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.
Alex Cross Tyler Perry sheds his Madea drag to play James Patterson's iconic detective. (1:41) Shattuck.
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)
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)
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. (Eddy)
Love Me Deadly/The Mephisto Waltz The Vortex Room's October series of scary movies continues with two films that take love beyond the grave not a healthy pursuit, in either case. Paul Wendkos' 1971 The Mephisto Waltz, one of relatively few major studio attempts to cash in on the success of Rosemary's Baby (1968), offers another tale of modern-day occult predation. Jacqueline Bisset is the wife who begins to notice something very wrong with her husband (pre-MASH Alan Alda) after they befriend a dying concert pianist (Curt Jurgens) with his own beautiful wife (Barbara Parkins from 1967's Valley of the Dolls). A rare big-screen foray (the Gidget series aside) for a director who'd become one of the most prolific makers of TV movies, it's not as good as Fred Mustard Stewart's original novel, but it's still a strong, macabre thriller that's been unduly forgotten. Never much noticed at all was Love Me Deadly, a truly bizarre independent production that must have perplexed its few viewers (let alone exhibitors) and still looks pretty inexplicable today. Waxy blonde Southern Californian Lindsay (Mary Wilcox, demonstrating none of the humor she'd later show as an SCTV irregular) is a grown-up daddy's little girl whose daddy is now dead. In the logic of director-scenarist Jacques Lacerte, this naturally makes her inclined toward perverse sexual desires she expresses sorta-harmlessly by sneaking corpse kisses at strangers' funerals until her predilection catches the eye of a mortician (Timothy Scott), who shares similar urges but acts on them in far more disturbing fashion. The scene in which he dispatches a gay hustler is truly harrowing. But elsewhere Deadly is more soap opera than horror movie, much concerned with Lindsay frigid marriage to a living man played by Lyle Waggoner, The Carol Burnett Show's resident hunk and future partner to TV's Wonder Woman. With its easy-listening piano score and glossy if low-budget veneer, this bad-taste concept exercises good taste in all the wrong places, to very odd effect. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first and last feature for Mr. Lacerte, as well as several of his principal collaborators. Most of them have since passed on, meaning we'll never get to find out just what the hell they were thinking making a drive-in horror-romance about necrophilia. Vortex Room. (Harvey)
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 They're baaaack. (1:21) Presidio.
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)
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) Embarcadero, 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) California, Metreon. (Eddy)
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) Grand Lake, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
Wuthering Heights See "Gimme Moors." (2:08) Bridge, 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)
Butter (1:32) Smith Rafael.
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)
Decoding Deepak And you thought your dad was a hard nut to crack. Decoding Deepak, directed by the son of New Age guru Deepak Chopra, offers insight into what it's like to be the son of a man who's built a career on commodifying spirituality, thanks to a string of best sellers and an Oprah seal of approval. Though the thirtysomething Gotham Chopra seems focused on catching his father off guard, Deepak offstage is exactly what you'd expect: a bit entitled and narcissistic, as many famous folks tend to be; obsessed with Twitter, as all media people tend to be; and "a guy who turns any mundane question into a talking point for a new book." In other words, there are no shocking revelations here though Deepak does offer an up-close view of some exceptionally galactic father-son tension. (1:23) Roxie, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Detropia Those of us from Detroit, once-glamorous capital of American manufacturing and symbol of the triumph of capitalism, often feel like we were born with the history of the city in our bones. Another common feeling is that of dread upon hearing that yet another arty documentary (or brow-furrowing article, or glossy photo book) is coming down the pipe. The narrative arc of such things is usually this: remember Motown? Cars were amazing. Then there were scary riots, probably out of thin air. Then the jobs left. Isn't Detroit sad now? Look how spooky this abandoned train station from the 1930s is! America is over. Wait! Some hipsters are starting a farm downtown! There may be hope after all. But who knows? Detropia, directed by Heidi Ewing, who grew up near Detroit, and Rachel Grady, doesn't exactly deconstruct that crusty storyline (non-spoiler alert: the hipster-farmers become performance artists). But this important and beautiful film shows how much more of the Detroit tale takes on meaning and shape when told through the voices of people who actually live there, with a cinematic eye that doesn't shy away from reality, even as it bends it to narrative ends. (1:30) Roxie. (Marke B.)
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)
Dredd 3D Cartoonishly, gleefully gruesome violence abounds in Dredd 3D, a pretty enjoyable comic-book adaptation thanks to star Karl Urban's deadpan zingers. This is not a remake of the 1995 Sly Stallone flop Judge Dredd, by the way, though it might as well be a remake of 2011 Indonesian import The Raid: Redemption. The stories are identical. Like, lawsuit material-identical: supercop infiltrates (and then becomes trapped in, and must battle his way out of) a high-rise apartment tower run by a ruthless crime boss. Key difference is that Dredd has futuristic weapons, and The Raid had badass martial arts. Also Dredd's villain is played by Lena "Cersei Lannister" Headey, so there's that. (1:38) Metreon. (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)
Excuse Me for Living When the going of indie filmmaking grows economically rough, the moneyed and well-connected enter the field, swinging enriched resumes. Writer-director Ric Klass seems to have garnered experience in many a lucrative field, founding a private equity firm and real estate development company, teaching entrepreneurship at Georgetown University's School of Business Administration, and working as a financial consultant to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. How does that multipronged background help when it comes to this ungainly throwback comedy, a glance to Old Hollywood with a nod to both the Borscht Belt and sitcom? Spoiled Ivy League-schooled addict Dan (Tom Pelphrey), a smart-assed semi-charmer-in-his-own-mind straight out of a Bret Easton Ellis epic, is about to toss himself off a bridge when he's pulled from the brink by a passing cop and pushed into posh rehab Live Free or Die. His doctor (Robert Vaughn) prescribes meetings with his temple's men's group, populated by an array of accomplished raconteurs, and there he meets his doc's pretty, scribbling daughter (Melissa Archer). Attraction ensues, with tangential broad comic forays that aspire to the snappy chatter of My Man Godfrey (1936) but somehow get bogged down in the dalliances of Dan's dad (Wayne Knight) and his mother's man-eating divorce lawyer Charlotte Davidson (Ewa Da Cruz). And despite a few promising chuckles and a glut of cameos, micro and macro, by actors such as Jerry Stiller, Dick Cavett, and Christopher Lloyd, Excuse Me's cliched narrative, vaguely antiquated dialogue and score, and even staler hints of misogyny capsize this enterprise in dire need of an editor. (1:45) 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (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.
House At the End of the Street Tight T-shirts, a creepy cul-de-sac, couples in cars on lonely lanes, and the cute but weird loner kid all the stuff of classic drive-in horror fare, revisited in this ambitious tribute of sorts. Don't mistake House at the End of the Street for genre-reviving efforts by super fans like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie; Mark Tonderai's mash up of Psycho (1960) and Last House on the Left (1972) lacks the rock 'n' roll brio and jet-black humor of, say, Cabin Fever (2002) or The Devil's Rejects (2005). Instead House reads like an earnest effort to add a thin veneer of psychological realism and even girl power sincerity to a blood-spattered back catalog. Teenage musician Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) and her overwhelmed mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) have found themselves quite a deal of a new rental home a bit too good, since their next door neighbors were both brutally killed by their brain-damaged offspring who was obviously afflicted with the same greasy hair issues as the ghoulish gal in The Ring. Ryan (Bay Area native Max Thieriot), the boy who continues to live in the house where his parents were murdered, is ostracized, attractive, and much like his home, a fixer making him mighty attractive to Elissa. A hearty, artistic soul who likes to venture where others fear to tread, she's drawn to him despite the fact that she feels like she's being watched from the woods that separate their homes. Switching back and forth between various perspectives like that of a sputtering, spasmodically edited psychopath-cam and the steady, thoughtful gaze of a rebellious yet empathetic girl House manages to effectively throw a few curveballs your way, while toying with genre conventions and upsetting your expectations. Shoring up its efforts is a talented cast, headed up by Lawrence's feisty heroine and Shue's sad-eyed struggling mom. (1:43) Metreon. (Chun)
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 thatwith 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, Presidio, 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, Opera Plaza, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
The Oranges In director Julian Farino's tale of two families, the Wallings and the Ostroffs are neighbors and close friends living in the affluent New Jersey township of West Orange. We meet David Walling (Hugh Laurie), his wife Paige (Catherine Keener), his best friend Terry Ostroff (Oliver Platt), and Terry's wife, Carol (Allison Janney), during a period of domestic malaise for both couples four unhappy people who enjoy spending time together that is destined to be exponentially magnified over the Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities. We learn much of this in voice-over courtesy of stalled-out 24-year-old design school grad Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), a second-generation Walling whose narrative subjectivity the film makes plain. No one will fault Vanessa for editorializing, however, when her Ostroff counterpart, onetime BFF and present-day nemesis Nina (Leighton Meester), returns home after a five-year absence and, amid maternal pressure to date Vanessa's visiting brother, Toby (Adam Brody), instead embarks on an affair with their father. The ick factor is large, particularly because it takes a while to keep straight all the spouses, offspring, and houses they belong in. But Farino works to convince us that the romantic spark between David and Nina should be judged on its merits rather than with a gut-level revulsion, a reaction we can leave to the film's principals. To the extent that this is possible, it's possible to enjoy The Oranges' intelligent writing and fine cast, whose sympathetic characters (perhaps excluding Nina, whose heedlessness regarding the feelings of others verges on sociopathic) we wish the best of luck in surviving the holidays. (1:30) Opera Plaza, SF Center. (Rapoport)
The Other Dream Team Despite all of the baseball and football fever crackling around town lately, there are some of us who wonder, "How long 'till basketball season?" Tide over your longing with this engaging doc, which is named for Lithuania's 1992 Olympic basketball team but is really about how the sport has shaped the culture of a nation, even during its decades spent under Soviet rule. It begins with the USSR's defeat of team USA at the 1988 games at the height of the Cold War, and when most Americans assumed all Soviet athletes were more or less variations on the ruthless man-machine played by Dolph Lundgren in 1985's Rocky IV. Of course, what people didn't realize was that four of the five starters were Lithuanians NBA-level players who were not allowed to leave the USSR to pursue their careers. Four years later, times had changed (one of the men is former Warriors standout Sarunas Marciulionis; another is Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis), and the Lithuanian team that competed in 1992 (with the financial backing of the Grateful Dead, hoops fans who applauded their courage) became an emotional symbol for the newly-independent country. The end result is a tale that's equal parts sobering, rousing, and funny and tie-dyed. (1:31) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Eddy)
The Paperboy Lee Daniels scored big with Precious (2009), but this follow-up is so off-kilter in tone and story it will likely polarize critics and confuse audiences, despite its A-list cast. I happened to enjoy the hell out of this tacky, sweat-drenched, gator-gutting, and generally overwrought adaptation of Peter Dexter's novel (Dexter and Daniels co-wrote the screenplay); it's kind of a Wild Things-The Help-A Time to Kill mash-up, with the ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey starring as Ward Jansen, a Florida newspaper reporter investigating what he thinks is the wrongful murder conviction of Hillary Van Wetter (a repulsively greasy John Cusack). But the movie's not really about that. Set in 1969 and narrated by Macy Gray, who plays the veteran housekeeper for the Jansens a clan that also includes college dropout Jack (Zac Efron) The Paperboy is neither mystery nor thriller. It's more of a swamp cocktail, with some odd directorial choices (random split-screen here, random zoom there) that maybe seem like exploitation movie homages. As a Southern floozy turned on by "prison cock" (but not, to his chagrin, by the oft-shirtless Jack), Nicole Kidman turns in her trashiest performance since 1995's To Die For. (1:46) California, Embarcadero. (Eddy)
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) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, 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, SF Center, 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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
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)
Sleepwalk with Me Every year lots of movies get made by actors and comedians who want to showcase themselves, usually writing and often directing in addition to starring. Most of these are pretty bad, and after a couple of festival appearances disappear, unremembered by anyone save the credit card companies that vastly benefited from its creation. Mike Birbiglia's first feature is an exception maybe not an entirely surprising one (since it's based on his highly praised Off-Broadway solo show and best-seller), but still odds-bucking. Particularly as it's an autobiographical feeling story about an aspiring stand-up comic (Mike as Matt) who unfortunately doesn't seem to have much natural talent in that direction, but nonetheless obsessively perseveres. This pursuit of seemingly fore destined failure might be causing his sleep disorder, or it might be a means of avoiding taking the martial next step with long-term girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose, making something special out of a conventional reactive role) everyone else agrees is the best thing in his life. Yep, it's another commitment-phobic man-boy/funny guy who regularly talks to the camera, trying to find himself while quirky friends and family stand around like trampoline spotters watching a determined clod. If all of these sounds derivative and indulgent, well, it ought to. But Sleepwalk turns a host of familiar, hardly foolproof ideas into astute, deftly performed, consistently amusing comedy with just enough seriousness for ballast. Additional points for "I zinged him" being the unlikely most gut-busting line here. (1:30) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
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) Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)