The election is over and, thank Zeus, good defeated evil. So you can stop making snarky Romney gifs and turn your attentions to more important matters — like seeing Lincoln (yeah, he was a Republican, but as Spielberg's movie makes abundantly clear, Democrats were actually the bigger assholes back in the day). Or, you could see what ol' James Bond is up to in his 4785th film, Skyfall (just kidding — it's his 23rd, so Godzilla still has him beat). Reviews for both below the jump.
Elsewhere, DocFest opens tonight and runs through Nov. 21; check out my take on this year's programming (spoiler alert: lots o' good stuff) here; and read Dennis Harvey's review of a very strange movie starring a very strangely coiffed Sean Penn, This Must Be the Place.
And ... as if that would be everything going on in San Francisco's film scene this week? Are you new in town? There's also the San Francisco Film Society's local showcase Cinema By the Bay (my overview here) and New Italian Cinema programs; the always-popular (and now 10th annual!) San Francisco Transgender Film Festival; and Marc Huestis' multi-film tribute to the late, great Natalie Wood at the Castro.
PLUS more short takes, including the good word on Ursula Meier's acclaimed Sister, below.
Dangerous Liaisons John Malkovich and Sarah Michelle Gellar may have already starred in pop culture's favorite adaptations of this classic French novel, but since pretty people scheming never gets old, here's a Chinese take on Les Liaisons dangereuses, complete with big-name cast and all the visual allure of 1930s Shanghai. "You are such a cad!" a woman shrieks at Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun) in the first scene, and indeed he is — though his heart belongs to "Miss Mo" (Cecilia Cheung). The malicious wager (if you seduce her and then horribly dump her, I'll let you sleep with me ... plus: incidental affairs along the way) is struck and things proceed on schedule, until Yifan finds himself actually falling for virtuous widow Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi). You know how it ends. Gorgeous costumes and mise-en-scène add visual interest to the familiar story, which also adds a little political flair in the form of Chinese students protesting the early days of Japanese occupation. (1:45) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Details One of the hardest hurdles to clear in watching Jacob Aaron Estes’s The Details might be the sight of Tobey Maguire, erstwhile boy-man and Spider-Man, inelegantly proposing to Elizabeth Banks (playing his character’s wife) that they put their small child to bed and F-U-C-K. On paper, or perhaps under the right mood lighting, that could work, but it’s not a sexy sight here, and it’s almost a relief when she turns him down. Far less appetizing intimacies lie ahead, though, as Maguire’s gynecologist and family man Jeffrey Lang triggers a sticky, unsalutary domino effect involving marauding raccoons, marital infidelity, enabling friends (Kerry Washington), unstable neighbors (Laura Linney), planning codes, pesticides, and kidney disease. Like Estes’s 2004 film Mean Creek, which he also wrote and directed, The Details shows us what can happen when baser human impulses meet unforeseen circumstances. There, it was children making painfully bad decisions. Here, we squeamishly watch Lang get caught, but the drama has a glossy, dark-comedy finish to it that prevents us from suffering too much as we witness his domestic life imploding. Dennis Haysbert plays a pickup basketball buddy/better human being drawn inexorably into the mess our protagonist has made; Ray Liotta, a husband made irate by Lang’s misjudgments. (1:31) (Lynn Rapoport)
Lincoln Distinguished subject matter and an A+ production team (Steven Spielberg directing, Daniel Day-Lewis starring, Tony Kushner adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Williams scoring every emotion juuust so) mean Lincoln delivers about what you'd expect: a compelling (if verbose), emotionally resonant (and somehow suspenseful) dramatization of President Lincoln's push to get the 13th amendment passed before the start of his second term. America's neck-deep in the Civil War, and Congress, though now without Southern representation, is profoundly divided on the issue of abolition. Spielberg recreates 1865 Washington as a vibrant, exciting place, albeit one filled with so many recognizable stars it's almost distracting wondering who'll pop up in the next scene: Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant! Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln! Lena Dunham's shirtless boyfriend on Girls (Adam Driver) as a soldier! Most notable among the huge cast are John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a daffy James Spader as a trio of lobbyists; Sally Field as the troubled First Lady; and likely Oscar contenders Tommy Lee Jones (as winningly cranky Rep. Thaddeus Stevens) and Day-Lewis, who does a reliably great job of disappearing into his iconic role. (2:30) (Cheryl Eddy)
Sister Twelve-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) looks like any other kid vacationing with a family on the slopes of a Swiss ski resort. That's a big plus, because he's not one of them — he's a local living "downhill" in an anonymous high-rise apartment block, sustaining himself and his pretty but irresponsible older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) by stealing expensive sports equipment and clothes from the oblivious guests. He has no guilt about what he does, but then why should he? Those people are rich, he's not, and sis' short attention span toward jobs and boyfriends isn't going to pay the rent. Ursula Meier's French-language second feature isn't heavily plot-driven, though it doesn't feel like a second is wasted. The casual, somewhat furtive relationships that develop between Simon and stray adults who glean enough to worry about him — a seasonal restaurant worker (Martin Compston), a maternal resort guest (Gillian Anderson), Louise's better-than-usual new beau (Yann Tregouet) — come and go but are toeholds on stability for him. It's the contrast between Simon's aggressively take-charge premature adulthood and his unaddressed needs as a child that ultimately make Sister rather devastating. It's been aptly compared to the Dardenne Brothers' similar dramas, but Meier lets her film's heart beat a little more in open empathy with its protagonist while aping those Belgians' brisk surface objectivity. (1:37) (Dennis Harvey)
Skyfall Top marks to Adele, who delivers a magnificent title song to cap off Skyfall's thrilling pre-credits chase scene. Unfortunate, then, that the film that follows squanders its initial promise. After a bomb attack on MI6, the clock is running out for Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench), accused of Cold War irrelevancy in a 21st century full of malevolent, stateless computer hackers. The audience, too, will yearn for a return to simpler times; dialogue about “firewalls” and “obfuscated code” never fails to sound faintly ridiculous, despite the efforts Ben Whishaw as the youthful new head of Q branch. Javier Bardem is creative and creepy as keyboard-tapping villain Raoul Silva, but would have done better with a megalomaniac scheme to take over the world. Instead, a small-potatoes revenge plot limps to a dull conclusion in the middle of nowhere. Skyfall never decides whether it prefers action, bon mots, and in-jokes to ponderous mythologizing and ripped-from-the-headlines speechifying – the result is a unsatisfying, uneven mixture. (2:23) (Ben Richardson)