Of the several films I looked at this week, two must be mentioned up top: The Master and The Expendables 2. These films are notable not just because I spent my own hard-earned dollahs for entry (usually I see stuff for free, being a critic and whatnot), but also because I loved them both, despite one being a bound-for-Oscars effort by one of America's most exciting filmmakers, and the other being a silly showcase for America's most beloved aging action heroes. Only one, however, contained a scene with Arnold Schwarzenegger riding in a teeny Smart Car. Your guess which.
Mark your calendar using my guide to fall film happenings in the Bay Area and beyond in this week's Guardian; and don't miss Jesse Hawthorne Ficks' interview with Compliance director Craig Zobel. Jesse's Compliance review is below the jump, along with more short takes on other films opening (and rep events happening) this week. This week also heralds a pair of horror movies (and, well, Halloween candy has started making appearances in Walgreens aisles...): The Apparition (review below) and Sinister (not screened for critics).
Alps Yorgos Lanthimos is well on his way to a reputation for sick yet oddly charming high-concept spectacles. Here, a group calling themselves Alps offers substitution services for the recently bereaved — that's right, they'll play your dead loved one to fill that hole in your life. Pitch-black comic moments abound, and the sensibility that made 2009's Dogtooth so thrilling is distinctly present here, if not quite as fresh. Beyond the absurd logline, the plot is rather more conventional: things get out of hand when Alps member Anna (Aggeliki Papoulia, the eldest daughter from Dogtooth) gets too invested in one of her assignments, and the power structure of Alps turns on her. If Alps is not exactly a revelation, it's still a promising entry in a quickly blossoming auteur's body of work. (1:33) Roxie. (Sam Stander)
The Apparition Does this horror flick stand a ghost of a chance against its predecessors? So many bodies, so many mysteriously slammed doors, so many girl ghouls — they all surface in this obviously low-budget cash-in on the coattails of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Look to the signs: the slow build of zero-CGI/bucks tension-building devices like flung-open doors that are supposed to be locked, scarily grainy, nausea-inducing handheld video footage and spastic editing, and screams in pitch blackness—with a dash of everything from 1979's Phantasm to Fulci to J-Horror. Prefaced by the story of psychics’ attempts to rouse a spirit, then a flashback to a group of college students’ try at recreating the séance by magnifying their brainwaves, The Apparition opens on the cute, perfectly made-up, and way-too-glamorous-for-suburbia Kelly (Ashley Greene) and her boyfriend Ben (Sebastian Stan), who have just moved into a new faceless development in the middle of nowhere, into a house her family has bought as an investment. Turns out they aren’t the only ones playing house, as the building’s alarm is continually bypassed, mysterious mold appears, and the neighbor’s adorable pup whimpers at thin air and obligingly dies in their laundry room. Matters go from bad to worst, as some invisible force does in Kelly’s cactus, messes up her closet, and blows the lights — all of which also sounds like the antics of a lousy roommate. Add in choppy, continuity-destroying editing; throwaway dialogue; music that sounds like it came from Kelly’s favorite store, Costco; overt appropriations like a slithery, long-haired ghoul girl that slimes her way out of a cardboard box; and that important, indelibly spooky image that comes far too late to count — and you’ll find yourself rooting for the fiend to put these kids out of their misery. (1:22) (Kimberly Chun)
Compliance No film at this year's Sundance Film Festival encountered as much controversy as Craig Zobel's Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with an audience member yelling "Sundance can do better!" You can't buy that kind of publicity. Every screening (public and press) that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at Sundance, and the film does not disappoint. (Beware: every review I have happened upon has unnecessarily spoiled major plots in the film, which is based on true events.) What is so impressive about Zobel's film is how it builds up a sense of ever-impending terror. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the film steps into Psycho (1960) terrain, specifically in the final act of the film. Compliance aims to confront a society filled with people who are trained to follow rules without questioning them. Magnolia Pictures, which previously collaborated with Zobel on his debut film Great World of Sound (which premiered at Sundance in 2007), picked up the film for theatrical release; if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized. You'll be screaming about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that's exactly why the film is so brilliant. (1:30) (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)
Cosmopolis With end times nigh and the 99 percent battering the gates of the establishment, it’s little wonder David Cronenberg’s rendition of the Don DeLillo novel might rotate, with the stately rhythm of a royal funeral and deliciously tongue-in-cheek humor, around one of the most famed vampire heartthrobs at the cineplex. Sadly, a recent paparazzi scandal threatens to eclipse this latest, enjoyably blighted installment in the NYC urban nightmare genre. Robert Pattinson’s billionaire asset manager Eric Packer takes meetings with his new wife Elise (Sarah Gadon) and staffers like his monetary theorist Vija (Samantha Morton) in his moving office: a white, leather-bound stretch limo that materializes like a sleek, imposing extension of his pale frame. Seriously disassociated from reality on multiple levels, Eric is a 28-year-old boy in a bubble, speaking of himself in third person and willing to spend all day making his way across town to get a haircut at his father’s old barbershop, even though his head of security (Kevin Durand) warns him that at least one “credible threat” has designs on his life. The passing of his favorite Sufi rapper (K’Naan), a possible Rothko for sale, a mad pie-thrower, and an asymmetrical prostate all threaten to capsize those, as it turns out, not-so-humble plans. Warning: the brainier members of Team Edward might plan on finding their minds blown by this thoughtful and mordantly humorous meditation on this country’s cult of money, while Cronenberg watchers will be gratified to pluck out his recurring themes, here dealt with a lighter hand than usual. At this date, rather than telegraphing how one might feel about a scene by way of, say, music, the director is increasingly comfortable with the ambiguity — and the uneasy, pleasing mix of sneaking repulsion and gimlet-eyed humor, of these scenes and their language. Thus the autoerotic-car fetishism of Crash (1996) and hallucinatory culture grazing of Naked Lunch (1991) — and that fascination with how a body intersects sexually or otherwise with a machine or “other” — seems completely natural here. Or perhaps it’s a measure of how much Cronenberg’s preoccupations and cinematic language have made themselves at home in the vernacular. (1:49) (Kimberly Chun)
"Global Threats Film Series" The San Francisco Film Society's "Global Threats" series continues with a double dose of stuff that'll kill ya. Though separated by six decades, both features are remarkably similar for their matter-of-fact, location-shot, non-pulp treatment of a prime (if infrequently used) thriller topic: the desperate attempts by health officials to contain a deadly virus before it spreads to the whole population. While in some quarters it was criticized for being too docu-drama-esque and not "thriller" enough, Steven Soderbergh's Contagion last year was admirably cool-headed in its depiction of various global, national, and local authorities (played by an all-star cast) frantically coping with an outbreak of something that yuppie slut Gwyneth Paltrow brought home from a business trip. A year before A Streetcar Named Desire (which was, contrastingly, almost entirely shot on studio soundstages), Elia Kazan ventured to the real New Orleans for Panic in the Streets (1950), in which another traveler imports an actual plague to the Big Easy. US Public Health Service physician Richard Widmark is tasked with tracking down the rapidly growing number of the infected, which is complicated by the fact that several of them (including Jack Palance and Zero Mostel) are criminal-underground types naturally averse to cooperating with the cops or any other governmental representative. If Contagion irked some for being a little too nuts-and-bolts procedural, the brilliantly black-and-white-shot Panic excited audiences and critics at the time for its unusual realism. That extends to the warmly credible marital relationship between workaholic Widmark (very appealing in one of his few nice-guy leads) and neglected but understanding spouse Barbara Bel Geddes. SF Film Society Cinema. (Dennis Harvey)
Hermano As a child, Julio (Eliu Armas) discovered foundling Daniel (Fernando Moreno) abandoned in a dumpster; taken in by the former's mom (Marcela Giron), the two boys are raised as brothers. They're close as can be, even if Julio is physically slight, shy, and straight-arrow, while strapping Daniel is a born leader and survivor quite willing to cross the legal line when it serves his purposes. One area in which they're of the same mind is the soccer field, where both (especially Daniel) are talented players with hopes of going pro. But that seems a remote dream in their violence-ridden slum. Marcel Rasquin's Venezuelan sports-crime drama is built on some hoary clichés — the "good" brother/"bad" brother dynamic, the tragedy that sparks revenge that sparks more tragedy, etc. — but is so unpretentious, energetic, sincere. and well-cast that skeptical resistance is futile. It's a modest movie, but a true, satisfying pleasure. (1:37) (Dennis Harvey)
Hit and Run Annie (Kristen Bell) has a Stanford doctorate but is treading in the academic backwaters until the prospect is raised of an ideal department-heading position at UCLA. She's thrilled, but also conflicted, because live-in beau Charlie (Dax Shepard) is in the Federal Witness Protection program, and can't leave the nowhere burg he lives in incognito — particularly for Los Angeles — without risking serious personal harm. However, for love he decides he'll risk everything so she can take the job. Unfortunately, this fast attracts the attention of various people very much interested in halting this exodus, for various reasons: notably Charlie's inept U.S. Marshall "protector" (Tom Arnold), Annie's psycho ex (Smallville's Michael Rosenbaum), and a guy with an even more serious grudge against Charlie (Bradley Cooper in a dreadlock wig). A whole lot of wacky chases and stunt driving ensues. The second feature Shepard's co-directed (with David Palmer) and written, this aims for a cross between 1970s drive-in demolition derbies (1977's Smokey and the Bandit, 1974's Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, etc.) and envelope-pushing comedy thrillers like 1993's True Romance. There's a lot of comic talent here, including some notable cameos, yet Hit and Run is one of those cases where the material is almost there, but not quite. It moves breezily enough but some of the characters are more annoying than funny; the dialogue is an awkward mix of bad taste and PC debates about bad taste; and some ideas that aim to be hilarious and subversive (naked old people, a long discussion about jailhouse rape) just sit there, painfully. Which makes this only the second-best Dax Shepard movie with incarceration rape jokes, after 2006's Let's Go to Prison. (1:38) (Dennis Harvey)
Premium Rush "Fixed gear. Steel frame. No brakes. Can't stop ... don't want to." Thus goes the gear breakdown and personal philosophy of New York City bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an aggro rider who uses his law school-refined brain to make split-second decisions regarding which way to dart through Midtown traffic. Though bike messengers had a pop culture moment in the 1990s, Premium Rush is set in the present day, with one of Wilee's numerous voice-overs explaining the job's continued importance even in the digital era. One such example: a certain envelope he's tasked with ferrying across the city, given to him by the troubled roommate (Jamie Chung) of the pretty fellow messenger (Dania Ramirez) he's romantically pursuing. The contents of the envelope, and the teeth-gnashingly evil-cop-with-a-gambling-problem (Michael Shannon, adding some weird flair to what's essentially a stock villain) who would dearly love to get his mitts on it, are less crucial to Premium Rush than the film's many, many chase scenes featuring Wilee outwitting all comers with his two-wheeled Frogger moves. Silly fun from director David Koepp (2008's Ghost Town), but not essential unless you're a fixie fanatic or a JGL completist. (1:31) (Cheryl Eddy)
Robot and Frank Imagine the all-too-placid deadpan of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) coming out of a home-healthcare worker, and you get just part of the appeal of this very likable comedy debut with a nonrobotic pulse directed by Jake Schreier. Sometime in the indeterminate near future, former jewel thief and second-story man Frank (Frank Langella) can be found quietly deteriorating in his isolated home, increasingly forgettable and unable to care for himself and assemble a decent bowl of Cap’n Crunch (though he can still steal fancy soaps from the village boutique). In an effort to cover his own busy rear, Frank’s distracted son (James Marsden) buys him a highly efficient robotic stand-in (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), much to his father’s grim resistance (“That thing is going to murder me in my sleep”) and the dismay of crunchy sibling Madison (Liv Tyler). The robot, however, is smarter than it looks, as it bargains with Frank to eat better, get healthier, and generally reanimate: it’s willing to learn to pick locks, participate in a robbery, and even plan a jewel heist, provided, say, Frank agrees to a low-sodium diet. Frank flourishes, like the garden the robot nurtures in a vain attempt to interest his human charge, and even goes on a date with his librarian crush (Susan Sarandon), though can the self-indulgent idyll last forever? A tale about aging as much as it is about rediscovery, Robot tells an old story, but one that’s wise beyond its years and willing to dress itself up in some of the smooth, sleek surfaces of an iGeneration. (1:30) (Kimberly Chun)
$upercapitalist Greed is good ... fodder for cinematic drama these days as all assembled struggle to get out from under the Great Recession and look to immerse themselves in the boardroom battlefields of films like 2011's Margin Call. Spinning off his time working for CNN in Hong Kong in the halcyon mid-’00s, lead actor, writer, and producer Derek Ting stars as a bright, eager-to-please hedge fund trader from New York, transplanted in the wild, wild East, and forced to learn a lesson about unchecked, profit-driven gamesmanship. In Hong Kong, Conner (Ting) only looks as Chinese as the rest — otherwise he’s American through and through. Unlike, say, the old-fashioned family-run corporation he’s assigned to take down, Conner is estranged from his family and has few loyalties, apart from Quentin (Darren E. Scott), the fellow trader who shows him the ropes and gets him hooked on hand-tailored suits, flash cars, and attractive arm candy, and Natalie (Kathy Uyen), a publicist who’s as brainy as she is beautiful. Unfortunately the game Conner’s playing has real costs for the people around him — and he finds himself questioning his loyalties. Ting and director Simon Yin have the makings of a compelling thriller — nothing is more tempting than a peep behind the curtain of a closed world like Chinese big business — and though the overall narrative pulls you in, they get tripped up on the details, namely easy clichés like $upercapitalist’s pampered, playboy son of a business dynasty, or the rote devices like the middle-class family rigged to reveal that Conner does indeed have a soul. Much like their hero, Ting and company take a bit for granted, from the viewer’s patience with tired Hollywood conventions to the very system — capitalist, supercapitalist, or socialist market economy — that supports them. (1:36) (Kimberly Chun)