Movies Archives — Page 46 of 69 — San Francisco Bay Guardian Archive 1966–2014 (2024)

Breast intentions

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks

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CULT CINEMA The 2010 Academy Awards ceremony did indeed mark historic
firsts. Oh, not just the fact that a woman finally won Best Director.
I mean somebody (Alec Baldwin? Steve Martin? I forget) saying
"vagin*" live to a bazillion people worldwide, some of them no doubt way short of both voting age and bedtime. Of course you can say f*ckwad, f*ckhole, and f*ckety f*ckelstein on cable. But this was network, and the Oscars besides. How community standards do change.

Turn the clock back 50 years or so, and you couldn’t even say "pregnant" — when Lucy Ricardo was "expecting" on I Love Lucy, no euphemism was quite delicate enough. Before audience-restrictive MPAA ratings arrived a few years later, big-screen movies had to be pretty circ*mspect too, no matter that fully clothed Jayne Mansfield was more obscenely suggestive than the plain old medical-grade v-word could ever be. (FYI, Best Use of the Term in a p*rn Title: Big Trouble in Little vagin*.)

That was in the mainstream, where actual public nudity was as yet unthinkable. A few rungs down the cultural ladder, however, things were gradually loosening up. Art and smut conveniently blurred from the late 1940s onward, as certain European filmmakers (Ingmar Bergman among them) began pushing toward greater sexual frankness. This delighted U.S. grindhouse distributors, who wasted little time buying exploitable features, then cutting the offending hell out of them even as their ads promised shocking, adults-only content.

Such was the case with Night of Lust, a 1962 production by Casablanca-born French producer-director-scenarist Jose Bénazéraf. In 1965 American entrepreneur R. Lee Frost announced this feature, purportedly "BANNED all over the world!," could "at last be seen in the U.S. uncut, after three years in court!" He neglected to mention he’d trimmed nearly 20 minutes from it himself.

What remained in the barely-hour-long version playing the Red Vic this week was a lurid jumble that makes it difficult to figure out Bénazéraf’s original intentions, let alone why some then considered him an important Nouvelle Vague figure. (Critics abandoned him once he went into straight-up p*rn.) But with its continuity gaps, moralizing narrator, atrocious dubbed dialogue, and positively Freudian camera fixation on myriad bared breasts, this supposedly true crime story torn from "Interpol File 218" is campy fun, at least.

This isn’t the Paris of lovers, but Sicilians vs. Frogs fighting over millions in heroin, plus strippers, stranglers, kidnappings, and catfights. Not adding any romance either is an original free-jazz-combo score by no less than Chet Baker — his trumpet playing sometimes mimed by a musically inclined mob boss — who was then living his own European heroin crime saga. It would get him imprisoned in Italy, then deported from England and Germany. Whether those events too were sprinkled with random sightings of jiggling mammaries, we’ll never know. (Dennis Harvey)

NIGHT OF LUST

Wed/17-Thurs/18, 7:15 and 9:30 p.m. (also Wed/17, 2 p.m.), $6–$10

Red Vic

1727 Haight, SF

(415) 668-3994

www.redvicmoviehouse.com

Our Weekly Picks

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks

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WEDNESDAY 17

DANCE

Ben Levy

Folk and social dancing exert a pull on the imagination because they allow for participation even if you have two left feet. Ben Levy’s Intimate Visibilitypart of Dancers Group’s ONSITE program, which sponsors free public performances in primarily outdoor locations — is a contemporary version of the informal dances at family gatherings. Instead of making friends on Facebook, Levy suggests trying it on the street. He designed the piece for video installation, dancers, and a flash mob. Unlike ONSITE’s first participant, Patrick Makuakane, who put his “Hit and Run” Hula dancers on a city bus and performed, more or less randomly, at 10 different locations on a single day, Levy is traveling his intimate show for hundreds through March 26. (Rita Felciano)

8 p.m., free

Washington Square, SF

9 p.m., free

Union Square, SF

415-920-9181

www.dancersgroup.org

MUSIC

Filthy Thieving Bastards

Prepare yourself for a punk rock Paddy’s Day with an all-star lineup that’ll do Brendan Behan proud. Counting members of the Swingin’ Utters among their rank, the Filthy Thieving Bastards combine the influences of their independent upbringing with the sounds of the legendary Pogues and other folk-fueled rockers. The band’s material runs from stripped down working-class ballads to raucous tunes. Special guests include Blag Dahlia of the Dwarves, Zander Schloss of the Circle Jerks, and Sean Wheeler of Throwrag. (Sean McCourt)

8 p.m., $10

Thee Parkside

1600 17th St., SF

(415) 252-1330

www.theeparkside.com

MUSIC

Gomez

After winning the Mercury Music Prize for its debut album Bring It On (Hut/Virgin) in 1998, Gomez didn’t bask in its newfound success. Instead, it headed back to the studio, created another album, and hasn’t looked back since. Twelve years later, the “How We Operate” rockers from across the pond are on the brink of their sixth studio album, A New Tide (ATO). Opening acts for its three-night stint include Buddy, One eskimO, and the Little Ones. (Elise-Marie Brown)

9 p.m. (through Fri/19), $28

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750

www.gamh.com

THURSDAY 18

MUSIC

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba

It was only a matter of time before the swirling, seductive sounds of West Africa made significant inroads into American indie music, and the past couple years have finally seen that come to a rightful fruition. A case in point is Sub Pop’s launch of its world music offshoot Next Ambiance, whose first release I Speak Fula by Mali’s Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba is an intoxicating brew of soaring griot sing-song and near-mystical finger-picking on Kouyate’s native ngoni lute. (Brady Welch)

With DJ Said

8 p.m., $20–$25

Slim’s

333 11th St., SF

(415) 255-0333

www.slims-sf.com

MUSIC

Shout at the Devil Karaoke

I go to my share of live shows, but some of my best 2010 musical experiences have been courtesy of Shout at the Devil Karaoke. Traveling KJ Nathan is gradually accumulating a song list that’ll please or at least appease those with a taste for metal, and there are other odd delights (Strawberry Switchblade’s “Since Yesterday,” anyone?) mixed in with the standards. For some reason, I’m drawn to Foreigner lately. Maybe it’s my double vision. But my ears have enjoyed Genevieve’s note- and look-perfect update of Olivia Newton John’s “Magic,” and the way anyone can walk in off the street and blow everyone away. (Johnny Ray Huston)

9 p.m., free

Pissed Off Pete’s

4528 Mission, SF

(415) 584-5122

www.facebook.com/pages/shout-at-the-devil-karaoke

FILM

Monsturd and Retardead Double Feature

San Francisco schlockmeisters Rick Popko and Dan West are hard at work on a brand-new bad-taste should-be classic (the concept in five words or less: Satanists in wine country). But there’ll be no shortage of fake blood and goofy jokes at a night highlighting their previous efforts: 2008’s lower-education zombie epic Retardead, and their greatest contribution to cinema to date, 2003’s Monsturd. The prison escapee-turned-monster is made of poop, people! POOP! You can’t run! You can’t hide! You can’t even take a sh*t in peace! Thrillville’s Will the Thrill oversees the fecal festivities, while Meshugga Beach Party strums live surf jams. (Cheryl Eddy)

7:30 p.m., $10

Four Star

2200 Clement, SF

(415) 666-3488

www.thrillville.net

MUSIC

Groove Armada

London-based electronic smoothies Groove Armada live on the same knife’s edge of popular dance music favored by mega-acts like Crystal Method and Sasha and Digweed. Underground snobs (ahem) love to hate them because, while the music of these go-to stadium-fillers can evoke moody atmospherics and fractured hipbones in equal measure, it never quite pushes into intellectually interesting territory. Plus, like, my mom’s really into them. But we also hate to love them — no matter how many forests of Glo-sticks we have to mow down, we’ll still try to make it to the speakers at their live shows. The new Black Light (OM) has shaky vocal moments, but the beat keeps knockin’. Wear your shades to the Fillmore, though, because the light show’s the real star. (Marke B.)

8 p.m. (also Fri/19), $30

The Fillmore

1805 Geary, SF

(415) 346-6000

www.livenation.com

FRIDAY 19

MUSIC

“Zigaboogaloo: A Celebration of Legendary Funk Drummer Zigaboo Modeliste with an All-Star New Orleans Funk Revue”

Zigaboo Modeliste, best known from his work with the Meters, is one of the best drummers and percussionists in the American funk scene. He’s in the Bay for a three-night run, joined by New Orleans natives Dr. John (keys), Nicholas Payton (trumpet), Donald Harrison (sax) and others for an all-star funk revue. A prolific songwriter as well, Ziggy has written more than 200 tunes. The “godfather of groove,” his music has been featured in movies like 1997’s Jackie Brown and has been sampled by Queen Latifah, Run DMC, NWA, Ice Cube, and other hip-hop icons. (Lilan Kane)

8 and 10 p.m. (also Sun/21, 2 and 7 p.m.), $5–$35

Yoshi’s

510 Embarcadero West, Oakl.

(510) 238-9200

www.yoshis.com

MUSIC

Harlem Gospel Choir

The beat of the tambourine, uplifting cries of the soprano section, and echoing reverberations of the organ merge to create the colossal sound that is gospel music. From the historically rich jazz neighborhood in New York, the world-renowned Harlem Gospel Choir brings soul-enriching hymns to the Jewish Community Center. Be prepared to spend the evening clapping your hands and stomping your feet. (Brown)

8 p.m., $45

Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

3200 California, SF

(415) 292-1200

www.jccsf.org

MUSIC

Sunshine Anderson

Under the management of Macy Gray, Sunshine Anderson debuted with her 2001 album Your Woman (Atlantic Records). Her hit single “Heard It All Before” reached No. 3 on the R&B charts. With songs everyone can relate to and a husky, sexy voice everyone wants to hear, Sunshine now records and performs with Matthew Knowles’ label. Tonight she’s joined by East Bay soul singers FEMI and Viveca Hawkins. Three voices in one night — treat yourself to a triple threat. (Kane)

9 p.m., $16,

Shattuck Down Low

2284 Shattuck, Berk.

(510) 705-1151

www.shattuckdownlow.com

MUSIC

Mandolin Magic with Avi Avital

Oh, the mandolin, a miniature relative of the guitar. I’ve always admired musicians who could master playing chords on such a small neck while plucking on the tiny strings, and Avi Avital is no exception. The multifaceted Israeli musician attended Padua Conservatory. Tonight he plays live renditions of Bach’s Concerto in A Minor, Golijov’s “Last Round,” and Beethoven’s Andante con Variazioni, accompanied by a double string quartet. (Brown)

8 p.m., free

Herbst Theatre

401 Van Ness, SF

(415) 248-1640

www.sfchamberorchestra.org

SATURDAY 20

EVENT

Ub Iwerks

Before he was 007, Sean Connery played a small-town Irishman in the 1959 Disney favorite Darby O’Gill and the Little People. The role helped get the attention of Bond producers, but the real star of the movie was the Nodal Point Camera. By creating the correct scale between actors portraying humans and short, mythical creatures, the new technology helped give life to the film’s story of an old man’s run-ins with the king of the leprechauns. This afternoon, Don Iwerks discusses how his father, the legendary Ub Iwerks (who also helped animate the first Mickey Mouse cartoons and contributed to special effects for Alfred Hitchco*ck’s 1963 The Birds) created the camera. (McCourt)

3 p.m., $10

Walt Disney Family Museum Theater

104 Montgomery, SF

(415) 345-6800

www.waltdisney.org

DANCE

Chitresh Das Dance Company

Dancers in their 30s often know that a career change is imminent. So what is 65-year-old Chitresh Das doing dancing with Jason Samuels Smith, who is more than 30 years his junior? Setting the floorboards afire with percussive dancing that is virtuosic. Just to keep it “simple,” two of the four feet on stage are barefoot, with 25 pounds of bells attached to them. If you haven’t seen these two master practitioners — kathak for Das, tap for Smith — this is the time. The show has an early curtain because a gala dinner follows (separate tickets required). (Felciano)

6 p.m., $35–$75

Palace of Fine Arts

3601 Lyon, SF

(415) 392-4400

www.cityboxoffice.com

MONDAY 22

MUSIC

Monday Soul Series presents Jamillions

You may have heard Jamillions on Wild 94.9 or 106 KMEL or seen his name on the back of someone’s album — the man has recorded with major players including Traxamillion, Too Short, and Clyde Carson. With either a microphone or a pen in his hand, he breaks the current mold in a world of auto-tuning and ghostwriting. He’s busy recording his debut album and is ready to give a little live preview. Gracious, talented, and driven, Jamillions just might find himself in the same ranks as Ne-Yo and Usher one day. (Kane)

10 p.m., free

Air Lounge

492 Ninth Street, Oakl.

(510) 444-2377

www.airoakland.com

TUESDAY 23

MUSIC

Imelda May

Mainstream American audiences got their first glimpse of Irish chanteuse Imelda May at this year’s Grammy Awards, where she sang with Jeff Beck in tribute to the late Les Paul. But the dervish from Dublin has been rocking stages for more than a decade in the U.K.. Taking the sounds of traditional rockabilly and giving them an injection of her own infectious energy and style, May can make listeners swoon at a ballad like “Falling In Love With You Again” or jump to attention on searing rockers like “Johnny Got A Boom Boom.” She’s opening for Jamie Cullum, but you can be sure the next time she’s stateside she’ll be the well-deserving headliner. (McCourt)

8 p.m., $35

Fillmore

1805 Geary, SF

(415) 371-5500

www.thefillmore.com

MUSIC

Devendra Banhart and the Grogs

The first time I saw Devendra Banhart perform, he refused to begin playing until someone in the audience supplied him with drugs. It’s difficult to say how much he was playing into his role as the forerunner of “freak-folk,” but both his musical and social experiments indicate that he is unpredictable. Ridiculously prolific and sometimes experimental to a fault, Banhart has spent the last decade mining psychedelic pop, Laurel Canyon folk balladry and R&B, often singing in Spanish. On his Warner Bros. debut What Will Be, his sound remains as schizophrenic as ever but shows a bit more restraint. Perhaps the slippery white whale of a style Banhart’s been seeking all these years is finally within reach. (Peter Galvin)

With Dorothy and the Originals

8 p.m., $25

Warfield Theatre

982 Market, SF

(415) 775-7722 www.thewarfieldtheatre.com The Guardian listings deadline is two weeks prior to our Wednesday publication date. To submit an item for consideration, please include the title of the event, a brief description of the event, date and time, venue name, street address (listing cross streets only isn’t sufficient), city, telephone number readers can call for more information, telephone number for media, and admission costs. Send information to Listings, the Guardian Building, 135 Mississippi St., SF, CA 94107; fax to (415) 487-2506; or e-mail (paste press release into e-mail body — no text attachments, please) to listings@sfbg.com. We cannot guarantee the return of photos, but enclosing an SASE helps. Digital photos may be submitted in jpeg format; the image must be at least 240 dpi and four inches by six inches in size. We regret we cannot accept listings over the phone.

Rep Clock

David Talbot

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Schedules are for Wed/17–Tues/23 except where noted. Director and year are given when available. Double features are marked with a •. All times are p.m. unless otherwise specified.

ARTISTS’ TELEVISION ACCESS 992 Valencia, SF; www.atasite.org. $6. "Other Cinema:" "Extreme Animation," works by Paper Rad, Nate Boyce, Martha Colburn, and more, Sat, 8:30.

BERKELEY FELLOWSHIP OF UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS 1924 Cedar, Berk; (510) 841-4824. Awakening from Sorrow: Buenos Aires 1997 (Epperlein and Knoop, 2009), Fri, 7.

CAFÉ OF THE DEAD 3208 Grand, Oakl; (510) 931-7945. Free. "Independent Filmmakers Screening Nite," Wed, 6:30.

CASTRO 429 Castro, SF; (415) 621-6120, www.castrotheatre.com. $7.50-10. Alice in Wonderland (Burton, 2010), through April 1, 1, 4, 7, 9:45.

CENTER OF LIGHT 2944 76th Ave, Oakl; (510) 207-6593. Free. The Age of Stupid (Armstrong, 2009), Fri, 7:30.

CHRISTOPHER B. SMITH RAFAEL FILM CENTER 1118 Fourth St, San Rafael; (415) 454-1222, www.cafilm.org. $6.50-10. An Education (Scherfig, 2009), call for dates and times. The Art of the Steal (Argott, 2009), call for dates and times. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (Ehrlich and Goldsmith, 2009), call for dates and times. North Face (Stölzl, 2008), call for dates and times. A Prophet (Audiard, 2009), call for dates and times. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Oplev, 2009), March 19-25, call for times. Live! (Guttentag, 2007), with director Bill Guttentag in person, Sun, 7.

FOUR STAR 2200 Clement, SF; www.thrillville.net. $10. "Thrillville:" •Monsturd (Popko and West, 2003) and Retardead (Popko and West, 2008), Thurs, 7:30. Local cult classics with filmmakers and cast in person, plus live music by Meshugga Beach Party.

GOETHE-INSTITUT 530 Bush, SF; www.goethe.de/sanfrancisco. $7. "New German Cinema:" Parkour (Rensing, 2009), Wed, 6:30.

HUMANIST HALL 390 27th St, Oakl; www.humanisthall.org. $5. The Secret of Oz, Wed, 7:30.

MECHANICS’ INSTITUTE 57 Post, SF; (415) 393-0100, rsvp@milibrary.org. $10. "CinemaLit Film Series: Star Power, A Month of Meryl Streep:" A Cry in the Dark (Schepisi, 1988), Fri, 6.

ODDBALL FILMS 275 Capp, SF; (415) 558-8117, info@oddballfilm.com. $10. "India Films: The Naked Eye," Fri, 10. "Under the Sea: Maritime Movies from the Archives," Sat, 10.

PACIFIC FILM ARCHIVE 2575 Bancroft, Berk; (510) 642-5249, www.bampfa.berkeley.edu. $5.50-9.50. "Film 50: History of Cinema:" Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, 1961), Wed, 3. "Joseph Losey: Pictures of Provocation:" The Servant (1963), Sun, 5; These Are the Damned (1965), Sun, 7:20. San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, Wed-Sat. See film listings for schedule.

PARAMOUNT 2025 Broadway, Oakl; 1-800-745-3000, www.oebs.org. $20-65. "The Mighty Wurlitzer: Music at the Movies:" The General (Keaton and Bruckman, 1926), Fri, 8; Sun, 2.

PIEDMONT 4186 Piedmont, Oakl; (510) 464-5980. $5-8. "Cult Classics Attack 5:" The Neverending Story (Petersen, 1984), Fri-Sat, midnight; Sun, 10am.

PLAYHOUSE THEATER 40 Main, Tiburon; www.tiburonfilfestival.com. "Tiburon International Film Festival," March 18-26. Check web site for program information.

RED POPPY ART HOUSE 2698 Folsom, SF; www.redpoppyarthouse.org. $8-12. Marina of the Zabbaleen: Portrait of a Child Recycler (Wassef, 2008), Sun, 7.

RED VIC 1727 Haight, SF; (415) 668-3994. $6-10. Night of Lust (Bénazéraf, 1963), Wed-Thurs, 7:15, 9:30 (also Wed, 2). Fantastic Mr. Fox (Anderson, 2009), Fri-Mon, 7:15, 9:15 (also Sat-Sun, 2, 4). The Road (Hillcoat, 2009), March 23-25, 7, 9:20 (also March 24, 2).

ROXIE 3117 and 3125 16th St, SF; (415) 863-1087, www.roxie.com. $5-9.75. Closed for renovation until April 1.

YERBA BUENA CENTER FOR THE ARTS 701 Mission, SF; (415) 978-2787, www.ybca.org. $6-8. "Human Rights and Film:" Petition (Zhao, 2009), Thurs, 7:30. "2009 British Television Advertising Award Winners," Sat-Sun, 2, 4 (also Sat, 6, 8).

Film listings

David Talbot

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Erik Morse, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, and Matt Sussman. The film intern is Peter Galvin. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

SF INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL

The 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival runs through Sun/21 at the Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Viz Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Clay, 2261 Fillmore, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 South Second St, San Jose. Tickets (most shows $12) available at www.asianamericanmedia.org. All times pm.

WED/17

PFA Agrarian Utopia 7. Mundane History 9:20.

Sundance Kabuki "Classic Filipino American Shorts" (shorts program) 4:15. God is D_ad 4:30. "FutureStates" (shorts program) 6:45. Wo Ai Ni Mommy 7. You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting 9:15. Aoki 9:30.

Viz "Memory Vessels and Phantom Traces" (shorts program) 4:45. Ninoy Aquin and the Rise of People Power 7. Dear Doctor 9:15.

THURS/18

PFA Hana, Dul, Sed… 7. Bayan Ko: My Own Country 9.

Sundance Kabuki Mundane History 5. "Wandering, Wondering" (shorts program) 5. "Blueprints for a Generation" (shorts program) 5. Au Revoir Taipei 7. "FutureStates" (shorts program) 7:15.

Viz "Sweet Dreams and Beautiful Nightmare" (shorts program) 5. Tehran Without Borders 7:30.

FRI/19

Camera Au Revoir Taipei 7.

PFA What We Talk About When We… 7. The Forbidden Door 9:10.

SAT/20

Camera Dear Doctor noon. "3rd I South Asian International Shorts" (shorts program) 2:45. Aoki 3. The People I’ve Slept With 4:45. A Village Called Versailles 5:30. Make Yourself at Home 7:15. Like You Know it All 7:45. Prince of Tears 9:15.

PFA Manila in the Claws of Neon 6. About Elly 8:30.

SUN/21

Camera "Wandering, Wondering" (shorts program) noon. Talentime 2. State of Aloha 2:15. Cooking With Stella 4:30. Fog 4:45. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee 6:45. The Forbidden Door 7. The Message 9.

OPENING

The Bounty Hunter Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston play a formerly married couple who … zzzzz. Huh? Oh, whatever. (1:50)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid The agonies of middle school come to life in this kid-friendly comedy. (2:00)

The Girl on the Train André Téchiné’s beautifully photographed, ripped-from-the-headlines filmexplores the events that led a young Parisian girl to lie about being the victim of an anti-semitic attack. Téchiné’s dramatization fails as an account of the incident, but the film manages to evoke apowerfullymysterious tonedue largely to two stellar performances, by Émilie Dequenne as the 20-something Jeanne and Catherine Deneuve as her persistent mother. Much of the running time follows Jeanne’s experiences before the fabrication, as she falls for (and moves in with) a young wrestler named Franck, before a tragic event causes Jeanne to invent the famous lie. An artyexploration into the psychology of victimization that happens to be anchored by a real-life event, The Girl on the Train may disappoint those looking for easy answersbut is undeniable as a showcase for some outstanding acting. (1:42) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Galvin)

*The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo See "Life After Death." (2:32) Albany, Embarcadero.

Mother Bong Joon-ho’s latest is a crime drama about a mentally challenged murder suspect and his formidable mother. See review at www.sfbg.com. (2:09) Clay, Shattuck.

*Neil Young Trunk Show As loose as Jonathan Demme’s prior Neil doc Heart of Gold (2006) was tidy, with a taste for rave-ups where that film emphasized the mellower country-rock side, this neck-deep wade into Young’s four-decade-plus songbook is pretty dang nirvanic. Shot at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, PA —exactly the kind of funky old midsized venue you’d want to see him at — it’s assembled via camera and editorial choices as seemingly random yet astute as Young’s grab bag of tunes. The latter range from historic hits ("Cinnamon Girl," "Harvest," "Cowgirl in the Sand") to more recent compositions ("The Believer," "No Hidden Path") and some real obscurities from the bottom of that trunk, including a few acoustic heartbreakers. Even shown out of concert order — there’s never any sense just where we are in the audience’s evening — they meld seamlessly, the epic half-hour oceanics of "Path" just as well as something small and plaintive like "Sad Movies." Never in better voice (qualify that as you will) at age 65, surrounded by an assured band of five plus scattered oddball props and one live canvas painter, Young is the eye of this particular hurricane — even if "Like a Hurricane" is the one performance that feels a tad uninspired. If you’re a fan, this will be pretty close to sheer ecstasy. If not … well, frankly, I have absolutely no idea whether
you’ll be converted, mildly entertained, or bored to death. (1:22) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Repo Men Nope, not a sequel to the 1984 cult classic. Jude Law and Forest Whitaker will, however, relieve you of your futuristic mechanical organs if you can’t pay for them post-transplant. (1:53) Shattuck.

The Runaways In Floria Sigismondi’s tale of the rise and fall of a 1970s all-girl band, LA producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) proclaims that the Runaways are going to save rock and roll. It’s hard to gauge the sincerity of this pronouncement, but you can certainly hear, in songs like "Cherry Bomb" and "Queens of Noise," how the band must have brightened a landscape overrun by kings of prog rock. Unfortunately, a handful of teenagers micromanaged by a sleazy, abusive nutcase proved not quite up to the task, though the band did launch the careers of metal guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and, more famously, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). Sigismondi’s film entertainingly sketches the Runaways’ beginnings in glam rock fandom and gradual attainment of their own rabid fan base. We get Currie lip-synching Bowie to catcalls at the high school assembly, Jett composing "Cherry Bomb" with Fowley, glamtastic hair-and-wardrobe eye candy, pills-and-Stooges-fueled intra-band fooling around, and five teenage girls sent off sans chaperone on an international tour with substantial quantities of hard drugs in their carry-on luggage. What follows is less pretty: a capsule version of the band’s disintegration after the departure of bottoming-out 16-year-old lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). In a film darkened by Currie’s trajectory, Jett’s subsequent success is a feel-good coda, but it’s awkwardly attached and emblematizes one of The Runaways‘ main problems. When the band begins to fall apart, the film doesn’t know which way to turn and ends up telling no one’s story well. (1:42) Bridge. (Rapoport)

ONGOING

Ajami You may recognize the title of Yaron Shoni and Scandar Copti’s debut collaboration as one of five films nominated for a 2010 Academy Award in the Foreign Category. Though it didn’t bring home the grand prize, Ajami remains a complex and affecting story about desperation and its consequences in a religiously-mixed town in Israel. As we follow the lives of four of Ajami’s residents the narrative shifts perspective almost maddeningly, switching characters seemingly at the height of each story’s action. But once all of the stories fully intersect, the final product has the distinction of feeling both meticulously calculated and completely natural. I was most impressed to learn that Shani and Copti prepared their actors with improvised role-playing rather than scripts. By withholding what was going to happen in a scene before shooting, we are treated to looks of surprise and emotion on actor’s faces that never feel unnatural. Attaining such a level of realism may be Ajami‘s crowning achievement; it can’t have been easy to make a foreign world feel so familiar. (2:00) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Galvin)

Alice in Wonderland Tim Burton’s take on the classic children’s tale met my mediocre expectations exactly, given its months of pre-release hype (in the film world, fashion magazines, and even Sephora, for the love of brightly-colored eyeshadows). Most folks over a certain age will already know the story, and much of the dialogue, before the lights go down and the 3-D glasses go on; it’s up to Burton and his all-star cast (including numerous big-name actors providing voices for animated characters) to make the tale seem newly enthralling. The visuals are nearly as striking as the CG, with Helena Bonham Carter’s big-headed Red Queen a particularly marvelous human-computer creation. But Wonderland suffers from the style-over-substance dilemma that’s plagued Burton before; all that spooky-pretty whimsy can’t disguise the film’s fairly tepid script. Teenage Alice (Mia Wasikowska) displaying girl-power tendencies is a nice, if not surprising, touch, but Johnny Depp’s grating take on the Mad Hatter will please only those who were able to stomach his interpretation of Willy Wonka. (1:48) Castro, Cerrito, Empire, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

*The Art of the Steal How do you put a price on something that’s literally priceless? The Art of the Steal takes an absorbing look at the Barnes Collection, a privately-amassed array of Post-Impressionist paintings (including 181 Renoirs) worth billions — and the many people and corporate interests who schemed to control it. Founder Albert C. Barnes was an singular character who took pride in his outsider status; he housed his art in a specially-constructed gallery far from downtown Philadelphia’s museum scene, and he emphasized education and art appreciation first and foremost. But he had no heirs, and after his death in 1951, opportunists began circling his massive collection; the slippery political and legal dealings that have unfolded since then are nearly as jaw-dropping as Barnes’ prize paintings. Philly documentarian Don Argott has a doozy of a subject here, and his skillful, even suspenseful film does it justice. (1:41) Elmwood, Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Avatar James Cameron’s Avatar takes place on planet Pandora, where human capitalists are prospecting for precious unobtainium, hampered only by the toxic atmosphere and a profusion of unfriendly wildlife, including the Na’vi, a nine-foot tall race of poorly disguised cliches. When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, arrives on the planet, he is recruited into the "Avatar" program, which enables him to cybernetically link with a part-human, part-Na’vi body and go traipsing through Pandora’s psychedelic underbrush. Initially designed for botanical research, these avatars become the only means of diplomatic contact with the bright-blue natives, who live smack on top of all the bling. The special effects are revolutionary, but the story that ensues blends hollow "noble savage" dreck with events borrowed from Dances With Wolves (1990) and FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). When Sully falls in love with a Na’vi princess and undergoes a spirit journey so he can be inducted into the tribe and fight the evil miners, all I could think of was Kevin Bacon getting his belly sliced in The Air Up There (1994). (2:42) 1000 Van Ness. (Richardson)

The Blind Side When the New York Times Magazine published Michael Lewis’ article "The Ballad of Big Mike" — which he expanded into the 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game — nobody could have predicated the cultural windfall it would spawn. Lewis told the incredible story of Michael Oher — a 6’4, 350-pound 16-year-old, who grew up functionally parentless, splitting time between friends’ couches and the streets of one of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods. As a sophom*ore with a 0.4 GPA, Oher serendipitously hitched a ride with a friend’s father to a ritzy private school across town and embarked on an unbelievable journey that led him into a upper-class, white family; the Dean’s List at Ole Miss; and, finally, the NFL. The film itself effectively focuses on Oher’s indomitable spirit and big heart, and the fearless devotion of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the matriarch of the family who adopted him (masterfully played by Sandra Bullock). While the movie will delight and touch moviegoers, its greatest success is that it will likely spur its viewers on to read Lewis’ brilliant book. (2:06) Elmwood, Oaks. (Daniel Alvarez)

Brooklyn’s Finest "Really? I mean, really?" asked the moviegoer beside me as the final freeze-frame of Brooklyn’s Finest slapped our eyeballs. Yes, that’s the sound of letdown, despite the fact that Brooklyn’s Finest initially resembled a promisingly gritty juggling act in the mode of The Wire and Cop Land (1997), Taxi Driver (1976) and Training Day (2001). Bitter irony flows from the title — and from the lives, loves, bad habits, pressure-cooker stress, and unavoidable moral dilemmas of three would-be everyday cops, all occupying several different rungs on a food chain where right and wrong have an unpleasant way of switching sides. Eddie (Richard Gere) is the veteran officer just biding his time till he gets his pension, all while comforting himself with the meager sensuous attentions of hooker Chantel (Shannon Kane). Sal (Ethan Hawke) is the bad detective, stealing from the dealers to fund a dream home for his growing family with Angela (Lili Taylor). Tango (Don Cheadle) is the undercover detective who has cultivated friendships with dealers like Caz (Wesley Snipes) and sacrificed his marriage for a long-promised promotion from his lieutenant (Will Patton) and his superior (Ellen Barkin, in likely the most misogynist portrayal of a lady with a badge to date). You spend most of Brooklyn’s Finest waiting for these cops to collide in the most unfortunate, messiest way possible, but instead the denouement leaves will leave one wondering about unresolved threads and feeling vaguely unsatisfied. In any case, director Antoine Fuqua and company seem to pride themselves on their tough-minded if at times cartoonish take on law enforcement, with Hawke in particular turning in a memorably OTT and anguished performance. (2:13) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Chun)

The Crazies Disease and anti-government paranoia dovetail in this competent yet overwhelmingly non-essential remake of one of George A. Romero’s second-tier spook shows. In a small Iowa hamlet overseen by a benevolent sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) and his pregnant wife (Radha Mitchell), who’s also the town doctor, a few odd incidents snowball into all-out chaos when a mysterious, unmarked plane crashes into the local water supply. Before long, the few residents who aren’t acting like homicidal maniacs are rounded up by an uber-aggressive military invasion. Though our heroes convey frantic panic as they try to figure out what the hell is going on, The Crazies never achieves full terror mode. It’s certainly watchable, and even enjoyable at times. But memorable? Not in the slightest. (1:41) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Crazy Heart "Oh, I love Jeff Bridges!" is the usual response when his name comes up every few years for Best Actor consideration, usually via some underdog movie no one saw, and the realization occurs that he’s never won an Oscar. The oversight is painful because it could be argued that no leading American actor has been more versatile, consistently good, and true to that elusive concept "artistic integrity" than Bridges over the last 40 years. It’s rumored Crazy Heart was slotted for cable or DVD premiere, then thrust into late-year theater release in hopes of attracting Best Actor momentum within a crowded field. Lucky for us, this performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Bridges plays "Bad" Blake, a veteran country star reduced to playing bars with local pickup bands. His slide from grace hasn’t been helped by lingering tastes for smoke and drink, let alone five defunct marriages. He meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), freelance journalist, fan, and single mother. They spark; though burnt by prior relationships, she’s reluctant to take seriously a famous drunk twice her age. Can Bad handle even this much responsibility? Meanwhile, he gets his "comeback" break in the semi-humiliating form of opening for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) — a contemporary country superstar who was once Bad’s backup boy. Tommy offers a belated shot at commercial redemption; Jean offers redemption of the strictly personal kind. There’s nothing too surprising about the ways in which Crazy Heart both follows and finesses formula. You’ve seen this preordained road from wreckage to redemption before. But actor turned first-time director Scott Cooper’s screenplay honors the flies in the windshield inherited from Thomas Cobb’s novel — as does Bridges, needless to say. (1:51) Lumiere, Piedmont, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

*An Education The pursuit of knowledge — both carnal and cultural — are at the tender core of this end-of-innocence valentine by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (who first made her well-tempered voice heard with her 2000 Dogme entry, Italian for Beginners), based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir. Screenwriter Nick Hornby breaks further with his Peter Pan protagonists with this adaptation: no man-boy mopers or misfits here. Rather, 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a good girl and ace student. It’s 1961, and England is only starting to stir from its somber, all-too-sober post-war slumber. The carefully cloistered Jenny is on track for Oxford, though swinging London and its high-style freedoms beckon just around the corner. Ushering in those freedoms — a new, more class-free world disorder — is the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), stopping to give Jenny and her cello a ride in the rain and soon proffering concerts and late-night suppers in the city. He’s a sweet-faced, feline outsider: cultured, Jewish, and given to playing fast and loose in the margins of society. David can see Jenny for the gem she is and appreciate her innocence with the knowing pleasure of a decadent playing all the angles. The stakes are believably high, thanks to An Education‘s careful attention to time and place and its gently glamored performances. Scherfig revels in the smart, easy-on-eye curb appeal of David and his friends while giving a nod to the college-educated empowerment Jenny risks by skipping class to jet to Paris. And Mulligan lends it all credence by letting all those seduced, abandoned, conflicted, rebellious feelings flicker unbridled across her face. (1:35) Oaks, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

*The Ghost Writer Roman Polanski’s never-ending legal woes have inspired endless debates on the interwebs and elsewhere; they also can’t help but add subtext to the 76-year-old’s new film, which is chock full o’ anti-American vibes anyway. It’s also a pretty nifty political thriller about a disgraced former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) who’s hanging out in his Martha’s Vineyard mansion with his whip-smart, bitter wife (Olivia Williams) and Joan Holloway-as-ice-queen assistant (Kim Cattrall), plus an eager young biographer (Ewan McGregor) recently hired to ghost-write his memoirs. But as the writer quickly discovers, the politician’s past contains the kinds of secrets that cause strange cars with tinted windows to appear in one’s rearview mirror when driving along deserted country roads. Polanski’s long been an expert when it comes to escalating tension onscreen; he’s also so good at adding offbeat moments that only seem tossed-off (as when the PM’s groundskeeper attempts to rake leaves amid relentless sea breezes) and making the utmost of his top-notch actors (Tom Wilkinson and Eli Wallach have small, memorable roles). Though I found The Ghost Writer‘s ZOMG! third-act revelation to be a bit corny, I still didn’t think it detracted from the finely crafted film that led up to it. (1:49) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Green Zone Titled for the heavily-guardedheadquartersof international occupation in Baghdad, Green Zone reunites director Paul "Shaky-Cam" Greengrass with star Matt Damon, the two having previously collaborated on the last two Bourne films. Instead of a super-soldier, this time around Damon just plays a supremely insubordinate one as he attemptsto uncover the reason whyhis military unit can’t find any of Saddam’s WMDs. With the aid of the CIA, a Wall Street Journal reporter and a friendly Iraqi, Damon goes rogue in order to suss out the source of the misinformation. The Iraq War action is decent if scarce, but an overindulgence in (you guessed it) shaky-cam and political jargon cannot hide the fact that Green Zone‘s plot is simplistic and probably light on actual facts. Damon makes a fine cowboy-cum-hero, but the effectiveness ofthe mix of patriotism and Pentagon paranoia will vary based on your penchant for such things. Still, Green Zone moves fast enough that it remains worth a matinee for conspiracy thriller aficionados. (1:55) California, Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Galvin)

The Hurt Locker When the leader of a close-knit U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad is killed in action, his subordinates have barely recovered from the shock when they’re introduced to his replacement. In contrast to his predecessor, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) is no standard-procedure-following team player, but a co*cky adrenaline junkie who puts himself and others at risk making gonzo gut-instinct decisions in the face of live bombs and insurgent gunfire. This is particularly galling to next-in-command Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). An apolitical war-in-Iraq movie that’s won considerable praise for accuracy so far from vets (scenarist Mark Boal was "embedded" with an EOD unit there for several 2004 weeks), Kathryn Bigelow’s film is arguably you-are-there purist to a fault. While we eventually get to know in the principals, The Hurt Locker is so dominated by its seven lengthy squad-mission setpieces that there’s almost no time or attention left for building character development or a narrative arc. The result is often viscerally intense, yet less impactful than it would have been if we were more emotionally invested. Assured as her technique remains, don’t expect familiar stylistic dazzle from action cult figure Bigelow (1987’s Near Dark, 1989’s Blue Steel, 1991’s Point Break) — this vidcam-era war movie very much hews to the favored current genre approach of pseudo-documentary grainy handheld shaky-cam imagery. (2:11) Cerrito, Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*The Last Station Most of the buzz around The Last Station has focused on Helen Mirren, who takes the lead as the Countess Sofya, wife of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Mirren is indeed impressive — when is she not? — but there’s more to the film than Sofya’s Oscar-worthy outbursts. The Last Station follows Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), hired as Tolstoy’s personal secretary at the end of the writer’s life. Valentin struggles to reconcile his faith in the anarchist Christian Tolstoyan movement with his sympathy for Sofya and his budding feelings for fellow Tolstoyan Masha (Kerry Condon). For the first hour, The Last Station is charming and very funny. Once Tolstoy and Sofya’s relationship reaches its most volatile, however, the tone shifts toward the serious — a trend that continues as Tolstoy falls ill. After all the lighthearted levity, it’s a bit jarring, but the solid script and accomplished cast pull The Last Station together. Paul Giamatti is especially good as Vladimir Chertkov, who battles against Sofya for control of Tolstoy’s will. You’ll never feel guiltier for putting off War and Peace. (1:52) Albany, Opera Plaza. (Peitzman)

*The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers For many, Daniel Ellsberg is a hero — a savior of American First Amendment rights and one of the most outspoken opponents of the Vietnam war. But as this documentary (recently nominated for an Academy Award) shows, it’s never an an easy decision to take on the U.S. government. Ellsberg himself narrates the film and details his sleepless nights leading up to the leak of the Pentagon Papers — the top secret government study on the Vietnam war — to the public. Though there are few new developments in understanding the particulars of the war or the impact the release of the Papers had on ending the conflict, the film allows audiences to experience the famous case from Ellsberg’s point of view, adding a fresh and poignantly human element to the events; it’s a political documentary that plays more like a character drama. Whether you were there when it happened or new to the story, there is something to be appreciated from this tale of a man who fell out of love with his country and decided to do something about it. (1:34) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Galvin)

*North Face You’ll never think of outerwear the same way again — and in fact you might be reaching for your fleece and shivering through the more harrowing climbing scenes of this riveting historical adventure based on a true tale. Even those who consider themselves less than avid fans of outdoor survival drama will find their eyes frozen, if you will, on the screen when it comes to this retelling/re-envisioning of this story, legendary among mountaineers, of climbers, urged on by Nazi propaganda, to tackle the last "Alpine problem." At issue: the unclimbed north face of Switzerland’s Eiger, a highly dangerous and unpredictable zone aptly nicknamed "Murder Wall." Two working-class friends, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann of 2008’s Jerichow) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) — here portrayed as climbing fiends driven to reach summits rather than fight for the Nazis — take the challenge. There to document their achievement, or certain death, is childhood friend and Kurz’s onetime sweetheart Luise (Johanna Wokalek, memorable in 2008’s The Baader Meinhof Complex), eager to make her name as a photojournalist while fending off the advances of an editor (Ulrich Tukur) seeking to craft a narrative that positions the contestants as model Aryans. But the climb — and the Eiger, looming like a mythical ogre — is the main attraction here. Filmmaker Philipp Stölzl brings home the sheer heart-pumping exhilaration and terror associated with the sport — and this specific, legendarily tragic climb — by shooting in the mountains with his actors and crew, and the result goes a way in redeeming an adventure long-tainted by its fascist associations. (2:01) Smith Rafael. (Chun)

Our Family Wedding America Ferrera and Lance Gross play a couple of lovebirds who must jump through some serious family hoops before they get married in the mostly serviceable Our Family Wedding. What begins as a dual Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with the differences in each family’s traditions forcing complications and compromises, soon loses sight of its matrimonial plot as the focus steers towards a childish rivalry between the fathers. While it’s being marketed as a goofy comedy, the final product seeks a relatively sentimental tone, which makes the few slapstick moments — like a goat trying to rape Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker — seem pretty inappropriate. Still, for some audiences the well-tread plot will act as comfort food: they fight, they make up, and it all ends in a big wedding where we watch the characters dance for damn near ten minutes. (1:41) 1000 Van Ness. (Galvin)

*Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief It would be easy to dismiss Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief as an unabashed Harry Potter knock-off. Trio of kids with magic powers goes on a quest to save the world in a Chris Columbus adaptation of a popular young adult series — sound familiar? But The Lightning Thief is sharp, witty, and a far cry from Columbus’ joyless adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001). Logan Lerman stars as Percy Jackson, the illegitimate son of Poseidon and Catherine Keener. Once he learns his true identity at Camp Half-Blood, he sets off on a quest with his protector, a satyr named Grover, and potential love interest Annabeth, daughter of Athena. Along the way, they bump into gods and monsters from Greek mythology — with a twist. Think Percy using his iPhone to fight Medusa (Uma Thurman), or a land of the Lotus-Eaters disguised as a Lady Gaga-blasting casino. A worthy successor to Harry Potter? Too soon to say, but The Lightning Thief is at least a well-made diversion. (1:59) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

*A Prophet Filmmaker Jacques Audiard has described his new film, A Prophet, as "the anti-Scarface." Yet much like Scarface (1983), A Prophet bottles the heady euphoria that chases the empowerment of the powerless and the rise of the long-shot loner on the margins. In its almost-Dickensian attention to detail, devotion to its own narrative complexity, and passion for cinematic poetry, A Prophet rises above the ordinary and, through the prism of genre, finds its own power. The supremely opportunistic, pragmatically Machiavellian intellectual and spiritual education of a felon is the chief concern of here. Played by Tahar Rahim with guileless, open-faced charisma, Malik is half-Arab and half-Corsican — and distrusted or despised by both camps in the pen.When he lands in jail for his six-year sentence, he’s 19, illiterate, friendless, and vulnerable. His deal with the devil — and means of survival — arrives with Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), temporarily locked up before his testifies against the mob. Corsican boss Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) wants him dead, and Malik is tagged to penetrate Reyeb’s cell with a blade hidden in mouth. After Malik’s gory rebirth, it turns out that the teenager’s a seer in more ways than one. From his low-dog position, he can eyeball the connections linking the drugs entering the prison to those circulating outside, as well as the machinations intertwining the Arab and Corsican syndicates. It’s no shock that when Cesar finds his power eroding and arranges prison leaves for his multilingual crossover star that Malik serves not only his Corsican master, but also his own interests, and begins to build a drug empire rivaling his teacher’s. Throughout his pupil’s progress, Audiard demonstrates a way with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, and when Malik finally breaks with his Falstaffian patriarch, it makes your heart skip a beat in a move akin to the title of the director’s last film. This Eurozone/Obama-age prophet is all about the profit — but he’s imbued with grace, even while gaming for ill-gotten gain. (2:29) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

Remember Me Ominously set in New York City during the summer of 2001, Remember Me, starring Robert Pattinson (of the Twilight series) and Emilie de Ravin (of TV’s Lost), pretty much answers the question of whether it’s still too soon to make the events of September 11 the subject of a date movie. Or rather, not the subject so much as the specter waiting just off-camera for its walk-on while brooding 21-year-old Tyler Hawkins (Pattinson) quotes Gandhi, gets into brawls, gets drunk, writes letters to his dead brother, and otherwise channels despondency and rage into various salubrious outlets. One of these is romancing (under circ*mstances severely testing the viewer’s credulity) de Ravin’s Ally Craig, grappling somewhat more constructively with her own familial tragedy. Ally is the sort of self-possessed, strong-willed young woman whose instincts, shortly after she’s been backhanded by her drunk father (Chris Cooper), tell her to placate and have sex with her drunk boyfriend when he comes home enraged after battling his own father (Pierce Brosnan). She is there to teach Tyler, through quirky habits like eating dessert first, what director Allen Coulter (2006’s Hollywoodland) wishes to teach us: that time is short and one must fill one’s life with meaningful actions — like throwing a fire extinguisher through a window to convince a classroom of tweens to stop bullying one’s little sister. The film is seeded with allusions to an impending catastrophe that feels less integrated than exploited. And it’s uncomfortable seeing the fall of the towers used to make the ground shake under a sweet, fairly depthless depiction of love and grief. (2:08) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

She’s Out of My League From the co-writers of the abysmal Sex Drive (2008), She’s Out of My League could be another 90-minute assemblage of gross-out humor, dick jokes, and unabashed hom*ophobia. As it turns out, the latest offering from Sean Anders and John Morris is legitimately funny — far better than the trailer (and that half-assed title) would have you believe. The adorkable Jay Baruchel stars as Kirk, a hapless loser who finds himself dating bonafide hottie Molly (Alice Eve). Once you get past the film’s silly conceit — Kirk’s only "movie ugly," and personality goes a long way — you’re left with a surprisingly charming comedy. The characters are amusing and the wit is sharp. Not to mention the fact that She’s Out of My League offers a downright heartfelt message. There’s a sincerity here that feels genuine instead of just tacked-on: yeah, yeah, it’s about what’s inside that counts, but there’s more to it than that. Ignore the dreadful "ji*zz in my pants" scene, and the movie’s almost an old-fashioned romcom. (1:44) Elmwood, Oaks, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Peitzman)

Shutter Island Director Martin Scorsese and muse du jour Leonardo DiCaprio draw from oft-filmed novelist Dennis Lehane (2003’s Mystic River, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone) for this B-movie thriller that, sadly, offers few thrills. DiCaprio’s a 1950s U.S. marshal summoned to a misty island that houses a hospital for the criminally insane, overseen by a doctor (Ben Kingsley) who believes in humane, if experimental, therapy techniques. From the get-go we suspect something’s not right with the G-man’s own mind; as he investigates the case of a missing patient, he experiences frequent flashbacks to his World War II service (during which he helped liberate a concentration camp), and has recurring visions of his spooky dead wife (Michelle Williams). Whether or not you fall for Shutter Island‘s twisty game depends on the gullibility of your own mind. Despite high-quality performances and an effective, if overwrought, tone of certain doom, Shutter Island stumbles into a third act that exposes its inherently flawed and frustrating storytelling structure. If only David Lynch had directed Shutter Island — it could’ve been a classic of mindf*ckery run amok. Instead, Scorsese’s psychological drama is sapped of any mystery whatsoever by its stubbornly literal conclusion. (2:18) California, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

A Single Man In this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, Colin Firth plays George, a middle-aged gay expat Brit and college professor in 1962 Los Angeles. Months after the accidental death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover for 16 years, George still feels worse than bereft; simply waking each morning is agony. So on this particular day he has decided to end it all, first going through a series of meticulous preparations and discreet leave-takings that include teaching one last class and having supper with the onetime paramour (Julianne Moore) turned best friend who’s still stuck on him. The main problem with fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford’s first feature is that he directs it like a fashion designer, fussing over surface style and irrelevant detail in a story whose tight focus on one hard, real-world thing — grief — cries for simplicity. Not pretentious overpackaging, which encompasses the way his camera slavers over the excessively pretty likes of Nicholas Hoult as a student and Jon Kortajarena as a hustler, as if they were models selling product rather than characters, or even actors. (In fact Kortajarena is a male supermodel; the shocker is that Hoult is not, though Hugh Grant’s erstwhile About a Boy co-star is so preening here you’d never guess.) Eventually Ford stops showing off so much, and A Single Man is effective to the precise degree it lets good work by Goode, Moore and especially the reliably excellent Firth unfold without too much of his terribly artistic interference. (1:39) 1000 Van Ness, Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

*Sweetgrass Recorded between 2001-03 by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, Sweetgrass immerses us in sheep farming before taking off after a pair of latter-day cowboys on a 150-mile drive through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth range — a journey with deep historical roots and no practical future. As its rugged scenery beggars (but ultimately unseats) projections of the pastoral, so too do its mild sheep trigger myriad symbolic associations. Sweetgrass is finally about the relationship between farmhands and their flocks, and in this, it is notably unsentimental. During long takes of shearing and birthing, the correspondent displays of violence and tenderness, much of it erotic and seemingly reflexive, speaks to the human-animal encounter Berger eulogized in 1977. The lonesome cowboys whisper sweet nothings to the dogs and hurl fantastically mismatched streams of curses at the sheep (the absence of women being the common link). Through it all, Castaing-Taylor’s camera is an embodied presence, and hard work at that. Compared with Planet Earth‘s impossible views and spectacular displacements, Sweetgrass has its feet planted on the ground. (1:41) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Goldberg)

REP PICKS

The Female Bunch Al Adamson was the Ed Wood Jr. of the late 60s and 1970s, albeit a version without any delusions of grandeur — in it for the money, he knew his ultra-cheap films were crap. This one, titled to cash in on The Wild Bunch and made the same year (though there were no distribution takers until 1971, two years later), is closer to an unacknowledged, soporific remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ great ’68 She-Devils on Wheels, with the deadly dames on horseback rather than motorcycles. When Sandy (Nesa Renet) is dumped by her faithless Vegas lounge singer boyfriend — and no wonder, since she behaves like a Velcro doormat — her showgirl friend Libby (peroxide-blonde perennial Adamson star and subsequent spouse Regina Carroll) recommends she join a "club" of women on a secret ranch. They smuggle drugs, have soft-core orgies (with Mexican men and each other), abuse the local "wetbacks," and enforce a strict "no men" rule on ranch property whose violation can lead to the poor sod getting branded, dragged to death, or worse. One such unfortunate is Russ Tamblyn, who sure fell hard and fast from being third-billed in Best Picture winner West Side Story just eight years prior; another is pathetic ranch hand Lon Chaney, Jr. in one of his last roles, seeming even more pathetic than called for because he was undergoing debilitating cancer treatments at the time. The "she-devil" here is serious man-hater Grace, whose thespian Jennifer Bishop also appeared in such greats as 1970’s Bigfoot (as one of the pretty girls it keeps chained in its cave), 1974’s Impulse (imperiled by William Shatner), 1969’s The Maltese Bippy, and two Hee Haw episodes. The Female Bunch was advertised with slogans including "Hot Pants — and a Fast Draw! They Treat Their Horses Better Than Their Men!" It was partially shot at the Spahn Ranch, also home at the time to Charlie Manson and company. This grade-Z opus is preceded at the Vortex Room by the very big-budget Candy (1968), an abysmal stab at Terry Southern’s p*rn satire whose all-star cast included everyone from Brando and Burton to Ringo Starr, Sugar Ray Robinson, John Huston, and Anita Pallenberg. Thurs/18, 9 p.m., $5, Vortex Room, 1082 Howard, SF; www.myspace.com/thevortexroom. (Harvey)

Snapshots

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks

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City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, China, 2009) There have been a number of recent works about the "rape of Nanking," but perhaps none tackles the brutal nature of Nanjing’s fall with as much beauty as City of Life and Death. Shot in striking black and white, the film depicts the invasion of China’s capital by Japanese forces from a number of points of view, including that of a Japanese soldier. It can be difficult at times to become emotionally attached to characters within such a restless narrative, but the structure goes a long way toward keeping the proceedings balanced. The stunningly elaborate sets and cinematography alone are worth the price of admission, and it’s amazing that such detail was achieved with a budge of less than $12 million. But it is the unflinching catalog of the some 300,000 murders and rapes that took place between 1937 and 1938 in Nanjing that will remain with you long after watching. (Peter Galvin) Fri/12, 6:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; Sat/13, 8 p.m., PFA.

The Forbidden Door (Joko Anwar, Indonesia, 2009) This year’s midnight screening at SFIAAFF is The Forbidden Door, a surreal genre throwback from Indonesia. It’s hard to describe exactly what this film is about beyond basic character descriptions — it concerns Gambir, a sculptor of pregnant female figures and doormat for his friends and family. Less clear are matters like why Gambir inserts aborted babies into his sculptures, or the significance of his wife’s secret room in the basem*nt. As inorganic as some of the plot points feelinitially, the tangential nature of the film is leading somewhere. Joko Anwar has succeeded in shaking the loose and shaggy nature that plagued his 2007 breakthrough Dead Time, and The Forbidden Door is a sturdy showcase for the director’s ambition. His keen handle on the film’s eerie Jakartan atmosphere and his follow-though in the riveting, bloody climax should be enough to secure The Forbidden Door a place in cult cinema. Still, it’s ultimately apparent that the film’s standout moments are a sign that Anwar’s best work is yet to come. (Galvin) Fri/12, 11:59 p.m., Clay; March 19, 9:10 p.m., PFA; March 21, 7 p.m., Camera 12.

Aoki (Mike Cheng and Ben Wang, USA, 2009) This stirring, dynamic portrait of Black Panther Party founding member Richard Aoki makes use not only of historical footage from his rabble-rousing days, but also of blunt and hilarious speeches and interviews conducted during the last five years of his life (he died at last year at age 70). After being held in an internment camp during World War II, Aoki’s family returned to the Bay Area; soon, as he recalls, the teenage Aoki "got the reputation as the baddest Oriental to come out of West Oakland." He enlisted in the Army at 17, but became disenchanted with the military due to the Vietnam War. He was already well on his way toward becoming a radical when he befriended Huey Newton and Bobby Seale at Merritt College; post-Panthers, he remained an activist and charismatic community leader. Directors Mike Cheng and Ben Wang do an admirable job condensing such a full life into 90 educational, entertaining, and enlightening minutes. (Cheryl Eddy) Sat/13, 3:30 p.m., Viz; March 17, 9:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; March 20, 3 p.m., Camera 12.

A Moment in Time (Ruby Yang, USA, 2009) The decline of the filmgoing experience is one of the more depressing cinematic developments of the past decade. There was a time when going to the movies was a momentous event — and it is this era that A Moment in Time captures, from the unique perspective of the residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Accompanied by great period footage and rare film clips, the doc features interviews with a number of local figures who were raised in a Chinatown that at one time had as many as five movie theaters. What began as a source of pride in the 1930s soon proved to have far-reaching effects in shaping the identities of those who grew up in the neighborhood. It’s appropriate that A Moment in Time (directed by Ruby Yang, who won an Oscar for her 2006 short doc, The Blood of Yingzhou District) is showing at a festival, perhaps the last of the true film-going experiences. (Galvin) Sat/13, 7 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; Tues/16, 5 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.

The Oak Park Story (Valerie Soe, USA, 2010) The Oak Park Story is a nice piece of local interest, a document of the struggle by an Oakland apartment community to improve their living conditions. As a piece of film, Valerie Soe’s short film is a little rough around the edges, but it feels like such a deeply personal undertaking that it’s easy to get caught up in the lives of its deeply-bonded residents. At a scant 22 minutes, The Oak Park Story is the perfect length, and the gamut of emotions the filmmakers are able elicit in such a short amount of time is impressive. But should you find yourself interested in hearing more, just ask, since director Soe is expected to appear in person. The film screens with the feature-length Manilatown is in the Heart: Time Travels With Al Robles. (Galvin) Sun/14, 2 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; Mon/15, 7 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
Lessons of the Blood (James T. Hong and Yin-Ju Chen, USA, 2010) The latest experimental work from sometimes San Francisco resident James T. Hong is his first feature-length documentary. It’s also his most accessible film to date, which is not to say that Hong’s unconventional style, bold opinions, and fascination with controversial subject matter have been dulled in the slightest. Codirected by Hong’s frequent collaborator (and wife) Yin-Ju Chen, Lessons of the Blood uses archival clips, old educational films, current interviews, and not a small amount of hidden-camera footage to explore the topic of revisionist history, specifically as it relates to Japanese cruelty in China circa World War II. Stark, artful visuals — plus a grim travelogue’s worth of shots taken at significant sites, including Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin (once occupied by the Japanese), and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial — contrast with a curious, furious tone. Lessons‘ lessons are harrowing, and unforgettable. (Eddy) Sun/14, 3 p.m., PFA; Tues/16, 7 p.m., Sundance Kabuki. *

The 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival runs March 11–21 at the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Viz Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Clay, 2261 Fillmore, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 South Second St., San Jose. Tickets (most shows $12) available at www.asianamericanmedia.org.

Film listings

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Erik Morse, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, and Matt Sussman. The film intern is Peter Galvin. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

SF INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL

The 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival runs March 11-21 at the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Viz Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Clay, 2261 Fillmore, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 South Second St, San Jose. Tickets (most shows $12) available at www.asianamericanmedia.org. All times pm.

THURS/11

Castro Today’s Special 7.

FRI/12

Clay In the Manner of Cha Jung Hee 6:45. Raspberry Magic 9. The Forbidden Door 11:59.

Pacific Film Archive Independencia 7. The Message 8:40.

Sundance Kabuki Agrarian Utopia 3:45. Talentime 4:30. City of Life and Death 6:30. Fog 7. "Scene/Unseen" (shorts program) 9:15. "Sweet Dreams and Beautiful Nightmares" (shorts program) 9:30.

SAT/13

Clay China Sings! 1:30. "An Afternoon with Aasif Madvi" (on-stage interview) 4. Dear Lemon Lima 6:15. Prince of Tears 8:45.

Pacific Film Archive In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee 3:30. Like You Know it All 5:30. City of Life and Death 8.

Sundance Kabuki "3rd I South Asian International Shorts" (shorts program) noon. State of Aloha 1. A Village Called Versailles 2:15. Insiang 3:15. Ninoy Aquino and the Rise of People Power 4:30. God is D-ad 6. A Moment in Time 7. Agrarian Utopia 8:30. "Wandering, Wondering" (shorts program) 9:15.

Viz "Up Close and Personal with the Asian American Film Industry" (workshop) 1. Aoki 3:30. "Classic Filipino American Shorts" (shorts program) 6. Make Yourself at Home 8:30.

SUN/14

Castro The Housemaid noon. The Message 2:45. The People I’ve Slept With 6. Love Aaj Kal 9.

Clay What We Talk About When We… 1. Lt. Watanda and conversation with director Freida Lee Mock 3:15. Cooking with Stella 6. Like You Know It All 8:45.

Pacific Film Archive Lessons of the Blood 3. Dear Doctor 5:30. Prince of Darkness 8.

Sundance Kabuki "Blueprints for a Generation" (shorts program) 1. Manilatown is in the Heart 2. Wo Ai Ni Mommy 3:30. Independencia 4:30. Take Me Anywhere 6. Tehran Without Permission 6:30. Mundane History 8:15. Talentime 8:30.

Viz Hold the Sun 1:15. The Mountain Thief 6. Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest: Part 4 8:15.

MON/15

Sundance Kabuki Take Me Anywhere 4. Raspberry Magic 4:30. "Memory Vessels and Phantom Traces" (shorts program) 6:45. Manilatown is in the Heart 7. About Elly 9. Dear Lemon Lima 9:15.

Viz Fog 4:30. Hold the Sun 6:45. Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest: Part 5 9.

TUES/16

Pacific Film Archive Tehran Without Permission 7. The People I’ve Slept With 8:45.

Sundance Kabuki "Scene/Unseen" (shorts program) 4:15. A Moment in Time 5. State of Aloha 6:45. Lessons of the Blood 7. The Mountain Theif 9. Hana, Dul, Sed… 9:30.

Viz Make Yourself at Home 4:15. The Bonesetter’s Daughter (work-in-progress) 6:40. A Village Called Versailles 9.

OPENING

Ajami You may recognize the title of Yaron Shoni and Scandar Copti’s debut collaboration as one of five films nominated for a 2010 Academy Award in the Foreign Category. Though it didn’t bring home the grand prize, Ajami remains a complex and affecting story about desperation and its consequences in a religiously-mixed town in Israel. As we follow the lives of four of Ajami’s residents the narrative shifts perspective almost maddeningly, switching characters seemingly at the height of each story’s action. But once all of the stories fully intersect, the final product has the distinction of feeling both meticulously calculated and completely natural. I was most impressed to learn that Shani and Copti prepared their actors with improvised role-playing rather than scripts. By withholding what was going to happen in a scene before shooting, we are treated to looks of surprise and emotion on actor’s faces that never feel unnatural. Attaining such a level of realism may be Ajami‘s crowning achievement; it can’t have been easy to make a foreign world feel so familiar. (2:00) Embarcadero. (Galvin)

*The Art of the Steal How do you put a price on something that’s literally priceless? The Art of the Steal takes an absorbing look at the Barnes Collection, a privately-amassed array of Post-Impressionist paintings (including 181 Renoirs) worth billions — and the many people and corporate interests who schemed to control it. Founder Albert C. Barnes was an singular character who took pride in his outsider status; he housed his art in a specially-constructed gallery far from downtown Philadelphia’s museum scene, and he emphasized education and art appreciation first and foremost. But he had no heirs, and after his death in 1951, opportunists began circling his massive collection; the slippery political and legal dealings that have unfolded since then are nearly as jaw-dropping as Barnes’ prize paintings. Philly documentarian Don Argott has a doozy of a subject here, and his skillful, even suspenseful film does it justice. (1:41) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

*The Good Guy Romantic comedies often have very simple premises predicated on familiarity — you know why you go to see them, and they make sure to deliver.Much of the early goings of The Good Guy feel clichéd, but as it turns out, that’s kind of the point. Tommy (Scott Porter), a charming Wall Street investment banker, has been dating Beth (Alexis Bledel), and they’re taking things slow and sweet. When he loses one of his top sellers to another firm, Tommy decides to be a nice guy and give bumbling temp Daniel (Bryan Greenberg) a chance to shine; he also takes the time to teach him how to dress and pick up girls. But when Daniel decides to use his newfound skills on Beth &ldots; well, you see the triangle coming a mile away. How it all unfolds, however, proves far less obvious. In his writing-directing debut, Julio Depietro delivers what is very much a writer’s film, an experiment in form and expectation. Attempts to capture the culture of a Wall Street investment firm fare less well, but as a skewing of movie archetypes and presumptions, The Good Guy is surprisingly satisfying. It won’t change the rom-com game, but it’s something a little different in a genre that could use a kick in the pants. (1:31) Opera Plaza. (Galvin)

Green Zone Nope, it’s not a new Jason Bourne movie, but it is an action thriller directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Matt Damon. (1:55) California, Piedmont.

Our Family Wedding This multi-culti comedy boasts an all-star cast, including Forest Whitaker, America Ferrara, Regina King, Taye Diggs, and Carlos Mencia. (1:41) tk.

Remember Me Robert Pattinson attempts to prove his range beyond suckin’ blood. (2:08) tk.

She’s Out of My League Tale as old as time: beauty and the geek. (1:44) Oaks.

*Sweetgrass See "Wild Yonder." (1:41) Lumiere, Shattuck.

ONGOING

*"Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Animated" Just because it’s animation doesn’t mean it’s just for kids. Like the live-action Oscar-nominated shorts, this year’s animated selections have got range, from the traditionally child-friendly to downright vulgar. Skewing heavily towards CG fare, the shorts vary from a Looney Tunes-style chase for an elderly woman’s soul (The Lady and the Reaper) to the Wallace and Gromit BBC special, A Matter of Loaf and Death. Most entertaining by far is Logorama, an action-packed tale set in a world populated by familiar trademarked logos. Any film that casts the Michelin man as a garbage-mouthed cop on the case of a renegade Ronald McDonald deserves to win all the awards in the universe. (1:35) Shattuck. (Galvin)

*"Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Live Action" Aren’t you tired of wondering what all the fuss is about when the Academy awards their Oscar for Best Short? In an effort to give audiences a chance to play along, Shorts International is screening these less-seen works together. Though one or two of the five nominated films threaten to adhere to the Academy’s penchant for either heartbreaking or heartwarming, the majority are surprisingly oddball picks. Perhaps most odd of all is Denmark/U.S. submission The New Tenants. Feeling a tad forced but no less funny for it, Tenants draws on celebrities like Vincent D’Onofrio and comedian Kevin Corrigan to bring life to this surreal adaptation by Anders Thomas Jensen (2006’s After the Wedding). My pick would be Sweden’s gloriously goofy Instead of Abracadabra, which stars a stay-at-home slacker as he puts on a magic show for his father’s birthday. Obviously, some selections are going to be better than others, but hey, they’re shorts. If you don’t like one, just wait 10 minutes and you’ll find yourself somewhere completely different. (1:35) Shattuck. (Galvin)

Alice in Wonderland Tim Burton’s take on the classic children’s tale met my mediocre expectations exactly, given its months of pre-release hype (in the film world, fashion magazines, and even Sephora, for the love of brightly-colored eyeshadows). Most folks over a certain age will already know the story, and much of the dialogue, before the lights go down and the 3-D glasses go on; it’s up to Burton and his all-star cast (including numerous big-name actors providing voices for animated characters) to make the tale seem newly enthralling. The visuals are nearly as striking as the CG, with Helena Bonham Carter’s big-headed Red Queen a particularly marvelous human-computer creation. But Wonderland suffers from the style-over-substance dilemma that’s plagued Burton before; all that spooky-pretty whimsy can’t disguise the film’s fairly tepid script. Teenage Alice (Mia Wasikowska) displaying girl-power tendencies is a nice, if not surprising, touch, but Johnny Depp’s grating take on the Mad Hatter will please only those who were able to stomach his interpretation of Willy Wonka. (1:48) Castro, Empire, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Avatar James Cameron’s Avatar takes place on planet Pandora, where human capitalists are prospecting for precious unobtainium, hampered only by the toxic atmosphere and a profusion of unfriendly wildlife, including the Na’vi, a nine-foot tall race of poorly disguised cliches. When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, arrives on the planet, he is recruited into the "Avatar" program, which enables him to cybernetically link with a part-human, part-Na’vi body and go traipsing through Pandora’s psychedelic underbrush. Initially designed for botanical research, these avatars become the only means of diplomatic contact with the bright-blue natives, who live smack on top of all the bling. The special effects are revolutionary, but the story that ensues blends hollow "noble savage" dreck with events borrowed from Dances With Wolves (1990) and FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). When Sully falls in love with a Na’vi princess and undergoes a spirit journey so he can be inducted into the tribe and fight the evil miners, all I could think of was Kevin Bacon getting his belly sliced in The Air Up There (1994). (2:42) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Richardson)

The Blind Side When the New York Times Magazine published Michael Lewis’ article "The Ballad of Big Mike" — which he expanded into the 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game — nobody could have predicated the cultural windfall it would spawn. Lewis told the incredible story of Michael Oher — a 6’4, 350-pound 16-year-old, who grew up functionally parentless, splitting time between friends’ couches and the streets of one of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods. As a sophom*ore with a 0.4 GPA, Oher serendipitously hitched a ride with a friend’s father to a ritzy private school across town and embarked on an unbelievable journey that led him into a upper-class, white family; the Dean’s List at Ole Miss; and, finally, the NFL. The film itself effectively focuses on Oher’s indomitable spirit and big heart, and the fearless devotion of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the matriarch of the family who adopted him (masterfully played by Sandra Bullock). While the movie will delight and touch moviegoers, its greatest success is that it will likely spur its viewers on to read Lewis’ brilliant book. (2:06) Oaks. (Daniel Alvarez)

Brooklyn’s Finest "Really? I mean, really?" asked the moviegoer beside me as the final freeze-frame of Brooklyn’s Finest slapped our eyeballs. Yes, that’s the sound of letdown, despite the fact that Brooklyn’s Finest initially resembled a promisingly gritty juggling act in the mode of The Wire and Cop Land (1997), Taxi Driver (1976) and Training Day (2001). Bitter irony flows from the title — and from the lives, loves, bad habits, pressure-cooker stress, and unavoidable moral dilemmas of three would-be everyday cops, all occupying several different rungs on a food chain where right and wrong have an unpleasant way of switching sides. Eddie (Richard Gere) is the veteran officer just biding his time till he gets his pension, all while comforting himself with the meager sensuous attentions of hooker Chantel (Shannon Kane). Sal (Ethan Hawke) is the bad detective, stealing from the dealers to fund a dream home for his growing family with Angela (Lili Taylor). Tango (Don Cheadle) is the undercover detective who has cultivated friendships with dealers like Caz (Wesley Snipes) and sacrificed his marriage for a long-promised promotion from his lieutenant (Will Patton) and his superior (Ellen Barkin, in likely the most misogynist portrayal of a lady with a badge to date). You spend most of Brooklyn’s Finest waiting for these cops to collide in the most unfortunate, messiest way possible, but instead the denouement leaves will leave one wondering about unresolved threads and feeling vaguely unsatisfied. In any case, director Antoine Fuqua and company seem to pride themselves on their tough-minded if at times cartoonish take on law enforcement, with Hawke in particular turning in a memorably OTT and anguished performance. (2:13) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Chun)

Cop Out I think there was a plot to Cop Out — something involving a stolen baseball card and a drug ring and Jimmy (Bruce Willis) trying to pay for his daughter’s wedding. Frankly, it’s irrelevant. Kevin Smith’s take on the buddy cop genre, which partners Willis with Tracy Morgan, is more a string of dick jokes and toilet humor than anything else. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sometimes it’s nice to sit back and turn off your brain, as Morgan’s Paul describes his bowel movements or when hapless thief Dave (Seann William Scott) begins imitating everything our heroes say. At the same time, Cop Out is easily forgettable: Smith directed the film, but writing duties went to the Cullen Brothers of TV’s Las Vegas. All judgments about that series aside, the script lacks Smith’s trademark blend of heart and vulgarity. Even Mallrats (1995) had a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying end. Without Smith as auteur, Cop Out is worth a few laughs but destined for the bargain bin. (1:50) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

The Crazies Disease and anti-government paranoia dovetail in this competent yet overwhelmingly non-essential remake of one of George A. Romero’s second-tier spook shows. In a small Iowa hamlet overseen by a benevolent sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) and his pregnant wife (Radha Mitchell), who’s also the town doctor, a few odd incidents snowball into all-out chaos when a mysterious, unmarked plane crashes into the local water supply. Before long, the few residents who aren’t acting like homicidal maniacs are rounded up by an uber-aggressive military invasion. Though our heroes convey frantic panic as they try to figure out what the hell is going on, The Crazies never achieves full terror mode. It’s certainly watchable, and even enjoyable at times. But memorable? Not in the slightest. (1:41) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Crazy Heart "Oh, I love Jeff Bridges!" is the usual response when his name comes up every few years for Best Actor consideration, usually via some underdog movie no one saw, and the realization occurs that he’s never won an Oscar. The oversight is painful because it could be argued that no leading American actor has been more versatile, consistently good, and true to that elusive concept "artistic integrity" than Bridges over the last 40 years. It’s rumored Crazy Heart was slotted for cable or DVD premiere, then thrust into late-year theater release in hopes of attracting Best Actor momentum within a crowded field. Lucky for us, this performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Bridges plays "Bad" Blake, a veteran country star reduced to playing bars with local pickup bands. His slide from grace hasn’t been helped by lingering tastes for smoke and drink, let alone five defunct marriages. He meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), freelance journalist, fan, and single mother. They spark; though burnt by prior relationships, she’s reluctant to take seriously a famous drunk twice her age. Can Bad handle even this much responsibility? Meanwhile, he gets his "comeback" break in the semi-humiliating form of opening for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) — a contemporary country superstar who was once Bad’s backup boy. Tommy offers a belated shot at commercial redemption; Jean offers redemption of the strictly personal kind. There’s nothing too surprising about the ways in which Crazy Heart both follows and finesses formula. You’ve seen this preordained road from wreckage to redemption before. But actor turned first-time director Scott Cooper’s screenplay honors the flies in the windshield inherited from Thomas Cobb’s novel — as does Bridges, needless to say. (1:51) Embarcadero, Empire, Piedmont, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

*An Education The pursuit of knowledge — both carnal and cultural — are at the tender core of this end-of-innocence valentine by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (who first made her well-tempered voice heard with her 2000 Dogme entry, Italian for Beginners), based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir. Screenwriter Nick Hornby breaks further with his Peter Pan protagonists with this adaptation: no man-boy mopers or misfits here. Rather, 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a good girl and ace student. It’s 1961, and England is only starting to stir from its somber, all-too-sober post-war slumber. The carefully cloistered Jenny is on track for Oxford, though swinging London and its high-style freedoms beckon just around the corner. Ushering in those freedoms — a new, more class-free world disorder — is the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), stopping to give Jenny and her cello a ride in the rain and soon proffering concerts and late-night suppers in the city. He’s a sweet-faced, feline outsider: cultured, Jewish, and given to playing fast and loose in the margins of society. David can see Jenny for the gem she is and appreciate her innocence with the knowing pleasure of a decadent playing all the angles. The stakes are believably high, thanks to An Education‘s careful attention to time and place and its gently glamored performances. Scherfig revels in the smart, easy-on-eye curb appeal of David and his friends while giving a nod to the college-educated empowerment Jenny risks by skipping class to jet to Paris. And Mulligan lends it all credence by letting all those seduced, abandoned, conflicted, rebellious feelings flicker unbridled across her face. (1:35) SF Center, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

Formosa Betrayed The turbulent modernhistory of Taiwan is certainly deserving of increased international attention, but writer-producer Will Tao’s strategy of structuring Formosa Betrayed as a political thriller is too often at odds with imparting facts and information. Set in the early 80s, the film thrustsviewers into an unraveling government conspiracy that has FBI agent Jake Kelly (James Van Der Beek) trailing the suspected murderers of a Chicago professor to Taipei. Initially, selling Dawson’s Creek alum Van Der Beek as an FBI agent seems a strange choice, but undoubtedly his name will fill seats, and Formosa Betrayed is shooting for maximum awareness. There are some scenes of real tension, but just when you arebeginningto get wrapped up in the inherent drama of conspiracy and murder, the suspense is interrupted by a long-windedbout of soapboxing. Formosa Betrayedmight enlighten some audiences about Taiwan’s controversial history, but it too often does so at the expense of its own watchability. You start to wonder why Tao didn’t just make a documentary. (1:43) SF Center. (Galvin)

*The Ghost Writer Roman Polanski’s never-ending legal woes have inspired endless debates on the interwebs and elsewhere; they also can’t help but add subtext to the 76-year-old’s new film, which is chock full o’ anti-American vibes anyway. It’s also a pretty nifty political thriller about a disgraced former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) who’s hanging out in his Martha’s Vineyard mansion with his whip-smart, bitter wife (Olivia Williams) and Joan Holloway-as-ice-queen assistant (Kim Cattrall), plus an eager young biographer (Ewan McGregor) recently hired to ghost-write his memoirs. But as the writer quickly discovers, the politician’s past contains the kinds of secrets that cause strange cars with tinted windows to appear in one’s rearview mirror when driving along deserted country roads. Polanski’s long been an expert when it comes to escalating tension onscreen; he’s also so good at adding offbeat moments that only seem tossed-off (as when the PM’s groundskeeper attempts to rake leaves amid relentless sea breezes) and making the utmost of his top-notch actors (Tom Wilkinson and Eli Wallach have small, memorable roles). Though I found The Ghost Writer‘s ZOMG! third-act revelation to be a bit corny, I still didn’t think it detracted from the finely crafted film that led up to it. (1:49) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

The Hurt Locker When the leader of a close-knit U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad is killed in action, his subordinates have barely recovered from the shock when they’re introduced to his replacement. In contrast to his predecessor, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) is no standard-procedure-following team player, but a co*cky adrenaline junkie who puts himself and others at risk making gonzo gut-instinct decisions in the face of live bombs and insurgent gunfire. This is particularly galling to next-in-command Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). An apolitical war-in-Iraq movie that’s won considerable praise for accuracy so far from vets (scenarist Mark Boal was "embedded" with an EOD unit there for several 2004 weeks), Kathryn Bigelow’s film is arguably you-are-there purist to a fault. While we eventually get to know in the principals, The Hurt Locker is so dominated by its seven lengthy squad-mission setpieces that there’s almost no time or attention left for building character development or a narrative arc. The result is often viscerally intense, yet less impactful than it would have been if we were more emotionally invested. Assured as her technique remains, don’t expect familiar stylistic dazzle from action cult figure Bigelow (1987’s Near Dark, 1989’s Blue Steel, 1991’s Point Break) — this vidcam-era war movie very much hews to the favored current genre approach of pseudo-documentary grainy handheld shaky-cam imagery. (2:11) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*The Last Station Most of the buzz around The Last Station has focused on Helen Mirren, who takes the lead as the Countess Sofya, wife of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Mirren is indeed impressive — when is she not? — but there’s more to the film than Sofya’s Oscar-worthy outbursts. The Last Station follows Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), hired as Tolstoy’s personal secretary at the end of the writer’s life. Valentin struggles to reconcile his faith in the anarchist Christian Tolstoyan movement with his sympathy for Sofya and his budding feelings for fellow Tolstoyan Masha (Kerry Condon). For the first hour, The Last Station is charming and very funny. Once Tolstoy and Sofya’s relationship reaches its most volatile, however, the tone shifts toward the serious — a trend that continues as Tolstoy falls ill. After all the lighthearted levity, it’s a bit jarring, but the solid script and accomplished cast pull The Last Station together. Paul Giamatti is especially good as Vladimir Chertkov, who battles against Sofya for control of Tolstoy’s will. You’ll never feel guiltier for putting off War and Peace. (1:52) Albany, Empire, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

*Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 The dawn of the Me Decade saw the largest-ever music festival to that date —albeit one that was such a logistical, fiscal and hygenic disaster that it basically killed the development of similar events for years. This was the height of "music should be free" sentiments in the counterculture, with the result that many among the estimated six to eight hundred thousand attendees who overwhelmed this small U.K. island showed up without tickets, refused to pay, and protested in ways that included tearing down barrier walls and setting fires. It was a bummer, man. But after five days of starry acts often jeered by an antsy crowd — including everyone from Joni, Hendrix, Dylan, Sly Stone, the Who and the Doors to such odd bedfellows as Miles Davis, Tiny Tim, Voices of East Harlem, Supertramp, and Gilberto Gil — Canadian troubador Cohen appeared at 4 a.m. on a Monday to offer balm. Like director Murray Lerner’s 1995 Message to Love, about the festival as a whole, this footage has been shelved for decades, but it bounces right back from the dead — albeit soothingly. Cohen seems blissed out, pupils like black marbles, his between-song musings are as poetical as those fascinating lyrics, and his voice is suppler than the rasp it would soon become. Kris Kristofferson, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and bandmate Bob Johnson offer reflections 40 years later. But the main attraction is obviously Cohen, who is magnetic even if an hour of (almost) nothing but ballads reveals how stylistically monotone his songwriting could be. (1:04) Roxie. (Harvey)

*The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers For many, Daniel Ellsberg is a hero — a savior of American First Amendment rights and one of the most outspoken opponents of the Vietnam war. But as this documentary (recently nominated for an Academy Award) shows, it’s never an an easy decision to take on the U.S. government. Ellsberg himself narrates the film and details his sleepless nights leading up to the leak of the Pentagon Papers — the top secret government study on the Vietnam war — to the public. Though there are few new developments in understanding the particulars of the war or the impact the release of the Papers had on ending the conflict, the film allows audiences to experience the famous case from Ellsberg’s point of view, adding a fresh and poignantly human element to the events; it’s a political documentary that plays more like a character drama. Whether you were there when it happened or new to the story, there is something to be appreciated from this tale of a man who fell out of love with his country and decided to do something about it. (1:34) Lumiere, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Galvin)

*North Face You’ll never think of outerwear the same way again — and in fact you might be reaching for your fleece and shivering through the more harrowing climbing scenes of this riveting historical adventure based on a true tale. Even those who consider themselves less than avid fans of outdoor survival drama will find their eyes frozen, if you will, on the screen when it comes to this retelling/re-envisioning of this story, legendary among mountaineers, of climbers, urged on by Nazi propaganda, to tackle the last "Alpine problem." At issue: the unclimbed north face of Switzerland’s Eiger, a highly dangerous and unpredictable zone aptly nicknamed "Murder Wall." Two working-class friends, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann of 2008’s Jerichow) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) — here portrayed as climbing fiends driven to reach summits rather than fight for the Nazis — take the challenge. There to document their achievement, or certain death, is childhood friend and Kurz’s onetime sweetheart Luise (Johanna Wokalek, memorable in 2008’s The Baader Meinhof Complex), eager to make her name as a photojournalist while fending off the advances of an editor (Ulrich Tukur) seeking to craft a narrative that positions the contestants as model Aryans. But the climb — and the Eiger, looming like a mythical ogre — is the main attraction here. Filmmaker Philipp Stölzl brings home the sheer heart-pumping exhilaration and terror associated with the sport — and this specific, legendarily tragic climb — by shooting in the mountains with his actors and crew, and the result goes a way in redeeming an adventure long-tainted by its fascist associations. (2:01) Smith Rafael. (Chun)

*Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief It would be easy to dismiss Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief as an unabashed Harry Potter knock-off. Trio of kids with magic powers goes on a quest to save the world in a Chris Columbus adaptation of a popular young adult series — sound familiar? But The Lightning Thief is sharp, witty, and a far cry from Columbus’ joyless adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001). Logan Lerman stars as Percy Jackson, the illegitimate son of Poseidon and Catherine Keener. Once he learns his true identity at Camp Half-Blood, he sets off on a quest with his protector, a satyr named Grover, and potential love interest Annabeth, daughter of Athena. Along the way, they bump into gods and monsters from Greek mythology — with a twist. Think Percy using his iPhone to fight Medusa (Uma Thurman), or a land of the Lotus-Eaters disguised as a Lady Gaga-blasting casino. A worthy successor to Harry Potter? Too soon to say, but The Lightning Thief is at least a well-made diversion. (1:59) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

*Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire This gut-wrenching, little-engine-that-could of a film shows the struggles of Precious, an overweight, illiterate 16-year-old girl from Harlem. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is so believably vigilant that her performance alone could bring together the art-house viewers as well as take the Oscars by storm. But people need to actually go and experience this film. While Precious did win Sundance’s Grand Jury and Audience Award awards this year, there is a sad possibility that filmgoers will follow the current trend of "discussing" films that they’ve actually never seen. The daring casting choices of comedian Mo’Nique (as Precious’ all-too-realistically abusive mother) and Mariah Carey (brilliantly understated as an undaunted and dedicated social counselor) are attempts to attract a wider audience, but cynics can hurdle just about anything these days. What’s most significant about this Dancer in the Dark-esque chronicle is how Damien Paul’s screenplay and director Lee Daniels have taken their time to confront the most difficult moments in Precious’ story –- and if that sounds heavy-handed, so be it. Stop blahging for a moment and let this movie move you. (1:49) Roxie, Shattuck. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

*Prodigal Sons Some of the best documentaries in recent years have been hijacked by their subject — or even by another subject the filmmaker wasn’t planning on. Prodigal Sons was supposed to be Kimberly Reed’s story about a high-school quarterback, basketball captain, class president, and valedictorian born to a family of Montana farmers, returning for a reunion 20 years later — albeit as a fully transitioned male-to-female transgender person attending with her female lover. That would have made for an interesting movie. What makes Sons a fascinating one is that Reed finds the camera focus stolen almost right away by a crisis in progress. Its name is Marc, adopted "problem child" of the McKerrow family (Kimberly changed her surname post-op). It’s not so much that Marc grabs the spotlight out of a jealous need for attention, though that may be a factor. It’s that he’s still trapped in a sibling relationship that for her ceased to exist — at least in its original form — decades ago. Running a gamut from harrowing to miraculous, the remarkable Prodigal Sons grows stranger than fiction when abandoned-at-birth Marc discovers something jaw-dropping about his ancestry. Suffice it to say, this results in a trip to Croatia and biological link to some of Hollywood’s starriest legends. If Kimberly’s story is about repression forcing a mentally healthy transformation, Marc wrests us away from that inspirational self-portrait. He renders Sons a challenging, head-on glimpse of mental illness with no easy answers in sight. (1:26) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*A Prophet Filmmaker Jacques Audiard has described his new film, A Prophet, as "the anti-Scarface." Yet much like Scarface (1983), A Prophet bottles the heady euphoria that chases the empowerment of the powerless and the rise of the long-shot loner on the margins. In its almost-Dickensian attention to detail, devotion to its own narrative complexity, and passion for cinematic poetry, A Prophet rises above the ordinary and, through the prism of genre, finds its own power. The supremely opportunistic, pragmatically Machiavellian intellectual and spiritual education of a felon is the chief concern of here. Played by Tahar Rahim with guileless, open-faced charisma, Malik is half-Arab and half-Corsican — and distrusted or despised by both camps in the pen.When he lands in jail for his six-year sentence, he’s 19, illiterate, friendless, and vulnerable. His deal with the devil — and means of survival — arrives with Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), temporarily locked up before his testifies against the mob. Corsican boss Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) wants him dead, and Malik is tagged to penetrate Reyeb’s cell with a blade hidden in mouth. After Malik’s gory rebirth, it turns out that the teenager’s a seer in more ways than one. From his low-dog position, he can eyeball the connections linking the drugs entering the prison to those circulating outside, as well as the machinations intertwining the Arab and Corsican syndicates. It’s no shock that when Cesar finds his power eroding and arranges prison leaves for his multilingual crossover star that Malik serves not only his Corsican master, but also his own interests, and begins to build a drug empire rivaling his teacher’s. Throughout his pupil’s progress, Audiard demonstrates a way with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, and when Malik finally breaks with his Falstaffian patriarch, it makes your heart skip a beat in a move akin to the title of the director’s last film. This Eurozone/Obama-age prophet is all about the profit — but he’s imbued with grace, even while gaming for ill-gotten gain. (2:29) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

Shutter Island Director Martin Scorsese and muse du jour Leonardo DiCaprio draw from oft-filmed novelist Dennis Lehane (2003’s Mystic River, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone) for this B-movie thriller that, sadly, offers few thrills. DiCaprio’s a 1950s U.S. marshal summoned to a misty island that houses a hospital for the criminally insane, overseen by a doctor (Ben Kingsley) who believes in humane, if experimental, therapy techniques. From the get-go we suspect something’s not right with the G-man’s own mind; as he investigates the case of a missing patient, he experiences frequent flashbacks to his World War II service (during which he helped liberate a concentration camp), and has recurring visions of his spooky dead wife (Michelle Williams). Whether or not you fall for Shutter Island‘s twisty game depends on the gullibility of your own mind. Despite high-quality performances and an effective, if overwrought, tone of certain doom, Shutter Island stumbles into a third act that exposes its inherently flawed and frustrating storytelling structure. If only David Lynch had directed Shutter Island — it could’ve been a classic of mindf*ckery run amok. Instead, Scorsese’s psychological drama is sapped of any mystery whatsoever by its stubbornly literal conclusion. (2:18) California, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

A Single Man In this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, Colin Firth plays George, a middle-aged gay expat Brit and college professor in 1962 Los Angeles. Months after the accidental death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover for 16 years, George still feels worse than bereft; simply waking each morning is agony. So on this particular day he has decided to end it all, first going through a series of meticulous preparations and discreet leave-takings that include teaching one last class and having supper with the onetime paramour (Julianne Moore) turned best friend who’s still stuck on him. The main problem with fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford’s first feature is that he directs it like a fashion designer, fussing over surface style and irrelevant detail in a story whose tight focus on one hard, real-world thing — grief — cries for simplicity. Not pretentious overpackaging, which encompasses the way his camera slavers over the excessively pretty likes of Nicholas Hoult as a student and Jon Kortajarena as a hustler, as if they were models selling product rather than characters, or even actors. (In fact Kortajarena is a male supermodel; the shocker is that Hoult is not, though Hugh Grant’s erstwhile About a Boy co-star is so preening here you’d never guess.) Eventually Ford stops showing off so much, and A Single Man is effective to the precise degree it lets good work by Goode, Moore and especially the reliably excellent Firth unfold without too much of his terribly artistic interference. (1:39) Bridge, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Up in the Air After all the soldiers’ stories and the cannibalism canards of late, Up in the Air‘s focus on a corporate ax-man — an everyday everyman sniper in full-throttle downsizing mode — is more than timely; it’s downright eerie. But George Clooney does his best to inject likeable, if not quite soulful, humanity into Ryan Bingham, an all-pro mileage collector who prides himself in laying off employees en masse with as few tears, tantrums, and murder-suicide rages as possible. This terminator’s smooth ride from airport terminal to terminal is interrupted not only by a possible soul mate, fellow smoothie and corporate traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), but a young tech-savvy upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who threatens to take the process to new reductionist lows (layoff via Web cam) and downsize Ryan along the way. With Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman, who oversaw Thank You for Smoking (2005) as well as Juno (2007), is threatening to become the bard of office parks, Casual Fridays, khaki-clad happy hours, and fly-over zones. But Up in the Air is no Death of a Salesman, and despite some memorable moments that capture the pain of downsizing and the flatness of real life, instances of snappily screwball dialogue, and some more than solid performances by all (and in particular, Kendrick), he never manages to quite sell us on the existence of Ryan’s soul. (1:49) Oaks, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Valentine’s Day Genre moviemaking loves it a gimmick — and nothing gets more greeting-card gimmicky or sell-by-date corny than the technique of linking holidays and those mandatory date nights out. You’re shocked that nobody thought of this chick flick notion sooner. Valentine’s Day is no My Bloody Valentine (1981, 2009) — it aspires to an older, more yupscale lady’s choice-crowd than the screaming teens that are ordinarily sought out by horror flicks. And its A-list-studded cast — including Oscar winners Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, and Kathy Bates as well as seemingly half of That ’70s Show‘s players — is a cut above TV tween starlets’ coming-out slasher slumber parties. It partly succeeds: bringing Valentine’s haters into the game as well as lovers is a smart ploy (although who believes that the chic-cheekbones-and-fulsome-lips crew of Jessica Biel and Jennifer Garner would be dateless on V-Day?), and the first half is obviously structured around the punchlines that punctuate each scene — a winning if contrived device. Juggling multiple storylines with such a whopping cast lends an It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) quality to the Jessica- and Taylor-heavy shenanigans. And some tales get a wee bit more weight than others (the charisma-laden scenes with Bradley Cooper and Roberts cry out for added screentime), creating a strangely lopsided effect that adds unwanted tedium to an affair that should be as here-today-gone-tomorrow as a Whitman’s Sampler. (1:57) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

*The White Ribbon In Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, his first German-language film in ten years, violence descends on a small northern German village mired in an atmosphere of feudalism and protestant repression. When, over the course of a year, a spate of unaccountable tragedies strikes almost every prominent figure as well as a powerless family of tenant farmers, the village becomes a crucible for aspersion and unease. Meanwhile, a gang of preternaturally calm village children, led by the eerily intense daughter of the authoritarian pastor, keep appearing coincidentally near the sites of the mysterious crimes, lending this Teutonic morality play an unsettling Children of the Corn undertone. Only the schoolteacher, perhaps by virtue of his outsider status, seems capable of discerning the truth, but his low rank on the social pecking order prevent his suspicions from being made public. A protracted examination on the nature of evil — and the troubling moral absolutism from which it stems. (2:24) Opera Plaza. (Nicole Gluckstern)

The Wolfman Remember 2000’s Hollow Man, an update of 1933’s The Invisible Man so over-the-top that it could only have been brought to you by a post-Starship Troopers (1997) Paul Verhoeven? Fear not, Lon Chaney, Jr. fanclub members — The Wolfman sticks fairly true to its 1941 predecessor, setting its tale of a reluctant lycanthrope in Victorian England, where there are plenty of gypsies, foggy moors, silver bullets, angry villagers, and the like. Benicia Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, who’s given an American childhood backstory to explain his out-of-place stateside accent (and a Mediterranean-looking mother to make up for the fact that he’s supposed to be the son of Anthony Hopkins). Soon after returning to his estranged father’s crumbling manor, Lawrence is chomped by a you-know-what. Next full moon, Lawrence realizes what he’s become; murderous rampages and much angst ensue. (He’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk, except much hairier). Director Joe Johnston (a tech whiz who worked on the original Star Wars movies, and helmed 2001’s Jurassic Park III), doesn’t offer much innovation on the werewolf legend (or any scares, for that matter). But the effects, including transformation scenes and claw-tastic gore, are predictably top-notch. (2:05) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)

The Yellow Handkerchief The Yellow Handkerchief is one of those quiet, character-driven dramas that get mistaken for subtle classics. It’s not bad, just bland. In fact, there’s something pleasant about the way the film’s three unlikely friends forge a lasting bond, but the movie as a whole is never quite that cohesive. William Hurt stars as Brett Hanson, an ex-con with a dark past. (The Yellow Handkerchief tries to make this mysterious by way of vague flashbacks, but the audience gets there faster than the film does.) His inadvertent sidekicks are the troubled Martine (Kristen Stewart) and the awkward Gordy (Eddie Redmayne). The talented cast, rounded out by Maria Bello as the wife Brett left behind, does solid work with the material, but no one really stands out enough to elevate The Yellow Handkerchief to greatness. Redmayne is perhaps the most impressive, ditching his British accent to play a character so quirky, he’s almost Rain Man. But after taking a step back, the big picture is muddled. People are fascinating, but what does it all mean? (1:36) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

REP PICKS

*"Ben Russell: Let Each One Go Where He May" See "Wild Yonder." San Francisco Cinematheque.<\!s>

Trash Lit: Grafton’s craft in ‘U is for Undertow’

John Elberling

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U is for Undertow
Sue Grafton
Putnam. 403 pages, $27.95

I love the Sue Grafton books. I bought A is for Alibi in 1983, when it came out, and I’ve read every one of them since. Unlike, say, Patricia Cornwell, whose characters age (and get crabbier) as time passes, Kinsey Milhone is eternal, always young, always living in a town called Santa Teresa that’s a lot like Santa Barbara, always living with her old (but never dying) landlord, Henry, always eating at the foul Hungarian restaurant down the street. Milhone is a comfortable protagonist, never deeply tortured, but never exactly adjusted either, and even her OCD habits (locking her car – and telling us she locked her car – about 50 times a book) are endearing.

This one’s set in 1988, where Milhone is quite at home, and in 1963-1967, where Sue Grafton is less so. Grafton’s got a problem with hippie chicks – one of the central villains in U is for Undertow is a girl named Shelly who later changes her name to Destiny. She’s an almost embarrassing parody of how middle America saw flower children in the late 1960s – except that she appears in 1963, before there were a lot of real hippies about in the land. To make matters worse, she brags that she was part of the beat scene in San Francisco and slept with both Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg – which is fairly unlikely, even in fiction; I don’t know who Allen Ginsberg, a proudly gay poet, was f*cking in 1963, but I don’t think there were many hippie chicks on the list.

The horror of the dirty girl is almost too much to believe! Destiny is living in a bus with the son of a respectable family who dropped out of college to join her – and she has a child by another man who’s left the picture! And she’s raising her child (gasp) a vegan! And he runs around naked! And she’s preggers again, this time with his kid, and she insists on natural childbirth! She is, of course, also a total beyotch, who doesn’t respect the mother of the once-nice-young-boy loser who is under her hippie-chick spell.

There’s other stuff I didn’t love in here – one young character, who hates his stepmom, gets in trouble at his fancy private school and is forced to transfer to the horrors of a public school, where he of course meets awful bad kids who corrupt him entirely and turn him into a druggie.

In and around all this, though, is a fascinating mystery. It involves two kidnappings from the ’60s, a guy who might or might not have fabricated repressed memories, a dead dog in a dead girls’ grave, and a tangled tale across three decades that weaves the lives of the good and the bad (and it’s deliciously hard to tell which is which) into a first-rate detective story.

We also along the way learn some new clues about Milhone’s past (great trivia about Aunt Gin for serious fans of the series) and get a couple of excellent Grafton comments about the important things in life:

“At the time, I’d introduced [cancer patient] Stacey to junk food, which he’d never eaten in his life. Thereafter, I tagged along with him as he went from McDonald’s to Wendy’s to Arby’s to Jack in the Box. My crowning achievement was introducing him to the In-N-Out Burger. His appetite increased, he regained some of the weight he’d lost during the cancer treatments, and his enthusiasm for life returned. Doctors were still scratching their heads.”

Hippie-chick sex. Hippie chick seduction of a high school kid. Sweet Kinsey-shoots-murderer scene. (“It’s only in the movies the bad guys keep firing. In real life, they sit down and behave.”) I almost gagged on the ’60s stuff, but I stayed up way past my bedtime to get to the end.

Film listings

David Talbot

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Erik Morse, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, and Matt Sussman. The film intern is Peter Galvin. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

OPENING

Alice in Wonderland Tim Burton and Johnny Depp go down the 3D rabbit hole. (1:48)

Brooklyn’s Finest "Really? I mean, really?" asked the moviegoer beside me as the final freeze-frame of Brooklyn’s Finest slapped our eyeballs. Yes, that’s the sound of letdown, despite the fact that Brooklyn’s Finest initially resembled a promisingly gritty juggling act in the mode of The Wire and Cop Land (1997), Taxi Driver (1976) and Training Day (2001). Bitter irony flows from the title — and from the lives, loves, bad habits, pressure-cooker stress, and unavoidable moral dilemmas of three would-be everyday cops, all occupying several different rungs on a food chain where right and wrong have an unpleasant way of switching sides. Eddie (Richard Gere) is the veteran officer just biding his time till he gets his pension, all while comforting himself with the meager sensuous attentions of hooker Chantel (Shannon Kane). Sal (Ethan Hawke) is the bad detective, stealing from the dealers to fund a dream home for his growing family with Angela (Lili Taylor). Tango (Don Cheadle) is the undercover detective who has cultivated friendships with dealers like Caz (Wesley Snipes) and sacrificed his marriage for a long-promised promotion from his lieutenant (Will Patton) and his superior (Ellen Barkin, in likely the most misogynist portrayal of a lady with a badge to date). You spend most of Brooklyn’s Finest waiting for these cops to collide in the most unfortunate, messiest way possible, but instead the denouement leaves will leave one wondering about unresolved threads and feeling vaguely unsatisfied. In any case, director Antoine Fuqua and company seem to pride themselves on their tough-minded if at times cartoonish take on law enforcement, with Hawke in particular turning in a memorably OTT and anguished performance. (2:13) Shattuck. (Chun)

*Prodigal Sons See "My Son, My Son." (1:26) Lumiere, Shattuck.

*A Prophet See "Education of a Felon." (2:29) Embarcadero, Shattuck.

The Yellow Handkerchief The Yellow Handkerchief is one of those quiet, character-driven dramas that get mistaken for subtle classics. It’s not bad, just bland. In fact, there’s something pleasant about the way the film’s three unlikely friends forge a lasting bond, but the movie as a whole is never quite that cohesive. William Hurt stars as Brett Hanson, an ex-con with a dark past. (The Yellow Handkerchief tries to make this mysterious by way of vague flashbacks, but the audience gets there faster than the film does.) His inadvertent sidekicks are the troubled Martine (Kristen Stewart) and the awkward Gordy (Eddie Redmayne). The talented cast, rounded out by Maria Bello as the wife Brett left behind, does solid work with the material, but no one really stands out enough to elevate The Yellow Handkerchief to greatness. Redmayne is perhaps the most impressive, ditching his British accent to play a character so quirky, he’s almost Rain Man. But after taking a step back, the big picture is muddled. People are fascinating, but what does it all mean? (1:36) Albany. (Peitzman)

ONGOING

*"Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Animated" Just because it’s animation doesn’t mean it’s just for kids. Like the live-action Oscar-nominated shorts, this year’s animated selections have got range, from the traditionally child-friendly to downright vulgar. Skewing heavily towards CG fare, the shorts vary from a Looney Tunes-style chase for an elderly woman’s soul (The Lady and the Reaper) to the Wallace and Gromit BBC special, A Matter of Loaf and Death. Most entertaining by far is Logorama, an action-packed tale set in a world populated by familiar trademarked logos. Any film that casts the Michelin man as a garbage-mouthed cop on the case of a renegade Ronald McDonald deserves to win all the awards in the universe. (1:35) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Galvin)

*"Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Live Action" Aren’t you tired of wondering what all the fuss is about when the Academy awards their Oscar for Best Short? In an effort to give audiences a chance to play along, Shorts International is screening these less-seen works together. Though one or two of the five nominated films threaten to adhere to the Academy’s penchant for either heartbreaking or heartwarming, the majority are surprisingly oddball picks. Perhaps most odd of all is Denmark/U.S. submission The New Tenants. Feeling a tad forced but no less funny for it, Tenants draws on celebrities like Vincent D’Onofrio and comedian Kevin Corrigan to bring life to this surreal adaptation by Anders Thomas Jensen (2006’s After the Wedding). My pick would be Sweden’s gloriously goofy Instead of Abracadabra, which stars a stay-at-home slacker as he puts on a magic show for his father’s birthday. Obviously, some selections are going to be better than others, but hey, they’re shorts. If you don’t like one, just wait 10 minutes and you’ll find yourself somewhere completely different. (1:35) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Galvin)

Avatar James Cameron’s Avatar takes place on planet Pandora, where human capitalists are prospecting for precious unobtainium, hampered only by the toxic atmosphere and a profusion of unfriendly wildlife, including the Na’vi, a nine-foot tall race of poorly disguised cliches. When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, arrives on the planet, he is recruited into the "Avatar" program, which enables him to cybernetically link with a part-human, part-Na’vi body and go traipsing through Pandora’s psychedelic underbrush. Initially designed for botanical research, these avatars become the only means of diplomatic contact with the bright-blue natives, who live smack on top of all the bling. The special effects are revolutionary, but the story that ensues blends hollow "noble savage" dreck with events borrowed from Dances With Wolves (1990) and FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). When Sully falls in love with a Na’vi princess and undergoes a spirit journey so he can be inducted into the tribe and fight the evil miners, all I could think of was Kevin Bacon getting his belly sliced in The Air Up There (1994). (2:42) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Richardson)

The Blind Side When the New York Times Magazine published Michael Lewis’ article "The Ballad of Big Mike" — which he expanded into the 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game — nobody could have predicated the cultural windfall it would spawn. Lewis told the incredible story of Michael Oher — a 6’4, 350-pound 16-year-old, who grew up functionally parentless, splitting time between friends’ couches and the streets of one of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods. As a sophom*ore with a 0.4 GPA, Oher serendipitously hitched a ride with a friend’s father to a ritzy private school across town and embarked on an unbelievable journey that led him into a upper-class, white family; the Dean’s List at Ole Miss; and, finally, the NFL. The film itself effectively focuses on Oher’s indomitable spirit and big heart, and the fearless devotion of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the matriarch of the family who adopted him (masterfully played by Sandra Bullock). While the movie will delight and touch moviegoers, its greatest success is that it will likely spur its viewers on to read Lewis’ brilliant book. (2:06) Oaks. (Daniel Alvarez)

Broken Embraces Pedro Almodóvar has always dabbled in the Hitchco*ckian tropes of uxoricide, betrayal, and double-identity, but with Broken Embraces he has attained a polyglot, if slightly mimicking, fluency with the language of Hollywood noir. A story within a story and a movie within a movie, Embraces begins in the present day with middle-aged Catalan Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter who takes time between his successful writing career to seduce and bed young women sympathetic to his disability. "Everything’s already happened to me," he explains to his manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo). "All that’s left is to enjoy life." But this life of empty pleasures is brought to a sudden halt when local business magnate Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) has died; soon after, Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), who has renamed himself Ray X, visits Caine with an unusual request. The action retreats 14 years when Caine was a young (and visually abled) director named Mateo Blanco; he encounters a breathtaking femme fatale, Lena (Penelope Cruz) — an actress-turned-prostitute named Severine, turned secretary-turned-trophy wife of Ernesto Martel — when she appears to audition for his latest movie. If all of the narrative intricacies and multiplicitous identities in Broken Embraces appear a bit intimidating at first glance, it is because this is the cinema of Almodóvar taken to a kind of generic extreme. As with all of the director’s post-’00 films, which are often referred to as Almodóvar’s "mature" pictures, there is a microscopic attention to narrative development combined with a frenzied sub-plotting of nearly soap-operatic proportions. But, in Embraces, formalism attains such prominence that one might speculate the director is simply going through the motions. The effect is a purposely loquacious and overly-dramatized performance that pleasures itself as much by setting up the plot as unraveling it. (2:08) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Morse)

Cop Out I think there was a plot to Cop Out — something involving a stolen baseball card and a drug ring and Jimmy (Bruce Willis) trying to pay for his daughter’s wedding. Frankly, it’s irrelevant. Kevin Smith’s take on the buddy cop genre, which partners Willis with Tracy Morgan, is more a string of dick jokes and toilet humor than anything else. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sometimes it’s nice to sit back and turn off your brain, as Morgan’s Paul describes his bowel movements or when hapless thief Dave (Seann William Scott) begins imitating everything our heroes say. At the same time, Cop Out is easily forgettable: Smith directed the film, but writing duties went to the Cullen Brothers of TV’s Las Vegas. All judgments about that series aside, the script lacks Smith’s trademark blend of heart and vulgarity. Even Mallrats (1995) had a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying end. Without Smith as auteur, Cop Out is worth a few laughs but destined for the bargain bin. (1:50) Oaks, 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

The Crazies Disease and anti-government paranoia dovetail in this competent yet overwhelmingly non-essential remake of one of George A. Romero’s second-tier spook shows. In a small Iowa hamlet overseen by a benevolent sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) and his pregnant wife (Radha Mitchell), who’s also the town doctor, a few odd incidents snowball into all-out chaos when a mysterious, unmarked plane crashes into the local water supply. Before long, the few residents who aren’t acting like homicidal maniacs are rounded up by an uber-aggressive military invasion. Though our heroes convey frantic panic as they try to figure out what the hell is going on, The Crazies never achieves full terror mode. It’s certainly watchable, and even enjoyable at times. But memorable? Not in the slightest. (1:41) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Crazy Heart "Oh, I love Jeff Bridges!" is the usual response when his name comes up every few years for Best Actor consideration, usually via some underdog movie no one saw, and the realization occurs that he’s never won an Oscar. The oversight is painful because it could be argued that no leading American actor has been more versatile, consistently good, and true to that elusive concept "artistic integrity" than Bridges over the last 40 years. It’s rumored Crazy Heart was slotted for cable or DVD premiere, then thrust into late-year theater release in hopes of attracting Best Actor momentum within a crowded field. Lucky for us, this performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Bridges plays "Bad" Blake, a veteran country star reduced to playing bars with local pickup bands. His slide from grace hasn’t been helped by lingering tastes for smoke and drink, let alone five defunct marriages. He meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), freelance journalist, fan, and single mother. They spark; though burnt by prior relationships, she’s reluctant to take seriously a famous drunk twice her age. Can Bad handle even this much responsibility? Meanwhile, he gets his "comeback" break in the semi-humiliating form of opening for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) — a contemporary country superstar who was once Bad’s backup boy. Tommy offers a belated shot at commercial redemption; Jean offers redemption of the strictly personal kind. There’s nothing too surprising about the ways in which Crazy Heart both follows and finesses formula. You’ve seen this preordained road from wreckage to redemption before. But actor turned first-time director Scott Cooper’s screenplay honors the flies in the windshield inherited from Thomas Cobb’s novel — as does Bridges, needless to say. (1:51) California, Embarcadero, Empire, Piedmont, Presidio, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Dear John As long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, Dear John is a solid effort. Not extraordinary by any means, it’s your standard Nicholas Sparks book-turned-film: boy meets girl — drama, angst, and untimely death ensue. Here, Channing Tatum stars at the titular John, a soldier on leave who falls in love with the seemingly perfect Savannah (Amanda Seyfried). Both actors are likable enough that their romance is charming, if not always believable. And Dear John‘s plot turns, while not quite surprising, are at least dynamic enough to keep the audience engaged. But at the end of the day, this is still a Nicholas Sparks movie — even with the accomplished Lasse Hallström taking over directorial responsibilities. There are still plenty of eye-roll moments and, more often than not, Dear John employs the most predictable tearjerking techniques. By the time you realize why the film is set in 2001, it’s September 11. Sad? Surely. Cheap? You betcha. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Peitzman)

Edge of Darkness (1:57) SF Center.

*An Education The pursuit of knowledge — both carnal and cultural — are at the tender core of this end-of-innocence valentine by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (who first made her well-tempered voice heard with her 2000 Dogme entry, Italian for Beginners), based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir. Screenwriter Nick Hornby breaks further with his Peter Pan protagonists with this adaptation: no man-boy mopers or misfits here. Rather, 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a good girl and ace student. It’s 1961, and England is only starting to stir from its somber, all-too-sober post-war slumber. The carefully cloistered Jenny is on track for Oxford, though swinging London and its high-style freedoms beckon just around the corner. Ushering in those freedoms — a new, more class-free world disorder — is the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), stopping to give Jenny and her cello a ride in the rain and soon proffering concerts and late-night suppers in the city. He’s a sweet-faced, feline outsider: cultured, Jewish, and given to playing fast and loose in the margins of society. David can see Jenny for the gem she is and appreciate her innocence with the knowing pleasure of a decadent playing all the angles. The stakes are believably high, thanks to An Education‘s careful attention to time and place and its gently glamored performances. Scherfig revels in the smart, easy-on-eye curb appeal of David and his friends while giving a nod to the college-educated empowerment Jenny risks by skipping class to jet to Paris. And Mulligan lends it all credence by letting all those seduced, abandoned, conflicted, rebellious feelings flicker unbridled across her face. (1:35) Opera Plaza, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

*Fish Tank There’s been a string of movies lately pondering what Britney once called the not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman syndrome, including 2009’s An Education and Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire. Enter Fish Tank, the gritty new drama from British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Her films (including 2006’s Red Road) are heartbreaking, but in an unforced way that never feels manipulative; her characters, often portrayed by nonactors, feel completely organic. Fish Tank‘s 15-year-old heroine, Mia (played by first-time actor Katie Jarvis), lives with her party-gal single mom and tweenage sister in a public-housing high-rise; all three enjoy drinking, swearing, and shouting. But Mia has a secret passion: hip-hop dancing, which she practices with track-suited determination. When mom’s foxy new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, from 2008’s Hunger) encourages her talent, it’s initially unclear what Connor’s intentions are. Is he trying to be a cool father figure, or something far more inappropriate? Without giving away too much, it’s hard to fear too much for a girl who headbutts a teenage rival within the film’s first few minutes — though it soon becomes apparent Mia’s hard façade masks a vulnerable core. Her desire to make human connections causes her to drop her guard when she needs it the most. In a movie about coming of age, a young girl’s bumpy emotional journey is expected turf. But Fish Tank earns its poignant moments honestly — most coming courtesy of Jarvis, who has soulfullness to spare. Whether she’s acting out in tough-girl mode or revealing a glimpse of her fragile inner life, Arnold’s camera relays it all, with unglossy matter-of-factness. (2:02) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Formosa Betrayed The turbulent modernhistory of Taiwan is certainly deserving of increased international attention, but writer-producer Will Tao’s strategy of structuring Formosa Betrayed as a political thriller is too often at odds with imparting facts and information. Set in the early 80s, the film thrustsviewers into an unraveling government conspiracy that has FBI agent Jake Kelly (James Van Der Beek) trailing the suspected murderers of a Chicago professor to Taipei. Initially, selling Dawson’s Creek alum Van Der Beek as an FBI agent seems a strange choice, but undoubtedly his name will fill seats, and Formosa Betrayed is shooting for maximum awareness. There are some scenes of real tension, but just when you arebeginningto get wrapped up in the inherent drama of conspiracy and murder, the suspense is interrupted by a long-windedbout of soapboxing. Formosa Betrayedmight enlighten some audiences about Taiwan’s controversial history, but it too often does so at the expense of its own watchability. You start to wonder why Tao didn’t just make a documentary. (1:43) SF Center, Shattuck. (Galvin)

From Paris with Love Every so often, I walk out of a film feeling like I’ve been repeatedly buffeted by blows to the face. Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) had this effect, and it is now joined by From Paris With Love, a movie so aggressively stupid that the mistaken assumption that it was adapted from a video game could be construed as an insult to video games. John Travolta shows up chrome-domed as Charlie Wax, a loose-cannon CIA operative with a lot of transparently screenwritten machismo and an endless appetite for violence. He is joined by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, sporting a risible American accent, and the two embark on a frantic journey across the French capital that is almost as racist as it is misogynistic. I could fill an entire issue of this newspaper eviscerating this movie —suffice to say, don’t see it. (1:35) SF Center. (Richardson)

*The Ghost Writer Roman Polanski’s never-ending legal woes have inspired endless debates on the interwebs and elsewhere; they also can’t help but add subtext to the 76-year-old’s new film, which is chock full o’ anti-American vibes anyway. It’s also a pretty nifty political thriller about a disgraced former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) who’s hanging out in his Martha’s Vineyard mansion with his whip-smart, bitter wife (Olivia Williams) and Joan Holloway-as-ice-queen assistant (Kim Cattrall), plus an eager young biographer (Ewan McGregor) recently hired to ghost-write his memoirs. But as the writer quickly discovers, the politician’s past contains the kinds of secrets that cause strange cars with tinted windows to appear in one’s rearview mirror when driving along deserted country roads. Polanski’s long been an expert when it comes to escalating tension onscreen; he’s also so good at adding offbeat moments that only seem tossed-off (as when the PM’s groundskeeper attempts to rake leaves amid relentless sea breezes) and making the utmost of his top-notch actors (Tom Wilkinson and Eli Wallach have small, memorable roles). Though I found The Ghost Writer‘s ZOMG! third-act revelation to be a bit corny, I still didn’t think it detracted from the finely crafted film that led up to it. (1:49) California, Embarcadero, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

The Hurt Locker When the leader of a close-knit U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad is killed in action, his subordinates have barely recovered from the shock when they’re introduced to his replacement. In contrast to his predecessor, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) is no standard-procedure-following team player, but a co*cky adrenaline junkie who puts himself and others at risk making gonzo gut-instinct decisions in the face of live bombs and insurgent gunfire. This is particularly galling to next-in-command Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). An apolitical war-in-Iraq movie that’s won considerable praise for accuracy so far from vets (scenarist Mark Boal was "embedded" with an EOD unit there for several 2004 weeks), Kathryn Bigelow’s film is arguably you-are-there purist to a fault. While we eventually get to know in the principals, The Hurt Locker is so dominated by its seven lengthy squad-mission setpieces that there’s almost no time or attention left for building character development or a narrative arc. The result is often viscerally intense, yet less impactful than it would have been if we were more emotionally invested. Assured as her technique remains, don’t expect familiar stylistic dazzle from action cult figure Bigelow (1987’s Near Dark, 1989’s Blue Steel, 1991’s Point Break) — this vidcam-era war movie very much hews to the favored current genre approach of pseudo-documentary grainy handheld shaky-cam imagery. (2:11) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Invictus Elected President of South Africa in 1995 — just five years after his release from nearly three decades’ imprisonment — Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) perceives a chance to forward his message of reconciliation and forgiveness by throwing support behind the low-ranked national rugby team. Trouble is, the Springboks are currently low-ranked, with the World Cup a very faint hope just one year away. Not to mention the fact that despite having one black member, they represent the all-too-recent Apartheid past for the country’s non-white majority. Based on John Carlin’s nonfiction tome, this latest Oscar bait by the indefatigable Clint Eastwood sports his usual plusses and minuses: An impressive scale, solid performances (Matt Damon co-stars as the team’s Afrikaaner captain), deft handling of subplots, and solid craftsmanship on the one hand. A certain dull literal-minded earnestness, lack of style and excitement on the other. Anthony Peckham’s screenplay hits the requisite inspirational notes (sometimes pretty bluntly), but even in the attenuated finals match, Eastwood’s direction is steady as she goes — no peaks, no valleys, no faults but not much inspiration, either. It doesn’t help that Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens contribute a score that’s as rousing as a warm milk bath. This is an entertaining history lesson, but it should have been an exhilarating one. (2:14) Oaks. (Harvey)

*The Last Station Most of the buzz around The Last Station has focused on Helen Mirren, who takes the lead as the Countess Sofya, wife of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Mirren is indeed impressive — when is she not? — but there’s more to the film than Sofya’s Oscar-worthy outbursts. The Last Station follows Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), hired as Tolstoy’s personal secretary at the end of the writer’s life. Valentin struggles to reconcile his faith in the anarchist Christian Tolstoyan movement with his sympathy for Sofya and his budding feelings for fellow Tolstoyan Masha (Kerry Condon). For the first hour, The Last Station is charming and very funny. Once Tolstoy and Sofya’s relationship reaches its most volatile, however, the tone shifts toward the serious — a trend that continues as Tolstoy falls ill. After all the lighthearted levity, it’s a bit jarring, but the solid script and accomplished cast pull The Last Station together. Paul Giamatti is especially good as Vladimir Chertkov, who battles against Sofya for control of Tolstoy’s will. You’ll never feel guiltier for putting off War and Peace. (1:52) Albany, Embarcadero, Empire, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

*Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 The dawn of the Me Decade saw the largest-ever music festival to that date —albeit one that was such a logistical, fiscal and hygenic disaster that it basically killed the development of similar events for years. This was the height of "music should be free" sentiments in the counterculture, with the result that many among the estimated six to eight hundred thousand attendees who overwhelmed this small U.K. island showed up without tickets, refused to pay, and protested in ways that included tearing down barrier walls and setting fires. It was a bummer, man. But after five days of starry acts often jeered by an antsy crowd — including everyone from Joni, Hendrix, Dylan, Sly Stone, the Who and the Doors to such odd bedfellows as Miles Davis, Tiny Tim, Voices of East Harlem, Supertramp, and Gilberto Gil — Canadian troubador Cohen appeared at 4 a.m. on a Monday to offer balm. Like director Murray Lerner’s 1995 Message to Love, about the festival as a whole, this footage has been shelved for decades, but it bounces right back from the dead — albeit soothingly. Cohen seems blissed out, pupils like black marbles, his between-song musings are as poetical as those fascinating lyrics, and his voice is suppler than the rasp it would soon become. Kris Kristofferson, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and bandmate Bob Johnson offer reflections 40 years later. But the main attraction is obviously Cohen, who is magnetic even if an hour of (almost) nothing but ballads reveals how stylistically monotone his songwriting could be. (1:04) Roxie. (Harvey)

*The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers For many, Daniel Ellsberg is a hero — a savior of American First Amendment rights and one of the most outspoken opponents of the Vietnam war. But as this documentary (recently nominated for an Academy Award) shows, it’s never an an easy decision to take on the U.S. government. Ellsberg himself narrates the film and details his sleepless nights leading up to the leak of the Pentagon Papers — the top secret government study on the Vietnam war — to the public. Though there are few new developments in understanding the particulars of the war or the impact the release of the Papers had on ending the conflict, the film allows audiences to experience the famous case from Ellsberg’s point of view, adding a fresh and poignantly human element to the events; it’s a political documentary that plays more like a character drama. Whether you were there when it happened or new to the story, there is something to be appreciated from this tale of a man who fell out of love with his country and decided to do something about it. (1:34) Bridge, Shattuck. (Galvin)

*North Face You’ll never think of outerwear the same way again — and in fact you might be reaching for your fleece and shivering through the more harrowing climbing scenes of this riveting historical adventure based on a true tale. Even those who consider themselves less than avid fans of outdoor survival drama will find their eyes frozen, if you will, on the screen when it comes to this retelling/re-envisioning of this story, legendary among mountaineers, of climbers, urged on by Nazi propaganda, to tackle the last "Alpine problem." At issue: the unclimbed north face of Switzerland’s Eiger, a highly dangerous and unpredictable zone aptly nicknamed "Murder Wall." Two working-class friends, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann of 2008’s Jerichow) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) — here portrayed as climbing fiends driven to reach summits rather than fight for the Nazis — take the challenge. There to document their achievement, or certain death, is childhood friend and Kurz’s onetime sweetheart Luise (Johanna Wokalek, memorable in 2008’s The Baader Meinhof Complex), eager to make her name as a photojournalist while fending off the advances of an editor (Ulrich Tukur) seeking to craft a narrative that positions the contestants as model Aryans. But the climb — and the Eiger, looming like a mythical ogre — is the main attraction here. Filmmaker Philipp Stölzl brings home the sheer heart-pumping exhilaration and terror associated with the sport — and this specific, legendarily tragic climb — by shooting in the mountains with his actors and crew, and the result goes a way in redeeming an adventure long-tainted by its fascist associations. (2:01) Lumiere, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

*Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief It would be easy to dismiss Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief as an unabashed Harry Potter knock-off. Trio of kids with magic powers goes on a quest to save the world in a Chris Columbus adaptation of a popular young adult series — sound familiar? But The Lightning Thief is sharp, witty, and a far cry from Columbus’ joyless adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001). Logan Lerman stars as Percy Jackson, the illegitimate son of Poseidon and Catherine Keener. Once he learns his true identity at Camp Half-Blood, he sets off on a quest with his protector, a satyr named Grover, and potential love interest Annabeth, daughter of Athena. Along the way, they bump into gods and monsters from Greek mythology — with a twist. Think Percy using his iPhone to fight Medusa (Uma Thurman), or a land of the Lotus-Eaters disguised as a Lady Gaga-blasting casino. A worthy successor to Harry Potter? Too soon to say, but The Lightning Thief is at least a well-made diversion. (1:59) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

*Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire This gut-wrenching, little-engine-that-could of a film shows the struggles of Precious, an overweight, illiterate 16-year-old girl from Harlem. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is so believably vigilant that her performance alone could bring together the art-house viewers as well as take the Oscars by storm. But people need to actually go and experience this film. While Precious did win Sundance’s Grand Jury and Audience Award awards this year, there is a sad possibility that filmgoers will follow the current trend of "discussing" films that they’ve actually never seen. The daring casting choices of comedian Mo’Nique (as Precious’ all-too-realistically abusive mother) and Mariah Carey (brilliantly understated as an undaunted and dedicated social counselor) are attempts to attract a wider audience, but cynics can hurdle just about anything these days. What’s most significant about this Dancer in the Dark-esque chronicle is how Damien Paul’s screenplay and director Lee Daniels have taken their time to confront the most difficult moments in Precious’ story –- and if that sounds heavy-handed, so be it. Stop blahging for a moment and let this movie move you. (1:49) Presidio, Roxie, Shattuck. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

*"Red Riding Trilogy" There’s a "wolf" of sorts and several unfortunate little girls, but no fairy tale whimsy whatsoever in this trilogy of features originally made for U.K. broadcast. Based on David Pearce’s literary mystery quartet (the second volume goes unadapted here), it’s a complicated dive into conspiracy, cover-up, and murder in England’s North Country. Directed by Julian Jarrold (2008’s Brideshead Revisited), first installment Red Riding: 1974 centers on ambitious young journalist Eddie (Andrew Garfield), who at first sees a string of abducted, then grotesquely mutilated children as a career-making opportunity. The deeper in he gets, though, the more troubling are the case’s murky connections to police and private-sector corruption. 1980, directed by James Marsh (2008’s Man on Wire), finds a new protagonist in Hunter (Paddy Considine). Now local fears are focused on the "Yorkshire Ripper" a savage (real-life) killer of at least 13 women between 1975 and 1981 whose so-far hapless police investigation Hunter has been assigned to audit. Finally, 1983 (directed by Anand Tucker of 2005’s Shopgirl) divides its attention between Yorkshire chief detective Jobson (David Morrissey) and low-rent lawyer Piggot (Mark Addy). After the first copycat child slaying in years occurs, both become convinced a mentally challenged man (Daniel Mays) was framed for the original murders. The nearly six hours this serpentine tale takes can’t help but impress as a weighty experience (at least on your posterior), and it’s duly won some sky-high critical acclaim ("better than the Godfather trilogy", etc.) Certainly Red Riding is rich in period detail, fine characterizations, and bleak atmospherics. But the cumulative satisfaction expected of a true epic is broken up by the sole ongoing characters being supporting ones — heroes who eventually "know too much" don’t survive long. In each segment (Marsh’s Super-16-shot one being most stylistically distinctive), women deployed as romantic interests seem largely superfluous. The whole fussy, cipherous narrative points toward a heart of jet-black darkness its climactic revelations are at once too banal and implausible to deliver. So, worthwhile? Yes, if you’ve got the time to spare. A hype-justifying masterpiece? No. (1974, 1:45; 1980, 1:36; 1983, 1:44) Lumiere. (Harvey)

Shutter Island Director Martin Scorsese and muse du jour Leonardo DiCaprio draw from oft-filmed novelist Dennis Lehane (2003’s Mystic River, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone) for this B-movie thriller that, sadly, offers few thrills. DiCaprio’s a 1950s U.S. marshal summoned to a misty island that houses a hospital for the criminally insane, overseen by a doctor (Ben Kingsley) who believes in humane, if experimental, therapy techniques. From the get-go we suspect something’s not right with the G-man’s own mind; as he investigates the case of a missing patient, he experiences frequent flashbacks to his World War II service (during which he helped liberate a concentration camp), and has recurring visions of his spooky dead wife (Michelle Williams). Whether or not you fall for Shutter Island‘s twisty game depends on the gullibility of your own mind. Despite high-quality performances and an effective, if overwrought, tone of certain doom, Shutter Island stumbles into a third act that exposes its inherently flawed and frustrating storytelling structure. If only David Lynch had directed Shutter Island — it could’ve been a classic of mindf*ckery run amok. Instead, Scorsese’s psychological drama is sapped of any mystery whatsoever by its stubbornly literal conclusion. (2:18) California, Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio. (Eddy)

A Single Man In this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, Colin Firth plays George, a middle-aged gay expat Brit and college professor in 1962 Los Angeles. Months after the accidental death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover for 16 years, George still feels worse than bereft; simply waking each morning is agony. So on this particular day he has decided to end it all, first going through a series of meticulous preparations and discreet leave-takings that include teaching one last class and having supper with the onetime paramour (Julianne Moore) turned best friend who’s still stuck on him. The main problem with fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford’s first feature is that he directs it like a fashion designer, fussing over surface style and irrelevant detail in a story whose tight focus on one hard, real-world thing — grief — cries for simplicity. Not pretentious overpackaging, which encompasses the way his camera slavers over the excessively pretty likes of Nicholas Hoult as a student and Jon Kortajarena as a hustler, as if they were models selling product rather than characters, or even actors. (In fact Kortajarena is a male supermodel; the shocker is that Hoult is not, though Hugh Grant’s erstwhile About a Boy co-star is so preening here you’d never guess.) Eventually Ford stops showing off so much, and A Single Man is effective to the precise degree it lets good work by Goode, Moore and especially the reliably excellent Firth unfold without too much of his terribly artistic interference. (1:39) Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*Terribly Happy The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) is the obvious corollary for this coolly humorous Danish import, though director/co-writer Henrik Ruben Genz’s firmly dampened-down thriller of sorts is also touched by David Lynch’s parochial surrealism and Aki Kaurismäki’s backwater puckishness. Happy isn’t quite the word for handsome, seemingly upstanding cop Jakob (Robert Hansen), reassigned from the big city of Copenhagen to a tiny village in South Jutland. There he slowly learns that the insular and self-sufficient locals are accustomed to fixing problems on their own and that cows, trucks, and other troubles have a way of conveniently disappearing into the bog. When buxom blonde Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen) whispers to him that her husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia) beats her, Jakob begins to find his moral ground slipping away from him — while his own dark secrets turn out to be not so secret after all. More of a winkingly paranoid, black-hearted comedy about the quicksand nature of provincial community and small-town complicity than a genuine murder mystery, Terribly Happy wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but that doesn’t stop this attractively-shot production from amusing from start to finish, never tarrying too long to make a point that it gets mired in the bog that swallows all else. (1:42) Opera Plaza. (Chun)

Up in the Air After all the soldiers’ stories and the cannibalism canards of late, Up in the Air‘s focus on a corporate ax-man — an everyday everyman sniper in full-throttle downsizing mode — is more than timely; it’s downright eerie. But George Clooney does his best to inject likeable, if not quite soulful, humanity into Ryan Bingham, an all-pro mileage collector who prides himself in laying off employees en masse with as few tears, tantrums, and murder-suicide rages as possible. This terminator’s smooth ride from airport terminal to terminal is interrupted not only by a possible soul mate, fellow smoothie and corporate traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), but a young tech-savvy upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who threatens to take the process to new reductionist lows (layoff via Web cam) and downsize Ryan along the way. With Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman, who oversaw Thank You for Smoking (2005) as well as Juno (2007), is threatening to become the bard of office parks, Casual Fridays, khaki-clad happy hours, and fly-over zones. But Up in the Air is no Death of a Salesman, and despite some memorable moments that capture the pain of downsizing and the flatness of real life, instances of snappily screwball dialogue, and some more than solid performances by all (and in particular, Kendrick), he never manages to quite sell us on the existence of Ryan’s soul. (1:49) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Valentine’s Day Genre moviemaking loves it a gimmick — and nothing gets more greeting-card gimmicky or sell-by-date corny than the technique of linking holidays and those mandatory date nights out. You’re shocked that nobody thought of this chick flick notion sooner. Valentine’s Day is no My Bloody Valentine (1981, 2009) — it aspires to an older, more yupscale lady’s choice-crowd than the screaming teens that are ordinarily sought out by horror flicks. And its A-list-studded cast — including Oscar winners Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, and Kathy Bates as well as seemingly half of That ’70s Show‘s players — is a cut above TV tween starlets’ coming-out slasher slumber parties. It partly succeeds: bringing Valentine’s haters into the game as well as lovers is a smart ploy (although who believes that the chic-cheekbones-and-fulsome-lips crew of Jessica Biel and Jennifer Garner would be dateless on V-Day?), and the first half is obviously structured around the punchlines that punctuate each scene — a winning if contrived device. Juggling multiple storylines with such a whopping cast lends an It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) quality to the Jessica- and Taylor-heavy shenanigans. And some tales get a wee bit more weight than others (the charisma-laden scenes with Bradley Cooper and Roberts cry out for added screentime), creating a strangely lopsided effect that adds unwanted tedium to an affair that should be as here-today-gone-tomorrow as a Whitman’s Sampler. (1:57) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

*The White Ribbon In Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, his first German-language film in ten years, violence descends on a small northern German village mired in an atmosphere of feudalism and protestant repression. When, over the course of a year, a spate of unaccountable tragedies strikes almost every prominent figure as well as a powerless family of tenant farmers, the village becomes a crucible for aspersion and unease. Meanwhile, a gang of preternaturally calm village children, led by the eerily intense daughter of the authoritarian pastor, keep appearing coincidentally near the sites of the mysterious crimes, lending this Teutonic morality play an unsettling Children of the Corn undertone. Only the schoolteacher, perhaps by virtue of his outsider status, seems capable of discerning the truth, but his low rank on the social pecking order prevent his suspicions from being made public. A protracted examination on the nature of evil — and the troubling moral absolutism from which it stems. (2:24) Clay, Shattuck. (Nicole Gluckstern)

The Wolfman Remember 2000’s Hollow Man, an update of 1933’s The Invisible Man so over-the-top that it could only have been brought to you by a post-Starship Troopers (1997) Paul Verhoeven? Fear not, Lon Chaney, Jr. fanclub members — The Wolfman sticks fairly true to its 1941 predecessor, setting its tale of a reluctant lycanthrope in Victorian England, where there are plenty of gypsies, foggy moors, silver bullets, angry villagers, and the like. Benicia Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, who’s given an American childhood backstory to explain his out-of-place stateside accent (and a Mediterranean-looking mother to make up for the fact that he’s supposed to be the son of Anthony Hopkins). Soon after returning to his estranged father’s crumbling manor, Lawrence is chomped by a you-know-what. Next full moon, Lawrence realizes what he’s become; murderous rampages and much angst ensue. (He’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk, except much hairier). Director Joe Johnston (a tech whiz who worked on the original Star Wars movies, and helmed 2001’s Jurassic Park III), doesn’t offer much innovation on the werewolf legend (or any scares, for that matter). But the effects, including transformation scenes and claw-tastic gore, are predictably top-notch. (2:05) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

REP PICKS

*The Hellcats The problem with most old biker movies is that there’s waaaaay too much aimless hog riding occasionally interrupted by repetitious fist and/or chain-fighting. This obscure 1967 entry, however, gets its priorities right: the characters are pretty seldom on the road, for that would leach precious time away from the hilarious quasi-hipster dialogue, fascinating personalities (with names like "Six Pack," "Heinie" and "Zombie"), and complex intrigue. Ross Hagen and Dee Duffy play the military-officer brother and fianceé, respectively, of a freshly assassinated police detective. To investigate they go undercover as the new biker couple in town, infiltrating the Hellcats’ clubhouse where booze, acid ("You ran into a bad cube, man!"), drug-running, and chick-swapping are the usual entertainment. These are hippie bikers, though they talk like Hollywood "beatniks" circa 1959 — which is to say, like no one who ever actually lived. They call each other Mamma, Daddy, and Baby a lot, and it’s presumably this familial spirit that leads both motorcycle gang and undercover pigs to finally join forces in defeating the real bad guys, some big-league mobster types. You know this movie is going to rock from the start, as blobular psychedelic paintings background opening credits to the sound of the lamest Farfisa organ-driven theme song ever. This was the first narrative feature by director Robert F. Slatzer, who for years claimed he was married to Marilyn Monroe for three days in 1952 (and subsequently milked two books out of that tall tale). His second (and last) was the even more ludicrous 1970 Bigfoot, in which bikers rescue pretty girls kidnapped and kept chained in a cave by horny sasquatches. A past Mystery Science Theater fave that requires no snarky commentary to entertain, Hellcats is presented as a double-feature with a better-known wanton-youth nugget, 1964’s Kitten With a Whip, starring a very naughty Ann-Margret. Thurs/4, 9 p.m., $5, Vortex Room, 1082 Howard, SF; www.myspace.com/thevortexroom. (Harvey)

Dames on the brain

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DVD REVIEW Columbia’s new two-volume, eight-film set "Bad Girls of Film Noir" is a delightful addition to any shelf of B-movies, and a damn good excuse to insist on using a friend’s DVD projector.

Two of the films in this package, Women’s Prison (1955) and One Girl’s Confession (1953), had pre-DVD release screenings at this year’s Noir City Film Festival at the Castro Theatre. Though he was not the most charismatic guest speaker in the history of that sublime annual SF movie ritual, Grover Crips, Sony’s vice president of asset management and film preservation, certainly deserved the tribute he received at Noir City.The transfers to DVD from new vault prints that make up this fine package are truly impressive. And while some of the titles included don’t exactly fit snugly in the noir canon, there’s so much here worth watching that for any fan of the array of delirious thrills that constitute "golden age" Hollywood filmmaking, such quibbles are strictly in killjoy territory.

Women’s Prison is a veritable treasure trove of guilty cinematic pleasures, and one of three flicks in the set featuring blonde bombshell Cleo Moore. The rest of the cast includes noir mainstays Audrey Totter (the versatile Swede who was so, so good in 1949’s The Set-Up, Tension, and Alias Nick Beal) and Jan Sterling (the scorching, jaded, less-than-faithful wife in 1951’s Ace in the Hole). Howard Duff and Ida Lupino, married in real life, seem to be having a blast as the good-guy prison doctor and his nemesis, the psycho warden obsessed with escalating levels of discipline.

For their glimpses of mid-20th century New York City, the two on-location thrillers The Killer That Stalked New York (1950, check out Jim Backus as a sleazy club owner) and The Glass Wall (1953) are hard to beat and show that John Huston wasn’t the only Hollywood director influenced by neorealism. These two feature, respectively, Evelyn Keyes and Gloria Grahame. The latter film especially, whose trailer brags that it was "shot secretly by hidden cameras in teeming Times Square and all over exciting New York City," really captures the flavor of midtown Manhattan street life.

And as inept as the story’s framing device is, I praise the gods of Tinsel Town for giving me Night Editor (1946), mostly because of the statuesque, scheming femme fatale played by Janis Carter. It’s a bit of stretch pairing her with the, shall we say, less than charismatic William Gargan, but I can’t imagine any actress putting more sexually-charged zest into a request to gaze at a murder victim.

Brick by brick

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks

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TOY-NAMATION Denmark has given us so much. In the past few decades alone it has gifted the world with live-sex club acts, Brigitte Nielsen, breakfast pastries, and Lars “Antichrist” von Trier. In 1969 it became the first country to legalize p*rnography, and two decades later did likewise for same-sex marriage. It is also currently designated the least corrupt nation on earth, with the greatest income equality.

But predating all these wonders was that cultural juggernaut we call Lego. Toymaker Ole Kirk Christiansen named his company that in 1934; 15 years later, he began producing interlocking plastic bricks, though it was not until 1958 that the perfected current design debuted. (Thus, 52-year-old blocks remain compatible with ones you could buy today.) In 1988, Lego Group’s last patent on its fortune’s literal building block expired, resulting in a rash of cheap imitations, most manufactured in (surprise) China. But a Lego is a Lego is a Lego. Like Kleenex, it is a brand name more familiar than the object’s literal description. What five-year-old wants his “interlocking plastic brick”?

This week sees the (direct-to-DVD) release of the first feature-length Lego movie. The first thing you notice about Lego: The Adventures of Clutch Powers is that there’s been some heinous error: how can this not be stop-motion animation, but CGI?! What’s the point if we’re not seeing actual crazy Legos-constructed figures moving around an all Lego-landscape?

That said, it does sport a certain blocky design theme, and the early-1980s Cars-type songs with handclaps and synths seem just right. Clutch is an all-American, thrill-seeking, planet-saving blowhard who learns the value of teamwork by being forced to cooperate with a girl (plucky!), musclehead (jerky!), and egghead (German!) on an intergalactic voyage to defeat an evil wizard and his army of skeleton warriors. There’s a little Indiana Jones here, a little Shrek there, a lotta Lord of the Rings hither and yon.

But these 82 innocuous minutes are just a blip in the ever-widening Lego cosmos, which includes umpteen subsidiary toy franchises, clothes, video games, books, theme parks, “Lego Serious Play” (for business consensus-building!), and independent uses that run from elaborate Lego reconstructions of live action movies to epic online biblical illustration The Brick Testament.

Legos are timeless and cool. The company is laudable, not just for inviting action and imagination from kids, but for being a good global citizen. Lego’s corporate responsibility bylaws regarding environmental impact, charitable contributions, and treatment of workers are the sort of “socialist” stuff that would be lobbied out of existence here in five seconds. Oh, those Scandinavians — when will they realize all their prosperity, public benefits, and high overall happiness index is really a living hell in sheep’s clothing? Surely they need an angry Tea Party movement to protest a society that actually takes care of its own.

www.legoclutchpowers.com

Film listings

David Talbot

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Erik Morse, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, and Matt Sussman. The film intern is Peter Galvin. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

OPENING

Cop Out Kevin Smith directs Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis in this buddy-cop comedy. (1:50) Oaks.

The Crazies Remake alert! This time, it’s a revisiting of George A. Romero’s 1973 cult flick about a town whose residents suddenly start going insane. (1:41)

Formosa Betrayed The turbulent modernhistory of Taiwan is certainly deserving of increased international attention, but writer-producer Will Tao’s strategy of structuring Formosa Betrayed as a political thriller is too often at odds with imparting facts and information. Set in the early 80s, the film thrustsviewers into an unraveling government conspiracy that has FBI agent Jake Kelly (James Van Der Beek) trailing the suspected murderers of a Chicago professor to Taipei. Initially, selling Dawson’s Creek alum Van Der Beek as an FBI agent seems a strange choice, but undoubtedly his name will fill seats, and Formosa Betrayed is shooting for maximum awareness. There are some scenes of real tension, but just when you arebeginningto get wrapped up in the inherent drama of conspiracy and murder, the suspense is interrupted by a long-windedbout of soapboxing. Formosa Betrayedmight enlighten some audiences about Taiwan’s controversial history, but it too often does so at the expense of its own watchability. You start to wonder why Tao didn’t just make a documentary. (1:43) Shattuck. (Galvin)

*"German Gems" Berlin and Beyond film festival founder Ingrid Eggers programmed this slate of 2009 German-language releases, which range in content and tone from a quirky documentary of a female-helmed, around-the-world adventure by automobile in 1927, Miss Stimmes, to the not-quite-dark-nor-funny enough "noir comedy" about extortion, cannibalism, and revenge, The Bone Man. But it’s the two featured dramas that will likely garner the most attention: Being Mr. Kotschie, by Norbert Baumgarten, and Vision, by Margarethe von Trotta. As Jürgen Kotschie wearily anticipates his fiftieth birthday, his rather bland, suburban life begins to fracture almost imperceptibly; imperceptibly, at least, to others. But from Kotschie’s point of view, the tenuous line between reality and dreams begins to blur, and he becomes increasingly alienated from his uneventful existence. A fevered, hallucinogenic road-trip to an equally uneventful village in search of an old flame ensues, and, somewhat remarkably for a modern German film, he learns to gratefully accept the simple pleasure of being alive. Being Mr. Kotschie offers a dose of existential-crisis-lite, neurotically embodied by a thoroughly likeable lead (Stefan Kurt), whose minor resemblance to Basil Fawlty adds a sense of physical playfulness to the role. In Vision, the remarkable life of Hildegard von Bingen is given the biopic treatment by von Trotta with mixed results. On the one hand, the subject matter of a multi-talented, visionary "renaissance woman" who lived 300 years before the Renaissance even began, is truly compelling. But von Trotta can’t help but throw a little Sapphic mystery into the mix, and the powerful bond between Hildegard (Barbara Sukowa) and the spirited Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung) plays out like a not entirely convincing hot-for-teacher melodrama. Fortunately, Sukowa plays the headstrong Hildegard with just the right amount of compassion and self-importance, and Heino Ferch is rock-solid as her confidante, scribe, and confessor, Brother Volmar. Castro. (Nicole Gluckstern)

The Ghost Writer Embattled filmmaker Roman Polanski’s latest is a thriller starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, and Olivia Williams. (1:49) Embarcadero.

*"Red Riding Trilogy" There’s a "wolf" of sorts and several unfortunate little girls, but no fairy tale whimsy whatsoever in this trilogy of features originally made for U.K. broadcast. Based on David Pearce’s literary mystery quartet (the second volume goes unadapted here), it’s a complicated dive into conspiracy, cover-up, and murder in England’s North Country. Directed by Julian Jarrold (2008’s Brideshead Revisited), first installment Red Riding: 1974 centers on ambitious young journalist Eddie (Andrew Garfield), who at first sees a string of abducted, then grotesquely mutilated children as a career-making opportunity. The deeper in he gets, though, the more troubling are the case’s murky connections to police and private-sector corruption. 1980, directed by James Marsh (2008’s Man on Wire), finds a new protagonist in Hunter (Paddy Considine). Now local fears are focused on the "Yorkshire Ripper" a savage (real-life) killer of at least 13 women between 1975 and 1981 whose so-far hapless police investigation Hunter has been assigned to audit. Finally, 1983 (directed by Anand Tucker of 2005’s Shopgirl) divides its attention between Yorkshire chief detective Jobson (David Morrissey) and low-rent lawyer Piggot (Mark Addy). After the first copycat child slaying in years occurs, both become convinced a mentally challenged man (Daniel Mays) was framed for the original murders. The nearly six hours this serpentine tale takes can’t help but impress as a weighty experience (at least on your posterior), and it’s duly won some sky-high critical acclaim ("better than the Godfather trilogy", etc.) Certainly Red Riding is rich in period detail, fine characterizations, and bleak atmospherics. But the cumulative satisfaction expected of a true epic is broken up by the sole ongoing characters being supporting ones — heroes who eventually "know too much" don’t survive long. In each segment (Marsh’s Super-16-shot one being most stylistically distinctive), women deployed as romantic interests seem largely superfluous. The whole fussy, cipherous narrative points toward a heart of jet-black darkness its climactic revelations are at once too banal and implausible to deliver. So, worthwhile? Yes, if you’ve got the time to spare. A hype-justifying masterpiece? No. (1974, 1:45; 1980, 1:36; 1983, 1:44) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)

ONGOING

*"Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Animated" Just because it’s animation doesn’t mean it’s just for kids. Like the live-action Oscar-nominated shorts, this year’s animated selections have got range, from the traditionally child-friendly to downright vulgar. Skewing heavily towards CG fare, the shorts vary from a Looney Tunes-style chase for an elderly woman’s soul (The Lady and the Reaper) to the Wallace and Gromit BBC special, A Matter of Loaf and Death. Most entertaining by far is Logorama, an action-packed tale set in a world populated by familiar trademarked logos. Any film that casts the Michelin man as a garbage-mouthed cop on the case of a renegade Ronald McDonald deserves to win all the awards in the universe. (1:35) Lumiere, Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Galvin)

*"Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Live Action" Aren’t you tired of wondering what all the fuss is about when the Academy awards their Oscar for Best Short? In an effort to give audiences a chance to play along, Shorts International is screening these less-seen works together. Though one or two of the five nominated films threaten to adhere to the Academy’s penchant for either heartbreaking or heartwarming, the majority are surprisingly oddball picks. Perhaps most odd of all is Denmark/U.S. submission The New Tenants. Feeling a tad forced but no less funny for it, Tenants draws on celebrities like Vincent D’Onofrio and comedian Kevin Corrigan to bring life to this surreal adaptation by Anders Thomas Jensen (2006’s After the Wedding). My pick would be Sweden’s gloriously goofy Instead of Abracadabra, which stars a stay-at-home slacker as he puts on a magic show for his father’s birthday. Obviously, some selections are going to be better than others, but hey, they’re shorts. If you don’t like one, just wait 10 minutes and you’ll find yourself somewhere completely different. (1:35) Lumiere, Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Galvin)

Avatar James Cameron’s Avatar takes place on planet Pandora, where human capitalists are prospecting for precious unobtainium, hampered only by the toxic atmosphere and a profusion of unfriendly wildlife, including the Na’vi, a nine-foot tall race of poorly disguised cliches. When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, arrives on the planet, he is recruited into the "Avatar" program, which enables him to cybernetically link with a part-human, part-Na’vi body and go traipsing through Pandora’s psychedelic underbrush. Initially designed for botanical research, these avatars become the only means of diplomatic contact with the bright-blue natives, who live smack on top of all the bling. The special effects are revolutionary, but the story that ensues blends hollow "noble savage" dreck with events borrowed from Dances With Wolves (1990) and FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). When Sully falls in love with a Na’vi princess and undergoes a spirit journey so he can be inducted into the tribe and fight the evil miners, all I could think of was Kevin Bacon getting his belly sliced in The Air Up There (1994). (2:42) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Richardson)

The Blind Side When the New York Times Magazine published Michael Lewis’ article "The Ballad of Big Mike" — which he expanded into the 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game — nobody could have predicated the cultural windfall it would spawn. Lewis told the incredible story of Michael Oher — a 6’4, 350-pound 16-year-old, who grew up functionally parentless, splitting time between friends’ couches and the streets of one of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods. As a sophom*ore with a 0.4 GPA, Oher serendipitously hitched a ride with a friend’s father to a ritzy private school across town and embarked on an unbelievable journey that led him into a upper-class, white family; the Dean’s List at Ole Miss; and, finally, the NFL. The film itself effectively focuses on Oher’s indomitable spirit and big heart, and the fearless devotion of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the matriarch of the family who adopted him (masterfully played by Sandra Bullock). While the movie will delight and touch moviegoers, its greatest success is that it will likely spur its viewers on to read Lewis’ brilliant book. (2:06) Marina, Oaks. (Daniel Alvarez)

The Book of Eli The Book of Eli isn’t likely to win many prizes, but it could eventually be up for a lifetime achievement award in the "most sentimental movie to ever feature multiple decapitations by machete" category. Denzel Washington plays the titular hero, displaying scant charisma as a post-apocalyptic drifter with a beatific personality and talent for dismemberment. Eli squares off against an evil but urbane kleptocrat named Carnegie (Gary Oldman phoning in a familiar "loathsome reptile" performance). Convinced that possession of Eli’s book will place humanity’s few survivors in his thrall, Carnegie will do anything to get it, even pimping out the daughter (Mila Kunis, utterly unconvincing) of his blind girlfriend (Jennifer Beals, who should stick to playing people who can see). The two slumming lead actors chase each other down the highway, pausing for some spiritual hogwash and an exchange of gunfire before limping towards an execrable twist ending. At least there’s a Tom Waits cameo. (1:58) 1000 Van Ness. (Richardson)

Broken Embraces Pedro Almodóvar has always dabbled in the Hitchco*ckian tropes of uxoricide, betrayal, and double-identity, but with Broken Embraces he has attained a polyglot, if slightly mimicking, fluency with the language of Hollywood noir. A story within a story and a movie within a movie, Embraces begins in the present day with middle-aged Catalan Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter who takes time between his successful writing career to seduce and bed young women sympathetic to his disability. "Everything’s already happened to me," he explains to his manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo). "All that’s left is to enjoy life." But this life of empty pleasures is brought to a sudden halt when local business magnate Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) has died; soon after, Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), who has renamed himself Ray X, visits Caine with an unusual request. The action retreats 14 years when Caine was a young (and visually abled) director named Mateo Blanco; he encounters a breathtaking femme fatale, Lena (Penelope Cruz) — an actress-turned-prostitute named Severine, turned secretary-turned-trophy wife of Ernesto Martel — when she appears to audition for his latest movie. If all of the narrative intricacies and multiplicitous identities in Broken Embraces appear a bit intimidating at first glance, it is because this is the cinema of Almodóvar taken to a kind of generic extreme. As with all of the director’s post-’00 films, which are often referred to as Almodóvar’s "mature" pictures, there is a microscopic attention to narrative development combined with a frenzied sub-plotting of nearly soap-operatic proportions. But, in Embraces, formalism attains such prominence that one might speculate the director is simply going through the motions. The effect is a purposely loquacious and overly-dramatized performance that pleasures itself as much by setting up the plot as unraveling it. (2:08) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Morse)

Crazy Heart "Oh, I love Jeff Bridges!" is the usual response when his name comes up every few years for Best Actor consideration, usually via some underdog movie no one saw, and the realization occurs that he’s never won an Oscar. The oversight is painful because it could be argued that no leading American actor has been more versatile, consistently good, and true to that elusive concept "artistic integrity" than Bridges over the last 40 years. It’s rumored Crazy Heart was slotted for cable or DVD premiere, then thrust into late-year theater release in hopes of attracting Best Actor momentum within a crowded field. Lucky for us, this performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Bridges plays "Bad" Blake, a veteran country star reduced to playing bars with local pickup bands. His slide from grace hasn’t been helped by lingering tastes for smoke and drink, let alone five defunct marriages. He meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), freelance journalist, fan, and single mother. They spark; though burnt by prior relationships, she’s reluctant to take seriously a famous drunk twice her age. Can Bad handle even this much responsibility? Meanwhile, he gets his "comeback" break in the semi-humiliating form of opening for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) — a contemporary country superstar who was once Bad’s backup boy. Tommy offers a belated shot at commercial redemption; Jean offers redemption of the strictly personal kind. There’s nothing too surprising about the ways in which Crazy Heart both follows and finesses formula. You’ve seen this preordained road from wreckage to redemption before. But actor turned first-time director Scott Cooper’s screenplay honors the flies in the windshield inherited from Thomas Cobb’s novel — as does Bridges, needless to say. (1:51) California, Embarcadero, Empire, Piedmont, Presidio, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Dear John As long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, Dear John is a solid effort. Not extraordinary by any means, it’s your standard Nicholas Sparks book-turned-film: boy meets girl — drama, angst, and untimely death ensue. Here, Channing Tatum stars at the titular John, a soldier on leave who falls in love with the seemingly perfect Savannah (Amanda Seyfried). Both actors are likable enough that their romance is charming, if not always believable. And Dear John‘s plot turns, while not quite surprising, are at least dynamic enough to keep the audience engaged. But at the end of the day, this is still a Nicholas Sparks movie — even with the accomplished Lasse Hallström taking over directorial responsibilities. There are still plenty of eye-roll moments and, more often than not, Dear John employs the most predictable tearjerking techniques. By the time you realize why the film is set in 2001, it’s September 11. Sad? Surely. Cheap? You betcha. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Peitzman)

Edge of Darkness (1:57) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

*An Education The pursuit of knowledge — both carnal and cultural — are at the tender core of this end-of-innocence valentine by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (who first made her well-tempered voice heard with her 2000 Dogme entry, Italian for Beginners), based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir. Screenwriter Nick Hornby breaks further with his Peter Pan protagonists with this adaptation: no man-boy mopers or misfits here. Rather, 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a good girl and ace student. It’s 1961, and England is only starting to stir from its somber, all-too-sober post-war slumber. The carefully cloistered Jenny is on track for Oxford, though swinging London and its high-style freedoms beckon just around the corner. Ushering in those freedoms — a new, more class-free world disorder — is the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), stopping to give Jenny and her cello a ride in the rain and soon proffering concerts and late-night suppers in the city. He’s a sweet-faced, feline outsider: cultured, Jewish, and given to playing fast and loose in the margins of society. David can see Jenny for the gem she is and appreciate her innocence with the knowing pleasure of a decadent playing all the angles. The stakes are believably high, thanks to An Education‘s careful attention to time and place and its gently glamored performances. Scherfig revels in the smart, easy-on-eye curb appeal of David and his friends while giving a nod to the college-educated empowerment Jenny risks by skipping class to jet to Paris. And Mulligan lends it all credence by letting all those seduced, abandoned, conflicted, rebellious feelings flicker unbridled across her face. (1:35) Opera Plaza, Presidio, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

*Fish Tank There’s been a string of movies lately pondering what Britney once called the not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman syndrome, including 2009’s An Education and Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire. Enter Fish Tank, the gritty new drama from British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Her films (including 2006’s Red Road) are heartbreaking, but in an unforced way that never feels manipulative; her characters, often portrayed by nonactors, feel completely organic. Fish Tank‘s 15-year-old heroine, Mia (played by first-time actor Katie Jarvis), lives with her party-gal single mom and tweenage sister in a public-housing high-rise; all three enjoy drinking, swearing, and shouting. But Mia has a secret passion: hip-hop dancing, which she practices with track-suited determination. When mom’s foxy new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, from 2008’s Hunger) encourages her talent, it’s initially unclear what Connor’s intentions are. Is he trying to be a cool father figure, or something far more inappropriate? Without giving away too much, it’s hard to fear too much for a girl who headbutts a teenage rival within the film’s first few minutes — though it soon becomes apparent Mia’s hard façade masks a vulnerable core. Her desire to make human connections causes her to drop her guard when she needs it the most. In a movie about coming of age, a young girl’s bumpy emotional journey is expected turf. But Fish Tank earns its poignant moments honestly — most coming courtesy of Jarvis, who has soulfullness to spare. Whether she’s acting out in tough-girl mode or revealing a glimpse of her fragile inner life, Arnold’s camera relays it all, with unglossy matter-of-factness. (2:02) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

From Paris with Love Every so often, I walk out of a film feeling like I’ve been repeatedly buffeted by blows to the face. Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) had this effect, and it is now joined by From Paris With Love, a movie so aggressively stupid that the mistaken assumption that it was adapted from a video game could be construed as an insult to video games. John Travolta shows up chrome-domed as Charlie Wax, a loose-cannon CIA operative with a lot of transparently screenwritten machismo and an endless appetite for violence. He is joined by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, sporting a risible American accent, and the two embark on a frantic journey across the French capital that is almost as racist as it is misogynistic. I could fill an entire issue of this newspaper eviscerating this movie —suffice to say, don’t see it. (1:35) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Richardson)

The Hurt Locker When the leader of a close-knit U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad is killed in action, his subordinates have barely recovered from the shock when they’re introduced to his replacement. In contrast to his predecessor, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) is no standard-procedure-following team player, but a co*cky adrenaline junkie who puts himself and others at risk making gonzo gut-instinct decisions in the face of live bombs and insurgent gunfire. This is particularly galling to next-in-command Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). An apolitical war-in-Iraq movie that’s won considerable praise for accuracy so far from vets (scenarist Mark Boal was "embedded" with an EOD unit there for several 2004 weeks), Kathryn Bigelow’s film is arguably you-are-there purist to a fault. While we eventually get to know in the principals, The Hurt Locker is so dominated by its seven lengthy squad-mission setpieces that there’s almost no time or attention left for building character development or a narrative arc. The result is often viscerally intense, yet less impactful than it would have been if we were more emotionally invested. Assured as her technique remains, don’t expect familiar stylistic dazzle from action cult figure Bigelow (1987’s Near Dark, 1989’s Blue Steel, 1991’s Point Break) — this vidcam-era war movie very much hews to the favored current genre approach of pseudo-documentary grainy handheld shaky-cam imagery. (2:11) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus From the title to the plot to the execution, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is the kind of movie you’re told not to see sober. This is a film in which Tom Waits plays the Devil, in which characters’ faces change repeatedly, in which Austin Powers‘ Verne Troyer makes his triumphant big-screen return. The story is your basic battle between good and evil, with Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) struggling to save souls from Mr. Nick (Waits) in order to protect his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). Meanwhile, Valentina is wooed by the mysterious Tony, played by Heath Ledger in his final film role — along with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. There are plenty of big important themes to be analyzed here, but it’s honestly more fun to simply get lost in Doctor Parnassus’ Imaginarium. Director and co-writer Terry Gilliam has created a world and a mythology that probably takes more than one viewing to fully comprehend. Might as well let yourself get distracted by all the shiny colors instead. (2:02) Shattuck. (Peitzman)

Invictus Elected President of South Africa in 1995 — just five years after his release from nearly three decades’ imprisonment — Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) perceives a chance to forward his message of reconciliation and forgiveness by throwing support behind the low-ranked national rugby team. Trouble is, the Springboks are currently low-ranked, with the World Cup a very faint hope just one year away. Not to mention the fact that despite having one black member, they represent the all-too-recent Apartheid past for the country’s non-white majority. Based on John Carlin’s nonfiction tome, this latest Oscar bait by the indefatigable Clint Eastwood sports his usual plusses and minuses: An impressive scale, solid performances (Matt Damon co-stars as the team’s Afrikaaner captain), deft handling of subplots, and solid craftsmanship on the one hand. A certain dull literal-minded earnestness, lack of style and excitement on the other. Anthony Peckham’s screenplay hits the requisite inspirational notes (sometimes pretty bluntly), but even in the attenuated finals match, Eastwood’s direction is steady as she goes — no peaks, no valleys, no faults but not much inspiration, either. It doesn’t help that Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens contribute a score that’s as rousing as a warm milk bath. This is an entertaining history lesson, but it should have been an exhilarating one. (2:14) Oaks. (Harvey)

*The Last Station Most of the buzz around The Last Station has focused on Helen Mirren, who takes the lead as the Countess Sofya, wife of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Mirren is indeed impressive — when is she not? — but there’s more to the film than Sofya’s Oscar-worthy outbursts. The Last Station follows Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), hired as Tolstoy’s personal secretary at the end of the writer’s life. Valentin struggles to reconcile his faith in the anarchist Christian Tolstoyan movement with his sympathy for Sofya and his budding feelings for fellow Tolstoyan Masha (Kerry Condon). For the first hour, The Last Station is charming and very funny. Once Tolstoy and Sofya’s relationship reaches its most volatile, however, the tone shifts toward the serious — a trend that continues as Tolstoy falls ill. After all the lighthearted levity, it’s a bit jarring, but the solid script and accomplished cast pull The Last Station together. Paul Giamatti is especially good as Vladimir Chertkov, who battles against Sofya for control of Tolstoy’s will. You’ll never feel guiltier for putting off War and Peace. (1:52) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

*Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 The dawn of the Me Decade saw the largest-ever music festival to that date —albeit one that was such a logistical, fiscal and hygenic disaster that it basically killed the development of similar events for years. This was the height of "music should be free" sentiments in the counterculture, with the result that many among the estimated six to eight hundred thousand attendees who overwhelmed this small U.K. island showed up without tickets, refused to pay, and protested in ways that included tearing down barrier walls and setting fires. It was a bummer, man. But after five days of starry acts often jeered by an antsy crowd — including everyone from Joni, Hendrix, Dylan, Sly Stone, the Who and the Doors to such odd bedfellows as Miles Davis, Tiny Tim, Voices of East Harlem, Supertramp, and Gilberto Gil — Canadian troubador Cohen appeared at 4 a.m. on a Monday to offer balm. Like director Murray Lerner’s 1995 Message to Love, about the festival as a whole, this footage has been shelved for decades, but it bounces right back from the dead — albeit soothingly. Cohen seems blissed out, pupils like black marbles, his between-song musings are as poetical as those fascinating lyrics, and his voice is suppler than the rasp it would soon become. Kris Kristofferson, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and bandmate Bob Johnson offer reflections 40 years later. But the main attraction is obviously Cohen, who is magnetic even if an hour of (almost) nothing but ballads reveals how stylistically monotone his songwriting could be. (1:04) Roxie. (Harvey)

*The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers For many, Daniel Ellsberg is a hero — a savior of American First Amendment rights and one of the most outspoken opponents of the Vietnam war. But as this documentary (recently nominated for an Academy Award) shows, it’s never an an easy decision to take on the U.S. government. Ellsberg himself narrates the film and details his sleepless nights leading up to the leak of the Pentagon Papers — the top secret government study on the Vietnam war — to the public. Though there are few new developments in understanding the particulars of the war or the impact the release of the Papers had on ending the conflict, the film allows audiences to experience the famous case from Ellsberg’s point of view, adding a fresh and poignantly human element to the events; it’s a political documentary that plays more like a character drama. Whether you were there when it happened or new to the story, there is something to be appreciated from this tale of a man who fell out of love with his country and decided to do something about it. (1:34) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Galvin)

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done "David Lynch presents a Werner Herzog film" — there’s a phrase guaranteed to titillate a certain percentage of the filmgoing public. Anyone still reeling from last year’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans may not be ready for My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, a less accessible tale imprinted with trademark quirks from both its producer and director. Loosely based on a true case of matricide in San Diego, My Son begins as Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon of 2008’s Revolutionary Road) has just used a sword to slay his mother (Grace Zabriskie). As police, led by Detective Hank Havenhurt (Willem Dafoe), gather ’round Mark’s pink, flamingo-festooned home — where he’s barricaded himself, apparently with hostages — the tale of a son’s bizarre downfall is pieced together via flashbacks courtesy of his fiancée, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny), and ascot-wearing theater director Lee (Udo Kier). The whole thing, as Brad might say, is a "cosmic melodrama" imbued with just enough surreal and off-putting stylistic choices to alienate general audiences. Ernst Reijseger’s score is haunting, often to the point of distraction. A tuxedo-wearing little person appears, maybe as a shout-out to Lynch fans. A dinner scene involving Jell-O is capped by a frozen tableau, actors motionless even as the dessert jiggles. Ostriches, only slightly more integrated into the plot than Bad Lieutenant‘s iguanas, stalk across the screen. Herzog, ever the outsider auteur, may win no new fans with My Son. One senses he’s just fine with that. (1:31) Castro. (Eddy)

*North Face You’ll never think of outerwear the same way again — and in fact you might be reaching for your fleece and shivering through the more harrowing climbing scenes of this riveting historical adventure based on a true tale. Even those who consider themselves less than avid fans of outdoor survival drama will find their eyes frozen, if you will, on the screen when it comes to this retelling/re-envisioning of this story, legendary among mountaineers, of climbers, urged on by Nazi propaganda, to tackle the last "Alpine problem." At issue: the unclimbed north face of Switzerland’s Eiger, a highly dangerous and unpredictable zone aptly nicknamed "Murder Wall." Two working-class friends, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann of 2008’s Jerichow) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) — here portrayed as climbing fiends driven to reach summits rather than fight for the Nazis — take the challenge. There to document their achievement, or certain death, is childhood friend and Kurz’s onetime sweetheart Luise (Johanna Wokalek, memorable in 2008’s The Baader Meinhof Complex), eager to make her name as a photojournalist while fending off the advances of an editor (Ulrich Tukur) seeking to craft a narrative that positions the contestants as model Aryans. But the climb — and the Eiger, looming like a mythical ogre — is the main attraction here. Filmmaker Philipp Stölzl brings home the sheer heart-pumping exhilaration and terror associated with the sport — and this specific, legendarily tragic climb — by shooting in the mountains with his actors and crew, and the result goes a way in redeeming an adventure long-tainted by its fascist associations. (2:01) Bridge, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

*Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief It would be easy to dismiss Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief as an unabashed Harry Potter knock-off. Trio of kids with magic powers goes on a quest to save the world in a Chris Columbus adaptation of a popular young adult series — sound familiar? But The Lightning Thief is sharp, witty, and a far cry from Columbus’ joyless adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001). Logan Lerman stars as Percy Jackson, the illegitimate son of Poseidon and Catherine Keener. Once he learns his true identity at Camp Half-Blood, he sets off on a quest with his protector, a satyr named Grover, and potential love interest Annabeth, daughter of Athena. Along the way, they bump into gods and monsters from Greek mythology — with a twist. Think Percy using his iPhone to fight Medusa (Uma Thurman), or a land of the Lotus-Eaters disguised as a Lady Gaga-blasting casino. A worthy successor to Harry Potter? Too soon to say, but The Lightning Thief is at least a well-made diversion. (1:59) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

*Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire This gut-wrenching, little-engine-that-could of a film shows the struggles of Precious, an overweight, illiterate 16-year-old girl from Harlem. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is so believably vigilant that her performance alone could bring together the art-house viewers as well as take the Oscars by storm. But people need to actually go and experience this film. While Precious did win Sundance’s Grand Jury and Audience Award awards this year, there is a sad possibility that filmgoers will follow the current trend of "discussing" films that they’ve actually never seen. The daring casting choices of comedian Mo’Nique (as Precious’ all-too-realistically abusive mother) and Mariah Carey (brilliantly understated as an undaunted and dedicated social counselor) are attempts to attract a wider audience, but cynics can hurdle just about anything these days. What’s most significant about this Dancer in the Dark-esque chronicle is how Damien Paul’s screenplay and director Lee Daniels have taken their time to confront the most difficult moments in Precious’ story –- and if that sounds heavy-handed, so be it. Stop blahging for a moment and let this movie move you. (1:49) Presidio, Roxie, Shattuck. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

*Sherlock Holmes There is some perfunctory ass-kicking in director Guy Ritchie’s big-ticket adaptation of the venerable franchise, but old-school Holmes fans will be pleased to learn that the fisticuffs soon give way to a more traditional detective adventure. For all his foibles, Ritchie is well-versed in the art of free-wheeling, entertaining, London-based crime capers. And though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary characters have been freshened up for a contemporary audience, the film has a comfortingly traditional feel to it. The director is lucky to have an actor as talented as Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, and the pair make good use of the American’s talents to create a Holmes resplendent in diffident, pipe-smoking, idiosyncratic glory. Though the film takes liberal creative license with the literary character’s offhand reference to martial prowess, it’s all very English, very Victorian (flying bowler hats, walking sticks, and bare-knuckle boxing), and more or less grounded in the century or so of lore that has sprung up around the world’s greatest detective. Jude Law’s John Watson is a more charismatic character this time around, defying the franchise’s tradition, and the byzantine dynamics of the pair’s close friendship are perfectly calibrated. The script, by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg, suffers a little by borrowing from other Victorian crime fictions better left untouched, but they get the title character’s inimitable "science of deduction" down pat, and the plot is rife with twists, turns, and inscrutable skullduggery. (2:20) SF Center. (Richardson)

Shutter Island Director Martin Scorsese and muse du jour Leonardo DiCaprio draw from oft-filmed novelist Dennis Lehane (2003’s Mystic River, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone) for this B-movie thriller that, sadly, offers few thrills. DiCaprio’s a 1950s U.S. marshal summoned to a misty island that houses a hospital for the criminally insane, overseen by a doctor (Ben Kingsley) who believes in humane, if experimental, therapy techniques. From the get-go we suspect something’s not right with the G-man’s own mind; as he investigates the case of a missing patient, he experiences frequent flashbacks to his World War II service (during which he helped liberate a concentration camp), and has recurring visions of his spooky dead wife (Michelle Williams). Whether or not you fall for Shutter Island‘s twisty game depends on the gullibility of your own mind. Despite high-quality performances and an effective, if overwrought, tone of certain doom, Shutter Island stumbles into a third act that exposes its inherently flawed and frustrating storytelling structure. If only David Lynch had directed Shutter Island — it could’ve been a classic of mindf*ckery run amok. Instead, Scorsese’s psychological drama is sapped of any mystery whatsoever by its stubbornly literal conclusion. (2:18) California, Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

A Single Man In this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, Colin Firth plays George, a middle-aged gay expat Brit and college professor in 1962 Los Angeles. Months after the accidental death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover for 16 years, George still feels worse than bereft; simply waking each morning is agony. So on this particular day he has decided to end it all, first going through a series of meticulous preparations and discreet leave-takings that include teaching one last class and having supper with the onetime paramour (Julianne Moore) turned best friend who’s still stuck on him. The main problem with fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford’s first feature is that he directs it like a fashion designer, fussing over surface style and irrelevant detail in a story whose tight focus on one hard, real-world thing — grief — cries for simplicity. Not pretentious overpackaging, which encompasses the way his camera slavers over the excessively pretty likes of Nicholas Hoult as a student and Jon Kortajarena as a hustler, as if they were models selling product rather than characters, or even actors. (In fact Kortajarena is a male supermodel; the shocker is that Hoult is not, though Hugh Grant’s erstwhile About a Boy co-star is so preening here you’d never guess.) Eventually Ford stops showing off so much, and A Single Man is effective to the precise degree it lets good work by Goode, Moore and especially the reliably excellent Firth unfold without too much of his terribly artistic interference. (1:39) Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*Terribly Happy The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) is the obvious corollary for this coolly humorous Danish import, though director/co-writer Henrik Ruben Genz’s firmly dampened-down thriller of sorts is also touched by David Lynch’s parochial surrealism and Aki Kaurismäki’s backwater puckishness. Happy isn’t quite the word for handsome, seemingly upstanding cop Jakob (Robert Hansen), reassigned from the big city of Copenhagen to a tiny village in South Jutland. There he slowly learns that the insular and self-sufficient locals are accustomed to fixing problems on their own and that cows, trucks, and other troubles have a way of conveniently disappearing into the bog. When buxom blonde Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen) whispers to him that her husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia) beats her, Jakob begins to find his moral ground slipping away from him — while his own dark secrets turn out to be not so secret after all. More of a winkingly paranoid, black-hearted comedy about the quicksand nature of provincial community and small-town complicity than a genuine murder mystery, Terribly Happy wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but that doesn’t stop this attractively-shot production from amusing from start to finish, never tarrying too long to make a point that it gets mired in the bog that swallows all else. (1:42) Opera Plaza. (Chun)

Up in the Air After all the soldiers’ stories and the cannibalism canards of late, Up in the Air‘s focus on a corporate ax-man — an everyday everyman sniper in full-throttle downsizing mode — is more than timely; it’s downright eerie. But George Clooney does his best to inject likeable, if not quite soulful, humanity into Ryan Bingham, an all-pro mileage collector who prides himself in laying off employees en masse with as few tears, tantrums, and murder-suicide rages as possible. This terminator’s smooth ride from airport terminal to terminal is interrupted not only by a possible soul mate, fellow smoothie and corporate traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), but a young tech-savvy upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who threatens to take the process to new reductionist lows (layoff via Web cam) and downsize Ryan along the way. With Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman, who oversaw Thank You for Smoking (2005) as well as Juno (2007), is threatening to become the bard of office parks, Casual Fridays, khaki-clad happy hours, and fly-over zones. But Up in the Air is no Death of a Salesman, and despite some memorable moments that capture the pain of downsizing and the flatness of real life, instances of snappily screwball dialogue, and some more than solid performances by all (and in particular, Kendrick), he never manages to quite sell us on the existence of Ryan’s soul. (1:49) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Valentine’s Day Genre moviemaking loves it a gimmick — and nothing gets more greeting-card gimmicky or sell-by-date corny than the technique of linking holidays and those mandatory date nights out. You’re shocked that nobody thought of this chick flick notion sooner. Valentine’s Day is no My Bloody Valentine (1981, 2009) — it aspires to an older, more yupscale lady’s choice-crowd than the screaming teens that are ordinarily sought out by horror flicks. And its A-list-studded cast — including Oscar winners Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, and Kathy Bates as well as seemingly half of That ’70s Show‘s players — is a cut above TV tween starlets’ coming-out slasher slumber parties. It partly succeeds: bringing Valentine’s haters into the game as well as lovers is a smart ploy (although who believes that the chic-cheekbones-and-fulsome-lips crew of Jessica Biel and Jennifer Garner would be dateless on V-Day?), and the first half is obviously structured around the punchlines that punctuate each scene — a winning if contrived device. Juggling multiple storylines with such a whopping cast lends an It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) quality to the Jessica- and Taylor-heavy shenanigans. And some tales get a wee bit more weight than others (the charisma-laden scenes with Bradley Cooper and Roberts cry out for added screentime), creating a strangely lopsided effect that adds unwanted tedium to an affair that should be as here-today-gone-tomorrow as a Whitman’s Sampler. (1:57) Empire, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck. (Chun)

*The White Ribbon In Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, his first German-language film in ten years, violence descends on a small northern German village mired in an atmosphere of feudalism and protestant repression. When, over the course of a year, a spate of unaccountable tragedies strikes almost every prominent figure as well as a powerless family of tenant farmers, the village becomes a crucible for aspersion and unease. Meanwhile, a gang of preternaturally calm village children, led by the eerily intense daughter of the authoritarian pastor, keep appearing coincidentally near the sites of the mysterious crimes, lending this Teutonic morality play an unsettling Children of the Corn undertone. Only the schoolteacher, perhaps by virtue of his outsider status, seems capable of discerning the truth, but his low rank on the social pecking order prevent his suspicions from being made public. A protracted examination on the nature of evil — and the troubling moral absolutism from which it stems. (2:24) Albany, Clay. (Nicole Gluckstern)

The Wolfman Remember 2000’s Hollow Man, an update of 1933’s The Invisible Man so over-the-top that it could only have been brought to you by a post-Starship Troopers (1997) Paul Verhoeven? Fear not, Lon Chaney, Jr. fanclub members — The Wolfman sticks fairly true to its 1941 predecessor, setting its tale of a reluctant lycanthrope in Victorian England, where there are plenty of gypsies, foggy moors, silver bullets, angry villagers, and the like. Benicia Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, who’s given an American childhood backstory to explain his out-of-place stateside accent (and a Mediterranean-looking mother to make up for the fact that he’s supposed to be the son of Anthony Hopkins). Soon after returning to his estranged father’s crumbling manor, Lawrence is chomped by a you-know-what. Next full moon, Lawrence realizes what he’s become; murderous rampages and much angst ensue. (He’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk, except much hairier). Director Joe Johnston (a tech whiz who worked on the original Star Wars movies, and helmed 2001’s Jurassic Park III), doesn’t offer much innovation on the werewolf legend (or any scares, for that matter). But the effects, including transformation scenes and claw-tastic gore, are predictably top-notch. (2:05) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

REP PICKS

*"Darkest Americana and Elsewhere: Films, Video, and Words of James Benning" See "Siteseeing." McBean Theater, Presentation Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

*To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore See "tk feature." (1:10) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

A look back at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (part one)

Sue Vaughan

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Over the years, the Sundance Film Festival has become known for its superior documentary selections, exciting experimental programs, mumblecore masterpieces, a few foreign delights, and buzz-worthy indie flicks that eventually become the year’s most under or overrated. The 2010 festival was no exception. Make sure to mark down any of these movies that sound interesting for the upcoming year — for some reason, post-Sundance film releases seem to be shorter, smaller, and becoming even non-existent. (Johan Renck’s decade-defining Downloading Nancy, which screened at Sundance in 2008, was finally released straight to DVD this past month.) Read on for the first in a series of posts detailing my top picks at this year’s fest.

Drake Doremus’ aptly titled Douchebag achieved the festival’s greatest achievement: I heard the word “douchebag” being used in every Utah restaurant, shop and theatre. Luckily the film also does a bang up job as it follows a beardo older brother (on the verge of his wedding) who takes a wild road-trip to find his younger brother’s fifth grade girlfriend. Not only will it cause you to mutter the word douchebag multiple times, the film perfectly captures the dominating and destructive characteristics of certain family members. Even the couple sitting next to me who said they “hated mumblecore films” loved Douchebag. David Dickler’s debut performance as the titular d-bag older brother should have been recognized when awards night came around.

Dickler also edited the film, a fact which brought attention to his quiet career in the medium. He edited Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), Borat (2006), and Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008). And at a compressed running time of 81 minutes, Douchebag is the most fun you’ll have hating a character this year.

One of Sundance’s hottest ticket was for Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright. Cholodenko won Sundance’s screenwriting award for her first film, High Art (1998); her latest is a pitch-perfect family drama for the Y2teens. Two kids who were raised by two different type of mothers (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) track down their surrogate father (Mark Ruffalo) and find him to be a progressive, free-wheeling lone wolf. The film’s progression is presented with such confidence and sensitivity that the film transcends its sign of the times vibe, giving the viewer the feeling that it’s predicting the future.

Coincidentally, John Waters’ new film, Fruitcake, starring Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey, also follows a boy (who runs away from home after his parents are busted for stealing meat at the grocery store) who meets up a with a girl who was raised by lesbian parents and who is looking for her surrogate father.

Pipiloti Rist’s Pepperminta is an inspired, unofficial remake of Czech New Wave director Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1966). Its psychadelic set and color design felt like an episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse wrapped up in feature-length Skittles commercial. Many audience members were overwhelmed by the film’s aesthetic, but those who finished it were rewarded with a killer quest through anarchy, feminism, and fearlessness. For anyone who’s been inspired by the music of Kate Bush and Björk, or the children’s books starring Madeline and Pippi Longstocking (after whom the director was nicknamed), this is the movie for you. Rist brings an excitement and inventiveness not only to the screen (and her wardrobe, showcased during the movie’s Q&A), but also to the multimedia exhibit that she also created to compliment the film. Don’t miss seeing Pepperminta in a theater.

Following his previous features I Stand Alone (1998) and Irreversible (2002), enfant terrible Gaspar Noe has now taken the digital revolution to a psychedelic hell with Enter the Void. The warning signs to epileptics upon entering the theater that a strobe effect was used throughout the film kicked things into overdrive right off the bat. Utilizing first person digicam, Noe takes the audience into strobing sexual scenes, deafening drug benders, and all-around supernatural swirly stuff … for two hours and 41 minutes! The film will eventually be released in two versions: a director’s cut and a commercial cut, which will run one reel shorter (by 20 minutes). Pondering if this epic journey was made to watch while you are on drugs or instead of doing drugs is almost as debatable as the final moment of the voyage (it truly is worth it to make it all the way through to the end!)

Zeina Durra’s The Imperialists Are Still Alive explores a group of Manhattan socialites who by day, talk and make self-righteous Post-Modern art, but by night, wander the city looking for late night parties and showing off their audacious new dresses. Asya (played with a perfect balance of ignorance and irony by Elodie Bouchez) is not only participating in this scene, she’s also worrying herself sick about a kidnapped friend in Lebanon (the film takes place during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict). While Variety pointed out that the film’s title is taken from Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967), it’s the consistent ironic undertone that feels truly Godardian; no doubt it’ll put off many audiences (more than half of the audience in the press screening left early.) The director was slammed after her introduction for being too pretentious and proud of her work. But that is exactly what rings so true to me about this mini-masterpiece, that reflection of our current contradiction that many of us living in big cities find ourselves in: We know and “care” so much about world events, yet seconds later we’re arguing about the Academy Award nominations. Irony is alive and well.

Coming tomorrow: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ top five picks and honorable mentions from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Film Listings

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Erik Morse, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, and Matt Sussman. The film intern is Peter Galvin. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide. Due to the Presidents’ Day holiday, theater information was incomplete at presstime.

SF INDIEFEST

The 12th San Francisco Independent Film Festival runs through Thurs/18 at the Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF. For tickets (most shows $11), visit www.sfindie.com. All times pm.

WED/17

Down Terrace 7:15. No One Knows About Persian Cats 7:15. Godspeed 9:30. At the Foot of a Tree 9:30.

THURS/18

Art of the Steal 7:15. TBA 7:15. Harmony and Me 9:30. TBA 9:30.

OPENING

*”Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Animated” Just because it’s animation doesn’t mean it’s just for kids. Like the live-action Oscar-nominated shorts, this year’s animated selections have got range, from the traditionally child-friendly to downright vulgar. Skewing heavily towards CG fare, the shorts vary from a Looney Tunes-style chase for an elderly woman’s soul (The Lady and the Reaper) to the Wallace and Gromit BBC special, A Matter of Loaf and Death. Most entertaining by far is Logorama, an action-packed tale set in a world populated by familiar trademarked logos. Any film that casts the Michelin man as a garbage-mouthed cop on the case of a renegade Ronald McDonald deserves to win all the awards in the universe. (1:35) (Galvin)

*”Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Live Action” Aren’t you tired of wondering what all the fuss is about when the Academy awards their Oscar for Best Short? In an effort to give audiences a chance to play along, Shorts International is screening these less-seen works together. Though one or two of the five nominated films threaten to adhere to the Academy’s penchant for either heartbreaking or heartwarming, the majority are surprisingly oddball picks. Perhaps most odd of all is Denmark/U.S. submission The New Tenants. Feeling a tad forced but no less funny for it, Tenants draws on celebrities like Vincent D’Onofrio and comedian Kevin Corrigan to bring life to this surreal adaptation by Anders Thomas Jensen (2006’s After the Wedding). My pick would be Sweden’s gloriously goofy Instead of Abracadabra, which stars a stay-at-home slacker as he puts on a magic show for his father’s birthday. Obviously, some selections are going to be better than others, but hey, they’re shorts. If you don’t like one, just wait 10 minutes and you’ll find yourself somewhere completely different. (1:35) (Galvin)

Happy Tears Director Mitchell Litchenstein’s second film attempts to take on the family drama in the similarly warped fashion that his 2007 debut Teeth skewed the horror genre. Unfortunately, his thoroughly offbeat humor continues to be as much of a liability as a asset, and in this case the genre isn’t nearly as forgiving of clumsiness. Parker Posey and Demi Moore star as dissimilar sisters tasked with caring for their father (Rip Torn), who copes with dementia. Posey turns in an animated performance that will gain her as many fans as it alienates, and Moore is surprisingly pleasant as a level-headed hippie. As the sisters interrogate a flighty nurse (Ellen Barkin) who may or may not be a crackhead, clean up after their incontinent father, and dig for treasure in the backyard, the restless plot creates a murky mix of flat humor, heavy drama and conventional whimsy. A subplot involving Posey’s fiance dealing with the legacy of his famous father’s art feels tangential, but may provide the most autobiographical moments in the film. The title Happy Tears is borrowed from the record-selling 1964 painting and Lichtenstein is indeed the son of legendary pop-art painter Roy Lichtenstein. Perhaps these moments function as catharsis for the director, but until he learns to better manage his impulses, his films will continue to be more awkward than funny. (1:36) (Galvin)

*Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 The dawn of the Me Decade saw the largest-ever music festival to that date —albeit one that was such a logistical, fiscal and hygenic disaster that it basically killed the development of similar events for years. This was the height of “music should be free” sentiments in the counterculture, with the result that many among the estimated six to eight hundred thousand attendees who overwhelmed this small U.K. island showed up without tickets, refused to pay, and protested in ways that included tearing down barrier walls and setting fires. It was a bummer, man. But after five days of starry acts often jeered by an antsy crowd — including everyone from Joni, Hendrix, Dylan, Sly Stone, the Who and the Doors to such odd bedfellows as Miles Davis, Tiny Tim, Voices of East Harlem, Supertramp, and Gilberto Gil — Canadian troubador Cohen appeared at 4 a.m. on a Monday to offer balm. Like director Murray Lerner’s 1995 Message to Love, about the festival as a whole, this footage has been shelved for decades, but it bounces right back from the dead — albeit soothingly. Cohen seems blissed out, pupils like black marbles, his between-song musings are as poetical as those fascinating lyrics, and his voice is suppler than the rasp it would soon become. Kris Kristofferson, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and bandmate Bob Johnson offer reflections 40 years later. But the main attraction is obviously Cohen, who is magnetic even if an hour of (almost) nothing but ballads reveals how stylistically monotone his songwriting could be. (1:04) Roxie. (Harvey)

*The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon

Papers For many, Daniel Ellsberg is a hero — a savior of American First Amendment rights and one of the most outspoken opponents of the Vietnam war. But as this documentary (recently nominated for an Academy Award) shows, it’s never an an easy decision to take on the U.S. government. Ellsberg himself narrates the film and details his sleepless nights leading up to the leak of the Pentagon Papers — the top secret government study on the Vietnam war — to the public. Though there are few new developments in understanding the particulars of the war or the impact the release of the Papers had on ending the conflict, the film allows audiences to experience the famous case from Ellsberg’s point of view, adding a fresh and poignantly human element to the events; it’s a political documentary that plays more like a character drama. Whether you were there when it happened or new to the story, there is something to be appreciated from this tale of a man who fell out of love with his country and decided to do something about it. (1:34) (Galvin)

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done See “Ain’t No Iguana.” (1:31) Castro.

*North Face You’ll never think of outerwear the same way again — and in fact you might be reaching for your fleece and shivering through the more harrowing climbing scenes of this riveting historical adventure based on a true tale. Even those who consider themselves less than avid fans of outdoor survival drama will find their eyes frozen, if you will, on the screen when it comes to this retelling/re-envisioning of this story, legendary among mountaineers, of climbers, urged on by Nazi propaganda, to tackle the last “Alpine problem.” At issue: the unclimbed north face of Switzerland’s Eiger, a highly dangerous and unpredictable zone aptly nicknamed “Murder Wall.” Two working-class friends, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann of 2008’s Jerichow) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) — here portrayed as climbing fiends driven to reach summits rather than fight for the Nazis — take the challenge. There to document their achievement, or certain death, is childhood friend and Kurz’s onetime sweetheart Luise (Johanna Wokalek, memorable in 2008’s The Baader Meinhof Complex), eager to make her name as a photojournalist while fending off the advances of an editor (Ulrich Tukur) seeking to craft a narrative that positions the contestants as model Aryans. But the climb — and the Eiger, looming like a mythical ogre — is the main attraction here. Filmmaker Philipp Stölzl brings home the sheer heart-pumping exhilaration and terror associated with the sport — and this specific, legendarily tragic climb — by shooting in the mountains with his actors and crew, and the result goes a way in redeeming an adventure long-tainted by its fascist associations. (2:01) Smith Rafael. (Chun)

Shutter Island Martin Scorsese directs Leonardo DiCaprio in this adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel, a mystery set at an isolated 1950s insane asylum. (2:18)

ONGOING

Avatar James Cameron’s Avatar takes place on planet Pandora, where human capitalists are prospecting for precious unobtainium, hampered only by the toxic atmosphere and a profusion of unfriendly wildlife, including the Na’vi, a nine-foot tall race of poorly disguised cliches. When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, arrives on the planet, he is recruited into the “Avatar” program, which enables him to cybernetically link with a part-human, part-Na’vi body and go traipsing through Pandora’s psychedelic underbrush. Initially designed for botanical research, these avatars become the only means of diplomatic contact with the bright-blue natives, who live smack on top of all the bling. The special effects are revolutionary, but the story that ensues blends hollow “noble savage” dreck with events borrowed from Dances With Wolves (1990) and FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). When Sully falls in love with a Na’vi princess and undergoes a spirit journey so he can be inducted into the tribe and fight the evil miners, all I could think of was Kevin Bacon getting his belly sliced in The Air Up There (1994). (2:42) (Richardson)

The Blind Side When the New York Times Magazine published Michael Lewis’ article “The Ballad of Big Mike” — which he expanded into the 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game — nobody could have predicated the cultural windfall it would spawn. Lewis told the incredible story of Michael Oher — a 6’4, 350-pound 16-year-old, who grew up functionally parentless, splitting time between friends’ couches and the streets of one of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods. As a sophom*ore with a 0.4 GPA, Oher serendipitously hitched a ride with a friend’s father to a ritzy private school across town and embarked on an unbelievable journey that led him into a upper-class, white family; the Dean’s List at Ole Miss; and, finally, the NFL. The film itself effectively focuses on Oher’s indomitable spirit and big heart, and the fearless devotion of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the matriarch of the family who adopted him (masterfully played by Sandra Bullock). While the movie will delight and touch moviegoers, its greatest success is that it will likely spur its viewers on to read Lewis’ brilliant book. (2:06) (Daniel Alvarez)

The Book of Eli The Book of Eli isn’t likely to win many prizes, but it could eventually be up for a lifetime achievement award in the “most sentimental movie to ever feature multiple decapitations by machete” category. Denzel Washington plays the titular hero, displaying scant charisma as a post-apocalyptic drifter with a beatific personality and talent for dismemberment. Eli squares off against an evil but urbane kleptocrat named Carnegie (Gary Oldman phoning in a familiar “loathsome reptile” performance). Convinced that possession of Eli’s book will place humanity’s few survivors in his thrall, Carnegie will do anything to get it, even pimping out the daughter (Mila Kunis, utterly unconvincing) of his blind girlfriend (Jennifer Beals, who should stick to playing people who can see). The two slumming lead actors chase each other down the highway, pausing for some spiritual hogwash and an exchange of gunfire before limping towards an execrable twist ending. At least there’s a Tom Waits cameo. (1:58) (Richardson)

Broken Embraces Pedro Almodóvar has always dabbled in the Hitchco*ckian tropes of uxoricide, betrayal, and double-identity, but with Broken Embraces he has attained a polyglot, if slightly mimicking, fluency with the language of Hollywood noir. A story within a story and a movie within a movie, Embraces begins in the present day with middle-aged Catalan Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter who takes time between his successful writing career to seduce and bed young women sympathetic to his disability. “Everything’s already happened to me,” he explains to his manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo). “All that’s left is to enjoy life.” But this life of empty pleasures is brought to a sudden halt when local business magnate Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) has died; soon after, Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), who has renamed himself Ray X, visits Caine with an unusual request. The action retreats 14 years when Caine was a young (and visually abled) director named Mateo Blanco; he encounters a breathtaking femme fatale, Lena (Penelope Cruz) — an actress-turned-prostitute named Severine, turned secretary-turned-trophy wife of Ernesto Martel — when she appears to audition for his latest movie. If all of the narrative intricacies and multiplicitous identities in Broken Embraces appear a bit intimidating at first glance, it is because this is the cinema of Almodóvar taken to a kind of generic extreme. As with all of the director’s post-’00 films, which are often referred to as Almodóvar’s “mature” pictures, there is a microscopic attention to narrative development combined with a frenzied sub-plotting of nearly soap-operatic proportions. But, in Embraces, formalism attains such prominence that one might speculate the director is simply going through the motions. The effect is a purposely loquacious and overly-dramatized performance that pleasures itself as much by setting up the plot as unraveling it. (2:08) Smith Rafael. (Morse)

Crazy Heart “Oh, I love Jeff Bridges!” is the usual response when his name comes up every few years for Best Actor consideration, usually via some underdog movie no one saw, and the realization occurs that he’s never won an Oscar. The oversight is painful because it could be argued that no leading American actor has been more versatile, consistently good, and true to that elusive concept “artistic integrity” than Bridges over the last 40 years. It’s rumored Crazy Heart was slotted for cable or DVD premiere, then thrust into late-year theater release in hopes of attracting Best Actor momentum within a crowded field. Lucky for us, this performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Bridges plays “Bad” Blake, a veteran country star reduced to playing bars with local pickup bands. His slide from grace hasn’t been helped by lingering tastes for smoke and drink, let alone five defunct marriages. He meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), freelance journalist, fan, and single mother. They spark; though burnt by prior relationships, she’s reluctant to take seriously a famous drunk twice her age. Can Bad handle even this much responsibility? Meanwhile, he gets his “comeback” break in the semi-humiliating form of opening for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) — a contemporary country superstar who was once Bad’s backup boy. Tommy offers a belated shot at commercial redemption; Jean offers redemption of the strictly personal kind. There’s nothing too surprising about the ways in which Crazy Heart both follows and finesses formula. You’ve seen this preordained road from wreckage to redemption before. But actor turned first-time director Scott Cooper’s screenplay honors the flies in the windshield inherited from Thomas Cobb’s novel — as does Bridges, needless to say. (1:51) (Harvey)

Creation Critically drubbed in its high-profile slot as the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival’s opening-night film, this handsome costume drama isn’t all that bad — but neither is it very good. Offscreen married couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly play Mr. and Mrs. Darwin in the mid-1850s, just as he’s about to incite a still-active public firestorm with The Origin of the Species. Charles is hardly in any shape to face such controversy, as the death of favorite daughter Annie (Martha West) has had a grave impact on both his psychological and physical health. That event has only strengthened wife Emma’s Christian faith, while destroying his own. Also arguing against the evolutionary tract’s publication is their close friend Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam); contrarily urging Darwin to go ahead and “kill God” are fellow scientitific enthusiasts played by Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch. Director Jon Amiel lends considerable visual panache, but Creation ultimately misses the rare chance to meaningfully scrutinize rationalism vs. religious belief perhaps the industrial era’s most importantly divisive issue — in favor of conventional dramatic dwelling on grief over a child’s loss. The appealing Bettany is somewhat straitjacketed by a character that verges on being a sickly bore, while Connolly is, as usual, a humorless one. (1:58) (Harvey)

Dear John As long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, Dear John is a solid effort. Not extraordinary by any means, it’s your standard Nicholas Sparks book-turned-film: boy meets girl — drama, angst, and untimely death ensue. Here, Channing Tatum stars at the titular John, a soldier on leave who falls in love with the seemingly perfect Savannah (Amanda Seyfried). Both actors are likable enough that their romance is charming, if not always believable. And Dear John‘s plot turns, while not quite surprising, are at least dynamic enough to keep the audience engaged. But at the end of the day, this is still a Nicholas Sparks movie — even with the accomplished Lasse Hallström taking over directorial responsibilities. There are still plenty of eye-roll moments and, more often than not, Dear John employs the most predictable tearjerking techniques. By the time you realize why the film is set in 2001, it’s September 11. Sad? Surely. Cheap? You betcha. (1:48) (Peitzman)

District 13: Ultimatum Often cited by the uninformed as a wellspring of all that is artsy and pretentious about film, France is also home to some quality action movies. District 13: Ultimatum is the second in a series of breezy, adrenalized crime capers about a Parisian housing project and the politicians that secretly crave its destruction, and it succeeds as a satisfying reprise of the original’s inventive stunt-work and good-natured self-mockery. Cyril Raffaeli (a sort of Frenchified Bruce Willis) returns as Captain Damien Tomasso, a principled super-cop whose friendship with hunky petty criminal Leito (David Belle) carries over from the first film. Belle is widely acknowledged as the inventor of parkour, the French martial art of death-defying urban gymnastics, and an avalanche of clever fight choreography ensues as the pair karate kick their way toward the bottom of the conspiracy and a showdown with the forces of evil: an American conglomerate called “Harriburton.” (1:41) (Richardson)

Edge of Darkness (1:57)

*An Education The pursuit of knowledge — both carnal and cultural — are at the tender core of this end-of-innocence valentine by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (who first made her well-tempered voice heard with her 2000 Dogme entry, Italian for Beginners), based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir. Screenwriter Nick Hornby breaks further with his Peter Pan protagonists with this adaptation: no man-boy mopers or misfits here. Rather, 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a good girl and ace student. It’s 1961, and England is only starting to stir from its somber, all-too-sober post-war slumber. The carefully cloistered Jenny is on track for Oxford, though swinging London and its high-style freedoms beckon just around the corner. Ushering in those freedoms — a new, more class-free world disorder — is the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), stopping to give Jenny and her cello a ride in the rain and soon proffering concerts and late-night suppers in the city. He’s a sweet-faced, feline outsider: cultured, Jewish, and given to playing fast and loose in the margins of society. David can see Jenny for the gem she is and appreciate her innocence with the knowing pleasure of a decadent playing all the angles. The stakes are believably high, thanks to An Education‘s careful attention to time and place and its gently glamored performances. Scherfig revels in the smart, easy-on-eye curb appeal of David and his friends while giving a nod to the college-educated empowerment Jenny risks by skipping class to jet to Paris. And Mulligan lends it all credence by letting all those seduced, abandoned, conflicted, rebellious feelings flicker unbridled across her face. (1:35) Smith Rafael. (Chun)

*Fantastic Mr. Fox A lot of people have been busting filmmaker Wes Anderson’s proverbial chops lately, lambasting him for recent cinematic self-indulgences hewing dangerously close to self-parody (and in the case of 2007’s Darjeeling Limited, I’m one of them). Maybe he’s been listening. Either way, his new animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, should keep the naysayer wolves at bay for a while — it’s nothing short of a rollicking, deadpan-hilarious case study in artistic renewal. A kind of man-imal inversion of Anderson’s other heist movie, his debut feature Bottle Rocket (1996), his latest revels in ramshackle spontaneity and childlike charm without sacrificing his adult preoccupations. Based on Roald Dahl’s beloved 1970 book, Mr. Fox captures the essence of the source material but is still full of Anderson trademarks: meticulously staged mise en scène, bisected dollhouse-like sets, eccentric dysfunctional families coming to grips with their talent and success (or lack thereof).(1:27) (Devereaux)

*Fish Tank There’s been a string of movies lately pondering what Britney once called the not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman syndrome, including 2009’s An Education and Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire. Enter Fish Tank, the gritty new drama from British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Her films (including 2006’s Red Road) are heartbreaking, but in an unforced way that never feels manipulative; her characters, often portrayed by nonactors, feel completely organic. Fish Tank‘s 15-year-old heroine, Mia (played by first-time actor Katie Jarvis), lives with her party-gal single mom and tweenage sister in a public-housing high-rise; all three enjoy drinking, swearing, and shouting. But Mia has a secret passion: hip-hop dancing, which she practices with track-suited determination. When mom’s foxy new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, from 2008’s Hunger) encourages her talent, it’s initially unclear what Connor’s intentions are. Is he trying to be a cool father figure, or something far more inappropriate? Without giving away too much, it’s hard to fear too much for a girl who headbutts a teenage rival within the film’s first few minutes — though it soon becomes apparent Mia’s hard façade masks a vulnerable core. Her desire to make human connections causes her to drop her guard when she needs it the most. In a movie about coming of age, a young girl’s bumpy emotional journey is expected turf. But Fish Tank earns its poignant moments honestly — most coming courtesy of Jarvis, who has soulfullness to spare. Whether she’s acting out in tough-girl mode or revealing a glimpse of her fragile inner life, Arnold’s camera relays it all, with unglossy matter-of-factness. (2:02) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

44 Inch Chest You couldn’t ask for a much better cast than the one 44 Inch Chest offers. The film’s a veritable who’s who of veteran British actors: Tom Wilkinson, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Ian McShane. The story’s a bit less exceptional, though kudos to director Malcolm Venville and co-writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto for subverting expectations. While the movie’s poster suggests a gritty crime thriller, 44 Inch Chest is actually a somewhat subtle character drama. Winstone stars as Colin, a man devastated after his wife Liz (Joanna Whalley) leaves him for a younger man. His mobster friends encourage him to kidnap her new squeeze, nicknamed Loverboy (Melvil Poupaud), as revenge. But don’t expect any Tarantino-esque torture scenes: 44 Inch Chest spends most of its time revealing what’s going on in Colin’s head while he struggles to make sense of his friends’ conflicting philosophies. Hurt’s Old Man Peanut is the obvious standout, but McShane should also be commended for playing a character who is suave and confident, despite being a gay man named Meredith. (1:34) (Peitzman)

From Paris with Love Every so often, I walk out of a film feeling like I’ve been repeatedly buffeted by blows to the face. Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) had this effect, and it is now joined by From Paris With Love, a movie so aggressively stupid that the mistaken assumption that it was adapted from a video game could be construed as an insult to video games. John Travolta shows up chrome-domed as Charlie Wax, a loose-cannon CIA operative with a lot of transparently screenwritten machismo and an endless appetite for violence. He is joined by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, sporting a risible American accent, and the two embark on a frantic journey across the French capital that is almost as racist as it is misogynistic. I could fill an entire issue of this newspaper eviscerating this movie —suffice to say, don’t see it. (1:35) (Richardson)

The Hurt Locker When the leader of a close-knit U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad is killed in action, his subordinates have barely recovered from the shock when they’re introduced to his replacement. In contrast to his predecessor, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) is no standard-procedure-following team player, but a co*cky adrenaline junkie who puts himself and others at risk making gonzo gut-instinct decisions in the face of live bombs and insurgent gunfire. This is particularly galling to next-in-command Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). An apolitical war-in-Iraq movie that’s won considerable praise for accuracy so far from vets (scenarist Mark Boal was “embedded” with an EOD unit there for several 2004 weeks), Kathryn Bigelow’s film is arguably you-are-there purist to a fault. While we eventually get to know in the principals, The Hurt Locker is so dominated by its seven lengthy squad-mission setpieces that there’s almost no time or attention left for building character development or a narrative arc. The result is often viscerally intense, yet less impactful than it would have been if we were more emotionally invested. Assured as her technique remains, don’t expect familiar stylistic dazzle from action cult figure Bigelow (1987’s Near Dark, 1989’s Blue Steel, 1991’s Point Break) — this vidcam-era war movie very much hews to the favored current genre approach of pseudo-documentary grainy handheld shaky-cam imagery. (2:11) (Harvey)

*The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus From the title to the plot to the execution, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is the kind of movie you’re told not to see sober. This is a film in which Tom Waits plays the Devil, in which characters’ faces change repeatedly, in which Austin Powers‘ Verne Troyer makes his triumphant big-screen return. The story is your basic battle between good and evil, with Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) struggling to save souls from Mr. Nick (Waits) in order to protect his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). Meanwhile, Valentina is wooed by the mysterious Tony, played by Heath Ledger in his final film role — along with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. There are plenty of big important themes to be analyzed here, but it’s honestly more fun to simply get lost in Doctor Parnassus’ Imaginarium. Director and co-writer Terry Gilliam has created a world and a mythology that probably takes more than one viewing to fully comprehend. Might as well let yourself get distracted by all the shiny colors instead. (2:02) (Peitzman)

Invictus Elected President of South Africa in 1995 — just five years after his release from nearly three decades’ imprisonment — Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) perceives a chance to forward his message of reconciliation and forgiveness by throwing support behind the low-ranked national rugby team. Trouble is, the Springboks are currently low-ranked, with the World Cup a very faint hope just one year away. Not to mention the fact that despite having one black member, they represent the all-too-recent Apartheid past for the country’s non-white majority. Based on John Carlin’s nonfiction tome, this latest Oscar bait by the indefatigable Clint Eastwood sports his usual plusses and minuses: An impressive scale, solid performances (Matt Damon co-stars as the team’s Afrikaaner captain), deft handling of subplots, and solid craftsmanship on the one hand. A certain dull literal-minded earnestness, lack of style and excitement on the other. Anthony Peckham’s screenplay hits the requisite inspirational notes (sometimes pretty bluntly), but even in the attenuated finals match, Eastwood’s direction is steady as she goes — no peaks, no valleys, no faults but not much inspiration, either. It doesn’t help that Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens contribute a score that’s as rousing as a warm milk bath. This is an entertaining history lesson, but it should have been an exhilarating one. (2:14) (Harvey)

It’s Complicated Allow me to spoil one line in It’s Complicated, because I believe it sums up — better than I ever could — everything right and wrong with this movie: “I prefer a lot of sem*n.” Bet you never thought you’d hear Meryl Streep say that. The thrill of movies like It’s Complicated (see also: Nancy Meyer’s 2003 senior romance Something’s Gotta Give) is in seeing actors of a certain age get down and dirty. There is something fascinating (and for audiences of that same age, encouraging) about watching Alec Baldwin inadvertently flash a webcam or Streep and Steve Martin making croissants while stoned. Once the novelty wears off, however, It’s Complicated is a fairly run-of-the-mill romcom. Sure, the story’s a bit more unusual: 10 years after their divorce, Jane (Streep) and Jake (Baldwin) begin having an affair. But the execution is full of the same clichés you’ve come to expect from the genre, including plenty of slapstick, miscommunication, and raunchy humor. It’s delightful to see such talented actors in a film together. Less delightful when they’re shotgunning weed and saying “oh em gee.” (2:00) (Peitzman)

*The Last Station Most of the buzz around The Last Station has focused on Helen Mirren, who takes the lead as the Countess Sofya, wife of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Mirren is indeed impressive — when is she not? — but there’s more to the film than Sofya’s Oscar-worthy outbursts. The Last Station follows Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), hired as Tolstoy’s personal secretary at the end of the writer’s life. Valentin struggles to reconcile his faith in the anarchist Christian Tolstoyan movement with his sympathy for Sofya and his budding feelings for fellow Tolstoyan Masha (Kerry Condon). For the first hour, The Last Station is charming and very funny. Once Tolstoy and Sofya’s relationship reaches its most volatile, however, the tone shifts toward the serious — a trend that continues as Tolstoy falls ill. After all the lighthearted levity, it’s a bit jarring, but the solid script and accomplished cast pull The Last Station together. Paul Giamatti is especially good as Vladimir Chertkov, who battles against Sofya for control of Tolstoy’s will. You’ll never feel guiltier for putting off War and Peace. (1:52) (Peitzman)

Legion (1:40)

The Lovely Bones There comes a point when the boy with every toy should have some taken away, in order to improve focusing skills. Ergo, it seemed like a good idea when Peter Jackson became attached to The Lovely Bones. A (relatively) “small” story mixing real-world emotions with the otherworldly à la 1994’s Heavenly Creatures? Perfect. His taste for the grotesque would surely toughen up the hugely popular novel’s more gelatinous aspects. But no: these Bones heighten every mush-headed weakness in the book, sprinkling CGI sugar on top. Alice Sebold’s tale of a 1970s suburban teenager murdered by a neighbor is one of those occasional books that becomes a sensation by wrapping real-world horror (i.e. the brutal, unsolved loss of a child) in the warm gingerbread odor of spiritual comfort food. Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan of 2007’s Atonement) narrates from a soft-focus wish-fulfillment afterlife in which she can watch (and occasionally be seen by) those left behind. Bones is sentimentally exploitative in an ingenious way: it uses the protagonist’s violent victimization to stir a vague New Age narcissism in the reader. Susie is, yes, an “ordinary” girl, but she (and we) are of course so loved and special that all heavenly rules must be suspended just for her. Ultimately, divine justice is wrought upon her killer (Stanley Tucci, whose appropriately creepy scenes are the film’s best) — but why didn’t it intervene in time to save his prior victims? Guess they weren’t special enough. This is specious material — powerful in outline, woozy in specifics — that needed a grounding touch. But Jackson directs as if his inspirations were the worst of coproducer Steven Spielberg (i.e., those mawkish last reels) and Baz Luhrmann (in empty kitsch pictorialism). Seriously, after a while I was surprised no unicorns jumped o’er rainbows. (2:15) (Harvey)

Me and Orson Welles It’s 1937, and New York City, like the rest of the nation, presumably remains in the grip of the Great Depression. That trifling historical detail, however, is upstaged in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (adapted from the novel by Robert Kaplow) by the doings at the newly founded Mercury Theatre. There, in the equally tight grip of actor, director, and company cofounder Orson Welles — who makes more pointed use of the historical present, of Italian fascism — a groundbreaking production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar hovers on the brink of premiere and possible disaster. Luckily for swaggering young aspirant Richard (High School Musical series star Zac Efron), Welles (Christian McKay), already infamously tyrannical at 22, is not a man to shrink from firing an actor a week before opening night and replacing him with a 17-year-old kid from New Jersey. Finding himself working in perilous proximity to the master, his unharnessed ego, and his winsome, dishearteningly pragmatic assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes), our callow hero is destined, predictably, to be handed some valuable life experience. McKay makes a credible, enjoyable Welles, presented as the kind of engaging sociopath who handles people like props and hails ambulances like taxicabs. Efron projects a shallow interior life, an instinct for survival, and the charm of someone who has had charming lines written for him. Still, he and Welles and the rest are all in service to the play, and so is the film, which offers an absorbing account of the company’s final days of rehearsal. (1:54) (Rapoport)

Nine Though it has a terrific concept — translating Fellini’s 1963 autobiographical fantasia 8 1/2 into musical terms — this Broadway entity owed its success to celebrity, not artistry. The 1982 edition starred Raul Julia and a host of stage-famed glamazons; the 2003 revival featured Antonio Banderas and ditto. Why did Rob Marshall choose it to follow up his celebrated-if-overrated film of 2002’s Chicago (overlooking his underwhelming 2005 Memoirs of a Geisha)? Perhaps because it provided even greater opportunity for lingerie-clad post-Fosse gyrations, starry casting, and production numbers framed as mind’s-eye fantasies just like his Chicago. (Today’s audiences purportedly don’t like characters simply bursting into song — though doesn’t the High School Musical series disprove that?) Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, an internationally famed, scandalous Italian film director who in 1965 is commencing production on his latest fantastical epic. But with crew and financiers breathing down his neck, he’s creatively blocked — haunted by prior successes, recent flops, and a gallery of past and present muses. They include Marion Cotillard (long-suffering wife), Penélope Cruz (mercurial mistress), Nicole Kidman (his usual star), Judi Dench (costume designer-mother figure), Sophia Loren (his actual mamma), Fergie (his first putana), and Kate Hudson (a Vogue reporter). All can sing, pretty much, though Nine‘s trouble has always been Maury Weston’s generic songs. This is splashy entertainment, intelligently conceived (not least by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella’s screenplay, which heightens the structural complexity of Arthur Kopit’s original book) and staged. But despite taking place almost entirely in its protagonist’s head, psychological depth is strictly two-dimensional. One longs for the suggestive intellectual nuance Marcello Mastroianni originally brought to Fellini’s non-singing Guido — something Nine doesn’t permit the estimable Day-Lewis. (2:00) (Harvey)

*Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief It would be easy to dismiss Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief as an unabashed Harry Potter knock-off. Trio of kids with magic powers goes on a quest to save the world in a Chris Columbus adaptation of a popular young adult series — sound familiar? But The Lightning Thief is sharp, witty, and a far cry from Columbus’ joyless adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001). Logan Lerman stars as Percy Jackson, the illegitimate son of Poseidon and Catherine Keener. Once he learns his true identity at Camp Half-Blood, he sets off on a quest with his protector, a satyr named Grover, and potential love interest Annabeth, daughter of Athena. Along the way, they bump into gods and monsters from Greek mythology — with a twist. Think Percy using his iPhone to fight Medusa (Uma Thurman), or a land of the Lotus-Eaters disguised as a Lady Gaga-blasting casino. A worthy successor to Harry Potter? Too soon to say, but The Lightning Thief is at least a well-made diversion. (1:59) (Peitzman)

*Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire This gut-wrenching, little-engine-that-could of a film shows the struggles of Precious, an overweight, illiterate 16-year-old girl from Harlem. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is so believably vigilant that her performance alone could bring together the art-house viewers as well as take the Oscars by storm. But people need to actually go and experience this film. While Precious did win Sundance’s Grand Jury and Audience Award awards this year, there is a sad possibility that filmgoers will follow the current trend of “discussing” films that they’ve actually never seen. The daring casting choices of comedian Mo’Nique (as Precious’ all-too-realistically abusive mother) and Mariah Carey (brilliantly understated as an undaunted and dedicated social counselor) are attempts to attract a wider audience, but cynics can hurdle just about anything these days. What’s most significant about this Dancer in the Dark-esque chronicle is how Damien Paul’s screenplay and director Lee Daniels have taken their time to confront the most difficult moments in Precious’ story –- and if that sounds heavy-handed, so be it. Stop blahging for a moment and let this movie move you. (1:49) (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

*Saint John of Las Vegas Saint John of Las Vegas gives Steve Buscemi-philes a good long, yummy drink of our nerd overlord. His goofy Mr. Pink anti-cool has weathered nicely into a finely wrinkled facsimile of those nicotine-stained, pompadoured and comb-overed casino codgers you can find dug in on Vegas’ Fremont Street. Here, his John’s a gambler fed up with the long odds and late nights, running from a vaguely sketchy past, so he has decided to consciously choose the straight path. Read: a solid cubicle job at an auto insurance company. After summoning the courage to make a play for a raise (and sexy coworker Jill, played by Sarah Silverman), John is enlisted by his tough little man of a boss (Peter Dinklage) to become a fraud inspector. He’s placed under the tutelage of Virgil (Romany Malco of Weeds) — this is, after all, very, very loosely based a certain Divine Comedy. Off our would-be pals go on John’s tryout case, Virgil aloof and knowing and John empathizing with the many quirky characters they encounter. When their journey ends, you can’t help but be disappointed because you really don’t want this sweet-natured first film by director-writer and onetime Silicon Valley hotshot Hue Rhodes to end. It’s such a treat to watch Buscemi work, pulling the spooky-tooth tics and rattled nerves out of his bag of mannerisms. And it’s fitting that he has arrived here, because from its star to its bit players, Saint John offers a gentle Hail Mary to the usually less-than-visible guys and gals in the cameos. (1:25) (Chun)

*A Serious Man You don’t have to be Jewish to like A Serious Man — or to identify with beleaguered physics professor Larry Gopnik (the grandly aggrieved Michael Stuhlbarg), the well-meaning nebbishly center unable to hold onto a world quickly falling apart and looking for spiritual answers. It’s a coming of age for father and son, spurred by the small loss of a radio and a 20-dollar bill. Larry’s about-to-be-bar-mitzvahed son is listening to Jefferson Airplane instead of his Hebrew school teachers and beginning to chafe against authority. His daughter has commandeered the family bathroom for epic hair-washing sessions. His wife is leaving him for a silkily presumptuous family friend and has exiled Larry to the Jolly Roger Motel. His failure-to-launch brother is a closeted mathematical genius and has set up housekeeping on his couch. Larry’s chances of tenure could be spoiled by either an anonymous poison-pen writer or a disgruntled student intent on bribing him into a passing grade. One gun-toting neighbor vaguely menaces the borders of his property; the other sultry nude sunbather tempts with “new freedoms” and high times. What’s a mild-mannered prof to do, except envy Schrodinger’s Cat and approach three rungs of rabbis in his quest for answers to life’s most befuddling proofs? Reaching for a heightened, touched-by-advertising style that recalls Mad Men in look and Barton Fink (1991) in narrative — and stooping for the subtle jokes as well as the ones branded “wide load” — the Coen Brothers seem to be turning over, examining, and flirting with personally meaningful, serious narrative, though their Looney Tunes sense of humor can’t help but throw a surrealistic wrench into the works. (1:45) (Chun)

*Sherlock Holmes There is some perfunctory ass-kicking in director Guy Ritchie’s big-ticket adaptation of the venerable franchise, but old-school Holmes fans will be pleased to learn that the fisticuffs soon give way to a more traditional detective adventure. For all his foibles, Ritchie is well-versed in the art of free-wheeling, entertaining, London-based crime capers. And though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary characters have been freshened up for a contemporary audience, the film has a comfortingly traditional feel to it. The director is lucky to have an actor as talented as Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, and the pair make good use of the American’s talents to create a Holmes resplendent in diffident, pipe-smoking, idiosyncratic glory. Though the film takes liberal creative license with the literary character’s offhand reference to martial prowess, it’s all very English, very Victorian (flying bowler hats, walking sticks, and bare-knuckle boxing), and more or less grounded in the century or so of lore that has sprung up around the world’s greatest detective. Jude Law’s John Watson is a more charismatic character this time around, defying the franchise’s tradition, and the byzantine dynamics of the pair’s close friendship are perfectly calibrated. The script, by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg, suffers a little by borrowing from other Victorian crime fictions better left untouched, but they get the title character’s inimitable “science of deduction” down pat, and the plot is rife with twists, turns, and inscrutable skullduggery. (2:20) (Richardson)

A Single Man In this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, Colin Firth plays George, a middle-aged gay expat Brit and college professor in 1962 Los Angeles. Months after the accidental death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover for 16 years, George still feels worse than bereft; simply waking each morning is agony. So on this particular day he has decided to end it all, first going through a series of meticulous preparations and discreet leave-takings that include teaching one last class and having supper with the onetime paramour (Julianne Moore) turned best friend who’s still stuck on him. The main problem with fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford’s first feature is that he directs it like a fashion designer, fussing over surface style and irrelevant detail in a story whose tight focus on one hard, real-world thing–grief–cries for simplicity. Not pretentious overpackaging, which encompasses the way his camera slavers over the excessively pretty likes of Nicholas Hoult as a student and Jon Kortajarena as a hustler, as if they were models selling product rather than characters, or even actors. (In fact Kortajarena is a male supermodel; the shocker is that Hoult is not, though Hugh Grant’s erstwhile About a Boy co-star is so preening here you’d never guess.) Eventually Ford stops showing off so much, and A Single Man is effective to the precise degree it lets good work by Goode, Moore and especially the reliably excellent Firth unfold without too much of his terribly artistic interference. (1:39) (Harvey)

*Terribly Happy The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) is the obvious corollary for this coolly humorous Danish import, though director/co-writer Henrik Ruben Genz’s firmly dampened-down thriller of sorts is also touched by David Lynch’s parochial surrealism and Aki Kaurismäki’s backwater puckishness. Happy isn’t quite the word for handsome, seemingly upstanding cop Jakob (Robert Hansen), reassigned from the big city of Copenhagen to a tiny village in South Jutland. There he slowly learns that the insular and self-sufficient locals are accustomed to fixing problems on their own and that cows, trucks, and other troubles have a way of conveniently disappearing into the bog. When buxom blonde Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen) whispers to him that her husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia) beats her, Jakob begins to find his moral ground slipping away from him — while his own dark secrets turn out to be not so secret after all. More of a winkingly paranoid, black-hearted comedy about the quicksand nature of provincial community and small-town complicity than a genuine murder mystery, Terribly Happy wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but that doesn’t stop this attractively-shot production from amusing from start to finish, never tarrying too long to make a point that it gets mired in the bog that swallows all else. (1:42) (Chun)

Up in the Air After all the soldiers’ stories and the cannibalism canards of late, Up in the Air‘s focus on a corporate ax-man — an everyday everyman sniper in full-throttle downsizing mode — is more than timely; it’s downright eerie. But George Clooney does his best to inject likeable, if not quite soulful, humanity into Ryan Bingham, an all-pro mileage collector who prides himself in laying off employees en masse with as few tears, tantrums, and murder-suicide rages as possible. This terminator’s smooth ride from airport terminal to terminal is interrupted not only by a possible soul mate, fellow smoothie and corporate traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), but a young tech-savvy upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who threatens to take the process to new reductionist lows (layoff via Web cam) and downsize Ryan along the way. With Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman, who oversaw Thank You for Smoking (2005) as well as Juno (2007), is threatening to become the bard of office parks, Casual Fridays, khaki-clad happy hours, and fly-over zones. But Up in the Air is no Death of a Salesman, and despite some memorable moments that capture the pain of downsizing and the flatness of real life, instances of snappily screwball dialogue, and some more than solid performances by all (and in particular, Kendrick), he never manages to quite sell us on the existence of Ryan’s soul. (1:49) (Chun)

Valentine’s Day Genre moviemaking loves it a gimmick — and nothing gets more greeting-card gimmicky or sell-by-date corny than the technique of linking holidays and those mandatory date nights out. You’re shocked that nobody thought of this chick flick notion sooner. Valentine’s Day is no My Bloody Valentine (1981, 2009) — it aspires to an older, more yupscale lady’s choice-crowd than the screaming teens that are ordinarily sought out by horror flicks. And its A-list-studded cast — including Oscar winners Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, and Kathy Bates as well as seemingly half of That ’70s Show‘s players — is a cut above TV tween starlets’ coming-out slasher slumber parties. It partly succeeds: bringing Valentine’s haters into the game as well as lovers is a smart ploy (although who believes that the chic-cheekbones-and-fulsome-lips crew of Jessica Biel and Jennifer Garner would be dateless on V-Day?), and the first half is obviously structured around the punchlines that punctuate each scene — a winning if contrived device. Juggling multiple storylines with such a whopping cast lends an It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) quality to the Jessica- and Taylor-heavy shenanigans. And some tales get a wee bit more weight than others (the charisma-laden scenes with Bradley Cooper and Roberts cry out for added screentime), creating a strangely lopsided effect that adds unwanted tedium to an affair that should be as here-today-gone-tomorrow as a Whitman’s Sampler. (1:57) (Chun)

When in Rome From the esteemed director of Ghost Rider (2007) and Daredevil (2003) comes a romantic comedy about a New York workaholic (Kristen Bell) who drunkenly takes magic coins from a fountain of love while on a trip to Rome. She soon finds herself pursued by a gaggle of goons keen on winning her affection, incited by the ancient Roman magic. With a supporting cast that includes Danny DeVito, Will Arnett, and That Guy From Napoleon Dynamite, there’s way too much going on for anyone to get a decent amount of screen time to strut their stuff. The budding relationship between Bell and charming sports reporter Nick (Josh Duhamel) is largely predictable fluff but pleasant enough for those of you who like that sort of thing. However, if you’re looking for a romantic pre-Valentine’s Day date movie, be warned that When in Rome is generally more interested in slapstick than sweetness. (1:31) (Galvin)

*The White Ribbon In Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, his first German-language film in ten years, violence descends on a small northern German village mired in an atmosphere of feudalism and protestant repression. When, over the course of a year, a spate of unaccountable tragedies strikes almost every prominent figure as well as a powerless family of tenant farmers, the village becomes a crucible for aspersion and unease. Meanwhile, a gang of preternaturally calm village children, led by the eerily intense daughter of the authoritarian pastor, keep appearing coincidentally near the sites of the mysterious crimes, lending this Teutonic morality play an unsettling Children of the Corn undertone. Only the schoolteacher, perhaps by virtue of his outsider status, seems capable of discerning the truth, but his low rank on the social pecking order prevent his suspicions from being made public. A protracted examination on the nature of evil — and the troubling moral absolutism from which it stems. (2:24) (Nicole Gluckstern)

The Wolfman Remember 2000’s Hollow Man, an update of 1933’s The Invisible Man so over-the-top that it could only have been brought to you by a post-Starship Troopers (1997) Paul Verhoeven? Fear not, Lon Chaney, Jr. fanclub members — The Wolfman sticks fairly true to its 1941 predecessor, setting its tale of a reluctant lycanthrope in Victorian England, where there are plenty of gypsies, foggy moors, silver bullets, angry villagers, and the like. Benicia Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, who’s given an American childhood backstory to explain his out-of-place stateside accent (and a Mediterranean-looking mother to make up for the fact that he’s supposed to be the son of Anthony Hopkins). Soon after returning to his estranged father’s crumbling manor, Lawrence is chomped by a you-know-what. Next full moon, Lawrence realizes what he’s become; murderous rampages and much angst ensue. (He’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk, except much hairier). Director Joe Johnston (a tech whiz who worked on the original Star Wars movies, and helmed 2001’s Jurassic Park III), doesn’t offer much innovation on the werewolf legend (or any scares, for that matter). But the effects, including transformation scenes and claw-tastic gore, are predictably top-notch. (2:05) (Eddy)

The Young Victoria Those who envision the Victorian Age as one of restraint and repression will likely be surprised by The Young Victoria, which places a vibrant Emily Blunt in the title role. Her Queen Victoria is headstrong and romantic — driven not only by her desire to stand tall against the men who would control her, but also by her love for the dashing Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). To be honest, the story itself is nothing spectacular, even for those who have imagined a different portrait of the queen. But The Young Victoria is still a spectacle to behold: the opulent palaces, the stunning gowns, and the flawless Blunt going regal. Her performance is rich and nuanced — and her chemistry with Prince Albert makes the film. No, it doesn’t leave quite the impression that 1998’s Elizabeth did, but it’s a memorable costume drama and romance, worthy of at least a moderate reign in theaters. (1:40) (Peitzman)

Youth in Revolt At first glance, Youth in Revolt‘s tragically misunderstood teenage protagonist Nick Twisp is typical of actor Michael Cera’s repertoire of lovesick, dryly funny, impossibly sensitive and meek characters, although his particularly miserable family life does ratchet up the pathos. The Sinatra-worshipping Nick spends his time being shuttled between his bitter, oversexed divorced parents (Jean Smart and Steve Buscemi), who generally view him as an afterthought. When Nick meets Sheeni Saunders (newcomer Portia Doubleday), a Francophile femme fatale in training, she instructs him to “be bad.” Desperately in lust, he readily complies, developing a malevolent, supremely confident alter ego, François Dillinger. With his bad teenage moustache, crisp white yachting ensemble, and slow-burn swagger, François conjures notions of a pubescent Patricia Highsmith villain crossed with a dose of James Spader circa Pretty in Pink. While the film itself is tonally wobbly (whimsical Juno-esque animated sequences don’t really mesh with a guy surreptitiously drugging his girlfriend), Cera’s startlingly self-assured, deadpan-funny performance saves it from devolving into smarmy camp. In an added bonus, his split-personality character plays like an ironic commentary on Cera’s career so far — imagine Arrested Development‘s George-Michael Bluth setting fire to a large swath of downtown Berkeley instead of the family banana stand. (1:30) (Devereaux)

REP PICKS

*”For the Love of It: Seventh Annual Festival of Amateur Filmmaking” See “Playtime.” Pacific Film Archive.

La Maison de Himiko The second of two Isshin Inudou films screening at Viz Cinema, this 2005 entry is more assured and professional than previous offering Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish (2003). It carries similar trademarks — being prone to wandering and dilly-dallying — but at least it’s willing to make bold statements. A struggling receptionist follows the promise of money to a part-time position in a gay nursing home, forcing a confrontation with her estranged father who founded it. The characters that inhabit the home are exceedingly colorful, each with his own air of mystery, and none more than the head caretaker, played skillfully by Jô Odagiri. At once affecting and obvious, celebratory and critical, La Maison de Himiko plays a hard game and hits more than it misses. Moments of quirky comedy are reminiscent of the work or Katsuhito Ishii (2004’s The Taste of Tea) and Inudou’s past experience as a director of Japanese commercials has a pleasant effect on the crisp cinematography. (2:11) Viz Cinema. (Galvin)

Silver screen swoons: V-Day at the movies

Andrew Lam

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A dark movie house is a great thing. Single? Slink in and bury yourself in the tumultuous happenings of others’ lives. Hot and heavy with a special someone? Gangbusters- find a nice secluded spot in the back row and try not to gross out the single people. Whatever your mood/Facebook relationship status is this Valentine’s Day weekend, the city’s movie theaters have a love-related flick for you and (if that’s where you’re at these days) yours. Grab some buttered popcorn and take a peep.

“A Valentine’s Day Weekend Tribute to John Hughes”

‘80s babies, I need go no further. The 16 Candles/The Breakfast Club/Pretty in Pink triple feature on Saturday provides ample time to get busy… or have a good cry. Again, whatever you’re into. Hughes is going to put your love of love back into you, at any rate.

Fri/12 7:30 pm. (through Sat/13), $10/day

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

www.castrotheatre.com

Rocky Horror Picture Show

A formative force in many an adolescent’s budding sex lives, this week’s Rocky will feature a lingerie show that teenagers cannot participate in and the standard singing, vamping and pratfalling that they can, and will. Find your love in fishnets and golden hot pants?

Sat/13 12 a.m., $10

Grand Theatre

3200 Grand, Oakland

(510) 452-3556

www.renaissancerialto.com

Annie Hall

Look… if Woody Allen can swing Diane Keaton, even temporarily, there’s hope for everyone. This movie approaches Closer on my list of top don’t-watch-with-your-boo-things-will-get-weird flicks, but by all means view in the midst of breakup- see, someday you’ll be able to chat intellectually over coffee too!

Fri/12-Sun/14 7:15 p.m., 9:20 p.m. (also 2 p.m., 4 p.m. on Sat and Sun), $7-9

Red Vic Movie House

1727 Haight, SF

(415) 668-3994

www.redvicmoviehouse.com

Beach Blanket Bingo

Annette loves Frankie! Bonnie loves Steve! Erik Von Zipper loves Sugar Kane! Wait, South Dakota Slim loves Sugar Kane? Plus they’re all sky diving? With 1960s technology? Oh my, but love can be complicated. The showing is brought to us by portable retro movie cabaret Thrillville and features old skool cartoons, previews,ukulelevariety artistKitten on the Keys, and a performance by Donna Loren, member of BBB’s original cast and sweetheart songstress of that most tumultuous decade.

Sun/14 7:30 p.m., $10

Balboa Theater

3630 Balboa, SF

(415) 221-8184

Not such a cani-ball

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks

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NEW DVD Considering that it’s the most notorious case of its kind in North American history (cannibalism for survival as opposed to lunacy’s sake), and that movies have been less than shy about portraying flesh-eating in recent decades (at least the zombie kind), it’s a little strange that the Donner Party saga has occupied so little celluloid space to date.

You know the generalities: 19th-century wagon-train emigrants from the Midwest got caught by severe winter weather, ran out of provisions, and resorted to eating their dead. This occurred among a small group (of 87 original travelers, less than half finally survived) who’d struck out on snowshoes to cross the Sierra Nevada and hopefully raise a search party to rescue those left behind. A handful made it, but by the time four successive relief expeditions reached the camps — the last in April 1847 — many of the stranded pioneers had died, and some of the others had begun to eat their corpses as well.

Ric Burns — Ken’s brother — made a good PBS documentary about this history in 1992. But there have been surprisingly few dramatizations. A new direct-to-DVD arrival simply titled The Donner Party should, then, be welcome for filling a curious gap. Add the notion of Crispin Glover top-billed as an increasingly hysterical devout Christian who’s first to propose snackin’ on his comrades, and expectations naturally run high.

Alas, debuting writer-director T.J. Martin’s film is earnest, dull, and not even particularly devoted to the historical facts. Attempting to capture the desperation and tedium of starving and freezing to death in near-hopeless wilderness conditions is a noble cause of sorts, but Party emerges so enervated and uninvolving one wishes for a little lurid exploitation.

The film starts as the portion of the larger Donner Party who became convinced to take a “shortcut” route — dubbed the Hastings Cutoff after its promoter — is already trapped by snowstorms in abandoned or makeshift shelters, running out of supplies and with no game in sight. Those who decide to strike out include Glover’s moneyed trip financier and 24‘s Clayne Crawford as the hired guide who at this point considers it’s every man for himself. Among those playing eventual jerks are Sons of Anarchy‘s Mark Boone Jr. and Leverage‘s Christian Kane.

Shot on location, The Donner Party looks handsome, though not so much so to make a good argument for winter camping. Still, a chapter in U.S. history this grotesque ought to be more squirm-inducing. The scariest thing here is Glover leading the cast in prayer — admittedly an unnerving concept. But not one that one that ought to feel freakier than chowing down on your travel companions.

www.donnermovie.com

alt.sex.column: Ars longa

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks

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andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea:

I’m 43, good-looking, and reputedly sexy, funny, and easy to hang out with. I got laid almost daily in my 20s. But my last steady relationship was in 2007. My confidence is at an all-time low. I masturbat* way too much to movies with Asian women and men who are hung to the floor, which makes me feel very small. I’m in a bad place right now and I don’t see the point of approaching women since I won’t be able to satisfy them like in the movies.

I’m a little under five inches. I’ve never felt comfortable with my size, although I did become very imaginative, creative, and kinky to give women pleasure. But I have never made a woman shake or moan with my penis. I miss female companionship, but I don’t feel man enough to try anymore. I just don’t have the confidence. Now I just fantasize about the kind of women I used to get.

Love,

Feeling Small

Dear Small:

Back when I used to answer questions at San Francisco Sex Information, we used to hear from a lot of guys who assumed that intercourse ought to go on for 90 minutes, penises ought to be at least 8 inches long, and all women achieve dramatic and very noisy org*sms from straight-ahead pounding and enjoy nothing more than a nice refreshing facial. What these guys had in common, was over-exposure to (mainstream) p*rn and little or no real-life experience from which to develop the kind of bullsh*t-o-meter one needs to protect one’s fragile sense of self-worth from most artifacts of popular culture, including Hollywood movies and all those songs about doing it all night till the morning light.

Those guys were virgins or recently devirginated, though, and were dismayed when real life failed, as it so often does, to match its own hype. You have no such excuse. You have actually done it with a real girl. Lots and lots of real girls, to hear you tell it. So buck up and back away from the giant-dick p*rn. Maybe try some amateur stuff, which, while still p*rn and still rife with p*rny conventions, may at least be more realistically scaled.

You do know that p*rn, like advertising, is aspirational and relies on a viewer’s ability to project himself into the imagined scenario, right? And it probably doesn’t work so well on people who already feel as rich, thin, powerful, well-dressed, and sexually satisfied as the people portrayed. Messages designed to make you feel unsatisfied with your own lot can be especially persuasive when you’re feeling vulnerable. So I assume that you also know that p*rn, however powerful, does not possess secret witch-doctor superpowers and cannot reach through the screen and SHRINK YOUR PENIS. So what the hell, dude? You were the same (admittedly smallish but hardly pathologically so) size back when you were in like Flynn. And all those women were not complaining then. Something has changed but it’s not the equipment.

I stopped making art when I stopped having the time and space (I hear these two are related somehow) to really spread out and do stuff, and I lost some confidence in my skills along the way, but a few weeks ago, sick of being a person who doesn’t do art, I dragged all my supplies out of storage and made something. If I can make art, you can … screw (despite the set-up I just could not, in the end, bring myself to say "make love").

I usually tell the unhung that they’ll have to develop mad skillz instead of relying on brute size to do the work for them. And then I add that everybody else would do well to do the same, since brute size is never a replacement for the skill that you, reportedly, already possess. And I usually throw in the fact that, speaking of not much penis, the people who report the most satisfying sex lives in all those surveys tend to be … lesbians.

To shake bad habits of thought and bad habits, period, find a cognitive-behavioral therapist. And to combat the blues from not getting laid, take a deep breath and find a date. Just don’t get the two things confused, and don’t put "has small penis" in the personals ad. Many women don’t care (and some prefer what you’ve got to offer) but it just doesn’t sound nice. You don’t have to marry this date. You don’t have to do her. Just prove to yourself that you can go.

And yes, I do know it’s not that easy. Neither is getting imaginative and kinky and giving women pleasure, and you used to do all that just fine. I would caution you, though, that thinking of women as something you (used to) "get" may have flown in 2007, but it won’t work now, bub. It’s a new decade.

Love,

Andrea

See Andrea’s other column at carnalnation.com.

Ars longa

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks

-

andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea:

I’m 43, good-looking, and reputedly sexy, funny, and easy to hang out with. I got laid almost daily in my 20s. But my last steady relationship was in 2007. My confidence is at an all-time low. I masturbat* way too much to movies with Asian women and men who are hung to the floor, which makes me feel very small. I’m in a bad place right now and I don’t see the point of approaching women since I won’t be able to satisfy them like in the movies.

I’m a little under five inches. I’ve never felt comfortable with my size, although I did become very imaginative, creative, and kinky to give women pleasure. But I have never made a woman shake or moan with my penis. I miss female companionship, but I don’t feel man enough to try anymore. I just don’t have the confidence. Now I just fantasize about the kind of women I used to get.

Love,

Feeling Small

Dear Small:

Back when I used to answer questions at San Francisco Sex Information, we used to hear from a lot of guys who assumed that intercourse ought to go on for 90 minutes, penises ought to be at least 8 inches long, and all women achieve dramatic and very noisy org*sms from straight-ahead pounding and enjoy nothing more than a nice refreshing facial. What these guys had in common, was over-exposure to (mainstream) p*rn and little or no real-life experience from which to develop the kind of bullsh*t-o-meter one needs to protect one’s fragile sense of self-worth from most artifacts of popular culture, including Hollywood movies and all those songs about doing it all night till the morning light.

Those guys were virgins or recently devirginated, though, and were dismayed when real life failed, as it so often does, to match its own hype. You have no such excuse. You have actually done it with a real girl. Lots and lots of real girls, to hear you tell it. So buck up and back away from the giant-dick p*rn. Maybe try some amateur stuff, which, while still p*rn and still rife with p*rny conventions, may at least be more realistically scaled.

You do know that p*rn, like advertising, is aspirational and relies on a viewer’s ability to project himself into the imagined scenario, right? And it probably doesn’t work so well on people who already feel as rich, thin, powerful, well-dressed, and sexually satisfied as the people portrayed. Messages designed to make you feel unsatisfied with your own lot can be especially persuasive when you’re feeling vulnerable. So I assume that you also know that p*rn, however powerful, does not possess secret witch-doctor superpowers and cannot reach through the screen and SHRINK YOUR PENIS. So what the hell, dude? You were the same (admittedly smallish but hardly pathologically so) size back when you were in like Flynn. And all those women were not complaining then. Something has changed but it’s not the equipment.

I stopped making art when I stopped having the time and space (I hear these two are related somehow) to really spread out and do stuff, and I lost some confidence in my skills along the way, but a few weeks ago, sick of being a person who doesn’t do art, I dragged all my supplies out of storage and made something. If I can make art, you can … screw (despite the set-up I just could not, in the end, bring myself to say "make love").

I usually tell the unhung that they’ll have to develop mad skillz instead of relying on brute size to do the work for them. And then I add that everybody else would do well to do the same, since brute size is never a replacement for the skill that you, reportedly, already possess. And I usually throw in the fact that, speaking of not much penis, the people who report the most satisfying sex lives in all those surveys tend to be … lesbians.

To shake bad habits of thought and bad habits, period, find a cognitive-behavioral therapist. And to combat the blues from not getting laid, take a deep breath and find a date. Just don’t get the two things confused, and don’t put "has small penis" in the personals ad. Many women don’t care (and some prefer what you’ve got to offer) but it just doesn’t sound nice. You don’t have to marry this date. You don’t have to do her. Just prove to yourself that you can go.

And yes, I do know it’s not that easy. Neither is getting imaginative and kinky and giving women pleasure, and you used to do all that just fine. I would caution you, though, that thinking of women as something you (used to) "get" may have flown in 2007, but it won’t work now, bub. It’s a new decade.

Love,

Andrea

See Andrea’s other column at carnalnation.com.

Our weekly picks

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WEDNESDAY (10th)

EVENT

Electronic Frontier Foundation: 20 Years

With technology becoming ever more an integral part of our daily lives, important issues surrounding digital rights continue to arise in new forms, be they regarding net neutrality, government wiretapping, or downloading music. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, was founded in 1990 to defend people’s rights in the areas of free speech, innovation, privacy and more. EFF celebrates its 20th anniversary tonight with a party and fundraiser hosted by Mythbusters’ Adam Savage, featuring music, entertainment, and tech luminaries such as Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak and Lotus 1-2-3 program designer Mitch Kapor. (Sean McCourt)

8 p.m., $30

DNA Lounge

375 11th St., SF.

(415) 626-1409

www.dnalounge.com, www.eff.org

THURSDAY (11th)

VISUAL ART

ARTEMIO: “Gersamkunstwerk”; Frankie Martin: “Through the Vortex”

Nothing sounds more disparate than “guns, grenades, bombs, and machetes” assembled into a mandala; and video of a “1,000 mile, California coastal bicycle” voyage. But who knows, juxtapositions create funny things like frisson. What distinguishes Mexico City conceptual artist ARTEMIO from New York “nomadic inter-media artist” Frankie Martin could potentially create a third work where the paradoxical polarities and politics of drug wars infiltrate the narratives of mobile subjectivity this side of the leisure-born border. I’m thinking something like Road Rash, the 1991 Sega Genesis video game where motorcyclists beat each other with chains and baseball bats in a race to the champagne and bikini line. You might see something a bit more sophisticated. (Spencer Young)

7–11 p.m. (through March 13), free

Queen’s Nails Projects

3191 Mission, SF

(415) 314-6785

www.queensnailsprojects.com

FRIDAY (12th)

FILM

“A Valentine’s Tribute Weekend to John Hughes”

When the Oscars’ people-who-died montage rolls around in March, more than one child of the ’80s will raise a fist for John Hughes, the writer-director-producer of many of the era’s most beloved teen films. Midnites for Maniacs programmer and host Jesse Hawthorne Ficks feels your pain — he’s assembled seven of Hughes’ enduring classics for a two-day feast of class- and clique-disrupting romances, multiple Ringwalds, touchy-feely grandmas, homemade prom dresses, Ferraris, the best f*cking movie about travel ever (you can bet your John Candy it ain’t Up in the Air), and Bueller … Bueller … Bueller. The marathon begins tonight with Some Kind of Wonderful . Angst ahead! (Cheryl Eddy)

7:30 p.m. (Some Kind of Wonderful), 9:30 p.m. (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and 11:45 p.m. (National Lampoon’s Vacation); through Sat/13, $10 per day

Castro Theater

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

www.ticketweb.com

MUSIC

San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival

Old-timey — it’s not just for lemonade, hoop skirts, handlebar mustaches, and dial-ups. It’s also for the retro-coolly acronymed SFBOT, raising its analog arms and taking over dozens of the Bay’s venues with that sweet, sweet sound of everyone’s favorite time period: yore. Loudon Wainwright III, Stairwell Sisters, Water Tower Bucket Boys, Asylum Street Spankers, and a strummin’ army of fiddlers, yelpers, crooners, stompers, hoofers, and juggers blow wildly through the roots of this 11th annual harmonic convergence. Oh yes, there shall be banjos. (Marke B.)

Various times, venues, and prices (through Feb. 24)

Tonight: Red Molly, Stairwell Sisters

8 p.m., $19.50

Freight and Salvage

2020 Addison, Berk.

www.sfbluegrass.org

MUSIC

Mahogany Soul Series: Chico DeBarge, Martin Luther

It’s Friday night — time to mellow out to some old school soul sounds. Chico DeBarge is a charismatic and skilled songwriter and producer long known for making the ladies swoon with his sensual singing style. He’s joined by fellow R&B man Martin Luther. Also in the mix is DJ Sake-1. Part of Ineffable Music Group’s Mahogany Soul Series, this event is a trifecta for R&B lovers. (Lilan Kane)

9 p.m. $16–$20

Shattuck Down Low

2284 Shattuck, Berk.

(650) 291-1732

ineffablerecords.inticketing.com

MUSIC

Badfish: A Tribute to Sublime

Badfish, named after a song on Sublime’s 40 Oz. to Freedom (Gasoline Alley/MCA, 1992), has helped keep the Sublime spirit alive. The group formed in 2001 when they met at the University of Rhode Island, where they were computer science majors. They’ve quickly garnered a fanbase in the college music scene and have played to sold out crowds since 2006. The members are also in their own non-tribute band, Scotty Don’t, which usually serves as the opening act for Badfish shows. (Kane)

9 p.m., $65–$84

Regency Ballroom

1290 Sutter, SF

(415) 673-5716

www.theregencyballroom.com

SATURDAY (13th)

EVENT

Alameda Zombie Crawl

Movies (and music videos) have taught us that zombies can run, swim, operate amusem*nt park machinery, and perform synchronized dances. It turns out the undead even enjoy exotic co*cktails — ergo, the first annual Alameda Zombie Crawl, which kicks off with drink specials (including, duh, Zombies) at the Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge. The brain-chomping masses will then head to Scobies Sports Bar and Grill and Lost Weekend Lounge, before breaking off into smaller groups to terrorize shopping malls and farmhouses in rural Pennsylvania. Come dressed to kill — er, like you’ve already been killed; there’ll be makeup assistance ashore the Island for anyone who doesn’t have Tom Savini-style gore-and-latex skills. (Eddy)

7 p.m. (makeup starting at 5 p.m., $5–$50), free

Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge

1304 Lincoln, Alameda

alamedazombie@live.com

EVENT/DANCE

Black Choreographers Festival

The Black Choreographers Festival kicks off its three-weekend run in Oakland with workshops, public discussions, $10 master classes, and seminars. New this is year is a free film series presented in partnership with see.think.dance. Starting this Saturday in Oakland, it includes documentaries, feature films, and shorts from Africa and the diaspora. Also this weekend is a Sunday morning youth meet, after which the young dancers invite the public to an afternoon concert. Despite videos and all manner of documentation, dance still gets passed on directly from one body to the next. This is an opportunity to see the next generation. Participating groups include Dimensions Extensions Dance Ensemble, Destiny Arts, Oakland School of the Arts, San Francisco School of the Arts, and On Demand. (Rita Felciano)

1–6 p.m. (also Sun/14, 4 p.m.; festival through Feb 28), free–$10

Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts

1428 Alice, Oakl.

(888) 819-9106

www.bcfhereandnow.com

EVENT

Workshop: “DIY Valentine — Sexy Bedroom”

Extravagant gifts and pricey candlelit dinners for the big V day have, more or less, become a thing of the past. In this economy, many are having to craft new ways of celebrating the day dedicated to all things love. Fortunately Kelly Malone is giving a sultry tutorial on how the ladies, and even gents, can spice up their bedrooms for the big night. At Workshop, you’ll learn how perfect a seductive co*cktail, tease your hair like Brigitte Bardot, create alluring smoky eyes, and transform your unadorned room into a lair fit for a sex kitten. (Elise-Marie Brown)

5:30 p.m., $40 (sign-up required)

Workshop

1798 McAllister, SF

(415) 874-9186

www.workshopsf.org

DANCE

Company C Contemporary Ballet

At nine, Company C Contemporary Ballet has found its groove. Two things stood out at last month’s Walnut Creek performances that will be repeated on this side of the Bay this weekend. These are beautifully alert dancers who can shine in a wide range of repertoire. Being in a small company, they switch gears rapidly and admirably. Also, founding Artistic Director Charles Anderson has a gift for programming. He commissioned Amy Seiwert in a hot nightclub number, brought Lar Lubovitch’s flowing Cavalcade to a tough Steve Reich score, introduced Charles Moulton’s ingenious Nine Person Ball Passing to a new generation, and choreographed his own Akimbo. He knows what’s he’s doing. (Felciano)

8 p.m. (also Sun/14, 2 p.m.), $18–$40

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Novellus Theater

701 Mission, SF

415 978-ARTS

www.ybca.org

SUNDAY (14th)

EVENT/FILM/MUSIC

Marc Huestis Presents “Justin Bond: Close to You” and Whatever Happened to Susan Jane?

“Did he beat you, girl? You got burned if he didn’t beat you, girl.” I can’t think of any better romantic advice than that, gleaned from a scene in Marc Huestis’ San Francisco new wave comedy from 1982, Whatever Happened to Susan Jane? Besides drag queen wisdom, the flick dispenses some great back-in-vogue music, including tunes from Tuxedo Moon and Indoor Life. A DVD release screening of it is just the prelude to a night with SF girl-gone-good Justin Bond, who’ll be singing Carpenters hits with a 10-piece orchestra, and hosting special guests the Thrillpeddlers. Trash the Ipecac and be my bloody, melancholy valentine. (Johnny Ray Huston)

Susan Jane: noon, $8

Justin Bond: 8:15 p.m., $25–$75

Castro Theatre

419 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

www.ticketweb.com

MUSIC

Girls, Smith Westerns

Girls were last year’s critical darlings, but their tour mates the Smith Westerns have perhaps a more interesting rise to fame. Hailing from Chicago, the four members range from 17 to 19 years old. They play the sort of Nuggets rock that went out of style 20 years before they were born. With songs like “Girl in Love” and “Be My Girl,” these guys wear their hearts on their sleeves — and really, isn’t that what Valentine’s Day is all about? (Peter Galvin)

With Magic Kinds, Hunx and the Punkettes

7 30 p.m., $16, sold out

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750

www.gamh.com

MUSIC

The Damned

Planting its stake in music history as the first U.K. punk band to release a single and tour the U.S., the Damned turned heads with “New Rose” and “Neat Neat Neat.” But since today is Valentine’s Day, perhaps its tune “Love Song” is most appropriate to sing along to: “I’ll be the ticket if you’re my collector/ I’ve got the fare if you’re my inspector/ I’ll be the luggage, if you’ll be the porter/ I’ll be the parcel, if you’ll be my sorter.” Join founding members Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible for a chaotic romp through the old days and slam dance with your sweetheart. (McCourt)

With Hewhocannotbenamed and the Generators

8 p.m. (7 p.m. doors), $30 ($54.95 with dinner)

Slim’s

333 11th St., SF

(415) 255-0333

www.slims-sf.com

MUSIC

Leela James

Leela James’s debut album A Change Is Gonna Come (Warner Bros., 2005) received rave reviews from critics and comparisons to Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan. After four years and a break from a major label, she’s returned with her self-produced sophom*ore record, Let’s Do It Again (Shanachie Records). The album was recorded using live takes, much like the original soul recordings created at Stax and Muscle Shoals. James pays homage to her musical influences with covers by Betty Wright, Bobby Womack, and the Staples Singers, to name a few. Attention soul lovers: let loose some raw emotion on V-Day. (Kane)

7 p.m. $30

Yoshi’s SF

1330 Fillmore, SF.

(415) 655-5600

www.yoshis.com

TUESDAY (16th)

MUSIC

Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras Party!: Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Zigaboo Modeliste & the New Aahkesstra, DJ Harry D

Oh Mardi Gras, the time of year where beads almost help people avert indecent exposure and jazz bands blare throughout the streets. It’s one of those rare moments that I find myself wanting to be in a city other than San Francisco. But since some of us can’t fly down to New Orleans for the week, the next best thing to the Southern goodness that is Louisiana is the Fat Tuesday party going down at the Independent. Listen to the sounds of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band while downing a glass of bourbon, and be transported to the place of deep, dark bayous and ambrosial gumbo. (Brown)

7:30 p.m., $22

Independent

628 Divisadero, SF

(415) 771-1421

theindependentsf.com

EVENT

“Ask a Scientist: Quantum Mechanics”

Although most of us are glad to be done with school and liberated from 10-page papers and final exams, every now and then it’s nice to learn something new. With the “Ask A Scientist” series anyone can unfold the scientific mysteries that make up the world we inhabit, at least on a level that can be taught in two hours. Discover how energy and matter make up quantum mechanics, how an object can be in two places at once, and other science stuff. (Brown)

7:00 p.m., free (excluding food or drinks)

Horatius

350 Kansas, SF

www.askascientistsf.com

The Guardian listings deadline is two weeks prior to our Wednesday publication date. To submit an item for consideration, please include the title of the event, a brief description of the event, date and time, venue name, street address (listing cross streets only isn’t sufficient), city, telephone number readers can call for more information, telephone number for media, and admission costs. Send information to Listings, the Guardian Building, 135 Mississippi St., SF, CA 94107; fax to (415) 487-2506; or e-mail (paste press release into e-mail body — no text attachments, please) to listings@sfbg.com. We cannot guarantee the return of photos, but enclosing an SASE helps. Digital photos may be submitted in jpeg format; the image must be at least 240 dpi and four inches by six inches in size. We regret we cannot accept listings over the phone.

Film Listings

David Talbot

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Erik Morse, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, and Matt Sussman. The film intern is Peter Galvin. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

SF INDIEFEST

The 12th San Francisco Independent Film Festival runs through Feb. 18 at the Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF. For tickets (most shows $11), visit www.sfindie.com. All times pm.

WED/10

City Island 7:15. Oh My God! It’s Harrod Blank! 7:15. Limbo Lounge 9:30. "Games of Telephone" (shorts program) 9:30.

THURS/11

Blood of Rebirth 7:15. West of Pluto 7:15. My Movie Girl 9:30. "None of the Above" (shorts program) 9:30.

FRI/12

Double Take 7:15. High on Hope 7:15. Down Terrace 9:30. Last Son 9:30.

SAT/13

"Access Denied" (shorts program) 2:45. Last Son 2:45. No One Knows About Persian Cats 5. René 5. Harmony and Me 7:15. Zooey and Adam 7:15. Easier With Practice 9:30. Godspeed 9:30.

SUN/14

Art of the Steal 2:45. Double Take 2:45. "An Animated World" (shorts program) 5. TBA 5. Corner Store 7:15. TBA 7:15. At the Foot of a Tree 9:30. TBA 9:30.

MON/15

"An Animated World" (shorts program) 7:15. Easier with Practice 7:15. "Access Denied" (shorts program) 9:30. High on Hope 9:30.

TUES/16

René 7:15. TBA 7:15. Zooey and Adam 9:30. Corner Store 9:30.

OPENING

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief Chris Columbus directs this adaptation of the popular children’s fantasy novel. (1:59) Elmwood.

*Saint John of Las Vegas See "Even Steven." (1:25) Embarcadero, California.

*Terribly Happy The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) is the obvious corollary for this coolly humorous Danish import, though director/co-writer Henrik Ruben Genz’s firmly dampened-down thriller of sorts is also touched by David Lynch’s parochial surrealism and Aki Kaurismäki’s backwater puckishness. Happy isn’t quite the word for handsome, seemingly upstanding cop Jakob (Robert Hansen), reassigned from the big city of Copenhagen to a tiny village in South Jutland. There he slowly learns that the insular and self-sufficient locals are accustomed to fixing problems on their own and that cows, trucks, and other troubles have a way of conveniently disappearing into the bog. When buxom blonde Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen) whispers to him that her husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia) beats her, Jakob begins to find his moral ground slipping away from him — while his own dark secrets turn out to be not so secret after all. More of a winkingly paranoid, black-hearted comedy about the quicksand nature of provincial community and small-town complicity than a genuine murder mystery, Terribly Happy wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but that doesn’t stop this attractively-shot production from amusing from start to finish, never tarrying too long to make a point that it gets mired in the bog that swallows all else. (1:42) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Chun)

Valentine’s Day Romantic comedy or horror flick? (1:57) Cerrito, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki.

The Wolfman Benicio Del Toro stars as the hairy antihero. (2:05) Sundance Kabuki.

ONGOING

Avatar James Cameron’s Avatar takes place on planet Pandora, where human capitalists are prospecting for precious unobtainium, hampered only by the toxic atmosphere and a profusion of unfriendly wildlife, including the Na’vi, a nine-foot tall race of poorly disguised cliches. When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, arrives on the planet, he is recruited into the "Avatar" program, which enables him to cybernetically link with a part-human, part-Na’vi body and go traipsing through Pandora’s psychedelic underbrush. Initially designed for botanical research, these avatars become the only means of diplomatic contact with the bright-blue natives, who live smack on top of all the bling. The special effects are revolutionary, but the story that ensues blends hollow "noble savage" dreck with events borrowed from Dances With Wolves (1990) and FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). When Sully falls in love with a Na’vi princess and undergoes a spirit journey so he can be inducted into the tribe and fight the evil miners, all I could think of was Kevin Bacon getting his belly sliced in The Air Up There (1994). (2:42) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Richardson)

The Blind Side When the New York Times Magazine published Michael Lewis’ article "The Ballad of Big Mike" — which he expanded into the 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game —nobody could have predicated the cultural windfall it would spawn. Lewis told the incredible story of Michael Oher — a 6’4, 350-pound 16-year-old, who grew up functionally parentless, splitting time between friends’ couches and the streets of one of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods. As a sophom*ore with a 0.4 GPA, Oher serendipitously hitched a ride with a friend’s father to a ritzy private school across town and embarked on an unbelievable journey that led him into a upper-class, white family; the Dean’s List at Ole Miss; and, finally, the NFL. The film itself effectively focuses on Oher’s indomitable spirit and big heart, and the fearless devotion of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the matriarch of the family who adopted him (masterfully played by Sandra Bullock). While the movie will delight and touch moviegoers, its greatest success is that it will likely spur its viewers on to read Lewis’ brilliant book. (2:06) Elmwood, Oaks. (Daniel Alvarez)

The Book of Eli The Book of Eli isn’t likely to win many prizes, but it could eventually be up for a lifetime achievement award in the "most sentimental movie to ever feature multiple decapitations by machete" category. Denzel Washington plays the titular hero, displaying scant charisma as a post-apocalyptic drifter with a beatific personality and talent for dismemberment. Eli squares off against an evil but urbane kleptocrat named Carnegie (Gary Oldman phoning in a familiar "loathsome reptile" performance). Convinced that possession of Eli’s book will place humanity’s few survivors in his thrall, Carnegie will do anything to get it, even pimping out the daughter (Mila Kunis, utterly unconvincing) of his blind girlfriend (Jennifer Beals, who should stick to playing people who can see). The two slumming lead actors chase each other down the highway, pausing for some spiritual hogwash and an exchange of gunfire before limping towards an execrable twist ending. At least there’s a Tom Waits cameo. (1:58) 1000 Van Ness. (Richardson)

Broken Embraces Pedro Almodóvar has always dabbled in the Hitchco*ckian tropes of uxoricide, betrayal, and double-identity, but with Broken Embraces he has attained a polyglot, if slightly mimicking, fluency with the language of Hollywood noir. A story within a story and a movie within a movie, Embraces begins in the present day with middle-aged Catalan Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter who takes time between his successful writing career to seduce and bed young women sympathetic to his disability. "Everything’s already happened to me," he explains to his manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo). "All that’s left is to enjoy life." But this life of empty pleasures is brought to a sudden halt when local business magnate Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) has died; soon after, Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), who has renamed himself Ray X, visits Caine with an unusual request. The action retreats 14 years when Caine was a young (and visually abled) director named Mateo Blanco; he encounters a breathtaking femme fatale, Lena (Penelope Cruz) — an actress-turned-prostitute named Severine, turned secretary-turned-trophy wife of Ernesto Martel — when she appears to audition for his latest movie. If all of the narrative intricacies and multiplicitous identities in Broken Embraces appear a bit intimidating at first glance, it is because this is the cinema of Almodóvar taken to a kind of generic extreme. As with all of the director’s post-’00 films, which are often referred to as Almodóvar’s "mature" pictures, there is a microscopic attention to narrative development combined with a frenzied sub-plotting of nearly soap-operatic proportions. But, in Embraces, formalism attains such prominence that one might speculate the director is simply going through the motions. The effect is a purposely loquacious and overly-dramatized performance that pleasures itself as much by setting up the plot as unraveling it. (2:08) Clay, Smith Rafael. (Morse)

Crazy Heart "Oh, I love Jeff Bridges!" is the usual response when his name comes up every few years for Best Actor consideration, usually via some underdog movie no one saw, and the realization occurs that he’s never won an Oscar. The oversight is painful because it could be argued that no leading American actor has been more versatile, consistently good, and true to that elusive concept "artistic integrity" than Bridges over the last 40 years. It’s rumored Crazy Heart was slotted for cable or DVD premiere, then thrust into late-year theater release in hopes of attracting Best Actor momentum within a crowded field. Lucky for us, this performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Bridges plays "Bad" Blake, a veteran country star reduced to playing bars with local pickup bands. His slide from grace hasn’t been helped by lingering tastes for smoke and drink, let alone five defunct marriages. He meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), freelance journalist, fan, and single mother. They spark; though burnt by prior relationships, she’s reluctant to take seriously a famous drunk twice her age. Can Bad handle even this much responsibility? Meanwhile, he gets his "comeback" break in the semi-humiliating form of opening for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) — a contemporary country superstar who was once Bad’s backup boy. Tommy offers a belated shot at commercial redemption; Jean offers redemption of the strictly personal kind. There’s nothing too surprising about the ways in which Crazy Heart both follows and finesses formula. You’ve seen this preordained road from wreckage to redemption before. But actor turned first-time director Scott Cooper’s screenplay honors the flies in the windshield inherited from Thomas Cobb’s novel — as does Bridges, needless to say. (1:51) California, Embarcadero, Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Creation Critically drubbed in its high-profile slot as the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival’s opening-night film, this handsome costume drama isn’t all that bad — but neither is it very good. Offscreen married couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly play Mr. and Mrs. Darwin in the mid-1850s, just as he’s about to incite a still-active public firestorm with The Origin of the Species. Charles is hardly in any shape to face such controversy, as the death of favorite daughter Annie (Martha West) has had a grave impact on both his psychological and physical health. That event has only strengthened wife Emma’s Christian faith, while destroying his own. Also arguing against the evolutionary tract’s publication is their close friend Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam); contrarily urging Darwin to go ahead and "kill God" are fellow scientitific enthusiasts played by Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch. Director Jon Amiel lends considerable visual panache, but Creation ultimately misses the rare chance to meaningfully scrutinize rationalism vs. religious belief perhaps the industrial era’s most importantly divisive issue — in favor of conventional dramatic dwelling on grief over a child’s loss. The appealing Bettany is somewhat straitjacketed by a character that verges on being a sickly bore, while Connolly is, as usual, a humorless one. (1:58) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Dear John As long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, Dear John is a solid effort. Not extraordinary by any means, it’s your standard Nicholas Sparks book-turned-film: boy meets girl — drama, angst, and untimely death ensue. Here, Channing Tatum stars at the titular John, a soldier on leave who falls in love with the seemingly perfect Savannah (Amanda Seyfried). Both actors are likable enough that their romance is charming, if not always believable. And Dear John‘s plot turns, while not quite surprising, are at least dynamic enough to keep the audience engaged. But at the end of the day, this is still a Nicholas Sparks movie — even with the accomplished Lasse Hallström taking over directorial responsibilities. There are still plenty of eye-roll moments and, more often than not, Dear John employs the most predictable tearjerking techniques. By the time you realize why the film is set in 2001, it’s September 11. Sad? Surely. Cheap? You betcha. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

District 13: Ultimatum Often cited by the uninformed as a wellspring of all that is artsy and pretentious about film, France is also home to some quality action movies. District 13: Ultimatum is the second in a series of breezy, adrenalized crime capers about a Parisian housing project and the politicians that secretly crave its destruction, and it succeeds as a satisfying reprise of the original’s inventive stunt-work and good-natured self-mockery. Cyril Raffaeli (a sort of Frenchified Bruce Willis) returns as Captain Damien Tomasso, a principled super-cop whose friendship with hunky petty criminal Leito (David Belle) carries over from the first film. Belle is widely acknowledged as the inventor of parkour, the French martial art of death-defying urban gymnastics, and an avalanche of clever fight choreography ensues as the pair karate kick their way toward the bottom of the conspiracy and a showdown with the forces of evil: an American conglomerate called "Harriburton." (1:41) Lumiere. (Richardson)

Edge of Darkness (1:57) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

*An Education The pursuit of knowledge — both carnal and cultural — are at the tender core of this end-of-innocence valentine by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (who first made her well-tempered voice heard with her 2000 Dogme entry, Italian for Beginners), based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir. Screenwriter Nick Hornby breaks further with his Peter Pan protagonists with this adaptation: no man-boy mopers or misfits here. Rather, 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a good girl and ace student. It’s 1961, and England is only starting to stir from its somber, all-too-sober post-war slumber. The carefully cloistered Jenny is on track for Oxford, though swinging London and its high-style freedoms beckon just around the corner. Ushering in those freedoms — a new, more class-free world disorder — is the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), stopping to give Jenny and her cello a ride in the rain and soon proffering concerts and late-night suppers in the city. He’s a sweet-faced, feline outsider: cultured, Jewish, and given to playing fast and loose in the margins of society. David can see Jenny for the gem she is and appreciate her innocence with the knowing pleasure of a decadent playing all the angles. The stakes are believably high, thanks to An Education‘s careful attention to time and place and its gently glamored performances. Scherfig revels in the smart, easy-on-eye curb appeal of David and his friends while giving a nod to the college-educated empowerment Jenny risks by skipping class to jet to Paris. And Mulligan lends it all credence by letting all those seduced, abandoned, conflicted, rebellious feelings flicker unbridled across her face. (1:35) Bridge, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

*Fantastic Mr. Fox A lot of people have been busting filmmaker Wes Anderson’s proverbial chops lately, lambasting him for recent cinematic self-indulgences hewing dangerously close to self-parody (and in the case of 2007’s Darjeeling Limited, I’m one of them). Maybe he’s been listening. Either way, his new animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, should keep the naysayer wolves at bay for a while — it’s nothing short of a rollicking, deadpan-hilarious case study in artistic renewal. A kind of man-imal inversion of Anderson’s other heist movie, his debut feature Bottle Rocket (1996), his latest revels in ramshackle spontaneity and childlike charm without sacrificing his adult preoccupations. Based on Roald Dahl’s beloved 1970 book, Mr. Fox captures the essence of the source material but is still full of Anderson trademarks: meticulously staged mise en scène, bisected dollhouse-like sets, eccentric dysfunctional families coming to grips with their talent and success (or lack thereof).(1:27) Elmwood, SF Center. (Devereaux)

*Fish Tank There’s been a string of movies lately pondering what Britney once called the not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman syndrome, including 2009’s An Education and Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire. Enter Fish Tank, the gritty new drama from British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Her films (including 2006’s Red Road) are heartbreaking, but in an unforced way that never feels manipulative; her characters, often portrayed by nonactors, feel completely organic. Fish Tank‘s 15-year-old heroine, Mia (played by first-time actor Katie Jarvis), lives with her party-gal single mom and tweenage sister in a public-housing high-rise; all three enjoy drinking, swearing, and shouting. But Mia has a secret passion: hip-hop dancing, which she practices with track-suited determination. When mom’s foxy new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, from 2008’s Hunger) encourages her talent, it’s initially unclear what Connor’s intentions are. Is he trying to be a cool father figure, or something far more inappropriate? Without giving away too much, it’s hard to fear too much for a girl who headbutts a teenage rival within the film’s first few minutes — though it soon becomes apparent Mia’s hard façade masks a vulnerable core. Her desire to make human connections causes her to drop her guard when she needs it the most. In a movie about coming of age, a young girl’s bumpy emotional journey is expected turf. But Fish Tank earns its poignant moments honestly — most coming courtesy of Jarvis, who has soulfullness to spare. Whether she’s acting out in tough-girl mode or revealing a glimpse of her fragile inner life, Arnold’s camera relays it all, with unglossy matter-of-factness. (2:02) Lumiere, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

44 Inch Chest You couldn’t ask for a much better cast than the one 44 Inch Chest offers. The film’s a veritable who’s who of veteran British actors: Tom Wilkinson, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Ian McShane. The story’s a bit less exceptional, though kudos to director Malcolm Venville and co-writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto for subverting expectations. While the movie’s poster suggests a gritty crime thriller, 44 Inch Chest is actually a somewhat subtle character drama. Winstone stars as Colin, a man devastated after his wife Liz (Joanna Whalley) leaves him for a younger man. His mobster friends encourage him to kidnap her new squeeze, nicknamed Loverboy (Melvil Poupaud), as revenge. But don’t expect any Tarantino-esque torture scenes: 44 Inch Chest spends most of its time revealing what’s going on in Colin’s head while he struggles to make sense of his friends’ conflicting philosophies. Hurt’s Old Man Peanut is the obvious standout, but McShane should also be commended for playing a character who is suave and confident, despite being a gay man named Meredith. (1:34) Lumiere. (Peitzman)

From Paris with Love Every so often, I walk out of a film feeling like I’ve been repeatedly buffeted by blows to the face. Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) had this effect, and it is now joined by From Paris With Love, a movie so aggressively stupid that the mistaken assumption that it was adapted from a video game could be construed as an insult to video games. John Travolta shows up chrome-domed as Charlie Wax, a loose-cannon CIA operative with a lot of transparently screenwritten machismo and an endless appetite for violence. He is joined by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, sporting a risible American accent, and the two embark on a frantic journey across the French capital that is almost as racist as it is misogynistic. I could fill an entire issue of this newspaper eviscerating this movie —suffice to say, don’t see it. (1:35) 1000 Van Ness. (Richardson)

The Hurt Locker When the leader of a close-knit U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad is killed in action, his subordinates have barely recovered from the shock when they’re introduced to his replacement. In contrast to his predecessor, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) is no standard-procedure-following team player, but a co*cky adrenaline junkie who puts himself and others at risk making gonzo gut-instinct decisions in the face of live bombs and insurgent gunfire. This is particularly galling to next-in-command Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). An apolitical war-in-Iraq movie that’s won considerable praise for accuracy so far from vets (scenarist Mark Boal was "embedded" with an EOD unit there for several 2004 weeks), Kathryn Bigelow’s film is arguably you-are-there purist to a fault. While we eventually get to know in the principals, The Hurt Locker is so dominated by its seven lengthy squad-mission setpieces that there’s almost no time or attention left for building character development or a narrative arc. The result is often viscerally intense, yet less impactful than it would have been if we were more emotionally invested. Assured as her technique remains, don’t expect familiar stylistic dazzle from action cult figure Bigelow (1987’s Near Dark, 1989’s Blue Steel, 1991’s Point Break) — this vidcam-era war movie very much hews to the favored current genre approach of pseudo-documentary grainy handheld shaky-cam imagery. (2:11) Opera Plaza, Shattuck.. (Harvey)

*The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus From the title to the plot to the execution, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is the kind of movie you’re told not to see sober. This is a film in which Tom Waits plays the Devil, in which characters’ faces change repeatedly, in which Austin Powers‘ Verne Troyer makes his triumphant big-screen return. The story is your basic battle between good and evil, with Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) struggling to save souls from Mr. Nick (Waits) in order to protect his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). Meanwhile, Valentina is wooed by the mysterious Tony, played by Heath Ledger in his final film role — along with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. There are plenty of big important themes to be analyzed here, but it’s honestly more fun to simply get lost in Doctor Parnassus’ Imaginarium. Director and co-writer Terry Gilliam has created a world and a mythology that probably takes more than one viewing to fully comprehend. Might as well let yourself get distracted by all the shiny colors instead. (2:02) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

Invictus Elected President of South Africa in 1995 — just five years after his release from nearly three decades’ imprisonment — Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) perceives a chance to forward his message of reconciliation and forgiveness by throwing support behind the low-ranked national rugby team. Trouble is, the Springboks are currently low-ranked, with the World Cup a very faint hope just one year away. Not to mention the fact that despite having one black member, they represent the all-too-recent Apartheid past for the country’s non-white majority. Based on John Carlin’s nonfiction tome, this latest Oscar bait by the indefatigable Clint Eastwood sports his usual plusses and minuses: An impressive scale, solid performances (Matt Damon co-stars as the team’s Afrikaaner captain), deft handling of subplots, and solid craftsmanship on the one hand. A certain dull literal-minded earnestness, lack of style and excitement on the other. Anthony Peckham’s screenplay hits the requisite inspirational notes (sometimes pretty bluntly), but even in the attenuated finals match, Eastwood’s direction is steady as she goes — no peaks, no valleys, no faults but not much inspiration, either. It doesn’t help that Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens contribute a score that’s as rousing as a warm milk bath. This is an entertaining history lesson, but it should have been an exhilarating one. (2:14) Oaks, SF Center. (Harvey)

It’s Complicated Allow me to spoil one line in It’s Complicated, because I believe it sums up — better than I ever could — everything right and wrong with this movie: "I prefer a lot of sem*n." Bet you never thought you’d hear Meryl Streep say that. The thrill of movies like It’s Complicated (see also: Nancy Meyer’s 2003 senior romance Something’s Gotta Give) is in seeing actors of a certain age get down and dirty. There is something fascinating (and for audiences of that same age, encouraging) about watching Alec Baldwin inadvertently flash a webcam or Streep and Steve Martin making croissants while stoned. Once the novelty wears off, however, It’s Complicated is a fairly run-of-the-mill romcom. Sure, the story’s a bit more unusual: 10 years after their divorce, Jane (Streep) and Jake (Baldwin) begin having an affair. But the execution is full of the same clichés you’ve come to expect from the genre, including plenty of slapstick, miscommunication, and raunchy humor. It’s delightful to see such talented actors in a film together. Less delightful when they’re shotgunning weed and saying "oh em gee." (2:00) Empire, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

*The Last Station Most of the buzz around The Last Station has focused on Helen Mirren, who takes the lead as the Countess Sofya, wife of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Mirren is indeed impressive — when is she not? — but there’s more to the film than Sofya’s Oscar-worthy outbursts. The Last Station follows Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), hired as Tolstoy’s personal secretary at the end of the writer’s life. Valentin struggles to reconcile his faith in the anarchist Christian Tolstoyan movement with his sympathy for Sofya and his budding feelings for fellow Tolstoyan Masha (Kerry Condon). For the first hour, The Last Station is charming and very funny. Once Tolstoy and Sofya’s relationship reaches its most volatile, however, the tone shifts toward the serious — a trend that continues as Tolstoy falls ill. After all the lighthearted levity, it’s a bit jarring, but the solid script and accomplished cast pull The Last Station together. Paul Giamatti is especially good as Vladimir Chertkov, who battles against Sofya for control of Tolstoy’s will. You’ll never feel guiltier for putting off War and Peace. (1:52) Albany, Embarcadero. (Peitzman)

Legion (1:40) 1000 Van Ness.

The Lovely Bones There comes a point when the boy with every toy should have some taken away, in order to improve focusing skills. Ergo, it seemed like a good idea when Peter Jackson became attached to The Lovely Bones. A (relatively) "small" story mixing real-world emotions with the otherworldly à la 1994’s Heavenly Creatures? Perfect. His taste for the grotesque would surely toughen up the hugely popular novel’s more gelatinous aspects. But no: these Bones heighten every mush-headed weakness in the book, sprinkling CGI sugar on top. Alice Sebold’s tale of a 1970s suburban teenager murdered by a neighbor is one of those occasional books that becomes a sensation by wrapping real-world horror (i.e. the brutal, unsolved loss of a child) in the warm gingerbread odor of spiritual comfort food. Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan of 2007’s Atonement) narrates from a soft-focus wish-fulfillment afterlife in which she can watch (and occasionally be seen by) those left behind. Bones is sentimentally exploitative in an ingenious way: it uses the protagonist’s violent victimization to stir a vague New Age narcissism in the reader. Susie is, yes, an "ordinary" girl, but she (and we) are of course so loved and special that all heavenly rules must be suspended just for her. Ultimately, divine justice is wrought upon her killer (Stanley Tucci, whose appropriately creepy scenes are the film’s best) — but why didn’t it intervene in time to save his prior victims? Guess they weren’t special enough. This is specious material — powerful in outline, woozy in specifics — that needed a grounding touch. But Jackson directs as if his inspirations were the worst of coproducer Steven Spielberg (i.e., those mawkish last reels) and Baz Luhrmann (in empty kitsch pictorialism). Seriously, after a while I was surprised no unicorns jumped o’er rainbows. (2:15) 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Me and Orson Welles It’s 1937, and New York City, like the rest of the nation, presumably remains in the grip of the Great Depression. That trifling historical detail, however, is upstaged in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (adapted from the novel by Robert Kaplow) by the doings at the newly founded Mercury Theatre. There, in the equally tight grip of actor, director, and company cofounder Orson Welles — who makes more pointed use of the historical present, of Italian fascism — a groundbreaking production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar hovers on the brink of premiere and possible disaster. Luckily for swaggering young aspirant Richard (High School Musical series star Zac Efron), Welles (Christian McKay), already infamously tyrannical at 22, is not a man to shrink from firing an actor a week before opening night and replacing him with a 17-year-old kid from New Jersey. Finding himself working in perilous proximity to the master, his unharnessed ego, and his winsome, dishearteningly pragmatic assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes), our callow hero is destined, predictably, to be handed some valuable life experience. McKay makes a credible, enjoyable Welles, presented as the kind of engaging sociopath who handles people like props and hails ambulances like taxicabs. Efron projects a shallow interior life, an instinct for survival, and the charm of someone who has had charming lines written for him. Still, he and Welles and the rest are all in service to the play, and so is the film, which offers an absorbing account of the company’s final days of rehearsal. (1:54) Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)

Nine Though it has a terrific concept — translating Fellini’s 1963 autobiographical fantasia 8 1/2 into musical terms — this Broadway entity owed its success to celebrity, not artistry. The 1982 edition starred Raul Julia and a host of stage-famed glamazons; the 2003 revival featured Antonio Banderas and ditto. Why did Rob Marshall choose it to follow up his celebrated-if-overrated film of 2002’s Chicago (overlooking his underwhelming 2005 Memoirs of a Geisha)? Perhaps because it provided even greater opportunity for lingerie-clad post-Fosse gyrations, starry casting, and production numbers framed as mind’s-eye fantasies just like his Chicago. (Today’s audiences purportedly don’t like characters simply bursting
into song — though doesn’t the High School Musical series disprove that?) Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, an internationally famed, scandalous Italian film director who in 1965 is commencing production on his latest fantastical epic. But with crew and financiers breathing down his neck, he’s creatively blocked — haunted by prior successes, recent flops, and a gallery of past and present muses. They include Marion Cotillard (long-suffering wife), Penélope Cruz (mercurial mistress), Nicole Kidman (his usual star), Judi Dench (costume designer-mother figure), Sophia Loren (his actual mamma), Fergie (his first putana), and Kate Hudson (a Vogue reporter). All can sing, pretty much, though Nine‘s trouble has always been Maury
Weston’s generic songs. This is splashy entertainment, intelligently conceived (not least by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella’s screenplay, which heightens the structural complexity of Arthur Kopit’s original book) and staged. But despite taking place almost entirely in its protagonist’s head, psychological depth is strictly two-dimensional. One longs for the suggestive intellectual nuance Marcello Mastroianni originally brought to Fellini’s non-singing Guido — something Nine doesn’t permit the estimable Day-Lewis. (2:00) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

*Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire This gut-wrenching, little-engine-that-could of a film shows the struggles of Precious, an overweight, illiterate 16-year-old girl from Harlem. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is so believably vigilant that her performance alone could bring together the art-house viewers as well as take the Oscars by storm. But people need to actually go and experience this film. While Precious did win Sundance’s Grand Jury and Audience Award awards this year, there is a sad possibility that filmgoers will follow the current trend of "discussing" films that they’ve actually never seen. The daring casting choices of comedian Mo’Nique (as Precious’ all-too-realistically abusive mother) and Mariah Carey (brilliantly understated as an undaunted and dedicated social counselor) are attempts to attract a wider audience, but cynics can hurdle just about anything these days. What’s most significant about this Dancer in the Dark-esque chronicle is how Damien Paul’s screenplay and director Lee Daniels have taken their time to confront the most difficult moments in Precious’ story –- and if that sounds heavy-handed, so be it. Stop blahging for a moment and let this movie move you. (1:49) Cerrito, Shattuck. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

*A Serious Man You don’t have to be Jewish to like A Serious Man — or to identify with beleaguered physics professor Larry Gopnik (the grandly aggrieved Michael Stuhlbarg), the well-meaning nebbishly center unable to hold onto a world quickly falling apart and looking for spiritual answers. It’s a coming of age for father and son, spurred by the small loss of a radio and a 20-dollar bill. Larry’s about-to-be-bar-mitzvahed son is listening to Jefferson Airplane instead of his Hebrew school teachers and beginning to chafe against authority. His daughter has commandeered the family bathroom for epic hair-washing sessions. His wife is leaving him for a silkily presumptuous family friend and has exiled Larry to the Jolly Roger Motel. His failure-to-launch brother is a closeted mathematical genius and has set up housekeeping on his couch. Larry’s chances of tenure could be spoiled by either an anonymous poison-pen writer or a disgruntled student intent on bribing him into a passing grade. One gun-toting neighbor vaguely menaces the borders of his property; the other sultry nude sunbather tempts with "new freedoms" and high times. What’s a mild-mannered prof to do, except envy Schrodinger’s Cat and approach three rungs of rabbis in his quest for answers to life’s most befuddling proofs? Reaching for a heightened, touched-by-advertising style that recalls Mad Men in look and Barton Fink (1991) in narrative — and stooping for the subtle jokes as well as the ones branded "wide load" — the Coen Brothers seem to be turning over, examining, and flirting with personally meaningful, serious narrative, though their Looney Tunes sense of humor can’t help but throw a surrealistic wrench into the works. (1:45) Oaks, Opera Plaza. (Chun)

*Sherlock Holmes There is some perfunctory ass-kicking in director Guy Ritchie’s big-ticket adaptation of the venerable franchise, but old-school Holmes fans will be pleased to learn that the fisticuffs soon give way to a more traditional detective adventure. For all his foibles, Ritchie is well-versed in the art of free-wheeling, entertaining, London-based crime capers. And though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary characters have been freshened up for a contemporary audience, the film has a comfortingly traditional feel to it. The director is lucky to have an actor as talented as Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, and the pair make good use of the American’s talents to create a Holmes resplendent in diffident, pipe-smoking, idiosyncratic glory. Though the film takes liberal creative license with the literary character’s offhand reference to martial prowess, it’s all very English, very Victorian (flying bowler hats, walking sticks, and bare-knuckle boxing), and more or less grounded in the century or so of lore that has sprung up around the world’s greatest detective. Jude Law’s John Watson is a more charismatic character this time around, defying the franchise’s tradition, and the byzantine dynamics of the pair’s close friendship are perfectly calibrated. The script, by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg, suffers a little by borrowing from other Victorian crime fictions better left untouched, but they get the title character’s inimitable "science of deduction" down pat, and the plot is rife with twists, turns, and inscrutable skullduggery. (2:20) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck. (Richardson)

A Single Man In this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, Colin Firth plays George, a middle-aged gay expat Brit and college professor in 1962 Los Angeles. Months after the accidental death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover for 16 years, George still feels worse than bereft; simply waking each morning is agony. So on this particular day he has decided to end it all, first going through a series of meticulous preparations and discreet leave-takings that include teaching one last class and having supper with the onetime paramour (Julianne Moore) turned best friend who’s still stuck on him. The main problem with fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford’s first feature is that he directs it like a fashion designer, fussing over surface style and irrelevant detail in a story whose tight focus on one hard, real-world thing–grief–cries for simplicity. Not pretentious overpackaging, which encompasses the way his camera slavers over the excessively pretty likes of Nicholas Hoult as a student and Jon Kortajarena as a hustler, as if they were models selling product rather than characters, or even actors. (In fact Kortajarena is a male supermodel; the shocker is that Hoult is not, though Hugh Grant’s erstwhile About a Boy co-star is so preening here you’d never guess.) Eventually Ford stops showing off so much, and A Single Man is effective to the precise degree it lets good work by Goode, Moore and especially the reliably excellent Firth unfold without too much of his terribly artistic interference. (1:39) Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Up in the Air After all the soldiers’ stories and the cannibalism canards of late, Up in the Air‘s focus on a corporate ax-man — an everyday everyman sniper in full-throttle downsizing mode — is more than timely; it’s downright eerie. But George Clooney does his best to inject likeable, if not quite soulful, humanity into Ryan Bingham, an all-pro mileage collector who prides himself in laying off employees en masse with as few tears, tantrums, and murder-suicide rages as possible. This terminator’s smooth ride from airport terminal to terminal is interrupted not only by a possible soul mate, fellow smoothie and corporate traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), but a young tech-savvy upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who threatens to take the process to new reductionist lows (layoff via Web cam) and downsize Ryan along the way. With Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman, who oversaw Thank You for Smoking (2005) as well as Juno (2007), is threatening to become the bard of office parks, Casual Fridays, khaki-clad happy hours, and fly-over zones. But Up in the Air is no Death of a Salesman, and despite some memorable moments that capture the pain of downsizing and the flatness of real life, instances of snappily screwball dialogue, and some more than solid performances by all (and in particular, Kendrick), he never manages to quite sell us on the existence of Ryan’s soul. (1:49) California, Cerrito, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

When in Rome From the esteemed director of Ghost Rider (2007) and Daredevil (2003) comes a romantic comedy about a New York workaholic (Kristen Bell) who drunkenly takes magic coins from a fountain of love while on a trip to Rome. She soon finds herself pursued by a gaggle of goons keen on winning her affection, incited by the ancient Roman magic. With a supporting cast that includes Danny DeVito, Will Arnett, and That Guy From Napoleon Dynamite, there’s way too much going on for anyone to get a decent amount of screen time to strut their stuff. The budding relationship between Bell and charming sports reporter Nick (Josh Duhamel) is largely predictable fluff but pleasant enough for those of you who like that sort of thing. However, if you’re looking for a romantic pre-Valentine’s Day date movie, be warned that When in Rome is generally more interested in slapstick than sweetness. (1:31) 1000 Van Ness. (Galvin)

*The White Ribbon In Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, his first German-language film in ten years, violence descends on a small northern German village mired in an atmosphere of feudalism and protestant repression. When, over the course of a year, a spate of unaccountable tragedies strikes almost every prominent figure as well as a powerless family of tenant farmers, the village becomes a crucible for aspersion and unease. Meanwhile, a gang of preternaturally calm village children, led by the eerily intense daughter of the authoritarian pastor, keep appearing coincidentally near the sites of the mysterious crimes, lending this Teutonic morality play an unsettling Children of the Corn undertone. Only the schoolteacher, perhaps by virtue of his outsider status, seems capable of discerning the truth, but his low rank on the social pecking order prevent his suspicions from being made public. A protracted examination on the nature of evil — and the troubling moral absolutism from which it stems. (2:24) Albany, Embarcadero. (Nicole Gluckstern)

The Young Victoria Those who envision the Victorian Age as one of restraint and repression will likely be surprised by The Young Victoria, which places a vibrant Emily Blunt in the title role. Her Queen Victoria is headstrong and romantic — driven not only by her desire to stand tall against the men who would control her, but also by her love for the dashing Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). To be honest, the story itself is nothing spectacular, even for those who have imagined a different portrait of the queen. But The Young Victoria is still a spectacle to behold: the opulent palaces, the stunning gowns, and the flawless Blunt going regal. Her performance is rich and nuanced — and her chemistry with Prince Albert makes the film. No, it doesn’t leave quite the impression that 1998’s Elizabeth did, but it’s a memorable costume drama and romance, worthy of at least a moderate reign in theaters. (1:40) Oaks. (Peitzman)

Youth in Revolt At first glance, Youth in Revolt‘s tragically misunderstood teenage protagonist Nick Twisp is typical of actor Michael Cera’s repertoire of lovesick, dryly funny, impossibly sensitive and meek characters, although his particularly miserable family life does ratchet up the pathos. The Sinatra-worshipping Nick spends his time being shuttled between his bitter, oversexed divorced parents (Jean Smart and Steve Buscemi), who generally view him as an afterthought. When Nick meets Sheeni Saunders (newcomer Portia Doubleday), a Francophile femme fatale in training, she instructs him to "be bad." Desperately in lust, he readily complies, developing a malevolent, supremely confident alter ego, François Dillinger. With his bad teenage moustache, crisp white yachting ensemble, and slow-burn swagger, François conjures notions of a pubescent Patricia Highsmith villain crossed with a dose of James Spader circa Pretty in Pink. While the film itself is tonally wobbly (whimsical Juno-esque animated sequences don’t really mesh with a guy surreptitiously drugging his girlfriend), Cera’s startlingly self-assured, deadpan-funny performance saves it from devolving into smarmy camp. In an added bonus, his split-personality character plays like an ironic commentary on Cera’s career so far — imagine Arrested Development‘s George-Michael Bluth setting fire to a large swath of downtown Berkeley instead of the family banana stand. (1:30) 1000 Van Ness. (Devereaux)

REP PICKS

Josee, The Tiger and The Fish A breakout hit in Japan, Isshin Inudou’s 2003 indie romance begins as a typically mannered Japanese melodrama, but proceeds to flirt with something deeper beneath the surface. Tsuneo is an average Osakan college student, chasing girls and working part-time at a mahjong parlor, until he stumbles upon Josee, a young girl with cerebral palsy. As Tsuneo begins to spend more time with Josee, it becomes unclear whether he is falling in love with her or merely cultivating another conquest. While toeing the line between giddy romance and darker drama can cause certain emotional scenes to ring false, it also delivers moments of brilliance that elevate an otherwise muddled storyline. Less affecting and exhaustive than Korea’s Oasis (2002), also a cerebral palsy love story, Josee feels comparatively slight. Though he often suggests a deeper meaning, Inudou never outright makes a statement. Whether such open-endedness is enough for you will be a matter of personal taste. (1:56) Viz Cinema. (Galvin)

This Week’s Picks

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WEDNESDAY (3rd)

FILM

SF Ocean Film Festival

The City by the Bay has a long history of film festivals. But it wasn’t until 2004 that one concentrated on this area’s oceanographic connections. Hosting more than 50 films, the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival has documentaries on marine life and environmental science, surfing videos, experimental and animated productions, and more. Crowd favorites include a program dedicated to sharks and a chance to meet the filmmakers who work among the denizens of the deep at an Aquarium of the Bay fundraiser. (Sean McCourt)

Various times (Sun/7), $8–$12

(filmmakers reception, $60; festival and VIP passes, $85–$175)

Theatre 39 and Aquarium of the Bay

Embarcadero and Beach, SF.

(415) 561-6251

www.oceanfilmfest.org

DANCE

Shantala Shivalingappa

Rarely seen in the Bay Area, Kuchipudi is one of the great classical Indian dance forms. Taking its name from the village in which it was “born” in the 15th century, it’s related to Bharatanatyam but is more theatrical, using fast and often airborne footwork. Shantala Shivalingappa is a Madras-born, Paris-raised dancer who has worked with Maurice Bejart, Peter Brook, and Pina Bausch. Her piece Gamakaone definition of which refers to Indian music’s shimmering quality — is a solo that Shivalingappa developed with her four musicians. One hopes it includes a part in which the Kuchipudi dancer performs on the rims of a brass plate. (Rita Felciano)

8 p.m, $27–$39

Herbst Theatre

401 Van Ness, SF

(415) 392-2545

www.performances.org

MUSIC

Doug Carn and Black Jazz Reunion

In the early 1970s, pianist Gene Russell founded Black Jazz Records in Oakland. Branching away from traditional jazz, the label was inspired by African-American political and spiritual movements taking place at the time. One of its most successful acts was pianist and composer Doug Carn. Better known as half of the duo Doug and Jeane Carn, he has sold more records than Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis. Introduced to music at a young age by his mother and an uncle, Carn has studied piano, alto sax, and also oboe. His adaptations of Coltrane’s classic “A Love Supreme” and Horace Silver’s “Peace” are creative and lyrical. (Lilan Kane)

8 and 10 p.m, $10–$18

Yoshi’s

510 Embarcadero West, Oakl.

(510) 238-9200

www.yoshis.com

THURSDAY (4th)

DANCE/PERFORMANCE

Luxury Items

Monique Jenkinson, a.k.a. Fauxnique, is a master of lipsync. But I’m excited to hear what she has to say in her new show. In between the bravura dynamic dance moments of Faux Real, Jenkinson made her past into present-time conversation with the audience, and did so with offhand ease. This time, she’s digging into cultural obsessions. I’ve heard that Luxury Items includes a eulogy for newspapers — from the perspective of a hoarder. (Johnny Ray Huston)

8 p.m. (through Feb 21), $10–$20

CounterPULSE

1310 Mission, SF

(415) 863-9834

www.odcdance.org

TALK/LECTURE

“After Dark: Sexplorations — Exploring Nature’s Reproductive Strategies “

Throw the word sex in front of any event title and folks will flock. So maybe the people at the Exploratorium are on to something with the latest installment of its “After Dark” lecture series. For one night, anyone old enough to legally down a good old glass of hooch can learn why Viagra only works for men, whether it’s possible to org*sm with just your thoughts, and how sex toys do their magic. Think of it as the sex ed class you always wanted to take but never did. Mary Roach, author of Bonk, will be on hand to pass on some expertise. (Elise-Marie Brown)

6 p.m., $15 (free for members)

McBean Theater

Exploratorium

3601 Lyon, SF

(415) 561-0363

www.exploratorium.edu

FILM

Sacred Places

Let those critics who would universalize their disillusionment (however well-founded) into “death of cinema” bromides see Jean-Marie Téno’s marvelous essay-film Sacred Places. A few minutes observing Nanema Boubacar’s neighborhood cine-club, located in a poor district of Ouagadougou, and they might let up. Like Agnès Varda, Téno prefers pondering large questions on the move. Here, he reexamines the founding principles of African cinema in a split-portrait of Boubacar, a struggling entrepreneur (in Burkina Faso, too, it’s more difficult to procure African titles than the latest Hollywood blockbuster), and Jules Cesar Bamouni, a djembe maker who draws the same links between filmmaking and the griot tradition that were so important to Ousmane Sembène. (Max Goldberg)

7 p.m., $9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-1412

www.bampfa.berkeley.edu

FILM

Movie Night at SFO

Like most people in the Bay Area, I’ve only gone to San Francisco International Airport to pick someone up or fly away (usually to a warmer destination). Basically I go there to handle business, maybe grab a bite, and leave. But now this aviation destination is giving a reason to visit sans luggage — free movie nights.Tonight SFO screens The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club. The 2009 documentary delves into the work of Florence “Pancho” Barnes, Hollywood’s first female stunt pilot. Writer-producer Nick Spark and director Amanda Pope will be on hand. (Brown)

6 p.m., free

SFO Aviation Museum

SFO, International Terminal, Level 3

(650) 821-9911

www.flysfo.com/web/page/orphan/movie

DANCE

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence

Nick Cave is back. Sort of. If you missed Ronald K. Brown’s response to Cave’s mysterious masked figures last year, here is another opportunity. The work, now called Journey, opens this remarkable dancer’s return engagement. Brown’s work thrives on an underground stream of spirituality. He started his Evidence company at 19, and his voice and his polyglot dance vocabulary have only become more personal and burnished. Brown is very much a 21st century artist. New on this program will be the all-male 2008 Two-Year Old Gentlemen, which explores the relationships that men develop with each other. The gorgeous 1999 piece Grace has a good chance to become Evidence’s Revelations. (Felciano)

8 p.m. (through Sat/6), $30

Novellus Theater

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 392-2545

www.ybca.org

THEATER

Fabrik: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz

Jim Henson made a mark with his lighthearted use of puppets, or should I say Muppets. But Wakka Wakka Productions, a visual theater company from New York City, is a far cry from Kermit the Frog. Instead of presenting mirthful sketches, this nonprofit uses hand-and-rod puppets to unfold dark tales of valor and resilience. Inspired by Yiddish and Nordic folktales, Fabrik tells the story of Moritz Rabinowitz, a Polish Jew who publicly voiced his opposition to anti-Semitism during the rise of Nazi Germany. (Brown)

8 p.m. (through Sun/28), $20–$34 (pay-what-you-can Thurs/4)

The Jewish Theatre San Francisco

470 Florida, SF

(415) 292-1233

www.tjt-sf.org

FRIDAY (5th)

EVENT

San Francisco Beer Week

The Bay Area is a treasure trove of microbreweries and their thirsty followers — a perfect combination for San Francisco Beer Week, which, despite its city-centric name, hosts events throughout the greater Bay Area, including a variety of tastings, food pairings, meet-and-greets with brewers, and live entertainment. The festival kicks off with an opening gala at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Over the next 10 days, breweries including 21st Amendment, Beach Chalet, Speakeasy, Seabright, Santa Cruz Mountain, Anchor, and Thirsty Bear share their best suds. (McCourt)

5–9 p.m. opening gala, $55–$65

Various locations (through Feb. 14), prices vary

www.sfbeerweek.org

EVENT

Wonderland: A Tim Burton Ball

If only I could live in Tim Burton’s world, with misfit heroes and a Danny Elfman soundtrack. I’d cast Winona Ryder as my best friend, Helena Bonham-Carter as my kooky artistic mentor, and Johnny Depp as … well, you know. I’d be darkly beautiful and I’d dance beneath ice sculpture snow. Too bad movies aren’t reality. Nonetheless, Brian Gardner — founder of Swing Goth and lover of all things modern and macabre — is doing his best to close that gap. This week he hosts an ambitious event dedicated to Burton, just in time for the media blitz that’s about to have everyone saying Alice rather than Avatar. (Molly Freedenberg)

9:30 p.m. $15–$20 ($5 extra for pre-event dance class at 7:30 p.m.)

DNA Lounge

375 11th St, SF.

(415) 626-1409

www.dnalounge.com

MUSIC

Irma Thomas and the Professionals

Do you know what it means to be the Soul Queen of New Orleans? Big Easy native Irma Thomas has been pouring her heart into the soul circuit for the past five decades. She celebrates this half-century anniversary with the Rounder Records release The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration. People love and know Thomas for tunes, but she also opened her own club, Lion’s Den, in the 1980s. She headlined frequently there until Hurricane Katrina brought disaster. In 2007, Thomas’s After The Rain (Rounder/UMGD) brought her first Grammy. (Kane)

8 and 10 p.m. (also Sat 2/6), $30

Yoshi’s

1330 Fillmore, SF

(415) 655-5600

www.yoshis.com

VISUAL ART

“Article X”

The starting point for the artworks in this show is not the X, but the X’s center: that crucial yet vapid intersection where form meets function. It is here that photographer David Trautrimas and sculptural artist Kristina Lewis originate with the ordinary: household kitchen appliances and high heels, respectively. Lewis’ reassembled high heel sculptures, which hint at sculptural artist Brian Jungen’s series of Nike Air Jordans-turned-aboriginal masks, tease and fray the ends of X. (Spencer Young)

5–8 p.m. (continues through March 20), free

Johansson Projects

2300 Telegraph, Oakl.

(510) 444-9140

www.johanssonprojects.net

SATURDAY (6th)

MUSIC

Dawes

In recording his group Dawes’ debut album North Hills (Ato Records/Red), Taylor Goldsmith said that he wanted the inherent quality of the instruments to come across. Perhaps the greatest instrument Dawes has is Goldsmith’s voice, which is infused with a soulful timbre. Influenced by Otis Redding and James Brown, Dawes produces a warm country rock that incorporates tight drumming from Goldsmith’s younger brother Griffin. The sound feels initially familiar, and carries a hint of early 1970s Creedence. But with personal lyrics and a lush mix of instrumentation, Dawes manages to pull in the listener. Which is good for everyone. (Adam Lesser)

With Cory Chisel and Wandering Sons, Jason Boesel

9 p.m., $12

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF

(415) 861-2011

www.rickshawstop.com

MUSIC

Broun Fellinis play Zeppelin

Broun Fellinis has been bending genres, defying categorization, and blazing artistic trails since their foundation in 1991. Deeply embedded within the creative landscape of our fair city, this righteous jazz trio is known for conjuring acoustic spaces that transcend genre. My question is, what will it do with Led Zeppelin? When you match Zeppelin’s brand of distinctive debauchery in the musical realm with the imaginative hands of Professor Boris Karnaz, Black Edgar Kenyatta, and Kirk the Redeemer, the result can only be good, maybe great, if not historic. What? You don’t like cool stuff? Sure you do. You should go. (D. Scot Miller)

10 p.m., $10

Coda Jazz Supper Club

1710 Mission St, SF

(415) 551-CODA

www.codalive.com

MONDAY (8th)

MUSIC/EVENT

Marcus Books’ 50th Anniversary Fundraiser

Literacy is a gift most take for granted. It allows you read about this event right now. You can help other people learn how to read by attending this fundraiser, a music and literature showcase that benefits Marcus Books’ Scholar Book Club nonprofit literacy program. The evening’s host, spoken word artist Scorpio Blues, has been featured on BET, on HBO’s Def Poetry, and is also the CEO of Hot Water Cornbread, a spoken word and entertainment management company in Oakland. Her group the Hot Water Cornbread All Star Poets performs as well. (Kane)

With Blayze, Pop Lyfe, HWCB Poets

8 p.m., $15–$20

Yoshi’s

1330 Fillmore at Eddy, SF

(415) 655-5600

www.marcusbookstores.com

www.yoshis.com

MUSIC

St. Vincent

St. Vincent’s Jane-of-all-trades Annie Clark cut her teeth playing with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, so there is no doubt she has the experience to deliver a live show worthy of her sophom*ore album Actor (4AD). Tender and tough, Clark may appear to draw from the singer-songwriter well, but dashes of menace and complexity separate her intricate pop songs from run-of-the-mill balladry. Considering Actor was written and recorded by Clark using GarageBand, here’s your chance to enjoy the lush tunes with a full ensemble. (Peter Galvin)

With Wildbirds and Peacedrums

8 p.m., (doors: 7 p.m.), $20

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750

www.gamh.com

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Film Listings

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Erik Morse, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, and Matt Sussman. The film intern is Peter Galvin. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

SF INDIEFEST

The 12th San Francisco Independent Film Festival runs Feb. 4-18 at the Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF. For tickets (most shows $11), visit www.sfindie.com. For commentary, see “Hollywouldn’t” and “Double Vision.” All times pm.

THURS/4

Wah Do Dem 7:15, 9:30.

FRI/5

Limbo Lounge 7:15. Less Adolescent 7:15. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead 9:30. Beyond the Pole 9:30.

SAT/6

“Games of Telephone” (shorts program) 2:45. Less Adolescent 2:45. West of Pluto 5. “The End is Not the End” (shorts program) 5. City Island 7:15. A + D 7:15. My Movie Girl 9:30. Lilli and Secure Space 9:30.

SUN/7

“Life NorCal-Style” (shorts program) 2:45. Beyond the Pole 2:45. “None of the Above” (shorts program) 5. Bonecrusher 5. Oh My God! It’s Harrod Blank! 7:15. “You’re Not the Only, Lonely” (shorts program) 7:15. The Blood of Rebirth 9:30. Point Traverse 9:30.

MON/8

“You’re Not the Only, Lonely” (shorts program) 7:15. Bonecrusher 7:15. Point Traverse 9:30. “Life NorCal-Style” (shorts program) 9:30.

TUES/9

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead 7:15. Lilli and Secure Space 7:15. A + D 9:30. “The End is Not the End” (shorts program) 9:30.

OPENING

Dear John As long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, Dear John is a solid effort. Not extraordinary by any means, it’s your standard Nicholas Sparks book-turned-film: boy meets girl — drama, angst, and untimely death ensue. Here, Channing Tatum stars at the titular John, a soldier on leave who falls in love with the seemingly perfect Savannah (Amanda Seyfried). Both actors are likable enough that their romance is charming, if not always believable. And Dear John‘s plot turns, while not quite surprising, are at least dynamic enough to keep the audience engaged. But at the end of the day, this is still a Nicholas Sparks movie — even with the accomplished Lasse Hallström taking over directorial responsibilities. There are still plenty of eye-roll moments and, more often than not, Dear John employs the most predictable tearjerking techniques. By the time you realize why the film is set in 2001, it’s September 11. Sad? Surely. Cheap? You betcha. (1:48) Presidio, Shattuck. (Peitzman)

District 13: Ultimatum The sequel to 2004’s French action hit District 13 promises even more insane fights and high-flying stunts. (1:41) Lumiere, Shattuck.

44 Inch Chest You couldn’t ask for a much better cast than the one 44 Inch Chest offers. The film’s a veritable who’s who of veteran British actors: Tom Wilkinson, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Ian McShane. The story’s a bit less exceptional, though kudos to director Malcolm Venville and co-writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto for subverting expectations. While the movie’s poster suggests a gritty crime thriller, 44 Inch Chest is actually a somewhat subtle character drama. Winstone stars as Colin, a man devastated after his wife Liz (Joanna Whalley) leaves him for a younger man. His mobster friends encourage him to kidnap her new squeeze, nicknamed Loverboy (Melvil Poupaud), as revenge. But don’t expect any Tarantino-esque torture scenes: 44 Inch Chest spends most of its time revealing what’s going on in Colin’s head while he struggles to make sense of his friends’ conflicting philosophies. Hurt’s Old Man Peanut is the obvious standout, but McShane should also be commended for playing a character who is suave and confident, despite being a gay man named Meredith. (1:34) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Peitzman)

From Paris with Love John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers star as secret agents in this Luc Besson-produced thriller. (1:35)

*The Last Station Most of the buzz around The Last Station has focused on Helen Mirren, who takes the lead as the Countess Sofya, wife of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Mirren is indeed impressive — when is she not? — but there’s more to the film than Sofya’s Oscar-worthy outbursts. The Last Station follows Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), hired as Tolstoy’s personal secretary at the end of the writer’s life. Valentin struggles to reconcile his faith in the anarchist Christian Tolstoyan movement with his sympathy for Sofya and his budding feelings for fellow Tolstoyan Masha (Kerry Condon). For the first hour, The Last Station is charming and very funny. Once Tolstoy and Sofya’s relationship reaches its most volatile, however, the tone shifts toward the serious — a trend that continues as Tolstoy falls ill. After all the lighthearted levity, it’s a bit jarring, but the solid script and accomplished cast pull The Last Station together. Paul Giamatti is especially good as Vladimir Chertkov, who battles against Sofya for control of Tolstoy’s will. You’ll never feel guiltier for putting off War and Peace. (1:52) Albany, Embarcadero. (Peitzman)

ONGOING

Avatar James Cameron’s Avatar takes place on planet Pandora, where human capitalists are prospecting for precious unobtainium, hampered only by the toxic atmosphere and a profusion of unfriendly wildlife, including the Na’vi, a nine-foot tall race of poorly disguised cliches. When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, arrives on the planet, he is recruited into the “Avatar” program, which enables him to cybernetically link with a part-human, part-Na’vi body and go traipsing through Pandora’s psychedelic underbrush. Initially designed for botanical research, these avatars become the only means of diplomatic contact with the bright-blue natives, who live smack on top of all the bling. The special effects are revolutionary, but the story that ensues blends hollow “noble savage” dreck with events borrowed from Dances With Wolves (1990) and FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). When Sully falls in love with a Na’vi princess and undergoes a spirit journey so he can be inducted into the tribe and fight the evil miners, all I could think of was Kevin Bacon getting his belly sliced in The Air Up There (1994). (2:42) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Richardson)

The Blind Side When the New York Times Magazine published Michael Lewis’ article “The Ballad of Big Mike” — which he expanded into the 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game —nobody could have predicated the cultural windfall it would spawn. Lewis told the incredible story of Michael Oher — a 6’4, 350-pound 16-year-old, who grew up functionally parentless, splitting time between friends’ couches and the streets of one of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods. As a sophom*ore with a 0.4 GPA, Oher serendipitously hitched a ride with a friend’s father to a ritzy private school across town and embarked on an unbelievable journey that led him into a upper-class, white family; the Dean’s List at Ole Miss; and, finally, the NFL. The film itself effectively focuses on Oher’s indomitable spirit and big heart, and the fearless devotion of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the matriarch of the family who adopted him (masterfully played by Sandra Bullock). While the movie will delight and touch moviegoers, its greatest success is that it will likely spur its viewers on to read Lewis’ brilliant book. (2:06) Four Star, Marina, Oaks. (Daniel Alvarez)

The Book of Eli The Book of Eli isn’t likely to win many prizes, but it could eventually be up for a lifetime achievement award in the “most sentimental movie to ever feature multiple decapitations by machete” category. Denzel Washington plays the titular hero, displaying scant charisma as a post-apocalyptic drifter with a beatific personality and talent for dismemberment. Eli squares off against an evil but urbane kleptocrat named Carnegie (Gary Oldman phoning in a familiar “loathsome reptile” performance). Convinced that possession of Eli’s book will place humanity’s few survivors in his thrall, Carnegie will do anything to get it, even pimping out the daughter (Mila Kunis, utterly unconvincing) of his blind girlfriend (Jennifer Beals, who should stick to playing people who can see). The two slumming lead actors chase each other down the highway, pausing for some spiritual hogwash and an exchange of gunfire before limping towards an execrable twist ending. At least there’s a Tom Waits cameo. (1:58) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Richardson)

Broken Embraces Pedro Almodóvar has always dabbled in the Hitchco*ckian tropes of uxoricide, betrayal, and double-identity, but with Broken Embraces he has attained a polyglot, if slightly mimicking, fluency with the language of Hollywood noir. A story within a story and a movie within a movie, Embraces begins in the present day with middle-aged Catalan Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter who takes time between his successful writing career to seduce and bed young women sympathetic to his disability. “Everything’s already happened to me,” he explains to his manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo). “All that’s left is to enjoy life.” But this life of empty pleasures is brought to a sudden halt when local business magnate Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) has died; soon after, Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), who has renamed himself Ray X, visits Caine with an unusual request. The action retreats 14 years when Caine was a young (and visually abled) director named Mateo Blanco; he encounters a breathtaking femme fatale, Lena (Penelope Cruz) — an actress-turned-prostitute named Severine, turned secretary-turned-trophy wife of Ernesto Martel — when she appears to audition for his latest movie. If all of the narrative intricacies and multiplicitous identities in Broken Embraces appear a bit intimidating at first glance, it is because this is the cinema of Almodóvar taken to a kind of generic extreme. As with all of the director’s post-’00 films, which are often referred to as Almodóvar’s “mature” pictures, there is a microscopic attention to narrative development combined with a frenzied sub-plotting of nearly soap-operatic proportions. But, in Embraces, formalism attains such prominence that one might speculate the director is simply going through the motions. The effect is a purposely loquacious and overly-dramatized performance that pleasures itself as much by setting up the plot as unraveling it. (2:08) Clay, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Morse)

Crazy Heart “Oh, I love Jeff Bridges!” is the usual response when his name comes up every few years for Best Actor consideration, usually via some underdog movie no one saw, and the realization occurs that he’s never won an Oscar. The oversight is painful because it could be argued that no leading American actor has been more versatile, consistently good, and true to that elusive concept “artistic integrity” than Bridges over the last 40 years. It’s rumored Crazy Heart was slotted for cable or DVD premiere, then thrust into late-year theater release in hopes of attracting Best Actor momentum within a crowded field. Lucky for us, this performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Bridges plays “Bad” Blake, a veteran country star reduced to playing bars with local pickup bands. His slide from grace hasn’t been helped by lingering tastes for smoke and drink, let alone five defunct marriages. He meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), freelance journalist, fan, and single mother. They spark; though burnt by prior relationships, she’s reluctant to take seriously a famous drunk twice her age. Can Bad handle even this much responsibility? Meanwhile, he gets his “comeback” break in the semi-humiliating form of opening for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) — a contemporary country superstar who was once Bad’s backup boy. Tommy offers a belated shot at commercial redemption; Jean offers redemption of the strictly personal kind. There’s nothing too surprising about the ways in which Crazy Heart both follows and finesses formula. You’ve seen this preordained road from wreckage to redemption before. But actor turned first-time director Scott Cooper’s screenplay honors the flies in the windshield inherited from Thomas Cobb’s novel — as does Bridges, needless to say. (1:51) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Creation Critically drubbed in its high-profile slot as the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival’s opening-night film, this handsome costume drama isn’t all that bad — but neither is it very good. Offscreen married couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly play Mr. and Mrs. Darwin in the mid-1850s, just as he’s about to incite a still-active public firestorm with The Origin of the Species. Charles is hardly in any shape to face such controversy, as the death of favorite daughter Annie (Martha West) has had a grave impact on both his psychological and physical health. That event has only strengthened wife Emma’s Christian faith, while destroying his own. Also arguing against the evolutionary tract’s publication is their close friend Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam); contrarily urging Darwin to go ahead and “kill God” are fellow scientitific enthusiasts played by Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch. Director Jon Amiel lends considerable visual panache, but Creation ultimately misses the rare chance to meaningfully scrutinize rationalism vs. religious belief perhaps the industrial era’s most importantly divisive issue — in favor of conventional dramatic dwelling on grief over a child’s loss. The appealing Bettany is somewhat straitjacketed by a character that verges on being a sickly bore, while Connolly is, as usual, a humorless one. (1:58) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Edge of Darkness (1:57) California, Empire, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

*An Education The pursuit of knowledge — both carnal and cultural — are at the tender core of this end-of-innocence valentine by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (who first made her well-tempered voice heard with her 2000 Dogme entry, Italian for Beginners), based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir. Screenwriter Nick Hornby breaks further with his Peter Pan protagonists with this adaptation: no man-boy mopers or misfits here. Rather, 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a good girl and ace student. It’s 1961, and England is only starting to stir from its somber, all-too-sober post-war slumber. The carefully cloistered Jenny is on track for Oxford, though swinging London and its high-style freedoms beckon just around the corner. Ushering in those freedoms — a new, more class-free world disorder — is the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), stopping to give Jenny and her cello a ride in the rain and soon proffering concerts and late-night suppers in the city. He’s a sweet-faced, feline outsider: cultured, Jewish, and given to playing fast and loose in the margins of society. David can see Jenny for the gem she is and appreciate her innocence with the knowing pleasure of a decadent playing all the angles. The stakes are believably high, thanks to An Education‘s careful attention to time and place and its gently glamored performances. Scherfig revels in the smart, easy-on-eye curb appeal of David and his friends while giving a nod to the college-educated empowerment Jenny risks by skipping class to jet to Paris. And Mulligan lends it all credence by letting all those seduced, abandoned, conflicted, rebellious feelings flicker unbridled across her face. (1:35) Bridge, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

Extraordinary Measures It’s probably to early to name the worst movie of 2010, but Extraordinary Measures is surely the first serious contender. This would-be inspirational semi-true story focuses on John Crowley (a puffy Brendan Fraser), who employs Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford) to find a cure for his ailing children. The script is flat from start to finish, reducing this potentially powerful tearjerker to Lifetime Movie of the Week. The acting is just as misguided, which given the talent of the performers likely speaks to Tom Vaughan’s directorial choices. While Fraser blubbers endlessly, Ford spends the entire film yelling. The only difference between Extraordinary Measures and Ford’s other missteps is that here he’s shouting on behalf of someone else’s kids. It’s hard to say how this film got made: it doesn’t even look all that appealing on paper. There may have been potential at some point, but the finished product is downright unendurable — even with its heart in the right place. (1:52) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Peitzman)

*Fantastic Mr. Fox A lot of people have been busting filmmaker Wes Anderson’s proverbial chops lately, lambasting him for recent cinematic self-indulgences hewing dangerously close to self-parody (and in the case of 2007’s Darjeeling Limited, I’m one of them). Maybe he’s been listening. Either way, his new animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, should keep the naysayer wolves at bay for a while — it’s nothing short of a rollicking, deadpan-hilarious case study in artistic renewal. A kind of man-imal inversion of Anderson’s other heist movie, his debut feature Bottle Rocket (1996), his latest revels in ramshackle spontaneity and childlike charm without sacrificing his adult preoccupations. Based on Roald Dahl’s beloved 1970 book, Mr. Fox captures the essence of the source material but is still full of Anderson trademarks: meticulously staged mise en scène, bisected dollhouse-like sets, eccentric dysfunctional families coming to grips with their talent and success (or lack thereof).(1:27) SF Center. (Devereaux)

*Fish Tank There’s been a string of movies lately pondering what Britney once called the not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman syndrome, including 2009’s An Education and Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire. Enter Fish Tank, the gritty new drama from British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Her films (including 2006’s Red Road) are heartbreaking, but in an unforced way that never feels manipulative; her characters, often portrayed by nonactors, feel completely organic. Fish Tank‘s 15-year-old heroine, Mia (played by first-time actor Katie Jarvis), lives with her party-gal single mom and tweenage sister in a public-housing high-rise; all three enjoy drinking, swearing, and shouting. But Mia has a secret passion: hip-hop dancing, which she practices with track-suited determination. When mom’s foxy new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, from 2008’s Hunger) encourages her talent, it’s initially unclear what Connor’s intentions are. Is he trying to be a cool father figure, or something far more inappropriate? Without giving away too much, it’s hard to fear too much for a girl who headbutts a teenage rival within the film’s first few minutes — though it soon becomes apparent Mia’s hard façade masks a vulnerable core. Her desire to make human connections causes her to drop her guard when she needs it the most. In a movie about coming of age, a young girl’s bumpy emotional journey is expected turf. But Fish Tank earns its poignant moments honestly — most coming courtesy of Jarvis, who has soulfullness to spare. Whether she’s acting out in tough-girl mode or revealing a glimpse of her fragile inner life, Arnold’s camera relays it all, with unglossy matter-of-factness. (2:02) Lumiere, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

The Hurt Locker When the leader of a close-knit U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad is killed in action, his subordinates have barely recovered from the shock when they’re introduced to his replacement. In contrast to his predecessor, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) is no standard-procedure-following team player, but a co*cky adrenaline junkie who puts himself and others at risk making gonzo gut-instinct decisions in the face of live bombs and insurgent gunfire. This is particularly galling to next-in-command Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). An apolitical war-in-Iraq movie that’s won considerable praise for accuracy so far from vets (scenarist Mark Boal was “embedded” with an EOD unit there for several 2004 weeks), Kathryn Bigelow’s film is arguably you-are-there purist to a fault. While we eventually get to know in the principals, The Hurt Locker is so dominated by its seven lengthy squad-mission setpieces that there’s almost no time or attention left for building character development or a narrative arc. The result is often viscerally intense, yet less impactful than it would have been if we were more emotionally invested. Assured as her technique remains, don’t expect familiar stylistic dazzle from action cult figure Bigelow (1987’s Near Dark, 1989’s Blue Steel, 1991’s Point Break) — this vidcam-era war movie very much hews to the favored current genre approach of pseudo-documentary grainy handheld shaky-cam imagery. (2:11) Shattuck.. (Harvey)

*The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus From the title to the plot to the execution, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is the kind of movie you’re told not to see sober. This is a film in which Tom Waits plays the Devil, in which characters’ faces change repeatedly, in which Austin Powers‘ Verne Troyer makes his triumphant big-screen return. The story is your basic battle between good and evil, with Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) struggling to save souls from Mr. Nick (Waits) in order to protect his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). Meanwhile, Valentina is wooed by the mysterious Tony, played by Heath Ledger in his final film role — along with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. There are plenty of big important themes to be analyzed here, but it’s honestly more fun to simply get lost in Doctor Parnassus’ Imaginarium. Director and co-writer Terry Gilliam has created a world and a mythology that probably takes more than one viewing to fully comprehend. Might as well let yourself get distracted by all the shiny colors instead. (2:02) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

Inglourious Basterds With Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino pulls off something that seemed not only impossible, but undesirable, and surely unnecessary: making yet another of his in-jokey movies about other movies, albeit one that also happens to be kinda about the Holocaust — or at least Jews getting their own back on the Nazis duringWorld War II — and (the kicker) is not inherently repulsive. As Rube Goldbergian achievements go, this is up there. Nonetheless, Basterds is more fun, with less guilt, than it has any right to be. The “basterds” are Tennessee moonshiner Pvt. Brad Pitt’s unit of Jewish soldiers committed to infuriating Der Fuhrer by literally scalping all the uniformed Nazis they can bag. Meanwhile a survivor (Mélanie Laurent) of one of insidious SS “Jew Hunter” Christoph Waltz’s raids, now passing as racially “pure” and operating a Paris cinema (imagine the cineaste name-dropping possibilities!) finds her venue hosting a Third Reich hoedown that provides an opportunity to nuke Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, and Goering in one swoop. Tactically, Tarantino’s movies have always been about the ventriloquizing of that yadadada-yadadada whose self-consciousness is bearable because the cleverness is actual; brief eruptions of lasciviously enjoyed violence aside, Basterds too almost entirely consists of lengthy dialogues or near-monologues in which characters pitch and receive tasty palaver amid lethal danger. Still, even if he’s practically writing theatre now, Tarantino does understand the language of cinema. There isn’t a pin-sharp edit, actor’s raised eyebrow, artful design excess, or musical incongruity here that isn’t just the business. (2:30) Oaks. (Harvey)

Invictus Elected President of South Africa in 1995 — just five years after his release from nearly three decades’ imprisonment — Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) perceives a chance to forward his message of reconciliation and forgiveness by throwing support behind the low-ranked national rugby team. Trouble is, the Springboks are currently low-ranked, with the World Cup a very faint hope just one year away. Not to mention the fact that despite having one black member, they represent the all-too-recent Apartheid past for the country’s non-white majority. Based on John Carlin’s nonfiction tome, this latest Oscar bait by the indefatigable Clint Eastwood sports his usual plusses and minuses: An impressive scale, solid performances (Matt Damon co-stars as the team’s Afrikaaner captain), deft handling of subplots, and solid craftsmanship on the one hand. A certain dull literal-minded earnestness, lack of style and excitement on the other. Anthony Peckham’s screenplay hits the requisite inspirational notes (sometimes pretty bluntly), but even in the attenuated finals match, Eastwood’s direction is steady as she goes — no peaks, no valleys, no faults but not much inspiration, either. It doesn’t help that Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens contribute a score that’s as rousing as a warm milk bath. This is an entertaining history lesson, but it should have been an exhilarating one. (2:14) Oaks, SF Center. (Harvey)

It’s Complicated Allow me to spoil one line in It’s Complicated, because I believe it sums up — better than I ever could — everything right and wrong with this movie: “I prefer a lot of sem*n.” Bet you never thought you’d hear Meryl Streep say that. The thrill of movies like It’s Complicated (see also: Nancy Meyer’s 2003 senior romance Something’s Gotta Give) is in seeing actors of a certain age get down and dirty. There is something fascinating (and for audiences of that same age, encouraging) about watching Alec Baldwin inadvertently flash a webcam or Streep and Steve Martin making croissants while stoned. Once the novelty wears off, however, It’s Complicated is a fairly run-of-the-mill romcom. Sure, the story’s a bit more unusual: 10 years after their divorce, Jane (Streep) and Jake (Baldwin) begin having an affair. But the execution is full of the same clichés you’ve come to expect from the genre, including plenty of slapstick, miscommunication, and raunchy humor. It’s delightful to see such talented actors in a film together. Less delightful when they’re shotgunning weed and saying “oh em gee.” (2:00) Castro, Empire, Four Star, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

Legion (1:40) 1000 Van Ness.

The Lovely Bones There comes a point when the boy with every toy should have some taken away, in order to improve focusing skills. Ergo, it seemed like a good idea when Peter Jackson became attached to The Lovely Bones. A (relatively) “small” story mixing real-world emotions with the otherworldly à la 1994’s Heavenly Creatures? Perfect. His taste for the grotesque would surely toughen up the hugely popular novel’s more gelatinous aspects. But no: these Bones heighten every mush-headed weakness in the book, sprinkling CGI sugar on top. Alice Sebold’s tale of a 1970s suburban teenager murdered by a neighbor is one of those occasional books that becomes a sensation by wrapping real-world horror (i.e. the brutal, unsolved loss of a child) in the warm gingerbread odor of spiritual comfort food. Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan of 2007’s Atonement) narrates from a soft-focus wish-fulfillment afterlife in which she can watch (and occasionally be seen by) those left behind. Bones is sentimentally exploitative in an ingenious way: it uses the protagonist’s violent victimization to stir a vague New Age narcissism in the reader. Susie is, yes, an “ordinary” girl, but she (and we) are of course so loved and special that all heavenly rules must be suspended just for her. Ultimately, divine justice is wrought upon her killer (Stanley Tucci, whose appropriately creepy scenes are the film’s best) — but why didn’t it intervene in time to save his prior victims? Guess they weren’t special enough. This is specious material — powerful in outline, woozy in specifics — that needed a grounding touch. But Jackson directs as if his inspirations were the worst of coproducer Steven Spielberg (i.e., those mawkish last reels) and Baz Luhrmann (in empty kitsch pictorialism). Seriously, after a while I was surprised no unicorns jumped o’er rainbows. (2:15) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Misconceptions This indie comedy starts out shrilly, relying overmuch on easy stereotyping of both born-agains and guppies. Small-town Georgia evangelicals Miranda (A.J. Cook) and Parker (David Sutcliffe) maintain a facade of nuclear-family-values perfection. But she’s desperate for a child and he seems strangely evasive of the act which usually leads to one. She experiences an epiphany watching a TV program in which Boston gay couple Terry (Orlando Jones) and Sandy (David Moscow) express their own so-far-frustrated desire to raise a child. She abruptly decides it’s God’s will for her to play surrogate to the sperm-donating duo, even though their status as “godless atheistic Sodomites” would seem to contract her beliefs in a pretty big way. Annoyingly broad at first, the film’s decent performances, good heart, and a few effective plot developments eventually make a pleasing impression. (1:35) Roxie. (Harvey)

Nine Though it has a terrific concept — translating Fellini’s 1963 autobiographical fantasia 8 1/2 into musical terms — this Broadway entity owed its success to celebrity, not artistry. The 1982 edition starred Raul Julia and a host of stage-famed glamazons; the 2003 revival featured Antonio Banderas and ditto. Why did Rob Marshall choose it to follow up his celebrated-if-overrated film of 2002’s Chicago (overlooking his underwhelming 2005 Memoirs of a Geisha)? Perhaps because it provided even greater opportunity for lingerie-clad post-Fosse gyrations, starry casting, and production numbers framed as mind’s-eye fantasies just like his Chicago. (Today’s audiences purportedly don’t like characters simply bursting

into song — though doesn’t the High School Musical series disprove that?) Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, an internationally famed, scandalous Italian film director who in 1965 is commencing production on his latest fantastical epic. But with crew and financiers breathing down his neck, he’s creatively blocked — haunted by prior successes, recent flops, and a gallery of past and present muses. They include Marion Cotillard (long-suffering wife), Penélope Cruz (mercurial mistress), Nicole Kidman (his usual star), Judi Dench (costume designer-mother figure), Sophia Loren (his actual mamma), Fergie (his first putana), and Kate Hudson (a Vogue reporter). All can sing, pretty much, though Nine‘s trouble has always been Maury

Weston’s generic songs. This is splashy entertainment, intelligently conceived (not least by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella’s screenplay, which heightens the structural complexity of Arthur Kopit’s original book) and staged. But despite taking place almost entirely in its protagonist’s head, psychological depth is strictly two-dimensional. One longs for the suggestive intellectual nuance Marcello Mastroianni originally brought to Fellini’s non-singing Guido — something Nine doesn’t permit the estimable Day-Lewis. (2:00) Oaks. (Harvey)

*Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire This gut-wrenching, little-engine-that-could of a film shows the struggles of Precious, an overweight, illiterate 16-year-old girl from Harlem. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is so believably vigilant that her performance alone could bring together the art-house viewers as well as take the Oscars by storm. But people need to actually go and experience this film. While Precious did win Sundance’s Grand Jury and Audience Award awards this year, there is a sad possibility that filmgoers will follow the current trend of “discussing” films that they’ve actually never seen. The daring casting choices of comedian Mo’Nique (as Precious’ all-too-realistically abusive mother) and Mariah Carey (brilliantly understated as an undaunted and dedicated social counselor) are attempts to attract a wider audience, but cynics can hurdle just about anything these days. What’s most significant about this Dancer in the Dark-esque chronicle is how Damien Paul’s screenplay and director Lee Daniels have taken their time to confront the most difficult moments in Precious’ story –- and if that sounds heavy-handed, so be it. Stop blahging for a moment and let this movie move you. (1:49) Four Star, Shattuck. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

*Sherlock Holmes There is some perfunctory ass-kicking in director Guy Ritchie’s big-ticket adaptation of the venerable franchise, but old-school Holmes fans will be pleased to learn that the fisticuffs soon give way to a more traditional detective adventure. For all his foibles, Ritchie is well-versed in the art of free-wheeling, entertaining, London-based crime capers. And though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary characters have been freshened up for a contemporary audience, the film has a comfortingly traditional feel to it. The director is lucky to have an actor as talented as Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, and the pair make good use of the American’s talents to create a Holmes resplendent in diffident, pipe-smoking, idiosyncratic glory. Though the film takes liberal creative license with the literary character’s offhand reference to martial prowess, it’s all very English, very Victorian (flying bowler hats, walking sticks, and bare-knuckle boxing), and more or less grounded in the century or so of lore that has sprung up around the world’s greatest detective. Jude Law’s John Watson is a more charismatic character this time around, defying the franchise’s tradition, and the byzantine dynamics of the pair’s close friendship are perfectly calibrated. The script, by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg, suffers a little by borrowing from other Victorian crime fictions better left untouched, but they get the title character’s inimitable “science of deduction” down pat, and the plot is rife with twists, turns, and inscrutable skullduggery. (2:20) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Richardson)

A Single Man In this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, Colin Firth plays George, a middle-aged gay expat Brit and college professor in 1962 Los Angeles. Months after the accidental death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover for 16 years, George still feels worse than bereft; simply waking each morning is agony. So on this particular day he has decided to end it all, first going through a series of meticulous preparations and discreet leave-takings that include teaching one last class and having supper with the onetime paramour (Julianne Moore) turned best friend who’s still stuck on him. The main problem with fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford’s first feature is that he directs it like a fashion designer, fussing over surface style and irrelevant detail in a story whose tight focus on one hard, real-world thing–grief–cries for simplicity. Not pretentious overpackaging, which encompasses the way his camera slavers over the excessively pretty likes of Nicholas Hoult as a student and Jon Kortajarena as a hustler, as if they were models selling product rather than characters, or even actors. (In fact Kortajarena is a male supermodel; the shocker is that Hoult is not, though Hugh Grant’s erstwhile About a Boy co-star is so preening here you’d never guess.) Eventually Ford stops showing off so much, and A Single Man is effective to the precise degree it lets good work by Goode, Moore and especially the reliably excellent Firth unfold without too much of his terribly artistic interference. (1:39) Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, Shattuck. (Harvey)

The Spy Next Door (1:32) 1000 Van Ness.

Tooth Fairy (1:41) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

*Trimpin: The Sound of Invention The titular German-raised composer/inventor, who goes by just his last name, is a Seattle-based innovator whose mixings of avant-garde art and hands-on technology re-awaken a sense of the marvelous in both pricey concert and family museum-goers. He emigrated because he “couldn’t believe what high junk you had here.” Since then (1979) he’s made rusty old machine parts and other detritus into original instruments and spectacular sculptural installations (which also play music in a combination of digital/acoustic design). The through-line to Peter Esmonde’s documentary is Trimpin’s collaboration with the Kronos Quartet on a multimedia performance that stretches even those veteran avant-gardists’ ability to roll with idiosyncratic minds. Like the treasured Rivers and Tides (2001) about equally unclassifiable artist Andy Goldsworthy, this lovely documentary manages to capture the intoxicating excitement and originality of an artist whose work by any rights should/could be best appreciated live. (1:19) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

*A Town Called Panic A Town Called Panic is that rare movie for everybody — or at least those old enough to read subtitles and not too wrong-headedly “grown-up” to snub a cartoon. It’s a feature expansion of a Belgian “puppetoon” series originating in a film-school project in 1991; a decade later, fellow graduates Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar decided to turn it into a series of five-minute shorts that wound up on TV networks worldwide. The titular town is an idyllic patch of cartoon countryside whose primary stop-motion residents are a couple of households on adjacent hills. On one abides tantrum-prone Farmer Stephen, his wife Jeanine, and their livestock. The other houses our real protagonists, Cheval (a.k.a. Horse), Indian, and Cowboy. All look like the kinds of not-so-high-action figures kids possessed in the first half of the 20th century, before TV commercials made the toy market explode. Of course they’re animate, albeit in the most endearingly klutzy fashion imaginable — though A Town Called Panic the movie is, like 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, a significant visual upgrade from the broadcast version that nonetheless retains the air of cheerful crudity on which the concept’s charm largely rests. (1:15) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Up in the Air After all the soldiers’ stories and the cannibalism canards of late, Up in the Air‘s focus on a corporate ax-man — an everyday everyman sniper in full-throttle downsizing mode — is more than timely; it’s downright eerie. But George Clooney does his best to inject likeable, if not quite soulful, humanity into Ryan Bingham, an all-pro mileage collector who prides himself in laying off employees en masse with as few tears, tantrums, and murder-suicide rages as possible. This terminator’s smooth ride from airport terminal to terminal is interrupted not only by a possible soul mate, fellow smoothie and corporate traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), but a young tech-savvy upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who threatens to take the process to new reductionist lows (layoff via Web cam) and downsize Ryan along the way. With Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman, who oversaw Thank You for Smoking (2005) as well as Juno (2007), is threatening to become the bard of office parks, Casual Fridays, khaki-clad happy hours, and fly-over zones. But Up in the Air is no Death of a Salesman, and despite some memorable moments that capture the pain of downsizing and the flatness of real life, instances of snappily screwball dialogue, and some more than solid performances by all (and in particular, Kendrick), he never manages to quite sell us on the existence of Ryan’s soul. (1:49) California, Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Watercolors Picked-on, arty gayboy Danny (Tye Olson), who comes complete with fa*g-hag friend, finds his domestic horizons suddenly changed when mom’s AA-met new boyfriend introduces her own teen son. Rebellious, broody Carter (Kyle Clare) proves willing to indulge Danny’s ill-hidden desires to a surprising degree, but not be his friend at school, as he’s a champion swimmer already at odds with his hom*ophobic teammates. The sensitive lad’s formative crush on dreamboat jock is pretty hoary gay-cinema stuff, and writer-director David Oliveras’ feature recycles all the expected clichés without any originality, irony, or lightness of touch. Despite Greg Louganis and Karen Black in support roles, plus a few unintentional laughs, Watercolors is too ponderous even to be so-bad-it’s-good. (1:54) Roxie. (Harvey)

When in Rome From the esteemed director of Ghost Rider (2007) and Daredevil (2003) comes a romantic comedy about a New York workaholic (Kristen Bell) who drunkenly takes magic coins from a fountain of love while on a trip to Rome. She soon finds herself pursued by a gaggle of goons keen on winning her affection, incited by the ancient Roman magic. With a supporting cast that includes Danny DeVito, Will Arnett, and That Guy From Napoleon Dynamite, there’s way too much going on for anyone to get a decent amount of screen time to strut their stuff. The budding relationship between Bell and charming sports reporter Nick (Josh Duhamel) is largely predictable fluff but pleasant enough for those of you who like that sort of thing. However, if you’re looking for a romantic pre-Valentine’s Day date movie, be warned that When in Rome is generally more interested in slapstick than sweetness. (1:31) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Galvin)

*The White Ribbon In Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, his first German-language film in ten years, violence descends on a small northern German village mired in an atmosphere of feudalism and protestant repression. When, over the course of a year, a spate of unaccountable tragedies strikes almost every prominent figure as well as a powerless family of tenant farmers, the village becomes a crucible for aspersion and unease. Meanwhile, a gang of preternaturally calm village children, led by the eerily intense daughter of the authoritarian pastor, keep appearing coincidentally near the sites of the mysterious crimes, lending this Teutonic morality play an unsettling Children of the Corn undertone. Only the schoolteacher, perhaps by virtue of his outsider status, seems capable of discerning the truth, but his low rank on the social pecking order prevent his suspicions from being made public. A protracted examination on the nature of evil — and the troubling moral absolutism from which it stems. (2:24) Albany, Embarcadero. (Nicole Gluckstern)

The Young Victoria Those who envision the Victorian Age as one of restraint and repression will likely be surprised by The Young Victoria, which places a vibrant Emily Blunt in the title role. Her Queen Victoria is headstrong and romantic — driven not only by her desire to stand tall against the men who would control her, but also by her love for the dashing Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). To be honest, the story itself is nothing spectacular, even for those who have imagined a different portrait of the queen. But The Young Victoria is still a spectacle to behold: the opulent palaces, the stunning gowns, and the flawless Blunt going regal. Her performance is rich and nuanced — and her chemistry with Prince Albert makes the film. No, it doesn’t leave quite the impression that 1998’s Elizabeth did, but it’s a memorable costume drama and romance, worthy of at least a moderate reign in theaters. (1:40) Shattuck. (Peitzman)

Youth in Revolt At first glance, Youth in Revolt‘s tragically misunderstood teenage protagonist Nick Twisp is typical of actor Michael Cera’s repertoire of lovesick, dryly funny, impossibly sensitive and meek characters, although his particularly miserable family life does ratchet up the pathos. The Sinatra-worshipping Nick spends his time being shuttled between his bitter, oversexed divorced parents (Jean Smart and Steve Buscemi), who generally view him as an afterthought. When Nick meets Sheeni Saunders (newcomer Portia Doubleday), a Francophile femme fatale in training, she instructs him to “be bad.” Desperately in lust, he readily complies, developing a malevolent, supremely confident alter ego, François Dillinger. With his bad teenage moustache, crisp white yachting ensemble, and slow-burn swagger, François conjures notions of a pubescent Patricia Highsmith villain crossed with a dose of James Spader circa Pretty in Pink. While the film itself is tonally wobbly (whimsical Juno-esque animated sequences don’t really mesh with a guy surreptitiously drugging his girlfriend), Cera’s startlingly self-assured, deadpan-funny performance saves it from devolving into smarmy camp. In an added bonus, his split-personality character plays like an ironic commentary on Cera’s career so far — imagine Arrested Development‘s George-Michael Bluth setting fire to a large swath of downtown Berkeley instead of the family banana stand. (1:30) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Devereaux)

Double vision

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The just-reissued Vampires of Dartmore album Dracula’s Music Cabinet (Finders Keepers) includes a track titled “Hallo, Mr. Hitchco*ck,” in which beloved Hitch silently answers a series of phone calls from a manic, murderous prankster. The track isn’t used in Johan Grimonprez’s latest unconventional film essay Double Take, but it would be ideal material for the movie. Like his fellow Europeans the Vampires, Grimonprez has a fatal attraction to the master of suspense — an exploration of the nature of fear, particularly Cold War fear (and its relevance to 21s century scaremongers), his movie toys and teases its way toward a climax in which the master director meets his doppelganger.

Double Take‘s voice-over narration — co-authored with Tom McCarthy — suggests that such an encounter can only be bad: any man who sees his double, even the great Hitchco*ck, is doomed. This conceit is really just an element of drama within Grimonprez’s masterful many-layered montage. He combines Hitchco*ck’s appearances in movies and on television with footage of vocal and physical Hitchco*ck impersonators, creating a hall-of-mirrors experience that is frequently funny. More incitefully, he forwards the idea that The Birds (1963) has connections to the Bay of Pigs and to terror by air both then and now. If this seems like a ludicrous theoretical stretch, it helps to know that Grimonprez has a wry sense of humor, and that his 1998 movie Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y still might be the best movie about September 11, 2001, even if it predates that landmark moment by over three years. In other words, Grimonprez is prescient.

He’s also rather sweet. Double Take‘s final scenes linger on one Hitchco*ck impersonator, Ron Burrage, and what seems to be his lifelong male partner. This particular Hitch has a nuanced appreciation of the absurdity of his life and dual identity, which makes his singular mortality all the more poignant. Grimonprez is anything but a sentimentalist, but unlike many filmic theorists, he allows himself to have a heart as well as a brain.

DOUBLE TAKE

Fri/12, 7:15 p.m., Roxie

Snow patrol

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FILM The snowiest Sundance Film Festival in recent memory was also perhaps the best. Despite continued economic woes (which peaked exactly when most of this year’s films were in or entering production), somehow the general caliber of work seemed to be on an uptick.

Of course that didn’t mean distributors were snapping up titles à la days of yore — the festival was practically at midpoint before a first deal was made — and like last year, the general level of hype and hysteria was comparatively muted. (No complaints there.) A weekday walk up Main Street was almost like an ordinary day, without the usual crush of slow-moving industry types in inappropriate footwear shrilling “Omigod it’s SO COLD!!”

Trying out multiple opening night programs for the first time, Sundance started with a big dose of SF talent: peerless veteran documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s first narrative feature Howl, which is not so much a biographical drama about Allen Ginsberg (played by James Franco) as a complex meditation on the history, content, and significance of his legendary, taboo-breaking 1955 poem. Opinions were all over the map about a movie with extensive interpretive animation as well as more conventional elements, but I found its ambition and imagination energizing.

Otherwise, the dramatic competition was a very mixed bag. Probably most praised was Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a working-class couple seen at the beginning and dead-end of their relationship. Yes, it was finely observed and performed — but I couldn’t get into spending two hours with two people who obviously never should have gotten together in the first place.

Among high-profile, noncompeting premieres, the starry likes of fun but uninspired rock biopic The Runaways and The Romantics — Galt Niederhoffer unnecessarily filling the Trust Fund Ensemble Dramedy gap left by Whit Stillman’s evaporation — paled against the much stronger meat of festival flashpoint The Killer Inside Me.

Michael Winterbottom’s first real American feature, the latest version of Jim Thompson’s classic pulp noir, starred Casey Affleck as a 1950s Texas deputy who no one (at first) realizes is a class-A sociopath and psychotic. The violence against women (like Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson) appalled many — but why don’t people protest movies that turn carnage into a cartooned family entertainment (like last year’s 2012), then get all bent when one makes brutality genuinely upsetting?

As usual, the strongest category overall was U.S. documentaries, with outstanding entries including My Kid Could Paint That (2007), director Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story — about the shocking propagandic distortion of a NFL player-turned-Army enlistee’s friendly-fire death. Equally strong on related themes were Restrepo, which embeds us with an Army unit in a remote Afghan Taliban stronghold; and The Oath, Al-Qaeda viewed through the prism of Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard and driver.

An overlooked gem was Robin Hessman’s My Perestroika, about the last generation to get full Soviet indoctrination, only to reach adulthood just as the entire republic collapsed. By contrast, there was a stampede to Catfish, a creepy, hilarious, finally poignant illustration of people who need to create deceptive alternative identities via such fib-friendly forums as Facebook. Another pleasing surprise was Entourage star Adrien Grenier’s Teenage Paparazzo, which transcends the cute-disturbing portraiture of its 13-year-old title figure to explore the deeper societal meanings of celebrity culture.

Some international highlights were the Polish punk-youth-meets-Solidarity flashback All That I Love; U.K. bad-taste comedy (i.e. terrorism for laughs) Four Lions; and Danish documentary The Red Chapel, in which “cultural exchange” stand-up comics get behind North Korea’s still-thick Iron Curtain.

Last but not least, the midnight section offered pleasures guilty and otherwise, as well as some celluloid pain we won’t identify here. Bill Craig’s uneven but frequently hilarious Tucker and Dale vs. Evil reversed the usual horror formula — here, nubile vacationing college kids terrorize the local rednecks.

Not very funny at all (or quite apt for the genre-oriented midnight category) was Rodrigo Cortez’s Buried, 94 minutes of Ryan Reynolds in a box — playing a non-security civilian contract worker in Iraq who’s kidnapped, buried in a coffin, and given a low-battery cellphone and two hours to raise a huge ransom. Starting in total darkness, this movie sets your nerves jangling even before there’s an actual image. It is scary, surprisingly cinematic, and doesn’t lack for sharp political commentary.

Science slips into something more comfortable: the Exploratorium’s “Sexplorations”

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Spring is in the air. Sure, it’s coupled by a lingering chill, but the past few days have brought a cameo by our fair weather (ha!) friend the sun, flowers are popping up and open toed shoe spottings have been increasing in intensity on our city sidewalks. It’s a time of rebirth, renewal… and no small amount of, shall we say, “fecundity” in the world around us.

Such fertility sets the stage nicely for this month’s Exploratorium After Hours night dedicated to the science of hanky panky. If you haven’t yet checked out the kid-friendly science museum’s adult-friendly monthly event, just know that it features all the regular museum exhibits, a cash bar, music, expert lecturers and free parking. February’s theme is “Sexplorations” and it promises a vaguely titillating evening- particularly if you’re into watching insects bang or modern science’s latest findings on your nasty bits.

Movies Archives — Page 46 of 69 — San Francisco Bay Guardian Archive 1966–2014 (11)
“Baby you so fine I wanna stick on you like recombinant DNA.” Science pick-up lines, ya dig? Photo by Amy Snyder, copyright Exploratorium

And what has science dug up on our down under since 10th grade health class? “Sexplorations” will feature a discussion of just these revelations by sly fox science writer Mary Roach, whose latest tome “Bonk,” is a rundown of understandings and misunderstandings of our privates and their functions, a follow up to her previous treatises on cadavers and what specialists have discovered about the afterlife.

What else? A “condom couture” fashion show, sea urchin fertilization, a talk on the sex lives of kitty cats, bull testicl* dissection, live sperm and two movies entitled “Love Life of the Octopus” (1965) and “Sexual Encounters of the Floral Kind” (1983). Ready to get frisky, scientifically speaking?


After Hours: “Sexplorations”
Thur/4 6-10 p.m., $15
The Exploratorium
3601 Lyon, SF
(415) 561-0363
www.exploratorium.edu

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Movies Archives — Page 46 of 69 — San Francisco Bay Guardian Archive 1966–2014 (2024)
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