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. Complete film listings, including ongoing films, at www.sfbg.com.
*Applause See "Diva in the Headlights." (1:27) Lumiere, Shattuck.
Bad Fever Dustin Guy Defa's tiny, odd character study centers on one Eddie Cooperschmidt (Kentucker Audley, a director himself), who looks like Mr. February 1992 on a calendar of sensitive grunge band hunks, but acts more like Homer Simpson — the Nathanael West version, not Matt Groening's. He still lives with mom (unsympathetically played by Annette Wright), doesn't or can't hold a job, has no friends, fumbles through an oddly formal vocabulary, and carries himself like a 13-year-old who's just had all his growth spurts in one go. In other words, he's the sort of character whose precise status — just socially inept, or developmentally disabled, or both? — is a mystery the film doesn't bother clarifying. Nor do we find out what the story is behind Irene (Eleonore Hendricks), his hard-bitten antithesis, who seems to be staying in an empty school classroom as some sort of weird art experiment rather than because she's "homeless," and who manipulates the hapless Eddie into videotaped situations that are perverse but stop short of pornography. (Or rather he — almost certainly a virgin — stops short there.) As if more goofy pathos were needed here, Eddie's dream is to be a stand-up comedian, a career he is about as well equipped for as brain surgeon. When Eddie plays his big first (and probably last) comedy gig, the onscreen audience appears to be wondering the same thing you might: is this just sad, or some kind of Andy Kaufman-type performance piece? Painstakingly low-key and realistic in execution, Bad Fever's success will depend on whether you can swallow it conceptually — these characters are surrounded by a real world, but they can seem unreal themselves. (1:24) Roxie. (Harvey)
Blue Like Jazz Tap or bottled water, rainy Portland, Ore. or dry Texas — how does a sincere, young Bible-thumping Baptist reconcile the two — a fish out of water nonetheless determined to swim upstream and make his way to adulthood. Based on the Donald Miller memoir-of-sorts, Blue Like Jazz may look like a Nicholas Sparks romantic opus from afar, but in the care of director-cowriter Steve Taylor, this tale of a young man coming to terms with the wider, wilder world apart from the strict confines of lock-in abstinence groups snatches a bit of the grace John Coltrane tapped in A Love Supreme. The earnest Donald (True Blood's Marshall Allman) is all set to go to his nearby Bible Belt Christian university until his bohemian jazz-loving dad pulls favors and enrolls him at free-form Reed College. Donald will have to closet his holy-roller background if, as his new lesbian pal (Tania Raymonde) cautions, he "plans on ever making friends or sharing a bowl or seeing human vagina without a credit card." Donald finds his way back to meaning and spirit — and the fun is getting there, as he joins a civil-disobedience-club-for-credit (Malaysian cocktail tennis was canceled) and falls for passionate activist Penny (Claire Holt). Allman, who also co-executive produced, emerges as a thoughtful actor who can carry a potentially maudlin and ultimately lovable collegiate coming-of-age story on his own. (1:47) (Chun)
*Bully Anyone who's ever been a kid on the wrong side of a bully — or was sensitive and observant enough not to avert his or her eyes — will be puzzling over the MPAA's R rating of this doc, for profanity. It's absurd when the gory violence on network and basic cable TV stops just short of cutting characters' faces off, as one blurred-out bus bully threatens to do to the sweet, hapless Alex, dubbed "Fish Face" by the kids who ostracize him and make his life hell on the bus. It's a jungle out there, as we all know — but it's that real, visceral footage of the verbal (and physical) abuse bullied children deal with daily that brings it all home. Filmmaker Lee Hirsch goes above and beyond in trying to capture all dimensions of his subject: the terrorized bullied, the ineffectual school administrators, the desperate parents. There's Kelby, the gay girl who was forced off her beloved basketball team after she came out, and Ja'Maya, who took drastic measures to fend off her tormenters — as well as the specters of those who turned to suicide as a way out. Hirsch is clearly more of an activist than a fly on the wall: he steps in at one point to help and obviously makes an uplifting effort to focus on what we can do to battle bullying. Nevertheless, at the risk of coming off like the Iowa assistant principal who's catching criticism for telling one victim that he was just as bad as the bully that he refused to shake hands with, one feels compelled to note one prominent component that's missing here: the bullies themselves, their stories, and the reasons why they're so cruel — admittedly a daunting, possibly libelous task. (1:35) Piedmont, Shattuck. (Chun)
*The Cabin in the Woods If the name "Joss Whedon" doesn't provide all the reason you need to bum-rush The Cabin in the Woods (Whedon produced and co-wrote, with director and frequent collaborator Drew Goddard), well, there's not much more that can be revealed without ruining the entire movie. In a very, very small nutshell, it's about a group of college kids (including Chris "Thor" Hemsworth) whose weekend jaunt to a rural cabin goes horribly awry, as such weekend jaunts tend to do in horror movies (the Texas Chainsaw and Evil Dead movies are heavily referenced). But this is no ordinary nightmare — its peculiarities are cleverly, carefully revealed, and the movie's inside-out takedown of scary movies produces some very unexpected (and delightfully blood-gushing) twists and turns. Plus: the always-awesome Richard Jenkins, and in-jokes galore for genre fans. (1:35) California, Presidio. (Eddy)
*Damsels in Distress Whit Stillman lives! The eternally preppy writer-director (1990's Metropolitan; 1994's Barcelona; 1998's The Last Days of Disco), whose dialogue-laden scripts have earned him the not-inaccurate descriptor of "the WASP Woody Allen," emerges with this popped-collar take on girl-clique movies like Mean Girls (2004), Clueless (1995), and even Heathers (1988). At East Coast liberal-arts college Seven Oaks ("the last of the Select Seven to go co-ed"), frat guys are so dumb they don't know the names of all the colors; the school newspaper is called the Daily Complainer; and a group of girls, lead by know-it-all Violet (Greta Gerwig), are determined to lift student morale using unconventional methods (tap dancing is one of them). After she's scooped into this strange orbit, transfer student (Analeigh Tipton) can't quite believe Violet and her friends are for real. They're not, of course — they're carefully crafted Stillman creations, which renders this very funny take on college life a completely unique experience. Did I mention the musical numbers? (1:38) (Eddy)
Detention The latest from A-list music video director turned B-movie helmer Joseph Kahn (2004's Torque) realllllly wants to be a cult classic. Not sure that's a certainty, but midnight would definitely be the appropriate hour to view this teen-slasher parody that also enfolds body-swapping, time travel, out-of-control parties, stuffed bears, accidental YouTube porn, unrequited love, the dreaded Dane Cook, and cinema's most sledgehammer-heavy 1990s nostalgia to date — despite the fact that Detention's central homage is to The Breakfast Club, which came out in 1985. Nominally grounding the film's garish look, broad humor, and breakneck pace are the charms of young leads Shanley Caswell (as klutzy tomboy Riley) and Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson (as a Road House-worshiping skater), who displays questionable if admirable show biz aspirations by serving as one of Detention's executive producers. He was, after all, born in 1992, which in Detention's estimation was "like, the coolest year ever!" (1:30) (Eddy)
*The Lady Luc Besson directs Michelle Yeoh — but The Lady is about as far from flashy action heroics as humanly possible. Instead, it's a reverent, emotion-packed biopic of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, a national hero in Burma (Myanmar) for her work against the country's oppressive military regime. But don't expect a year-by-year exploration of Suu's every accomplishment; instead, the film focuses on the relationship between Suu and her British husband, Michael Aris (David Thewlis). When Michael discovers he's dying of cancer, he's repeatedly denied visas to visit his wife — a cruel knife-twist by a government that assures Suu that if she leaves Burma to visit him, they'll never allow her to return. Heartbreaking stuff, elegantly channeled by Thewlis and especially Yeoh, who conveys Suu's incredible strength despite her alarmingly frail appearance. The real Iron Lady, right here. (2:07) Bridge, Shattuck. (Eddy)
L!fe Happens Ah, another movie in the Juno-Knocked Up continuum of "Unplanned and totally ill-advised pregnancy? Welp, guess I'm having a baby!" We never know if a "shmishmortion" occurs to Kim (Krysten Ritter), because she has unprotected sex in the first scene and the next scene is "one year later," with infant in tow. The wee babe's dad, a surfer with neck tattoos, is out of the picture; Kim makes do with her job as a dog walker (Kristen Johnston plays her kid-hating, cheesy-diva boss) and the good graces of her roommates, sardonic budding self-help guru Deena (Kate Bosworth) and cheerful Laura (Rachel Bilson), whose only defining characteristic is that she's a virgin (omg, the irony). As directed by Kat Coira (who co-wrote with Ritter), L!fe Happens lurches toward Hollywood conventionality by pairing Kim with a hunky guy (Geoff Stults) who doesn't realize she's a MILF. Fortunately, that storyline is frequently overshadowed — seriously, they might as well have named the baby "Plot Device" or "Conflict Generator" — by the remarkably realistic I-love-you-but-sometimes-I-want-to-kill-you relationship between BFFs Kim and Deena, which forms the film's true emotional core. +100 for casting Weeds' Justin Kirk as an ascot-wearing weirdo who woos the icy Deena, with (not-so) surprising results. (1:40) (Eddy)
Lockout Just when you thought Luc Besson was turning over a new, serious-minded leaf with Aung San Suu Kyi biopic The Lady, Lockout arrives to remind you this is the dude whose earliest efforts (1990's La Femme Nikita, 1997's The Fifth Element) have since been subsumed beneath piles of dispose-o-flicks that resemble outtakes from the Transporter movies (which he produced, natch). That's not to say there aren't certain pleasures to be found in tossed-off action flicks; Lockout, which inexplicably required two directors (James Mather and Stephen St. Leger, who co-wrote with Besson), is enjoyable enough in the moment, in addition to being completely, consistently ludicrous throughout. Guy Pearce plays the wisecracking Snow, a wrongfully-convicted government agent who's about to suffer the Punishment of the Future: being sedated and blasted to space prison to drool on himself for 30 years. That is, until the First Daughter (Maggie Grace) is trapped aboard the facility when a riot erupts. Naturally, reluctant rescuer Snow is chosen for prison-break-in-reverse duties. The rest goes like this: Boom! Quip! Boom! Quip! Lockout purports to be from an "original idea" by exec producer Besson, a bold claim considering the movie is more or less Con Air (1997) pasted over the Die Hard series and John Carpenter's Escape movies. (1:35) Shattuck, Vogue. (Eddy)
*Monsieur Lazhar When their beloved but troubled teacher hangs herself in the classroom — not a thoughtful choice of location, but then we never really discover her motives — traumatized Montreal sixth-graders get Bachir Lazhar (Fellag), a middle-aged Algerian émigré whose contrastingly rather strict, old-fashioned methods prove surprisingly useful at helping them past their trauma. He quickly becomes the crush object of studious Alice (Sophie Nelisse), whose single mother is a pilot too often away, while troublemaker Simon (Emilien Neron) acts out his own domestic and other issues at school. Lazhar has his own secrets as well — for one thing, we see that he's still petitioning for permanent asylum in Canada, contradicting what he told the principal upon being hired — and while his emotions are more tightly wrapped, circumstances will eventually force all truths out. This very likable drama about adults and children from Quebec writer-director Philippe Falardeau doesn't quite have the heft and resonance to rate among the truly great narrative films about education (like Laurent Cantet's recent French The Class). But it comes close enough, gracefully touching on numerous other issues while effectively keeping focus on how a good teacher can shape young lives in ways as incalculable as they are important. (1:34) Albany, Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
People v. The State of Illusion Writer-producer-star Austin Vickers' slice of self-help cinema is a motivational lecture illustrated by a lot of infomercial-type imagery, plus a narrative strand: when a stressed-out yuppie single dad's carelessness results in a traffic death, he's sent to prison. Naturally Aaron (played by J.B. Tuttle) hate, hate, hates it there, until the world's most philosophically advanced janitor (Michael McCormick) gradually gets him to understand that the real "prison" is his mind — freedom requires only an "awareness shift." The larger film, with Vickers addressing us directly and various experts chipping in, furthers that notion to suggest even cellular science supports the notion that reality is a matter of perception — and thus the roadblocks and limitations that gum us up on life's paths (relationships, income, self-doubt, et al.) can be overcome if one believes so and acts accordingly. This elaborate pep talk isn't really the sort of thing you can evaluate in art or entertainment terms, save to say it's well-crafted for its type. As for value in other terms, well, odds are you've heard all this in one form or another before. But if you happen to be stuck in any kind of personal prison, who knows, People might be just the prod that gets you moving. (1:26) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
A Simple Life When elderly Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), the housekeeper who's served his family for decades, has a stroke, producer Roger (Andy Lau) pays for her to enter a nursing home. No longer tasked with caring for Roger, Ah Tao faces life in the cramped, often depressing facility with resigned calm, making friends with other residents (some of whom are played by nonprofessional actors) and enjoying Roger's frequent visits. Based on Roger Lee's story (inspired by his own life), Ann Hui's film is well-served by its performances; Ip picked up multiple Best Actress awards for her role, Lau is reliably solid, and Anthony Wong pops up as the nursing home's eye patch-wearing owner. Wong's over-the-top cameo doesn't quite fit in with the movie's otherwise low-key vibe, but he's a welcome distraction in a film that can be too quiet at times — a situation not helped by its washed-out palette of gray, beige, and more gray. (1:58) Metreon. (Eddy)
The Three Stooges: The Movie Why? (1:32) Presidio. *The Turin Horse Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr's final cinematic statement is extrapolated from a climactic episode in the life of Friedrich Nietzsche, wherein the philosopher tearfully intervened in the beating of a horse on the streets of Turin. Tarr, working with frequent collaborators Ágnes Hranitzky and László Krasznahorkai, conjures the lives of a horseman and his daughter as they barely subsist amid a windswept wasteland. This glacial Beckettian dirge of a film, shot in black and white and composed of Tarr's trademark long takes, doesn't so much develop these two characters as wear them down. Their stultifying daily routines — cleaning the stable, fetching water from the well, changing and cleaning their numerous layers of clothing — occupy much of the film, so it is all the more unsettling when this wretched lifestyle is torn asunder by the whims of nature. (2:26) SF Film Society Cinema. (Sam Stander)
We Have a Pope What if a new pope was chosen ... but he didn't want to serve? In this gentle comedy-drama from Italian writer-director Nanni Moretti (2001's The Son's Room), Cardinal Melville (veteran French actor Michel Piccoli) is tapped to be the next Holy Father — and promptly flips out. The Vatican goes into crisis mode, first calling in a shrink, Professor Brezzi (Moretti), to talk to the troubled man, then orchestrating a ruse that the Pope-elect is merely hiding out in his apartments as the crowds of faithful rumble impatiently outside. Meanwhile, Melville sneaks off on an unauthorized, anonymous field trip that turns into a soul-searching, existential journey; along the way he hooks up with a group of actors that remind him of his youthful dreams of the stage — and help him realize that being the next Pope will require a performance he's not sure he can deliver. Back at the Vatican, all assembled are essentially trapped until the new Pope is publicly revealed; the bored Cardinals kill time by playing cards and, most amusingly, participating in a volleyball tournament organized by Brezzi. Irreverent enough, though I'm not sure what kind of audience this will draw. Papal humorists? (1:44) Embarcadero. (Eddy)