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.
Chasing Mavericks The Bay Area's big-wave spot hits the big screen, with Gerard Butler and Jonny Weston as real-life surfers Rick "Frosty" Hesson and Jay Moriarity. (1:45)
Cloud Atlas Cramming the six busy storylines of David Mitchell's wildly ambitious novel into just three hours — the average reader might have thought at least 12 would be required — this impressive adaptation directed (in separate parts) by Tom Twyker (1998's Run Lola Run) and Matrix siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski has a whole lot of narrative to get through, stretching around the globe and over centuries. In the mid 19th century, Jim Sturgess' sickly American notory endures a long sea voyage as reluctant protector of a runaway-slave stowaway from the Chatham Islands (David Gyasi). In 1931 Belgium, a talented but criminally minded British musician (Ben Whishaw) wheedles his way into the household of a famous but long-inactive composer (Jim Broadbent). A chance encounter sets 1970s San Francisco journalist Luisa (Halle Berry) on the path of a massive cover-up conspiracy, swiftly putting her life in danger. Circa now, a reprobate London publisher's (Broadbent) huge windfall turns into bad luck that gets even worse when he seeks help from his brother (Hugh Grant). In the not-so-distant future, a disposable "fabricant" server to the "consumer" classes (Doona Bae) finds herself plucked from her cog-like life for a rebellious higher purpose. Finally, in an indeterminately distant future after "the Fall," an island tribesman (Tom Hanks) forms a highly ambivalent relationship toward a visitor (Berry) from a more advanced but dying civilization. Mitchell's book was divided into huge novella-sized blocks, with each thread split in two; the film wastes very little time establishing its individual stories before beginning to rapidly intercut between them. That may result in a sense of information (and eventually action) overload, particularly for non-readers, even as it clarifies the connective tissues running throughout. Compression robs some episodes of the cumulative impact they had on the page; the starry multicasting (which in addition to the above mentioned finds many uses for Hugo Weaving, Keith David, James D'Arcy, and Susan Sarandon) can be a distraction; and there's too much uplift forced on the six tales' summation. Simply put, not everything here works; like the very different Watchmen, this is a rather brilliant "impossible adaptation" screenplay (by the directors) than nonetheless can't help but be a bit too much. But so much does work — in alternating currents of satire, melodrama, pulp thriller, dystopian sci-fi, adventure, and so on — that Cloud Atlas must be forgiven for being imperfect. If it were perfect, it couldn't possibly sprawl as imaginatively and challengingly as it does, and as mainstream movies very seldom do. (2:52) Balboa, California, Presidio. (Harvey)
Fun Size When a teen (Victoria Justice) is forced to baby-sit her brother the night of the social event of the Halloween season, PG-13 chaos ensues. (1:45) Shattuck.
Masquerade A king hires an actor from the local village (both portrayed by Korean megastar Byung-hun Lee) to be his body double in this historical drama. (2:11) Metreon.
Nobody Walks In Ry Russo-Young’s LA-set film, from a screenplay co-written with Lena Dunham, an alluring young woman named Martine (Olivia Thirlby) is welcomed into the Silver Lake home of psychotherapist Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and sound engineer Peter (John Krasinski), who has agreed to help Martine with the soundtrack for her film, destined for a gallery installation back in New York. While Martine’s film constructs a fiction around the fevered activities of the insect world, Russo-Young’s drifts quietly through the lives of its human household, offering glimpses of the romantic preoccupations of a teenage daughter (India Ennenga) and Julie’s interactions with one of her patients (Justin Kirk), and revealing a series of relationships hovering tensely on the border of unsanctioned behavior. The uncomfortable centerpiece is the intimacy that develops between Peter and Martine; tracking their progress through the family’s sprawling home as the two collect sounds for her project, the camera zooms in toward the sources, making the spaces the pair inhabit seem ominously small. Their eventual collision is unsurprising, but Peter hardly comes across as a besieged, frustrated family man. He tells Martine that “marriage is complicated,” but against the warm, appealing backdrop of his and Julie’s home life, it sounds like a pretty flimsy excuse for kissing a pretty, proximal 23-year-old. As for Martine, she seems not to need any rationale. But even factoring out the callousness of youth (or at least the genre of youth presented here), the film offhandedly suggests that the tipping point away from domestic happiness is depressingly easy to reach. (1:22) Bridge, Shattuck. (Rapoport)
Pusher A pusher has been pushed to the limit—this time around in a charm-free, deal-driven London. This remake of the Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 hit was given the seal of approval by the Drive (2011) auteur, who took a role here as an executive producer, with Luis Prieto in the director’s seat. Prieto does his best to keep the pressure on at all moments, as small-time heroin dealer Frank (Richard Coyle, resembling Dominic West in urban-hustler safari mode) undergoes the worst week of his life. He appears to have a tidy little existence with goofy, floppy-haired cohort Tony (Bronson Webb) by his side and delicately beautiful stripper Flo (Agyness Deyn) providing sexual healing and safe harbor for his dough. He has just hooked up drug mule Danaka (Daisy Lewis) to bring back a batch from Amsterdam when acquaintance Marlon (Neil Maskell) hits him up for a large order. Frank goes to his supplier Milo (Zlatko Buric, reprising his role in the original), an avuncular sort who pushes baklava in space sprinkled with wedding-cake-like gowns. Frank already owe him money and can’t cover the heroin’s cost, but this is a business built on trust, as fragile as it is, and Milo likes him, so he goes along, provided Frank returns the money immediately. Those tenuous ties of understanding are tested when cops bust Frank and Marlon and the former must dump the dope in a park pond. He refuses to give up his connections to the cops but finds that the loyalty of others is being tested when it comes to threats, cash, and even love. Prieto is a more self-consciously lyrical moviemaker than Refn, choosing to a vaguely Trainspotting-style cocktail of lite surrealism and slightly cheesy low-budg effects like vapor-trail headlights to replicate the highs and lows of Frank’s joyless clubland hustle. Still, he makes us feel Frank’s stress, amid the fatalistic undertow of the narrative, and his sense of betrayal when Pusher’s players turn, despite a smalltime pusher’s workman efforts to shore up against the odds. (1:29) Presidio. (Chun)
Question One Question One goes behind the scenes of the 2009 campaign concerning the referendum which reversed legislature granting same-sex couples the right to marry in Maine. The film investigates both sides of the story, including marriage dreams of queer families and confessions of regret from the appointed leader for the Yes on One Campaign, Marc Mutty. Though listening to preachers and activists devalue love between two men or two women might make you cringe, the inclusion of these moments creates an emotionally tense experience that will remind you how important it is to bounce back from defeat. It shows that the next step will have to be more than just rallying voters, it will require a change in ideology — an understanding that gays who wish to marry deserve equal rights, not religious salvation. As Darlene Huntress, the director of field operations for the No on One Campaign says, “I want to sit down and break bread with these people. I want to sit down and say get to know me — open your mind up enough to get to know me.” (1:53) Vogue. (Molly Champlin)
The Sessions Polio has long since paralyzed the body of Berkeley poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) from the neck down. Of course his mind is free to roam — but it often roams south of the personal equator, where he hasn't had the same opportunities as able-bodied people. Thus he enlists the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate, to lose his virginity at last. Based on the real-life figures' experiences, this drama by Australian polio survivor Ben Lewin was a big hit at Sundance this year (then titled The Surrogate), and it's not hard to see why: this is one of those rare inspirational feel-good stories that doesn't pander and earns its tears with honest emotional toil. Hawkes is always arresting, but Hunt hasn't been this good in a long time, and William H. Macy is pure pleasure as a sympathetic priest put in numerous awkward positions with the Lord by Mark's very down-to-earth questions and confessions. (1:35) Embarcadero. (Harvey)
Silent Hill: Revelation 3D Game of Thrones reunion! Sean Bean and Kit Harington both star in this video game adaptation, which may be its only bragging point. (1:34)
Wake in Fright See "Points Of No Return." (1:54) Opera Plaza, Shattuck.
Alex Cross (1:41) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck.
Argo If you didn't know the particulars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, you won't be an expert after Argo, but the film does a good job of capturing America's fearful reaction to the events that followed it — particularly the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran. Argo zeroes in on the fate of six embassy staffers who managed to escape the building and flee to the home of the sympathetic Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Back in Washington, short-tempered CIA agents (including a top-notch Bryan Cranston) cast about for ways to rescue them. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs), exfil specialist and father to a youngster wrapped up in the era's sci-fi craze. While watching 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Tony comes up with what Cranston's character calls "the best bad idea we have:" the CIA will fund a phony Canadian movie production (corny, intergalactic, and titled Argo) and pretend the six are part of the crew, visiting Iran for a few days on a location shoot. Tony will sneak in, deliver the necessary fake-ID documents, and escort them out. Neither his superiors, nor the six in hiding, have much faith in the idea. ("Is this the part where we say, 'It's so crazy it just might work?'" someone asks, beating the cliché to the punch.) Argo never lets you forget that lives are at stake; every painstakingly forged form, every bluff past a checkpoint official increases the anxiety (to the point of being laid on a bit thick by the end). But though Affleck builds the needed suspense with gusto, Argo comes alive in its Hollywood scenes. As the show-biz veterans who mull over Tony's plan with a mix of Tinseltown cynicism and patiotic duty, John Goodman and Alan Arkin practically burst with in-joke brio. I could have watched an entire movie just about those two. (2:00) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Beasts of the Southern Wild Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d'Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn't attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about — improbably — Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting. Benh Zeitlin's film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. But not all is well: when "the storm" floods the land, the holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate. With its elements of magic, mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology, Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick's 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film's cost and length. (1:31) Shattuck. (Harvey)
Bel Borba Aqui "The People's Picasso" and "Brazil's Pied Piper of Street Art" are both apt descriptions of veteran artist Bel Borba, who has spent decades bringing color and imagination to the streets of Salvador — his seaside hometown, and a place already graced with the nickname "Brazil's Capital of Happiness." It's not a stretch to imagine that Borba's commitment to public art (a giant Christmas tree made of plastic Coke bottles, a rhinoceros sculpture crafted from old boat planks, hundreds of large-scale mosaics, even a painted airplane) has done its share to lift spirits. Bel Borba Aqui isn't the sort of doc to delve into its mustachioed subject's history or personal life (despite a few angry cell phone conversations randomly captured along the way); instead, it's much like Borba himself — freewheeling and spontaneous, and most alive when it's showing art being created. Great soundtrack, too. (1:34) Roxie. (Eddy)
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)
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. (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)
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 Lillard'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)
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) Balboa, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Vizcarrondo)
Here Comes the Boom The makers of September’s Won’t Back Down might quibble with this statement, but the rest of us can probably agree that nothing (with the possible exception of Trapper Keepers) says “back to school” like competitive steel-cage mixed martial arts — particularly if the proceeds from the matches go toward saving extracurriculars at a down-at-the-heels public high school. Kevin James plays Scott Voss, a 42-year-old biology teacher at the aforementioned school, whose lack of vocational enthusiasm is manifested by poor attendance and classroom observations about how none of what the students are learning matters. He’s jolted from this criminally subpar performance of his academic duties, however, when budget cuts threaten the school’s arts programs, including the job of an earnest and enthusiastic music teacher (Henry Winkler) whose dedication Scott lazily admires. It seems less than inevitable that this state of affairs would lead to Scott’s donning his college wrestling singlet and trundling into the ring to get pummeled and mauled for cash, but it seems to work better than a bake sale. Less effective and equally unconvincing are Scott’s whiplash arc from bad apple to teacher-of-the-year; a percolating romance between him and the school nurse, played by Salma Hayek; and the script’s tortuous parade of rousing statements celebrating the power of the human spirit, seemingly cribbed from a page-a-day calendar of inspirational quotes. (1:45) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Rapoport)
Hotel Transylvania (1:32) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck.
The House I Live In Much like he did in 2005's Why We Fight, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki identifies a Big Issue (in that film, the Iraq War) and strips it down, tracing all of the history leading up to the current crisis point. Here, he takes on America's "war on drugs," which I put quotes around not just because it was a phrase spoken by Nixon and Reagan, but also because — as The House I Live In ruthlessly exposes — it's been a failure, a sham, since its origins in the late 1960s. Framing his investigation with the personal story of his family's housekeeper — whose dedication to the Jarecki family meant that she was absent when her own son turned to drugs — and enfolding a diverse array of interviews (a sympathetic prison guard, addicts and their families, The Wire's David Simon) and locations (New York City, Sioux City), Jarecki has created an eye-opening film. Particularly well-explained are segments on how drug laws correlate directly to race and class, and how the prison-industrial complex has played a part in making sure those laws remain as strict as possible. (1:48) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
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) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, 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, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Middle of Nowhere All the reasons why movie publicist turned filmmaker Ava DuVernay scored the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival are up here on the screen. Taking on the emotionally charged yet rarely attempted challenge of picturing the life of the loved one left behind by the incarcerated, DuVernay furthers the cause of telling African American stories — she founded AaFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement) and made her directorial debut with 2008 LA hip-hop doc This Is The Life — with Middle of Nowhere. Medical student Ruby (the compelling Emayatzy Corinealdi) appears to have a bright future ahead of her, when her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) makes some bad choices and is tossed into maximum security prison for eight long years. She swears she’ll wait for him, putting her dreams aside, making the long bus ride out to visit him regularly, and settling for any nursing shift she can. How will she scrape the money together to pay the lawyer for Derek’s parole hearing, cope with the grinding disapproval of her mother (Lorraine Toussaint), support the increasingly hardened and altered Derek, and most importantly, discover a new path for herself? All are handled with rare empathy and compassion by DuVernay, who is rewarded for her care by her cast’s powerful performances. Our reward might be found amid the everyday poetry of Ruby’s life, while she wraps her hair for bed, watches Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), and fantasizes about love in a life interrupted. (1:41) Shattuck. (Chun)
Paranormal Activity 4 (1:21) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio.
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) Balboa, California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Presidio, 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)
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)
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) Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Simon and the Oaks Despite being gripping or heartwarming at times, Simon and the Oaks, based on the novel by Marianne Fredricksson, fails to cohere, serving as another reminder of the perennial dilemma of converting literature to film. It tells the story of Simon (Bill Skarsgard — son of Stellan, younger brother of Alexander), a boy coming of age in World War II Sweden. He befriends Isak, son of a Jewish bookkeeper who fled Nazi Germany, and their families become close when Isak’s father nurtures Simon’s love of books and Isak begins to heal his emotional scars by diving into carpentry work with Simon’s father. The moments of true human compassion between the two families begin to falter as the story jumps around to follow Simon’s search for love and identity. More missteps: Simon's discovery of classical music is conveyed via a series of "artsy" montages, and his brief affair with a fiery Auschwitz victim — problematic, to say the least. (2:02) Albany, Clay. (Molly Champlin)
Sinister True-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn't had a successful book in a decade. So he uproots wife (Juliet Rylance) and kids (Michael Hall D'Addario, Clare Foley) for yet another research project, not telling them that they're actually moving into the recent scene of a ghastly unsolved murder in which an entire family — save one still-missing child — was hanged from a backyard tree. He finds a box in the attic that somehow escaped police attention, its contents being several reels of Super 8 home movies stretching back decades — all of families similarly wiped out in one cruel act. Smelling best-sellerdom, Ellison keeps this evidence of a serial slayer to himself. It's disturbing when his son re-commences sleepwalking night terrors. It's really disturbing when dad begins to spy a demonic looking figure lurking in the background of the films. It's really, really disturbing when the projector starts turning itself on, in the middle of the night, in his locked office. A considerable bounce-back from his bloated 2008 Day the Earth Stood Still remake, Scott Derrickson's film takes the opposite tact — it's very small in both physical scope and narrative focus, almost never leaving the Oswalt's modest house in fact. He takes the time to let pure creepiness build rather than feeling the need to goose our nads with a false scare or goresplat every five minutes. As a result, Sinister is definitely one of the year's better horrors, even if (perhaps inevitably) the denouement can't fully meet the expectations raised by that very long, unsettling buildup. (1:50) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)
Smashed A heartbreaking lead performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead drives this tale of a marriage tested when one partner decides to get sober. And it's time: after an epic night of boozing, first-grade teacher Kate (Winstead) pukes in front of her class, then lies and says she's pregnant, not anticipating the pushy delight of the school's principal (Megan Mullally). Plus, Kate's gotten into the habit of waking up in strange, unsafe places, not really remembering how she stumbled there in the first place. Husband Charlie (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul) sees no reason to give up partying; he's a music blogger whose "office" is the home his wealthy parents bought for the couple, and his problem isn't quite as unmanageable as hers (at least, we never see him peeing in a convenience store). After Kate joins AA, she realizes she'll have to face her problems rather than drinking them away — a potentially clichéd character arc that's handled without flashy hysterics by director and co-writer (with Susan Burke) James Ponsoldt, and conveyed with grace and pain by Winstead —an actor probably best-known for playing Ramona Flowers in 2010's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but just now revealing the scope of her talent. (1:25) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)
Tai Chi Zero A little boy dubbed "the Freak" for the curious, horn-like growth on his forehead grows up to be Lu Chan (Jaydan Yuan), who becomes a near-supernatural martial arts machine when the horn is punched, panic-button style. But activating the "Three Blossoms of the Crown," as it's called, takes a toll on the boy's health, so he's sent to the isolated Chen Village to learn their signature moves, though he's repeatedly told "Chen-style kung fu is not taught to outsiders!" Stephen Fung's lighthearted direction (characters are introduced with bios about the actors who play them, even the split-second cameos: "Andrew Lau, director of the Infernal Affairs trilogy"), affinity for steampunk and whimsy, engagement of Sammo Hung as action director, and embracing of the absurd (the film's most-repeated line: "What the hell?") all bring interest to this otherwise pretty predictable kung-fu tale, with its old-ways-versus-Western-ways conflict and misfit hero. Still, there's something to be said for batshit insanity. (Be warned, though: Tai Chi Zero is the first in a series, which means one thing: it ends on a cliffhanger. Argh.) (1:34) Metreon. (Eddy)
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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)
The Waiting Room Twenty-four hours in the uneasy limbo of an ER waiting room sounds like a grueling, maddening experience, and that’s certainly a theme in this day-in-the-life film. But local documentarian Peter Nicks has crafted an absorbing portrait of emergency public health care, as experienced by patients and their families at Oakland’s Highland Hospital and as practiced by the staff there. Other themes: no insurance, no primary care physician, and an emergency room being used as a medical facility of first, last, and only resort. Nicks has found a rich array of subjects to tell this complicated story: An anxious, unemployed father sits at his little girl’s bedside. Staffers stare at a computer screen, tracking a flood of admissions and the scarce commodity of available beds. A doctor contemplates the ethics of discharging a homeless addict for the sake of freeing up one of them. And a humorous, ultra-competent triage nurse fields an endless queue of arrivals with humanity and steady nerves. (1:21) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)