The 12th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival  kicked off last night with a screening of Spark: A Burning Man Story  (even if you missed the opening event, you can check out Steven T. Jones' story about the film and changes underway at the Burning Man organization here ). It continues through June 23 at venues in San Francisco (mostly the Roxie), Palo Alto, and Oakland; check out my article on the fest here  and DocFest's official website  for a full slate of films and ticket information.
Also in this week's paper: Dennis Harvey's round-up  of "The Vortex Phenomena," the SOMA venue 's monthlong series of conspiracy-theory films of the 1970s (Bermuda Triangle! Fog monsters! Yeti !)
And of course, we got all your first-run intel right here. This week's feast includes the reteaming  of tight bros from way back Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, playing Google noobs in The Internship ; Joss Whedon's detour from superheroes  to Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing ; and Wish You Were Here , an Aussie thriller about a vacation gone awry starring a very good (and very freaked-out) Joel Edgerton. Plus more, all after the jump.
The East  In Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling’s powerful second film collaboration (Batmanglij directs, and the pair co-wrote the screenplay, as in 2011’s Sound of My Voice), Marling plays Sarah, an intelligence agent working for a private firm whose client list consists mainly of havoc-wreaking multinationals. Sarah, presented as quietly ambitious and conservative, is tasked by the firm’s director (Patricia Clarkson) with infiltrating the East, an off-the-grid activist collective whose members, including Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), Izzy (Ellen Page), and Doc (Toby Kebbell), bring an eye-for-an-eye sensibility to their YouTube-publicized “jams.” Targeting an oil company responsible for a BP-style catastrophe, they engineer their own spill in the gated-community habitat of the company’s CEO, posting a video that juxtaposes grisly images of oil-coated shorebirds and the unsettling sight of gallons of crude seeping through the air-conditioning vents of a tidy McMansion. A newspaper headline offers a facile framework for understanding their activities, posing the alternatives as “Pranksters or Eco-Terrorists?” But as Sarah examines the gut-wrenching consequences of so-called white-collar crime and immerses herself in the day-to-day practices of the group, drawn in particular to the charismatic Benji, the film raises more complex questions. Much of its rhetorical force flows from Izzy, whom Page invests with a raw, anguished outrage, drawing our sympathies toward the group and its mission of laying bare what should be unbearable. (1:56) (Lynn Rapoport)
Fill the Void  Respectfully rendered and beautifully shot in warm hues, Fill the Void admirably fills the absence on many screens of stories from what might be considered a closed world: the Orthodox Hasidic community in Israel, where a complex web of family ties, duty, and obligation entangles pretty, accordion-playing Shira (Hada Yaron). An obedient daughter, she's about to agree to an arranged marriage to a young suitor when her much-loved sister (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth. When Shira's mother (Irit Sheleg) learns the widower Yochay (Yiftach Klein) might marry a woman abroad and take her only grandchild far away, she starts to make noises about fixing Shira up with her son-in-law. The journey the two must take, in possibly going from in-laws to newlyweds, is one that's simultaneously infuriating, understandable, and touching, made all the more intimate given director Rama Burshtein's preference for searching close-ups. Her affinity for the Orthodox world is obvious with each loving shot, ultimately infusing her debut feature with a beating heart of humanity. (1:30) (Kimberly Chun)
The Internship  The dirty little secret of the new economy continues to be the gerbil cycle of free/cheap labor labeled “internships” that propels so many companies — be they corporate or indie, digital or print media. But gee, who’s going to see an intern comedy titled The Exploitation, besides me and my local union rep? Instead, spinning off a Vince Vaughn story idea and a co-writing credit, The Internship looks at that now-mandatory time-suck for so many college students through the filter of two older, not-quite-wiser salesmen Billy (Vaughn) and Nick (Owen Wilson) hoping to make that working guy’s quantum leap from watch sales to Google’s Mountain View campus, which director Shawn Levy casts as a bright and shiny workers wonderland with its free spring rolls and lattes, bikes, and napping pods. Departing from reality: the debugging/coding/game-playing/app-making competition that forces Billy and Nick to bond with their team of castoffs (Dylan O’Brien, Tiya Sircar, Tobit Raphael), led by noob manager Lyle (Josh Brener), in order to win a full-time job. Part of the key, naturally, turns out to be a Swingers-like visit to a strip club, to release those deeply repressed nerd sexualities — nothing like a little retrograde sexism to bring a group together. Still, the moment is offset by the generally genial, upbeat attitude brought to The Internship by its lead actors: Nick and Billy may be flubs at physics and clueless when it comes to geek culture, but most working stiffs who have suffered the slings and arrows of layoffs and dream of stable employment can probably get behind the all-American ideals of self-reinvention and optimism about the future peddled in The Internship, which easily slips in alongside The Great Gatsby among this year’s Great Recession narratives. Blink too fast and you might miss the microcameo by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. (1:59) (Kimberly Chun)
The Kings of Summer  Ah, the easy-to-pluck, easy-to-love low-hanging fruit of summer — and a coming of age. Who can blame director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta, both TV vets, for thinking that a juicy, molasses-thick application of hee-hee-larious TV comedy actors to a Stand by Me-like boyish bildungsroman could only make matters that much more fun? When it comes to this wannabe-feral Frankenteen love child of Terrence Malick and Parks and Recreation, you certainly don’t want to fault them for original thinking, though you can understand why they keep lurching back to familiar, reliably entertaining turf, especially when it comes in the form of Nick Offerman of the aforementioned P&R, who gets to twist his Victorian doll features into new frustrated shapes alongside real-life spouse Megan Mullally. Joe (Nick Robinson) is tired of his single dad (Offerman) stepping on his emerging game, so he runs off with neurotic wrestling pal Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and stereotypically “weirdo foreign” kid Biaggio (Moises Arias) to a patch of woods. There, from scrap, they build a cool-looking house that resembles a Carmel boho shack and attempt to live off the land, which means mostly buying chicken from a Boston Market across a freeway. Pipes are pummeled, swimming holes are swum, a pathetically wispy mustachio is cultivated — read: real burly stuff, until the rising tide of testosterone threatens to poison the woodland well. Vogt-Roberts certainly captures the humid sensuality and ripe potential of a Midwestern summer — though some of the details, like the supposedly wild rabbit that looks like it came straight from Petco, look a bit canned — and who can gripe when, say, Portlandia’s Kumail Nanjiani materializes to deliver monster wontons? You just accept it, though the effect of bouncing back and forth between the somewhat serious world of young men and the surprisingly playful world of adults, both equally unreal, grows jarring. The Kings of Summer isn’t quite the stuff of genius that marketing would have you believe, but it might give the “weirdo foreign” art house crowd and TV comedy addicts something they can both stand by. (1:33) (Kimberly Chun)
Much Ado About Nothing  Joss Whedon (last year's The Avengers) shifts focus for a minute to stage an adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy, drawing his players from 15 years’ worth of awesome fantasy/horror/sci-fi TV and film projects. When the Spanish prince Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) pays a post-battle visit to the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg) with his officers Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), Claudio falls for Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), while Benedick falls to verbal blows with Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker). Preserving the original language of the play while setting his production in the age of the iPhone and the random hookup, Whedon makes clever, inventive use of the juxtaposition, teasing out fresh sources of visual comedy as well as bringing forward the play’s oddities and darker elements. These shadows fall on Beatrice and Benedick, whose sparring — before they succumb to a playfully devious setup at the hands of their friends — has an ugly, resentful heat to it, as well as on Hero and Claudio, whose filmy romance is unsettlingly easy for their enemies, the malevolent Don John (Sean Maher) and his cohorts, to sabotage. Some of Acker and Denisof’s broader clowning doesn’t offer enough comic payoff for the hammy energy expenditure, but Nathan Fillion, heading up local law enforcement as the constable Dogberry, delivers a gleeful depiction of blundering idiocy, and the film as a whole has a warm, approachable humor while lightly exposing “all’s well that ends well”’s wacky, dysfunctional side. (1:49) (Lynn Rapoport)
1 Mile Above  When his brother dies suddenly, sheltered Taiwanese student Shuhao takes possession of the older boy's "riding diaries," determined to complete his sibling's dream of biking to the highest point in Tibet. It'd be a perilous journey even for an experienced cyclist — but Shuhao's got gutsy determination that (almost) makes up for his wobbly wheels. Fortunately, nearly everyone he meets en route to Lhasa is a kind-hearted soul, including a food-obsessed fellow traveler who doles out advice on how to avoid government checkpoints, prevent "crotch trouble" (from all that riding), and woo women, among other topics. (The cruel weather, steep inclines, and hostile wild dogs he faces, however, aren't as welcoming.) Jiayi Du's based-on-true-events drama doesn't innovate much on similar adventure tales — spoiler alert: it's the journey, not the destination, that counts — but it admirably avoids melodrama for the most part, and the gorgeous location photography is something to behold. (1:29) Metreon . (Cheryl Eddy)
The Purge  Writer-director James DeMonaco founds his dystopian-near-future tale on the possibly suspect premise that the United States could achieve one percent unemployment, heavily reduced crime rates, and a virtually carb-free society if only it were to sanction an annual night of national mayhem unconstrained by statutory law — up to and including those discouraging the act of homicide. Set in 2022, The Purge visits the household of home security salesman James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), wife Mary (Lena Headey), and their children, Charlie (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kane), as the annual festivities are about to begin, and the film keeps us trapped in the house with them for the next 12 hours of bloodletting sans emergency services. While they show zero interest in adding to the carnage, James and Mary seem to be largely on board with what a news commentator describes as “a lawful outlet for American rage,” not giving too much credence to detractors’ observations that the purge is a de facto culling of the underclass. Clearly, though, the whole family is about to learn a valuable lesson. It comes when Charlie, in an act of baseline humanity, draws the ire of a gang of purgers running around in bathrobes, prep school jackets, and creepy masks, led by a gleaming-eyed alpha-sociopath whom DeMonaco (whose other screenplay credits include 2005’s Assault on Precinct 13 remake) tasks with wielding the film’s blunt-object message alongside his semi-automatic weaponry. (1:25) Shattuck. (Lynn Rapoport)
Shadow Dancer  Watching the emotions flicker across the exquisitely smooth, pale plane of Andrea Riseborough’s face is one of the central pleasures of Shadow Dancer. Likely the surest step Madonna made in making 2011's W.E. was choosing the actress as her Wallis Simpson — her features fall together with the sweet symmetry of a, well, Madonna, and even when words, or the script, fail her, the play of thoughts and feelings rippling across her brow can fill out a movie’s, or a character’s, failings admirably. The otherwise graceful, good-looking Shadow Dancer fumbles over a few in the course of resurrecting the Troubles tearing apart Belfast in the 1990s. After feeling responsible for the death of a younger brother who got caught in the crossfire, Collette (Riseborough) finds herself a single mom in league with the IRA. Caught after a scuttled bombing, the petite would-be terrorist is turned by Mac (Clive Owen) to become an informant for the MI5, though after getting quickly dragged into an attempted assassination, Collette appears to be way over her head and must be pulled out — something Mac’s boss (Gillian Anderson) won’t allow. Director James Marsh (2008's Man on Wire) brings a keen attention to the machinations and tested loyalties among both the MI5 and IRA, an interest evident in his Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 (2009), and even imbues otherwise blanked-out, non-picturesque sites like hotel suites and gray coastal walks with a stark beauty. Unfortunately the funereal pacing and gaps in plotting, however eased by the focus on Riseborough’s responses, send the mind into the shadows. (1:44) (Kimberly Chun)
Violet and Daisy  The 1990s revival has already infiltrated fashion and music; Violet and Daisy, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning Precious (2009) screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, suggests that cinema may be next. Unfortunately, not enough time has passed since the first wave of Pulp Fiction (1994) knockoffs to make the genre feel particularly interesting again. And yet here comes a pair of assassins dressed as nuns, cracking long-winded jokes before unloading on their targets with guns they've concealed in pizza boxes ... as an AM radio hit ("Angel of the Morning") swells in the background, and Danny Trejo stops by for a cameo. At least this Tarantino-lite exploration of crime and daddy issues has an appealing cast; besides Trejo, Alexis Bledel (sporting Mia Wallace bangs) and Saoirse Ronan play the jailbait titular killers, and James Gandolfini pops in as a sad-sack who manages to evade their bullets because, like, he's nice and stuff. Despite their efforts, the over-stylized Violet and Daisy comes off like a plate of leftovers reheated too long after the fact. (1:28) (Cheryl Eddy)
Wish You Were Here  One of few bright spots in The Great Gatsby, Joel Edgerton returns in this Aussie import that doesn't need to set off 3D glitter bombs to win over its audience — that's the power of a well-acted, well-written thriller. Under the opening credits we witness married Sydney couple Dave and Alice (Edgerton and Felicity Price, who co-wrote the script with her husband, director Kieran Darcy-Smith), along with Alice's sister Steph (Warm Bodies' Teresa Palmer) and new beau Jeremy (Antony Starr), having a blast on their Southeast Asian escape: sampling exotic food, dancing all night, spotting an elephant wandering the streets ... oh, and guzzling drinks and gobbling drugs. Next scene: Dave and Alice returning home to their two young children, tension in the air, vacation bliss completely erased. It seems Jeremy is missing, somewhere in remote Cambodia — and that's not the only lingering fallout from this journey gone terribly awry. Flashbacks mix with present-day scenes, including the police inquiry into Jeremy's disappearance, to flesh out what happened; the end result is a suspenseful, surprising, precisely-assembled tale that only reveals what it needs to as the minutes tick by. (1:33) (Cheryl Eddy)