shallow materialism, bad parenting, knee-jerk liberal empathy, privileged class indifference, etc. would resonate more if those faults weren't so cartoonishly drawn. In the end, Carnage's high-profile talent obliterates rather than illuminates the material — it's like aiming a bazooka at a napkin. (1:20) Shattuck. (Harvey)
Contraband A relative gem among the dross of January film releases, Contraband works best when it doesn't take itself too seriously, and flounders when it does. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, the man behind much of Iceland's popular filmography (2006's Jar City, 2002's The Sea, 2000's 101 Reykjavik), this no-frills genre picture stars Mark Wahlberg as Chris Farraday, an ex-smuggler-turned-family-man who must give the life of crime another go-round when his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) find themselves in thrall to a nasty, drug-addicted criminal (an especially methy-looking Giovanni Ribisi). If you've seen any of these One Last Heist movies, you won't be surprised that Chris' operation goes completely awry — in Panama, on a cargo captained by J.K. Simmons, no less. Ribisi is as simpering and gleefully evil a caricature as they come, and as Chris' best friend, brooding Ben Foster's unexpected about-face in the film's last third is pretty watchable. I'm not exactly saying you should go and see it, but I'm not stopping you, either. (1:49) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Ryan Lattanzio)
A Dangerous Method Cool and chatty (unsurprisingly, given its subject matter and the fact that it's based on a play and a novel), David Cronenberg's latest begins in 1904 Zurich as a shrieking patient (Keira Knightley) is escorted into the care of psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Dr. Jung, an admirer of Sigmund Freud, tests the "talking cure" on the woman, who turns out to be the fiercely intelligent and conveniently beautiful Sabina Spielrein. An attraction, both intellectual and sexual, soon develops, no matter that Jung is Sabina's doctor, or that he happens to be married to a prim wife whose family wealth keeps him in boats and lake houses. Meanwhile, Jung and Freud (an excellent Viggo Mortensen) begin corresponding, eventually meeting and forming a friendship that's tested first when Sabina comes between them, and later when Jung expresses a growing interest in fringe pursuits like parapsychology. The scenes between Freud and Jung are A Dangerous Method's most intriguing — save those brief few involving Vincent Cassel as a doctor-turned-patient who advises Jung to "never repress anything" — but the film is mostly concerned with Jung's various Sabina-related dramas. Pity that this is a tightly-wound Fassbender's least dynamic performance of the year, and that Knightley, way over the top in Sabina's hysterical scenes, telegraphs "casting mistake" from the get-go. (1:39) Albany, Shattuck. (Eddy)
*The Descendants Like all of Alexander Payne's films save 1996 debut Citizen Ruth, The Descendants is an adaptation, this time from Kaui Hart Hemmings' excellent 2007 novel. Matt King (George Clooney) is a Honolulu lawyer burdened by various things, mostly a) being a haole (i.e. white) person nonetheless descended from Hawaiian royalty, rich in real estate most natives figure his kind stole from them; and b) being father to two children by a wife who's been in a coma since a boating accident three weeks ago. Already having a hard time transitioning from workaholic to hands-on dad, Matt soon finds out this new role is permanent, like it or not — spouse Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie, just briefly seen animate) will not wake up. The Descendants covers the few days in which Matt has to share this news with Elizabeth's loved ones, mostly notably Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as disparately rebellious teen and 10-year-old daughters. Plus there's the unpleasant discovery that the glam, sporty, demanding wife he'd increasingly seemed "not enough" for had indeed been looking elsewhere. When has George Clooney suggested insecurity enough to play a man afraid he's too small in character for a larger-than-life spouse? But dressed here in oversized shorts and Hawaiian shirts, the usually suave performer looks shrunken and paunchy; his hooded eyes convey the stung joke's-on-me viewpoint of someone who figures acknowledging depression would be an undeserved indulgence. Payne's film can't translate all the book's rueful hilarity, fit in much marital backstory, or quite get across the evolving weirdness of Miller's Scottie — though the young actors are all fine — but the film's reined-in observations of odd yet relatable adult and family lives are all the more satisfying for lack of grandiose ambition. (1:55) Balboa, California, Piedmont, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
*Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone This doc offers a lively, revealing look at SoCal ska-punk rockers Fishbone, a band that formed circa 1979 in a San Fernando Valley junior high newly filled with bussed-in South Central kids. In its heyday, Fishbone enjoyed cult success with hits like "Party at Ground Zero" and the tune that gives the film its title; Everyday Sunshine speaks to Fishbone's broad appeal, as famous faces chime in to reminisce (and longtime fan Laurence Fishburne narrates), but it also illuminates some of the reasons its members never became megastars. Codirectors Chris Metzler (a San Francisco resident best-known for 2004's Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea) and Lev Anderson spent months on the road with the band, capturing the infectious energy of its live shows in addition to behind-the-scenes tension. Past members add their voices, but the main protagonists are bassist-vocalist Norwood Fisher and lead vocalist-saxophone player Angelo Moore. Their intertwining stories offer a poignant portrait of creative soulmates who've weathered many storms (personality conflicts, legal and money troubles, an industry that didn't know how to categorize them) without once giving up on their music. In addition to its compelling story, the film's quirkier stylistic choices, including animation, lift Everyday Sunshine above the crowded field of traditional music docs. (1:47) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Director Stephen Daldry is no stranger to guiding actors to Oscars; his previous two films, 2008's The Reader and 2002's The Hours, both earned Best Actress statuettes for their stars. So it's no surprise that Sandra Bullock's performance is the best thing about this big-screen take on Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel, which is otherwise hamstrung by twee, melodramatic elements that (presumably) translated poorly from page to screen. One year after 9/11, a Manhattan mother (Bullock) and her nine-year-old son Oskar (newcomer Thomas Horn, a youth Jeopardy! champ) are, unsurprisingly, still mourning their beloved husband and father (Tom Hanks), who was killed on "the worst day." But therapy be damned — Oskar takes to the streets, knocking on the doors of strangers, searching for the lock that will fit a mysterious key his dad left behind. Carrying a tambourine. Later befriending an elderly man (Max von Sydow) whose true identity is immediately obvious, despite the fact that he writes pithy notes instead of speaking. In its attempts to explore grief through the eyes of a borderline-autistic kid ("tests were inconclusive," according to Oskar), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is so forced-quirky it makes the works of Wes Anderson look like minimalist manifestos; that it bounces its maudlin, cliché-baiting plot off the biggest tragedy in recent American history is borderline offensive. Actually offensive, however, is the fact that Daldry — who also knows from young thespians, having helmed 2000's Billy Elliot — positions the green Horn (ahem) in such a complex role. The character of Oskar is, as written, nauseatingly precocious; adding shrill and stridently unsympathetic to the mix renders the entire shebang nigh-unwatchable, despite the best efforts of supporting players like Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright. (2:09) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
The Flowers of War Based on the novel The 13 Women of Nanjing by Geling Yan (Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl), Flowers of War sees director Zhang Yimou probing the still-painful wounds of the Nanjing Massacre. Here, he gets to pull out his customary sensuous fascinations — jewel-tone colors that pop unexpectedly amid gray wartime rubble, reams of floating textiles, and girls, girls, girls — to intriguing if patchy effect. The touch-and-go quality of the production is understandable considering the clash of acting styles generated by our players: crass good-old-boy American-in-China mortician John (Method-ically played by Christian Bale), and the clutch of look-alike Catholic school girls and cadre of call girls, the latter headed up by slyly Veronica Lake-ish vamp Yu Mo (Ni Ni). John has been called to bury a priest at the Nanjing cathedral, smack in the middle of the Japanese invasion, and despite the corpses littering the street, all he seems to care about is getting paid and running off. Somehow the sweet little helpless schoolgirls convert him into a believer, enough to make him don the priest's garb and try to protect them from crazed Japanese soldiers intent on literally carrying out the Rape of Nanjing. Meanwhile the ladies of the evening, hiding out in the basement against everyone's wishes, work their wiles to get him to help them escape. Armed with a budget that makes this the most expensive film in Chinese history, Zhang embraces this collision of soldiers, cultures, contemporary Western war movies, and popular Chinese entertainments in the stylized mode of a archetypal Chinese melodrama. Though it's far from his best work, Flowers still draws you in while imparting the horrors of an ugly war that pulled the most innocent — and beautifully decadent — civilians into its wake. (2:21) Four Star. (Chun)
*The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo The meeting of Stieg Larsson's first "Millennium" book and David Fincher promised fireworks, as he's a director who can be equally vivid and exacting with just the elements key to the series: procedural detail, obsession, violence, tweaked genre conventions, mind games, haunted protagonists, and expansive story arcs. But perhaps because this possible franchise launch had to be rushed into production to ride the Larsson wave, what should have been a terrific matchup turns out to be just a good one — superior in some stylistic departments (notably Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' pulsing score), but overall neither an improvement nor a disappointment in comparison to the uninspired but effective 2009 Swedish film version. Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, the muckraking Stockholm journalist whose public disgrace after a failed expose of a suspect corporate tycoon makes him the perfect candidate for an unexpected assignment: staying sequestered in the wealthy, warring Vanger clan's island home to secretly investigate a teenage girl's disappearance and presumed murder 40 years ago. His testy helpmate is the singular Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), antisocial hacker, researcher, and ex-mental patient par excellence. Nearly three hours long, the compressed, slightly altered (get over it) storyline nonetheless feels rushed at times; Fincher manages the rare feat of making mostly internet research exciting in filmic terms, yet oddly the book's more shocking episodes of sex and/or mayhem don't have the memorable impact one might expect from him. The leads are fine, as is the big support cast of recognizable faces (Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Robin Wright, etc.) But the knockout suspense, atmosphere, and urgency one hoped for isn't present in this intelligent, not entirely satisfying treatment. On the other hand, maybe those who've already read the books and seen the prior films have already had so much exposure to this material that a revelatory experience is no longer possible. (2:38) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (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)
*Haywire Female empowerment gets its kung-fu-grip thighs around the beet-red throat of all the old action-heroes. Despite a deflated second half — and director Steven Soderbergh's determinedly cool-headed yet ultimately exciting-quelling approach to Bourne-free action scenes — Haywire is fully capable of seizing and demanding everyone's attention, particularly that of the feminists in the darkened theater who have given up looking for an action star that might best Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft. Former pro mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, who plays it as studiedly intense and charismatic as crossover grapplers Lee, Norris, and Seagal before her, is that woman, with convincingly formidable neck and shoulder muscles to distract from her curves. Her Mallory Kane is one of the few women in Haywire's pared-down, stylized mise-en-scene — the lone female in a world of men out to get her, starting with the opening diner scene of a watchful Mallory confronted by a man (Channing Tatum) playing at being her boyfriend, fed up with her shit, and preparing to pack her into the car — a scenario that doubtless many rebel girls can relate to until it explodes into an ultraviolent, floor-thrashing fight scene. Turns out Mallory is an ex-Marine and Blackwater-style mercenary, ready to get out of the firm and out of a relationship with her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), when she learns, the bruising way, that she's been set up. The diner scene sets the tone for rest of Haywire, an otherwise straightforward (albeit flashback-loaded) feminist whodunit of sorts, limned with subtextual currents of sexualized violence and unfolding over a series of encounters with men who could be suitors — or killers. (1:45) California, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Hugo Hugo turns on an obviously genius conceit: Martin Scorsese, working with 3D, CGI, and a host of other gimmicky effects, creates a children's fable that ultimately concerns one of early film's pioneering special-effects fantasists. That enthusiasm for moviemaking magic, transferred across more than a century of film history, was catching, judging from Scorsese's fizzy, exhilarating, almost-nauseating vault through an oh-so-faux Parisian train station and his carefully layered vortex of picture planes as Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an intrepid engineering genius of an urchin, scrambles across catwalk above a buzzing station and a hotheaded station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Despite the special effects fireworks going off all around him, Hugo has it rough: after the passing of his beloved father (Jude Law), he has been stuck with an nasty drunk of a caretaker uncle (Ray Winstone), who leaves his duties of clock upkeep at a Paris train station to his charge. Hugo must steal croissants to survive and mechanical toy parts to work on the elaborate, enigmatic automaton he was repairing with his father, until he's caught by the fierce toy seller (Ben Kingsley) with a mysterious lousy mood and a cute, bright ward, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Although the surprisingly dark-ish Hugo gives Scorsese a chance to dabble a new technological toolbox — and the chance to wax pedantically, if passionately, about the importance of film archival studies — the effort never quite despite transcends its self-conscious dazzle, lagging pacing, diffuse narrative, and simplistic screenplay by John Logan, based on Brian Selznick's book. Even the actorly heavy lifting provided by assets like Kingsley and Moretz and the backloaded love for the fantastic proponents at the dawn of filmmaking fail to help matters. Scorsese attempts to steal a little of the latters' zeal, but one can only imagine what those wizards would do with motion-capture animation or a blockbuster-sized server farm. (2:07) Shattuck. (Chun)
The Iron Lady Curiously like Clint Eastwood's 2011 J. Edgar, this biopic from director Phyllida Lloyd and scenarist Abi Morgan takes on a political life of length, breadth and controversy — yet it mostly skims over the politics in favor of a generally admiring take on a famous narrow-minded megalomaniac's "gumption" as an underdog who drove herself to the top. Looking back on her career from a senile old age spent in the illusory company of dead spouse Denis (Jim Broadbent), Meryl Streep's ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher steamrolls past hurdles of class and gender while ironically re-enforcing the fustiest Tory values. She's essentially a spluttering Lord in skirts, absolutist in her belief that money and power rule because they ought to, and any protesting rabble don't represent the "real England." That's a mindset that might well have been explored more fruitfully via less flatly literal-minded portraiture, though Lloyd does make a few late, lame efforts at sub-Ken Russell hallucinatory style. Likely to satisfy no one — anywhere on the ideological scale — seriously interested in the motivations and consequences of a major political life, this skin-deep Lady will mostly appeal to those who just want to see another bravura impersonation added to La Streep's gallery. Yes, it's a technically impressive performance, but unlikely to be remembered as one of her more depthed ones, let alone among her better vehicles. (1:45) Albany, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Man on a Ledge Sam Worthington plays escaped convict Nick Cassidy, a former cop wrongly accused of stealing a very big diamond from a ruthless real estate mogul (Ed Harris) against the backdrop of 2008's financial disasters. Having cleared the penitentiary walls, many a man might have headed for the nearest border, but Nick's fervent desire to prove his innocence leads him to climb out the window of a 21st-floor Manhattan hotel room and spend most of the rest of the movie pacing a tiny strip of concrete and chatting with hung over NYPD crisis negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), who's also nursing some PTSD after a suicide negotiation gone bad. After a while, the establishing shots panning up 21 floors or across the city grid to Nick's exterior perch begin to feel extraneous — we know there's a man on a ledge; it says so on our ticket stub. More involving is the balancing act Nick performs while he's up there — keeping the eyes of the city glued on him while guiding the suspensefully amateur efforts of his brother (Jamie Bell) and his brother's girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) to pull off an unidentified caper in a nearby high-rise. Ed Burns, Anthony Mackie, and Kyra Sedgwick costar. (1:42) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)
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)
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol No world landmark (the Kremlin, the Burj Khalifia) is too iconic and/or freaking tall for uber-adrenalized Impossible Missions Force agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team (Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon "Comic Relief" Pegg) to infiltrate, climb, assume false identities in, use as a home base for unleashing futuristic spy technology that seems almost plausible (with the help of lots of iPads), race a BMW through, etc. One kind of gets the sense that Cruise and company sat down with a piece of paper and were like, "What stunts haven't we done before, and how many of them can I do with my shirt off?" Celebrated animation director Brad Bird (2004's The Incredibles) is right at home with Ghost Protocol as his first live-action effort — the film's plot (set in the present day, it involves a positively vintage blend of Russians and nukes) and even its unmemorable villain take a back seat to Cruise's secret-agent shenanigans, most of which take the form of a crazy plan that must be altered at the last minute, resulting in an even crazier plan, which must be implemented despite the sudden appearance of yet another ludicrously daunting obstacle, like, say, a howling sandstorm. For maximum big dumb fun, make sure you catch the IMAX version. A warning, though: any time the movie screeches to a halt to explore emotions or attempt characterization ... zzz. (2:13) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
My Week With Marilyn Statuette-clutching odds are high for Michelle Williams, as her impersonation of a famous dead celebrity is "well-rounded" in the sense that we get to see her drunk, disorderly, depressed, and so forth. Her Marilyn Monroe is a conscientious performance. But when the movie isn't rolling in the expected pathos, it's having other characters point out how instinctive and "magical" Monroe is onscreen — and Williams doesn't have that in her. Who could? Williams is remarkable playing figures so ordinary you might look right through them on the street, in Wendy and Lucy (2008), Blue Valentine (2010), etc. But as Monroe, all she can do is play the little-lost girl behind the sizzle. Without the sizzle. Which is, admittedly, exactly what My Week — based on a dubious true story — asks of her. It is true that in 1956 the Hollywood icon traveled to England to co-star with director Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) in a fluff romance, The Prince and the Showgirl; and that she drove him crazy with her tardiness, mood swings, and crises. It's debatable whether she really got so chummy with young production gofer Colin Clark, our wistful guide down memory lane. He's played with simpering wide-eyed adoration by Eddie Redmayne, and his suitably same-aged secondary romantic interest (Emma Watson) is even duller. This conceit could have made for a sly semi-factual comedy of egos, neurosis, and miscommunication. But in a rare big-screen foray, U.K. TV staples director Simon Curtis and scenarist Adrian Hodges play it all with formulaic earnestness — Marilyn is the wounded angel who turns a starstruck boy into a brokenhearted but wiser man as the inevitable atrocious score orders our eyes to mist over. (1:36) Presidio, Shattuck. (Harvey)
One for the Money (1:46) 1000 Van Ness.
*Pina Watching Pina Bausch's choreography on film should not have been as absorbing and deeply affecting of an experience as it was. Dance on film tends to disappoint — the camera flattens the body and distorts perspective, and you either see too many or not enough details. However, improved 3D technology gave Wim Wenders (1999's Buena Vista Social Club; 1987's Wings of Desire) the additional tools he needed to accomplish what he and fellow German Bausch had talked about for 20 years: collaborating on a documentary about her work. Instead of making a film about the rebel dance maker, Wenders made it for Bausch, who died in June 2009, two days before the start of filming. Pina is an eloquent tribute to a tiny, soft-spoken, mousy-looking artist who turned the conventions of theatrical dance upside down. She was a great artist and true innovator. Wenders' biggest accomplishment in this beautifully paced and edited document is its ability to elucidate Bausch's work in a way that words probably cannot. While it's good to see dance's physicality and its multi dimensionality on screen, it's even better that the camera goes inside the dances to touch tiny details and essential qualities in the performers' every gesture. No proscenium theater can offer that kind of intimacy. Appropriately, intimacy (the eternal desire for it) and loneliness (an existential state of being) were the two contradictory forces that Bausch kept exploring over and over. And by taking fragments of the dances into the environment — both natural and artificial — of Wuppertal, Germany, Wenders places them inside the emotional lives of ordinary people, subjects of all of Bausch's work. (1:43) Shattuck, Smith Rafael, Sundance Kabuki. (Rita Felciano)
Red Tails History (and the highly-acclaimed 1995 TV film, The Tuskeegee Airmen) tells us that during World War II, African American fighter pilots skillfully dispatched Nazi foes — while battling discrimination within the U.S. military every step of the way. From this inspiring true tale springs Red Tails, an overly earnest and awkwardly broad film which matches lavish special effects (thank you, producer George Lucas) with a flawed script stuffed with trite dialogue (thank you, "story by" George Lucas?), an overabundance of characters, and too many subplots (including a romance and a detour into Hogan's Heroes). The movie would've been much stronger had it streamlined to focus on the friendship between the brash Lightning (David Oyelowo) and the not-as-perfect-as-he-seems Easy (Nate Parker); the head-butting between these two supplies the film's only genuine moments of tension. Otherwise, there's not much depth, just surface-to-air heroics. (2:00) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
*Shame It's been a big 2011 for Michael Fassbender, with Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, Shame, and A Dangerous Method raising his profile from art-house standout to legit movie star (of the "movie stars who can also act" variety). Shame may only reach one-zillionth of X-Men's audience due to its NC-17 rating, but this re-teaming with Hunger (2008) director Steve McQueen is Fassbender's highest achievement to date. He plays Brandon, a New Yorker whose life is tightly calibrated to enable a raging sex addiction within an otherwise sterile existence, including an undefined corporate job and a spartan (yet expensive-looking) apartment. When brash, needy, messy younger sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan, speaking of actors having banner years) shows up, yakking her life all over his, chaos results. Shame is a movie that unfolds in subtle details and oversized actions, with artful direction despite its oft-salacious content. If scattered moments seem forced (loopy Cissy's sudden transformation, for one scene, into a classy jazz singer), the emotions — particularly the titular one — never feel less than real and raw. (1:39) Four Star, Shattuck. (Eddy)
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Maybe Guy Ritchie should've quit while he was ahead. Thanks to strong performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, the British director's first Holmes flick proved surprisingly fun. Two years later, it's clear that Ritchie's well of creatitivity has run dry. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is cliched and overlong, burying a few good ideas under an avalanche of tired action movie stalwarts gone steampunk. To be fair, the set design and art direction are still sumptuous, creating a hyperbolic, detailed vision of Victorian Europe. New cast additions Jared Harris (as Moriarty, maliciously polite) and Stephen Fry (as Mycroft, eccentric and nude) do well with limited material. Noomi Rapace, playing a helpful gypsy, is superfluous. Downey Jr. and Law are still game for some amusing PG-13 homoeroticism, but it's the former's disinterested performance that ensures the movie's downfall. Forced to make do without witty quips or interesting deductions, the Holmes of A Game of Shadows is part bruiser, part buffoon. The game's a flop, Watson. (2:09) SF Center. (Ben Richardson)
Sing Your Song It's easy to be cynical about do-gooding celebrities. Like, does superstar X really care about that charity or cause, or is he or she merely doing a public-image polish? This is not a concern with Harry Belafonte, who — when not charming audiences with tunes like "The Banana Boat Song" — has spent most of his 84 years personally battling injustice. If he wasn't such an American treasure (World War II veteran, courageous challenger of Hollywood racism, vocally pro-labor union amid anti-Commie hysteria, etc.), Sing Your Song might feel as if it were progressing in an almost comedically heroic manner: Harry befriends Martin Luther King, Jr; Harry teaches JFK and RFK about civil rights; Harry champions Nelson Mandela; Harry protests the Vietnam War; Harry devotes himself to Africa (cue "We Are the World"). But it all really happened (with historical footage and photographs to prove it), and most of it at a time when his views were seen as radical by mainstream America. Belafonte's accomplishments are undeniable, and Sing Your Song is, perhaps unavoidably, a textbook hagiography — even as his children from multiple marriages, one of whom co-produced the film, make vague yet forgiving references to Belafonte's frequent absentee-dad status. Otherwise, Sing Your Song is solely concerned with singing Belafonte's praises — admirable, but kinda one-note. (1:44) Roxie. (Eddy)
Sleeping Beauty Australian novelist turned director Julia Leigh's first feature arrives affixed with a stamp of approval from no less than Jane Campion; though Sleeping Beauty treads in Campion-style edgy feminism, its ideas are not quite fully formed, rendering a film that's not entirely satisfying. It is gorgeously shot, however, with long (occasionally overly so) shots that coolly observe the life of Lucy (pillow-lipped Emily Browning, star of 2011's Sucker Punch), a college student struggling to make ends meet with an array of minimum-wage gigs. Her housemates hate her; the only friend she has is a shut-in drug addict. She gets her kicks picking up random men at yuppie bars — until she's offered a gig working for an exclusive purveyor of kink to elderly clients, first as a lingerie-clad serving girl, and later as a "sleeping beauty:" she's given knockout drugs and handed over to customers ("no penetration" is the only rule, but yes, it's still creepy). Sleeping Beauty is too chilly to be titillating, and while Browning is lovely, Lucy is affectless to the point of being, well, pretty boring, even with her clothes off. I read one review that suggested watching the film as if it were intended to be a comedy; lines like "Match your lipstick to the color of your labia" certainly support this thesis. (1:44) SF Film Society Cinema. (Eddy)
*Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Tomas Alfredson (2008's Let the Right One In) directs from Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan's sterling adaptation of John le Carré's classic spy vs. spy tale, with Gary Oldman making the role of George Smiley (famously embodied by Alec Guinness in the 1979 miniseries) completely his own. Your complete attention is demanded, and deserved, by this tale of a Cold War-era, recently retired MI6 agent (Oldman) pressed back into service at "the Circus" to ferret out a Soviet mole. Building off Oldman's masterful, understated performance, Alfredson layers intrigue and an attention to weird details (a fly buzzing around a car, the sound of toast being scraped with butter) that heighten the film's deceptively beige 1970s palette. With espionage-movie trappings galore (safe houses, code machines), a returned-to flashback to a surreal office Christmas party, and bang-on supporting performances by John Hurt, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and the suddenly ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, Tinker Tailor epitomizes rule one of filmmaking: show me, don't tell me. A movie that assumes its audience isn't completely brain-dead is cause for celebration and multiple viewings — not to mention a place among the year's best. (2:07) Four Star, Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Underworld Awakening (1:30) 1000 Van Ness.
*War Horse If the idea of watching heroic horses getting slaughtered amid the brutal trench warfare of World War I fills your heart with disgust, then you might want to applaud Steven Spielberg and his relatively sensitive touch with that material in the heartrending War Horse. The PG-13 rating also gives you some idea that the director will be hewing to the movie's origins as a children's book. Spielberg paints this tale about loss of innocence, be it in the fields of the farm or the battle, in broad strokes, but here, you might feel a bit less manipulated by his prowess as a crowd-pleasing storyteller, less conscious about the legacy he draws on, and more immersed in a story that stays as close as it can to its animal protagonist's point of view, short of pulling a Mr. Ed. War Horse opens with Joey's birth and follows him as he's sold to a struggling English farm run by traumatized war veteran Ted (Peter Mullan), his spunky wife Rose (Emily Watson), and his animal-loving son Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Circumstance — and an unyielding landlord (David Thewlis) — sends Joey off to the so-called Great War, first into the care of an honorable captain (Tom Hiddleston), later a French girl (Celine Buckens), and worst, into the arms of the German enemy, where he toils as a disposable beast of burden charged with hauling the literal machines of war uphill. Spielberg shields viewers both young and old from the more explicit horrors, though gracefully imparts war's terrors, sending fresh chills through a viewer when, for instance, a child riding a horse disappears over a ridge and fails to return. No one's immune from tears, and you have to wonder how much healing is actually possible at War Horse's conclusion, despite its stylized, symbolism-laden beauty. Nonetheless cinephiles will glean a certain pleasure from images that clearly nod to the blood-red skies of Gone With the Wind (1939), the ominous deep focus of Orson Wells, and the too-bright Technicolor clarity-slash-artifice of National Velvet (1944). (2:26) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Chun)