Tough snowman Marshmallow is among the cast of characters in Disney's new animated musical, Frozen, out Wed/27.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DISNEY
Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, Sam Stander, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.
Black Nativity You have to hand it to director-writer Kasi Lemmons (2001's The Caveman's Valentine) for even attempting an adaptation of Langston Hughes' Black Nativity. The idea of recasting the original play's straightforward hybrid of the nativity tale, gospel, and African folk traditions in contemporary Harlem as a spiffed-up urban street opera feels inspired, especially when the otherwise-familiar narrative is supercharged with emotion, thanks to Oakland-native music producer and co-composer Raphael Saadiq. The songs and their delivery make those moments when the cast members burst into song seem like the most natural thing in the world. The child rhapsodized about here is — wink, nudge — Langston (Jacob Latimore), who's getting evicted along with his single mom, Naima (Jennifer Hudson). In an act of self-disgust, or grudging respect, she sends her feisty tween to stay with his estranged grandparents in NYC. Reverend Cornell (Forest Whitaker) and Aretha Cobbs (Angela Bassett) turn out to be proud pillars of their community, with deep connections to the Civil Rights movement, which Langston discovers when the stern Rev shows the boy his most prized possession: an engraved pocket watch given to him by Martin Luther King Jr. Alas, if Lemmons simply stuck to her present-day rework — and refrained from the self-consciously stagy Christmas dream sequences, which actually seem to hew closer to the original Black Nativity, break the momentum, and cue this operetta's complete break with reality — this version would have fared much better than it does. Still, Black Nativity isn't without its moments. Whitaker, playing against type and tasked with the heaviest acting effort, and particularly Bassett, who channels a fiery spirit via her upstanding matron to provide much-needed warmth, are mesmerizing, and though Mary J. Blige and Nas are unfortunately given little to do, Hudson pulls her weight, if not with acting, then with her sheer skill at conveying heartbreak amid the melismas. (1:33) (Chun)
Frozen The voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, and Jonathan Groff star in Disney's animated musical inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. (1:48) Cerrito, Four Star, Presidio, Shattuck, Vogue.
The Great Beauty See "La Ho-Hum Vita." (2:22) Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Smith Rafael.
Homefront It's not clear if Jason Statham's undercover DEA agent is retired, but after a major meth bust he loses his scraggly mop of hair and put-on accent to enter seclusion in a town "not far from Appalachia." He's taught his daughter well, but when she defends herself against a school bully, the family incurs the wrath of the local tweaker-tiger mom (Kate Bosworth). Tiger Mom's brother is the local meth lord, Gator (James Franco). He's in cahoots with the Sheriff (Clancy Brown) and aspires to the heights of the biker badass Agent Statham put away, so he causes trouble for Statham's family. Winona Ryder, looking more like Cher's kid than she did in 1990's Mermaids, is the "meth-whore" who starts a bustling lab with her business-savvy BF, and while she's hardly out-performing any of the cast, she's definitely the film's best character. This mess of wonky editing and absurd send-ups totally delivers on gags and explosions, and when Franco sees his future he looks at it like a CEO applying at Starbucks. His face says "What the hell happened?" but his mouth yells, regrettably, "Are you retarded?" (1:40) (Vizcarrondo)
Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? "I'm a leetle nervous," French-accented Michel Gondry admits as he begins interviewing linguist and activist Noam Chomsky. Their chats make up this doc, aptly dubbed "an animated conversation" as it's brought to life by the director's whimsical animated drawings. The rambling convo (sometimes a lively back-and-forth, sometimes just Chomsky's gravely voice pondering a topic at length) winds from autobiographical material — Chomsky's earliest memory (a stubborn-baby moment in which he absolutely refused to eat oatmeal); his childhood ambitions of being a taxidermist ("Don't ask me why! I guess I liked the word?") — to more philosophical and intellectual topics. Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? might seem an offbeat choice for Gondry, but does he ever make any other kind of choice? This is, after all, the filmmaker who has maintained an edgy reputation throughout his varied career, from highlights (Björk's "Human Behavior" video; 2005's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to head-scratchers (2011 Seth Rogen superhero comedy The Green Hornet). (1:28) Roxie.
Oldboy In 2003, South Korean director Park Chan-wook released a modern masterpiece of harsh, misanthropic revenge cinema with Oldboy, a twisty and visually stylish adaptation of a Japanese manga. Ten years later, Spike Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich have delivered a recombinatory remake of the Korean film. It's neither satisfying nor particularly infuriating — it plays with the elements of Park's intensely memorable movie, alluding to scenes and images without always exactly reproducing them, and it makes a valiant effort to restore suspense to a story whose gut-wrenching twist has been slightly softened by a decade. But it's much less visually engaging, replacing Park's sinister playfulness with a blander, more direct action palette. Josh Brolin's Joe Doucett is brooding and brutal, but not as sickly compelling as Choi Min-sik's wild-eyed Oh Dae-su; Elizabeth Olsen is emotionally powerful as his helper and lover; and Sharlto Copley offers a bizarre, rather gross caricature as the scheming antagonist. (2:00) (Stander)
Philomena Stephen Frears directs Steve Coogan (who co-wrote the script) and Judi Dench in this drama about a journalist who helps an elderly woman find the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier. (1:35) Albany, Embarcadero.
About Time Richard Curtis, the man behind 2003's Love Actually, must be enjoying his days in England, rolling in large piles of money. Coinciding with the 10-year anniversary of that twee cinematic love fest comes Curtis' latest ode to joy, About Time. The film begins in Cornwall at an idyllic stone beach house, as Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) describes his family members (Bill Nighy is dad; Richard Cordery is the crazy uncle) and their pleasures (tea on the beach, ping pong). Despite beachside bliss, Tim is lovelorn and ready to begin a career as a barrister (which feels as out of the blue as the coming first act break). Oh! And as it happens, the men in Tim's family can travel back in time. There are no clear rules, though births and deaths are like no-trespass signs on the imaginary timeline. When he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams), he falls in love, but if he paves over his own evening by bouncing back and spending that night elsewhere, he loses the path he's worn into the map and has to fix it. Again and again. Despite potential repetition, About Time moves smoothly, sweetly, slowly along, giving its audience time enough to feel for the characters, and then feel for the characters again, and then keep crying just because the ball's already in motion. It's the most nest-like catharsis any British film ever built. (2:03) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Vizcarrondo)
All Is Lost As other reviewers have pointed out, All Is Lost's nearly dialogue-free script (OK, there is one really, really well-placed "Fuuuuuck!") is about as far from J.C. Chandor's Oscar-nominated script for 2011's Margin Call as possible. Props to the filmmaker, then, for crafting as much pulse-pounding magic out of austerity as he did with that multi-character gabfest. Here, Robert Redford plays "Our Man," a solo sailor whose race to survive begins along with the film, as his boat collides with a hunk of Indian Ocean detritus. Before long, he's completely adrift, yet determined to outwit the forces of nature that seem intent on bringing him down. The 77-year-old Redford turns in a surprisingly physical performance that's sure to be remembered as a late-career highlight. (1:46) Elmwood, Opera Plaza, SF Center. (Eddy)
The Armstrong Lie "This is a story about power, not doping," a talking head points out in Alex Gibney's latest doc, The Armstrong Lie. Gibney, an Oscar winner for 2007's Taxi to the Dark Side, set out to make something more along the lines of The Armstrong Return, shadowing Lance Armstrong as he prepped for his 2009 Tour de France comeback. He envisioned crafting a "feel-good movie," especially when Armstrong notched an impressive third-place finish — a feat intended to silence those performance-enhancing drug rumors once and for all. In the end, it only amplified the skepticism that loomed over his accomplishments. And as the evidence against Armstrong mounted, Gibney scrapped his original concept and went in a decidedly darker direction. Armstrong's critics, interviewed for Lie, admit they spotted the acclaimed documentarian among Armstrong's Tour de France entourage and feared he was "buying into the bullshit." Among these voices are Armstrong's former US Postal Service teammate, Frankie Andreu, and his wife, Betsy, who'd been excoriated by their former good friend and his supporters for speaking out against him. A feel-good movie, this is not. And ultimately, Gibney's film probes deeper than Armstrong's flaws; it's careful to point out that drug use is widespread among professional cyclists, who are surrounded by an insular, high-stakes culture that encourages it. The sports world lives and dies by the next world record or superhuman achievement. Is it any wonder that elite athletes seek out that extra competitive edge? And that Armstrong, in fully-inflated ego mode, would believe he had the power to rearrange reality to keep his victories intact? (2:03) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
The Best Man Holiday (2:00) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
The Book Thief One of those novels that seems to have been categorized as "young adult" more for reasons of marketing than anything else, Markus Zusak's international best seller gets an effective screen adaptation from director Brian Percival and scenarist Michael Petroni. Liesl (Sophie Nelisse) is an illiterate orphan — for all practical purposes, that is, given the likely fate of her left-leaning parents in a just-pre-World War II Nazi Germany — deposited by authorities on the doorstep of the middle-aged, childless Hubermanns in 1938. Rosa (Emily Watson) is a ceaseless nag and worrywart, even if her bark is worse than her bite; kindly housepainter Hans (Geoffrey Rush), who's lost work by refusing to join "the Party," makes a game of teacher Liesl how to read. Her subsequent fascination with books attracts the notice of the local Burgermeister's wife (Barbara Auer), who under the nose of her stern husband lets the girl peruse tomes from her manse's extensive library. But that secret is trivial compared to the Hubermanns' hiding of Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), son of Jewish comrade who'd saved Hans' life in the prior world war. When war breaks out anew, this harboring of a fugitive becomes even more dangerous, something Liesl can't share even with her best friend Rudy (Nico Liersch). While some of the book's subplots and secondary characters are sacrificed for the sake of expediency, the filmmakers have crafted a potent, intelligent drama whose judicious understatement extends to the subtlest (and first non-Spielberg) score John Williams has written in years. Rush, Watson, and newcomer Schnetzer are particularly good in the well-chosen cast. (2:11) Metreon, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Blue is the Warmest Color The stars (Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux) say the director was brutal. The director says he wishes the film had never been released (but he might make a sequel). The graphic novelist is uncomfortable with the explicit 10-minute sex scene. And most of the state of Idaho will have to wait to see the film on Netflix. The noise of recrimination, the lesser murmur of backpedaling, and a difficult-to-argue NC-17 rating could make it harder, as French director Abdellatif Kechiche has predicted, to find a calm, neutral zone in which to watch Blue is the Warmest Color, his Palme d'Or–winning adaptation (with co-writer Ghalya Lacroix) of Julie Maroh's 2010 graphic novel Le Blue Est une Couleur Chaude. But once you've committed to the three-hour runtime, it's not too difficult to tune out all the extra noise and focus on a film that trains its mesmerized gaze on a young woman's transforming experience of first love. (2:59) Clay, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Rapoport)
Blue Jasmine The good news about Blue Jasmine isn't that it's set in San Francisco, but that it's Woody Allen's best movie in years. Although some familiar characteristics are duly present, it's not quite like anything he's done before, and carries its essentially dramatic weight more effectively than he's managed in at least a couple decades. Not long ago Jasmine (a fearless Cate Blanchett) was the quintessential Manhattan hostess, but that glittering bubble has burst — exactly how revealed in flashbacks that spring surprises up to the script's end. She crawls to the West Coast to "start over" in the sole place available where she won't be mortified by the pity of erstwhile society friends. That would be the SF apartment of Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a fellow adoptive sister who was always looked down on by comparison to pretty, clever Jasmine. Theirs is an uneasy alliance — but Ginger's too big-hearted to say no. It's somewhat disappointing that Blue Jasmine doesn't really do much with San Francisco. Really, the film could take place anywhere — although setting it in a non-picture-postcard SF does bolster the film's unsettled, unpredictable air. Without being an outright villain, Jasmine is one of the least likable characters to carry a major US film since Noah Baumbach's underrated Margot at the Wedding (2007); the general plot shell, moreover, is strongly redolent of A Streetcar Named Desire. But whatever inspiration Allen took from prior works, Blue Jasmine is still distinctively his own invention. It's frequently funny in throwaway performance bits, yet disturbing, even devastating in cumulative impact. (1:38) Opera Plaza, Vogue. (Harvey)
Captain Phillips In 2009, Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage by Somali pirates who'd hijacked the Kenya-bound Maersk Alabama. His subsequent rescue by Navy SEALs came after a standoff that ended in the death of three pirates; a fourth, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, surrendered and is serving a hefty term in federal prison. A year later, Phillips penned a book about his ordeal, and Hollywood pounced. Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as Phillips, an everyman who runs a tight ship but displays an admirable ability to improvise under pressure — and, once rescued, finally allows that pressure to diffuse in a scene of memorably raw catharsis. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi, cast from an open call among Minneapolis' large Somali community, plays Muse; his character development goes deep enough to emphasize that piracy is one of few grim career options for Somali youths. But the real star here is probably director Paul Greengrass, who adds this suspenseful high-seas tale to his slate of intelligent, doc-inspired thrillers (2006's United 93, 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum). Suffice to say fans of the reigning king of fast-paced, handheld-camera action will not be disappointed. (2:14) Elmwood, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 (1:35) SF Center.
The Counselor The reviews are in, and it's clear Ridley Scott has made the most polarizing film of the season. Most of The Counselor's detractors blame Cormac McCarthy's screenplay, the acclaimed author's first that isn't drawn from a prexisting novel. To date, the best film made from a McCarthy tale is 2007's No Country for Old Men, and The Counselor trawls in similar border-noir genre trappings in its tale of a sleek, greedy lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who gets in way over his head after a drug deal (entered into with slippery compadres played by Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem) goes wrong. Yes, there are some problems here, with very few unexpected twists in a downbeat story that's laden with overlong monologues, most of them delivered by random characters that appear, talk, and are never seen again. But some of those speeches are doozies — and haters are overlooking The Counselor's sleazy pleasures (many of which are supplied by Cameron Diaz's fierce, feline femme fatale) and attention to grimy detail. One suspects cult appreciation awaits. (1:57) Metreon. (Eddy)
Dallas Buyers Club Dallas Buyers Club is the first all-US feature from Jean-Marc Vallée. He first made a splash in 2005 with C.R.A.Z.Y., which seemed an archetype of the flashy, coming-of-age themed debut feature. Vallée has evolved beyond flashiness, or maybe since C.R.A.Z.Y. he just hasn't had a subject that seemed to call for it. Which is not to say Dallas is entirely sober — its characters partake from the gamut of altering substances, over-the-counter and otherwise. But this is a movie about AIDS, so the purely recreational good times must eventually crash to an end. Which they do pretty quickly. We first meet Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) in 1986, a Texas good ol' boy endlessly chasing skirts and partying nonstop. Not feeling quite right, he visits a doctor, who informs him that he is HIV-positive. His response is "I ain't no faggot, motherfucker" — and increased partying that he barely survives. Afterward, he pulls himself together enough to research his options, and bribes a hospital attendant into raiding its trial supply of AZT for him. But Ron also discovers the hard way what many first-generation AIDS patients did — that AZT is itself toxic. He ends up in a Mexican clinic run by a disgraced American physician (Griffin Dunne) who recommends a regime consisting mostly of vitamins and herbal treatments. Ron realizes a commercial opportunity, and finds a business partner in willowy cross-dresser Rayon (Jared Leto). When the authorities keep cracking down on their trade, savvy Ron takes a cue from gay activists in Manhattan and creates a law evading "buyers club" in which members pay monthly dues rather than paying directly for pharmaceutical goods. It's a tale that the scenarists (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) and director steep in deep Texan atmospherics, and while it takes itself seriously when and where it ought, Dallas Buyers Club is a movie whose frequent, entertaining jauntiness is based in that most American value: get-rich-quick entrepreneurship. (1:58) California, Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Delivery Man Twenty years ago David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn) "put love in a cup" 600-plus times to finance a family trip to Italy. His mother was sick, his father couldn't afford it, and with time running out, David embarked on a harebrained scheme to make (a lot of) "it" happen. The sperm bank that paid him $23K for his "seed" overused it, and 18 years later he has 533 kids, 143 of which are on a hunt to find their biological father, "Starbuck." (This also the name of the 2011 Canadian comedy on which Delivery Man is based.) With a premise this quirky you'll have a hard time finding something to hate, even if this is technically a film about runaway jizz. This heartwarming Thanksgiving release isn't really appropriate for youngsters (unless you're been trying to find a entrée to explain sperm banks) but the way Delivery Man deals with the seemingly limitless generosity contained in each of us is both touching and inspiring. Maybe David's contribution to "Starbuck's Kids" doesn't obligate him to reveal his identity, but he's desperately attached, and goes embarrassingly far outside his comfort zone to interact. The kids' emotional stake in this is murky, but the way their search for identity finds a voice in tune with the current tech-confident yet socially-confused younger generation could make Delivery Man relevant to more generations than X or Y. (1:45) Elmwood, Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)
Ender's Game Those entering Ender's Game in search of homophobic threads or politically unsavory themes will likely be frustrated. After all, Orson Scott Card — once a board member of the National Organization for Marriage, and here serving as a producer intent on preserving the 1985 novel that netted him acclaim — has revisited what was initially a short story multiple times over the years, tweaking it to reflect a new political climate, to ready it for new expedient uses. Who knows — the times are a-changin' fast enough, with the outcry of LGBT activists and the growing acceptance of gay military members, to hope that a gay character might enter the mix someday. Of course, sexuality of all sorts is kept firmly in check in the Ender's world. Earth has been invaded by an insect-like species called the Formics, and the planet unifies to serve up its best and brightest (and, it's implied, most ruthless) young minds, sharpened on first-person-shooters and tactical games, to the cause of defeating the alien "other." Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is the knowing hybrid of his sociopath brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and compassionate sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) — of the trinity, he's "the One," as Han Solo, I mean, Harrison Ford, cadet talent-spotter and trainer Colonel Graff, puts it. Ender impresses the leather off the hardened old war horse, though the Colonel's psychologically more equipped cohort Major Anderson (Viola Davis) suspects there's more going on within their chosen leader. Director-screenwriter Gavin Hood demonstrates his allegiance to Card's vision, valorizing the discipline and teamwork instilled by military school with the grim purpose and dead serious pleasure one might take in studying a well-oiled machine, while Ender is sharpened and employed as a stunningly effective tool in a war he never truly conceived of. This game has a bit more in common with the recent Wii-meets-Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Godzillas of Pacific Rim than the winking, acidic satire of Starship Troopers (1997), echoing a drone-driven War on Terror that has a way of detaching even the most evolved fighter from the consequences of his or her actions. The question is how to undo, or rewrite, the damage done. (1:54) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)
Free Birds (1:31) Metreon.
Gravity "Life in space is impossible," begins Gravity, the latest from Alfonso Cuarón (2006's Children of Men). Egghead Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is well aware of her precarious situation after a mangled satellite slams into her ship, then proceeds to demolition-derby everything (including the International Space Station) in its path. It's not long before she's utterly, terrifyingly alone, and forced to unearth near-superhuman reserves of physical and mental strength to survive. Bullock's performance would be enough to recommend Gravity, but there's more to praise, like the film's tense pacing, spare-yet-layered script (Cuarón co-wrote with his son, Jonás), and spectacular 3D photography — not to mention George Clooney's warm supporting turn as a career astronaut who loves country music almost as much as he loves telling stories about his misadventures. (1:31) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Before succumbing to the hot and heavy action inside the arena (intensely directed by Francis Lawrence) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire force-feeds you a world of heinous concept fashions that'd make Lady Gaga laugh. But that's ok, because the second film about one girl's epic struggle to change the world of Panem may be even more exciting than the first. Suzanne Collins' YA novel The Hunger Games was an over-literal metaphor for junior high social survival and the glory of Catching Fire is that it depicts what comes after you reach the cool kids' table. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) inspired so much hope among the 12 districts she now faces pressures from President Snow (a portentous Donald Sutherland) and the fanatical press of Capital City (Stanley Tucci with big teeth and Toby Jones with big hair). After she's forced to fake a romance with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the two watch with horror as they're faced with a new Hunger Game: for returning victors, many of whom are too old to run. Amanda Plummer and Jeffrey Wright are fun as brainy wackjobs and Jena Malone is hilariously Amazonian as a serial axe grinder still screaming like an eighth grader. Inside the arena, alliances and rivalries shift but the winner's circle could survive to see another revolution; to save this city, they may have to burn it down. (2:26) Balboa, California, Cerrito, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (1:32) Metreon.
Kill Your Darlings Relieved to escape his Jersey home, dominated by the miseries of an oft-institutionalized mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and long-suffering father (David Cross), Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) enters Columbia University in 1944 as a freshman already interested in the new and avant-garde. He's thus immediately enchanted by bad-boy fellow student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a veteran of numerous prestigious schools and well on the road to getting kicked out of this one. Charismatic and reckless, Carr has a circle of fellow eccentrics buzzing around him, including dyspeptic William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and merchant marine wild child Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Variably included in or ostracized from this training ground for future Beat luminaries is the older David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a disgraced former academic who'd known Carr since the latter was 14, and followed him around with pathetic, enamored devotion. It's this last figure's apparent murder by Carr that provides the bookending crux of John Krokidas' impressive first feature, a tragedy whose motivations and means remain disputed. Partly blessed by being about a (comparatively) lesser-known chapter in an overexposed, much-mythologized history, Kill Your Darlings is easily one of the best dramatizations yet of Beat lore, with excellent performances all around. (Yes, Harry Potter actually does pass quite well as a somewhat cuter junior Ginsberg.) It's sad if somewhat inevitable that the most intriguing figure here — Hall's hapless, lovelorn stalker-slash-victim — is the one that remains least knowable to both the film and to the ages. (1:40) SF Center. (Harvey)
Last Vegas This buddy film may look like a Bucket List-Hangover hybrid, but it's got a lot more Spring Breakers in it than you expect — who beats Vegas for most bikinis per capita? Four old friends reunite for a wedding in Vegas, where they drink, gamble, and are confused for legendary men. Morgan Freeman sneaks out of his son's house to go. Kevin Kline's wife gave him a hall pass to regain his lost sense of fun. Kline and Freeman trick Robert De Niro into going — he's got a grudge against Michael Douglas, so why celebrate that jerk's nuptials to a 30-year-old? The conflicts are mostly safe and insubstantial, but the in-joke here is that all of these acting legends are confused for legends by their accidentally obtained VIP host (Romany Malco). These guys have earned their stature, so what gives? When De Niro flings fists you shudder inside remembering Jake LaMotta. Kline's velvety comic delivery is just as swaggery as it was during his 80s era collaborations with Lawrence Kasdan. Douglas is "not as charming as he thinks he is," yet again, and voice-of-God Freeman faces a conflict specific to paternal protective urges. Yes, Last Vegas jokes about the ravages of age and prescribes tenacity for all that ails us, but I want a cast this great celebrated at least as obviously as The Expendables films. Confuse these guys for better? Show me who. (1:44) Elmwood, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Vizcarrondo)
Nebraska Alexander Payne may be unique at this point in that he's in a position of being able to make nothing but small, human, and humorous films with major-studio money on his own terms. It's hazardous to make too much of a movie like Nebraska, because it is small — despite the wide Great Plains landscapes shot in a wide screen format — and shouldn't be entered into with overinflated or otherwise wrong-headed expectations. Still, a certain gratitude is called for. Nebraska marks the first time Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor weren't involved in the script, and the first one since their 1996 Citizen Ruth that isn't based on someone else's novel. (Hitherto little-known Bob Nelson's original screenplay apparently first came to Payne's notice a decade ago, but getting put off in favor of other projects.) It could easily have been a novel, though, as the things it does very well (internal thought, sense of place, character nuance) and the things it doesn't much bother with (plot, action, dialogue) are more in line with literary fiction than commercial cinema. Elderly Woody T. Grant (Bruce Dern) keeps being found grimly trudging through snow and whatnot on the outskirts of Billings, Mont., bound for Lincoln, Neb. Brain fuzzed by age and booze, he's convinced he's won a million dollars and needs to collect it him there, though eventually it's clear that something bigger than reality — or senility, even — is compelling him to make this trek. Long-suffering younger son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him in order to simply put the matter to rest. This fool's mission acquires a whole extended family-full of other fools when father and son detour to the former's podunk farming hometown. Nebraska has no moments so funny or dramatic they'd look outstanding in excerpt; low-key as they were, 2009's Sideways and 2011's The Descendants had bigger set pieces and narrative stakes. But like those movies, this one just ambles along until you realize you're completely hooked, all positive emotional responses on full alert. (1:55) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont. (Harvey)
Running From Crazy Can one ever escape one's toxic genetic legacy, especially when one's makeup, and even one's genius, is so entangled with mental illness, the shadow of substance abuse, and a kind of burden of history? Actor, author, healthy-living proponent, and now suicide prevention activist Mariel Hemingway seems cut out to try, as, eh, earnestly as she can, to offer up hope. Part of that involves opening the door to documentarian Barbara Kopple, in this look at the 20th century's most infamous literary suicide, Mariel's grandfather Ernest Hemingway, and just one of his familial threads, one full of lives cut deliberately short. For Running From Crazy, Kopple generally keeps the focus on Mariel, who displays all the disarming groundedness and humility of the youngest care-taking, "good" child. Her father, Ernest's eldest son, Jack, regularly indulged in "wine time" with his ailing wife and, according to Mariel, had a pitch-black side of his own. But we don't look to closely at him as the filmmaker favors the present, preferring to watch Mariel mountain climb and bicker with her stuntman boyfriend, meet up with her eldest sister Muffet, and 'fess up about the depression that runs through the Hemingway line to her own daughters. Little is made of Mariel's own artistic contributions in acting, though Kopple's work is aided immeasurably by the footage Mariel's rival middle sister Margaux shot for a documentary she planned to do on Ernest. Once the highest paid model in the world, Margaux leaves the viewer with a vivid impression of her brash, raw, eccentric, and endearingly goofy spirit — she's courageous in her own way as she sips vino with her parents and older sister and tears up during a Spanish bull fight. Are these just first world problems for scions who never hesitated to trade on their name? Kopple is more interested in the humans behind the gloss of fame, spectacle and sensation — the women left in the wake of a literary patriarch's monumental brand of masculinity and misogyny. And you feel like you get that here, plainly and honestly, in a way that even Papa might appreciate. (1:40) Smith Rafael. (Chun)
Thor: The Dark World Since any tentacle of Marvel's Avengers universe now comes equipped with its own money-printing factory, it's likely we'll keep seeing sequels and spin-offs for approximately the next 100 years. With its by-the-numbers plot and "Yeah, seen that before" 3D effects, Thor: The Dark World is forced to rely heavily on the charisma of its leads — Chris Hemsworth as the titular hammer-swinger; Tom Hiddleston as his brooding brother Loki — to hold audience interest. Fortunately, these two (along with Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Idris Elba, and the rest of the supporting cast, most of whom return from the first film) appear to be having a blast under the direction of Alan Taylor, a TV veteran whose credits include multiple Game of Thrones eps. Not that any Avengers flick carries much heft, but especially here, jokey asides far outweigh any moments of actual drama (the plot, about an alien race led by Christopher Eccleston in "dark elf" drag intent on capturing an ancient weapon with the power to destroy all the realms, etc. etc., matters very little). Fanboys and -girls, this one's for you ... and only you. (2:00) Balboa, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
12 Years a Slave Pop culture's engagement with slavery has always been uneasy. Landmark 1977 miniseries Roots set ratings records, but the prestigious production capped off a decade that had seen some more questionable endeavors, including 1975 exploitation flick Mandingo — often cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorite films; it was a clear influence on his 2012 revenge fantasy Django Unchained, which approached its subject matter in a manner that paid homage to the Westerns it riffed on: with guns blazing. By contrast, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is nuanced and steeped in realism. Though it does contain scenes of violence (deliberately captured in long takes by regular McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt, whose cinematography is one of the film's many stylistic achievements), the film emphasizes the horrors of "the peculiar institution" by repeatedly showing how accepted and ingrained it was. Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, an African American man who was sold into slavery in 1841 and survived to pen a wrenching account of his experiences. He's portrayed here by the powerful Chiwetel Ejiofor. Other standout performances come courtesy of McQueen favorite Michael Fassbender (as Epps, a plantation owner who exacerbates what's clearly an unwell mind with copious amounts of booze) and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, as a slave who attracts Epps' cruel attentions. (2:14) California, Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy) *