Film Listings: February 12 -18, 2014
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.
About Last Night First remake of the week: a do-over of the 1986 ensemble rom-com, based (like the earlier film) on a David Mamet play. This version stars Kevin Hart, Regina Hall, Michael Ealy, and Joy Bryant. (1:40)
Beijing Love Story Writer-director-star Chen Sicheng adapts his 2012 Chinese TV series, adding movie stars Carina Lau and Tony Leung Ka-fai to the cast to up the big-screen wattage. The film follows an array of couples, starting with Chen and real-life wife Shen Yan as a young couple forced to make some hard choices after an unplanned pregnancy. "What's love? It's like a ghost. Everyone's heard of it, nobody's seen it," the reluctant father-to-be's cynical friend tells him. Said friend has been hitched for years; the film's next storyline follows what happens when his wife finds out he's been cheating (as it turns out, she has some secrets of her own). At one point, the action shifts from Beijing to Greece (for the Lau-Leung segment), before returning to the city for a teenage love story involving a cello prodigy who wants to compete on TV, and a boy who can "see auras," among other fanciful talents. Finally, an elderly man embarks on a series of blind dates, looking for a second chance at love, with a twist that's obvious to anyone who's ever seen a rom-com before. By the time this flowery Valentine's card of a movie reaches its melodramatic conclusion, it's abundantly clear that Chen knows his target audience — see: the film's multiple Titanic (1997) references — and that he's a huge fan of the romance genre himself. Well, 'tis the season. (2:02) Metreon. (Eddy)
Endless Love Second remake of the week: a do-over of Franco Zeffirelli's adaptation of Scott Spencer's young-adult-love-gone-awry novel. (1:44) Shattuck.
Like Father, Like Son A yuppie Tokyo couple are raising their only child in workaholic dad's image, applying the pressure to excel at an early age. Imagine their distress when the hospital phones with some unpleasant news: It has only just been learned that a nurse mixed up their baby with another, with the result that both families have been raising the "wrong" children these six years. Polite, forced interaction with the other clan — a larger nuclear unit as warm, disorganized, and financially hapless as the first is formal, regimented and upwardly mobile — reveals that both sides have something to learn about parenting. This latest from Japanese master Hirokazu Koreeda (1998's After Life, 2004's Nobody Knows, 2008's Still Walking) is, as usual, low-key, beautifully observed, and in the end deeply moving. (2:01) Shattuck, Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
Lovers of Eternity Other Cinema's latest season opens with something truly special: a new Kuchar Brothers movie. Well, not exactly "new" — that would be difficult, as SF's own beloved George is with us no more — but one that, incredibly, has never been seen on the West Coast before. Lovers of Eternity (1964) is a half hour color "camp treasure" recently transferred to 16mm from a sole surviving 8mm print. No clue what the cast or content is, but having been made when the Bronx bros were 22 years old, just before they stopped directing as a team, how could it not be genius? The bill will also include Mike Kuchar in person presenting his 1966 The Secret of Wendel Samson, starring Pop artist Red Grooms, George, and Kuchar staples including Donna Kerness and Bob Cowan; plus his brand-new Soulmates. There will also be miscellany including "an orgy of erotic romps" and "psychedelic smut." Valentine's Day was for lovers; at this Sat/15 event, get retro-sleazy. More info at www.othercinema.com. Artists' Television Access. (Harvey)
RoboCop Truly, there was no need to remake 1987's RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven's smart, biting sci-fi classic that deploys heaps of stealth satire beneath its ultraviolent imagery. But the inevitable do-over is here, and while it doesn't improve on what came before, it's not a total lost cause, either. Thank Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, whose thrilling Elite Squad films touch on similar themes of corruption (within police, political, and media realms), and some inspired casting, including Samuel L. Jackson as the uber-conservative host of a futuristic talk show. Though the suit that restores life to fallen Detroit cop Alex Murphy is, naturally, a CG wonder, the guy inside the armor — played by The Killing's Joel Kinnaman — is less dynamic. In fact, none of the characters, even those portrayed by actors far more lively than Kinnaman (Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Jackie Earle Haley), are developed beyond the bare minimum required to serve RoboCop's plot, a mixed-message glob of dirty cops, money-grubbing corporations, the military-industrial complex, and a few too many "Is he a man...or a machine?" moments. But in its favor: Though it's PG-13 (boo), it's also shot in 2D (yay). (1:50) Presidio. (Eddy)
Tim's Vermeer See "Masterpiece Theater." (1:20) Embarcadero.
Winter's Tale Akiva Goldsman (Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2001's A Beautiful Mind) directs Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe, and Jennifer Connelly in this adaptation of Mark Halprin's supernatural romance. (1:58) Four Star, Presidio.
American Hustle David O. Russell's American Hustle is like a lot of things you've seen before — put in a blender, so the results are too smooth to feel blatantly derivative, though here and there you taste a little Boogie Nights (1997), Goodfellas (1990), or whatever. Loosely based on the Abscam FBI sting-scandal of the late 1970s and early '80s (an opening title snarks "Some of this actually happened"), Hustle is a screwball crime caper almost entirely populated by petty schemers with big ideas almost certain to blow up in their faces. It's love, or something, at first sight for Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who meet at a Long Island party circa 1977 and instantly fall for each other — or rather for the idealized selves they've both strained to concoct. He's a none-too-classy but savvy operator who's built up a mini-empire of variably legal businesses; she's a nobody from nowhere who crawled upward and gave herself a bombshell makeover. The hiccup in this slightly tacky yet perfect match is Irving's neglected, crazy wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who's not about to let him go. She's their main problem until they meet Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent who entraps the two while posing as a client. Their only way out of a long prison haul, he says, is to cooperate in an elaborate Atlantic City redevelopment scheme he's concocted to bring down a slew of Mafioso and presumably corrupt politicians, hustling a beloved Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) in the process. Russell's filmmaking is at a peak of populist confidence it would have been hard to imagine before 2010's The Fighter, and the casting here is perfect down to the smallest roles. But beyond all clever plotting, amusing period trappings, and general high energy, the film's ace is its four leads, who ingeniously juggle the caricatured surfaces and pathetic depths of self-identified "winners" primarily driven by profound insecurity. (2:17) Four Star, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
August: Osage County Considering the relative infrequency of theater-to-film translations today, it's a bit of a surprise that Tracy Letts had two movies made from his plays before he even got to Broadway. Bug and Killer Joe proved a snug fit for director William Friedkin (in 2006 and 2011, respectively), but both plays were too outré for the kind of mainstream success accorded 2007's August: Osage County, which won the Pulitzer, ran 18 months on Broadway, and toured the nation. As a result, August was destined — perhaps doomed — to be a big movie, the kind that shoehorns a distracting array of stars into an ensemble piece, playing jes' plain folk. But what seemed bracingly rude as well as somewhat traditional under the proscenium lights just looks like a lot of reheated Country Gothic hash, and the possibility of profundity you might've been willing to consider before is now completely off the menu. If you haven't seen August before (or even if you have), there may be sufficient fun watching stellar actors chew the scenery with varying degrees of panache — Meryl Streep (who else) as gorgon matriarch Violet Weston; Sam Shepard as her long-suffering spouse; Julia Roberts as pissed-off prodigal daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), etc. You know the beats: Late-night confessions, drunken hijinks, disastrous dinners, secrets (infidelity, etc.) spilling out everywhere like loose change from moth-eaten trousers. The film's success story, I suppose, is Roberts: She seems very comfortable with her character's bitter anger, and the four-letter words tumble past those jumbo lips like familiar friends. On the downside, there's Streep, who's a wizard and a wonder as usual yet also in that mode supporting the naysayers' view that such conspicuous technique prevents our getting lost in her characters. If Streep can do anything, then logic decrees that includes being miscast. (2:10) Metreon, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
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) Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio. (Harvey)
Devil's Due (1:29) Metreon.
Frozen (1:48) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
Gloria The titular figure in Sebastian Lelio's film is a Santiago divorcee and white collar worker (Paulina Garcia) pushing 60, living alone in a condo apartment — well, almost alone, since like Inside Llewyn Davis, this movie involves the frequent, unwanted company of somebody else's cat. (That somebody is an upstairs neighbor whose solo wailings against cruel fate disturb her sleep.) Her two children are grown up and preoccupied with their adult lives. Not quite ready for the glue factory yet, Gloria often goes to a disco for the "older crowd," dancing by herself if she has to, but still hoping for some romantic prospects. She gets them in the form of Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), who's more recently divorced but gratifyingly infatuated with her. Unfortunately, he's also let his daughters and ex-wife remain ominously dependent on him, not just financially but in every emotional crisis that affects their apparently crisis-filled lives. The extent to which Gloria lets him into her life is not reciprocated, and she becomes increasingly aware how distant her second-place priority status is whenever Rodolfo's other loved ones snap their fingers. There's not a lot of plot but plenty of incident and insight to this character study, a portrait of a "spinster" that neither slathers on the sentimental uplift or piles on melodramatic victimizations. Instead, Gloria is memorably, satisfyingly just right. (1:50) Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
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. (Eddy)
The Great Beauty The latest from Paolo Sorrentino (2008's Il Divo) arrives as a high-profile contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, already annointed a masterpiece in some quarters, and duly announcing itself as such in nearly every grandiose, aesthetically engorged moment. Yes, it seems to say, you are in the presence of this auteur's masterpiece. But it's somebody else's, too. The problem isn't just that Fellini got there first, but that there's room for doubt whether Sorrentino's homage actually builds on or simply imitates its model. La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963) are themselves swaying, jerry-built monuments, exhileratingly messy and debatably profound. But nothing quite like them had been seen before, and they did define a time of cultural upheaval — when traditional ways of life were being plowed under by a loud, moneyed, heedless modernity that for a while chose Rome as its global capital. Sorrentino announces his intention to out-Fellini Fellini in an opening sequence so strenuously flamboyant it's like a never-ending pirouette performed by a prima dancer with a hernia. There's statuary, a women's choral ensemble, an on-screen audience applauding the director's baffled muse Toni Servillo, standing in for Marcello Mastroianni — all this and more in manic tracking shots and frantic intercutting, as if sheer speed alone could supply contemporary relevancy. Eventually The Great Beauty calms down a bit, but still its reason for being remains vague behind the heavy curtain of "style." (2:22) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
Her Morose and lonely after a failed marriage, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) drifts through an appealingly futuristic Los Angeles (more skyscrapers, less smog) to his job at a place so hipster-twee it probably will exist someday: beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, where he dictates flowery missives to a computer program that scrawls them onto paper for paying customers. Theodore's scripting of dialogue between happy couples, as most of his clients seem to be, only enhances his sadness, though he's got friends who care about him (in particular, Amy Adams as Amy, a frumpy college chum) and he appears to have zero money woes, since his letter-writing gig funds a fancy apartment equipped with a sweet video-game system. Anyway, women are what gives Theodore trouble — and maybe by extension, writer-director Spike Jonze? — so he seeks out the ultimate gal pal: Samantha, an operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson in the year's best disembodied performance. Thus begins a most unusual relationship, but not so unusual; Theodore's friends don't take any issue with the fact that his new love is a machine. Hey, in Her's world, everyone's deeply involved with their chatty, helpful, caring, always-available OS — why wouldn't Theo take it to the next level? Inevitably, of course, complications arise. If Her's romantic arc feels rather predictable, the film acquits itself in other ways, including boundlessly clever production-design touches that imagine a world with technology that's (mostly) believably evolved from what exists today. Also, the pants they wear in the future? Must be seen to be believed. (2:00) Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Just when you'd managed to wipe 2012's unwieldy The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey from your mind, here comes its sequel — and it's actually good! Yes, it's too long (Peter Jackson wouldn't have it any other way); arachnophobes (and maybe small children) will have trouble with the creepy, giant-spider battle; and Orlando Bloom, reprising his Lord of the Rings role as Legolas the elf, has been CG'd to the point of looking like he's carved out of plastic. But there's much more to enjoy this time around, with a quicker pace (no long, drawn-out dinner parties); winning performances by Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Ian McKellan (Gandalf); and Benedict Cumberbatch (as the petulent voice of Smaug the dragon); and more shape to the quest, as the crew of dwarves seeks to reclaim their homeland, and Gandalf pokes into a deeper evil that's starting to overtake Middle-earth. (We all know how that ends.) In addition to Cumberbatch, the cast now includes Lost's Evangeline Lilly as elf Tauriel, who doesn't appear in J.R.R. Tolkien's original story, but whose lady-warrior presence is a welcome one; and Luke Evans as Bard, a human poised to play a key role in defeating Smaug in next year's trilogy-ender, There and Back Again. (2:36) Metreon. (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) Metreon. (Vizcarrondo)
I, Frankenstein (1:33) Metreon.
Inside Llewyn Davis In the Coen Brothers' latest, Oscar Isaac as the titular character is well on his way to becoming persona non grata in 1961 NYC — particularly in the Greenwich Village folk music scene he's an ornery part of. He's broke, running out of couches to crash on, has recorded a couple records that have gone nowhere, and now finds out he's impregnated the wife (Carey Mulligan) and musical partner of one among the few friends (Justin Timberlake) he has left. She's furious with herself over this predicament, but even more furious at him. This ambling, anecdotal tale finds Llewyn running into one exasperating hurdle after another as he burns his last remaining bridges, not just in Manhattan but on a road trip to Chicago undertaken with an overbearing jazz musician (John Goodman) and his enigmatic driver (Garrett Hedlund) to see a club impresario (F. Murray Abraham). This small, muted, droll Coens exercise is perfectly handled in terms of performance and atmosphere, with pleasures aplenty in its small plot surprises, myriad humorous idiosyncrasies, and T. Bone Burnett's sweetened folk arrangements. But whether it actually has anything to say about its milieu (a hugely important Petri dish for later '60s political and musical developments), or adds up to anything more profound than an beautifully executed shaggy-dog story, will be a matter of personal taste — or perhaps of multiple viewings. (1:45) Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit Throwback Terror Thursday, anyone? If the early Bourne entries leapt ahead of then-current surveillance technology in their paranoia-inducing ability to Find-Replace-Eliminate international villains wherever they were in the world, then Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit flails in the opposite direction — toward a nonsensical, flag-waving mixture of Cold War and War on Terror phobias. So when covert mucky-muck Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) solemnly warns that if mild-mannered former Marine and secret CIA analyst Jack Ryan stumbles, the US is in danger of ... another Great Depression, you just have to blink, Malcolm Gladwell-style. Um, didn't we just do that? And is this movie that out of touch? It doesn't help that director Kenneth Branagh casts himself as the sleek, camp, and illin' Russian baddie Viktor Cherevin, who's styled like a '90s club tsar in formfitting black clothing with a sheen that screams "Can this dance-floor sadist buy you another cosmo?" He's intended to pass for something resembling sex — and soul — in Shadow Recruit's odd, determinedly clueless universe. That leaves a colorless, blank Chris Pine with the thankless task of rescuing whiney physician love Cathy (Keira Knightley) from baddie clutches. Pine's no Alec Baldwin, lacking the latter's wit and anger management issues, or even Ben Affleck, who has also succumbed to blank, beefcake posturing on occasion. Let's return this franchise to its box, firmly relegated to the shadows. (1:45) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Labor Day Sweet little home repairs, quickie car tune-ups, sensual pie-making, and sexed-up chili cookery — Labor Day seems to be taking its chick-flick cues from Porn For Women, Cambridge Women's Pornography Cooperative's puckish gift-booklet that strives to capture women's real desires: namely, for vacuuming, folded laundry, and patient listening from their chosen hunks of beefcake. Let's call it domestic close encounters of the most pragmatic, and maybe most realistic, kind. But that seems to sail over the heads of all concerned with Labor Day. Working with Joyce Maynard's novel, director-screenwriter Jason Reitman largely dispenses with the wit that washes through Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009) and instead chooses to peer at his actors through the seriously overheated, poetically impressionistic prism of Terrence Malick ... if Malick were tricked into making a Nicholas Sparks movie. Single mom Adele (Kate Winslet) is down in the dumps over multiple miscarriages and her husband's (Clark Gregg) departure. Son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) becomes her caretaker of sorts — thus, when escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) forces the mother-and-son team to give him a ride and a hideout, it's both a blessing and a curse, especially because the hardened tough guy turns out to be a compulsively domestic, hardworking ubermensch of a Marlboro Man, able to bake up a peach pie and teach Henry to throw a baseball, all within the course of a long Labor Day weekend. Hapless Adele is helpless to resist him, particularly after some light bondage and plenty of manly nurturing. Ultimately this masochistic fantasy about the ultimate, if forbidden, family man — and the delights of the Stockholm Syndrome — is much harder to swallow than a spoonful of homemade chili, despite its strong cast. (1:51) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
The Lego Movie (1:41) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center.
Lone Survivor Peter Berg (2012's Battleship, 2007's The Kingdom) may officially be structuring his directing career around muscular tails of bad-assery. This true story follows a team of Navy SEALs on a mission to find a Taliban group leader in an Afghani mountain village. Before we meet the actors playing our real-life action heroes we see training footage of actual SEALs being put through their paces; it's physical hardship structured to separate the tourists from the lifers. The only proven action star in the group is Mark Wahlberg — as Marcus Luttrell, who wrote the film's source-material book. His funky bunch is made of heartthrobs and sensitive types: Taylor Kitsch (TV's Friday Night Lights); Ben Foster, who last portrayed William S. Burroughs in 2013's Kill Your Darlings but made his name as an officer breaking bad news gently to war widows in 2009's The Messenger; and Emile Hirsch, who wandered into the wilderness in 2007's Into the Wild. We know from the outset who the lone survivors won't be, but the film still manages to convey tension and suspense, and its relentlessness is stunning. Foster throws himself off a cliff, bounces off rocks, and gets caught in a tree — then runs to his also-bloody brothers to report, "That sucked." (Yesterday I got a paper cut and tweeted about it.) But the takeaway from this brutal battle between the Taliban and America's Real Heroes is that the man who lived to tell the tale also offers an olive branch to the other side — this survivor had help from the non-Taliban locals, a last-act detail that makes Lone Survivor this Oscar season's nugget of political kumbaya. (2:01) Metreon. (Vizcarrondo)
The Monuments Men The phrase "never judge a book by its cover" goes both ways. On paper, The Monuments Men — inspired by the men who recovered art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, and directed by George Clooney, who co-wrote and stars alongside a sparkling ensemble cast (Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh "Earl of Grantham" Bonneville, and Bill Fucking Murray) — rules. Onscreen, not so much. After they're recruited to join the cause, the characters fan out across France and Germany following various leads, a structural choice that results in the film's number one problem: it can't settle on a tone. Men can't decide if it wants to be a sentimental war movie (as in an overlong sequence in which Murray's character weeps at the sound of his daughter's recorded voice singing "White Christmas"); a tragic war movie (some of those marquee names die, y'all); a suspenseful war movie (as the men sneak into dangerous territory with Michelangelo on their minds); or a slapstick war comedy (look out for that land mine!) The only consistent element is that the villains are all one-note — and didn't Inglourious Basterds (2009) teach us that nothing elevates a 21st century-made World War II flick like an eccentric bad guy? There's one perfectly executed scene, when reluctant partners Balaban and Murray discover a trove of priceless paintings hidden in plain sight. One scene, out of a two-hour movie, that really works. The rest is a stitched-together pile of earnest intentions that suggests a complete lack of coherent vision. Still love you, Clooney, but you can do better — and this incredible true story deserved way better. (1:58) Balboa, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
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) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
The Nut Job (1:26) Metreon.
"Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Animated" Five nominees — plus a trio of "highly commended" additional selections — fill this program. If you saw Frozen in the theater, you've seen Get a Horse!, starring old-timey Mickey Mouse and some very modern moviemaking techniques. There's also Room on the Broom, based on a children's book about a kindly witch who's a little too generous when it comes to befriending outcast animals (much to the annoyance of her original companion, a persnickety cat). Simon Pegg narrates, and Gillian Anderson voices the red-headed witch; listen also for Mike Leigh regulars Sally Hawkins and Timothy Spall. Japanese Possessions is based on even older source material: a spooky legend that discarded household objects can gain the power to cause mischief. A good-natured fix-it man ducks into an abandoned house during a rainstorm, only to be confronted with playful parasols, cackling kimono fabric, and a dragon constructed out of kitchen junk. The most artistically striking nominee is Feral, a dialogue-free, impressionistic tale of a foundling who resists attempts to civilize him. But my top pick is another dialogue-free entry: Mr. Hublot, the steampunky tale of an inventor whose regimented life is thrown into disarray when he adopts a stray robot dog, which soon grows into a comically enormous companion. It's cute without being cloying, and the universe it creates around its characters is cleverly detailed, right down to the pictures on Hublot's walls. Embarcadero. (Eddy)
"Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Live Action" With the exception of one entry — wryly comedic The Voorman Problem, starring Sherlock's Martin Freeman as a prison doctor who has a most unsettling encounter with an inmate who believes he's a god — children are a unifying theme among this year's live-action nominees. Finnish Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, the shortest in the bunch, follows a cheerfully sloppy family's frantic morning as they scramble to get themselves to a wedding. Danish Helium skews a little sentimental in its tale of a hospital janitor who makes up stories about a fanciful afterlife (way more fun than heaven) for the benefit of a sickly young patient. Spanish That Wasn't Me focuses on a different kind of youth entirely: a child soldier in an unnamed African nation, whose brutal encounter with a pair of European doctors leads him down an unexpected path. Though it feels more like a sequence lifted from a longer film rather than a self-contained short, French Just Before Losing Everything is the probably the strongest contender here. The tale of a woman (Léa Drucker) who decides to take her two children and leave her dangerously abusive husband, it unfolds with real-time suspense as she visits her supermarket job one last time to deal with mundane stuff (collecting her last paycheck, turning in her uniform) before the trio can flee to safety. If they gave out Oscars for short-film acting, Drucker would be tough to beat; her performance balances steely determination and extreme fear in equally hefty doses. Embarcadero. (Eddy)
"Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Documentary (presented in two separata programs)" Opera Plaza.
The Past Splits in country, culture, and a harder-to-pinpoint sense of morality mark The Past, the latest film by Asghar Farhadi, the first Iranian moviemaker to win an Oscar (for 2011's A Separation.) At the center of The Past's onion layers is a seemingly simple divorce of a binational couple, but that act becomes more complicated — and startlingly compelling — in Farhadi's capable, caring hands. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has returned to Paris from Tehran, where he's been living for the past four years, at the request of French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo of 2011's The Artist). She wants to legalize their estrangement so she can marry her current boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim of 2009's A Prophet), whose wife is in a coma. But she isn't beyond giving out mixed messages by urging Ahmad to stay with her, and her daughters by various fathers, rather than at a hotel — and begging him to talk to teen Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who seems to despise Samir. The warm, nurturing Ahmad falls into his old routine in Marie's far-from-picturesque neighborhood, visiting a café owned by fellow Iranian immigrants and easily taking over childcare duties for the overwhelmed Marie, as he tries to find out what's happening with Lucie, who's holding onto a secret that could threaten Marie's efforts to move on. The players here are all wonderful, in particular the sad-faced, humane Mosaffa. We never really find out what severed his relationship with Marie, but in the end, it doesn't really matter. We care about, and end up fearing for, all of Farhadi's everyday characters, who are observed with a tender and unsentimental understanding that US filmmakers could learn from. The effect, when he finally racks focus on the forgotten member of this triangle (or quadrilateral?), is heartbreaking. (2:10) Smith Rafael. (Chun)
Philomena Judi Dench gives this twist on a real-life scandal heart, soul, and a nuanced, everyday heft. Her ideal, ironic foil is Steve Coogan, playing an upper-crusty irreverent snob of an investigative journalist. Judging by her tidy exterior, Dench's title character is a perfectly ordinary Irish working-class senior, but she's haunted by the past, which comes tumbling out one day to her daughter: As an unwed teenager, she gave birth to a son at a convent. She was forced to work there, unpaid; as supposed penance, the baby was essentially sold to a rich American couple against her consent. Her yarn reaches disgraced reporter Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), who initially turns his nose up at the tale's piddling "human interest" angle, but slowly gets drawn in by the unexpected twists and turns of the story — and likely the possibility of taking down some evil nuns — as well as seemingly naive Philomena herself, with her delight in trash culture, frank talk about sex, and simple desire to see her son and know that he thought, once in a while, of her. It turns out Philomena's own sad narrative has as many improbable turnarounds as one of the cheesy romance novels she favors, and though this unexpected twosome's quest for the truth is strenuously reworked to conform to the contours of buddy movie-road trip arc that we're all too familiar with, director Stephen Frears' warm, light-handed take on the gentle class struggles going on between the writer and his subject about who's in control of the story makes up for Philomena's determined quest for mass appeal. (1:35) Embarcadero, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Ride Along By sheer dint of his ability to push his verbosity and non-threatening physicality into that nerd zone between smart and clueless, intelligent and irritating, Kevin Hart may be poised to become Hollywood's new comedy MVP. In the case of Ride Along, it helps that Ice Cube has comic talents, too — proven in the Friday movies as well as in 2012's 21 Jump Street — as the straight man who can actually scowl and smile at the same time. Together, in Ride Along, they bring the featherweight pleasures of Rush Hour-style odd-couple chortles. Hart is Ben, a gamer geek and school security guard shooting to become the most wrinkly student at the police academy. He looks up to hardened, street-smart cop James (Cube), brother of his new fiancée, Angela (Tika Sumpter). Naturally, instead of simply blessing the nuptials, the tough guy decides to haze the shut-in, disabusing him of any illusions he might have of being his equal. More-than-equal talents like Laurence Fishburne and John Leguizamo are pretty much wasted here — apart from Fishburne's ultra lite impression of Matrix man Morpheus — but if you don't expect much more than the chuckles eked out of Ride Along's commercials, you won't be too disappointed by this nontaxing journey. (1:40) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Saving Mr. Banks Having promised his daughters that he would make a movie of their beloved Mary Poppins books, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has laid polite siege to author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) for over 20 years. Now, in the early 1960s, she has finally consented to discuss the matter in Los Angeles — albeit with great reluctance, and only because royalty payments have dried up to the point where she might have to sell her London home. Bristling at being called "Pam" and everything else in this sunny SoCal and relentlessly cheery Mouse House environ, the acidic English spinster regards her creation as sacred. The least proposed changes earn her horrified dismissal, and the very notion of having Mary and company "prancing and chirping" out songs amid cartoon elements is taken as blasphemy. This clash of titans could have made for a barbed comedy with satirical elements, but god forbid this actual Disney production should get so cheeky. Instead, we get the formulaically dramatized tale of a shrew duly tamed by all-American enterprise, with flashbacks to the inevitable past traumas (involving Colin Farrell as a beloved but alcoholic ne'er-do-well father) that require healing of Travers' wounded inner child by the magic of the Magic Kingdom. If you thought 2004's Finding Neverland was contrived feel-good stuff, you'll really choke on the spoons full of sugar force-fed here. (2:06) Metreon. (Harvey)
The Square Like the single lit candle at the very start of The Square — a flicker of hope amid the darkness of Mubarak's 30-year dictatorship — the initial street scenes of the leader's Feb. 11, 2011, announcement that he was stepping down launch Jehane Noujaim's documentary on a euphoric note. It's a lot to take in: the evocative shots of Tahrir Square, the graffiti on the streets, the movement's troubadours, and the faces of the activists she follows — the youthful Ahmed Hassan, British-reared Kite Runner (2007) actor-turned-citizen journalist Khalid Abdalla, and Muslim Brotherhood acolyte Magdy Ashour, among them. Yet that first glimmer of joy and unity among the diverse individuals who toppled a dictatorship was only the very beginning of a journey — which the Egyptian American Noujaim does a remarkable job documenting, in all its twists, turns, multiple protests, and voices. Unflinching albeit even-handed footage of the turnabouts, hypocrisies, and injustices committed by the Brotherhood, powers-that-be, the army, and the police during the many actions occurring between 2011 and the 2013 removal of Mohammed Morsi will stay with you, including the sight of a tank plowing down protestors with murderous force and soldiers firing live rounds at activists armed only with stones. "We found ourselves loving each other without realizing it," says Hassan of those heady first days, and Noujaim brings you right there and to their aftermath, beautifully capturing ordinary people coming together, eating, joking, arguing, feeling empowered and discouraged, forming unlikely friendships, setting up makeshift hospitals on the street, and risking everything, in this powerful document of an unfolding real-life epic. (1:44) Marina. (Chun)
Stranger by the Lake Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is an attractive young French guy spending his summer days hanging at the local gay beach, where he strikes up a platonic friendship with chunky older loner Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao). Still, the latter is obviously hurt when Franck practically gets whiplash neck swiveling at the sight of Michel (Christophe Paou), an old-school gay fantasy figure — think Sam Elliott in 1976's Lifeguard, complete with Marlboro Man 'stache and twinkling baby blues. No one else seems to be paying attention when Franck sees his lust object frolicking in the surf with an apparent boyfriend, one that doesn't surface again after some playful "dunking" gets rather less playful. Eventually the police come around in the form of Inspector Damroder (Jerome Chappatte), but Franck stays mum — he isn't sure what exactly he saw. Or maybe it's that he's quite sure he's happy how things turned out, now that sex-on-wheels Michel is his sorta kinda boyfriend. You have to suspend considerable disbelief to accept that our protagonist would risk potentially serious danger for what seems pretty much a glorified fuck-buddy situation. But Alain Guiraudie's meticulously schematic thriller- which limits all action to the terrain between parking lot and shore, keeping us almost wholly ignorant of the characters' regular lives — repays that leap with an absorbing, ingenious structural rigor. Stranger is Hitchcockian, all right, even if the "Master of Suspense" might applaud its technique while blushing at its blunt homoeroticism. (1:37) Clay. (Harvey)
That Awkward Moment When these bro-mancers call each other "idiots," which they do repeatedly, it's awkward all right, because that descriptor hits all too close to home. Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller) are douchey book-marketing boy geniuses, with all the ego and fratty attitude needed to dispense bad advice and push doctor friend Mikey (Michael B. Jordan), whose wife recently broke it off after an affair with her lawyer, into an agreement to play the field — no serious dating allowed. The pretext: Anything to avoid, yup, that awkward moment when the lady has the temerity to ask, "So — where is this going?" How fortuitous that Jason should run into the smartest, cutest author in NYC (Imogen Poots), all sharp-tongued charisma and sparkling Emma Stone-y cat eyes; that Daniel would get embroiled with his Charlotte Rampling-like wing woman (Mackenzie Davis); and Mikey would edge back into bed with his ex. That's the worst — or best — these tepid lotharios can muster. The education of these numbskulls when it comes to love and lust aspires to the much-edgier self-criticism of Girls — but despite the presence of Fruitvale Station (2013) breakout Jordan and the likable Poots, first-time director Tom Gormican's screenplay lets them down. (1:34) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
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) Embarcadero. (Eddy)
Vampire Academy (1:45) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
The Wolf of Wall Street Three hours long and breathless from start to finish, Martin Scorsese's tale of greed, stock-market fraud, and epic drug consumption has a lot going on — and the whole thing hinges on a bravado, breakneck performance by latter-day Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio. As real-life sleaze Jordan Belfort (upon whose memoir the film is based), he distills all of his golden DiCaprio-ness into a loathsome yet maddeningly likable character who figures out early in his career that being rich is way better than being poor, and that being fucked-up is, likewise, much preferable to being sober. The film also boasts keen supporting turns from Jonah Hill (as Belfort's crass, corrupt second-in-command), Matthew McConaughey (who has what amounts to a cameo — albeit a supremely memorable one — as Belfort's coke-worshiping mentor), Jean Dujardin (as a slick Swiss banker), and newcomer Margot Robbie (as Belfort's cunning trophy wife). But this is primarily the Leo and Marty Show, and is easily their most entertaining episode to date. Still, don't look for an Oscar sweep: Scorsese just hauled huge for 2011's Hugo, and DiCaprio's flashy turn will likely be passed over by voters more keen on honoring subtler work in a shorter film. (2:59) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Eddy) *