Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, and Lynn Rapoport. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.
The Ambassador Mads Brügger's Danish documentary might be considered a cross between Borat (2006) and Jackass — its subject impersonates a fictional character to interact with real people in a series of reckless stunts that could conceivably be fatal. But the journalist-filmmaker-protagonist is up to something considerably more serious, and dangerous, than showing Americans doing stupid pet tricks. He buys a (fake) international diplomatic credential from a European broker, then uses his status as an alleged ambassador representing Liberia to set up a gray-market trade smuggling blood diamonds under the thin cover of building a never-to-be matchstick factory in the Central African Republic. What surprises is not so much how corrupt officials make that possible at every step, but how confoundedly easy it is — even if Brügger might well be in mortal peril from time to time. Clearly, leeching money out of Africa into First World hands is everyday big business, with few questions asked and no risk of having to share the spoils with those invisible ordinary citizens whose toil (in, for instance, diamond mines) makes it all possible. All the above is filmed by hidden cameras, offering damning proof of a trade many know about but few will actually admit exists. This amusing, appalling expose is "controversial," of course — the Liberian government and that purveyor of instant diplo-cred have already threatened legal action against Brügger for his "ethical violations" posing as someone he's not to reveal their own very real ethical violations. Which underlines that truly corrupted people seldom have any sense of humor, or irony. (1:37) Roxie. (Harvey)
The Bullet Vanishes Veteran Hong Kong actor Lau Ching-wan stars as a Sherlock Holmes type in 1930s Shanghai, bumped up from prison-guard detail to homicide detective by top brass impressed with his talent, if not his unusual methods. Good timing, since there's been a series of killings at the local munitions factory, an operation run by a Scooby Doo-ish villain — in cahoots with corrupt cops — who's prone to snappy hats and checkered overcoats. Adding to the mystery: a tragic back story involving Russian roulette and blood-written graffiti promising "The phantom bullets will kill you all!" Helping solve the crimes is Nicholas Tse as "the fastest gun in Tiancheng," no slouch of an investigator himself; together, the sleuths compile evidence and recreate scenes of murders, including one that seemingly transpired in a locked room with only one exit. The Bullet Vanishes contains more plot twists, slightly fewer steampunk flourishes, and way less slo-mo fist action than Guy Ritchie's recent attempts at Holmes; though it's no masterpiece, it's a fun enough whodunit, with a reliably great and quirky performance from Lau. (2:00) Metreon. (Eddy)
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate See "Live By the Sword." (2:01) Bay Street 16 Emeryville, Mercado 20 Santa Clara.
For a Good Time, Call&ldots; Suffering the modern-day dilemmas of elapsed rent control and boyfriend douchebaggery, sworn enemies Katie (Ari Graynor) and Lauren (Lauren Miller) find themselves shacking up in Katie's highly covetable Manhattan apartment, brought together on a stale cloud of resentment by mutual bestie Jesse (Justin Long, gamely delivering a believable version of your standard-issue young hipster NYC gay boy). The domestic glacier begins to melt somewhere around the time that Lauren discovers Katie is working a phone-sex hotline from her bedroom; equipped with a good head for business, she offers to help her go freelance for a cut of the proceeds. Major profitability ensues, as does a friendship evoking the pair bonding at the center of your garden-variety romantic comedy, as Katie trains Lauren to be a phone-sex operator and the two share everything from pinkie swears and matching pink touch-tone phones to intimate secrets and the occasional hotline threesome. Directed by Jamie Travis and adapted from a screenplay by Miller and Katie Anne Naylon, the film is a welcome response to the bromance genre, and with any luck it may also introduce linguistic felicities like "phone-banging" and "let's get this fuckshow started" into the larger culture. The raunchy telephonic interludes include cameos by Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen (Miller's husband) as customers calling from such unfurtive locations as a public bathroom stall and the front seat of a taxicab. But the two roomies supply plenty of dirty as Katie, an abashed wearer of velour and denim pantsuits, helps the more restrained Lauren discover the joys of setting free her inner potty mouth. (1:25) (Rapoport)
Lawless See "Heavy Drinking." (1:55) California, Four Star, Marina, Vogue.
Little White Lies In the wake of a serious accident that puts magnetic Ludo (Jean Dujardin, just briefly seen) in the hospital, his circle of closest friends go without him on their annual vacation at a beachfront summer home, courtesy of well-off restaurateur Max (Francois Cluzet) and wife Vero (Valerie Bonneton). But this year they've all got a lot of drama going on. Marie (Marion Cotillard) is suffering the uncomfortable consequences of all the lovers (male and female) she's run out on when "commitment" reared its head. Similarly, the roving eye of actor Eric (Gilles Lellouche) threatens the stable relationship he's finally sorta settled on. Hapless boy-man Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) obsesses over the longtime girlfriend who's dumping him. And Vincent (Benoit Magimel) endangers his marriage to Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot) by privately proclaiming more-than-platonic love for best friend Max — whose discomfort manifests itself in hostile behaviors that threaten to ruin everyone's stay. Actor Guillaume Canet's third film as writer-director (following the 2006 hit thriller Tell No One) has been compared, even by himself, to 1983's The Big Chill. But while that slick, somewhat glib seriocomedy's characters had 1960s activist pasts and faded ideals to square with encroaching midlife, this slicker, glibber ensemble piece is about people who've never shared much more than good times and mutual self-absorption. Though Canet has worked with most of these actors before, and developed Lies in collaboration with them, the thinly amusing, often contrived results hardly tax anyone's resources. (Nor are they equal-opportunity: star attraction Cotillard aside, he barely seems interested in the women here.) It takes two and a half hours for this overblown fluff to arrive at a group-hug freeze frame (ugh), aiming for emotional heft it still hasn't earned. (2:34) Albany, Bridge, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure Strictly for kids and parents, this comedy starring costumed characters encourages audience members to sing and dance along with the action. (1:28)
The Possession What kind of an asshole sells an antique box filled with supernatural evil to a child at a yard sale? Ticked-off father Jeffrey Dean Morgan would like to have a word with you. (1:31) Shattuck.
Red Hook Summer It seems like lifetimes ago that Michelle and Barack found each other beneath the flicker of filmmaker Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), so the director-cowriter's cameo in his now-graying, still-pizza-delivering Mookie guise, in this hot, bothered return to Brooklyn, reverberates with meaning. Less polemical and now complicated by an acute, confused love and loathing for certain places and faces, Red Hook Summer takes a different tact — the Red Hook projects rather than the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant — and narrows its focus on Flik Royale (Jules Brown), the reluctant young visitor to the humble home of his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters from Treme and The Wire). A true child of his time and place, the introverted, rebellious Atlanta kid would rather hide behind his favorite screen, a.k.a. the iPad that he's using to document his world, than engage with reality, even when it's raging in his face by way of his grandfather's fiery sermons or threats from the glowering rapper Box (Nate Parker). Only a charismatic girl his age, Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith), seems to get through, despite the Bishop's passionate efforts to bond with the boy. Alas, Lee himself doesn't seem to quite get his youthful protagonist — one who's predisposed to turn inward rather than turn a politicized lens outward — and instead casts about restlessly to the detriment of this supposed coming-of-age narrative. No shock that somehow Red Hook Summer gets caught in the undertow of the magnetic Peters, who will turn heads with his take on a tormented believer, eager to forgive and equally hopeful for forgiveness. (2:01) Metreon, Shattuck. (Chun)
Sleepwalk with Me Every year lots of movies get made by actors and comedians who want to showcase themselves, usually writing and often directing in addition to starring. Most of these are pretty bad, and after a couple of festival appearances disappear, unremembered by anyone save the credit card companies that vastly benefited from its creation. Mike Birbiglia's first feature is an exception — maybe not an entirely surprising one (since it's based on his highly praised Off-Broadway solo show and best-seller), but still odds-bucking. Particularly as it's an autobiographical feeling story about an aspiring stand-up comic (Mike as Matt) who unfortunately doesn't seem to have much natural talent in that direction, but nonetheless obsessively perseveres. This pursuit of seemingly fore destined failure might be causing his sleep disorder, or it might be a means of avoiding taking the martial next step with long-term girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose, making something special out of a conventional reactive role) everyone else agrees is the best thing in his life. Yep, it's another commitment-phobic man-boy/funny guy who regularly talks to the camera, trying to find himself while quirky friends and family stand around like trampoline spotters watching a determined clod. If all of these sounds derivative and indulgent, well, it ought to. But Sleepwalk turns a host of familiar, hardly foolproof ideas into astute, deftly performed, consistently amusing comedy with just enough seriousness for ballast. Additional points for "I zinged him" being the unlikely most gut-busting line here. (1:30) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)
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) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Alps Yorgos Lanthimos is well on his way to a reputation for sick yet oddly charming high-concept spectacles. Here, a group calling themselves Alps offers substitution services for the recently bereaved — that's right, they'll play your dead loved one to fill that hole in your life. Pitch-black comic moments abound, and the sensibility that made 2009's Dogtooth so thrilling is distinctly present here, if not quite as fresh. Beyond the absurd logline, the plot is rather more conventional: things get out of hand when Alps member Anna (Aggeliki Papoulia, the eldest daughter from Dogtooth) gets too invested in one of her assignments, and the power structure of Alps turns on her. If Alps is not exactly a revelation, it's still a promising entry in a quickly blossoming auteur's body of work. (1:33) Roxie. (Sam Stander)
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) Metreon. (Eddy)
The Apparition Does this horror flick stand a ghost of a chance against its predecessors? So many bodies, so many mysteriously slammed doors, so many girl ghouls — they all surface in this obviously low-budget cash-in on the coattails of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Look to the signs: the slow build of zero-CGI/bucks tension-building devices like flung-open doors that are supposed to be locked, scarily grainy, nausea-inducing handheld video footage and spastic editing, and screams in pitch blackness—with a dash of everything from 1979's Phantasm to Fulci to J-Horror. Prefaced by the story of psychics' attempts to rouse a spirit, then a flashback to a group of college students' try at recreating the séance by magnifying their brainwaves, The Apparition opens on the cute, perfectly made-up, and way-too-glamorous-for-suburbia Kelly (Ashley Greene) and her boyfriend Ben (Sebastian Stan), who have just moved into a new faceless development in the middle of nowhere, into a house her family has bought as an investment. Turns out they aren't the only ones playing house, as the building's alarm is continually bypassed, mysterious mold appears, and the neighbor's adorable pup whimpers at thin air and obligingly dies in their laundry room. Matters go from bad to worst, as some invisible force does in Kelly's cactus, messes up her closet, and blows the lights — all of which also sounds like the antics of a lousy roommate. Add in choppy, continuity-destroying editing; throwaway dialogue; music that sounds like it came from Kelly's favorite store, Costco; overt appropriations like a slithery, long-haired ghoul girl that slimes her way out of a cardboard box; and that important, indelibly spooky image that comes far too late to count — and you'll find yourself rooting for the fiend to put these kids out of their misery. (1:22) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
The Awakening In 1921 England Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a best-selling author who specializes in exposing the legions of phony spiritualists exploiting a nation still grieving for its World War I dead. She's rather rudely summoned to a country boys' boarding school by gruff instructor Robert (Dominic West), who would be delighted if she could disprove the presence of a ghost there — preferably before it frightens more of his young charges to death. Borrowing tropes from the playbooks of recent Spanish and Japanese horror flicks, Nick Murphy's period thriller is handsome and atmospheric, but disappointing in a familiar way — the buildup is effective enough, but it all unravels in pat logic and rote "Boo!" scares when the anticlimactic payoff finally arrives. The one interesting fillip is Florence's elaborate, antiquated, meticulously detailed arsenal of equipment and ruses designed to measure (or debunk) possibly supernatural phenomena. (1:47) Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
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) California, Embarcadero, Presidio, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
The Bourne Legacy Settle down, Matt Damon fans — the original Bourne appears in The Bourne Legacy only in dialogue ("Jason Bourne is in New York!") and photograph form. Stepping in as lead badass is Jeremy Renner, whose twin powers of strength and intelligence come courtesy of an experimental-drug program overseen by sinister government types (including Edward Norton in an utterly generic role) and administered by lab workers doing it "for the science!," according to Dr. Rachel Weisz. Legacy's timeline roughly matches up with the last Damon film, The Bourne Ultimatum, which came out five years ago and is referenced here like we're supposed to be on a first-name basis with its long-forgotten plot twists. Anyway, thanks to ol' Jason and a few other factors involving Albert Finney and YouTube, the drug program is shut down, and all guinea-pig agents and high-security-clearance doctors are offed. Except guess which two, who manage to flee across the globe to get more WMDs for Renner's DNA. Essentially one long chase scene, The Bourne Legacy spends way too much of its time either in Norton's "crisis suite," watching characters bark orders and stare at computer screens, or trying to explain the genetic tinkering that's made Renner a super-duper-superspy. Remember when Damon killed that guy with a rolled-up magazine in 2004's The Bourne Supremacy? Absolutely nothing so rad in this imagination-free enterprise. (2:15) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
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) Shattuck. (Eddy)
The Campaign (1:25) California, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center.
Celeste and Jesse Forever Married your best friend, realized you love but can't be in love with each other, and don't want to let all those great in-jokes wither away? Such is the premise of Celeste and Jesse Forever, the latest in what a recent wave of meaty, girl-centric comedies penned by actresses — here Rashida Jones working with real-life ex Will McCormack; there, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Zoe Lister Jones (Lola Versus), and Lena Dunham (Girls) — who have gone the DIY route and whipped up their own juicy roles. There's no mistaking theirs for your average big-screen rom-com: they dare to wallow harder, skew smarter, and in the case of Celeste, tackle the thorny, tough-to-resolve relationship dilemma that stubbornly refuses to conform to your copy-and-paste story arc. Nor do their female protagonists come off as uniformly likable: in this case, Celeste (Jones) is a bit of an aspiring LA powerbitch. Her Achilles heel is artist Jesse (Andy Samberg), the slacker high school sweetheart she wed and separated from because he doesn't share her goals (e.g., he doesn't have a car or a job). Yet the two continue to spend all their waking hours together and share an undeniable rapport, extending from Jesse's encampment in her backyard apartment to their jokey simulated coitus featuring phallic-shaped lip balm. Throwing a wrench in the works: the fact that they're still kind of in love with each other, which all their pals, like Jesse's pot-dealer bud Skillz (McCormack), can clearly see. It's an shaggy, everyday breakup yarn, writ glamorous by its appealing leads, that we too rarely witness, and barring the at-times nausea-inducing shaky-cam under the direction of Lee Toland Krieger, it's rendered compelling and at times very funny — there's no neat and tidy way to say good-bye, and Jones and McCormack do their best to capture but not encapsulate the severance and inevitable healing process. It also helps that the chemistry practically vibrates between the boyish if somewhat one-note Samberg and the soulful Jones, who fully, intelligently rises to the occasion, bringing on the heartbreak. (1:31) Balboa, Marina, Metreon, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Compliance No film at this year's Sundance Film Festival encountered as much controversy as Craig Zobel's Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with an audience member yelling "Sundance can do better!" You can't buy that kind of publicity. Every screening that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at Sundance, and the film did not disappoint. (Beware: every review I have happened upon has unnecessarily spoiled major plots in the film, which is based on true events.) What is so impressive about Zobel's film is how it builds up a sense of ever-impending terror. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the film steps into Psycho (1960) terrain, as it boldly aims to confront a society filled with people who are trained to follow rules without questioning them. Magnolia Pictures, which previously collaborated with Zobel on his debut film Great World of Sound (which premiered at Sundance in 2007), picked up the film for theatrical release; if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized as well as intellectualized. You'll be screaming about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that's exactly why the film is so brilliant. For an interview with Zobel, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (1:30) Lumiere. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)
Cosmopolis With end times nigh and the 99 percent battering the gates of the establishment, it's little wonder David Cronenberg's rendition of the Don DeLillo novel might rotate, with the stately rhythm of a royal funeral and deliciously tongue-in-cheek humor, around one of the most famed vampire heartthrobs at the cineplex. Sadly, a recent paparazzi scandal threatens to eclipse this latest, enjoyably blighted installment in the NYC urban nightmare genre. Robert Pattinson's billionaire asset manager Eric Packer takes meetings with his new wife Elise (Sarah Gadon) and staffers like his monetary theorist Vija (Samantha Morton) in his moving office: a white, leather-bound stretch limo that materializes like a sleek, imposing extension of his pale frame. Seriously disassociated from reality on multiple levels, Eric is a 28-year-old boy in a bubble, speaking of himself in third person and willing to spend all day making his way across town to get a haircut at his father's old barbershop, even though his head of security (Kevin Durand) warns him that at least one "credible threat" has designs on his life. The passing of his favorite Sufi rapper (K'Naan), a possible Rothko for sale, a mad pie-thrower, and an asymmetrical prostate all threaten to capsize those, as it turns out, not-so-humble plans. Warning: the brainier members of Team Edward might plan on finding their minds blown by this thoughtful and mordantly humorous meditation on this country's cult of money, while Cronenberg watchers will be gratified to pluck out his recurring themes, here dealt with a lighter hand than usual. At this date, rather than telegraphing how one might feel about a scene by way of, say, music, the director is increasingly comfortable with the ambiguity — and the uneasy, pleasing mix of sneaking repulsion and gimlet-eyed humor, of these scenes and their language. Thus the autoerotic-car fetishism of Crash (1996) and hallucinatory culture grazing of Naked Lunch (1991) — and that fascination with how a body intersects sexually or otherwise with a machine or "other" — seems completely natural here. Or perhaps it's a measure of how much Cronenberg's preoccupations and cinematic language have made themselves at home in the vernacular. (1:49) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Chun)
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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
The Expendables 2 (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
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) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Rapoport)
Hermano As a child, Julio (Eliu Armas) discovered foundling Daniel (Fernando Moreno) abandoned in a dumpster; taken in by the former's mom (Marcela Giron), the two boys are raised as brothers. They're close as can be, even if Julio is physically slight, shy, and straight-arrow, while strapping Daniel is a born leader and survivor quite willing to cross the legal line when it serves his purposes. One area in which they're of the same mind is the soccer field, where both (especially Daniel) are talented players with hopes of going pro. But that seems a remote dream in their violence-ridden slum. Marcel Rasquin's Venezuelan sports-crime drama is built on some hoary clichés — the "good" brother/"bad" brother dynamic, the tragedy that sparks revenge that sparks more tragedy, etc. — but is so unpretentious, energetic, sincere. and well-cast that skeptical resistance is futile. It's a modest movie, but a true, satisfying pleasure. (1:37) Metreon. (Harvey)
Hit and Run Annie (Kristen Bell) has a Stanford doctorate but is treading in the academic backwaters until the prospect is raised of an ideal department-heading position at UCLA. She's thrilled, but also conflicted, because live-in beau Charlie (Dax Shepard) is in the Federal Witness Protection program, and can't leave the nowhere burg he lives in incognito — particularly for Los Angeles — without risking serious personal harm. However, for love he decides he'll risk everything so she can take the job. Unfortunately, this fast attracts the attention of various people very much interested in halting this exodus, for various reasons: notably Charlie's inept U.S. Marshall "protector" (Tom Arnold), Annie's psycho ex (Smallville's Michael Rosenbaum), and a guy with an even more serious grudge against Charlie (Bradley Cooper in a dreadlock wig). A whole lot of wacky chases and stunt driving ensues. The second feature Shepard's co-directed (with David Palmer) and written, this aims for a cross between 1970s drive-in demolition derbies (1977's Smokey and the Bandit, 1974's Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, etc.) and envelope-pushing comedy thrillers like 1993's True Romance. There's a lot of comic talent here, including some notable cameos, yet Hit and Run is one of those cases where the material is almost there, but not quite. It moves breezily enough but some of the characters are more annoying than funny; the dialogue is an awkward mix of bad taste and PC debates about bad taste; and some ideas that aim to be hilarious and subversive (naked old people, a long discussion about jailhouse rape) just sit there, painfully. Which makes this only the second-best Dax Shepard movie with incarceration rape jokes, after 2006's Let's Go to Prison. (1:38) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)
Hope Springs Heading into her 32nd year of matrimony with aggressively oblivious Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), desperate housewife Kay (Meryl Streep) sets aside her entrenched passivity in a last-ditch effort to put flesh back on the skeleton of a marriage. Stumbling upon the guidance of one Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell) in the self-help section of a bookstore, Kay (barely) convinces Arnold to accompany her to a weeklong session at Feld's Center for Intensive Couples Counseling, in Hope Springs, Maine. The scenes from a marriage leading up to their departure, as well as the incremental advances and crippling setbacks of their therapeutic sojourn, are poignant and distressing and possibly familiar. Some slow drift, long ago set in motion, though we don't know by what, has settled them in concrete in their separate routines — and bedrooms. It's the kind of thing that, if it were happening in real life — say, to you — might make you weep. But somehow, through the magic of cinema and the uncomfortable power of witnessing frankly depicted failures of intimacy, we laugh. This is by no means a wackiness-ensues sort of sexual comedy, though. Director David Frankel (2006's The Devil Wears Prada and, unfortunately, 2008's Marley & Me) and Jones and Streep, through the finely detailed particularities of their performances, won't let it be, while Carell resists playing the therapeutic scenes for more than the gentlest pulses of humor. More often, his empathetic silences and carefully timed queries provide a place for these two unhappy, inarticulate, isolated people to fall and fumble and eventually make contact. (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
Ice Age: Continental Drift (1:27) Metreon.
The Imposter A family tragedy, an international thriller, a Southern-fried mystery, and a true story: The Imposter is all of these things. This unique documentary reveals the tale of Frédéric Bourdin, dubbed "the Chameleon" for his epic false-identity habit. His ballsiest accomplishment was also his most heinous con: in 1997, he claimed to be Nicholas Barclay, a San Antonio teen missing since 1994. Amazingly, the impersonation worked for a time, though Bourdin (early 20s, brown-eyed, speaks English with a French accent) hardly resembled Nicholas (who would have been 16, and had blue eyes). Using interviews — with Nicholas' shell-shocked family, government types who unwittingly aided the charade, and Bourdin himself — and ingenious re-enactments that borrow more from crime dramas than America's Most Wanted, director Bart Layton weaves a multi-layered chronicle of one man's unbelievable deception. (1:39) Lumiere. (Eddy)
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) Lumiere. (Chun)
Killer Joe William Friedkin made two enormously popular movies that have defined his career (1971's The French Connection and 1973's The Exorcist), but his resumé also contains an array of lesser films that are both hit-and-miss in critical and popular appeal. Most have their defenders. After a couple biggish action movies, it seemed a step down for him to be doing Bug in 2006; though it had its limits as a psychological quasi-horror, you could feel the cracking recognition of like minds between cast, director, and playwright Tracy Letts. Letts and Friedkin are back in Killer Joe, which was a significant off-Broadway success in 1998. In the short, violent, and bracing film version, Friedkin gets the ghoulish jet-black-comedic tone just right, and his actors let themselves get pushed way out on a limb to their great benefit — including Matthew McConaughey, playing the title character, who's hired by the Smith clan of Texas to bump off a troublesome family member. Needless to say, almost nothing goes as planned, escalating mayhem to new heights of trailer-trash Grand Guignol. Things get fugly to the point where Killer Joe becomes one of those movies whose various abuses are shocking enough to court charges of gratuitous violence and misogyny; unlike the 2010 Killer Inside Me, for instance, it can't really be justified as a commentary upon those very entertainment staples. (Letts is highly skilled, but those looking for a message here will have to think one up for themselves.) Still, Friedkin and his cast do such good work that Killer Joe's grimly humorous satisfaction in its worst possible scenarios seems quite enough. (1:43) Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
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) Four Star, Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Michelle Devereaux)
The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2:05) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.
ParaNorman (1:32) Balboa, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
Premium Rush "Fixed gear. Steel frame. No brakes. Can't stop ... don't want to." Thus goes the gear breakdown and personal philosophy of New York City bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an aggro rider who uses his law school-refined brain to make split-second decisions regarding which way to dart through Midtown traffic. Though bike messengers had a pop culture moment in the 1990s, Premium Rush is set in the present day, with one of Wilee's numerous voice-overs explaining the job's continued importance even in the digital era. One such example: a certain envelope he's tasked with ferrying across the city, given to him by the troubled roommate (Jamie Chung) of the pretty fellow messenger (Dania Ramirez) he's romantically pursuing. The contents of the envelope, and the teeth-gnashingly evil-cop-with-a-gambling-problem (Michael Shannon, adding some weird flair to what's essentially a stock villain) who would dearly love to get his mitts on it, are less crucial to Premium Rush than the film's many, many chase scenes featuring Wilee outwitting all comers with his two-wheeled Frogger moves. Silly fun from director David Koepp (2008's Ghost Town), but not essential unless you're a fixie fanatic or a JGL completist. (1:31) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
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) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Robot and Frank Imagine the all-too-placid deadpan of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) coming out of a home-healthcare worker, and you get just part of the appeal of this very likable comedy debut with a nonrobotic pulse directed by Jake Schreier. Sometime in the indeterminate near future, former jewel thief and second-story man Frank (Frank Langella) can be found quietly deteriorating in his isolated home, increasingly forgettable and unable to care for himself and assemble a decent bowl of Cap'n Crunch (though he can still steal fancy soaps from the village boutique). In an effort to cover his own busy rear, Frank's distracted son (James Marsden) buys him a highly efficient robotic stand-in (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), much to his father's grim resistance ("That thing is going to murder me in my sleep") and the dismay of crunchy sibling Madison (Liv Tyler). The robot, however, is smarter than it looks, as it bargains with Frank to eat better, get healthier, and generally reanimate: it's willing to learn to pick locks, participate in a robbery, and even plan a jewel heist, provided, say, Frank agrees to a low-sodium diet. Frank flourishes, like the garden the robot nurtures in a vain attempt to interest his human charge, and even goes on a date with his librarian crush (Susan Sarandon), though can the self-indulgent idyll last forever? A tale about aging as much as it is about rediscovery, Robot tells an old story, but one that's wise beyond its years and willing to dress itself up in some of the smooth, sleek surfaces of an iGeneration. (1:30) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (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 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) Four Star, Piedmont. (Chun)
Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter's stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock'n'roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician — long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) Clay. (Chun)
Sparkle What started as a vehicle for American Idol's Jordin Sparks will now forever be known as Whitney Houston's Last Movie, with the fallen superstar playing a mother of three embittered by her experiences in the music biz. Her voice is hoarse, her face is puffy, and her big singing moment ("His Eye Is on the Sparrow" in a church scene) is poorly lip-synced — but dammit, she's Whitney Houston, and she has more soul than everything else in Sparkle combined and squared. The tale of an aspiring girl group in late-60s Detroit, Sparkle's other notable points include flawless period outfits, hair, and make-up (especially the eyeliner), but the rest of the film is a pretty blah mix of melodrama and clichés: the sexpot older sister (Carmen Ejogo) marries the abusive guy and immediately starts snorting coke; the squeaky-clean youngest (Sparks, sweet but boring) is one of those only-in-the-movie songwriters who crafts intricate pop masterpieces from her diary scribblings. As far as Idol success stories go, Dreamgirls (2006) this ain't; Houston fans would do better to revisit The Bodyguard (1992) and remember the diva in her prime. (1:56) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
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) Metreon. (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) SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Total Recall Already the source material for Paul Verhoeven's campy, quotable 1990 film (starring the campy, quotable Arnold Schwarzenegger), Philip K. Dick's short story gets a Hollywood do-over, with meh results. The story, anyway, is a fine nugget of sci-fi paranoia: to escape his unsatisfying life, Quaid (Colin Farrell) visits a company capable of implanting exciting memories into his brain. When he chooses the "secret agent" option, it's soon revealed he actually does have secret agent-type memories, suppressed via brain-fuckery by sinister government forces (led by Bryan Cranston) keeping him in the dark about his true identity. Shit immediately gets crazy, with high-flying chases and secret codes and fight scenes all over the place. The woman Quaid thinks is his wife (Kate Beckinsale) is actually a slithery killer; the woman he's been seeing in his dreams (Jessica Biel) turns out to be his comrade in a secret rebel movement. Len Wiseman (writer and sometimes director of the Underworld films) lenses futuristic urban grime with a certain sleek panache, and Farrell is appealing enough to make highly generic hero Quaid someone worth rooting for — until the movie ends, and the entire enterprise (save perhaps the tri-boobed hooker, a holdover from the original) becomes instantly forgettable, no amnesia trickery required. (1:58) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
2 Days in New York Messy, attention-hungry, random, sweet, pathetic, and even adorable — such is the latest dispatch from Julie Delpy, here with her follow-up to 2007's 2 Days in Paris. It's also further proof that the rom-com as a genre can yet be saved by women who start with the autobiographical and spin off from there. Now separated from 2 Days in Paris's Jake and raising their son, artist Marion is happily cohabiting with boyfriend Mingus (Chris Rock), a radio host and sometime colleague at the Village Voice, and his daughter, while juggling her big, bouncing bundle of neuroses. Exacerbating her issues: a visit by her father Jeannot (Delpy's real father Albert Delpy), who eschews baths and tries to smuggle an unseemly selection of sausages and cheeses into the country; her provocative sister Rose (Alexia Landeau), who's given to nipple slips in yoga class and Marion and Mingus' apartment; and Rose's boyfriend Manu (Alexandre Nahon), who's trouble all around. The gang's in NYC for Marion's one-woman show, in which she hopes to auction off her soul to the highest, and hopefully most benevolent, bidder. Rock, of course, brings the wisecracks to this charming, shambolic urban chamber comedy, as well as, surprisingly, a dose of gravitas, as Marion's aggrieved squeeze — he's uncertain whether these home invaders are intentionally racist, cultural clueless, or simply bonkers but he's far too polite to blurt out those familiar Rock truths. The key, however, is Delpy — part Woody Allen, if the Woodman were a maturing, ever-metamorphosing French beauty — and part unique creature of her own making, given to questioning her identity, ideas of life and death, and the existence of the soul. 2 Days in New York is just a sliver of life, but buoyed by Delpy's thoughtful, lightly madcap spirit. You're drawn in, wanting to see what happens next after the days are done. (1:31) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)
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