Film Listings

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, and Lynn Rapoport. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. Due to early deadlines for the Best of the Bay issue, theater information was not available at presstime.

OPENING

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry Unstoppable force meets immovable object — and indeed gets stopped — in Alison Klayman's documentary about China's most famous contemporary artist. A larger than life figure, Ai Weiwei's bohemian rebel persona was honed during a long (1981-93) stint in the U.S., where he fit right into Manhattan's avant-garde and gallery scenes. Returning to China when his father's health went south, he continued to push the envelope with projects in various media, including architecture — he's best known today for the 2008 Beijing Olympics' "Bird's Nest" stadium design. But despite the official approval implicit in such high-profile gigs, his incessant, obdurate criticism of China's political repressive politics and censorship — a massive installation exposing the government-suppressed names of children killed by collapsing, poorly-built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake being one prominent example — has tread dangerous ground. This scattershot but nonetheless absorbing portrait stretches its view to encompass the point at which the subject's luck ran out: when the film was already in post-production, he was arrested, then held for two months without official charge before he was accused of alleged tax evasion. (He is now free, albeit barred from leaving China, and "suspected" of additional crimes including pornography and bigamy.) (1:31) (Harvey) The Queen of Versailles Lauren Greenfield's obscenely entertaining The Queen of Versailles takes a long, turbulent look at the lifestyles lived by David and Jackie Siegel. He is the 70-something undisputed king of timeshares; she is his 40-something (third) wife, a former beauty queen with the requisite blonde locks and major rack, both probably not entirely Mother Nature-made. He's so compulsive that he's never saved, instead plowing every buck back into the business. When the recession hits, that means this billionaire is — in ready-cash as opposed to paper terms — suddenly sorta kinda broke, just as an enormous Las Vegas project is opening and the family's stupefyingly large new "home" (yep, modeled after Versailles) is mid-construction. Plugs must be pulled, corners cut. Never having had to, the Siegels discover (once most of the servants have been let go) they have no idea how to run a household. Worse, they discover that in adversity they have a very hard time pulling together — in particular, David is revealed as a remote, cold, obsessively all-business person who has no use for getting or giving "emotional support;" not even for being a husband or father, much. What ultimately makes Queen poignantly more than a reality-TV style peek at the garishly wealthy is that Jackie, despite her incredibly vulgar veneer (she's like a Jennifer Coolidge character, forever squeezed into loud animal prints), is at heart just a nice girl from hicksville who really, really wants to make this family work. (1:40) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Red Lights Skeptics and budding myth busters, get ready. Maybe. Director-writer Rodrigo Cortés blends the stuff of thrillers and horror in this slippery take on psychics and their debunkers. Psychologist Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her weirdly loyal assistant Tom (Cillian Murphy) investigate paranormal phenomena — faith healers, trance mediums, ghost hunters, and psychics — in order to peer behind the curtain and expose all Ozs great and small. Spoon-bending blind ESP master Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) is their biggest prize: he's come out of retirement after the death of his most dogged critic. Has Silver learned to kill with his mind? And can we expect a brain-blowing finale on the same level as The Fury (1978)? Despite all the high-powered acting talent in the room, Red Lights never quite convinces us of the urgency of its mission — it's hard to swallow that the debunking of paranormal phenomenon rates as international news in an online-driven 24/7 multiniched news cycle — and feels like a curious '70s throwback with its Three Days of the Condor-style investigative nail-biter arc, while supplying little of the visceral, camp showman panache of a De Palma. (1:53) (1:53) (Chun)

Ruby Sparks Meta has rarely skewed as appealingly as with this indie rom-com spinning off a writerly version of the Pygmalion and Galatea tale, as penned by the object-of-desire herself: Zoe Kazan. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris helm this heady fantasy about a crumpled, geeky novelist, Calvin (Paul Dano), who's suffering from the sophomore slump — he can't seem to break his rock-solid writers block and pen a follow-up to his hit debut. He's a victim of his own success, especially when he finally begins to write, about a dream girl, a fun-loving, redheaded artist named Ruby (scriptwriter Kazan), who one day actually materializes. When he types that she speaks nothing but French, out comes a stream of the so-called language of diplomacy. Calvin soon discovers the limits and dangers of creation — say, the hazards of tweaking a manifestation when she doesn't do what you desire, and the question of what to do when one's baby Frankenstein grows bored and restless in the narrow circle of her creator's imagination. Kazan — and Dayton and Faris — go to the absurd, even frightening, limits of the age-old Pygmalion conceit, giving it a feminist charge, while helped along by a cornucopia of colorful cameos by actors like Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin's Big Sur-dwelling boho mom and her furniture-building boyfriend. Dano is as adorably befuddled as ever and adds the crucial texture of every-guy reality, though ultimately this is Kazan's show, whether she's testing the boundaries of a genuinely codependent relationship or tugging at the puppeteer's strings. (1:44) (Chun)

Sacrifice Power-mad General Tu'an (Wang Xueqi) engineers the slaughter of the entire Zhao clan — including the newborn son who's the last of the line. But the baby's been swapped with the child of the doctor, Cheng Ying (Ge You), who delivered him, and the deception train pretty much goes off the rails after that. Suffice to say the Zhao heir survives while Cheng Ying's wife and infant do not, and Tu'an is none the wiser. Revenge seems the only logical move, so Cheng Ying patiently waits years for the boy to grow up and learn martial arts from Tu'an, plotting that he'll reveal the truth when the (kinda bratty) child becomes capable of killing his beloved "godfather" — a.k.a. the guy who massacred his family (and the family of his adoptive father). If that sounds complicated, know that this epic from Chen Kaige (1993's Farewell My Concubine) has over two hours to get through all those plot mechanics. Also, it's gorgeously shot, mixing the classy trappings of a big-budget historical melodrama with thunderous battles and scenes of brutal violence. (2:10) SF Film Society Cinema. (Eddy)

Shit Year Santa Cruz artist Cam Archer's 2006 debut feature Wild Tigers I Have Known was a texturally gorgeous but content-lite exercise that often seemed like an extended audition for the role of Next Gus Van Sant. (The real one was, in fact, its executive producer.) This sophomore effort strikes pretty much the same (im-) balance. Colleen West (Ellen Barkin) is a famous, now middle-aged actress who decides to retire — why, we don't know, particularly since she only seems more brittle, dissatisfied, and hollow upon retreating to an isolated home in a woodsy area. (She doesn't even seem to like nature.) There, she tolerates a sorta-friendship with an irritatingly chirpy neighbor (Melora Walters), endures a visit by the irritatingly uncomplicated, stable brother she was never close to (Rick Einstein), and recalls an unfulfilling affair with her much younger co-star in a play (Luke Grimes). She also imagines (?) appointments with a terse interrogator (Theresa Randle) offering some sort of futuristic experience-simulation service in an eerie all-white environ. While one questions whether there actually was one, per se, Archer's fragmentary script alternates these flashbacks, surreal interludes, and present-tense expressions of existential ennui ("I'm surrounded by a world of nothing," Colleen moans) into pretty formations. The film's B&W photography (by Aaron Platt), editing, production design, musical choices, etc. are all impeccably mannered. But our protagonist's bored self-absorbsion and self-pity, lacking any backgrounding psychology, is ultimately as vacuous a dead-end as it is when Vincent Gallo is baring his soul. Having a bitchy, platinum-haired Barkin do the job for Archer makes the effect a little campier, but no more resonant. That said, this movie would probably seem brilliant if watched on quaaludes. (1:35) Roxie. (Harvey)

Step Up Revolution It's Occupy meets The Goonies (1985) — with better moves than the "Truffle Shuffle" — when the dancin' Step Up kids take on an evil developer who threatens their 'hood. (1:20)

The Watch Suburban dudes (including Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill) band together when aliens make an unscheduled visit. (1:38)

The Well-Diggers Daughter Daniel Auteuil owes a debt of gratitude to Marcel Pagnol, courtesy of his breakthrough roles in the 1980s remakes of the writer and filmmaker's Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. He returns the favor with his debut directorial work, reworking the 1940s film and crafting a loving, old-school tribute to Pagnol. The world is poised on the edge of World War I; Auteuil plays salt-of-the-earth Pascal Amoretti. The poor widower does the town's dirty work (oh, the dangerous symbolism of hole-digging) and cares for his six daughters — his favorite, the eldest and the most beautiful, Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), has caught the eye of his assistant, Felipe (Kad Merad). The happy home — and tidy arrangement — is shattered, however, when Patricia meets an inconveniently dashing pilot Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who sweeps her away, in the worst way possible for a girl of her day. "You've sinned, and I thought you were an angel," says the stunned father when he hears his beloved offspring is pregnant. "Angels don't live on earth," she responds. "I'm like any other girl." Faced with the inevitable, Auteuil and company shine a sweet but, importantly, not saccharine light — one that's as golden warm as the celebrated sunshine of rural Provence — on the proceedings. And equipped with Pagnol's eloquent prose, as channeled through his love of the working folk, he restores this tale's gently throwback emotional power, making it moving once more for an audience worlds away. (1:45) (Chun)

ONGOING

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter Are mash-ups really so 2001? Not according to the literary world, where writer Seth Graham-Smith has been doing brisk trade in gore-washing perfectly interesting historical figures and decent works of literature — a fan fiction-rooted strategy that now reeks of a kind of camp cynicism when it comes to a terminally distracted, screen-aholic generation. Still, I was strangely excited by the cinematic kitsch possibilities of Graham-Smith's Lincoln alternative history-cum-fantasy, here in the hands of Timur Bekmambetov (2004's Night Watch). Historians, prepare to fume — it helps if you let go of everything you know about reality: as Vampire Hunter opens, young Lincoln learns some harsh lessons about racial injustice, witnessing the effects of slavery and the mistreatment of his black friend Will. As a certain poetic turn would have it, slave owners here are invariably vampires or in cahoots with the undead, as is the wicked figure, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), who beats both boys and sucks Lincoln's father dry financially. In between studying to be a lawyer and courting Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the adult Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) vows to take revenge on the man who caused the death of his mother and enters the tutelage of vampire hunter Henry (Dominic Cooper), who puts Abe's mad skills with an ax to good use. Toss in a twist or two; more than few freehand, somewhat humorous rewrites of history (yes, we all wish we could have tweaked the facts to have a black man working by Lincoln's side to abolish slavery); and Bekmambetov's tendency to direct action with the freewheeling, spectacle-first audacity of a Hong Kong martial arts filmmaker (complete with at least one gaping continuity flaw) — and you have a somewhat amusing, one-joke, B-movie exercise that probably would have made a better short or Grindhouse-esque trailer than a full-length feature — something the makers of the upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies should bear in mind. (1:45) (Chun)

The Amazing Spider-Man A mere five years after Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man 3 — forgettable on its own, sure, but 2002's Spider-Man and especially 2004's Spider-Man 2 still hold up — Marvel's angsty web-slinger returns to the big screen, hoping to make its box-office mark before The Dark Knight Rises opens in a few weeks. Director Marc Webb (2009's 500 Days of Summer) and likable stars Andrew Garfield (as the skateboard-toting hero) and Emma Stone (as his high-school squeeze) offer a competent reboot, but there's no shaking the feeling that we've seen this movie before, with its familiar origin story and with-great-power themes. A little creativity, and I don't mean in the special effects department, might've gone a long way to make moviegoers forget this Spidey do-over is, essentially, little more than a soulless cash grab. Not helping matters: the villain (Rhys Ifans as the Lizard) is a snooze. (2:18) (Eddy)

Beasts of the Southern Wild Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d'Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn't attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about — improbably — Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting. Benh Zeitlin's film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. But not all is well: when "the storm" floods the land, the holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate. With its elements of magic, mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology, Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick's 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film's cost and length. (1:31) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Bernie Jack Black plays the titular new assistant funeral director liked by everybody in small-town Carthage, Tex. He works especially hard to ingratiate himself with shrewish local widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), but there are benefits — estranged from her own family, she not only accepts him as a friend (then companion, then servant, then as virtual "property"), but makes him her sole heir. Richard Linklater's latest is based on a true-crime story, although in execution it's as much a cheerful social satire as I Love You Philip Morris and The Informant! (both 2009), two other recent fact-based movies about likable felons. Black gets to sing (his character being a musical theater queen, among other things), while Linklater gets to affectionately mock a very different stratum of Lone Star State culture from the one he started out with in 1991's Slacker. There's a rich gallery of supporting characters, most played by little-known local actors or actual townspeople, with Matthew McConaughey's vainglorious county prosecutor one delectable exception. Bernie is its director's best in some time, not to mention a whole lot of fun. (1:39) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (1:42)

Brave Pixar's latest is a surprisingly familiar fairy tale. Scottish princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) would rather ride her horse and shoot arrows than become engaged, but it's Aladdin-style law that she must marry the eldest son of one of three local clans. (Each boy is so exaggeratedly unappealing that her reluctance seems less tomboy rebellion than common sense.) Her mother (Emma Thompson) is displeased; when they quarrel, Merida decides to change her fate (Little Mermaid-style) by visiting the local spell-caster (a gentle, absent-minded soul that Ursula the Sea Witch would eat for brunch). Naturally, the spell goes awry, but only the youngest of movie viewers will fear that Merida and her mother won't be able to make things right by the end. Girl power is great, but so are suspense and originality. How, exactly, is Brave different than a zillion other Disney movies about spunky princesses? Well, Merida's fiery explosion of red curls, so detailed it must have had its own full-time team of animators working on it, is pretty fantastic. (1:33) (Eddy)

A Burning Hot Summer (1:35) SF Film Society Cinema.

Dark Horse You can look at filmmaker Todd Solondz's work and find it brilliant, savage, and challenging; or show-offy, contrived, and fraudulent. The circles of interpersonal (especially familial) hell he describes are simultaneously brutal, banal, and baroque. But what probably distresses people most is that they're also funny — raising the issue of whether he trivializes trauma for the sake of cheap shock-value yuks, or if black comedy is just another valid way of facing the unbearable. Dark Horse is disturbing because it's such a slight, inconsequential, even soft movie by his standards; this time, the sharp edges seem glibly cynical, and the sum ordinary enough to no longer seem unmistakably his. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is an obnoxious jerk of about 35 who still lives with his parents (Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken) and works at dad's office, likely because no one else would employ him. But Abe doesn't exactly see himself as a loser. He resents and blames others for being winners, which is different — he sees the inequality as their fault. Dark Horse is less of an ensemble piece than most of Solondz's films, and in hinging on Abe, it diminishes his usual ambivalence toward flawed humanity. Abe has no redemptive qualities — he's just an annoyance, one whose mental health issues aren't clarified enough to induce sympathy. (1:25) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

The Dark Knight Rises Early reviews that called out The Dark Knight Rises' flaws were greeted with the kind of vicious rage that only anonymous internet commentators can dish out. And maybe this is yet another critic-proof movie, albeit not one based on a best-selling YA book series. Of course, it is based on a comic book, though Christopher Nolan's sophisticated filmmaking and Christian Bale's tortured lead performance tend to make that easy to forget. In this third and "final" installment in Nolan's trilogy, Bruce Wayne has gone into seclusion, skulking around his mansion and bemoaning his broken body and shattered reputation. He's lured back into the Batcave after a series of unfortunate events, during which The Dark Knight Rises takes some jabs at contemporary class warfare (with problematic mixed results), introduces a villain with pecs of steel and an at-times distractingly muffled voice (Tom Hardy), and unveils a potentially dangerous device that produces sustainable energy (paging Tony Stark). Make no mistake: this is an exciting, appropriately moody conclusion to a superior superhero series, with some nice turns by supporting players Gary Oldman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But in trying to cram in so many characters and plot threads and themes (so many prisons in this thing, literal and figural), The Dark Knight Rises is ultimately done in by its sprawl. Without a focal point — like Heath Ledger's menacing, iconic Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight — the stakes aren't as high, and the end result feels more like a superior summer blockbuster than one for the ages. (2:44) (Eddy)

Farewell, My Queen (Benoît Jacquot, France, 2012) Opening early on the morning of July 14, 1789, Farewell, My Queen depicts four days at the Palace of Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution, as witnessed by a young woman named Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) who serves as reader to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Sidonie displays a singular and romantic devotion to the queen, while the latter's loyalties are split between a heedless amour propre and her grand passion for the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). These domestic matters and other regal whims loom large in the tiny galaxy of the queen's retinue, so that while elsewhere in the palace, in shadowy, candle-lit corridors, courtiers and their servants mingle to exchange news, rumor, panicky theories, and evacuation plans, in the queen's quarters the task of embroidering a dahlia for a projected gown at times overshadows the storming of the Bastille and the much larger catastrophe on the horizon. (1:39) (Rapoport)

Headhunters Despite being the most sought-after corporate headhunter in Oslo, Roger (Aksel Hennie) still doesn't make enough money to placate his gorgeous wife; his raging Napoleon complex certainly doesn't help matters. Crime is, as always, the only solution, so Roger's been supplementing his income by stealthily relieving his rich, status-conscious clients of their most expensive artworks (with help from his slightly unhinged partner, who works for a home-security company). When Roger meets the dashing Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of Game of Thrones) — a Danish exec with a sinister, mysterious military past, now looking to take over a top job in Norway — he's more interested in a near-priceless painting rumored to be stashed in Greve's apartment. The heist is on, but faster than you can say "MacGuffin," all hell breaks loose (in startlingly gory fashion), and the very charming Roger is using his considerable wits to stay alive. Based on a best-selling "Scandi-noir" novel, Headhunters is just as clever as it is suspenseful. See this version before Hollywood swoops in for the inevitable (rumored) remake. (1:40) (Eddy)

Ice Age: Continental Drift (1:27)

The Intouchables Cries of "racism" seem a bit out of hand when it comes to this likable albeit far-from-challenging French comedy loosely based on a real-life relationship between a wealthy white quadriplegic and his caretaker of color. The term "cliché" is more accurate. And where were these critics when 1989's Driving Miss Daisy and 2011's The Help — movies that seem designed to make nostalgic honkies feel good about those fraught relationships skewed to their advantage—were coming down the pike? (It also might be more interesting to look at how these films about race always hinge on economies in which whites must pay blacks to interact with/educate/enlighten them.) In any case, Omar Sy, portraying Senegalese immigrant Driss, threatens to upset all those pundits' apple carts with his sheer life force, even when he's shaking solo on the dance floor to sounds as effortlessly unprovocative, and old-school, as Earth, Wind, and Fire. In fact, everything about The Intouchables is as old school as 1982's 48 Hrs., spinning off the still laugh-grabbing humor that comes with juxtaposing a hipper, more streetwise black guy with a hapless, moneyed chalky. The wheelchair-bound Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is more vulnerable than most, and he has a hard time getting along with any of his nurses, until he meets Driss, who only wants his signature for his social services papers. It's not long before the cultured, classical music-loving Philippe's defenses are broken down by Driss' flip, somewhat honest take on the follies and pretensions of high culture — a bigger deal in France than in the new world, no doubt. Director-writer Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano aren't trying to innovate —they seem more set on crafting an effervescent blockbuster that out-blockbusters Hollywood — and the biggest compliment might be that the stateside remake is already rumored to be in the works. (1:52) (Chun)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi Celebrity-chef culture has surely reached some kind of zeitgeist, what with the omnipresence of Top Chef and other cooking-themed shows, and the headlines-making power of people like Paula Deen (diabetes) and Mario Batali (sued for ripping off his wait staff). Unconcerned with the trappings of fame — you'll never see him driving a Guy Fieri-style garish sports car — is Jiro Ono, 85-year-old proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny, world-renowned sushi restaurant tucked into Tokyo's Ginza station. Jiro, a highly-disciplined perfectionist who believes in simple, yet flavorful food, has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of "deliciousness" — to the point of sushi invading his dreams, as the title of David Gelb's reverential documentary suggests. But Jiro Dreams of Sushi goes deeper than food-prep porn (though, indeed, there's plenty of that); it also examines the existential conflicts faced by Jiro's two middle-aged sons. Both were strongly encouraged to enter the family business — and in the intervening years, have had to accept the soul-crushing fact that no matter how good their sushi is, it'll never be seen as exceeding the creations of their legendary father. (1:21) (Eddy)

Katy Perry: Part of Me (1:57)

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (1:33)

Magic Mike Director Steven Soderbergh pays homage to the 1970s with the opening shot of his male stripper opus: the boxy old Warner Bros. logo, which evokes the gritty, sexualized days of Burt Reynolds and Joe Namath posing in pantyhose. Was that really the last time women, en masse, were welcome to ogle to their heart's content? That might be the case considering the outburst of applause when a nude Channing Tatum rises after a hard night in a threesome in Magic Mike's first five minutes. Ever the savvy film historian, Soderbergh toys with the conventions of the era, from the grimy quasi-redneck realism of vintage Reynolds movies to the hidebound framework of the period's gay porn, almost for his own amusement, though the viewer might be initially confused about exactly what year they're in. Veteran star stripper Mike (Tatum) is working construction, stripping to the approval of many raucous ladies and their stuffable dollar bills. He decides to take college-dropout blank-slate hottie Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing and ropes him into the strip club, owned by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, whose formidable abs look waxily preserved) and show him the ropes of stripping and having a good time, much to the disapproval of Adam's more straight-laced sister Brooke (Cody Horn). Really, though, all Mike wants to do is become a furniture designer. Boasting Foreigner's "Feels like the First Time" as its theme of sorts and spot-on, hot choreography by Alison Faulk (who's worked with Madonna and Britney Spears), Magic Mike takes off and can't help but please the crowd when it turns to the stage. Unfortunately the chemistry-free budding romance between Mike and Brooke sucks the air out of the proceedings every time it comes into view, which is way too often. (1:50) (Chun)

Marvel's The Avengers The conflict — a mystical blue cube containing earth-shattering (literally) powers is stolen, with evil intent — isn't the reason to see this long-hyped culmination of numerous prequels spotlighting its heroic characters. Nay, the joy here is the whole "getting' the band back together!" vibe; director and co-writer Joss Whedon knows you're just dying to see Captain America (Chris Evans) bicker with Iron Man (a scene-stealing Robert Downey Jr.); Thor (Chris Hemsworth) clash with bad-boy brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston); and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) get angry as often as possible. (Also part of the crew, but kinda mostly just there to look good in their tight outfits: Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow.) Then, of course, there's Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) running the whole Marvel-ous show, with one good eye and almost as many wry quips as Downey's Tony Stark. Basically, The Avengers gives you everything you want (characters delivering trademark lines and traits), everything you expect (shit blowing up, humanity being saved, etc.), and even makes room for a few surprises. It doesn't transcend the comic-book genre (like 2008's The Dark Knight did), but honestly, it ain't trying to. The Avengers wants only to entertain, and entertain it does. (2:23) (Eddy)

Moonrise Kingdom Does Wes Anderson's new film mark a live-action return to form after 2007's disappointingly wan Darjeeling Limited? More or less. Does it tick all the Andersonian style and content boxes? Indubitably. In the most obvious deviation Anderson has taken with Moonrise, he gives us his first period piece, a romance set in 1965 on a fictional island off the New England coast. After a chance encounter at a church play, pre-teen Khaki Scout Sam (newcomer Jared Gilman) instantly falls for the raven-suited, sable-haired Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, ditto). The two become pen pals, and quickly bond over the shared misery of being misunderstood by both authority figures and fellow kids. The bespectacled Sam is an orphan, ostracized by his foster parents and scout troop (much to the dismay of its straight-arrow leader Edward Norton). Suzy despises her clueless attorney parents, played with gusto by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand in some of the film's funniest and best scenes. When the two kids run off together, the whole thing begins to resemble a kind of tween version of Godard's 1965 lovers-on the-lam fantasia Pierrot le Fou. But like most of Anderson's stuff, it has a gauzy sentimentality more akin to Truffaut than Godard. Imagine if the sequence in 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums where Margot and Richie run away to the Museum of Natural History had been given the feature treatment: it's a simple yet inspired idea, and it becomes a charming little tale of the perils of growing up and selling out the fantasy. But it doesn't feel remotely risky. It's simply too damn tame. (1:37) (Michelle Devereaux)

Patang (The Kite) Loving memories tethered to a place (Ahmedabad, India), moment (the city's kite festival, the largest of its kind in the country), and season (according to the Hindu calendar, the event coincides with the day that wind direction shifts) beautifully suffuse this first feature film by director and co-writer Prashant Bhargava. Certainly Patang (The Kite) is the story of a family: Delhi businessman Jayesh (Mukund Shukla) has returned with his freewheeling, movie-camera-toting daughter Priya (Sugandha Garg) to his majestically ramshackle family home, where he supports his mother, sister-in-law (Seema Biswas of 1994's Bandit Queen), and nephew Chakku (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). He's come to indulge his childhood love of kite flying and to introduce Priya to Ahmedabad's old-world sights and ways. Entangled among the strands of story are past resentments —harbored by Chakku against his paternalistic uncle — and new hopes, particularly in the form of a budding romance between Priya and Bobby (Aakash Maherya), the son of the kite shop owner. Above all — and as much a presence as any other — is the city, with its fleeting pleasures and memorable faces, captured with vérité verve and sensuous lyricism on small HD cameras by Bhargava and director of photography Shanker Raman. Their imagery imprints on a viewer like an early memory, darting to mind like those many bright kites dancing buoyantly in the city sky. (1:32) (Chun)

People Like Us The opening song — James Gang's can't-fail "Funk #49" — only partially announces where this earnest family drama is going. Haunted by a deceased music-producer patriarch, barely sketched-out tales of his misadventures, and a soundtrack of solid AOR, this film has mixed feelings about its boomer bloodlines, much like the recent Peace, Love and Misunderstanding: these boomer-ambivalent films are the inverse of celebratory sites like Dads Are the Original Hipsters. Commodity-bartering wheeler-dealer Sam (Chris Pine) is skating on the edges of legality — and wallowing in his own kind of Type-A prickishness — so when his music biz dad passes, he tries to lie his way out of flying back home to see his mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), with his decent law student girlfriend (Olivia Wilde). He doesn't want to face the memories of his self-absorbed absentee-artist dad, but he also doesn't want to deal with certain legal action back home, so when his father's old lawyer friend drops a battered bag of cash on him, along with a note to give it to a young boy (Michael Hall D'Addario) and his mother Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), he's beset with conflict. Should he take the money and run away from his troubles or uncover the mysterious loved ones his father left behind? Director and co-writer Alexa Kurtzman mostly wrote for TV before this, his debut feature, and in many ways People Like Us resembles the tidy, well-meaning dramas about responsibility and personal growth one might still find on, say, Lifetime. It's also tough to swallow Banks, as gifted as she is as an actress, as an addiction-scarred, traumatized single mom in combat boots. At the same time People Like Us isn't without its charms, drawing you into its small, specific dramas with real-as-TV touches and the faintest sexy whiff of rock 'n' roll. (1:55) (Chun)

Prometheus Ridley Scott's return to outer space — after an extended stay in Russell Crowe-landia — is most welcome. Some may complain Prometheus too closely resembles Scott's Alien (1979), for which it serves as a prequel of sorts. Prometheus also resembles, among others, The Thing (1982), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Event Horizon (1997). But I love those movies (yes, even Event Horizon), and I am totally fine with the guy who made Alien borrowing from all of them and making the classiest, most gorgeous sci-fi B-movie in years. Sure, some of the science is wonky, and the themes of faith and creation can get a bit woo-woo, but Prometheus is deep-space discombobulation at its finest, with only a miscast Logan Marshall-Green (apparently, cocky dude-bros are still in effect at the turn of the next millennium) marring an otherwise killer cast: Noomi Rapace as a dreamy (yet awesomely tough) scientist; Idris Elba as Prometheus' wisecracking captain; Charlize Theron as the Weyland Corportation's icy overseer; and Michael Fassbender, giving his finest performance to date as the ship's Lawrence of Arabia-obsessed android. (2:03) (Eddy)

Rock of Ages (2:03)

Romantics Anonymous An awkward, bumbling Parisian chocolatier named Jean-Rene (Benoît Poelvoorde) falls for his gorgeous, equally awkward sales rep, Angélique (Isabelle Carré), while never missing an opportunity to say the wrong thing, surrender to shyness, or panic under pressure. It's crucial for films involving such protracted awkwardness to give the audience something to cling to emotionally, but instead we're handed a limp, formulaic story, sorely underdeveloped characters, and lazy writing in which the protagonists act uncharacteristically stupid/gullible/oblivious for the sake of plot-expedience. Amélie (2001) mined similar thematic territory, but its success lay in the depth of its characters; Romantics Anonymous is about little more than the idea of two hopeless romantics, and that's simply not enough to hold interest. It's beautifully scored, lovingly shot, and steeped in vintage French atmosphere — but that doesn't compensate for sketchy characterization and weak, predictable storytelling. (1:20) Roxie. (Taylor Kaplan) Safety Not Guaranteed San Francisco-born director Colin Trevorrow's narrative debut feature Safety Not Guaranteed, written by Derek Connolly, has an improbable setup: not that rural loner Kenneth (Mark Duplass) would place a personal ad for a time travel partner ("Must bring own weapons"), but that a Seattle alt-weekly magazine would pay expenses for a vainglorious staff reporter (Jake Johnson, hilarious) and two interns (Aubrey Plaza, Karan Soni) to stalk him for a fluff feature over the course of several days. The publishing budget allowing that today is true science-fiction. But never mind. Inserting herself "undercover" when a direct approach fails, Plaza's slightly goth college grad finds she actually likes obsessive, paranoid weirdo Kenneth, and is intrigued by his seemingly insane but dead serious mission. For most of its length Safety falls safely into the category of off-center indie comedics, delivering various loopy and crass behavior with a practiced deadpan, providing just enough character depth to achieve eventual poignancy. Then it takes a major leap — one it would be criminal to spoil, but which turns an admirable little movie into something conceptually surprising, reckless, and rather exhilarating. (1:34) (Harvey)

Savages If it's true, as some say, that Oliver Stone had lost his way after 9/11 — when seemingly many of his worst fears (and conspiracy theories) came to pass — then perhaps this toothy noir marks his return: it definitely reads as his most emotionally present exercise in years. Not quite as nihilistic as 1994's Natural Born Killers, yet much juicier than 2010's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, this pulpy effort turns on a cultural clash between pleasure-seeking, honky Cali hedonists, who appear to believe in whatever feels good, and double-dealing Mexican mafia muscle, whose apparently ironclad moral code is also shifting like drifting SoCal sands. All are draped in the Stone's favored vernacular of manly war games with a light veneer of Buddhistic higher-mindedness and, natch, at least one notable wig. Happy pot-growing nouveau-hippies Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch), and O (Blake Lively) are living the good life beachside, cultivating plants coaxed from seeds hand-imported by seething Afghanistan war vet Chon and refined by botanist and business major Ben. Pretty, privileged sex toy O sleeps with both — she's the key prize targeted by Baja drug mogul Elena (Salma Hayek) and her minions, the scary Lado (Benicio Del Toro) and the more well-heeled Alex (Demian Bichir), who want to get a piece of Ben and Chon's high-THC product. The twists and turnarounds obviously tickle Stone, though don't look much deeper than Savages' saturated, sun-swathed façade — the script based on Don Winslow's novel shares the take-no-prisoners hardboiled bent of Jim Thompson while sidestepping the brainy, postmodernish light-hearted detachment of Quentin Tarantino's "extreme" '90s shenanigans. (1:57) (Chun)

Take this Waltz Confined to the hothouse months of a summer in Toronto, Take This Waltz is a steamy, sad takedown of (rather than a take on) the romantic comedy. That's only because it's very romantic and very funny, often at once, but otherwise the film has nothing in common with its generic sistren. It's a feel-good movie for the cynics, directed by actor turned director Sarah Polley (2007's Away From Her). Margot (Michelle Williams) is a writer married to Lou (Seth Rogen), who is sweet and caring and cooks chicken for a living. Both are in their late 20s, and they are obviously each others' first loves. It is a love like that of children: idealistic and blooming, but they never have a serious conversation. Enter neighbor Daniel (Luke Kirby) — a conventionally sexier man than Lou, more swarthy and sweaty. Soon, Margot is conflicted and confused, torturing herself with some heavy emotional gymnastics and flip-flopping. Williams is always good at using her face to convey feeling. In one of two scenes of the film set on a Scrambler carnival ride, the entire arc of Margot registers on her facial gestures, from scared to elated to uncertain as the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" surrounds her. Margot may be indecisive, but she is never docile about her desires. She does, inevitably, make a decision and there is eventual closure, unlike most everything else out there in the indie ether. (1:56) Smith Rafael. (Ryan Lattanzio)

Ted Ah, boys and their toys — and the imaginary friends that mirror back a forever-after land of perpetual Peter Pans. That's the crux of the surprisingly smart, hilarious Ted, aimed at an audience comprising a wide range of classes, races, and cultures with its mix of South Park go-there yuks and rom-commie coming-of-age sentiment. Look at Ted as a pop-culture-obsessed nerd tweak on dream critter-spirit animal buddy efforts from Harvey (1950) to Donnie Darko (2001) to TV's Wilfred. Of course, we all know that the really untamable creature here wobbles around on two legs, laden with big-time baggage about growing up and moving on from childhood loves. Young John doesn't have many friends but he is fortunate enough to have his Christmas wish come true: his beloved new teddy bear, Ted (voice by director-writer Seth MacFarlane), begins to talk back and comes to life. With that miracle, too, comes Ted's marginal existence as a D-list celebrity curiosity — still, he's the loyal "Thunder Buddy" that's always there for the now-grown John (Mark Wahlberg), ready with a bong and a broheim-y breed of empathy that involves too much TV, an obsession with bad B-movies, and mock fisticuffs, just the thing when storms move in and mundane reality rolls through. With his tendency to spew whatever profanity-laced thought comes into his head and his talents are a ladies' bear, Ted is the id of a best friend that enables all of John's most memorable, un-PC, Hangover-style shenanigans. Alas, John's cool girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) threatens that tidy fantasy setup with her perfectly reasonable relationship demands. Juggling scary emotions and material that seems so specific that it can't help but charm — you've got to love a shot-by-shot re-creation of a key Flash Gordon scene — MacFarlane sails over any resistance you, Lori, or your superego might harbor about this scenario with the ease of a man fully in touch with his inner Ted. (1:46) (Chun)

30 Beats A sweltering summer day or two in the city ushers in a series of youthful good-lookers, unencumbered and less than dressed, together in kind of NYC-based mini-La Ronde that I'm surprised Woody Allen hasn't yet attempted. Fresh young thing Julie (Condola Rashad) is off to pop her cherry with lady's man Adam (Justin Kirk of Weeds), who's more accustomed to chasing than being chased. Unsettled, he consults with sorceress Erika (Jennifer Tilly), who plies him with sexual magic and then finds herself chasing down her booty-call bud, bike messenger Diego (Jason Day), who's besotted with the physically and emotionally scarred Laura (Paz de la Huerta). What goes around comes around in director-writer Alexis Lloyd's debut feature, but alas, not till it's contorted and triangulated itself in at least one ridiculously solemn BDSM scene. Matters get trickier when romance begins to creep into these urban one-offs. Nonetheless, those with short attention spans who like their people-watching with a healthy splash of big-city hookups, might find this adult indie as refreshing as a romp with a beautiful stranger they've briefly locked eyes with. (1:28) (Chun)

To Rome with Love Woody Allen's film legacy is not like anybody else's. At present, however, he suffers from a sense that he's been too prolific for too long. It's been nearly two decades since a new Woody Allen was any kind of "event," and the 19 features since Bullets Over Broadway (1994) have been hit and-miss. Still, there's the hope that Allen is still capable of really surprising us — or that his audience might, as they did by somewhat inexplicably going nuts for 2011's Midnight in Paris. It was Allen's most popular film in eons, if not ever, probably helped by the fact that he wasn't in it. Unfortunately, he's up there again in the new To Rome With Love, familiar mannerisms not hiding the fact that Woody Allen the Nebbish has become just another Grumpy Old Man. There's a doddering quality that isn't intended, and is no longer within his control. But then To Rome With Love is a doddering picture — a postcard-pretty set of pictures with little more than "Have a nice day" scribbled on the back in script terms. Viewers expecting more of the travelogue pleasantness of Midnight in Paris may be forgiving, especially since it looks like a vacation, with Darius Khondji's photography laying on the golden Italian light and making all the other colors confectionary as well. But if Paris at least had the kernel of a good idea, Rome has only several inexplicably bad ones; it's a quartet of interwoven stories that have no substance, point, credibility, or even endearing wackiness. The shiny package can only distract so much from the fact that there's absolutely nothing inside. (1:52) (Harvey)

Trishna Ever difficult to pin down, director Michael Winterbottom continues his restless flipping between the light (2010's The Trip), artily experimental (2004's 9 Songs), pulpy (2010's The Killer Inside Me), and the dead serious (2007's A Mighty Heart). Trishna, loosely based on Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles and set in small-town and big-city modern-day India, lines up neatly on the bookshelf alongside Winterbottom's other Hardy bodice-ripper, 1996's Jude. By chance beautiful village girl Trishna (Freida Pinto) falls in with the handsome, thoroughly Westernized Jay (Riz Ahmed) and his laddish pals on holiday. A truck accident leaves her father unable to provide for their family, so she goes to work at the luxury hotel owned by Jay's father and overseen by his privileged son. There she gently gives him language tips, accepts his offer to educate her in travel industry management, and enjoys his growing attentions, until one day when he rescues her from roving thugs only to seduce her. Though she flees to her family home and eventually has an abortion, Trishna still proves to be an innocent and consents to live in Mumbai with Jay, who is flirting with the film industry and increasingly effaces his trusting girlfriend as their sexual game-playing becomes increasingly complicated. The shadows of both Hardy and Bollywood flit around Trishna, and this cultural transplant nearly works — the hothouse erotic entanglement between its two principals almost but not quite convinces one that Trishna would be driven to desperate ends. Still, even as Trishna, like Tess, infuriates with her passivity, her story occasionally enthralls — the fruit of Pinto's surprisingly brave, transparent performance. (1:53) (Chun)

Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection (1:54)

Your Sister's Sister The new movie from Lynn Shelton — who directed star and (fellow mumblecore director) Mark Duplass in her shaggily amusing Humpday (2009) — opens somberly, at a Seattle wake where his Jack makes his deceased brother's friends uncomfortable by pointing out that the do-gooder guy they'd loved just the last couple years was a bully and jerk for many years before his reformation. This outburst prompts an offer from friend-slash-mutual-crush Iris (Emily Blunt) that he get his head together for a few days at her family's empty vacation house on a nearby island. Arriving via ferry and bike, he is disconcerted to find someone already in residence — Iris' sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who's grieving a loss of her own (she's split with her girlfriend). Several tequila shots later, two Kinsey-scale opposites meet, which creates complications when Iris turns up the next day. A bit slight in immediate retrospect and contrived in its wrap-up, Shelton's film is nonetheless insinuating, likable, and a little touching while you're watching it. That's largely thanks to the actors' appeal — especially Duplass, who fills in a blunderingly lucky (and unlucky) character's many blanks with lived-in understatement. (1:30) (Harvey) *

 

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