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 listings, including more Ongoing films, see www.sfbg.com.
The 14th San Francisco Independent Film Festival runs Feb 9-23 at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF. For tickets (most films $11) and schedule info, visit www.sfindie.com. For commentary, see "Twisted Misters."
*Elite Squad: The Enemy Within A huge hit in its native Brazil, this drama from director José Padilha (2002's Bus 174) uses insane amounts of bullets to spin a twisted tale of police and government corruption. It's a sequel of sorts to 2007's The Elite Squad, though having missed that film isn't a barrier to enjoying part two. Special ops cop Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura) returns; he's higher up the bureaucratic food chain, but finds himself locked in a constant battle with bad guys both criminal and co-worker. ("I created the monster that would eat me up," he realizes after an elaborate scheme to eliminate drug dealers and dirty cops goes horribly awry.) Meanwhile, his wife is now his ex-wife, and she's remarried a lefty politician (Irandhir Santos) who's particularly interested in exposing the same villains making Nascimento's life hell, while also making Nascimento's life hell himself. Fans of The Wire and particularly City of God — Enemy co-writer Bráulio Mantovani was an Oscar nominee for that 2002 film — will have particular interest in Enemy, though it never quite achieves those works' memorable heights. One possible reason: too much Nascimento voice-over. How do you say "show me, don't tell me" in Portuguese? (1:55) Four Star. (Eddy)
*I Am Bruce Lee Not to be confused with Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey (2000), this Spike TV co-production is nonetheless a similarly praise-filled portrait of the groundbreaking, charismatic action star. Warrior's Journey's main coup was revealing long-thought-lost footage from 1978's The Game of Death, one of only five feature films starring Lee (two of which were posthumous, including 1973 smash Enter the Dragon). I Am Bruce Lee tilts more toward exploring Lee's lasting legacy — an extended debate over whether or not he invented what we now call "mixed martial arts" definitely plays to the doc's Spike TV interests — but also contains the expected biography, with an emphasis on Lee's unique approaches to martial arts and philosophy, as well as input from suspects usual (Lee's widow and daughter, top Lee student Dan Inosanto, etc.), understandable (boxer Manny Pacquiao, martial arts champ Cung Lee), and fanboy (Mickey Rourke, Ed O'Neill). Screening in a very limited run, I Am Bruce Lee is a flashy, entertaining primer for beginning students of Lee (lesson one: he was basically the coolest guy who ever lived); longtime fans may not learn anything new, but will no doubt find much to enjoy anyway. (1:34) Four Star, Metreon. (Eddy)
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island Dwayne Johnson and Vanessa Hudgens play a father-daughter team of explorers in this sequel to 2008's Journey to the Center of the Earth. (1:34)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's deconstructed Turkish police procedural offers little action but plenty of atmosphere. The search for a corpse by a group of men — a prosecutor, a commissar, a doctor, and their two main suspects— through the desolate, wind-scoured hills of rural Anatolia, is in fact something of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. Ceylan's real investigation is philosophical, zeroing in on the way in which each of these men constructs his own truth out of the re-telling and mis-telling of past events. And the drudgery of this protracted investigation, much of it depicted in real-time, provides plenty of opportunities for all of the players to tell their stories or to simply ruminate, often bitterly, about their own lives. There is palpable loneliness that courses through all the chatter, formally mirrored by Ceylan's penchant long-takes of isolated figures swallowed by the countryside or the darkness of night. But despite the endless landscape that surrounds them, there is no exit for these small men. (2:37) SF Film Society Cinema. (Sussman)
Safe House Denzel Washington is a rogue CIA agent who goes on the run with a rookie (Ryan Reynolds) when mercenaries attack. (2:00) Presidio.
Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 3D Spoiler alert: no matter how rad the special effects look in 3D, this movie will still contain Jar Jar Binks. (2:16)
This Means War Another flick about battlin' CIA agents — this time, though, it's Chris Pine and Tom Hardy fighting over Reese Witherspoon. (2:00)
"2011 Oscar-Nominated Short Films, Live Action and Animated" See the shorts tipped to compete for Oscar gold in two separate programs, divided into live-action and animated films. Lumiere, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Smith Rafael.
The Vow Sorry Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum, but 1987's Overboard is the best amnesia-themed romance of all time. (1:44) Marina.
W.E. Madonna's having a big week, no? (1:59) Bridge.
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) 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)
*Chronicle A misfit (Dane DeHaan) with an abusive father and an ever-present video camera, his affable cousin (Matt Garretty), and a popular jock (Michael B. Jordan) discover a strange, glowing object in the woods; before long, the boys realize they are newly telekinetic. At first, it's all a lark, pulling pranks and — in the movie's most exhilarating scene — learning to fly, but the fun ends when the one with the anger problem (guess which) starts abusing the ol' with-great-power-comes-great-responsibilities creed. Chronicle is a pleasant surprise in a time when it's better not to expect much from films aimed at teens; it grounds the superhero story in a (mostly) believable high-school setting, gently intellectualizes the boys' dilemma ("hubris" is discussed), and also understands how satisfying it is to see superpowers used in the service of pure silliness — like, say, pretending you just happen to be really, really, really, good at magic tricks. First-time feature director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max "son of John" Landis also find creative ways, some more successful than others, to work with the film's "self-shot" structure. The technique (curse you, Blair Witch) is long past feeling innovative, but Chronicle amply justifies its use in telling its story. (1:23) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
*Come Back, Africa Opposition to apartheid didn't really pick up steam as a popular cause in the U.S. until the early 1980s. Which makes it all the more remarkable that New York City-based documentarian Lionel Rogosin made Come Back, Africa (1959) about a quarter-century earlier — though less surprisingly, the film itself was barely seen here at the time. Now finally playing American theaters outside his home town in a restored print, it's a time capsule whose background is as intriguing as the history it captures onscreen. The horrors of World War II and some subsequent global travel had stirred a profound awareness of social injustices in Rogosin, who began planning a feature about South Africa while still working at his father's textile business. He had very little filmmaking experience, however, so he took $30,000 of his earnings and as "practice" made On the Bowery (1956), a semi staged portrait of Manhattan's skid row area that won considerable praise, if also some shocked and appalled responses from Eisenhower-era keepers of America's wholesome, prosperous self-image. Armed with the confidence bestowed by that successful effort and several international awards, Bogosin traveled to South Africa — not for the first time, but now with the earnest intent of making his expose. In the mid- to late '50s, however, that was hardly a simple task. The film, which mixes a loose, acted narrative with completely nonfiction elements, follows the luckless wanderings of an agreeable protagonist played by a first-time actor — Zacharia Mgabi, a 30-ish bearded worker "discovered" on a bus queue. His character, Zachariah, is caught in one catch-22 of apartheid life: he can't get a job without the appropriate permits, and can't get the permits without a job. And so on. All show and almost no "tell," Come Back, Africa wasn't shown in South Africa until the late 1980s; it nonetheless proved a great influence on development of the whole continent's indigenous cinematic voices. (1:24) Roxie. (Harvey)
*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)
*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)
*Pariah A teenage girl stands stock-still in a dark nightclub, gazing with desire and fear at the half-naked female dancers on the stage. Later, riding home on the bus, she slowly removes the layers of butch that held her together in the club, stripping down to some version of the person her parents need to see when she walks in the door. Nearly wordlessly, the opening scenes of Dee Rees's Pariah poignantly depict the embattled internal life of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old African American girl living in Brooklyn with her family and struggling both to be seen as she is and to determine what that might look like. The battles are being waged externally, too, between Alike's adoring father (Charles Parnell), living in willful ignorance, and angry, rigid mother (Kim Wayans), desperately enforcing a feminine dress code and steering Alike away from openly butch friend Laura (Pernell Walker). Rees' script beautifully conveys a household of landmines and chasms, which widen as husband and wife and daughter struggle and fail to communicate, asking the wrong questions, fearfully skirting the truth about Alike's sexuality and her parents' crumbling marriage. And the world outside proves full of romantic pitfalls and the tensions of longtime friendship and peer pressure. The poems in which the talented Alike takes solace and makes her way toward a more truthful existence are beautiful, but at a certain point the lyricism overtakes the film, forcing an ending that is tidy but less than satisfying. (1:26) Lumiere, SF Center. (Rapoport)
The Woman in Black Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) plays a grieving young widower in an old-fashioned ghost story, set in the era of spirit hands and other visitations from beyond the veil. But while Victorian séances were generally aimed at the dearly departed, the titular visitant (Liz White), who haunts the isolated estate of Eel Marsh House and its environs, is a vindictive, mean-spirited creature, avenging the long-ago loss of her child by wreaking havoc and heartbreak among the families of the nearby village, among them a local landowner (Ciarán Hinds) and his wife (Janet McTeer). Radcliffe's character, a lawyer named Arthur Kipps, has been tasked with settling the affairs of the mansion's recently deceased owner, an assignment that requires sifting through mounds of dusty, crumpled ephemera in one of the creakiest, squeakiest buildings ever constructed. Set at the end of a narrow spit of land that disappears into the surrounding wetlands when the tide is high, Eel Marsh House is a charming place to be marooned after dark. But no amount of horrified screams from the audience will keep Kipps from his duties, though it's hard to make much headway amid the unrelenting creepiness. Nearly every moment brings a fresh inexplicable thumping noise from an upper floor; a new room full of dead-eyed dolls that Kipps has no business wandering into; another freakishly screaming face next to his as he gazes out the window. The house is a richly textured set piece; the horror is of the sort that makes you jump and then laugh, both at the filmmakers, for springing the same tricks on you over and over, and at yourself, for falling prey to them every time. (1:36) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Rapoport)