Film Listings: March 19 - 25, 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.
Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq Writer-director Nancy Buirski's documentary follows the short, brilliant career of a young dancer named Tanaquil Le Clercq, who came up in the New York City ballet world of the 1940s and '50s. Le Clercq was discovered by George Balanchine, married him (as three other dancers had done before her), sparked a paradigm shift in the ballet world regarding what was considered the quintessential dancer's body, had numerous ballets set on her by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and then, at the peak of her career, at age 27, was stricken by polio and left paralyzed in both legs. The film takes its time moving toward this catastrophe, recounting Le Clercq's early adult life through interviews with her contemporaries and tracking her professional progress through gorgeous archival footage of her performances. Equally moving archival material are the letters from a longtime correspondence between Le Clercq and Robbins that documented two very different periods of her life: the first, when Robbins was choreographing ballets for her, including Afternoon of a Faun, and professing his love; the second, after her paralysis, when she wrote him a series of poignant communications describing her impressions of her illness and her new, circumscribed world. The film has some trouble holding on to its center — as in life, Balanchine proves a magnetic force, and Afternoon of a Faun feels inexorably drawn to his professional and personal details. We don't get enough of Le Clercq, which you could say is the tragedy of her story — nobody did. But the letters do provide a sense of someone resourceful and responsive to life's richness and joys, someone who would get past this crisis and find a way to reshape her life. (1:31) Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)
Anita In 1991, Anita Hill found herself at the center of a political firestorm when she testified about being sexually harassed by US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. "The issue became my character as opposed to the character of the nominee," she recalls in Anita, a revealing new documentary from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Freida Mock (1994's Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision). Twenty years after she first made headlines, Hill recounts her story in the same eloquent voice familiar to anyone who watched her testimony; her first-person narrative, paired with accounts by her supporters, stresses the consequences many women suffer from daring to speak out. The documentary, which shows how one woman's forthrightness about sexual harassment can upturn her life, also explores the ways in which Hill's Bush-era notoriety laid the foundation for a prolific career dedicated to battling sexual harassment and women's oppression. She became an unlikely icon, and a role model for women battling similar circumstances. On the other hand, Thomas still sits on the bench. (1:17) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Laura B. Childs)
Bad Words Settling a grudge score whose precise origin remains unclear until late in the game, world-class misanthrope Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is celebrating his 40th birthday by competing in a national spelling bee. Yes, spelling bees are generally for children, and so is this one. But Guy has found a legal loophole permitting his participation, and the general hate wending his way from contest staff (Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall) — let alone the tiger-mom-and-dad parents ready to form a lynch mob — is just icing on the cake where he's concerned. What's more, as some sort of majorly underachieving near-genius, he's in fact well equipped to whup the bejesus out of overachieving eight-year-olds when it comes to saying the right letters out loud. The only people on his side, sorta, are the online journalist (Kathryn Hahn) reporting on his perverse quest, and the insidiously cute Indian American competitor (Rohan Chand) who wants to be besties, or perhaps just to psych him out. (Note: The tyke's admitted favorite word is "subjugate.") Written by Andrew Dodge, this comedy in the tradition (a little too obviously) of 2003's Bad Santa and such provides the always enjoyable Bateman with not only a tailor-made lead role, but a directorial debut as well. He does just fine by both. Yet as nicely crafted and frequently-pretty-funny Bad Words is, at core it's a rather petty movie — small, derivative, and cynically mean-spirited without the courage of genuine biliousness. It's at once not-half-bad, and not half as badass as it pretends to be. (1:29) Shattuck. (Harvey)
Child's Pose See "Smotherly Love." (1:52) Opera Plaza, Shattuck.
Dark House Nick (Luke Kleintank) has the most depressing superpower since X-Men's Rogue: whenever he touches someone destined for a violent death, he has a vision of his or her terrible demise. On a rare visit to his institutionalized mother (Lesley-Anne Down), amid her ravings about "things in the walls," she confesses that Nick's father is still alive. After she dies, he inherits a folder stuffed with wrinkled papers — including the deed to an old mansion that's been haunting his dreams since childhood. With his best friend and pregnant girlfriend in tow, Nick sets out to find the apparently cursed dwelling (wide-eyed locals refer to it as "Wormwood"). What they find is best not revealed here, though it does involve Tobin "Jigsaw from the Saw movies" Bell. This latest from controversial director Victor Salva borrows multiple elements from his 2001 horror breakout Jeepers Creepers (backwoods locations and folklore, murderous fellows in duster coats, superstition vis-à-vis the number 23, etc.) but sprawls beyond that film's taut road-trip-from-hell structure, and has far more characters prone to making stupid decisions. There's also the issue of having a certain, uh, monster intone orders to its followers via any available furnace vent — it's funny every time, and it sure ain't intended to be. (1:42) Presidio. (Eddy)
Divergent Shailene Woodley stars as a post-apocalyptic hero in this sci-fi action film based on the popular YA novel by Veronica Roth. (2:20) Balboa, Marina.
Enemy Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an associate history professor living the usual life of quiet desperation in a very smoggy, beige, vaguely dystopian Toronto when he makes a startling discovery: glimpsed in the background of an otherwise forgettable movie rental is someone who is his complete doppelganger. Intrigued, he discovers the identity of actor Anthony (Jake again), and pokes around in the latter's life enough to discover that they both have blonde partners (Adam's girlfriend Mélanie Laurent, the other dude's pregnant wife Sarah Gadon), though beyond that and the eerie physical-vocal resemblances, they're near-opposites — Anthony is more confident, successful, assertive, and belligerent by far. Their paths-crossing isn't going to be a good thing. Just how bad it will get depends on how you read a mysterious, perverse opening sequence and some increasingly surreal imagery scattered throughout. The second of director Denis Villeneuve's back-to-back Gyllenhaal collaborations is very different from last year's long, intricate, real-world thriller Prisoners. Based on a José Saramago novel (The Double), it sports the same ominous, metaphorical fantasticism that was previously translated to the screen in the widely disliked (but faithful) 2008 Blindness — another movie that played better if you know where its source material is coming from. This intriguing Kafkaesque paranoid puzzle is not to be confused with Richard Ayoade's forthcoming Dostoevsky-derived The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg. Actually, go ahead and confuse them — they're stylistically distinct but otherwise practically the same fable-nightmare. (1:30) Marina, Vogue. (Harvey)
Le Week-End Director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi first collaborated two decades ago on The Buddha of Suburbia, when the latter was still in the business of being Britain's brashest multiculti hipster voice. But in the last 10 years they've made a habit of slowing down to sketching portraits of older lives — and providing great roles for the nation's bottomless well of remarkable veteran actors. Here Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent play a pair of English academics trying to re-create their long-ago honeymoon's magic on an anniversary weekend in Paris. They love each other, but their relationship is thorny and complicated in ways that time has done nothing to smooth over. This beautifully observed duet goes way beyond the usual adorable-old-coot terrain of such stories on screen; it has charm and humor, but these are unpredictable, fully rounded characters, not comforting caricatures. Briefly turning this into a seriocomedy three-way is Most Valuable Berserker Jeff Goldblum as an old friend encountered by chance. It's not his story, but damned if he doesn't just about steal the movie anyway. (1:33) Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Muppets Most Wanted On a European tour, the Muppets get caught up in a comedic criminal caper (as they do), with human supporting characters played by Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais, and Ty Burrell. (1:46) Balboa, Presidio.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I Found battered and unconscious in a back alley, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is taken in by good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), to whom she explains "It's all my fault — I'm just a bad human being." But he doesn't believe there are such things. She seeks to enlighten him by narrating the story of her life so far, from carnally curious childhood to sexually voracious adulthood. Stacy Martin plays her younger self through a guided tour of excesses variously involving Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen as her parents; a buncha guys fucked on a train, on a teenage dare; Uma Thurman as one histrionically scorned woman; and Shai LaBeouf as a first love who's a cipher either because he's written that way, or because this particular actor can't make sense out of him. For all its intended provocation, including some graphic but unsurprisingly (coming from this director) unerotic XXX action, von Trier's latest is actually less offensive than much of his prior output: He's regained his sense of humor here, and annoying as its "Look at me, I'm an unpredictable artist" crap can be (notably all the stuff about fly-fishing, cake forks, numerology, etc. that seems randomly drawn from some Great Big Book of Useless Trivia), the film's episodic progress is divertingly colorful enough. But is Joe going to turn out to be more than a two-dimensional authorial device from a director who's never exactly sussed women (or liked people in general)? Will Nymphomaniac arrive at some pointed whole greater than the sum of its naughty bits? The answer to both is probably "Nah." But we won't know for sure until the two-hour second half arrives (April 4) of a movie that, in fairness, was never really intended to be split up like this. (1:50) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Shirin in Love This blandly TV-ready romantic comedy stars Nazanin Boniadi as a ditzy child of privilege in Beverly Hills' Iranian-American community. Sent by her aggressively shallow magazine-editor mother (Anita Khalatbari) to find an elusive best-selling novelist for an interview, she not only stumbles upon that author (Amy Madigan) but discovers she's already had a meet-cute with the latter's hunky son (Riley Smith) under embarrassing circumstances. Will Shirin be able to shrug off the future her family has planned for her (including Maz Jobrani as a plastic-surgeon fiancé ) in order to, y'know, find herself? The very obvious answer takes its sweet time arriving in writer-director Ramin Niami's innocuous film, which hews to a stale lineup of formulaic genre conventions even when relying on whopping coincidences to advance its predictable plot. The novelty of its particular social milieu goes unexplored in a movie that reveals even less about assimilated modern US Persian culture than My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) did about Greek Americans. (1:45) AMC Bay Street 16. (Harvey)
Tiger and Bunny: The Rising Based on the Japanese anime series (and a 2012 film, Tiger and Bunny: The Beginning), this lighthearted look at superheroes with human problems imagines a world in which the blaring Hero TV channel tracks the movements of various caped crusaders, who compete against each other for points as they race to defeat random villains. All of the heroes, who we meet both in and out of costume, work for the same parent company, and each has a corporate sponsor whose logo is a prominent part of his or her ensemble. (Heroes are big business, after all.) In the first film, we met "Wild Tiger," a bumbling single dad, who's reluctantly paired with talented new kid "Bunny." They clash at first, but eventually prove a powerful team. In The Rising, a douchey new boss relegates Tiger to the junior-varsity Second League, while Bunny gets an annoying new partner, "Golden Ryan." Meanwhile, a mysterious trio of baddies menaces the city, forcing all of the heroes to work together whether they want to or not. The most surprising part of The Rising is its sensitive development of the "Fire Emblem" character. Presented as a mincing gay stereotype in the first film, here he's given a sympathetic back story via dream sequences that detail his youthful exploration of cross-dressing and personal identity struggles. Encouraging, to say the least. (1:48) New People. (Eddy)
About Last Night (1:40) Metreon.
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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Better Living Through Chemistry (1:31) Metreon.
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. (Harvey)
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me The last time Elaine Stritch was in San Francisco was in 2003 for the Tony-winning Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. Then in her mid-70s, the legendary actress and singer appeared on a bare stage for a revealing song-studded solo confessional about love, ambition, alcoholism, and the jumble of a career in a theatrical golden age. It was an irresistible look back at (and behind) a brilliant and rocky career that began in 1946, and continues. She advances and expands that conversation in director and producer Chiemi Karasawa's 80-minute portrait, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. Arguably still more fascinating and frank in her mid-80s, Stritch proves once again an undeniable presence — uncensored, irascible, charming, and witty — but it's all now balanced with a more pronounced vulnerability, captured in disarmingly honest moments of reflection, struggle, and even crisis. Made over the course of two years of intimate observation, the film chronicles Stritch as she prepares for a number of returns. One is to the stage, to sing Stephen Sondheim again, the composer with whom she is indelibly identified; the other is her relocation back to Michigan, where she grew up in the 1930s. The two years spent shooting the life of a living legend, an elderly yet very active one with a well-earned reputation for being difficult, could not have been a walk in the park. Shoot Me (whose playful title might be thought to run in two directions at once) makes a virtue of that at times, no doubt, exasperating bargain; the camera, there every step of the way, seems thoroughly mesmerized. (1:21) Opera Plaza. (Robert Avila)
Frozen (1:48) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
The Grand Budapest Hotel Is this the first Wes Anderson movie to feature a shootout? It's definitely the first Anderson flick to include a severed head. That's not to say The Grand Budapest Hotel, "inspired by" the works of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, represents too much of a shift for the director — his intricate approach to art direction is still very much in place, as are the deadpan line deliveries and a cast stuffed with Anderson regulars. But there's a slightly more serious vibe here, a welcome change from 2012's tooth-achingly twee Moonrise Kingdom. Thank Ralph Fiennes' performance as liberally perfumed concierge extraordinaire M. Gustave, which mixes a shot of melancholy into the whimsy, and newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero, his loyal lobby boy, who provides gravitas despite only being a teenager. (Being played by F. Murray Abraham as an older adult probably helps in that department.) Hotel's early 20th century Europe setting proves an ideal canvas for Anderson's love of detail — the titular creation rivals Stanley Kubrick's rendering of the Overlook Hotel — and his supporting cast, as always, looks to be enjoying the hell out of being a part of Anderson's universe, with Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and Adrien Brody having particularly oversized fun. Is this the best Wes Anderson movie since 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums? Yes. (1:40) SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
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) Castro, 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) Four Star, 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) Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
The Lego Movie (1:41) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.
Love and Demons A man (Chris Pfleuger) in the midst of a midlife crisis, a woman (Lucia Frangione) starting to realize she's completely dissatisfied with her life — does this relationship have a chance? Enter each partner's personal demon, eager to have a hand in shaping events in what turns into a not-so-friendly competition. At first, the intervention seems helpful; the male demon encourages the man, a wannabe screenwriter, to get a better job, clean up the apartment, and blurt out feel-good-isms like "I want to build something together." But what's this about murder? Meanwhile, the female demon (Arnica Skulstad Brown) appears to be the ultimate gal pal, stroking the woman's ego by telling her she could do so much better, going on shopping sprees with her, and sharing her stay-skinny coke stash. Temptations ahoy! Written, directed by, and costarring local filmmaker JP Allen (as the male demon, he's the cast's cigarette-smoking, smirking high point) this intriguing look at modern love earns bonus points for its excellent use of SF locations — and creative editing that helps break up the film's many voice-overs and fourth-wall-breaking moments. (1:24) Roxie. (Eddy)
The Lunchbox Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a self-possessed housewife and a great cook, whose husband confuses her for another piece of furniture. She tries to arouse his affections with elaborate lunches she makes and sends through the city's lunchbox delivery service. Like marriage in India, lunchbox delivery has a failure rate of zero, which is what makes aberrations seem like magical occurrences. So when widow Saajan (Irrfan Khan) receives her adoring food, he humbly receives the magical lunches like a revival of the senses. Once Ila realizes her lunchbox is feeding the wrong man she writes a note and Saajan replies — tersely, like a man who hasn't held a conversation in a decade — and the impossible circumstances lend their exchanges a romance that challenges her emotional fidelity and his retreat from society. She confides her husband is cheating. He confides his sympathy for men of lower castes. It's a May/December affair if it's an affair at all — but the chemistry we expect the actors to have in the same room is what fuels our urge to see it; that's a rare and haunting dynamic. Newcomer Kaur is perfect as Ila, a beauty unmarked by her rigorous distaff; her soft features and exhausted expression lend a richness to the troubles she can't share with her similarly stoic mother (Lillete Dubey). Everyone is sacrificing something and poverty seeps into every crack, every life, without exception — their inner lives are their richness. (1:44) Clay, Smith Rafael. (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) Four Star, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont. (Eddy)
Mr. Peabody and Sherman Mr. P. (voiced by Ty Burrell) is a Nobel Prize-winning genius dog, Sherman (Max Charles) his adopted human son. When the latter attends his first day of school, his extremely precocious knowledge of history attracts jealous interest from bratty classmate Penny (Ariel Winter), with the eventual result that all three end up being transported in Peabody's WABAC time machine to various fabled moments — involving Marie Antoinette, King Tut, the Trojan Horse, etc. — where Penny invariably gets them in deep trouble. Rob Minkoff's first all-animation feature since The Lion King 20 years ago is spun off from the same-named segments in Jay Ward's TV Rocky and Bullwinkle Show some decades earlier. It's a very busy (sometimes to the brink of clutter), often witty, imaginatively constructed, visually impressive, and for the most part highly enjoyable comic adventure. The only minuses are some perfunctory "It's about family"-type sentimentality — and scenarist Craig Wright's determination to draw from history the "lesson" that nearly all women are pains in the ass who create problems they must then be rescued from. (1:30) Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Harvey)
Need for Speed Speed kills, in quite a different way than it might in Breaking Bad, in Aaron Paul's big-screen Need for Speed. "Big" nonetheless signals "B" here, in this stunt-filled challenge to the Fast and the Furious franchise, though there's no shame in that — the drive-in is paved with standouts and stinkers alike. Tobey (Paul) is an ace driver who's in danger of losing his auto shop, also the hangout for his pals (Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez) and young sidekick Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), when archrival Dino (Dominic Cooper) arrives with a historic Mustang in need of restoration. Tragedy strikes, and Tobey must hook up with that fateful auto once more to win a mysterious winner-takes-all race, staged by eccentric, rich racing-fiend Monarch (Michael Keaton). Along for the ride are the (big) eyes and ears for the Mustang's new owner — gearhead Julia (Imogen Poots). All beside the point, since the racing stunts, including a showy helicopter canyon save, are the real stars of Speed, while the touchstone for stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh — considering the car and the final SF and Northern California race settings — is, of course, Bullitt (1968), which is given an overt nod in the opening drive-in scene. The overall larky effect, however, tends toward Smokey and the Bandit (1977), especially with Keaton's camp efforts at Wolfman Jack verbiage-slanging roaring in the background. And despite the efforts of the multicultural gallery of wisecracking side guys, this script-challenged popcorn-er tends to blur what little chemistry these characters have with each other, skip the residual car culture insights of the more specific, more urban Fast series, and leave character development, in particular Tobey's, in the dust in its haste to get from point A to B. (2:10) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Non-Stop You don't want to get between Liam Neeson and his human shield duties. The Taken franchise has restyled the once-gentle acting giant into the type of weather-beaten, all-business action hero that Harrison Ford once had a lock on. Throw in a bit of the flying-while-addled antihero high jinks last seen in Flight (2012) and that pressured, packed-sardine anxiety that we all suffer during long-distance air travel, and we have a somewhat ludicrous but nonetheless entertaining hybrid that may have you believing that those salty snacks and the seat-kicking kids are the least of your troubles. Neeson's Bill Marks signals the level of his freestyle alcoholism by giving his booze a stir with a toothbrush shortly before putting on his big-boy air marshal pants and boarding his fateful flight. Marks is soon contacted by a psycho who promises, via text, to kill one person at a time on the flight unless $150 million is deposited into a bank account that — surprise — is under the bad-good air marshal's name. The twists and turns — and questions of who to trust, whether it's Marks' vaguely likeable seatmate (Julianne Moore) or his business class flight attendant (Michelle Dockery) — keep the audience on edge and busily guessing, though director Jaume Collet-Serra doesn't quite dispel all the questions that arise as the diabolical scheme plays out and ultimately taxes believability. The fun is all in the getting there, even if the denouement on the tarmac deflates. (1:50) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Chun)
Particle Fever "We are hearing nature talk to us," a physicist remarks in awe near the end of Particle Fever, Mark Levinson's intriguing doc about the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson particle. Earlier, another scientist says, "I've never heard of a moment like this in [science] history, where an entire field is hinging on a single event." The event, of course, is the launch of the Large Hardon Collider, the enormous machine that enabled the discovery. Though some interest in physics is probably necessary to enjoy Particle Fever, extensive knowledge of quarks and such is not, since the film uses elegant animation to refresh the basics for anyone whose eyes glazed over during high-school science. But though he offers plenty of context, Levinson wisely focuses his film on a handful of genial eggheads who are involved in the project, either hands-on at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), or watching from afar as the mighty LHC comes to life. Their excitement brings a welcome warmth to the proceedings — and their "fever" becomes contagious. (1:39) Embarcadero. (Eddy)
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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
Stalingrad Behold, Russia's highest-grossing blockbuster of all time, which presents (in 3D IMAX) a very small story contained within the enormous titular World War II battle, previously dramatized by the West in 2001's Enemy at the Gates. Stalingrad begins in the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese earthquake, in which an aid worker tells stories to a group of trapped German tourists as they await rescue. Seems the man's mother, a Russian teenager during the Battle of Stalingrad, met five Red Army soldiers who bonded while fighting the invading Nazis, and helped her survive while all kinda, sorta, falling for her at the same time. There are plenty of lavish battle scenes for war-movie buffs — likely the only people who will seek out this film during its limited US run, and it is interesting to see a WW2 tale with zero American perspective or involvement — but the film is earnest to a fault, with plot holes that may or may not be a result of cultural and language barriers. And speaking of the plot: isn't the bloody, epic tale of Stalingrad compelling enough without awkward romance(s) shoehorned in? Eliminate that, and you eliminate the need for that ham-fisted frame story, too. (2:15) Metreon. (Eddy)
3 Days to Kill (1:40) 1000 Van Ness.
300: Rise of An Empire We pick up the 300 franchise right where director Zack Snyder left off in 2006, with this prequel-sequel, which spins off an as-yet-unreleased Frank Miller graphic novel. In the hands of director Noam Murro, with Snyder still in the house as writer, 300: Rise of an Empire contorts itself, flipping back and forth in time, in an attempt to explain the making of Persian evil prince stereotype Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) —all purring androgyny, fashionable piercings, and Iran-baiting, Bush-era malevolence — before following through on avenging 300's romantically outnumbered, chesty Spartans. As told by the angry, mourning Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey of Game of Thrones), the whole mess apparently began during the Battle of Marathon, when Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) killed Xerxes's royal father with a well-aimed miracle arrow. That act ushers in Xerxes's transformation into a "God King" bent on vengeance, aided and encouraged by his equally vengeful, elegantly mega-goth naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek-hating Greek who likes to up the perversity quotient by making out with decapitated heads. In case you didn't get it: know that vengeance is a prime mover for almost all the parties (except perhaps high-minded hottie Themistokles). Very loosely tethered to history and supplied with plenty of shirtless Greeks, taut thighs, wildly splintering ships, and even proto-suicide bombers, Rise skews toward a more naturalistic, less digitally waxy look than 300, as dust motes and fire sparks perpetually telegraph depth of field, shrieking, "See your 3D dollars hard at work!" Also working hard and making all that wrath look diabolically effortless is Green, who as the pitch-black counterpart to Gorga, turns out to be the real hero of the franchise, saving it from being yet another by-the-book sword-and-sandal war-game exercise populated by wholesome-looking, buff, blond jock-soldiers. Green's feline line readings and languid camp attitude have a way of cutting through the sausage fest of the Greek pec-ing order, even during the Battle of, seriously, Salamis. (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (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) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
Veronica Mars Since the cult fave TV show Veronica Mars went off the air in 2007, fans of the series, about a smart, cynical teenager who solves mysteries and battles her high school's 1 percenters — a sort of adolescent noir minus the ex nihilo patois of Rian Johnson's 2005 Brick — have had their hopes raised and dashed several times regarding the possibility of a big-screen coda. While that sort of scenario usually involves a few of the five stages of grief, this one has a twist happy ending: a full-length film, directed by show creator Rob Thomas and cowritten by Thomas and show producer-writer Diane Ruggiero (with a budget aided by a crowdfunding campaign), that doesn't suck. It's been a decade since graduation, and Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) has put a continent between herself and her creepy, class war–torn hometown of Neptune, Calif. — leaving behind her P.I. vocation and a track record of exposing lies, corruption, and the dark side of the human soul in favor of a Columbia law degree and a career of covering up same. But when Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), her brooding, troubled ex, gets charged with the murder of his pop star girlfriend and asks Veronica for help, she can't resist the pull of what she admits is a pathological impulse. Plus, it's her 10-year reunion. And indeed, pretty much anyone who had a character arc during the show's three seasons makes an appearance — plus (naturally) James Franco, Dax Shepard (Bell's husband), and (oddly) Ira Glass. It could have been a cameo fusillade, but the writing here is as smart, tight, funny, and involving as it was on the TV series, and Thomas and Ruggiero for the most part manage to thread everyone in, taking pressure off a murder mystery that falls a little flat, updating the story to reflect current states of web surveillance and pop cultural mayhem, and keeping the focus on the joy of seeing Veronica back where she belongs. (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)
The Wind Rises Hayao Miyazaki announced that Oscar nominee The Wind Rises would be his final film before retiring — though he later amended that declaration, as he's fond of doing, so who knows. At any rate, it'd be a shame if this was the Japanese animation master's final film before retirement; not only does it lack the whimsy of his signature efforts (2001's Spirited Away, 1997's Princess Mononoke), it's been overshadowed by controversy — not entirely surprising, since it's about the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed war planes (built by slave labor) in World War II-era Japan. Surprisingly, a pacifist message is established early on; as a young boy, his mother tells him, "Fighting is never justified," and in a dream, Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni assures him "Airplanes are not tools for war." But that statement doesn't last long; Caproni visits Jiro in his dreams as his career takes him from Japan to Germany, where he warns the owlish young designer that "aircraft are destined to become tools for slaughter and destruction." You don't say. A melodramatic romantic subplot injects itself into all the plane-talk on occasion, but — despite all that political hullabaloo — The Wind Rises is more tedious than anything else. (2:06) Embarcadero, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
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) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy) *