Film Listings: June 25 - July 1, 2014
Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For complete film listings, see www.sfbg.com.
Frameline 38, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, runs through June 29 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF; Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St, SF; and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, 2966 College, Berk. For tickets (most shows $10-15) and schedule, visit www.frameline.org.
Breathing Earth: Susumu Shingu's Dream Japanese artist Susumu Shingu has built his career through his concerted engagement with the natural world. The wise and eternally smiling 75-year-old creates angular and often gargantuan mobiles that harness the power of wind and water to gyrate in ever-changing directions. In Breathing Earth, German director Thomas Riedelsheimer crafts a deliberately paced rumination on Shingu's life philosophy that, while devoid of the frenetic facts, figures, and trite biographical rehashes that punctuate hyper-informative pop-docs, uses a beautifully simplistic narrative arc to illuminates Shingu's attempt to create a hilly, open-air collection of windmills. The sculptor's impassioned narration and charming conversations with potential landlords and investors (who usually entirely miss the point of his mission to raise environmental consciousness through aesthetic beauty) make Shingu impossible not to fall in love with — he is laid-back, funny, and astonishingly youthful. Riedelsheimer's camera is similarly relaxed, gliding sumptuously over the green and wild landscapes on which Shingu installs his works. Despite his meditative tempo, Riedelsheimer manages to explore a remarkably wide scope; Shingu's late-life marriage to a fellow sculptor, his appeals to both Japanese and German schoolchildren to care for the earth and help to avoid environmental disasters, and his intricate technical processes all receive intimate and inspiring sections. (1:37) Roxie, Smith Rafael. (David Kurlander)
Citizen Koch After quietly influencing conservative ideology, legislation, and elections for decades, the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers have found themselves becoming high-profile figures — much to their dismay, no doubt. The relative invisibility they hitherto enjoyed greatly abetted their impact in myriad arenas of public policy and "popular" conservative movements. Look behind any number of recent red-vs.-blue flashpoint issues and you can find their fingerprints: Notably state-level union busting; "smaller government" (i.e. incredible shrinking social services); seeding allegedly grassroots organizations like the Tea Party; furthering the Corporations = People thing (see: Citizens United); and generally helping the rich like themselves get richer while fostering working-class outrage at everybody else. This documentary by Trouble the Water (2008) co-directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessen touches on all those matters, while also focusing on Wisconsin as a test laboratory for the brothers' Machiavellian think-tank maneuvers, following a Louisiana GOP candidate on the campaign trail (one he's marginalized on for opposing corporate influence peddling), and more. Any one of these topics could support a feature of their own (and most already have). Citizen Koch's problem is that it tries to encompass too much of its subjects' long reach, while (despite the title) leaving those subjects themselves underexplored. (It also suffers from being a movie completed at least 18 months ago, a lifetime in current US political terms.) For the reasonably well-informed this documentary will cover a lot of familiar ground—which is not to say that ground isn't still interesting, or that the added human interest elements don't compel. But the film covers so much ground it ends up feeling overstuffed and unfocused. (1:26) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Coherence See "Vortex Room." (1:29) Presidio.
Korengal This companion piece to 2010's Oscar-nominated Restrepo — one of the best docs about modern-day warfare to date, offering unfiltered access to an Army platoon stationed in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley — uses previously unseen footage shot during the year filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington spent shadowing their subjects. Korengal is structured as a more introspective work, with musings on what it feels like to be a soldier in the Korengal, surrounded by rough (yet strikingly beautiful) terrain populated by farmers who may or may not be Taliban sympathizers, not to mention unpredictable, heavily armed opponents referred to simply as "the enemy." Interviews reveal sadness, boredom, a deep sense of brotherhood, and the frustrating feeling of going from "100 miles an hour to a dead halt" after the surreal exhilaration of a firefight. Korengal also functions as a tribute to Hetherington, who was killed in 2011 while on assignment in Libya. Not only does his death add a layer of poignant subtext, it also suggests why Junger felt moved to revisit this story. That said, though Korengal's footage is several years old, its themes remain distressingly timely. (1:24) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)
Snowpiercer Eighteen years after an attempt to reverse global warming has gone wildly awry — freezing all life into extinction — the only known survivors are on a one-of-a-kind perpetual-motion train that circles the Earth annually, has its own self-contained ecosystem, and can smash through whatever ice buildup has blocked its tracks since the last go-round. It's also a microcosm of civilization's worst class-economic-racial patterns over history, with the much-abused "tail" passengers living in squalor under the thumb of brutal military police. Unseen at the train's front is its mysterious inventor, Wilford, whose minions enforce "Eternal Order Prescribed by the Sacred Engine." Curtis (Chris Evans) is default leader of the proletariat's latest revolt, in which they attempt to force their way forward though the prison section (where they free Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung as the train's original lock designer and his psychic daughter) on to the wonders of the first class compartments, and beyond. This first (mostly) English-language feature by South Korean Bong Joon-ho (2006's The Host, 2009's Mother), based on a 1982 French graphic novel, starts out as a sort of locomotive, claustrophobic Mad Max (1979) variation. But it gets wilder and more satirical as it goes along, goosed by Tilda Swinton's grotesquely comic Minister Mason, and Alison Pill as a teacher propagandist in a particularly hilarious set piece. In case the metaphor hasn't already hit you on the head, one character explains "The train is the world, we the humanity." But Snowpiercer's sociopolitical critique is as effective as it is blunt, because Bong handles everything here — visceral action, absurdist humor, narrative left-turns, neatly etched character archetypes, et al. — with style, confidence, and wit. Some of the FX may not be quite as seamless as it would have been in a $200 million Hollywood studio production, and fanboys will no doubt nitpick like nitwits at various "credibility gaps." (As if this movie ever asks to be taken literally.) But by current, or any, sci-fi action blockbuster standards, this is a giddily unpredictable, risk-taking joy. (2:07) (Harvey)
Third Person A screenwriter, Paul Haggis, pens a script in which a novelist (Liam Neeson) sits alone in a smoke-filled hotel room in Paris struggling over a manuscript about a novelist who can only feel emotions through his characters. What that psychic state would actually look like remains unclear — when the woman (Olivia Wilde) he's left his wife (Kim Basinger) for shows up, their playful, painful, fraught interactions reveal a man with above-average emotional reserves. Meanwhile, in another hotel in another city, Rome, a sleazy fashion industry spy (Adrien Brody) finds his life turned sideways by a seemingly chance encounter in a bar with a beautiful Romanian woman (Moran Atias) in dire need of money. And in a third hotel, in Manhattan, a young woman (Mila Kunis) cleans up the suites she used to stay in when she was married to a renowned painter (James Franco), with whom she has a son she may or may not have harmed in some terrible way. The film broadly hints at connections between these three sets of lives — in each, the loss or endangerment of a child produces an unrelenting ripple effect; speaking of which, objects unnaturally submerged in water present an ominous visual motif. If the movie poster doesn't give the game away as you're walking into the theater, the signposts erected by Haggis ensure that you won't be in the dark for long. Learning how these characters relate to one another, however, puts considerable drag on the fabric of the plot, exposing the threadbare places, and where Haggis offers his tortured characters redemption, it comes at the cost of good storytelling. (2:17) Shattuck. (Rapoport)
Transformers: Age of Extinction Mark Wahlberg and the Dinobots star in the latest installment of Michael Bay's action sci-fi series. (2:30) Presidio.
Under the Electric Sky Hey, raver! This 3D concert film enables you to experience the Electric Daisy Carnival without punching any holes in your brain. (1:25)
Violette Taking on another "difficult" woman artist after the excellent 2008 Séraphine (about the folk-art painter), Martin Provost here portrays the unhappy life of Violette Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos), whose fiction and autobiographical writings eventually made her a significant figure in postwar French literature. We first meet her waiting out the war with gay author Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), one of many unrequited loves, then surviving via the black market trade before she's "discovered" by such groundbreaking, already-established talents as Jean Genet (Jacques Bonnaffé) and Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain). It is the latter, a loyal supporter who nonetheless retains a chilly emotional distance, who becomes bisexual Violette's principal obsession over the coming 20 years or so. Devos does her best to portray "a neurotic crazy washed-up old bag" with an "ugly mug" — hardly! — who is perpetually broke, depressed, and awkward, thanks no doubt in part to her mean witch of a mother (Catherine Hiegel). "Screaming and sobbing won't get you anywhere," Simone at one point tells her, and indeed Leduc is a bit of a pill. For the most part lacking the visual splendors of Séraphine (this character's environs weren't so pastoral), Violette is finely acted and crafted but, like its heroine, hard to love. (2:18) Albany, Embarcadero. (Harvey)
Belle The child of a British naval officer and a Caribbean slave, Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is deposited on the doorstep — well, the estate grounds — of her father's relatives in 1769 England after her mother dies. Soon she's entirely orphaned, which makes her a wealthy heiress and aristocratic title holder at the same time that she is something less than human in the eyes of her adopted society. For Belle is black (or more properly, mixed-race), and thus a useless curiosity at best as a well-bred noblewoman of the "wrong" racial makeup. Based on a murky actual historical chapter, Amma Asante's film is that rare sumptuous costume drama which actually has something on its mind beyond romance and royalty. Not least among its pleasures are a fine supporting cast including Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, and Emily Watson. (1:45) Embarcadero, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)
A Coffee in Berlin How do you say "mumblecore" in German? Jan Ole Gerster's debut feature has certain arty pretensions — it's shot in black-and-white, and scored with peppy jazz — but it's more or less a rambling day in the life of law school dropout Niko (Tom Schilling). It happens to be the very day Niko's golf-loving father decides to stop funding his shiftless son's slacker lifestyle, though that crisis (which, you know, Lena Dunham built an entire HBO comedy around) receives nearly equal heft as a cutesy ongoing gimmick that sees Niko incapable of getting a cup of coffee anywhere in Berlin. Hipster ennui can be compelling if it has some underlying energy and purpose (see: 2013's Frances Ha, to which this film has been compared), but A Coffee in Berlin comes up short on both. That said, it does offer an intriguing portrayal of Berlin — a city whose modern-chic façade barely contains the history that haunts it — and some of its supporting characters, particularly Friederike Kempter as a former schoolmate of Niko's who has outgrown him emotionally by about one thousand percent, provide pleasant enough distractions. (1:28) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)
The Fault in Our Stars I confess: I'm no card-carrying, vlog-flogging Nerdfighter in author John Green's teen-geek army. But one can admire the passion — and teary romanticism — of the writer, readers, and the breakthrough novel that started it all. Much has been made over the cinematic tweaks to the best-selling YA book, but those seem like small beefs: OK, male romantic lead Gus's (Ansel Elgort) perhaps-understandable brattiness seems to have been toned down a touch, but we'll all get the somewhat-subversive push and pull of Green's love story centered on two cancer-stricken innocents. Sixteen-year-old Hazel (a radiant Shailene Woodley) has been battling cancer almost all her life, fighting back from the brink, and now making her way every day with an oxygen tank and her devoted parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammel) by her side. Her mordant wit, skeptical attitude, and smarts attract Gus, a handsome teen with a prosthetic leg, at a cancer support group, and the two embark on what seems like the most normal thing in the world — sweet, sweet love — albeit cut with the poignancy of almost-certain doom. Would the girl who calls herself a grenade dare to care for someone she will likely hurt? That's the real question on her mind when the two reach out to the solitary author (Willem Dafoe) of their favorite book, An Imperial Affliction. The journey the two make leaves them both open to more hurt than either ever imagined, and though a good part of Fault's denouement boils down to a major puddle cuddle — with solid performances by all, but particularly Dern and Woodley — even a cynic is likely to get a bit misty as the kids endure all the stages of loss. And learning. (2:05) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Chun)
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia Nicholas Wrathall's highly entertaining documentary pays tribute to one of the 20th century's most brilliant, original, and cranky thinkers, with extensive input from the man himself before his death in 2012 at age 86. The emphasis here is less on Vidal's life as a literary lion and often glittering celebrity social life than on his parallel career as a harsh scold of US social injustices and political corruption. (Needless to say, recent history only sharpened his tongue in that department, with George W. Bush dismissed as "a goddamn fool," and earlier statements such as "This is a country of the rich, for the rich and by the rich" seeming more apt than ever.) He's a wellspring of wisdoms both blunt and witty, sometimes surprising, as in his hindsight doubts about the virtues of JFK (a personal friend) as a president. We get plenty of colorful archival clips in which he's seen verbally jousting with such famous foes as William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer, invariably reducing them to stammering fury while remaining exasperatingly unruffled. His "out" homosexuality and outré views on sexuality in general (at odds with an increasingly assimilationist gay community) kept him controversial even among many liberals, while conservatives were further irked by his rock-solid family connections to the ruling elite. In our era of scripted political rhetoric and pandering anti-intellectualism, it's a joy merely to spend an hour and half in the company of someone so brilliantly articulate on seemingly any topic — but particularly on the perpetually self-mythologizing, money-worshipping state of our Union. (1:29) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
The Grand Seduction Canadian actor-director Don McKellar (1998's Last Night) remakes 2003 Quebecois comedy Seducing Doctor Lewis, about a depressed community searching for the town doctor they'll need before a factory will agree to set up shop and bring much-needed jobs to the area. Canada is still the setting here, with the harbor's name — Tickle Head — telegraphing with zero subtlety that whimsy lies ahead. A series of events involving a Tickle Head-based TSA agent, a bag of cocaine, and a harried young doctor (Taylor Kitsch) trying to avoid jail time signals hope for the hamlet, and de facto town leader Murray (Brendan Gleeson) snaps into action. The seduction of "Dr. Paul," who agrees to one month of service not knowing the town is desperate to keep him, is part Northern Exposure culture clash, part Jenga-like stack of lies, as the townspeople pretend to love cricket (Paul's a fanatic) and act like his favorite lamb dish is the specialty at the local café. The wonderfully wry Gleeson is the best thing about this deeply predictable tale, which errs too often on the side of cute (little old ladies at the switchboard listening in on Paul's phone-sex with his girlfriend!) rather than clever, as when an unsightly structure in the center of town is explained away with a fake "World Heritage House" plaque. Still, the scenery is lovely, and "cute" doesn't necessarily mean "not entertaining." (1:52) Albany, Embarcadero. (Eddy)
Ida The bomb drops within the first ten minutes: after being gently forced to reconnect with her only living relative before taking her vows, novice nun Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) learns that her name is actually Ida, and that she's Jewish. Her mother's sister, Wanda (Agneta Kulesza) — a Communist Party judge haunted by a turbulent past she copes with via heavy drinking, among other vices — also crisply relays that Ida's parents were killed during the Nazi occupation, and after some hesitation agrees to accompany the sheltered young woman to find out how they died, and where their bodies were buried. Drawing great depth from understated storytelling and gorgeous, black-and-white cinematography, Pawel Pawilowski's well-crafted drama offers a bleak if realistic (and never melodramatic) look at 1960s Poland, with two polar-opposite characters coming to form a bond as their layers of painful loss rise to the surface. (1:20) Albany, Clay, Piedmont. (Eddy)
Ivory Tower The latest "issue doc" to come down the pipeline is this very timely and incisive look at the cost of higher education from director Andrew Rossi (2011's Page One: Inside the New York Times). Rossi is a Yale and Harvard Law grad, and he begins his film in the hallowed halls of the latter to frame the question: In the era of skyrocketing tuition, and with the student loan debt hovering at a trillion bucks, is college still worth it? The answer is left open-ended, though with the very strong suggestion that nontraditional education (including community colleges, online learning, and the Silicon Valley-spawned "uncollege" movement) is certainly something worth exploring, particularly for the non-wealthy. Along the way, we do see some positive tales (a kid from the mean streets of Cleveland gets a full-ride scholarship to Harvard; students at rural Deep Springs College follow philosophy discussions with farm work; African American women at Spelman College thrive in an empowering environment), but there's a fair amount of cynicism here, too, with a hard look at how certain state schools are wooing deep-pocketed out-of-staters with fancy athletic stadiums, luxurious amenities, and a willingness to embrace, however unofficially, their hard-partying reputations. Segments following a student protest at New York's Cooper Union, a formerly free school forced to consider collecting tuition after a string of financial troubles, echo Frederick Wiseman's epic At Berkeley (2013), a thematically similar if stylistically very different work. (1:37) California. (Eddy)
Jersey Boys The musical that turned the back story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — the 1960s hit making machines behind upbeat doo-wop ditties like "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," and a zillion more; you will recognize all of them — into Broadway gold ascends to the big screen thanks to director Clint Eastwood, a seemingly odd choice until you consider Eastwood's own well-documented love of music. Jersey Boys weaves a predictable tale of show biz dreams realized and then nearly dashed, with a gangster element that allows for some Goodfellas-lite action (a pre-fame Joe Pesci is a character here; he was actually from the same 'hood, and was instrumental in the group's formation). With songs recorded live on-set, à la 2012's Les Misérables, there's some spark to the musical numbers, but Eastwood's direction is more solid than spontaneous, with zero surprises (even the big finale, clearly an attempt at a fizzy, feel-good farewell, seems familiar). Still, the cast — including Tony winner John Lloyd Young as Valli, and Christopher Walken as a sympathetic mobster — is likable, with Young in particular turning in a textured performance that speaks to his years of experience with the role. For an interview with cast members Young, Michael Lomenda (who plays original Four Season Nick Massi), and Erich Bergen (as Bob Gaudio, the member who wrote most of the group's hits), visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (2:14) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Eddy)
Obvious Child We first encounter the protagonist of writer-director Gillian Robespierre's funny, original film — a Brooklyn-dwelling twentysomething named Donna (Jenny Slate), who works at a lefty secondhand bookstore and makes regular (if unpaid) appearances at a local comedy night — onstage mining such underdiscussed topics as the effects of vaginal discharge on your garden-variety pair of underwear. This proves a natural segue to other hefty nuggets of embarrassment gold concerning her love life, to the dismay of boyfriend Ryan (Paul Briganti), auditing from the back of the club. He pretty much deserves it, however, for what he's about to do, which is break up with her in a nasty, well-populated unisex bathroom, taking time to repeatedly glance at the texts coming through on his phone from Donna's good friend, with whom he's sleeping. So when Donna, mid-drowning of sorrows, meets a nice-looking fellow named Max (Jake Lacy) at the bar, his post-fraternity-presidency aesthetic seems unlikely to deter her from a one-night stand. The ensuing trashed make-out dance-off in Max's apartment to the Paul Simon song of the title is both comic and adorable. The fractured recap of the evening's condom-free horizontal events that occurs inside Donna's brain three weeks later, as she hunkers down with her best friend, Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), in the bookstore's bathroom after peeing on a stick, is equally hilarious — and unwanted-pregnancy jokes aren't that easy to pull off. Robespierre's treatment of this extended windup and of Donna's decision to have an abortion is a witty, warmhearted retort to 2007's Knocked Up, a couple generations' worth of Hollywood rom-com writers, and an entertainment industry that continues to perform its sweaty contortions of storytelling in the gutless cause of avoiding the A-word. (1:15) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
Ping Pong Summer Eighties teen flicks of the My Bodyguard (1980), smart-dweebs-beat-the-bullies ilk are paid homage in Michael Tully's deadpan satire, which is closer in spirit to the Comedy of Lameness school whose patron saint is Napoleon Dynamite. Radley (Marcello Conte) is an average teen so excited to be spending the summer of 1985 in Ocean City, Md. with his family that he renames himself "Rad Miracle." He acquires a new best friend in Teddy (Myles Massey), who as the whitest black kid imaginable might make even Rad look cool by comparison. However, they are both dismayed to discover the local center for video gaming and everything else they like is ruled by bigger, older, cuter, and snottier douchebag Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry) and his sidekick. Only kicking Lyle's ass at ping pong — with some help from a local weirdo (a miscast Susan Sarandon, apparently here because she's an off screen ping pong enthusiast) — can save Rad's wounded dignity, and the summer in general. A big step up from Tully's odd but pointless prior Septien (2011), this has all the right stuff (including a soundtrack packed with the likes of the Fat Boys, Mary Jane Girls, New Edition, Whodini, and Night Ranger) to hilariously parody the era's inanities. But it's just mildly amusing — a droll attitude with lots of period detail but not much bite. (1:32) Roxie. (Harvey)
The Rover Future days have never seemed quite so bleak as they are depicted in the wild, wild Aussie west of The Rover — rendered by Animal Kingdom (2010) director David Michod, who co-wrote The Rover with Joel Edgerton. Let's just say we're probably not going to see any primo Burner ensembles inspired by this post-apocalyptic yarn: Michod ventures to a plausible future only a decade out, after a global economic collapse, and breaks down the brooding road trip to its hard-boiled bones, setting it in a beauteous, lawless, and unceasingly violent outback. A heist gone wrong leads a small gang of robbers to steal the car belonging to monosyllabic, ruthless mystery man Eric (Guy Pearce). The latter wants his boxy little sedan back, badly, and, in the cat and mouse game that ensues, seems willing to die for the trouble. Meanwhile, one of the gang of thieves — the slow, dreamy Rey (Robert Pattinson), who has been left to die of a gunshot wound in the dirt — turns out to be more of a survivor than anyone imagined when he tracks down the tracker hunting for his brother and cohorts. Michod seems most interested in examining and turning over the ties that bind, in a mean time, an eminently absurdist moment, when everything else has fallen away in the face of sheer survival. Cineastes, however, will appreciate the elemental, existential pleasures of this dog-eat-dog Down Under out-Western, not the least of which include the performances. Pearce's rework of the Man With No Name exudes intention in the very forward thrust of his stance, and Pattinson breaks his cool — and the confines of typecasting — as a blubbering, babbling, thin-skinned man-child. Clad in the mystic expanses of the South Australia desert, which tip a hat to John Ford Westerns as well as scorched-earth-of-the-mind movies such as El Topo (1970) and Paris, Texas (1984), The Rover is taken to the level of tone poem by the shuddering, moaning cellos of Antony Partos's impressive, atonal electroacoustic score. (1:42) Metreon, Shattuck. (Chun)
The Signal Sharing its title with a 2007 film — also a thriller about a mysterious transmission that wreaks havoc in the lives of its protagonists — this offbeat feature from co-writer and director William Eubank belies its creator's deep affection for, and knowledge of, the sci-fi genre. Number one thing The Signal is not is predictable, but its twists feel organic even as the story takes one hairpin turn after another. MIT buddies Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) are driving Nic's girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), cross-country to California. Complicating the drama of the young couple's imminent separation is Nic's deteriorating physical condition (it's never explained, but the former runner apparently has MS or some other neurological disease). The road trip turns dark when the trio (who also happen to be hackers) realize an Internet troll they've tangled with in the past is stalking them. After a brief detour into found-footage horror — fooled ya, Eubank seems to be saying; this ain't that kind of movie at all! — the kids find themselves embroiled in ever-more-terrifying realities. To give away more would ruin the fun of being shocked for yourself, but think Twilight Zone meets Area 51 meets a certain futuristic trilogy starring Laurence Fishburne, who turns up here to play a very important role in Nic and company's waking nightmare. (1:37) Metreon. (Eddy) *