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. Due to the Presidents' Day holiday, theater information was incomplete at presstime.
The 14th San Francisco Independent Film Festival runs through Thurs/23 at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF. For tickets (most films $11) and schedule info, visit www.sfindie.com.
Act of Valor Action movie starring real-life, active-duty Navy SEALs. (1:45)
*Bullhead Michael R. Roskam's Belgian import scored an unexpected Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination this year. Unexpected, because it's daring, disturbing, and a lot of other things that Foreign Language Film nominees usually are not (heartwarming, yes — gasp-inducing, no). The five-second description of this film, which is about a cattle farmer who injects both his livestock and his own body with illegal hormones, doesn't do it justice. Who knew there was such a thing, for instance, as a "hormone mafia underworld"? While some of Bullhead's nuances, which occasionally pivot on culture-clash moments specific to its Belgium setting, will inevitably be lost on American viewers, the most important parts of the movie come through loud and clear, and you won't soon forget them. (2:04) (Eddy)
*Dizzy Heights: Silent Cinema and Life in the Air The film medium's first, sound free decades coincided with a sense of hurtling modernization throughout first-world society like nothing before or since — centuries of history had scarcely prepared for the sudden reality of such concepts as "world war" or "skyscraper." Aviation in particular was such a fascinating wonder its potential seemed limitless, though commercial air travel was as yet many years and dollars from the average citizen's reach. Curated by Patrick Ellis, this Pacific Film Archive series brings together some of the era's most fanciful depictions of progress and peril in the skies. It includes 1918's goofy, ambitious Danish A Trip to Mars, whose intrepid (if in-fighting) Earthlings land to promptly horrify the Red Planet of Peace's entire vegetarian populace by shooting fowl and throwing a grenade. The influence of Isadora Duncan weighs heavily on the ensuing lessons learned, as wreath-bearing, toga clad peaceniks ("Come with me and look at the dance of chastity") exhort our heroes to return home and preach pacifism — a very timely message, then. The 1929 British "disaster flick" High Treason more realistically depicts a very Jazz Age near future pushed away from the Charleston towards more catastrophic military conflict by unscrupulous war profiteers. Julien Duvivier, a director at the beginning of a long, sometimes pedestrian career in the French cinematic mainstream, was young and feckless when he made 1927's Mystery of the Eiffel Tower, a long, antic conspiracy thriller that directly inspired the Tintin comics. This long weekend of rarities also includes a program of shorts encompassing animation from Disney and McKay, trick photography and Mack Sennett slapstick. Pacific Film Archive. (Harvey)
Gone A woman (Amanda Seyfried) who escaped a serial killer fears he has retaliated by kidnapping her sister. (1:34)
*In Darkness See "The War at Home." (2:25)
*Khodorkovsky Russia today is a so-called "managed democracy." Flawed a system as democracy is, though, it's something you either live in or don't — put a qualifier on the term, and it becomes something else. This particular something else is a nation where a popular, populist leader like Vladimir Putin can maintain an economically successful (at least for many) status quo and his own power by squelching any political opposition via decidedly un-democratic means. One of the most conspicuous such cases in recent years has been the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former owner of oil company Yukos and the most fabulously wealthy "oligarch" to emerge from Russia's post-Soviet move toward capitalist privatization. Though initially considered as corrupt as any in that privileged class, he realized after a fashion that transparency actually encouraged investment, becoming a noted respecter of oft-abused minority shareholder rights and a sort of poster child for ethical business practice. This transition coincided with increased friction between him and Putin, who had given Khodorkovsky and others like him relatively free rein so long as they "stayed out of politics." On the day before the latter was arrested in 2003 — returning against all advice from an overseas trip where he'd been expected to become another wealthy "political emigrant" — he continued to align himself with the reformist anti-Putin opposition by telling a TV host "As long as our country isn't fully a civil society, no one is safe from the people with handcuffs." Conviction on questionable charges, Stalinesque detention in remote Siberia, and still-ongoing excuses for sentence elongation have ensued. The subject of Cyril Tuschi's documentary (finally interviewed directly at the end) is certainly not innocent of arrogance, incaution, and possibly more prosecutable crimes; but he has also clearly chosen the hardest path against an intractable, grudge-keeping foe on moral principal. How many billionaires would even consider losing their freedom, comfort, and wealth for such an abstract? Khodorkovsky the movie has its character flaws, too — but you can forgive a filmmaker some of those when he's working on a subject, and from a perspective, that has gotten more than a couple fellow journalists "mysteriously" poisoned to death. (1:51) (Harvey)
*Roadie Michael Cuesta's first film as both director and writer (again co-authoring with brother Gerald) since 2001's startling debut feature L.I.E. is also his best work since then. After nearly a quarter-century spent schlepping equipment for Blue Oyster Cult — the arty metal band ("Don't Fear the Reaper," i.e. "more cowbell!") that was already sliding from the spotlight when he signed on — Jimmy Testergross (Ron Eldard) is fired, the reasons unknown to us. With nowhere else to go, he lands on the doorstep of his childhood home in Queens, where he hasn't been seen in at least 20 years. Mom (Lois Smith) is going senile, though somehow her disapproval comes through with perfect clarity (and hasn't changed in all that time). Seeking a liquid solace at a bar, our hero instead runs into Randy (Bobby Cannavale), who bullied him mercilessly way back when — and is now married to "Jimmy Testicle's" still-hot former girlfriend Nikki (Jill Hennessey), who has rock-star aspirations of her own. Taking place over less than 24 hours' span, Roadie is a very small character study, but a well-observed one. "Developmentally stunted by rock 'n' roll," as one character puts it (when it emerges 40-something Jimmy has never learned to make coffee for himself), its protagonist is the kind of likable boy-man loser usually found in Fountains of Wayne songs, an aging lifelong air guitarist pining over good old days that probably weren't even that good. His nostalgia is as touchingly hapless as his dubious future. (1:35) SF Film Society Cinema. (Harvey)
*Straight Outta Hunters Point 2 See "Back to the Point." (1:20) Roxie.
Tyler Perry's Good Deeds Director Tyler Perry puts aside the Madea drag to star as a man torn between Gabrielle Union and Thandie Newton. (1:51)
Wanderlust Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star in this David Wain-directed, Judd Apatow-produced comedy about a New York City couple who move to a commune. (1:38)
*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) (Chun)
*Chico and Rita This Spain-U.K. production is at heart a very old-fashioned musical romance lent novelty by its packaging as a feature cartoon. Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Oña) is a struggling pianist-composer in pre-Castro Havana who's instantly smitten by the sight and sound of Rita (Limara Meneses, with Idania Valdés providing vocals), a chanteuse similarly ripe for a big break. Their stormy relationship eventually sprawls, along with their careers, to Manhattan, Hollywood, Paris, Las Vegas, and Havana again, spanning decades as well as a few large bodies of water. This perpetually hot, cold, hot, cold love story isn't very complicated or interesting — it's pretty much "Boy meets girl, generic complications ensue" — nor is the film's simple graphics style (reminiscent of 1970s Ralph Bakshi, minus the sleaze) all that arresting, despite the established visual expertise of Fernando Trueba's two co directors Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando. When a dream sequence briefly pays specific homage to the modernist animation of the '50s-early '60s, Chico and Rita delights the eye as it should throughout. Still, it's pleasant enough to the eye, and considerably more than that to the ear — there's new music in a retro mode from Bebo Valdes, and plenty of the genuine period article from Monk, Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo and more. If you've ever jones'd for a jazzbo's adult Hanna Barbera feature (complete with full-frontal cartoon nudity — female only, of course), your dream has come true. (1:34) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
*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) (Harvey)
The Help It's tough to stitch 'n' bitch 'n' moan in the face of such heart-felt female bonding, even after you brush away the tears away and wonder why the so-called help's stories needed to be cobbled with those of the creamy-skinned daughters of privilege that employed them. The Help purports to be the tale of the 1960s African American maids hired by a bourgie segment of Southern womanhood — resourceful hard-workers like Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) raise their employers' daughters, filling them with pride and strength if they do their job well, while missing out on their own kids' childhood. Then those daughters turn around and hurt their caretakers, often treating them little better than the slaves their families once owned. Hinging on a self-hatred that devalues the nurturing, housekeeping skills that were considered women's birthright, this unending ugly, heartbreaking story of the everyday injustices spells separate-and-unequal bathrooms for the family and their help when it comes to certain sniping queen bees like Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). But the times they are a-changing, and the help get an assist from ugly duckling of a writer Skeeter (Emma Stone, playing against type, sort of, with fizzy hair), who risks social ostracism to get the housekeepers' experiences down on paper, amid the Junior League gossip girls and the seismic shifts coming in the civil rights-era South. Based on the best-seller by Kathryn Stockett, The Help hitches the fortunes of two forces together — the African American women who are trying to survive and find respect, and the white women who have to define themselves as more than dependent breeders — under the banner of a feel-good weepie, though not without its guilty shadings, from the way the pale-faced ladies already have a jump, in so many ways, on their African American sisters to the Keane-eyed meekness of Davis' Aibileen to The Help's most memorable performances, which are also tellingly throwback (Howard's stinging hornet of a Southern belle and Jessica Chastain's white-trash bimbo-with-a-heart-of-gold). (2:17) (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) (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) (Harvey)
Margaret Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is an Upper West Side teen living with her successful actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron, wife to writer-director Kenneth Lonergan) — dad (Lonergan) lives in Santa Monica with his new spouse — and going through normal teenage stuff. Her propensity for drama, however, is kicked into high gear when she witnesses (and inadvertently causes) the traffic death of a stranger. Initially fibbing a bit to protect both herself and the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) involved, she later has second thoughts, increasingly pursuing a path toward "justice" that variably affects others including the dead woman's friend (Jeannie Berlin), mom's new suitor (Jean Reno), teachers at Lisa's private school Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick), etc. Lonergan is a fine playwright and uneven sometime scenarist who made a terrific screen directorial debut with 2000's You Can Count On Me (which also featured Ruffalo, Broderick and Smith-Cameron). He appears to have intended Margaret as a pulse-taking of privileged Manhattanites' comingled rage, panic, confusion, and guilt after 9-11. But if that's the case, then this convoluted story provides a garbled metaphor at best. It might best be taken as a messy, intermittently potent study of how someone might become the kind of person who'll spend the rest of their lives barging into other people's affairs, creating a mess, assuming the moral high ground in a stubborn attempt to "fix" it, then making everything worse while denying any personal responsibility. Certainly that's the person Lisa appears to be turning into, though it's unclear whether Lonergan intends her to be seen that way. Indeed, despite some sharply written confrontations and good performances, it's unclear what Lonergan intended here at all — and since he's been famously fiddling with Margaret's (still-problematic) editing since late 2005, one might guess he never really figured that out himself. (2:30) SF Film Society Cinema. (Harvey)
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) (Harvey)
The Vow A rear-ender on a snowy Chicago night tests the nuptial declarations of a recently and blissfully married couple, recording studio owner Leo (Channing Tatum) and accomplished sculptor Paige (Rachel McAdams). When the latter wakes up from a medically induced coma, she has no memory of her husband, their friends, their life together, or anything else from the important developmental stage in which she dropped out of law school, became estranged from her regressively WASP-y family, stopped frosting her hair and wearing sweater sets, and broke off her engagement to preppy power-douchebag Jeremy (Scott Speedman). Watching Paige malign her own wardrobe and "weird" hair and rediscover the healing powers of a high-end shopping spree is disturbing; she reenters her old life nearly seamlessly, and the warm spark of her attraction to Leo, which we witness in a series of gooey flashbacks, feels utterly extinguished. And, despite the slurry monotone of Tatum's line delivery, one can empathize with a sense of loss that's not mortal but feels like a kind of death — as when Paige gazes at Leo with an expression blending perplexity, anxiety, irritation, and noninvestment. But The Vow wants to pluck on our heartstrings and inspire a glowing, love-story-for-the-ages sort of mood, and the film struggles to make good on the latter promise. Its vague evocations of romantic destiny mostly spark a sense of inevitability, and Leo's endeavors to walk his wife through retakes of scenes from their courtship are a little more creepy and a little less Notebook-y than you might imagine. (1:44) (Rapoport)
W.E. Madonna's first directorial feature, 2008's Filth and Wisdom, was so atrocious, and the early word on this second effort so vitriolic, that there's a temptation to give W.E. too much credit simply for not being a disgrace. Co-written by Madge and Alek Keshishian, it's about two women in gilded cages. One is Wallis Simpson (the impressive Andrea Riseborough), a married American socialite who scandalized the world by divorcing her husband and running about with Edward, Prince of Wales (James D'Arcy), who had to abdicate the English throne in order to marry her in 1936. The other is fictive Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a childless Manhattan socialite in the late 1990s who's neglected by her probably-unfaithful husband (Richard Coyle). Over-eagerly intertwined despite their trite-at-best overlaps (the main one being Wally's obsession with Wallis), these two strands hold attention for a while. But eventually they grow turgid. We're presumably meant to be carried away by their True Love, but the film doesn't succeed in making Wallis and Edward seem more than two petulant, shallow snobs who were fortunate to find each other, but didn't necessarily make one another better or more interesting people. (It also alternately denies and glosses over the couple's fascist-friendly politics, which became an embarrassment as England fought Germany in World War II.) Meanwhile, Wally is a mopey blank too easily belittled by her spouse, and too handily rescued by a Prince Charming, or rather "Russian intellectual slumming as a security guard" (Oscar Isaac) working at Sotheby's during an auction of the late royal couple's estate. As is so often the case with Madonna, she seems to be saying something here, but precisely what is murky and probably not worth sussing out. Likewise, the attention to showy surface aesthetics — in particular Arianne Phillips' justifiably Oscar-nominated costumes — is fastidious, revealing, and to an extent satisfying in itself. Somewhat ambitious and in several ways quite well crafted, the handsomely appointed W.E. isn't bad (surely it wouldn't have attracted such hostility if directed by anyone else), but the flaws that finally suffocate it reach right down to its conceptual gist. There is, however, one lovely moment toward the end: Riseborough's Wallis, a well-preserved septuagenarian, dancing an incongruous yet supremely self-assured twist on request for her bedridden husband. (1:59) (Harvey)