Film Listings and Reviews
Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.
Argo See "The Rescuer." (2:00) Four Star, Marina.
Decoding Deepak And you thought your dad was a hard nut to crack. Decoding Deepak, directed by the son of New Age guru Deepak Chopra, offers insight into what it's like to be the son of a man who's built a career on commodifying spirituality, thanks to a string of best sellers and an Oprah seal of approval. Though the thirtysomething Gotham Chopra seems focused on catching his father off guard, Deepak offstage is exactly what you'd expect: a bit entitled and narcissistic, as many famous folks tend to be; obsessed with Twitter, as all media people tend to be; and "a guy who turns any mundane question into a talking point for a new book." In other words, there are no shocking revelations here — though Deepak does offer an up-close view of some exceptionally galactic father-son tension. (1:23) Roxie, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Din Tao: Leader of the Parade When he grows tired of school in Taipei, a ne'er-do-well named Tai returns to his rural village, rocking spiky hair, a Throwdown tee, and a wallet chain. Far from a safe haven, however, the town is a place with problems both personal (Tai's dad is of the opinion his son has been "useless since he was little") and, uh, political, in the form of fierce competition between local folk dance and drumming troupes. Seems Pop isn't as mean as he seems, since the group he manages is comprised of disadvantaged and special-needs kids. When the sneering local champs (who have emo haircuts and drive vans emblazoned with tribal tattoo designs) challenge the underdogs to a not-so-friendly competition, Tai joins his father's group, and it's not long before he injects tradition with a little rock 'n' roll flair, angering his deeply traditional father (in a subplot that gets pretty tiresome) even as the younger generations learn to put their differences aside. Based on a true story, Din Tao is the opening night film of the Taiwan Film Days series at New People Cinema, hosted by the San Francisco Film Society; visit sffs.org/cinema for complete schedule. (2:03) New People Cinema. (Eddy)
Excuse Me for Living When the going of indie filmmaking grows economically rough, the moneyed and well-connected enter the field, swinging enriched resumes. Writer-director Ric Klass seems to have garnered experience in many a lucrative field, founding a private equity firm and real estate development company, teaching entrepreneurship at Georgetown University's School of Business Administration, and working as a financial consultant to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. How does that multipronged background help when it comes to this ungainly throwback comedy, a glance to Old Hollywood with a nod to both the Borscht Belt and sitcom? Spoiled Ivy League-schooled addict Dan (Tom Pelphrey), a smart-assed semi-charmer-in-his-own-mind straight out of a Bret Easton Ellis epic, is about to toss himself off a bridge when he's pulled from the brink by a passing cop and pushed into posh rehab Live Free or Die. His doctor (Robert Vaughn) prescribes meetings with his temple's men's group, populated by an array of accomplished raconteurs, and there he meets his doc's pretty, scribbling daughter (Melissa Archer). Attraction ensues, with tangential broad comic forays that aspire to the snappy chatter of My Man Godfrey (1936) but somehow get bogged down in the dalliances of Dan's dad (Wayne Knight) and his mother's man-eating divorce lawyer Charlotte Davidson (Ewa Da Cruz). And despite a few promising chuckles and a glut of cameos, micro and macro, by actors such as Jerry Stiller, Dick Cavett, and Christopher Lloyd, Excuse Me's cliched narrative, vaguely antiquated dialogue and score, and even staler hints of misogyny capsize this enterprise in dire need of an editor. (1:45) 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Fat Kid Rules the World It really does suck to be Troy (Jacob Wysocki from 2011's Terri). An XXL-sized high schooler, he's invisible to his peers, derided by his little brother (Dylan Arnold), and has lived in general domestic misery since the death of his beloved mother under the heavy-handed rule of his well-meaning but humorless ex-military dad (Billy Campbell). His only friends are online gamers, his only girlfriends the imaginary kind. But all that begins to change when chance throws him across the path of notorious local hellraiser Marcus (Matt O'Leary), who's been expelled from school, has left the band he fronts, and is equal parts rebel hero to druggy, lyin' mess. But he randomly decrees Troy is cool, and his new drummer. Even if he's just being used, Troy's world is headed for some big changes. Actor Matthew Lilliard's feature directorial debut, based on K.L. Going's graphic novel, is familiar stuff in outline but a delight in execution, as it trades the usual teen-comedy crudities (a few gratuitous joke fantasy sequences aside) for something more heartfelt and restrained, while still funny. O'Leary from last year's overlooked Natural Selection is flamboyantly terrific, while on the opposite end of the acting scale Campbell makes repressed emotion count for a lot — he has one wordless moment at a hospital that just might bring you to the tears his character refuses to spill. (1:38) Metreon, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Here Comes the Boom Kevin James plays a teacher who ventures into the world of mixed martial arts. (1:45) The Other Dream Team Despite all of the baseball and football fever crackling around town lately, there are some of us who wonder, "How long 'till basketball season?" Tide over your longing with this engaging doc, which is named for Lithuania's 1992 Olympic basketball team but is really about how the sport has shaped the culture of a nation, even during its decades spent under Soviet rule. It begins with the USSR's defeat of team USA at the 1988 games — at the height of the Cold War, and when most Americans assumed all Soviet athletes were more or less variations on the ruthless man-machine played by Dolph Lundgren in 1985's Rocky IV. Of course, what people didn't realize was that four of the five starters were Lithuanians — NBA-level players who were not allowed to leave the USSR to pursue their careers. Four years later, times had changed (one of the men is former Warriors standout Sarunas Marciulionis; another is Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis), and the Lithuanian team that competed in 1992 (with the financial backing of the Grateful Dead, hoops fans who applauded their courage) became an emotional symbol for the newly-independent country. The end result is a tale that's equal parts sobering, rousing, and funny — and tie-dyed. (1:31) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Eddy)
Seven Psychopaths Those nostalgic for 1990s-style chatty assassins will find much to love in the broadly sketched Seven Psychopaths. Director-writer Martin McDonough already dipped a pen into Tarantino's blood-splattered ink well with his 2008 debut feature, In Bruges, and Seven Psychopaths reads as larkier and more off-the-cuff, as the award-winning Irish playwright continues to try to find his own discomfiting, teasing balance between goofy Grand Guignol yuks and meta-minded storytelling. Structured, sort of, with the certified lucidity of a thrill killer, Seven Psychopaths opens on Boardwalk Empire heavies Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg bantering about the terrors of getting shot in the eyeball, while waiting to "kill a chick." The talky twosome don't seem capable of harming a fat hen, in the face of the Jack of Spades serial killer, who happens to be Psychopath No. One and a serial destroyer of hired guns. The key to the rest of the psychopathic gang is locked in the noggin of screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell), who's grappling with a major block and attempting the seeming impossible task of creating a peace-loving, Buddhist killer. Looking on are his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) and actor best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who has a lucrative side gig as a dog kidnapper — and reward snatcher — with the dapper Hans (Christopher Walken). A teensy bit too enthusiastic about Marty's screenplay, Billy displays a talent for stumbling over psychos, reeling in Zachariah (Tom Waits) and, on his doggie-grabbing adventures, Shih Tzu-loving gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Unrest assured, leitmotifs from McDonough plays — like a preoccupation with fiction-making (The Pillowman) and the coupling of pet-loving sentimentality and primal violence (The Lieutenant of Inishmore) — crop up in Seven Psychopaths, though in rougher, less refined form, and sprinkled with a nervous, bromantic anxiety that barely skirts homophobia. Best to bask in the cute, dumb pleasures of a saucer-eyed lap dog and the considerably more mental joys of this cast, headed up by dear dog hunter Walken, who can still stir terror with just a withering gaze and a voice that can peel the finish off a watch. (1:45) Piedmont. (Chun)
Sinister In which Ethan Hawke realizes it's a good idea to make sure your new house isn't haunted by an ancient demon before you move in with your wife and kids. (1:50)
Smiley This is a movie inspired by a website (specifically, 4chan's /b/ discussion board) about a killer created by the internet (literally, formed as part of some kind of next-level, computers-are-becoming-self-aware shizz), starring a YouTube personality (Shane Dawson) — so the purposes of opening Smiley theatrically, which it's probably better suited to online viewing, are mysterious. That's about the only intrigue in Smiley, which is ostensibly about a college freshman (Caitlin Girard) coming off a nervous breakdown who believes she's being targeted by the titular killer, who can be summoned by three-peating (like Bloody Mary or Candyman or Beetlejuice) the phrase "I did it for the lulz." No real scares — just some gotcha! jumps and shrill music cues — or much else to recommend here, other than a weird performance by Roger Bart as a creepy philosophy prof, and Keith David, who cameos as a skeptical detective. (Almost worth watching just to hear David say "lulz" with those storied pipes. Almost.) (1:30) Mercado 20. (Eddy)
The Thieves The lure of a massive diamond with the theatrical name "Tear of the Sun" draws a ragtag crew of Korean and Chinese thieves — all of whom have shifty loyalties and motivations — to a casino in Macau, where the gem is hidden. Meanwhile, the local cops have their own angle, scheming to use the crooks to lead them to a mysterious master fence with a towering reputation for violence. It's clear early on that this heist (complete with safecracking, gadgets, security-camera sabotage, gun battles, double-crosses, disguises, Spiderman-ing up and down building exteriors, etc.) won't go off as planned — and payback for those who betray the others will be a bitch — but that's part of the fun of this jazzy if derivative caper, already a huge hit in Korea. (2:16) Cupertino 16. (Eddy)
War of the Buttons Drama about kids in rural France banding together during the days of Nazi occupation. (1:40) Bridge, Shattuck.
Arbitrage As Arbitrage opens, its slick protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), is trying to close the sale of his life, on his 60th birthday: the purchase of his company by a banking goliath. The trick is completing the deal before his fraud, involving hundreds of millions of dollars, is uncovered, though the whip-smart daughter who works for him (Brit Marling) might soon be onto him. Meanwhile, Miller's gaming his personal affairs as well, juggling time between a model wife (Susan Sarandon) and a Gallic gallerist mistress (Laetitia Casta), when sudden-death circumstances threaten to destroy everything, and the power broker's livelihood — and very existence — ends up in the hands of a young man (Nate Parker) with ambitions of his own. It's a realm that filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki is all too familiar with. Though like brothers Andrew (2003's Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene (2005's Why We Fight), Jarecki's first love is documentaries (his first film, 2006's The Outsider, covered auteur James Toback), his family is steeped in the business world. Both his parents were commodities traders, and Jarecki once owned his own web development firm and internet access provider, among other ventures. When he started writing Arbitrage's script in 2008, he drew some inspiration from Bernard Madoff — but ultimately, the film is about a good man who became corrupted along the way, to the point of believing in his own invincibility. (1:40) Presidio, Smith Rafael. (Chun)
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) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Bitter Seeds Just what we all needed: more incontrovertible evidence of the bald-faced evil of Monsanto. This documentary on destitute Indian cotton farmers follows an 18-year-old girl named Manjusha, a budding journalist who investigates the vast numbers of farmer suicides since the introduction (and market stranglehold) of "BT" cotton — which uses the corporation's proprietary GMO technology — in the region of Vidarbha. Before BT took over in 2004, these cotton farmers relied on cheap heritage seed fertilized only by cow dung, but the largely illiterate population fell prey to Monsanto's marketing blitz and false claims, purchasing biotech seed that resulted in pesticide reliance, failing crops, and spiraling debt. It's a truly heartbreaking and infuriating story, but much of the action feels stagy and false. Should Indian formality be blamed? Considering the same fate befell Micha X. Peled's 2005 documentary China Blue, probably not. Still, eff Monsanto. (1:28) Roxie. (Michelle Devereaux)
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) SF Center. (Eddy)
Butter (1:32) 1000 Van Ness, Smith Rafael.
The Campaign (1:25) 1000 Van Ness.
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. (Eddy)
Detropia Those of us from Detroit, once-glamorous capital of American manufacturing and symbol of the triumph of capitalism, often feel like we were born with the history of the city in our bones. Another common feeling is that of dread upon hearing that yet another arty documentary (or brow-furrowing article, or glossy photo book) is coming down the pipe. The narrative arc of such things is usually this: remember Motown? Cars were amazing. Then there were scary riots, probably out of thin air. Then the jobs left. Isn't Detroit sad now? Look how spooky this abandoned train station from the 1930s is! America is over. Wait! Some hipsters are starting a farm downtown! There may be hope after all. But who knows? Detropia, directed by Heidi Ewing, who grew up near Detroit, and Rachel Grady, doesn't exactly deconstruct that crusty storyline (non-spoiler alert: the hipster-farmers become performance artists). But this important and beautiful film shows how much more of the Detroit tale takes on meaning and shape when told through the voices of people who actually live there, with a cinematic eye that doesn't shy away from reality, even as it bends it to narrative ends. (1:30) Smith Rafael. (Marke B.)
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel The life of legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland is colorfully recounted in Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, a doc directed by her granddaughter-in-law, Lisa Immordino Vreeland. The family connection meant seemingly unlimited access to material featuring the unconventionally glamorous (and highly quotable) Vreeland herself, plus the striking images that remain from her work at Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Narrated" from interview transcripts by an actor approximating the late Vreeland's husky, posh tones, the film allows for some criticism (her employees often trembled at the sight of her; her sons felt neglected; her grasp of historical accuracy while working at the museum was sometimes lacking) among the praise, which is lavish and delivered by A-listers like Anjelica Huston, who remembers "She had a taste for the extraordinary and the extreme," and Manolo Blahnik, who squeals, "She had the vision!" (1:26) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Eddy)
Dredd 3D Cartoonishly, gleefully gruesome violence abounds in Dredd 3D, a pretty enjoyable comic-book adaptation thanks to star Karl Urban's deadpan zingers. This is not a remake of the 1995 Sly Stallone flop Judge Dredd, by the way, though it might as well be a remake of 2011 Indonesian import The Raid: Redemption. The stories are identical. Like, lawsuit material-identical: supercop infiltrates (and then becomes trapped in, and must battle his way out of) a high-rise apartment tower run by a ruthless crime boss. Key difference is that Dredd has futuristic weapons, and The Raid had badass martial arts. Also Dredd's villain is played by Lena "Cersei Lannister" Headey, so there's that. (1:38) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
End of Watch Buddy cop movies tend to go one of two ways: the action-comedy route (see: the Rush Hour series) or the action-drama route. End of Watch is firmly in the latter camp, despite some witty shit-talking between partners Taylor (a chrome-domed Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña from 2004's Crash) as they patrol the mean streets of Los Angeles. Writer-director David Ayer, who wrote 2001's Training Day, aims for authenticity by piecing together much of (but, incongruously, not all of) the story through dashboard cameras, surveillance footage, and Officer Taylor's own ever-present camera, which he claims to be carrying for a school project, though we never once see him attending classes or mentioning school otherwise. Gyllenhaal and Peña have an appealing rapport, but End of Watch's adrenaline-seeking plot stretches credulity at times, with the duo stumbling across the same group of gangsters multiple times in a city of three million people. Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick do what they can in underwritten cop-wife roles, but End of Watch is ultimately too familiar (but not lawsuit-material familiar) to leave any lasting impression. Case in point: in the year 2012, do we really need yet another love scene set to Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You"? (1:49) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)
Finding Nemo 3D (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.
Frankenweenie Tim Burton's feature-length Frankenweenie expands his 1984 short of the same name (canned by Disney back in the day for being too scary), and is the first black and white film to receive the 3D IMAX treatment. A stop-motion homage to every monster movie Burton ever loved, Frankenweenie is also a revival of the Frankenstein story cute-ified for kids; it takes the showy elements of Mary Shelley's novel and morphs them to fit Burton's hyperbolic aesthetic. Elementary-school science wiz Victor takes his disinterred dog from bull terrier to gentle abomination (when the thirsty Sparky drinks, he shoots water out of the seams holding his body parts together). Victor's competitor in the school science fair, Edgar E. Gore, finds out about Sparky and ropes in classmates to scrape up their dead pets from the town's eerily utilized pet cemetery and harness the town's lightning surplus. The film's answer to Boris Karloff (lisp intact) resurrects a mummified hamster, while a surrogate for Japanese Godzilla maker Ishiro Honda, revives his pet turtle Shelley (get it?) into Gamera. As these experiments aren't borne of love, they don't go as well at Victor's. If you love Burton, Frankenweenie feels like the at-last presentation of a story he's been dying to tell for years. If you don't love him, you might wonder why it took him so long to get it out. When Victor's science teacher leaves the school, he tells Victor an experiment conducted without love is different from one conducted with it: love, he implies, is a variable. If that's the variable that separates 2003's Big Fish (heartbreaking) from 2010's Alice In Wonderland (atrocious), it's a large one indeed. The love was there for 29 minutes in 1984, but I can't say it endures when stretched to 87 minutes 22 years later. (1:27) Metreon, Presidio, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)
Hotel Transylvania (1:32) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck.
House At the End of the Street Tight T-shirts, a creepy cul-de-sac, couples in cars on lonely lanes, and the cute but weird loner kid — all the stuff of classic drive-in horror fare, revisited in this ambitious tribute of sorts. Don't mistake House at the End of the Street for genre-reviving efforts by super fans like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie; Mark Tonderai's mash up of Psycho (1960) and Last House on the Left (1972) lacks the rock 'n' roll brio and jet-black humor of, say, Cabin Fever (2002) or The Devil's Rejects (2005). Instead House reads like an earnest effort to add a thin veneer of psychological realism and even girl power sincerity to a blood-spattered back catalog. Teenage musician Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) and her overwhelmed mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) have found themselves quite a deal of a new rental home — a bit too good, since their next door neighbors were both brutally killed by their brain-damaged offspring who was obviously afflicted with the same greasy hair issues as the ghoulish gal in The Ring. Ryan (Bay Area native Max Thieriot), the boy who continues to live in the house where his parents were murdered, is ostracized, attractive, and much like his home, a fixer — making him mighty attractive to Elissa. A hearty, artistic soul who likes to venture where others fear to tread, she's drawn to him despite the fact that she feels like she's being watched from the woods that separate their homes. Switching back and forth between various perspectives — like that of a sputtering, spasmodically edited psychopath-cam and the steady, thoughtful gaze of a rebellious yet empathetic girl — House manages to effectively throw a few curveballs your way, while toying with genre conventions and upsetting your expectations. Shoring up its efforts is a talented cast, headed up by Lawrence's feisty heroine and Shue's sad-eyed struggling mom. (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Looper It's 2044 and, thanks to a lengthy bout of exposition by our protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), here's what we know: Time travel, an invention 30 years away, will be used by criminals to transport their soon-to-be homicide victims backward, where a class of gunmen called loopers, Joe among them, are employed to "do the necessaries." More deftly revealed in Brick writer-director Rian Johnson's new film is the joylessness of the world in which Joe amorally makes his way, where gangsters from the future control the present (under the supervision of Jeff Daniels), their hit men live large but badly (Joe is addicted to some eyeball-administered narcotic), and the remainder of the urban populace suffers below-subsistence-level poverty. The latest downside for guys like Joe is that a new crime boss has begun sending back a steady stream of aging loopers for termination, or "closing the loop"; soon enough, Joe is staring down a gun barrel at himself plus 30 years. Being played by Bruce Willis, old Joe is not one to peaceably abide by a death warrant, and young Joe must set off in search of himself so that—with the help of a woman named Sara (Emily Blunt) and her creepy-cute son Cid (Pierce Gagnon)—he can blow his own (future) head off. Having seen the evocatively horrific fate of another escaped looper, we can't totally blame him. Parsing the daft mechanics of time travel as envisioned here is rough going, but the film's brisk pacing and talented cast distract, and as one Joe tersely explains to another, if they start talking about it, "we're gonna be here all day making diagrams with straws" —in other words, some loops just weren't meant to be closed. (1:58) Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
The Master Paul Thomas Anderson's much-hyped likely Best Picture contender lives up: it's easily the best film of 2012 so far. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dodd, the L. Ron Hubbard-ish head of a Scientology-esque movement. "The Cause" attracts Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, in a welcome return from the faux-deep end), less for its pseudo-religious psychobabble and bizarre personal-growth exercises, and more because it supplies the aimless, alcoholic veteran — a drifter in every sense of the word — with a sense of community he yearns for, yet resists submitting to. As with There Will Be Blood (2007), Anderson focuses on the tension between the two main characters: an older, established figure and his upstart challenger. But there's less cut-and-dried antagonism here; while their relationship is complex, and it does lead to dark, troubled places, there are also moments of levity and weird hilarity — which might have something to do with Freddie's paint-thinner moonshine. (2:17) Albany, 1000 Van Ness, Opera Plaza, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (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) Shattuck. (Michelle Devereaux)
The Oranges In director Julian Farino's tale of two families, the Wallings and the Ostroffs are neighbors and close friends living in the affluent New Jersey township of West Orange. We meet David Walling (Hugh Laurie), his wife Paige (Catherine Keener), his best friend Terry Ostroff (Oliver Platt), and Terry's wife, Carol (Allison Janney), during a period of domestic malaise for both couples — four unhappy people who enjoy spending time together — that is destined to be exponentially magnified over the Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities. We learn much of this in voice-over courtesy of stalled-out 24-year-old design school grad Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), a second-generation Walling whose narrative subjectivity the film makes plain. No one will fault Vanessa for editorializing, however, when her Ostroff counterpart, onetime BFF and present-day nemesis Nina (Leighton Meester), returns home after a five-year absence and, amid maternal pressure to date Vanessa's visiting brother, Toby (Adam Brody), instead embarks on an affair with their father. The ick factor is large, particularly because it takes a while to keep straight all the spouses, offspring, and houses they belong in. But Farino works to convince us that the romantic spark between David and Nina should be judged on its merits rather than with a gut-level revulsion, a reaction we can leave to the film's principals. To the extent that this is possible, it's possible to enjoy The Oranges' intelligent writing and fine cast, whose sympathetic characters (perhaps excluding Nina, whose heedlessness regarding the feelings of others verges on sociopathic) we wish the best of luck in surviving the holidays. (1:30) Albany, Clay, SF Center. (Rapoport)
The Paperboy Lee Daniels scored big with Precious (2009), but this follow-up is so off-kilter in tone and story it will likely polarize critics and confuse audiences, despite its A-list cast. I happened to enjoy the hell out of this tacky, sweat-drenched, gator-gutting, and generally overwrought adaptation of Peter Dexter's novel (Dexter and Daniels co-wrote the screenplay); it's kind of a Wild Things-The Help-A Time to Kill mash-up, with the ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey starring as Ward Jansen, a Florida newspaper reporter investigating what he thinks is the wrongful murder conviction of Hillary Van Wetter (a repulsively greasy John Cusack). But the movie's not really about that. Set in 1969 and narrated by Macy Gray, who plays the veteran housekeeper for the Jansens — a clan that also includes college dropout Jack (Zac Efron) — The Paperboy is neither mystery nor thriller. It's more of a swamp cocktail, with some odd directorial choices (random split-screen here, random zoom there) that maybe seem like exploitation movie homages. As a Southern floozy turned on by "prison cock" (but not, to his chagrin, by the oft-shirtless Jack), Nicole Kidman turns in her trashiest performance since 1995's To Die For. (1:46) California, Embarcadero, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower Move over, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series — there's a new shrinking-violet social outcast in town. These days, life might not suck quite so hard for 90-pound weaklings in every age category, what with so many films and TV shows exposing, and sometimes even celebrating, the many miseries of childhood and adolescence for all to see. In this case, Perks author Stephen Chbosky takes on the directorial duties — both a good and bad thing, much like the teen years. Smart, shy Charlie is starting high school with a host of issues: he's painfully awkward and very alone in the brutal throng, his only friend just committed suicide, and his only simpatico family member was killed in a car accident. Charlie's English teacher Mr. Andersen (Paul Rudd) appears to be his only connection, until the freshman strikes up a conversation with feline, charismatic, shop-class jester Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his magnetic, music- and fun-loving stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). Who needs the popular kids? The witty duo head up their gang of coolly uncool outcasts their own, the Wallflowers (not to be confused with the deeply uncool Jakob Dylan combo), and with them, Charlie appears to have found his tribe. Only a few small secrets put a damper on matters: Patrick happens to be gay and involved with football player Brad (Johnny Simmons), who's saddled with a violently conservative father, and Charlie is in love with the already-hooked-up Sam and is frightened that his fragile equilibrium will be destroyed when his new besties graduate and slip out of his life. Displaying empathy and a devotion to emotional truth, Chbosky takes good care of his characters, preserving the complexity and ungainly quirks of their not-so-cartoonish suburbia, though his limitations as a director come to the fore in the murkiness and choppily handled climax that reveals how damaged Charlie truly is. (1:43) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Pitch Perfect As an all-female college a cappella group known as the Barden Bellas launches into Ace of Base's "The Sign" during the prologue of Pitch Perfect, you can hear the Glee-meets-Bring It On elevator pitch. Which is fine, since Bring It On-meets-anything is clearly worth a shot. In this attempt, Anna Kendrick stars as withdrawn and disaffected college freshman Beca, who dreams of producing music in L.A. but is begrudgingly getting a free ride at Barden University via her comp lit professor father. Clearly his goal is not making sure she receives a liberal arts education, as Barden's academic jungle extends to the edges of the campus's competitive a cappella scene, and the closest thing to an intellectual challenge occurs during a "riff-off" between a cappella gangs at the bottom of a mysteriously drained swimming pool. When Beca reluctantly joins the Bellas, she finds herself caring enough about the group's fate to push for an Ace of Base moratorium and radical steps like performing mashups. Much as 2000's Bring It On coined terms like "cheerocracy" and "having cheer-sex," Pitch Perfect gives us the infinitely applicable prefix "a ca-" and descriptives like "getting Treble-boned," a reference to forbidden sexual relations with the Bellas' cocky rivals, the Treblemakers. The gags get funnier, dirtier, and weirder, arguably reaching their climax in projectile-vomit snow angels, with Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as grin-panning competition commentators offering a string of loopily inappropriate observations. (1:52) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)
Resident Evil: Retribution (1:35) 1000 Van Ness.
Samsara Samsara is the latest sumptuous, wordless offering from director Ron Fricke, who helped develop this style of dialogue- and context-free travelogue with Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Baraka (1992). Spanning five years and shooting on 70mm film to capture glimmers of life in 25 countries on five continents, Samsara, which spins off the Sanskrit word for the "ever-turning wheel of life," is nothing if not good-looking, aspiring to be a kind of visual symphony boosted by music by the Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard and composers Michael Stearns and Marcello De Francisci. Images of natural beauty, baptisms, and an African woman and her babe give way to the madness of modern civilization — from jam-packed subways to the horrors of mechanized factory farming to a bizarre montage of go-go dancers, sex dolls, trash, toxic discarded technology, guns, and at least one gun-shaped coffin. After such dread, the opening and closing scenes of Buddhist spirituality seem almost like afterthoughts. The unmistakable overriding message is: humanity, you dazzle in all your glorious and inglorious dimensions — even at your most inhumane. Sullying this hand wringing, selective meditation is Fricke's reliance on easy stereotypes: the predictable connections the filmmaker makes between Africa and an innocent, earthy naturalism, and Asia and a vaguely threatening, mechanistic efficiency, come off as facile and naive, while his sonic overlay of robot sounds over, for instance, an Asian woman blinking her eyes comes off as simply offensive. At such points, Fricke's global leap-frogging begins to eclipse the beauty of his images and foregrounds his own biases. (1:39) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (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) Opera Plaza, 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) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Taken 2 Surprise hit Taken (2008) was a soap opera produced by French action master Luc Besson and designed for export. The divorced-dad-saves-daughter-from-sex-slavery plot may have nagged at some universal parenting anxieties, but it was a Movie of the Week melodrama made on a major movie budget. Taken 2 begins immediately after the last, with sweet teen Kim (Maggie Grace) talking about normalizing after she was drugged and bought for booty. Papa Neeson sees Kim's mom (Famke Janssen) losing her grip on husband number two and invites them both to holiday in Istanbul following one of his high-stakes security gigs. When the assistant with the money slinks him a fat envelope, Neeson chuckles at his haul. This is the point when women in the audience choose which Neeson they're watching: the understated super-provider or the warrior-dad whose sense of duty can meet no match. For family men, this is the breeziest bit of vicarious living available; Neeson's character is a tireless daddy duelist, a man as diligent as he is organized. (This is guy who screams "Victory loves preparation!") As head-splitting, disorienting, and generally exhausting as the action direction is, Neeson saves his ex-wife and the show in a stream of unclear shootouts. Taken 2 is best suited for the small screen, but whatever the size, no one can stop an international slave trade (or wolves, or Batman) like 21st century Liam. Swoon. (1:31) Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)
Trouble with the Curve Baseball scout Gus (Clint Eastwood) relies on his senses to sign players to the Atlanta Braves, and his roster of greats is highly regarded by everyone — save a sniveling climber named Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), who insists his score-keeping software can replace any scout. Gus' skill in his field are preternatural, but with his senses dwindling, his longtime-friend Pete (a brilliant John Goodman) begs Gus' daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to go with him — to see how bad the situation is and maybe drive him around. Ultimately, the film's about the rift between career woman Mickey, and distant dad Gus, with some small intrusions from Justin Timberlake as Mickey's romantic interest. Trouble with the Curve is a phrase used to describe batters who can't hit a breaking ball and it's a nuance — if an incontrovertible one — unobservable to the untrained eye. While Mickey and Gus stumble messily toward a better relationship (with a reasonable amount of compromise), Curve begins to look a bit like The Blind Side (2009), trading the church and charity for therapy and baggage. But what it offers is sweet and worthwhile, if you're tolerant of the sanitized psychology and personality-free aesthetics. But it's a movie about love and compromise — and if you love baseball you won't have trouble forgiving some triteness, especially when Timberlake, the erstwhile Boo-Boo, gets to make a Yogi Berra joke. (1:51) 1000 Van Ness. (Vizcarrondo)
V/H/S Hollywood hath spoken: between the Paranormal Activity series (now on part four), Barry Levinson's The Bay (out next month), and current horror anthology V/H/S, found footage is still a viable scare tactic. V/H/S — an energetically exploitative take on the trend that reaches past 1999's Blair Witch Project to high-five the granddaddy of them all, 1980's legendarily nasty Cannibal Holocaust — sets up the action with a frame story in which hooligans film themselves behaving badly, then prowl a house in search of a mysterious VHS tape. Each tape contains material so shocking (a woman turns flesh-tearingly monstrous after a drunken hookup; a student Skyping with her boyfriend suspects her apartment is haunted; and a road trip, a camping trip, and a Halloween party all go very, very wrong) it unsettles even tough guys who, earlier in the day, were grabbing women on the street in service of their budding "reality porn" business. Each "tape" is directed by an up-and-comer — including Ti West (2009's The House of the Devil) and Joe Swanberg (2007's Hannah Takes the Stairs) — and though the film as a whole overindulges its bro-y tendencies, it also delivers frights and gore along with all that gratuitous boobage. (1:55) Shattuck. (Eddy)
Vulgaria (1:32) Metreon.
Won't Back Down If talk of introducing charter schools into the public education mix tends to give you collective-bargaining-related hives, Daniel Barnz's Won't Back Down is unlikely to appeal, unless perhaps as the object of a boycott or a picket line. Two embattled mothers, Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), both with children at a failing Pittsburgh elementary school and the latter a teacher there, join forces to change the institutional culture by leading a parent-teacher takeover, with the goal of creating a charter school. As the bureaucratic process for doing so is described by a school district employee, it should take them three to five years to discover that they've been hurling themselves at a brick wall; Jamie, an efficient combination of fireball and pit bull, is determined to pulverize the wall in about two months. Watching her and Nona try to secure more than a third-rate, treading-water education for their kids, it's hard not to root for the possibility of a transformation, and even an upper-level teachers' union staffer played by Holly Hunter finds herself climbing the fence. The details of what lies on the other side (and inside Jamie and Nona's 400-page proposal) stay fairly fuzzy, though. And while Barnz lets his warring factions—desperate mothers and educators, a union boss (Ned Eisenberg) watching the deterioration of the labor movement, a pro-union teacher (Oscar Isaac) ambivalently engaged in the chartering project—impassionedly debate their way through the film, a little more wonkiness might have clarified the arguments of those done waiting for Superman. (2:00) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)