Film Listings: April 16 - 22, 2014
Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.
Bears John C. Reilly narrates this Disneynature documentary about grizzlies in Alaska. (1:26) Shattuck.
Faust See "Devil's Advocate." (2:14) Roxie.
A Haunted House 2 Marlon Wayans returns to star in this sequel, which spoofs last year's The Conjuring, among other targets. (1:26)
Heaven is for Real No. (1:40)
Only Lovers Left Alive See "Blood Lush." (2:03) Embarcadero.
The Railway Man The lackluster title — OK, it's better than that of director Jonathan Teplitzky's last movie, 2011's Burning Man, which confused sad Burners everywhere — masks a sensitive and artful adaptation of Eric Lomax's book, based on a true story, about an English survivor of WWII atrocities. As Railway Man unfolds, we find Eric (Colin Firth), a stammering, attractive eccentric, oddly obsessed with railway schedules, as he meets his sweet soul mate Patti (Nicole Kidman) in vaguely mid-century England. Their romance, however, takes a steep, downward spiral when Patti discovers her new husband's quirks overlay a deeply damaged spirit, one with scars that never really healed. As Eric grows more isolated, his best friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) reveals some of their experiences as POWs forced to toil on the seemingly impossible-to-build Thai-Burma Railway by Japanese forces. The brutality of the situation comes home when the young Eric (played by Jeremy Irvine of 2011's War Horse) takes the rap for building a radio and undergoes a period of torture. The horror seems rectifiable when Finlay discovers that the most memorable torturer Nagase (played at various ages by Tanroh Ishida and Hiroyuki Sanada) is still alive and, outrageously, leading tours of the area. Revenge is sweet, as so many other movies looking at this era have told us, but Railway Man strives for a deeper, more difficult message while telling its story with the care and attention to detail that points away from the weedy jungle of a traumatic past — and toward some kind of true north where reconciliation lies. (1:53) Albany, Embarcadero. (Chun)
That Demon Within Hong Kong action director Dante Lam's latest resides firmly within his preferred wheelhouse of hyper-stylized cops-and-robbers thriller, though this one's more ghoulish than previous efforts like 2008's Beast Stalker. Merciless bandits — identities concealed behind traditional masks — have been causing all kinds of trouble, heisting diamonds, mowing down bystanders, blowing up cars, exchanging mad gunfire with police, etc. After he's injured in one such battle, sinister Hon (Nick Cheung), aka "the Demon King," stumbles to the hospital, where cop Dave (Daniel Wu) donates blood to save the man's life, not realizing he's just revived HK's public enemy number one. The gangster is soon back to his violent schemes, and Dave — a withdrawn loner given to sudden rage spirals — starts having spooky hallucinations (or are they memories?) that suggest either the duo has some kind of psychic connection, or that Dave is straight-up losing his mind. Meanwhile, a police inspector everyone calls "Pops" (Lam Kar-wah) becomes obsessed with taking Hon down, with additional tension supplied by crooked cops and infighting among the criminal organization. Does an overwrought, mind-warpingly brutal finale await? Hell yes it does. (1:52) Metreon. (Eddy)
Transcendence Academy Award-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister (2010's Inception) makes his directorial debut with this sci-fi thriller about an AI expert (Johnny Depp) who downloads his own mind into a computer, with dangerously chaotic results. (1:59) California, Four Star, Marina.
Watermark Daring to touch the hem of — and then surpass — Godfrey Reggio's trippy-movie-slash-visual-essays (1982's Koyaanisqatsi, 2013's Visitors) and their sumptuous visual delights and global expansivenesses, with none of the cheese or sensational aftertaste, Watermark reunites documentarian Jennifer Baichwal and photographer Edward Burtynsky, the latter the subject of her 2006 film, Manufactured Landscapes. Baichwal works directly with Burtynsky, as well as DP Nick de Pencier, as the artist assembles a book on the ways water has been shaped by humans. Using mostly natural sound and an unobtrusive score, she's able to beautifully translate the sensibility of Burtynsky's still images by following the photographer as he works, taking to the air and going to ground with succinct interviews that span the globe. We meet scientists studying ice cores drilled in Greenland, Chinese abalone farmers, leather workers in Bangladesh, and denizens on both sides of the US/Mexico border who reminisce about ways of life that have been lost to dams. Even as it continually, indirectly poses questions about humans' dependence on, desire to control, and uses for water, the movie always reminds us of the presence and majesty of oceans, rivers, and tributaries with indelible images — whether it's a time-lapse study of the largest arch dam in the world; the glorious mandalas of water drilling sites related to the Ogallala Aquifer; or a shockingly stylized scene of Chinese rice terraces that resembles some lost Oskar Kokoschka woodcut. While striking a relevant note in a drought-stricken California, Watermark reaches a kind of elegant earthbound poetry and leaves one wondering what Baichwal and Burtynsky will grapple with next. (1:31) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Chun)
Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq Writer-director Nancy Buirski's documentary follows the short, brilliant career of a young dancer named Tanaquil Le Clercq, who came up in the New York City ballet world of the 1940s and '50s. Le Clercq was discovered by George Balanchine, married him (as three other dancers had done before her), sparked a paradigm shift in the ballet world regarding what was considered the quintessential dancer's body, had numerous ballets set on her by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and then, at the peak of her career, at age 27, was stricken by polio and left paralyzed in both legs. The film takes its time moving toward this catastrophe, recounting Le Clercq's early adult life through interviews with her contemporaries and tracking her professional progress through gorgeous archival footage of her performances. Equally moving archival material are the letters from a longtime correspondence between Le Clercq and Robbins that documented two very different periods of her life: the first, when Robbins was choreographing ballets for her, including Afternoon of a Faun, and professing his love; the second, after her paralysis, when she wrote him a series of poignant communications describing her impressions of her illness and her new, circumscribed world. The film has some trouble holding on to its center — as in life, Balanchine proves a magnetic force, and Afternoon of a Faun feels inexorably drawn to his professional and personal details. We don't get enough of Le Clercq, which you could say is the tragedy of her story — nobody did. But the letters do provide a sense of someone resourceful and responsive to life's richness and joys, someone who would get past this crisis and find a way to reshape her life. (1:31) Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)
Bad Words Settling a grudge score whose precise origin remains unclear until late in the game, world-class misanthrope Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is celebrating his 40th birthday by competing in a national spelling bee. Yes, spelling bees are generally for children, and so is this one. But Guy has found a legal loophole permitting his participation, and the general hate wending his way from contest staff (Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall) — let alone the tiger-mom-and-dad parents ready to form a lynch mob — is just icing on the cake where he's concerned. What's more, as some sort of majorly underachieving near-genius, he's in fact well equipped to whup the bejesus out of overachieving eight-year-olds when it comes to saying the right letters out loud. The only people on his side, sorta, are the online journalist (Kathryn Hahn) reporting on his perverse quest, and the insidiously cute Indian American competitor (Rohan Chand) who wants to be besties, or perhaps just to psych him out. (Note: The tyke's admitted favorite word is "subjugate.") Written by Andrew Dodge, this comedy in the tradition (a little too obviously) of 2003's Bad Santa and such provides the always enjoyable Bateman with not only a tailor-made lead role, but a directorial debut as well. He does just fine by both. Yet as nicely crafted and frequently-pretty-funny Bad Words is, at core it's a rather petty movie — small, derivative, and cynically mean-spirited without the courage of genuine biliousness. It's at once not-half-bad, and not half as badass as it pretends to be. (1:29) 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier Marvel's most wholesome hero returns in this latest film in the Avengers series, and while it doesn't deviate from the expected formula (it's not a spoiler to say that yes, the world is saved yet again), it manages to incorporate a surprisingly timely plot about the dangers of government surveillance. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), hunkiest 95-year-old ever, is still figuring out his place in the 21st century after his post-World War II deep freeze. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has him running random rescue missions with the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), but SHIELD is working on a top-secret project that will allow it to predict crimes before they occur. It isn't long before Cap's distrust of the weapon — he may be old-fashioned, but he ain't stupid — uncovers a sinister plot led by a familiar enemy, with Steve's former BFF Bucky doing its bidding as the science-experiment-turned-assassin Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, and series regular Cobie Smulders are fine in supporting roles, and Johansson finally gets more to do than punch and pose, but the likable Evans ably carries the movie — he may not have the charisma of Robert Downey Jr., but he brings wit and depth to a role that would otherwise be defined mainly by biceps and CG-heavy fights. Oh, and you know the drill by now: superfans will want to stick around for two additional scenes tucked into the end credits. (2:16) Balboa, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Cesar Chavez "You always have a choice," Cesar Chavez (Michael Peña) tells his bullied son when advising him to turn the other cheek. Likewise, actor-turned-director Diego Luna had a choice when it came to tackling his first English-language film; he could have selected a less complicated, sprawling story. So he gets props for that simple act — especially at a time when workers' rights and union power have been so dramatically eroded — and for his attempts to impact some complicated nuance to Chavez's fully evident heroism. Painting his moving pictures in dusty earth tones and burnt sunlight with the help of cinematographer Enrique Chediak, Luna vaults straight into Chavez's work with the grape pickers that would come to join the United Farm Workers — with just a brief voiceover about Chavez's roots as the native-born son of a farm owner turned worker, post-Depression. Uprooting wife Helen (America Ferrera) and his family and moving to Delano as a sign of activist commitment, Chavez is seemingly quickly drawn into the 1965 strike by the Mexican workers' sometime rivals: Filipino pickers (see the recent CAAMFest short documentary Delano Manongs for some of their side of the story). From there, the focus hones in on Chavez, speaking out against violence and "chicken shit macho ideals," hunger striking, and activating unions overseas, though Luna does give voice to cohorts like Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), growers like Bogdanovitch (John Malkovich), and the many nameless strikers — some of whom lost their lives during the astonishingly lengthy, taxing five-year strike. Luna's win would be a blue-collar epic on par with 1979's Norma Rae, and on some levels, he succeeds; scanning the faces of the weathered, hopeful extras in crowd scenes, you can't help but feel the solidarity. The people have the power, as a poet once put it, and tellingly, his choice of Peña, stolidly opaque when charismatic warmth is called for, might be the key weakness here. One suspects the director or his frequent costar Gael García Bernal would make a more riveting Chavez. (1:38) Metreon. (Chun)
Cuban Fury (1:37) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
Divergent Based on the blockbuster dystopian-future YA novel by Veronica Roth (the first in a trilogy), Divergent is set in a future city-state version of Chicago in which society is divided into five character-based, color-coded factions: Erudite, Amity, Candor, Abnegation, and Dauntless. Like her peers, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), the film's Abnegation-born teenage heroine, must choose a permanent faction — with the help of a standardized aptitude test that forgoes penciling in bubbles in favor of virtual reality psychic manipulation. When the test fails to triangulate her sole innate personality trait, she learns that she belongs to a secret, endangered sixth category: Divergent, an astonishing set of people who are not only capable of, say, acts of selflessness but can also produce intelligent thought, or manifest bravery in the face of danger. Forced to hide her aberrant nature in a society whose leaders (Kate Winslet) are prone to statements like "The future belongs to those who know where they belong," and seemingly bored among Abnegation's hive of gray cardigan-wearing worker bees, Beatrice chooses Dauntless, a dashing gang of black-clad, alterna-rock music video extras who jump on and off moving trains and live in a warehouse-chic compound whose dining hall recalls the patio at Zeitgeist. Fittingly, a surly, tattooed young man named Four (Theo James) leads Beatrice, now Tris, and her fellow initiates through a harsh proving regimen that, if they fail, will cast them into an impoverished underclass. Director Neil Burger (2006's The Illusionist, 2011's Limitless) and the behemoth marketing force behind Divergent are clearly hoping to stir up the kind of madness stoked by the Twilight and Hunger Games series, but while there are bones a-plenty to pick with those franchises, Divergent may have them beat for pure daffiness of premise and diameter of plot holes — and that's after screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor's major suturing of the source material's lacunae. The daffiness doesn't translate into imaginative world-building, and while a couple of scenes convey the visceral thrills of life in Dauntless, the tension between Tris and Four is awkwardly ratcheted up, and the film's shift into a mode of crisis is equally jolting without generating much heat. (2:20) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)
Dom Hemingway We first meet English safecracker Dom (Jude Law) as he delivers an extremely verbose and flowery ode to his penis, addressing no one in particular, while he's getting blown in prison. Whether you find this opening a knockout or painfully faux will determine how you react to the rest of Richard Shepard's new film, because it's all in that same overwritten, pseudo-shocking, showoff vein, Sprung after 12 years, Dom is reunited with his former henchman Dickie (Richard E. Grant), and the two go to the South of France to collect the reward owed for not ratting out crime kingpin Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir). This detour into the high life goes awry, however, sending the duo back to London, where Dom — who admits having "anger issues," which is putting it mildly — tries to woo a new employer (Jumayn Hunter) and, offsetting his general loutishness with mawkish interludes, to re-ingratiate himself with his long-estranged daughter (Emilia Clarke). Moving into Guy Ritchie terrain with none of the deftness the same writer-director had brought to debunking James Bond territory in 2006's similarly black-comedic crime tale The Matador, Dom Hemingway might bludgeon some viewers into sharing its air of waggish, self conscious merriment. But like Law's performance, it labors so effortfully hard after that affect that you're just as likely to find the whole enterprise overbearing. (1:33) Metreon, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Draft Day (2:00) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki.
Finding Vivian Maier Much like In the Realms of the Unreal, the 2004 doc about Henry Darger, Finding Vivian Maier explores the lonely life of a gifted artist whose talents were discovered posthumously. In this case, however, the filmmaker — John Maloof, who co-directs with Charlie Siskel — is responsible for Maier's rise to fame. A practiced flea-market hunter, he picked up a carton of negatives at a 2007 auction; they turned out to be striking examples of early street photography. He was so taken with the work (snapped by a woman so obscure she was un-Google-able) that he began posting images online. Unexpectedly, they became a viral sensation, and Maloof became determined to learn more about the camerawoman. Turns out Vivian Maier was a career nanny in the Chicago area, with plenty of former employers to share their memories. She was an intensely private person who some remembered as delightfully adventurous and others remembered as eccentric, mentally unstable, or even cruel; she was a hoarder who was distrustful of men, and she spoke with a maybe-fake French accent. And she was obsessed with taking photographs that she never showed to anyone; the hundreds of thousands now in Maloof's collection (along with 8mm and 16mm films) offer the only insight into her creative mind. "She had a great eye, a sense of humor, and a sense of tragedy," remarks acclaimed photographer Mary Ellen Mark. "But there's a piece of the puzzle missing." The film's central question — why was Maier so secretive about her hobby? — may never be answered. But as the film also suggests, that mystery adds another layer of fascination to her keenly observed photos. (1:23) Clay. (Eddy)
The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden Extensive archival footage and home movies (plus one short, narrative film) enhance this absorbing doc from San Francisco-based Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller (2005's Ballets Russes). It tells the tale of a double murder that occurred in the early 1930s on Floreana — the most remote of the already scarcely-populated Galapagos Islands. A top-notch cast (Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Connie Nielsen, Josh Radnour) gives voice to the letters and diary entries of the players in this stranger-than-fiction story, which involved an array of Europeans who'd moved away from civilization in search of utopian simplicity — most intriguingly, a maybe-fake Baroness and her two young lovers — and realized too late that paradise isn't all it's cracked up to be. Goldfine and Geller add further detail to the historic drama by visiting the present-day Galapagos, speaking with residents about the lingering mystery and offering a glimpse of what life on the isolated islands is like today. (2:00) Embarcadero. (Eddy)
The Grand Budapest Hotel Is this the first Wes Anderson movie to feature a shootout? It's definitely the first Anderson flick to include a severed head. That's not to say The Grand Budapest Hotel, "inspired by" the works of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, represents too much of a shift for the director — his intricate approach to art direction is still very much in place, as are the deadpan line deliveries and a cast stuffed with Anderson regulars. But there's a slightly more serious vibe here, a welcome change from 2012's tooth-achingly twee Moonrise Kingdom. Thank Ralph Fiennes' performance as liberally perfumed concierge extraordinaire M. Gustave, which mixes a shot of melancholy into the whimsy, and newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero, his loyal lobby boy, who provides gravitas despite only being a teenager. (Being played by F. Murray Abraham as an older adult probably helps in that department.) Hotel's early 20th century Europe setting proves an ideal canvas for Anderson's love of detail — the titular creation rivals Stanley Kubrick's rendering of the Overlook Hotel — and his supporting cast, as always, looks to be enjoying the hell out of being a part of Anderson's universe, with Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and Adrien Brody having particularly oversized fun. Is this the best Wes Anderson movie since 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums? Yes. (1:40) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Eddy)
Jodorowsky's Dune A Chilean émigré to Paris, Alejandro Jodorowsky had avant-garde interests that led him from theater and comic book art to film, making his feature debut with 1968's Fando y Lis. Undaunted by its poor reception, he created El Topo (1970), a blood-soaked mix of spaghetti western, mysticism, and Buñuellian parabolic grotesquerie that became the very first "midnight movie." After that success, he was given nearly a million dollars to "do what he wanted" with 1973's similarly out-there The Holy Mountain, which became a big hit in Europe. French producer Michel Seydoux asked Jodorowsky what he'd like to do next. Dune, he said. In many ways it seemed a perfect match of director and material. Yet Dune would be an enormous undertaking in terms of scale, expense, and technical challenges. What moneymen in their right mind would entrust this flamboyant genius/nut job with it? They wouldn't, as it turned out. So doc Jodorowsky's Dune is the story of "the greatest film never made," one that's brain-exploding enough in description alone. But there's more than description to go on here, since in 1975 the director and his collaborators created a beautifully detailed volume of storyboards and other preproduction minutiae they hoped would lure Hollywood studios aboard this space phantasmagoria. From this goldmine of material, as well as input from the surviving participants, Pavich is able to reconstruct not just the film's making and unmaking, but to an extent the film itself — there are animated storyboard sequences here that offer just a partial yet still breathtaking glimpse of what might have been. (1:30) Embarcadero. (Harvey)
Joe "I know what keeps me alive is restraint," says Nicolas Cage's titular character, a hard-drinking, taciturn but honorable semi-loner who supervises a crew of laborers clearing undesirable trees in the Mississippi countryside. That aside, his business is mostly drinking, occasionally getting laid, and staying out of trouble — we glean he's had more than enough of the latter in his past. Thus it's against his better judgment that he helps out newly arrived transient teen Gary (the excellent Tye Sheridan, of 2012's Mud and 2011's The Tree of Life), who's struggling to support his bedraggled mother and mute sister. Actually he takes a shine to the kid, and vice versa; the reason for caution is Gary's father, whom he himself calls a "selfish old drunk." And that's a kind description of this vicious, violent, lazy, conscienceless boozehound, who has gotten his pitiful family thrown out of town many times before and no doubt will manage it once again in this new burg, where they've found an empty condemned house to squat in. David Gordon Green's latest is based on a novel by the late Larry Brown, and like that writer's prose, its considerable skill of execution manages to render serious and grimly palatable a steaming plate load of high white trash melodrama that might otherwise be undigestible. (Strip away the fine performances, staging and atmosphere, and there's not much difference between Joe and the retro Southern grind house likes of 1969's Shanty Tramp, 1974's 'Gator Bait or 1963's Scum of the Earth.) Like Mud and 2011's Killer Joe, this is a rural Gothic neither truly realistic or caricatured to the point of parody, but hanging between those two poles — to an effect that's impressive and potent, though some may not enjoy wallowing in this particular depressing mire of grotesque nastiness en route to redemption. (1:57) Metreon, Presidio. (Harvey)
The Lego Movie (1:41) Metreon.
The Lunchbox Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a self-possessed housewife and a great cook, whose husband confuses her for another piece of furniture. She tries to arouse his affections with elaborate lunches she makes and sends through the city's lunchbox delivery service. Like marriage in India, lunchbox delivery has a failure rate of zero, which is what makes aberrations seem like magical occurrences. So when widow Saajan (Irrfan Khan) receives her adoring food, he humbly receives the magical lunches like a revival of the senses. Once Ila realizes her lunchbox is feeding the wrong man she writes a note and Saajan replies — tersely, like a man who hasn't held a conversation in a decade — and the impossible circumstances lend their exchanges a romance that challenges her emotional fidelity and his retreat from society. She confides her husband is cheating. He confides his sympathy for men of lower castes. It's a May/December affair if it's an affair at all — but the chemistry we expect the actors to have in the same room is what fuels our urge to see it; that's a rare and haunting dynamic. Newcomer Kaur is perfect as Ila, a beauty unmarked by her rigorous distaff; her soft features and exhausted expression lend a richness to the troubles she can't share with her similarly stoic mother (Lillete Dubey). Everyone is sacrificing something and poverty seeps into every crack, every life, without exception — their inner lives are their richness. (1:44) Opera Plaza. (Vizcarrondo)
Mr. Peabody and Sherman Mr. P. (voiced by Ty Burrell) is a Nobel Prize-winning genius dog, Sherman (Max Charles) his adopted human son. When the latter attends his first day of school, his extremely precocious knowledge of history attracts jealous interest from bratty classmate Penny (Ariel Winter), with the eventual result that all three end up being transported in Peabody's WABAC time machine to various fabled moments — involving Marie Antoinette, King Tut, the Trojan Horse, etc. — where Penny invariably gets them in deep trouble. Rob Minkoff's first all-animation feature since The Lion King 20 years ago is spun off from the same-named segments in Jay Ward's TV Rocky and Bullwinkle Show some decades earlier. It's a very busy (sometimes to the brink of clutter), often witty, imaginatively constructed, visually impressive, and for the most part highly enjoyable comic adventure. The only minuses are some perfunctory "It's about family"-type sentimentality — and scenarist Craig Wright's determination to draw from history the "lesson" that nearly all women are pains in the ass who create problems they must then be rescued from. (1:30) 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)
Muppets Most Wanted Building on the success of The Muppets, Jim Henson's beloved creations return to capitalize on their revitalized (and Disney-owned) fame. This follow-up from Muppets director James Tobin — technically, it's the seventh sequel to the original 1979 Muppet Movie, as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew points out in one of the film's many meta moments — improves upon the 2011 film, which had its charms but suffered by concentrating too much on the Jason Segal-Amy Adams romance, not to mention annoying new kid Walter. Here, human co-stars Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and others (there are more cameos than you can count) are relegated to supporting roles, with the central conflict revolving around the Muppets' inability to notice that Constantine, "the world's most dangerous frog," has infiltrated their group, sending Kermit to Siberian prison in his place. Constantine and his accomplice (Gervais, whose character's last name is "Badguy") use the Muppets' world tour as a front for their jewel-heist operation; meanwhile, his infatuated warden (Fey) forces Kermit to direct the annual gulag musical. Not helping matters are a bumbling Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) and his CIA counterpart (Sam the American Eagle, natch). Really, all that's needed is a simple plot, catchy songs, and plenty of room to let the Muppets do their thing — Miss Piggy and Animal are particularly enjoyable here; Walter's still around, but he's way more tolerable now that he's gotten past his "man or muppet" angst — and the film delivers. All the knowing winks to the grown-up fans in the audience are just an appreciated bonus. (1:46) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)
Noah Darren Aronofsky's Biblical epic begins with a brief recap of prior Genesis events — creation is detailed a bit more in clever fashion later on — leading up to mankind's messing up such that God wants to wipe the slate clean and start over. That means getting Noah (Russell Crowe), wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and their three sons and one adopted daughter (Emma Watson) to build an ark that can save them and two of every animal species from the imminent slate-wiping Great Flood. (The rest of humanity, having sinned too much, can just feed the fishes.) They get some help from fallen angels turned into Ray Harryhausen-type giant rock creatures voiced by Nick Nolte and others. There's an admirable brute force and some startling imagery to this uneven, somber, Iceland-shot tale "inspired" by the Good Book (which, needless to say, has endured more than its share of revisions over the centuries). Purists may quibble over some choices, including the device of turning minor Biblical figure Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) into a royal-stowaway villain, and political conservatives have already squawked a bit over Aronofsky's not-so-subtle message of eco-consciousness, with Noah being bade to "replenish the Earth" that man has hitherto rendered barren. But for the most part this is a respectable, forceful interpretation that should stir useful discussion amongst believers and non believers alike. Its biggest problem is that after the impressively harrowing flood itself, we're trapped on the ark dealing with the lesser crises of a pregnancy, a discontented middle son (Logan Lerman), and that stowaway's plotting — ponderous intrigues that might have been leavened if the director had allowed us to hang out with the animals a little, rather than sedating the whole menagerie for the entire voyage. (2:07) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Nymphomaniac: Volume I Found battered and unconscious in a back alley, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is taken in by good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), to whom she explains "It's all my fault — I'm just a bad human being." But he doesn't believe there are such things. She seeks to enlighten him by narrating the story of her life so far, from carnally curious childhood to sexually voracious adulthood. Stacy Martin plays her younger self through a guided tour of excesses variously involving Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen as her parents; a buncha guys fucked on a train, on a teenage dare; Uma Thurman as one histrionically scorned woman; and Shai LaBeouf as a first love who's a cipher either because he's written that way, or because this particular actor can't make sense out of him. For all its intended provocation, including some graphic but unsurprisingly (coming from this director) unerotic XXX action, von Trier's latest is actually less offensive than much of his prior output: He's regained his sense of humor here, and annoying as its "Look at me, I'm an unpredictable artist" crap can be (notably all the stuff about fly-fishing, cake forks, numerology, etc. that seems randomly drawn from some Great Big Book of Useless Trivia), the film's episodic progress is divertingly colorful enough. But is Joe going to turn out to be more than a two-dimensional authorial device from a director who's never exactly sussed women (or liked people in general)? Will Nymphomaniac arrive at some pointed whole greater than the sum of its naughty bits? The answer to both is probably "Nah." But we won't know for sure until the two-hour second half arrives (see review below) of a movie that, in fairness, was never really intended to be split up like this. (1:50) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Nymphomaniac, Volume II The second half of Lars von Trier's anecdotal epic begins with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recalling the quasi-religious experience of her spontaneous first orgasm at age 12. Then she continues to tell bookish good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) — who reveals he's an asexual 60-something virgin — the story of her sexually compulsive life to date. Despite finding domestic stability at last with Jerome (Shia LeBeouf), she proves to have no talent for motherhood, and hits a tormenting period of frigidity eventually relieved only by the brutal ministrations of sadist K (Jamie Bell, burying Billy Elliott for good). She finds a suitable professional outlet for her peculiarly antisocial personality, working as a sometimes ruthless debt collector under the tutelage of L (Willem Dafoe), and he in turn encourages her to develop her own protégé in the form of needy teenager P (Mia Goth). If Vol. I raised the question "Will all this have a point?," Vol. II provides the answer, and it's (as expected) "Not really." Still, there's no room for boredom in the filmmaker's most playfully arbitrary, entertaining, and least misanthropic (very relatively speaking) effort since his last four-hour-plus project 20 years ago, TV miniseries The Kingdom. Never mind that von Trier (in one of many moments when he uses Joe or Seligman as his mouthpiece) protests against the tyranny of political correctitude that renders a word like "Negro" unsayable — you're still free to feel offended when his camera spends more time ogling two African men's variably erect dicks in one brief scene that it does all the white actors' cocks combined. But then there's considerably more graphic content all around in this windup, which ends on a predictable note of cheap, melodramatic irony. But that's part of the charm of the whole enterprise: Reeling heedlessly from the pedantic to the shocking to the trivial, like a spoiled child it manages to be kinda cute even when it's deliberately pissing you off. (2:10) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Oculus Tim (Brenton Thwaites) and Kaylie (Karen Gillan) are grown siblings with a horrible shared past: When they were children, their parents (Rory Cochrane, Katee Sankhoff) moved them all into a nice suburban house, decorating it with, among other things, a 300-year-old mirror. But that antique seemed to have an increasingly disturbing effect on dad, then mom too, to ultimately homicidal, offspring-orphaning effect. Over a decade later, Tim is released from a juvenile mental lockup, ready to live a normal life after years of therapy have cleaned him of the supernatural delusions he think landed him there in the first place. Imagine his dismay when Kaylie announces she has spent the meantime researching aforementioned "evil mirror" — which turns out to have had a very gruesome history of mysteriously connected deaths — and painstakingly re-acquiring it. She means to destroy it so it can never wreak havoc, and has set up an elaborate room of camcorders and other equipment in which to "prove" its malevolence first, with Tim her very reluctant helper. Needless to say, this experiment (which he initially goes along with only in order to debunk the whole thing for good) turns out to be a very, very bad idea. The mirror is clever — demonically clever. It can warp time and perspective so our protagonists don't know whether what they're experiencing is real or not. Expanding on his 2006 short film (which was made before his excellent, little-seen 2011 horror feature Absentia), Mike Flanagan's tense, atmospheric movie isn't quite as scary as you might wish, partly because the villain (the spirit behind the mirror) isn't particularly well-imagined in generic look or murky motivation. But it is the rare new horror flick that is genuinely intricate and surprising plot-wise — no small thing in the current landscape of endless remakes and rehashes. (1:44) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)
On My Way Not for nothing too does the title On My Way evoke Going Places (1974): director Emmanuelle Bercot is less interested in exploring Catherine Deneuve's at-times-chilled hauteur than roughing up, grounding, and blowing fresh country air through that still intimidatingly gorgeous image. Deneuve's Bettie lost her way long ago — the former beauty queen, who never rose beyond her Miss Brittany status, is in a state of stagnation, working at her seafood restaurant, having affairs with married men, living with her mother, and still sleeping in her girlhood room. One workday mid-lunch hour, she gets in her car and drives, ignoring all her ordinary responsibilities and disappearing down the wormhole of dive bars and back roads. She seems destined to drift until her enraged, equally lost daughter Muriel (Camille) calls in a favor: give her son Charly (Nemo Schiffman) a ride to his paternal grandfather's. It's chance to reconnect and correct course, even after Bettie's money is spent, her restaurant appears doomed, and the adorable, infuriating Charly acts out. The way is clear, however: what could have been a musty, predictable affair, in the style of so many boomer tales in the movie houses these days, is given a crucial infusion of humanity and life, as Bercot keeps an affectionate eye trained on the unglamorous everyday attractions of a French backwater and Deneuve works that ineffable charm that draws all eyes to her onscreen. Her Bettie may have kicked her cigarette habit long ago, but she's still smokin' — in every way. (1:53) Embarcadero. (Chun)
Particle Fever "We are hearing nature talk to us," a physicist remarks in awe near the end of Particle Fever, Mark Levinson's intriguing doc about the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson particle. Earlier, another scientist says, "I've never heard of a moment like this in [science] history, where an entire field is hinging on a single event." The event, of course, is the launch of the Large Hardon Collider, the enormous machine that enabled the discovery. Though some interest in physics is probably necessary to enjoy Particle Fever, extensive knowledge of quarks and such is not, since the film uses elegant animation to refresh the basics for anyone whose eyes glazed over during high-school science. But though he offers plenty of context, Levinson wisely focuses his film on a handful of genial eggheads who are involved in the project, either hands-on at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), or watching from afar as the mighty LHC comes to life. Their excitement brings a welcome warmth to the proceedings — and their "fever" becomes contagious. (1:39) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)
The Raid 2 One need not have seen 2011's The Raid: Redemption to appreciate this latest collaboration between Welsh director Gareth Evans and Indonesian actor, martial artist, and fight choreographer Iko Uwais — it's recommended, of course, but the sequel stands alone on its own merits. Overstuffed with gloriously brutal, cleverly choreographed fight scenes, The Raid 2 — sometimes written with the subtitle "Berendal," which means "thugs" — picks up immediately after the events of the first film. Quick recap of part one: a special-forces team invades an apartment tower controlled by gangsters. Among the cops is idealistic Rama (Uwais). Seemingly bulletproof and fleet of fists and feet, Rama battles his way floor-by-floor, encountering machete-toting heavies and wild-eyed maniacs; he also soon realizes he's working for a police department that's as corrupt as the gangster crew. The Raid's gritty, unadorned approach resonated with thrillseeking audiences weary of CG overload. A second Raid film was inevitable, especially since Evans — who became interested in Indonesian martial arts, or pencak silat, while working on 2007 doc The Mystic Art of Indonesia — already had its story in mind: Rama goes undercover within a criminal organization, a ploy that necessitates he do a prison stint to gain the trust of a local kingpin. Naturally, not much goes according to plan, and much blood is shed along the way, as multiple power-crazed villains set their sinister plans into motion. With expanded locations and ever-more daring (yet bone-breakingly realistic) fight scenes aplenty — including a brawl inside a moving vehicle, and a muddy, bloody prison-yard riot — The Raid 2 more than delivers. Easily the action film of the year so far, with no contenders likely to topple it in the coming months. (2:19) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Rio 2 (1:41) Four Star, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio.
300: Rise of An Empire We pick up the 300 franchise right where director Zack Snyder left off in 2006, with this prequel-sequel, which spins off an as-yet-unreleased Frank Miller graphic novel. In the hands of director Noam Murro, with Snyder still in the house as writer, 300: Rise of an Empire contorts itself, flipping back and forth in time, in an attempt to explain the making of Persian evil prince stereotype Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) —all purring androgyny, fashionable piercings, and Iran-baiting, Bush-era malevolence — before following through on avenging 300's romantically outnumbered, chesty Spartans. As told by the angry, mourning Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey of Game of Thrones), the whole mess apparently began during the Battle of Marathon, when Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) killed Xerxes's royal father with a well-aimed miracle arrow. That act ushers in Xerxes's transformation into a "God King" bent on vengeance, aided and encouraged by his equally vengeful, elegantly mega-goth naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek-hating Greek who likes to up the perversity quotient by making out with decapitated heads. In case you didn't get it: know that vengeance is a prime mover for almost all the parties (except perhaps high-minded hottie Themistokles). Very loosely tethered to history and supplied with plenty of shirtless Greeks, taut thighs, wildly splintering ships, and even proto-suicide bombers, Rise skews toward a more naturalistic, less digitally waxy look than 300, as dust motes and fire sparks perpetually telegraph depth of field, shrieking, "See your 3D dollars hard at work!" Also working hard and making all that wrath look diabolically effortless is Green, who as the pitch-black counterpart to Gorga, turns out to be the real hero of the franchise, saving it from being yet another by-the-book sword-and-sandal war-game exercise populated by wholesome-looking, buff, blond jock-soldiers. Green's feline line readings and languid camp attitude have a way of cutting through the sausage fest of the Greek pec-ing order, even during the Battle of, seriously, Salamis. (1:43) Metreon. (Chun)
Under the Skin At the moment, Scarlett Johansson is playing a superhero in the world's top blockbuster. Her concurrent role in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin — the tale of an alien who comes to earth to capture men, but goes rogue once her curiosity about the human world gets the better of her — could not be more different in story or scope. Her character's camouflage (dark wig, thickly-applied lipstick) was carefully calibrated to make her unrecognizable, since Glazer (2000's Sexy Beast) filmed the alien's "pick-up" scenes — in which Johansson's unnamed character cruises around Glasgow in a nondescript van, prowling for prey — using hidden cameras and real people who had no idea they were interacting with a movie star. The film takes liberties with its source material (Michel Farber's novel), with "feeding" scenes that are far more abstract than as written in the book, allowing for one of the film's most striking visual motifs. After the alien seduces a victim, he's lured into what looks like a run-down house. The setting changes into a dark room that seems to represent an otherworldly void, with composer Mica Levi's spine-tingling score exponentially enhancing the dread. What happens next? It's never fully explained, but it doesn't need to be. When the alien begins to mistakenly believe that her fleshy, temporary form is her own, she abandons her predatory quest — but her ill-advised exploration of humanity leads her into another dark place. A chilling, visceral climax caps one of the most innovative sci-fi movies in recent memory. (1:47) SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Le Week-End Director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi first collaborated two decades ago on The Buddha of Suburbia, when the latter was still in the business of being Britain's brashest multiculti hipster voice. But in the last 10 years they've made a habit of slowing down to sketching portraits of older lives — and providing great roles for the nation's bottomless well of remarkable veteran actors. Here Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent play a pair of English academics trying to re-create their long-ago honeymoon's magic on an anniversary weekend in Paris. They love each other, but their relationship is thorny and complicated in ways that time has done nothing to smooth over. This beautifully observed duet goes way beyond the usual adorable-old-coot terrain of such stories on screen; it has charm and humor, but these are unpredictable, fully rounded characters, not comforting caricatures. Briefly turning this into a seriocomedy three-way is Most Valuable Berserker Jeff Goldblum as an old friend encountered by chance. It's not his story, but damned if he doesn't just about steal the movie anyway. (1:33) Embarcadero. (Harvey) *