Movies Archives — Page 48 of 69 — San Francisco Bay Guardian Archive 1966–2014 (2024)

Watching the detective

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FILM Like many movies to come before it, and surely many to come after, Sherlock Holmes is completely misrepresented by its trailer. The producers were understandably eager to get butts in the seats on Christmas, and for modern audiences, butts in the seats means fists in the face during commercial breaks.

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.

Ritchie 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. Holmes and Watson join forces with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a Yankee femme fatale who has also been fleshed out from between the lines, and take on the sinister Lord Blackwood, played menacingly by Ritchie veteran Mark Strong.

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. Holmesians have suffered since the death of Jeremy Brett (whose portrayal of the sleuth Downey can rival, but never outstrip), and it is a pleasure to inform them, along with the rest of the nation’s holiday moviegoers, that the game is once again afoot.

SHERLOCK HOLMES opens Fri/25 in Bay Area theaters.

Bridges abides

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FILM “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. (Unlike, say, Roberto Benigni.) It is often said with a guilty-sigh undertone otherwise reserved for neglected relatives or loyal but inconvenient friends — people you know you shouldn’t keep forgetting about.

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. When you think about more conspicuous “great” screen actors of his generation — DeNiro, Nicholson, Pacino, Hoffman — it’s hard to deny that they’ve long since fallen into shtick, caricature, and somnambulism in mostly unworthy vehicles, occasionally showing a flash of prime alertness.

Whereas Bridges never rested on his laurels, or lack thereof. Of course he had a great ’70s — who didn’t? — in movies widely acclaimed (1972’s Fat City, 1971’s The Last Picture Show), fascinatingly quirky (1976’s Stay Hungry, 1975’s Rancho Deluxe and Hearts of the West, 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1979’s Winter Kills), or just lucky to have him (the ’76 King Kong, 1978 Farrah Fawcett vehicle Somebody Killed Her Husband).

But while other stars caved to the more formulaic commerciality of the 1980s and onward, Jeff Bridges managed his career as before, mixing rare commercial hits (1985’s Jagged Edge, 1991’s The Fisher King, and 1984’s Starman — in which he’s an alien sweeter and surely sexier than E.T.) with mainstream bunts (1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, 1996’s White Squall, 1982’s beloved TRON). Not to mention the many, variably unpopular, cult-accruing smaller films he’s spectacular in: Cutter’s Way (1981), American Heart (1992), Fearless (1993), The Big Lebowski (1998), Simpatico (1999), and The Door in the Floor (2004). All Oscar-worthy performances, but Oscar seldom embraces flops, sleepers, and critics’ case-pleadings — the latest of which would be Crazy Heart.

It’s rumored this movie 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. (It’s a much more paltry year for actresses, as usual). 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.

In Houston 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 — even if he charms both mom and four-year-old tyke (the improbably named Jack Nation). 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 ponytailed, stadium-playing 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.

Bridges and Farrell can both really sing. (The former has long been a singer-songwriter-guitarist, though a pretty dull one.) Robert Duvall can’t, but then as producer and excellent support player (Bad’s old barkeep friend), he’s allowed some self-indulgence.

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. Here he’s fleshy, hairy, wheezy — well-intentioned, but charming and untrustworthy at once. He rules an otherwise ordinary film like Mickey Rourke did 2008’s The Wrestler. But here’s guessing the relative lack of flamboyance (or salvation from the skids) won’t do Jeff Bridges similar favors. Again.

CRAZY HEART opens Fri/25 in San Francisco.

Our weekly picks

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WEDNESDAY 16th

FILM

Free Form Film Series: "Awesome and Painful"


The folks from Lost Media Archive and the FFFF (Free Form Film Festival) have a Christmas treat for y’all: a screening of the "universally loathed" Star Wars Holiday Special. Before that, six dudes from various parts of the U.S. will treat viewers to experimental videos. With titles like Hulk Smash, Cakestain! and Polygon Sun, it’s likely — well, very likely (I did some interweb research) — that these videos are of the laffy taffy, low-tech, seizure-inducing variety. While this might suggest everything jejune and sarcastic, I would also qualify that suggest with smartly so. (Spencer Young)

8 p.m., $6

Artists’ Television Access

992 Valencia, SF

(415) 824-3890

www.atasite.org

THURSDAY 17th

FILM

Kenneth Anger: Restored Prints


Not one to dabble so much as drench himself in the occult, Kenneth Anger has been dubbed a weirdo. Committed to the underground, his short films are weird, too, but in an interesting and entertaining kind of way as opposed to creepy and cloying. Two of the Anger movies showing tonight — Scorpio Rising (1960) and Kustom Kar Kommandos (1964) — worship handsome James Dean-type men and their equally handsome machines through serene, phantasmagoric pans across shiny engines, belt buckles, and bulging biceps, all queerly contrasted with 1960s pop. The other two films on the program, Fireworks (1947) and Rabbit’s Moon (1950/1971) are equally hunky-dory. Also, the 82-year-old weirdo might be in attendance. (Young)

7 p.m., $7–$10

Phyllis Wattis Theater

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000

www.sfmoma.org

MUSIC

Popscene Holiday Gala with Mike Relm


‘Tis the season for video mashups. The holidays always make me want to break out the TV Carnage DVDs — nothing says gift quite like John Ritter making horrified faces to Rosie O’Donnell’s performance in Riding the Bus With My Sister (2005). Mike Relm is one of SF’s chief video turntablists, with a resume that includes Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom project. He won my heart by naming his debut DVD Clown Alley, after the defunct semi-North Beach burger dive known to inspire the Guardian’s own Marke B. to break into song. He makes the scene at Popscene’s festive gala. (Johnny Ray Huston)

With DJ Sharp

10 p.m.–2 a.m., $5–$10

330 Ritch

330 Ritch, SF

(415) 541-9574

www.popscene-sf.com

FRIDAY 18th

PERFORMANCE

Hubba Hubba Revue’s Chrismanukkah


Hubba Hubba Revue is big in England. Word of the SF burlesque troupe’s shenanigans had reached my burlesexual friend Lou Lou, who knows about tassel-twirling because, back in Blighty, she’s a "maid" who flounces about the stage between acts cleaning up the dancers’ tossed underthings. Lou Lou was convinced "the maid" was a universal feature of burlesque shows, and was surprised to learn that in the Hubba Hubba Revue, her role is played by a man-monkey named Zip the What-Is-It, bald but for a tuft of hair on his crown. Things are different here. But they do have lovely ladies stripping all retro-like and enough shiny bells and whistles to keep even the burlesque-shy (does such a person exist?) jaw-dropped and fancy free. The troupe’s holiday celebration promises peace and goodwill to (wo)man, and performances by Bunny Pistol, Professor Shimmy, and Meshugga Beach Party, a Jewish folk surf jam experience. (Caitlin Donohue)

9 p.m., $12–$15

DNA Lounge

375 11th St., SF

(415) 626-1409

www.dnalounge.com

www.hubbahubbarevue.com

LIT

Glam Gender Release Party


You can never have too much drag for the holidays. Or can you? No, no you can’t — especially if your stocking is not only filled with enough bird seed to size you up to a triple-D cup, but also with the ravishing new book Glam Gender, a glossy to-die-for tome self-published by photographer Marianne Larochelle and art director-stylist-drag legend Jose Guzman Colon, a.k.a. Putanesca. Contained within is an encyclopedia of the most well-known local drag queens of the past decade, including many no longer with us. The project, with punchy bios written by paparazzi punk Bill Picture, was "such a beautiful thing to work on," Putanesca told me. "It’s a real community celebration, and also a bit insane." Freshly released, the book will be available — along with glorious prints and most of the queens themselves — at zany Victorian wonderland Finn’s Funhouse. Watch your dress. (Marke B.)

6–10 p.m., free

Finn’s Funhouse

814 Grove, SF

www.glamgender.com

MUSIC

Super Adventure Club


Up-sides to cold weather: the dependable absence of mosquitoes, eggnog, layers of $4 Goodwill sweaters that nicely camouflage Christmas cookie bulge, and socially acceptable hibernation. Wait, scratch that last one — you’re going out. You’ll wanna brave those arctic winds for multitasking duo Jake Woods and Michael Winger, who combine their strange genius to form Super Adventure Club, a band you could like for the name alone, but don’t have to because their punchy riffs on everything from German "üntz" music to French love songs deliver a restorative kick to the circulation system. I straight up challenge you to get through their set — or that of headliners Diego’s Umbrella — without jumping about like a crazy person. You’ve got a tough first step past the front welcome mat, but know — just know — that your winter woes are about to melt like a square snowflake in funky town. (Donohue)

With Diego’s Umbrella and How To Win at Life

9 p.m., $8

Elbo Room

(415) 552-7788

647 Valencia, SF

www.elbo.com

SATURDAY 19th

EVENT

Renegade Craft Fair


December mall jaunts tend to induce claustrophobia, Santa terrors, and unpredictable, Manchurian Candidate-style reactions to all those cheery Christmas carols. Avoid the commercial hustle at the Renegade Craft Fair, founded in 2003 in Chicago — where a Renegade Handmade store remains open year-round — and now a multicity phenomenon. SF’s version opens shop just in time for the last-minute gift scramble, with more than 150 local DIY denizens (who had to apply to participate, so you won’t have to sift though sub-par crap) offering up all manner of bow-worthy ideas: fabric goods, silkscreened art, jewelry, accoutrements for babies, housewares, toys, stationary, and more. (Cheryl Eddy)

Through Sun/20

11 a.m.–7 p.m., free

Herbst Pavilion, Fort Mason Center

Marina at Laguna, SF

www.renegadecraft.com/holiday-sf

PERFORMANCE

Trannyshack Star Search


The queen, apparently, is not dead. Beloved and be-loathed trash-drag emporium Trannyshack glitter-axed its weekly operations at the Stud last year. But like the chunky-jewelried zombie ass-slave Mrs. Roper hostess that she is, Heklina rises from the ash heap of Manhunt addiction to bring back the Trannyshack Star Search competition, thirsty for new blood to fill her ghoulish needs. She’ll be joined onstage by the wonderfully horrific Peaches Christ to oversee performances by "special" guest judges Sherry Vine and Kembra Pfahler of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Hoku Mama, Putanesca, Princess Kennedy, and Anjie Myma also judge the 10 hopefuls, and DJ Omar glam-slu*ts up the crowd, if that’s even more possible. (Marke B.)

10 p.m.–3 a.m., $15–$20

DNA Lounge

(415) 626-1409

375 11th St., SF

www.dnalounge.com

EVENT/PERFORMANCE

Circus Ignite!


Does it seem like circus is everywhere? It’s true. And that’s not just in local venues, mainstream media, and fashion. Circus groups are taking their clowning, juggling, stilting, and acrobatics out of American cities and into under-served communities across the world. They’re entertaining, educating, inspiring self-esteem, and fostering cross-cultural communication in communities affected by natural disaster, dislocations, and military conflicts. One such group is Dreamtime Circus, a fantastic organization that launched with a trip to India last year and plans to spend next spring in Peru. Help support the cause by attending this weekend’s fundraiser, featuring DJs, a silent auction, and performances. (Molly Freedenberg)

9 p.m.–4 a.m., $12–$20

Siberia

314 11th St, SF

(415) 552-2100

www.dreamtimecircus.org

EVENT/MUSIC

Carols in the Caves


Candlelight. Cave acoustics. Ancient instruments playing age-old carols. And you as part of the angel choir. Could there be anything more classically festive than Carols in the Caves? The brainchild of percussionist/musician the Improvisator (a.k.a. David Auerbach), this tradition has been delighting audiences for 24 years in a variety of caves and wine cellars around the Bay Area. This time Auerbach brings his dulcimers, flutists, drums, and bells to Hans Fahden Vineyards, a gorgeous property on a ridge above Calistoga that features panoramic views of Mount Saint Helena. Buy your tickets, save some extra cash to purchase wine, and get ready to settle in to a sound spa for the mind. (Freedenberg)

2 p.m. (also Sun/20), $45

Hans Fahden Vineyards

4855 Petrified Forest, Calistoga

(707) 224-4222

www.cavemusic.com

FILM

The Birds


So … 500,000 European starlings did an air show in Bodega Bay, I mean Sacramento, this past week. Video evidence is flying across the Internet. It’s official, a real-life version of The Birds (1963) can’t be far off. Of all of Hitchco*ck’s classics, this is the one best served by the big screen. If you’ve only seen it on TV, you don’t know it. Out of your gilded cages, Melanie Daniels fans, and into the Castro to fend off angry beaks with your impeccably manicured hands. (Huston)

2:30 and 7 p.m. (double feature with Notorious), $7.50–$10

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

www.castrotheatre.com

SUNDAY 20th

MUSIC

Brian Setzer Orchestra


Brian Setzer has made a long-lasting career of resurrecting musical styles from the past with his formidable talents. He first came to fame as leader of the Stray Cats, energizing traditional rockabilly with his scorching guitar skills. He then went on to revamp swing and the classic big band sound of the 1930s and ’40s with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, whose hits included a cover of Louis Prima’s "Jump Jive An’ Wail." Tonight’s stop here in SF is part of Setzer’s seventh annual "Christmas Rocks!" tour, featuring revved-up versions of timeless holiday songs like "Jingle Bells" and "White Christmas," as well as selections from his own hit discography.(Sean McCourt)

8 p.m., $55–$69.50

The Warfield

982 Market, SF

(415) 775-7722

www.thewarfieldtheatre.com

TUESDAY 22nd

VISUAL ART

Taravat Talepasand: "Situation Critical"


Bay Area artist Taravat Talepasand’s explorations of cultural mores in Iran and America manifest as everything from motorcycles to graphite drawings. Her second show at Marx and Zavaterro casts a sharp eye at xenophobia and assorted manias circa-1979, among other things. "Situation Critical" should be worth a visit simply to see the nightmarish Disney-esque painting Ayatollah Land. (Huston)

10:30 a.m.–5 p.m., free

Marx and Zavattero

77 Geary, second floor, SF

(415) 627-9111
www.marxzav.com

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, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, Matt Sussman, and Laura Swanbeck. The film intern is Fernando F. Croce. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

OPENING

Avatar Special effects master and woeful screenplay-penner James Cameron returns, for better and worse. (2:42)

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. For the complete version of this review, visit www.sfbg.com. (2:08) Clay. (Erik Morse)

Did You Hear About the Morgans? A married couple (Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker) move from Manhattan to a small town after witnessing a murder. (1:48)

In Search of Beethoven After the success of his In Search of Mozart, director Phil Grabsky applies his truth-seeking documentary template to Ludwig van Beethoven, a composer so genius he continued creating (and to a lesser extent, performing) even as he succumbed to deafness. Still photos, paintings, interviews with historians and musicologists, and visits to actual Beethoven haunts, along with dramatic readings of the maestro’s letters (by actor David Dawson) and stern narration (by actor Juliet Stevenson, who also loaned her pipes to Mozart), flesh out this biographical portrait. But its most stirring moments come courtesy of its musical performances (by seasoned professionals) of Moonlight Sonata and other notable works. As the doc proves, there’s no better insight into Beethoven’s tumultuous, sometimes tortured life than the notes he left behind. (2:18) Roxie. (Eddy)

*35 Shots of Rum Claire Denis’s portrait in domesticity is so patiently timed and achingly photographed (by her longtime cinematographer Agnès Godard) that your own life routines are liable to seem freshly poetic in its afterglow. We begin with familiar images of transitory longing: trains switching tracks, keeping time. A man smokes a cigarette at dusk, its embers warming his dark skin. He is Lionel (Alex Descas), a Metro operator who lives simply in a boxy apartment building in the outer rings of Paris. He returns home from work with a rice cooker for his twentysomething daughter, Josephine (Mati Diop), though Denis allows their relationship to remain unclear for a while (she is remarkably free when it comes to exposition). Coincidentally, serious Jo has bought herself a cooker on the same day. There’s a whole untold story about the rice cooker, but Denis is content watching them appreciatively spoon out the first batch in their pajamas. The attention to generations, meals, the trains and the small comic gestures (a well-timed fart, an awry romantic moment in the Seine) all suggest Ozu, but the elliptical rhythms and sensual apprehension of bodies is pure Denis. She once did a documentary about a choreographer (2005’s Towards Mathilde), and she approaches everyday life as a kind of dance. Lionel and Jo’s relationship is unlike almost any other father-daughter dynamic in recent movie memory — nonverbal, but clearly loving. If the other characters are kept at arm’s length, that’s because Lionel and Jo keep their safe haven so closely guarded. Things begin to unspool, as they must, in a memorable restaurant dance sequence that makes exquisite use of the Commodores’ 1985 platter, "Nightshift." (1:39) (Goldberg)

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) Embarcadero. (Peitzman)

ONGOING

Armored (1:28) 1000 Van Ness.

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) 1000 Van Ness. (Daniel Alvarez)

Brothers There’s nothing particularly original about Brothers — first, because it’s based on a Danish film of the same name, and second, because sibling rivalry is one of the oldest stories in the book. The story is fairly straightforward: good brother (Tobey Maguire) goes AWOL in Afghanistan, bad brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) comforts his sister-in law (Natalie Portman), attraction develops, but then — and here’s where things get awkward — good brother comes home. Throughout much of Brothers, the script is surprisingly restrained, holding the film back from Movie of the Week territory. Those moments of subtlety are the movie’s strongest, but by the end they’ve given way to giant, maudlin explosions of angst, which aren’t nearly as impressive. Still, the acting is consistently strong. Maguire is especially good as Captain Sam Cahill in a performance that runs the gamut from doting father to terrifyingly unbalanced. It’s unfortunate that the quiet scenes, in which all the actors excel, are overshadowed by the big, plate-smashing ones. (1:50) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

Christmas with Walt Disney Specially made for the Presidio’s recently opened Walt Disney Family Museum, this nearly hour-long compilation of vintage Yuletide-themed moments from throughout the studio’s history (up to Walt’s 1966 death) is more interesting than you might expect. The engine is eldest daughter Diane Disney Miller’s narrating reminiscences, often accompanied by excerpts from an apparently voluminous library of high-quality home movies. Otherwise, the clips are drawn from a mix of short and full-length animations, live-action features (like 1960’s Swiss Family Robinson), TV shows Wonderful World of Disney and Mickey Mouse Club, plus public events like Disneyland’s annual Christmas Parade and Disney’s orchestration of the 1960 Winter Olympics’ pageantry. If anything, this documentary is a little too rushed –- it certainly could have idled a little longer with some of the less familiar cartoon material. But especially for those who who grew up with Disney product only in its post-founder era, it will be striking to realize what a large figure Walt himself once cut in American culture, not just as a brand but as an on-screen personality. The film screens Nov 27-Jan 2; for additional information, visit http://disney.go.com/disneyatoz/familymuseum/index.html. (:59) Walt Disney Family Museum. (Harvey)

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (1:36) 1000 Van Ness.

*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) (Chun)

Everybody’s Fine Robert De Niro works somewhere between serious De Niro and funny De Niro in this portrait of a family in muffled crisis, a remake of the 1991 Italian film Stanno Tutti Bene. The American version tracks the comings and goings of Frank (De Niro), a recently widowed retiree who fills his solitary hours working in the garden and talking to strangers about his children, who’ve flung themselves across the country in pursuit of various dreams and now send home overpolished reports of their achievements. Disappointed by his offspring’s collective failure to show up for a family get-together, he embarks on a cross-country odyssey to connect with each in turn. Writer-director Kirk Jones (1998’s Waking Ned Devine) effectively underscores Frank’s loneliness with shots of him steering his cart through empty grocery stores, interacting only with the occasional stock clerk, and De Niro projects a sense of drifting disconnection with poignant restraint. But Jones also litters the film with a string of uninspired, autopilot comic moments, and manifold shots of telephone wires as Frank’s children (Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore, and Sam Rockwell) whisper across the miles behind their father’s back — his former vocation, manufacturing the telephone wires’ plastic coating, funded his kids’ more-ambitious aims — feel like glancing blows to the head. A vaguely miraculous third-act exposition of everything they’ve been withholding to protect both him and themselves is handled with equal subtlety and the help of gratingly precocious child actors. (1:35) 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)

*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) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Devereaux)

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) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (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) Shattuck. (Rapoport)

Ninja Assassin Let’s face it: it’d be nigh impossible to live up to a title as awesome as Ninja Assassin –- and this second flick from V for Vendetta (2005) director James McTeigue doesn’t quite do it. Anyone who’s seen a martial arts movie will find the tale of hero Raizo overly familiar: a student (played by the single-named Rain) breaks violently with his teacher; revenge on both sides ensues. That the art form in question is contemporary ninja-ing adds a certain amount of interest, though after a killer ninja vs. yakuza opening scene (by far the film’s best), and a flashback or two of ninja vs. political targets, the rest of the flick is concerned mostly with either ninja vs. ninja or ninja vs. military guys. (As ninjas come "from the shadows," most of these battles are presented in action-masking darkness.) There’s also an American forensic researcher (Noemie Harris) who starts poking around the ninja underground, a subplot that further saps the fun out of a movie that already takes itself way too seriously. (1:33) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Pirate Radio I wanted to like Pirate Radio, a.k.a., The Boat That Rocked –- really, I did. The raging, stormy sounds of the British Invasion –- sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and all that rot. Pirate radio outlaw sexiness, writ large, influential, and mind-blowingly popular. This shaggy-dog of a comedy about the boat-bound, rollicking Radio Rock is based loosely on the history of Radio Caroline, which blasted transgressive rock ‘n’ roll (back when it was still subversive) and got around stuffy BBC dominance by broadcasting from a ship off British waters. Alas, despite the music and the attempts by filmmaker Richard Curtis to inject life, laughs, and girls into the mix (by way of increasingly absurd scenes of imagined listeners creaming themselves over Radio Rock’s programming), Pirate Radio will be a major disappointment for smart music fans in search of period accuracy (are we in the mid- or late ’60s or early or mid-’70s –- tough to tell judging from the time-traveling getups on the DJs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Darby, among others?) and lame writing that fails to rise above the paint-by-the-numbers narrative buttressing, irksome literalness (yes, a betrayal by a lass named Marianne is followed by "So Long, Marianne"), and easy sexist jabs at all those slu*tty birds. Still, there’s a reason why so many artists –- from Leonard Cohen to the Stones –- have lent their songs to this shaky project, and though it never quite gets its sea legs, Pirate Radio has its heart in the right place –- it just lost its brains somewhere along the way down to its crotch. (2:00) 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Planet 51 (1:31) 1000 Van Ness.

*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 (she was only 15 at the time of filming) 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) SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

*The Princess and the Frog Expectations run high for The Princess and the Frog: it’s the first Disney film to feature an African American princess, the first 2D Disney cartoon since the regrettable Home on the Range (2004), and the latest entry from the writing-directing team responsible for The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992). Here’s the real surprise — The Princess and the Frog not only meets those expectations, it exceeds them. After years of disappointment, many of us have given up hope on another classic entry into the Disney 2D animation canon. And yet, The Princess and the Frog is up there with the greats, full of catchy songs, gorgeous animation, and memorable characters. Set in New Orleans, the story is a take off on the Frog Prince fairy tale. Here, the voodoo-cursed Prince Naveen kisses waitress Tiana instead — transferring his froggy plight to her as well. A fun twist, and a positive message: wishing is great, but it takes hard work to make your dreams come true. For those of us raised on classic Disney, The Princess and the Frog is almost too good to believe. (1:37) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

*The Private Lives of Pippa Lee Rebecca Miller’s latest is that seldom-produced thing, the female midlife crisis movie. Daughter to playwright Arthur Miller, a titan of Big Theme manly guilts, her projects are indie-scaled, about troubled domestic minutae, with whimsical twists of fate that methodical realist Arthur would never have countenanced. She’s been consistently interesting since 1995’s striking Angela — first among many narratives from the viewpoint of a child struggling in the shadow of an overwhelming and/or unstable parent. In Private Lives, Pippa (Robin Wright Penn) has her own monstrous parental past. Like many people hailing from chaos, Pippa has turned self-conscious model citizen. In drifting early adulthood, she glommed onto the first man who respected her mind — or did he just recognize a rudderless, much younger woman susceptible to flattery? Ever since she’s been ideal consort to newly retired publisher Herb (Alan Arkin), as well as doting mother to their variably grateful children. Barely 40 and living in an old folks’ village, Pippa is starting to think her life a tad ridiculous. Such nagging but inchoate doubt is underlined by the return of a widow neighbor’s shaggy, somewhat surly son (Keanu Reeves) to Chez Mom after his latest failure at adulthood. Opposites attract, though it’s more complicated than that. Miller’s cluttered canvas also makes room for teensy-to-major characters played by Shirley Knight, Blake Lively, Robin Weigert, Julianne Moore, and Monica Bellucci. As is her wont, she piles on both invigorating insights and a few too many whiplash narrative left turns. But The Private Lives of Pippa Lee has charm and idiosyncrasy to spare. (1:40) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

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) Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

2012 I don’t need to give you reasons to see this movie. You don’t care about the clumsy, hastily dished-out pseudo scientific hoo-ha that explains this whole mess. You don’t care about John Cusack or Woody Harrelson or whoever else signed on for this embarrassing notch in their IMDB entry. You don’t care about Mayan mysteries, how hard it is for single dads, and that Danny Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor jointly stand in for Obama (always so on the zeitgeist, that Roland Emmerich). You already know what you’re in store for: the most jaw-dropping depictions of humankind’s near-complete destruction that director Emmerich –- who has a flair for such things –- has ever come up with. All the time, creative energy, and money James Cameron has spent perfecting the CGI pores of his characters in Avatar is so much hokum compared to what Emmerich and his Spartan army of computer animators dish out: the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy emerging through a cloud of toxic dust like some Mary Celeste of the military-industrial complex, born aloft on a massive tidal wave that pulverizes the White House; the dome of St. Paul’s flattening the opium-doped masses like a steamroller; Hawaii returned to its original volcanic state; and oodles more scenes in which we are allowed to register terror, but not horror, at the gorgeous destruction that is unfurled before us as the world ends (again) but no one really dies. Get this man a bigger budget. (2:40) 1000 Van Ness. (Sussman)

The Twilight Saga: New Moon Oh my God, you guys, it’s that time of the year: another Twilight chapter hits theaters. New Moon reunites useless cipher Bella (Kristen Steward) and Edward (Robert Pattinson), everyone’s favorite sparkly creature of darkness. Because this is a teen wangstfest, the course of true love is kind of bumpy. This time around, there’s a heavy Romeo and Juliet subplot and some interference from perpetually shirtless werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Chances are you know this already, as you’ve either devoured Stephenie Meyer’s book series or you were one of the record-breaking numbers in attendance for the film’s opening weekend. And for those non-Twilight fanatics — is there any reason to see New Moon? Yes and no. Like the 2008’s Twilight, New Moon is reasonably entertaining, with plenty of underage sexual tension, supernatural slugfests, and laughable line readings. But there’s something off this time around: New Moon is fun but flat. For diehard fans, it’s another excuse to shriek at the screen. For anyone else, it’s a soulless diversion. (2:10) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

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) SF Center. (Chun)

Events Listings

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Events listings are compiled by Paula Connelly. Submit items for the listings at listings@sfbg.com. For further information on how to submit items for the listings, see Picks.

WEDNESDAY 9

Celebrating Greenaction Greenaction, Suite 712, 1095 Market, SF; (415) 248-5010. 5:30pm, donations appreciated. Celebrate 12 years of fighting for environmental justice with Greenaction at this party to honor community leaders and environmentally progressive San Francisco Supervisors.

THURSDAY 10

Glass of Water Modern Times Bookstore, 888 Valencia, SF; (415) 282-9246. 7pm, free. Hear Chicano poet, writer, and activist discuss his first novel, A Glass of Water.

Good Vibes Personal Shoppers Good Vibrations, 1620 Polk, SF; (415) 345-0400, and 603 Valencia, SF; (415) 522-5460. Thurs.-Sat. 6-9pm, free. Heat up the holidays and let the Good Vibrations on-hand experts help you pick out the perfect gift for everyone on your list, with complimentary wine and chocolates to get you in the mood.

Historic Libations California Historical Society Museum, 678 Mission, SF; (415) 357-1848. 6pm, $50. Try some historic co*cktails, like the Boothby, Martinez, Gibson, or Pisco Sour, while learning about the history of mixed drinks and sampling hors d’oeurves. Guests receive a complimentary copy of Anchor Distilling Co. new edition of co*cktail Boothby’s American Bartender.

SF Wine Showcase Crushpad, 2573 3rd St., SF; www.sfwineassociation.com. 5:30pm, $25. Enjoy tastings from 20 boutique wineries that are part of the San Francisco Wine Association and find out what it means to be a high-end urban winery.

FRIDAY 11

Roots of Resistance Intertribal Friendship House, 523 International, Oak.; (510) 836-1955. 7pm, donations welcome. Attend this cultural holiday market and showcase of local artisans and enjoy art, performances, dance, drum, food, and solidarity.

SATURDAY 12

Bazaar Bizarre San Francisco County Fair Building, Golden Gate Park, SF; (415) 519-8527. Sat.-Sun. Noon-6pm, $2. Attend this indie craft show featuring artists and designers from across the country showcasing their DIY, hand-made goods. Half the proceeds from the door go to benefit San Francisco Arts Education programs.

Holiday Leather Brunch Edge Bar, 4149 18th St., SF; (415) 867-5004. 11am, $20. Enjoy bottomless mimosas, bloody marys, food, entertainment, and an auction at this 13th annual leather brunch to benefit the Positive Resource Center.

BAY AREA

Gay Elephants Humanist Hall, 39027thSt., Oak.; (510) 681- 9740. 6pm, $10. Check out this Ganesha Gala and learn to wear a Sari from a drag queen, take a Bollywood dance lesson, discuss ways to travel in India gayly, see Indian movies and more. Proceeds go to Jhilik, a school for tribal kids in India affiliated with Swanirvar.

Latkes and Beer Saul’s Restaurant and Deli, 1475 Shattuck, Berk.; (510) 848-DELI. Sat.-Sun. 11am, free. Take home latkes by the dozen or just nosh on some of these authentic potato pancakes while enjoying local microbrews.

Palestinian Crafts Sale St. John’s Church, 2727 College, Berk.; www.mecaforpeace.org. Noon, free. Help support the Middle East Children’s Alliance while enjoying Middle Eastern food and music and shopping for Palestinian embroidery, hand-blown glassware, ceramics, olive oil, textiles, and more.

Telegraph Holiday Fair Telegraph between Bancroft and Dwight, Berk; www.telegraphfair.com. Sat.- Sun. 11am-6pm, free. Join in the community cheer at this holiday street fair featuring fine art and gift items made by Northern California artists, music, and food vendors. Fair will continue Dec. 19-20, and Dec. 23-24.

SUNDAY 13

Perez Hilton Borders, 400 Post, SF; (415) 399-1633. 2pm, free. Get your brand new autographed copy of Perez Hilton’s new book Perez Hilton’s True Bloggywood Stories, which includes the best gossip of 2009, celebrity interviews, and "Perezzie" awards. Paparazzi encouraged.

Kimochi’s Silver Bells St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1111 Gough, SF; (415) 931-2294. 10am, free. Help support Kimochi’s programs and services for seniors at this unique, budget-friendly Asian and Pacific Island inspired arts and crafts fair featuring jewelry, stationary, ornaments, artwork, candles, and more.

MONDAY 14

Doctors Without Borders Century 9 San Francisco Centre, 5th floor, 845 Market, SF; (415) 538-8422. 8pm, $15. Get a first hand look at the field operations of Doctors Without Borders, a Nobel Peace Prize winning organization, in this documentary that follows frontline aid workers to the war-torn Congo and post-conflict Liberia. This one night only screening will be accompanied by a satellite broadcasted live panel discussion with workers and journalists, moderated by Elizabeth Vargas.

TUESDAY 15

Eating to Save the Earth San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin, SF; (415) 557-4400. 6pm, free. Join Linda Riebel, author of Eating to Save the Earth: Food Choices for a Healthy Planet¸ in a lively discussion on the ways omnivores, vegetarians, singles, and families can make environmentally responsible food choices.

Sprinting toward Babylon

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VISUAL ART I remember the first time I heard about Conrad Ruiz. I was standing by the fire on the patio of the Eagle, a spot that for me is a site of great tidings. A pair of talented San Francisco artists told me with enthusiasm about this young painter whose large-scale works depicted things like a man riding the nose of a killer whale as it burst forth from a pool, or a coach getting a golden shower of Gatorade from his triumphant team. According to their accounts, Ruiz magnified and entwined the absurdity and ecstasy of his subject matter. I had some cathartic laughs just imagining his paintings.

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Detail from Overload. Challenger explosion not pictured.

When I first “saw” Ruiz’s art, online, it exceeded my expectations. In particular, I was blown away by Overload [2009], which among other things deserves consideration as the best piece of “Barack Obama art” to date. Panoramic and vibrant even when shrunk 25 times in size, Ruiz’s watercolor works on paper and canvas once again incited a convulsive reaction. I laughed my ass off upon seeing works such as New Fall Lineup [2009] for the first time. But the longer I looked, the more caught up in wonder I became about their myriad tiny details and teeming — at times disturbing subtextual currents.

What goes on in Ruiz’s imagination? On the eve of his first solo show, at San Francisco’s Silverman Gallery, I caught up with him as he navigated the social conflagration of Art Basel Miami, the megafair where at least one magazine tipped him as the leader of a “new generation of art stars.” Whatever one makes of that claim, Ruiz — who is also plotting some collective artistic efforts with friends — is the splashiest crest of an exciting new wave of young California painters.

SFBG How are you doing?
Conrad Ruiz I’m alright. I’m just sitting on South Beach. I wanted to find a place to gather my thoughts, and I’m watching this guy tan himself. I can’t believe he’s doing that. He’s got these great stomach muscles. [Curator and Berkeley Art Museum director] Larry Rinder and I were talking about doing sit-ups before we came here, but we both just got busy — we never did it.

Miami’s fun. I kind of wish I could take my shirt off everywhere, but I feel a little bit squishy.

SFBG It seems like your art would look good in Miami.
CR The colors are finding a home here. There are a lot of bright red and yellow bikinis around. This couple nearby are either arguing or also tanning themselves. They just sit and look at the sun, kinda like lizards.

SFBG What do you think of the Tiger Woods news frenzy right now? I wondered about your take on him. In a way, I thought he might not fit along with some of the athletic figures you depict, because golf isn’t so much about dynamism.
CR But you always hear comedians say, “Just leave it to a black American to dominate another sport.” Chris Rock essentially says, “Wait till we get on ice skates, man, we’re going to take over hockey.”

Tiger Woods has been developed into this brand, aligned with Nike. It’s a very intelligent campaign. It’s not Obama, but he’s been this person who can do no wrong. That’s the personality that has developed through whoever is handling his marketing. It’s more than his being an excellent golfer, he’s also been displayed as this great human. We don’t know that much about him, and then something like [the car accident and ensuing scandal] happens. It’s all we get, and it’s kind of sketchy, and it happened to fall on this awesome Thanksgiving weekend. I thought, “All must be right in the world if the only thing we have to talk about is Tiger Woods getting hit with a golf club by his wife.” If that’s what actually happened.

SFBG People are already Photoshopping and digitally animating visions of that.
CR That’s my job — to look up all that stuff.

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SFBG Does 1970s cinema have any place in your mind’s eye? The Jaws [1975] shark in your painting Rough Riders [2008] and the disaster film or Towering Inferno-like [1974] quality of works like New Fall Lineup made me wonder. I could see that I might be wrong about the latter, since a flaming, exploding skyscraper has other obvious connotations.
CR My work really started with that time period and in painting advertising from that era. The colors were a lot more primary. When I was painting those advertisem*nts, the work was more sarcastic. That beginning body of work was about developing this snarky character that evolved into what I’m making now.

It is about going back and catching some of the ridiculousness of what was so popular at one time. When you watch a disaster film now, you know the history of those celebrities. It’s hard for me to relate to that period of time, but it’s easy for me to relate to early 1990s movies like the Naked Gun franchise — O.J. Simpson was in those — and the Terminator flicks. Those are ridiculous and fun. I like them, and of course [lowers voice], that’s my Governor.

Everyone says “I hate that guy,” but even though I think [Schwarzenegger]’s doing a terrible job, I don’t want my politicians to be these people I don’t know — I’d rather have them be these celebrities I hate. If I’m going to hate who’s in office, I’d rather have it be Sylvester Stallone or somebody.

SFBG When you make work that has a contemporary element, there’s always a danger of it becoming instantly dated. But I think some of your work is both timely and ahead of its time. Overload, for example, just becomes more and more evocative.

The NASA element of the piece, with the Challenger exploding, is taking on new facets as Obama is increasingly identified with the military and space program. I saw a show at Altman Siegel Gallery by Matt Keegan earlier this year that utilized a New York Times front page photo of Obama boarding Air Force One for the first time. That’s a more direct example of what I’m talking about. Six months ago, that image had a different connotation.
CR I was really hoping Obama would get elected, because I started Overload before the election.

SFBG I have to ask about the Challenger’s presence in Overload. I was talking with the artist Colter Jacobsen recently about the fact that I’d like to put together a show of Challenger-related art. Within the art world, there are at least a dozen or so people who have incorporated the Challenger one way or another into work. That’s not even counting how it has manifested as band and album names and jokes in popular culture.
CR For me, it would be great to ask the artist about the original idea behind making a Challenger painting. Everyone has a different a point of view about what’s going on. I always feel like I’m casting with my paintings. There are these scenarios that have never happened, and since I get to decide what’s happening, I also decide who is the star —whether it’s someone from a B movie, an unsung celebrity, a friend who I’m giving a big break, or someone from a blockbuster, like Eddie Murphy and David Alan Grier.

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Overload is a blockbuster sort of painting. I cast that [Challenger] explosion because I thought it was a very unique, amazing explosion. Once I began painting it, people began talking about its relevance, because it says something different when Obama is flying towards it, possibly causing it or stopping it.

To be very honest, I didn’t initially know it was the Challenger exploding. My Mom told me. She’s a teacher, so to her it was a terrible thing, and she asked me to really consider what I was doing. I told her, “That’s perfect.” Because to me the painting is about Obama coming to the rescue and sh*tting these energy projections — either he’s going to stop the war, or he causing some trouble of his own.

A few paintings later [in New Fall Lineup] I painted the Twin Towers exploding for a similar reason. I was casting this unique explosion and trying to create a different scenario with it.

SFBG I don’t often self-identify in generational terms, but when I was talking about the Challenger explosion with Colter [Jacobsen], he was saying that he had referred to it while teaching a class, and that it wasn’t even a memory for many students. Whereas for he and I, there was the teacher element, and also the fact that everyone was watching the Challenger at school that day. So as a disastrous event, it was similar to 9/11 in that the day just stopped.
CR The Challenger explosion has a lot to do with failed promise, doesn’t it? There was tremendous hope about what was about to happen, and it all fell apart in one second.

There’s an element of comedy that I’ve kind of borrowed from Richard Pryor. As I watch his stuff, it’s more like performance art. What he talked about wasn’t funny at all, it was actually horrible. He was an interesting character in that he talked about things that were definitely not right, but did so in a way that everyone would be laughing. Comedy is a way of passing serious information without being worried about the consequences. That makes it kind of a new territory. Dave Chappelle was able to say some unique and terrible things in this fun format.

SFBG It’s interesting that you bring up Chappelle, because after he hit his sort of Challenger moment on the pop culture stage and went away, Block Party [a.k.a. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, 2006] came out.
CR That’s a beautiful movie.

SFBG It was released during the final stretch of all the jockeying for Academy Awards in Hollywood. All these talking heads were going on about which movies were important, and I remember thinking that Block Party was more important or vital and connected to the world than any of them.
CR/strong> His stuff is always about pointing out differences, and bringing together ideas of social class hierarchy. In a roundabout way, that’s what he did [in em>Block Party]. He brought together a lot of high-end artists and gave a free show. It was about giving to the people or the neighborhood. The idea of a barbecue, a barbecue block party, also has an ethnic connotation to it.

SFBG There is a lot of athletic imagery in your art, and I don’t want to reduce it to masculinity or sexuality, but I do want to ask about being drawn to those kinds of visuals, or wanting to render them.

Veronica De Jesus does some sports-oriented work that’s quite different from yours, but also has a terrific sense of humor. Sports are quite iconic — moments like an Olympic runner tumbling or Zidane’s headbutt become part of the collective consciousness. But beyond that, there’s an ecstatic, colorful, lively quality to your sports imagery.
CR Sports have always been a part of my life. My mom and dad were very athletic at one time, and they encouraged my brother and me to take part in sports. The alternative was for us to be on our own, and they knew we had a lot of Latino friends, so of course I was just going to get into trouble. So I was enrolled in soccer and taekwando. I was a sprinter in high school, and I was on the football team.

[The paintings] are a culmination of all the things you’re talking about. The outfits these athletes wear are designed to be eye-catching, with these primary colors. The Denver Broncos have that awesome dark blue with orange …

SFBG I love that combo. I just put together a sports cinema program with a film curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and when I’d introduce a movie from the 1970s, I’d always mention the athletic fashions.
CR Everything is designed to be the most freaking amazing thing possible, because these people are performing acts that no one else can do — they’re leaping through the air catching a ball thrown from very far away while wearing purple and yellow. The performance and exertion is incredible, and at the same time, what can make it even greater is being in a stadium where everyone is screaming their lungs out at the same time. Whether it’s an epic win or colossal failure, it’s still that climax. The climax doesn’t mean that it’s good — it’s a peak of performance.

When I’d meet with advisors at CCA [California College of the Arts], we’d really break it down, and they could easily talk me out of making my work. When you get down to it, what I’m doing is a little ineffective, and what would be more effective, to really get my idea across, would be to just play soccer with a group. I’d be performing, I’d be creating these intimate male relationships. I could actually be slapping some guy’s butt instead of painting around it. Joining a soccer team would be more efficient.

SFBG Maybe you and Luke [Butler, a fellow Silverman Gallery artist whose work engages with masculinity] should join a soccer team.
CR [Laughs] Yeah.

SFBG There is some commonality between your work, and also some major differences.
CR I think it’s because I’m the boy and Luke is the dashing man. I’m looking to be a man and trying to figure out what a man is, while Luke is a dashing man looking sideways.

CONRAD RUIZ: COLD, HARD AND WET
Fri/11 through Jan. 30, 2010
Silverman Gallery
804 Sutter, SF
(415) 255-9508
www.silverman-gallery.com

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, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, Matt Sussman, and Laura Swanbeck. The film intern is Fernando F. Croce. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

OPENING

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) Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Me and Orson Welles See “Citizen Welles.” (1:54)

*The Princess and the Frog Expectations run high for The Princess and the Frog: it’s the first Disney film to feature an African American princess, the first 2D Disney cartoon since the regrettable Home on the Range (2004), and the latest entry from the writing-directing team responsible for The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992). Here’s the real surprise — The Princess and the Frog not only meets those expectations, it exceeds them. After years of disappointment, many of us have given up hope on another classic entry into the Disney 2D animation canon. And yet, The Princess and the Frog is up there with the greats, full of catchy songs, gorgeous animation, and memorable characters. Set in New Orleans, the story is a take off on the Frog Prince fairy tale. Here, the voodoo-cursed Prince Naveen kisses waitress Tiana instead — transferring his froggy plight to her as well. A fun twist, and a positive message: wishing is great, but it takes hard work to make your dreams come true. For those of us raised on classic Disney, The Princess and the Frog is almost too good to believe. (1:37) Shattuck. (Peitzman)

*The Private Lives of Pippa Lee See “Life Out of Balance.” (1:40) Albany, Bridge, Smith Rafael.

A Single Man Tom Ford directs Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in this 1960s-set tale of a man mourning the death of his longtime partner. (1:39) Sundance Kabuki.

Uncertainty A knocked-up girl (Lynn Collins) and a guy with a coin in his pocket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) stand on the Brooklyn Bridge, circle the issue, flip the coin, then bolt in opposite directions. The coin was clearly purchased in some dusty, mysterious Chinatown magic shop from a loopy-seeming octogenarian codger, because at each end of the bridge, the pair reunite for two 24-hour bouts of the title’s psychological state that unspool side by side in time but diverge in mood and pace and genre: on the Brooklyn side, we get a slow-paced family drama; in Manhattan, a pulse-raising action-thriller. In other words, a monument, a monumental decision, and a premise spun out of such pure and visible artifice that it seems unlikely to translate into absorbing filmmaking. It does, though, somehow, in the hands of writer-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (2005’s Bee Season, 2001’s The Deep End), who adroitly move Uncertainty’s central characters through familial scenes weighted down by quiet grief, strife, love, and worry and through the more heightened anxiety of chase and gunplay and ceaseless surveillance. While the framework remains a distracting fact, something constructed while we watched and then imposed on us, the film, heavily improvised, is carefully edited to guide us without tripping between the two threads of story. And in each — in what is becoming a pleasurable habit — we watch Gordon-Levitt bring texture and depth to the smallest moments in a conversation or scene. (1:45) Roxie. (Rapoport)

ONGOING

Armored (1:28) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck.

*Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Consider that ridiculous title. Though its poster and imdb entry eliminate the initial article, it appears onscreen as The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. That’s the bad lieutenant, not to be confused with Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant. The bad lieutenant has a name: Terence McDonagh, and he’s a police officer of similarly wobbly moral fiber. McDonagh’s tale — inspired by Ferrara and scripted by William Finkelstein, but perhaps more important, filmed by Werner Herzog and interpreted by Nicolas Cage — opens with a snake slithering through a post-Hurricane Katrina flood. A prisoner has been forgotten in a basem*nt jail. McDonagh and fellow cop Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) taunt the man, taking bets on how long it’ll take him to drown in the rising waters. An act of cruelty seems all but certain until McDonagh, who’s quickly been established as a righteous asshole, suddenly dives in for the rescue. Unpredictability, and quite a bit of instability, reigns thereafter. Every scene holds the possibility of careening to heights both campy and terrifying, and Cage proves an inspired casting choice. At this point in his career, he has nothing to lose, and his take on Lt. McDonagh is as haywire as it gets. McDonagh snorts co*ke before reporting to a crime scene; he threatens the elderly; he hauls his star teenage witness along when he confronts a john who’s mistreated his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes); he cackles like a maniac; he lurches around like a hunchback on crack. Not knowing what McDonagh will do next is as entertaining as knowing it’ll likely be completely insane. (2:01) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

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) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Daniel Alvarez)

Brothers There’s nothing particularly original about Brothers — first, because it’s based on a Danish film of the same name, and second, because sibling rivalry is one of the oldest stories in the book. The story is fairly straightforward: good brother (Tobey Maguire) goes AWOL in Afghanistan, bad brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) comforts his sister-in law (Natalie Portman), attraction develops, but then — and here’s where things get awkward — good brother comes home. Throughout much of Brothers, the script is surprisingly restrained, holding the film back from Movie of the Week territory. Those moments of subtlety are the movie’s strongest, but by the end they’ve given way to giant, maudlin explosions of angst, which aren’t nearly as impressive. Still, the acting is consistently strong. Maguire is especially good as Captain Sam Cahill in a performance that runs the gamut from doting father to terrifyingly unbalanced. It’s unfortunate that the quiet scenes, in which all the actors excel, are overshadowed by the big, plate-smashing ones. (1:50) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

*Capitalism: A Love Story Gun control. The Bush administration. Healthcare. Over the past decade, Michael Moore has tackled some of the most contentious issues with his trademark blend of humor and liberal rage. In Capitalism: A Love Story, he sets his sights on an even grander subject. Where to begin when you’re talking about an economic system that has defined this nation? Predictably, Moore’s focus is on all those times capitalism has failed. By this point, his tactics are familiar, but he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. As with Sicko (2007), Moore proves he can restrain himself — he gets plenty of screen time, but he spends more time than ever behind the camera. This isn’t about Moore; it’s about the United States. When he steps out of the limelight, he’s ultimately more effective, crafting a film that’s bipartisan in nature, not just in name. No, he’s not likely to please all, but for every Glenn Beck, there’s a sane moderate wondering where all the money has gone. (2:07) Roxie. (Peitzman)

Christmas with Walt Disney Specially made for the Presidio’s recently opened Walt Disney Family Museum, this nearly hour-long compilation of vintage Yuletide-themed moments from throughout the studio’s history (up to Walt’s 1966 death) is more interesting than you might expect. The engine is eldest daughter Diane Disney Miller’s narrating reminiscences, often accompanied by excerpts from an apparently voluminous library of high-quality home movies. Otherwise, the clips are drawn from a mix of short and full-length animations, live-action features (like 1960’s Swiss Family Robinson), TV shows Wonderful World of Disney and Mickey Mouse Club, plus public events like Disneyland’s annual Christmas Parade and Disney’s orchestration of the 1960 Winter Olympics’ pageantry. If anything, this documentary is a little too rushed –- it certainly could have idled a little longer with some of the less familiar cartoon material. But especially for those who who grew up with Disney product only in its post-founder era, it will be striking to realize what a large figure Walt himself once cut in American culture, not just as a brand but as an on-screen personality. The film screens Nov 27-Jan 2; for additional information, visit http://disney.go.com/disneyatoz/familymuseum/index.html. (:59) Walt Disney Family Museum. (Harvey)

*Collapse Michael Ruppert is a onetime LAPD narcotics detective and Republican whose radicalization started with the discovery (and exposure) of CIA drug trafficking operations in the late 70s. More recently he’s been known as an author agitator focusing on political coverups of many types, his ideas getting him branded as a factually unreliable conspiracy theorist by some (including some left voices like Norman Solomon) and a prophet by others (particularly himself). This documentary by Chris Smith (American Movie) gives him 82 minutes to weave together various concepts — about peak oil, bailouts, the stock market, archaic governmental systems, the end of local food-production sustainability, et al. — toward a frightening vision of near-future apocalypse. It’s “the greatest preventable holocaust in the history of planet Earth, our own suicide,” as tapped-out resources and fragile national infrastructures trigger a collapse in global industrialized civilization. This will force “the greatest age in human evolution that’s ever taken place,” necessitating entirely new (or perhaps very old, pre-industrial) community models for our species’ survival. Ruppert is passionate, earnest and rather brilliant. He also comes off at times as sad, angry, and eccentric, bridling whenever Smith raises questions about his methodologies. Essentially a lecture with some clever illustrative materials inserted (notably vintage educational cartoons), Collapse is, as alarmist screeds go, pretty dang alarming. It’s certainly food for thought, and would make a great viewing addendum to concurrent post-apocalyptic fiction The Road. (1:22) Shattuck. (Harvey)

La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2:38) Smith Rafael.

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (1:36) 1000 Van Ness.

*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) Albany, Piedmont. (Chun)

The End of Poverty? (1:46) Four Star.

Everybody’s Fine Robert De Niro works somewhere between serious De Niro and funny De Niro in this portrait of a family in muffled crisis, a remake of the 1991 Italian film Stanno Tutti Bene. The American version tracks the comings and goings of Frank (De Niro), a recently widowed retiree who fills his solitary hours working in the garden and talking to strangers about his children, who’ve flung themselves across the country in pursuit of various dreams and now send home overpolished reports of their achievements. Disappointed by his offspring’s collective failure to show up for a family get-together, he embarks on a cross-country odyssey to connect with each in turn. Writer-director Kirk Jones (1998’s Waking Ned Devine) effectively underscores Frank’s loneliness with shots of him steering his cart through empty grocery stores, interacting only with the occasional stock clerk, and De Niro projects a sense of drifting disconnection with poignant restraint. But Jones also litters the film with a string of uninspired, autopilot comic moments, and manifold shots of telephone wires as Frank’s children (Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore, and Sam Rockwell) whisper across the miles behind their father’s back — his former vocation, manufacturing the telephone wires’ plastic coating, funded his kids’ more-ambitious aims — feel like glancing blows to the head. A vaguely miraculous third-act exposition of everything they’ve been withholding to protect both him and themselves is handled with equal subtlety and the help of gratingly precocious child actors. (1:35) 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)

*Everything Strange and New In Frazer Bradshaw’s Everything Strange and New, Wayne (Jerry McDaniel), wears overalls too large and a look of pained, dazed acquiescence. It’s as if not just his clothes but his life were given to the wrong person — and there’s a no-exchange policy. He loves wife Reneé (the writer Beth Lisick) and their kids. But those two unplanned pregnancies mean she’s got to stay home; daycare would cost more than she’d earn. So every day Wayne returns from his dead-end construction job to the home whose mortgage holds them hostage; and every time Reneé can be heard screaming at their not-yet-school-age boys, at the end of her tether. Sometimes he silently just turns around to commiserate over beer with buddies likewise married with children, but doing no better. Wayne’s voiceover narration endlessly ponders how things got this way — more or less as they should be, yet subtly wrong. He might be willing (or at least able) to let go of the idea of happiness. But Reneé’s inarticulate fury at her stifling domestication keeps striking at any nearby punching bag, himself (especially) included. Something’s got to change. But can it? Veteran local experimentalist and cinematographer Bradshaw’s first feature, which he also wrote, never stoops to narrative cliché. Or to stylistic ones, either — there’s a spectral poetry to the way he photographs the Oakland flats. (1:24) Roxie. (Harvey)

*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) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Devereaux)

The Maid In an upper-middle class subdivision of Santiago, 40-year-old maid Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), perpetually stony and indignant, operates a rigorous dawn-to-dusk routine for the Valdez family. Although Raquel rarely behaves as an intimate of her longtime hosts, she remains convinced that love, not labor, bonds them. (Whether the family shares Raquel’s feelings of devotion is highly dubious.) When a rotating cast of interlopers is hired to assist her, she stoops to machinations most vile to scare them away — until the arrival of Lucy (Mariana Loyola), whose unpredictable influence over Raquel sets the narrative of The Maid on a very different psychological trajectory, from moody chamber piece to eccentric slice-of-life. If writer-director Sebastián Silva’s film taunts the viewer with the possibility of a horrific climax, either as a result of its titular counterpart — Jean Genet’s 1946 stage drama The Maids, about two servants’ homicidal revenge — or from the unnerving “mugshot” of Saavedra on the movie poster, it is neither self-destructive nor Grand Guignol. Rather, it it is much more prosaic in execution. Sergio Armstrong’s fidgety hand-held camera captures Raquel’s claustrophobic routine as it accentuates her Sisyphean conundrum: although she completely rules the inner workings of the house, she remains forever a guest. But her character’s motivations often evoke as much confusion as wonder. In the absence of some much needed exposition, The Maid’s heavy-handed silences, plaintive gazes, and inexplicable eruptions of laughter feel oddly sterile, and a contrived preciousness begins to creep over the film like an effluvial whitewash. Its abundance makes you aware there is a shabbiness hiding beneath the dramatic facade — the various stains and holes of an unrealized third act. (1:35) Shattuck. (Erik Morse)

The Men Who Stare at Goats No! The Men Who Stare at Goats was such an awesome book (by British journalist Jon Ronson) and the movie boasts such a terrific cast (George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor). How in the hell did it turn out to be such a lame, unfunny movie? Clooney gives it his all as Lyn Cassady, a retired “supersolider” who peers through his third eye and realizes the naïve reporter (McGregor) he meets in Kuwait is destined to accompany him on a cross-Iraq journey of self-discovery; said journey is filled with flashbacks to the reporter’s failed marriage (irrelevant) and Cassady’s training with a hippie military leader (Bridges) hellbent on integrating New Age thinking into combat situations. Had I the psychic powers of a supersoldier, I’d use some kind of mind-control technique to convince everyone within my brain-wave radius to skip this movie at all costs. Since I’m merely human, I’ll just say this: seriously, read the book instead. (1:28) Shattuck. (Eddy)

*The Messenger Ben Foster cut his teeth playing unhinged villains in Alpha Dog (2006) and 3:10 to Yuma (2007), but he cements his reputation as a promising young actor with a moving, sympathetic performance in director Oren Moverman’s The Messenger. Moverman (who also co-authored the script) is a four-year veteran of the Israeli army, and he draws on his military experience to create an intermittently harrowing portrayal of two soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army’s Casualty Notification Service. Will Montgomery (Foster) is still recovering from the physical and psychological trauma of combat when he is paired with Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a by-the-book Captain whose gruff demeanor and good-old-boy gallows humor belie the complicated soul inside. Gut-wrenching encounters with the families of dead soldiers combine with stark, honest scenes that capture two men trying to come to grips with the mundane horrors of their world, and Samantha Morton completes a trio of fine acting turns as a serene Army widow. (1:45) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Richardson)

Ninja Assassin Let’s face it: it’d be nigh impossible to live up to a title as awesome as Ninja Assassin –- and this second flick from V for Vendetta (2005) director James McTeigue doesn’t quite do it. Anyone who’s seen a martial arts movie will find the tale of hero Raizo overly familiar: a student (played by the single-named Rain) breaks violently with his teacher; revenge on both sides ensues. That the art form in question is contemporary ninja-ing adds a certain amount of interest, though after a killer ninja vs. yakuza opening scene (by far the film’s best), and a flashback or two of ninja vs. political targets, the rest of the flick is concerned mostly with either ninja vs. ninja or ninja vs. military guys. (As ninjas come “from the shadows,” most of these battles are presented in action-masking darkness.) There’s also an American forensic researcher (Noemie Harris) who starts poking around the ninja underground, a subplot that further saps the fun out of a movie that already takes itself way too seriously. (1:33) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Old Dogs John Travolta and Robin Williams play lifelong friends, business partners, and happily child-free bachelors whose lives change when the latter is forced to care for the 7-year-old twins (Conner Rayburn, Ella Bleu Travolta) he didn’t know he’d sired. You know what this will be like going in, and that’s what you get: a predictable mix of the broadly comedic and maudlin, with a screenplay that feels half-baked by committee, and direction (by Walt Becker, who’s also responsible for 2007’s Wild Hogs) that tries to compensate via frantic over-editing of setpieces that end before they’ve gotten started. The coasting stars seem to be enjoying themselves, but the momentary cheering effect made by each subsidiary familiar face –- including Seth Green, Bernie Mac, Matt Dillon, Ann-Margret, Amy Sedaris, Dax Shepard, Justin Long, and Luis Guzman, some in unbilled cameos –- sours as you realize almost none of them will get anything worthwhile to do. (1:28) 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Pirate Radio I wanted to like Pirate Radio, a.k.a., The Boat That Rocked –- really, I did. The raging, stormy sounds of the British Invasion –- sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and all that rot. Pirate radio outlaw sexiness, writ large, influential, and mind-blowingly popular. This shaggy-dog of a comedy about the boat-bound, rollicking Radio Rock is based loosely on the history of Radio Caroline, which blasted transgressive rock ‘n’ roll (back when it was still subversive) and got around stuffy BBC dominance by broadcasting from a ship off British waters. Alas, despite the music and the attempts by filmmaker Richard Curtis to inject life, laughs, and girls into the mix (by way of increasingly absurd scenes of imagined listeners creaming themselves over Radio Rock’s programming), Pirate Radio will be a major disappointment for smart music fans in search of period accuracy (are we in the mid- or late ’60s or early or mid-’70s –- tough to tell judging from the time-traveling getups on the DJs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Darby, among others?) and lame writing that fails to rise above the paint-by-the-numbers narrative buttressing, irksome literalness (yes, a betrayal by a lass named Marianne is followed by “So Long, Marianne”), and easy sexist jabs at all those slu*tty birds. Still, there’s a reason why so many artists –- from Leonard Cohen to the Stones –- have lent their songs to this shaky project, and though it never quite gets its sea legs, Pirate Radio has its heart in the right place –- it just lost its brains somewhere along the way down to its crotch. (2:00) Oaks, Piedmont, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Planet 51 (1:31) Oaks, 1000 Van Ness.

*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 (she was only 15 at the time of filming) 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) SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

Red Cliff All Chinese directors must try their hands at a historical epic of the swords and (arrow) shafts variety, and who can blame them: the spectacle, the combat, the sheer scale of carnage. With Red Cliff, John Woo appears to top the more operatic Chen Kaige and a more camp Zhang Yimou in the especially latter department. The body count in this lavishly CGI-appointed (by the Bay Area’s Orphanage), good-looking war film is on the high end of the Commando/Rambo scale. The endless, intricately choreographed battle scenes are the primary allure of this slash-’em-up, whittled-down version of the Chinese blockbuster, which was released in Asia as a four-hour two-parter. Yet despite some notably handsome cinematography that rivals that of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in its painterliness, seething performances by players like Tony Leung and Fengyi Zhang, and recognizable Woo leitmotifs (a male bonding-attraction that’s particularly pronounced during Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro’s zither shred-fests, fluttering doves, a climactic Mexican standoff, the added jeopardy of a baby amid the battle), the labyrinthian complexity of the story and its multitude of characters threaten to lose the Western viewer –- or anyone less than familiar with Chinese history –- before strenuous pleasures of Woo’s action machine kick in. The completely OTT finale will either have you rolling your eyes its absurdity or laughing aloud at its contrived showmanship. Despite Woo’s lip service to the virtues of peace and harmony, is there really any other way, apart from the warrior’s, in his world? (2:28) Shattuck. (Chun)

The Road After an apocalypse of unspecified origin, the U.S. –- and presumably the world –- is depleted of wildlife and agriculture. Social structures have collapsed. All that’s left is a grim survivalism in which father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (whimpery Kodi Smit-McPhee) try to find food sources and avoid fellow humans, since most of the latter are now cannibals. Flashbacks reveal their past with the wife and mother (Charlize Theron) who couldn’t bear soldiering on in this ruined future. Scenarist Joe Penhall (a playwright) and director John Hillcoat (2005’s The Proposition) have adapted Cormac McCarthy’s novel with painstaking fidelity. Their Road is slow, bleak, grungy and occasionally brutal. All qualities in synch with the source material –- but something is lacking. One can appreciate Hillcoat and company’s efforts without feeling the deep empathy, let alone terror, that should charge this story of extreme faith and sacrifice. The film just sits there –- chastening yet flat, impact unamplified by familiar faces (Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker) road-grimed past recognition. (1:53) California, Piedmont. (Harvey)

*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) California, Piedmont. (Chun)

2012 I don’t need to give you reasons to see this movie. You don’t care about the clumsy, hastily dished-out pseudo scientific hoo-ha that explains this whole mess. You don’t care about John Cusack or Woody Harrelson or whoever else signed on for this embarrassing notch in their IMDB entry. You don’t care about Mayan mysteries, how hard it is for single dads, and that Danny Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor jointly stand in for Obama (always so on the zeitgeist, that Roland Emmerich). You already know what you’re in store for: the most jaw-dropping depictions of humankind’s near-complete destruction that director Emmerich –- who has a flair for such things –- has ever come up with. All the time, creative energy, and money James Cameron has spent perfecting the CGI pores of his characters in Avatar is so much hokum compared to what Emmerich and his Spartan army of computer animators dish out: the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy emerging through a cloud of toxic dust like some Mary Celeste of the military-industrial complex, born aloft on a massive tidal wave that pulverizes the White House; the dome of St. Paul’s flattening the opium-doped masses like a steamroller; Hawaii returned to its original volcanic state; and oodles more scenes in which we are allowed to register terror, but not horror, at the gorgeous destruction that is unfurled before us as the world ends (again) but no one really dies. Get this man a bigger budget. (2:40) Empire, California, 1000 Van Ness. (Sussman)

The Twilight Saga: New Moon Oh my God, you guys, it’s that time of the year: another Twilight chapter hits theaters. New Moon reunites useless cipher Bella (Kristen Steward) and Edward (Robert Pattinson), everyone’s favorite sparkly creature of darkness. Because this is a teen wangstfest, the course of true love is kind of bumpy. This time around, there’s a heavy Romeo and Juliet subplot and some interference from perpetually shirtless werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Chances are you know this already, as you’ve either devoured Stephenie Meyer’s book series or you were one of the record-breaking numbers in attendance for the film’s opening weekend. And for those non-Twilight fanatics — is there any reason to see New Moon? Yes and no. Like the 2008’s Twilight, New Moon is reasonably entertaining, with plenty of underage sexual tension, supernatural slugfests, and laughable line readings. But there’s something off this time around: New Moon is fun but flat. For diehard fans, it’s another excuse to shriek at the screen. For anyone else, it’s a soulless diversion. (2:10) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

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) SF Center. (Chun)

*William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe A middle-class suburban lawyer radicalized by the Civil Rights era, Kunstler became a hero of the left for his fiery defenses of the draft-card-burning Catonsville Nine, the Black Panthers, the Chicago Twelve, and the Attica prisoners rioting for improved conditions, and Native American protestors at Wounded Knee in 1973. But after these “glory days,” Kunstler’s judgment seemed to cloud while his thirst for “judicial theatre” and the media spotlight. Later clients included terrorists, organized-crime figures, a cop-killing drug dealer, and a suspect in the notorious Central Park “wilding” gang rape of a female jogger –- unpopular causes, to say the least. “Dad’s clients gave us nightmares. He told us that everyone deserves a lawyer, but sometimes we didn’t understand why that lawyer had to be our father” says Emily Kunstler, who along with sister Sarah directed this engrossing documentary about their late father. Growing up under the shadow of this larger-than-life “self-hating Jew” and “hypocrite” –- as he was called by those frequently picketing their house –- wasn’t easy. Confronting this sometimes bewildering behemoth in the family, Disturbing the Universe considers his legacy to be a brave crusader’s one overall –- even if the superhero in question occasionally made all Gotham City and beyond cringe at his latest antics. (1:30) Roxie. (Harvey)

Our Weekly Picks

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WEDNESDAY 2

MUSIC
Baroness
Baroness became one of the most promising bands in heavy music with the release of 2007’s The Red Album (Relapse), generating high expectations for its new monochromatic opus, The Blue Album (Relapse), released this fall. Driven by the squalling vocals and versatile technique of guitarist John Baizley (who also has made a name for himself as a visual artist) the band has exceeded the high hopes of their fans with an offering that combines muscular riffing, allusive Southern flair, and affecting dynamics. Those gathered at Bottom of the Hill will rock out to standouts like “Ogeechee Hymnal” and “The Sweetest Curse.” (Ben Richardson)
With Earthless, Iron Age
9 p.m., $14
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th, SF
(415) 626-4455
www.bottomofthehill.com

THURSDAY 3

EVENT
Handmade Ho-Down
Over 55 crafty bitches will participate in the Handmade Ho-Down, SoMa’s first craftstravaganza urban street fair. This means you will have 55 very good reasons to blow some cash. From pillows to wall prints, there will be something precious for everyone. Forget the stench of mothballs, this ain’t your grandmother’s fluorescent-lit craft show. And what’s a street fair in San Francisco without booze and music? There will be a full holiday bar along with a DJ so you can drink, dance, and shop to your heart’s content. Bring unused art supplies to benefit Drawbridge, a nonprofit art program for homeless and at-risk youth, and get there early for a free SWAG bag. (Lorian Long)
6 p.m., free
1015 Folsom
1015 Folsom, SF
www.handmadehodown.com

FILM
Black Christmas
Some call 1974’s Black Christmas the first-ever slasher film — it predates Halloween by four years, and its sorority-sister victims are picked off one by one as the movie progresses. (It also beat 1979’s When a Stranger Calls to the creepy prank-caller punch.) With an incredible cast (Olivia Hussey! Margot Kidder! John Saxon! Keir Dullea!) and atmospheric direction by the late, great Bob Clark (who also helmed that other holiday classic, 1983’s A Christmas Story), Black Christmas remains legitimately spooky, as well as one of the greatest holiday-horror flicks ever made. Traveling moviemeister Will the Thrill presents the film tonight with live music by Project Pimento; check the Thrillville Web site for deets on the Dec. 10 show in San Jose. (Cheryl Eddy)
8 p.m., $10
Four Star
2200 Clement, SF
(415) 666-3488
www.thrillville.net

FILM/MUSIC
Joshua Churchill and Paul Clipson
In conjunction with NOMA Gallery’s current “Until the Bright Logic is Won/Unwishpering as a Mirror is Believed” exhibit by artists Peggy Cyphers and Joshua Churchill, Churchill and Paul Clipson are presenting a this one-off sound and film performance. I’m imagining two hours filled with Brian Eno-y abstractions and spiritual glosses of nature’s lovely things. If that isn’t unclear enough, maybe the curious misspelling in the show’s title, lifted from Hart Crane’s poem “Legend,” might help. I’m referring to switcheroo of the h in “Unwishpering” (the original being “Unwhispering”). Assuming it was intentional, we now have a new word that undoes the whispering of a wish. Come witness this etymological birthing as Churchill and Clipson unwishper in your eyes and ears. (Spencer Young)
7-9 p.m., free
NOMA Gallery
80 Maiden Lane, 3rd floor, SF
(415) 391 0200
www.nomagallerysf.com

THEATER
Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes
Dreading December’s inevitable mall trip? Consider Golden Girls’ Dorothy your inspiration: “You know Robbie wants a Batman hat. I went to six different stores, they were all sold out … Ugh, I cannot believe a person would push a perfect stranger out of the way, step on her hand, and give her an elbow to the forehead just for a Batman hat. But I did it anyway.” Ah Bea Arthur, what ever will we do without you? But although our favorite sassy grandmas may no longer be churning out the pithy one-liners they once were, their torch has happily been plucked and held aloft by San Francisco drag queens. The ladies will be performing two of the original series’ very special Christmas episodes line-for-line — rumor has it the fearsome foursome takes on a soup kitchen in one. Get some silver-haired sass for your holiday soul. (Caitlin Donohue)
7 and 9 p.m. (also Fri.-Sat., through Dec. 26), $20–$25
Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory
1519 Mission, SF
www.trannyshack.com
www.cookievision.com
www.ticketweb.com

FRIDAY 4
EVENT/VISUAL ART
The 13th Small Format Art Sale
My grandma did beautiful paintings of Texas hill country, but nowadays I’ve only got one ’cause the durn things are too large to qualify as carry-on luggage. Would that Grandma had lived in the age of the The Lab’s small-work-and-postcard art show. The space’s 13th annual celebration of all things tiny and beautiful is perfect for that nomadic creative type on your shopping list. And as a nomadic creative, I’m fully ready to celebrate some innovative, postal service-friendly designs, accumulated during an egalitarian open submissions call. If while there you are shoulder-tapped by a man or woman who wants to show you what’s in their pocket, be not alarmed. They’re a representative of the Museum of Pocket Art, a group that piggybacks larger gallery events to show wallet-sized works. Or they’re a total perv. Only one way to find out … (Caitlin Donohue)
6–-9 p.m. reception (continues through Sun/6), free
The Lab
2948 16th St., SF
(415) 864-8855
www.thelab.org
www.mopaonline.com

MUSIC
The Dead Hensons Finale Extravaganza
While cuddly Muppets and innovative creature designs are probably the first things that pop into most people’s minds when they hear the name Jim Henson, the late creative genius also incorporated wildly catchy music into his productions, using songs that still have the power to transport listeners back to their youth when hearing just a few bars of tunes such as “Pinball Number Count.” Capturing that unbridled sense of joy and innocence, The Dead Hensons perform selections from the early days of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, and are known to cause spontaneous bouts of dancing and sing-alongs with their rockin’ interpretations. Tonight the eight-piece band will joined by several special guests, including members of Rogue Wave, No Doubt, and more. (Sean McCourt)
9:30 p.m., $12
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF.
(415) 621-4455
www.bottomofthehill.com

EVENT/VISUAL ART
Lower Haight Art Walk
Whether you like it or not, the holidays are here. Avoid the bloated shopping malls and the schizophrenia of Union Square, and hit up the Lower Haight for its “Holiday Edition” Art Walk instead. The event takes place between the 400 and 700 blocks, and nearly 30 merchants will participate with live music, art shows, live painting, and waistband-threatening holiday munchies. There will be window and tree display contests, which means you might see Baby Jesus robotripping with a pacifier in his mouth, or Santa and Rudolph getting bestial under the mistletoe. This is the Lower Haight, after all, and one should expect something subversive and oddly charming from such a crazy yet cozy spot in the city. f*ck Macy’s and f*ck carolers, the Xmas spirit thrives with the freaks and geeks of Haight Street. (Long)
7–10 p.m., free
Haight (between Pierce and Webster), SF
www.lowerhaight.org/events

SATURDAY 5

MUSIC
The Cranberries
Before emo came along and turned 13-year-olds into crybabies, there was the Cranberries. Dolores O’Riordan was the mouthpiece for many angst-ridden adolescent girls in the mid-1990s. Say what you will about the band, there’s no denying the sense of dreamy giddiness one feels whenever “Linger” or “Dreams” plays on the radio. Memories of flannel dresses, cassette tapes in your backpack, and the anticipation of another glorious episode of My So-Called Life can overwhelm you with sugary-sweet nostalgia. Following in the footsteps of such holy-sh*t! reunions like Pavement, Jesus Lizard, and Sunny Day Real Estate, the Cranberries — performing with the original lineup — could name their tour “Everyone Else Is Reuniting, So Why Can’t We?” It’s been seven years since the band last toured, so let’s hope “Zombie” still has sharp teeth. (Long)
8 p.m., $36
Regency Ballroom
1290 Sutter, SF
(415) 673-5716
www.theregencyballroom.com

EVENT/LIT/VISUAL ART
Exercises in Seeing”
Wish you could give up the heavy-lidded responsibility of having eyeballs day in day out? Hate having to constantly gaze, blink, scan, squint, divert, and cry? And tired of going to art shows where all you do is look at things? Or maybe you just hate art altogether? Well, tonight’s your lucky night. You can wear two eye-patches if you want, because those pesky wet balls will be useless at this exhibit. For one night only, poet David Buuck will audibly walk you through artwork in the dark by 30 local and international artists — artwork even he hasn’t seen! All you have to do is listen or sleep or walk around and relive your first sexual experiences by “accidentally” groping people. (Young)
9 p.m.–6 a.m.
Queen’s Nails Projects
3191 Mission, SF
(415) 314-6785
www.queensnailsprojects.com

SUNDAY 6

FILM
Om Shanti Om
Om my gawd, y’all — Om Shanti Om is playing the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts! Set within the world of Bollywood, this 2007 monster hit from director-choreographer Farah Khan (she choreographed 2001’s Monsoon Wedding) works cameos galore into the tale of good-hearted, 1970s-era bit player Om (Shah Rukh Khan), who falls for movie star Shanti (Deepika Padukone), not realizing she’s already entangled with sinister producer Mukesh (Arjun Rampal). Stuff — betrayals, tragedy, reincarnation, revenge plots, haunting — happens, but you know you wanna see Om Shanti Om primarily for the glorious musical numbers, and for the mighty SRK, gloriously corny here (as always). (Eddy)
2 p.m., $6–$8
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
(415) 978-2787
www.ybca.org

MUSIC
Marduk
Formed in Sweden in 1990, legendary black metal group Marduk was designed, in the words of founding member Morgan Hakansson, to be “the most blasphemous metal act ever.” Although it draws from similar lyrical themes as other groups in its genre, such as the requisite references to Satanism and gore, Marduk adds several other diabolical layers, notably imagery and historical content from World War II. Marduk had to cancel its opening slot appearance for Mayhem earlier this year due to visa issues — this is the first chance in years for Bay Area metal fans to see one of the most brutal acts in our neck of the woods. (McCourt)
With Nachtmystium, Mantic Ritual, Black Anvil, Merrimack and DJ Rob Metal
8 p.m., $20
DNA Lounge
375 11th St., SF
(415) 626-1409
www.dnalounge.com

MONDAY 7
MUSIC
A Multimedia Event with Califone
The lonesome crowded West has an apt soundtrack in the music of Califone, whose very name evokes rustic Americana. Some groups never let a good song get in the way of atmosphere, while others are guilty of just the opposite. In contrast, Califone frequently manages to combine strong songcraft with an attention to scene-setting detail. And that it should — its new album All My Friends are Funeral Singers (Dead Oceans) shares the same title as the feature film directorial debut of the group’s Tim Rutili. In fact, tonight the band supplies a live score to Rutili’s movie, which stars Angela Bettis, the petite-but-tough-as-nails presence at the core of low-budget horrors such as May (2002) and Tobe Hopper’s not-bad 2003 remake of Toolbox Murders. A throwback to a time when actual actresses rather than Hollywood fembots had lead roles in U.S. movies, Bettis plays a fortune-teller who lives in an old house at the edge of the woods. Califone plays the music. (Johnny Ray Huston)
8 p.m., $16
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
(415) 885-0750
www.gamh.com
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Spacemen two

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“I think our interest in the spheres is less scientific, less intellectual, and more primal,” Ripley Johnson of Moon Duo says, when asked if he and bandmate Sanae Yamada have a particular fascination with deep space. “I see it as a sort of existential mirror, or perhaps a visceral catalyst for existential experience.”
The eye-catching quartet of NASA-ESA Hubble Space Telescope images on the cover of Moon Duo’s four-song EP Killing Time (Sacred Bones) evoke untouched realms and a sense of unknowing, even foreboding. But in their uniformity, they don’t bring across the recording’s range, which sways from bass-driven gothic isolation (the title track) to an organ sound that pulses with druggy intensity (“Speed”) to haunted house psych rock (“Dead West”) to tranquility (“Ripples”). Impressively, Killing Time’s disparate songs seem built upon a single mutating rhythm. “I think of it less as motorik than as biological, like the beating of a heart,” says Johnson. “It’s the pulse of life, and I think that’s how we relate to motorik, the sounds of machines, engines, wheels on the highway, trains going down the track. That’s why the song ends but the beat always goes on.”
Moon Duo’s sound isn’t as dense as that of Johnson’s other Bay Area band, Wooden Shjips, but it’s at least as potent. A satellite release before Escape, an album out on Woodsist in the new year, Killing Time essentially throws down the gauntlet in the space race amongst local kosmische- and krautock-influenced groups. The visceral peak is “Speed,” a blast worthy of its obvious antecedents, Suicide and Spacemen 3.
“The first Suicide album [Suicide, 1977; Mute/Blast] is one of the great rock albums of all time,” Johnson says, promptly drifting from Suicide-al thoughts into a discussion of the second word in his band’s name. “I was thinking about favorite duos, because it doesn’t seem like a common arrangement for rock. The inspiration for us initially came from jazz, like the great Rashied Ali albums with John Coltrane and Frank Lowe. But some of my favorite rock-ish albums were made by duos or near-duos: Silver Apples, Royal Trux, Moolah, Chrome, Cluster.”
As for favorite moon movies, Johnson has some. “Probably either A Trip to the Moon (1902) or Countdown (1968),” he says. “I really like non-Hollywood action sci-fi movies, like Solaris (2002), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Alphaville (1965), Fahrenheit 451, and La jetée (1962).”

Triumph of the underdog

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In Frazer Bradshaw’s Everything Strange and New, Wayne (Jerry McDaniel), wears overalls too large and a look of pained, dazed acquiescence. It’s as if not just his clothes but his life were given to the wrong person — and there’s a no-exchange policy. He loves wife Reneé (the writer Beth Lisick) and their kids. But those two unplanned pregnancies mean she’s got to stay home; daycare would cost more than she’d earn.
So every day Wayne returns from his dead-end construction job to the home whose mortgage holds them hostage; and every time Reneé can be heard screaming at their not-yet-school-age boys, at the end of her tether. Sometimes he silently just turns around to commiserate over beer with buddies likewise married with children, but doing no better. Leo (Rigo Chacon Jr.) is in the middle of a very messy divorce, while Manny (the late Luis Saguar, in a beautiful performance) pretends to be maintaining better than he really is. (He has a surprising secret escape valve, and in one great late scene we realize Leo has one too.)
Wayne’s voiceover narration endlessly ponders how things got this way — more or less as they should be, yet subtly wrong. He might be willing (or at least able) to let go of the idea of happiness. But Reneé’s inarticulate fury at her stifling domestication keeps striking at any nearby punching bag, himself (especially) included. Something’s got to change. But can it?
Cue deus ex machina happy ending. Or so one would in another movie, like Katherine Dieckmann’s supposedly gritty recent Motherhood. But veteran local experimentalist and cinematographer Bradshaw’s first feature, which he also wrote, never stoops to narrative cliché. Or to stylistic ones, either — there’s a spectral poetry to the way he photographs the Oakland flats (few movies have captured ordinary landscapes so vividly). The spinning-in-place sense is underlined by Dan lonsey and Kent Sparling and Dan Plonsey’s score, which melds Philip Glass, Irish folk, and noise-rock caterwaul to externalize all Wayne’s suppressed tumult.
The ordinary wear, tear, and occasional rending of relationships you and I might actually know is portrayed infrequently enough onscreen that when it does turn up, the recognition factor is a little startling. Everything Strange and New seemed a tonic at the Sundance Film Festival this year precisely because it was the kind of indie — quiet, serious, intimate, void of stars and buzz — people complain can’t get made, or even into Sundance, anymore.
Seen again, Everything Strange and New is even better — a film about very small (except to the afflicted), banal (ditto), everyday problems that manages to be mysteriously exhilarating.

EVERYTHING STRANGE AND NEW opens Fri/4 at the Roxie.

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, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, Matt Sussman, and Laura Swanbeck. The film intern is Fernando F. Croce. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide at www.sfbg.com. For complete film listings, see www.sfbg.com.

OPENING

Armored Matt Dillon, Laurence Fishburne, and Jean Reno star in this action flick about a group of armored-truck workers who plot to steal $42 million. (1:28) Shattuck.
Brothers One’s a decorated Marine (Tobey Maguire) and one’s a f*ckup (Jake Gyllenhaal) in this remake of a 2004 Danish film. (1:50) Embarcadero, Presidio, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki.
*Collapse Michael Ruppert is a onetime LAPD narcotics detective and Republican whose radicalization started with the discovery (and exposure) of CIA drug trafficking operations in the late 70s. More recently he’s been known as an author agitator focusing on political cover-ups of many types, his ideas getting him branded as a factually unreliable conspiracy theorist by some (including some left voices like Norman Solomon) and a prophet by others (particularly himself). This documentary by Chris Smith (American Movie) gives him 82 minutes to weave together various concepts — about peak oil, bailouts, the stock market, archaic governmental systems, the end of local food-production sustainability, et al. — toward a frightening vision of near-future apocalypse. It’s “the greatest preventable holocaust in the history of planet Earth, our own suicide,” as tapped-out resources and fragile national infrastructures trigger a collapse in global industrialized civilization. This will force “the greatest age in human evolution that’s ever taken place,” necessitating entirely new (or perhaps very old, pre-industrial) community models for our species’ survival. Ruppert is passionate, earnest and rather brilliant. He also comes off at times as sad, angry, and eccentric, bridling whenever Smith raises questions about his methodologies. Essentially a lecture with some clever illustrative materials inserted (notably vintage educational cartoons), Collapse is, as alarmist screeds go, pretty dang alarming. It’s certainly food for thought, and would make a great viewing addendum to concurrent post-apocalyptic fiction The Road. (1:22) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet Famed documentarian Frederick Wiseman turns his camera on the storied ballet company. (2:38) Elmwood, Smith Rafael.
The End of Poverty? Martin Sheen narrates this doc about the root causes of poverty. (1:46) Four Star.
Everybody’s Fine Robert De Niro works somewhere between serious De Niro and funny De Niro in this portrait of a family in muffled crisis, a remake of the 1991 Italian film Stanno Tutti Bene. The American version tracks the comings and goings of Frank (De Niro), a recently widowed retiree who fills his solitary hours working in the garden and talking to strangers about his children, who’ve flung themselves across the country in pursuit of various dreams and now send home overpolished reports of their achievements. Disappointed by his offspring’s collective failure to show up for a family get-together, he embarks on a cross-country odyssey to connect with each in turn. Writer-director Kirk Jones (1998’s Waking Ned Devine) effectively underscores Frank’s loneliness with shots of him steering his cart through empty grocery stores, interacting only with the occasional stock clerk, and De Niro projects a sense of drifting disconnection with poignant restraint. But Jones also litters the film with a string of uninspired, autopilot comic moments, and manifold shots of telephone wires as Frank’s children (Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore, and Sam Rockwell) whisper across the miles behind their father’s back — his former vocation, manufacturing the telephone wires’ plastic coating, funded his kids’ more-ambitious aims — feel like glancing blows to the head. A vaguely miraculous third-act exposition of everything they’ve been withholding to protect both him and themselves is handled with equal subtlety and the help of gratingly precocious child actors. (1:35) Presidio. (Rapoport)
*Everything Strange and New See “Triumph of the Underdog.” (1:24) Roxie.
Serious Moonlight From a screenplay by the late actor, writer, and director Adrienne Shelly, Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines constructs a few scenes from a marriage in various kinds of jeopardy. The caddish-seeming Ian (Timothy Hutton) is on the verge of leaving his powerhouse-lawyer wife of 13 years, Louise (Meg Ryan), for a considerably younger and somewhat dimmer woman (Kristen Bell) when Louise throws a wrench in his plans with the help of a well-aimed flower pot and a roll of duct tape (are there any household problems this miracle material can’t solve?) What follows, with the unpredictable assistance of a gardener (Justin Long) who wanders onto the scene, is a sort of marathon couple’s-counseling session under duress that largely takes place within the confines of their bathroom — a roomy space, but rather smaller than your average therapist’s office. It’s not always easy to be in such close quarters with the pair as they rehash their relationship — a lot of decibels bounce off the walls as Ian yells and Louise endeavors to force him to recall, and feel, what he once felt. And while the circ*mstances, and the camera, give Ryan and Hutton the opportunity to leisurely express their characters’ conversational and interrelational habits, the larger issues are too much to work through all at once. The faint overlying tone of darker comedy and a scattering of physical gags restrain us from much emotional involvement, the backstory of the marriage gets pieced together in large, unlikely sections, and the film feels like an exercise or a sketch, rather than a deeply considered undertaking. (1:35) Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)
Transylmania Holy Vlad, another vampire movie? At least this one’s a spoof. (1:32).
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)

ONGOING

Art and Copy (1:30) Roxie.
*Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2:01) Lumiere, Shattuck, Smith Rafael, Sundance Kabuki.
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) Cerrito, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Daniel Alvarez)
*Capitalism: A Love Story (2:07) Red Vic, Roxie.
Christmas with Walt Disney (:59) Walt Disney Family Museum.
Coco Before Chanel (1:50) Opera Plaza, Shattuck.
Defamation (1:33) Roxie.
Disney’s A Christmas Carol (1:36) 1000 Van Ness.
*An Education (1:35) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont.
*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. Foxcaptures 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, Empire, Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Devereaux)
*Good Hair (1:35) Opera Plaza.
The Maid (1:35) Clay, Shattuck.
The Men Who Stare at Goats (1:28) 1000 Van Ness, Roxie, Shattuck.
*The Messenger (1:45) Albany, Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael.
*Michael Jackson’s This Is It (1:52) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.
New York, I Love You (1:43) Lumiere.
Ninja Assassin (1:33) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck.
Old Dogs (1:28) Elmwood, Oaks, 1000 Van Ness.
Pirate Radio (2:00) Elmwood, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki.
Planet 51 (1:31) Oaks, 1000 Van Ness.
*Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire (1:49) SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki.
Red Cliff (2:28) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael.
The Road (1:53) Embarcadero, California, Piedmont.
*A Serious Man (1:45) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont.
2012 (2:40) California, Empire, 1000 Van Ness.
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2:10) Cerrito, Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki.
(Untitled) (1:30) Bridge, Shattuck.
*William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (1:30) Shattuck.

REP PICKS

The Cardinal In 1963 Otto Preminger was an old-guard titan of prestige Hollywood projects as yet unaware he’d just passed his peak. That this three-hour epic of priestly life got six Oscar nominations –- winning none, including what was only Preminger’s second go at Best Director –- testifies more to its scale and expense than to any great enthusiasm from press or public. Soon the famously tyrannical director would be considered by many a dinosaur in need of extinction so that new, less lumbering species could invigorate the medium. He did go away, too, or at least became irrelevant, via a painful late-career stretch of movies. Still, as a next-to-last effort (preceding 1965 John Wayne war spectacular In Harm’s Way) from his “superproduction” period, the seldom-revived Cardinal is not without interest. Based on a 1950 novel by Henry Morton Robinson, it charts the steady rise of idealistic but occasionally self-doubting Boston priest Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tryon). Taking him from humble beginnings to Vatican insiderdom, the episodic narrative features Carol Lynley as a sister who becomes (for forbidden love of a Jew) a fallen woman; John Huston, Burgess Meredith, Raf Vallone, and Josef Meinrad as mentoring fellow men of the cloth; Ossie Davis as a black Georgia priest whose agitation against racism attracts KKK violence; and Romy Schneider as the Viennese girl who nearly lures Stephen from his vocation, then encounters him years later as a married woman threatened by the Gestapo. There’s also a completely unnecessary musical sequence with “Bobby (Morse) and His Adora-Belles,” a Passion of the Christ-like whipping scene, and other sporadic incongruities. For the most part, however, The Cardinal is all too steady of pulse, its 175 minutes consistently interesting yet without cumulative power. That’s long been blamed on Tryon, a tall, handsome, placid actor who fails to communicate a difficult role’s inner turmoil. But it’s also the producer-director’s fault. He hews to the cinematic era’s disinterest in real period atmosphere, renders gritty episodes corny, and demonstrates no stage-management flair for big setpieces like a late Nazi riot. Nonetheless, the film’s seriousness about church politics –- especially conflicting personal ethics and institutional necessity –- remains potent. This Film on Film Foundation screening features a very rare surviving 35mm widescreen Technicolor print, and is shown as a sidebar to but not an official part of the PFA’s current Preminger retrospective. (2:55) Pacific Film Archive. (Harvey)

*“Four by Hungarian Master Miklós Janksó” See “They Were Expendable.”

21st Century ‘Fox’

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FILM 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.

While the movie’s gorgeous autumnal color palette of saffron, ginger, cinnamon, and pomegranate recalls the Indian location of Darjeeling, Fox explodes that film’s stagnant complacency. 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.

Sporting a double-breasted corduroy suit and velour pullover, Mr. Fox (George Clooney in full suave mode) is the essence of the old duality of man-fox conundrum. The ultimate impish rogue, what he might lack in competence, he makes up for in self-assured, foxlike élan. But Mr. Fox’s true animal nature has been compromised by domesticity. Forced to give up his chicken-stealing and killing ways by his wife (a subtly sly Meryl Streep), he’s also stymied by his only son (Jason Schwartzman), an attention-starved, Max Fischer-esque oddball with a penchant for sporting a towel as a cape.

Based on Roald Dahl’s beloved 1970 book, Fantastic 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).

And then there’s that pesky, romantic death obsession. Sure the animals are cute, but at times the stop-motion animation lends them a singularly creepy subtext. Fur routinely flits around in scattershot directions, seemingly independent of body movement. The effect weirdly evokes those time-lapse shots of animals in rapid decay.

As Mr. Fox himself points out, these are "wild animals with true natures and pure talents" — talents that often involve killing one another. After a fatal showdown with a malevolent rat (Willem Dafoe), Fox waxes philosophic. "In the end, he’s just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant," he intones. It’s possibly the most contextually stupefying, hilarious moment in a film teeming with them.

When Mr. Fox finally embraces his essential foxiness once again, ultimately succeeding in gaming the system (more or less), it feels like a victory for Anderson as well. After all, he’s concocted a family film as slyly subversive as its titular character, and done so on his own terms. Let’s hope it’s in his nature to make more movies like this one.

FANTASTIC MR. FOX opens Wed/25 in Bay Area theaters.

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, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, Matt Sussman, and Laura Swanbeck. The film intern is Fernando F. Croce. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

OPENING

Christmas with Walt Disney Specially made for the Presidio’s recently opened Walt Disney Family Museum, this nearly hour-long compilation of vintage Yuletide-themed moments from throughout the studio’s history (up to Walt’s 1966 death) is more interesting than you might expect. The engine is eldest daughter Diane Disney Miller’s narrating reminiscences, often accompanied by excerpts from an apparently voluminous library of high-quality home movies. Otherwise, the clips are drawn from a mix of short and full-length animations, live-action features (like 1960’s Swiss Family Robinson), TV shows Wonderful World of Disney and Mickey Mouse Club, plus public events like Disneyland’s annual Christmas Parade and Disney’s orchestration of the 1960 Winter Olympics’ pageantry. If anything, this documentary is a little too rushed –- it certainly could have idled a little longer with some of the less familiar cartoon material. But especially for those who who grew up with Disney product only in its post-founder era, it will be striking to realize what a large figure Walt himself once cut in American culture, not just as a brand but as an on-screen personality. The film screens Nov 27-Jan 2; for additional information, visit http://disney.go.com/disneyatoz/familymuseum/index.html. (:59) Walt Disney Family Museum. (Harvey)

*Fantastic Mr. Fox "See 21st Century Fox." (1:27) Four Star, Marina.

Ninja Assassin Let’s face it: it’d be nigh impossible to live up to a title as awesome as Ninja Assassin –- and this second flick from V for Vendetta (2005) director James McTeigue doesn’t quite do it. Anyone who’s seen a martial arts movie will find the tale of hero Raizo overly familiar: a student (played by the single-named Rain) breaks violently with his teacher; revenge on both sides ensues. That the art form in question is contemporary ninja-ing adds a certain amount of interest, though after a killer ninja vs. yakuza opening scene (by far the film’s best), and a flashback or two of ninja vs. political targets, the rest of the flick is concerned mostly with either ninja vs. ninja or ninja vs. military guys. (As ninjas come "from the shadows," most of these battles are presented in action-masking darkness.) There’s also an American forensic researcher (Noemie Harris) who starts poking around the ninja underground, a subplot that further saps the fun out of a movie that already takes itself way too seriously. (1:33) (Eddy)

Oh My God? See "Pray Tell." (1:38) Lumiere.

Old Dogs John Travolta and Robin Williams play lifelong friends, business partners, and happily child-free bachelors whose lives change when the latter is forced to care for the 7-year-old twins (Conner Rayburn, Ella Bleu Travolta) he didn’t know he’d sired. You know what this will be like going in, and that’s what you get: a predictable mix of the broadly comedic and maudlin, with a screenplay that feels half-baked by committee, and direction (by Walt Becker, who’s also responsible for 2007’s Wild Hogs) that tries to compensate via frantic over-editing of setpieces that end before they’ve gotten started. The coasting stars seem to be enjoying themselves, but the momentary cheering effect made by each subsidiary familiar face –- including Seth Green, Bernie Mac, Matt Dillon, Ann-Margret, Amy Sedaris, Dax Shepard, Justin Long, and Luis Guzman, some in unbilled cameos –- sours as you realize almost none of them will get anything worthwhile to do. (1:28) Oaks. (Harvey)

Red Cliff All Chinese directors must try their hands at a historical epic of the swords and (arrow) shafts variety, and who can blame them: the spectacle, the combat, the sheer scale of carnage. With Red Cliff, John Woo appears to top the more operatic Chen Kaige and a more camp Zhang Yimou in the especially latter department. The body count in this lavishly CGI-appointed (by the Bay Area’s Orphanage), good-looking war film is on the high end of the Commando/Rambo scale. The endless, intricately choreographed battle scenes are the primary allure of thisslash-’em-up, whittled-down version of the Chinese blockbuster, which was released in Asia as a four-hour two-parter. Yet despite some notably handsome cinematography that rivals that of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in its painterliness, seething performances by players like Tony Leung and Fengyi Zhang, and recognizable Woo leitmotifs (a male bonding-attraction that’s particularly pronounced during Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro’s zither shred-fests, fluttering doves, a climactic Mexican standoff, the added jeopardy of a baby amid the battle), the labyrinthian complexity of the story and its multitude of characters threaten to lose the Western viewer –- or anyone less than familiar with Chinese history –- before strenuous pleasures of Woo’s action machine kick in. The completely OTT finale will either have you rolling your eyes its absurdity or laughing aloud at its contrived showmanship. Despite Woo’s lip service to the virtues of peace and harmony, is there really any other way, apart from the warrior’s, in his world? (2:28) Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

The Road After an apocalypse of unspecified origin, the U.S. –- and presumably the world –- is depleted of wildlife and agriculture. Social structures have collapsed. All that’s left is a grim survivalism in which father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (whimpery Kodi Smit-McPhee) try to find food sources and avoid fellow humans, since most of the latter are now cannibals. Flashbacks reveal their past with the wife and mother (Charlize Theron) who couldn’t bear soldiering on in this ruined future. Scenarist Joe Penhall (a playwright) and director John Hillcoat (2005’s The Proposition) have adapted Cormac McCarthy’s novel with painstaking fidelity. Their Road is slow, bleak, grungy and occasionally brutal. All qualities in synch with the source material –- but something is lacking. One can appreciate Hillcoat and company’s efforts without feeling the deep empathy, let alone terror, that should charge this story of extreme faith and sacrifice. The film just sits there –- chastening yet flat, impact unamplified by familiar faces (Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker) road-grimed past recognition. (1:53) Embarcadero, California, Piedmont. (Harvey)

Sophie’s Revenge Zhang Ziyi stars as the titular woman who seeks you-know-what after her boyfriend dumps her. (1:47) Four Star.

ONGOING

Art and Copy Doc maker Doug Pray (1996’s Hype!, 2001’s Scratch, 2007’s Surfwise) uses the mid-twentieth century’s revolution in advertising to background an absorbing portrait of the industry’s leading edge, with historical commentary, philosophical observations, and pop-psych self-scrutiny by some of the rebel forces and their descendants (including locals Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein). We see the ads that made a permanent dent in our consciousness over the past five decades. We hear conference-room tales of famous campaigns, like "Got Milk?" and "I Want My MTV." And during quieter interludes, stats on advertising’s global cultural presence drift on-screen to astonish and unnerve. Lofty self-comparisons to cave painters and midwives may raise eyebrows, but Pray has gathered some of the industry’s brighter, more engaging lights, and his subjects discuss their métier thoughtfully, wittily, and quite earnestly. There are elisions in the moral line some of them draw in the process, and it would have been interesting to hear, amid the exalted talk of advertising that rises to the level of art, some philosophizing on where all this packaging and selling gets us, in a branding-congested age when it’s hard to deny that breakneck consumption is having a deleterious effect on the planet. Instead the film occasionally veers in the direction of becoming an advertisem*nt for advertising. Still, Art and Copy complicates our impressions of a vilified profession, and what it reveals about these creatives’ perceptions of their vocation (one asserts that "you can manufacture any feeling that you want to manufacture") makes it worth watching, even if you usually fast-forward through the ads. (1:30) Roxie. (Rapoport)

*Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Consider that ridiculous title. Though its poster and imdb entry eliminate the initial article, it appears onscreen as The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. That’s the bad lieutenant, not to be confused with Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant. The bad lieutenant has a name: Terence McDonagh, and he’s a police officer of similarly wobbly moral fiber. McDonagh’s tale — inspired by Ferrara and scripted by William Finkelstein, but perhaps more important, filmed by Werner Herzog and interpreted by Nicolas Cage — opens with a snake slithering through a post-Hurricane Katrina flood. A prisoner has been forgotten in a basem*nt jail. McDonagh and fellow cop Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) taunt the man, taking bets on how long it’ll take him to drown in the rising waters. An act of cruelty seems all but certain until McDonagh, who’s quickly been established as a righteous asshole, suddenly dives in for the rescue. Unpredictability, and quite a bit of instability, reigns thereafter. Every scene holds the possibility of careening to heights both campy and terrifying, and Cage proves an inspired casting choice. At this point in his career, he has nothing to lose, and his take on Lt. McDonagh is as haywire as it gets. McDonagh snorts co*ke before reporting to a crime scene; he threatens the elderly; he hauls his star teenage witness along when he confronts a john who’s mistreated his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes); he cackles like a maniac; he lurches around like a hunchback on crack. Not knowing what McDonagh will do next is as entertaining as knowing it’ll likely be completely insane. (2:01) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

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) Cerrito, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Daniel Alvarez)

*Capitalism: A Love Story Gun control. The Bush administration. Healthcare. Over the past decade, Michael Moore has tackled some of the most contentious issues with his trademark blend of humor and liberal rage. In Capitalism: A Love Story, he sets his sights on an even grander subject. Where to begin when you’re talking about an economic system that has defined this nation? Predictably, Moore’s focus is on all those times capitalism has failed. By this point, his tactics are familiar, but he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. As with Sicko (2007), Moore proves he can restrain himself — he gets plenty of screen time, but he spends more time than ever behind the camera. This isn’t about Moore; it’s about the United States. When he steps out of the limelight, he’s ultimately more effective, crafting a film that’s bipartisan in nature, not just in name. No, he’s not likely to please all, but for every Glenn Beck, there’s a sane moderate wondering where all the money has gone. (2:07) Red Vic, Roxie. (Peitzman)

Coco Before Chanel Like her designs, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was elegant, très chic, and utterly original. Director Anne Fontaine’s French biopic traces Coco (Audrey Tautou) from her childhood as a struggling orphan to one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. You’ll be disappointed if you expect a fashionista’s up close and personal look at the House of Chanel, as Fontaine keeps her story firmly rooted in Coco’s past, including her destructive relationship with French playboy Etienne Balsar (Benoît Poelvoorde) and her ill-fated love affair with dashing Englishman Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola). The film functions best in scenes that display Coco’s imagination and aesthetic magnetism, like when she dances with Capel in her now famous "little black dress" amidst a sea of stiff, white meringues. Tautou imparts a quiet courage and quick wit as the trailblazing designer, and Nivola is unmistakably charming and compassionate as Boy. Nevertheless, Fontaine rushes the ending and never truly seizes the opportunity to explore how Coco’s personal life seeped into her timeless designs that were, in the end, an extension of herself.(1:50) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Swanbeck)

Defamation When you begin to perceive all criticism as persecutorial, you might forget it’s possible to be wrong. That’s the worry driving Yoav Shamir’s Defamation, opening theatrically following a stormy reception at July’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The documentarian (2003’s Checkpoint) says that as an Israeli Jew he’s never actually experienced anti-Semitism. So he sets out to explore that prejudice’s status quo — or so he claims, somewhat disingenuously. Because Defamation‘s real agenda is positing anti-Semitism as a distorted, exploited, propagandic bludgeon used to taint any critique of Israeli government policies or the foreign lobbies supporting them. This is a theory bound to inflame angry emotions, not least the "self-hating Jew" accusation. It must be said that Shamir lays himself at risk — à la Michael Moore — of selectively gathering only evidence that supports his agenda. Anti-Semitism certainly does exist today, in many different forms, around the world. And if Defamation‘s deliberate omissions and occasional snarky tone hamper its case, Shamir nonetheless makes legitimately troubling points. His most controversial interviewee is Norman Finklestein, whose book The Holocaust Industry got him pilloried as a Holocaust denier (untrue) and quite likely cost him his teaching position. The son of Shoah survivors, he thinks "the Nazi Holocaust is now the main ideological weapon for launching wars of aggression" and that "pathological narcissism" desensitizes many American Jews to other people’s sufferings. The author can be persuasively reasonable. To Defamation‘s credit, however, it doesn’t yell "Cut!" when Finklestein whips himself into a crank-case frenzy that masoch*stically self-destructs his credibility. Absolute righteousness ain’t pretty, anywhere on the political spectrum. (1:33) Roxie. (Harvey)

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (1:36) 1000 Van Ness.

*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) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont. (Chun)

*Good Hair Spurred by his little daughter’s plaintive query ("Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?"), Chris Rock gets his Michael Moore freak on and sets out to uncover the racial and cultural implications of African-American hairstyling. Visiting beauty salons, talking to specialists, and interviewing celebrities ranging from Maya Angelou to Ice-T, the comic wisecracks his way into some pretty trenchant insights about how black women’s coiffures can often reflect Caucasian-set definitions of beauty. (Leave it to Rev. Al Sharpton to voice it ingeniously: "You comb your oppression every morning!") Rock makes an affable guide in Jeff Stilson’s breezy documentary, which posits the hair industry as a global affair where relaxers work as "nap-antidotes" and locks sacrificially shorn in India end up as pricey weaves in Beverly Hills. Maybe startled by his more disquieting discoveries, Rock shifts the focus to flamboyant, crowd-pleasing shenanigans at the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show. Despite such softball detours, it’s a genial and revealing tour. (1:35) Opera Plaza. (Croce)

*The House of the Devil Ti West’s The House of the Devil is a retro thrillfest quite happy to sacrifice the babysitter to the Dark Lord. "Based on true unexplained events" (uh-huh), the buzzed-about indie horror has fanboy casting both old school (Dee Wallace, Mary Woronov, Tom Noonan — all performing seriously rather than campily) and new (AJ Bowen of 2007’s The Signal and mumblecore regular Greta Gerwig). Its heroine (Jocelin Donahue), a 1980 East Coast collegiate sophom*ore desperate for rent cash so she can escape her dorm roomie’s loud nightly promiscuity, signs on for a baby- (actually, grandma-) sitting gig advertised on telephone poles. For tonight. During a lunar eclipse. Bad move. Devil takes its time, springing nothing lethal until nearly halfway through. Its period setting allows for ultratight jeans, feathered hair, rotary dialing, a synth-New Wavey score, and other potentially campy elements the film manages to render respectfully appreciative rather than silly. Ultimately, it isn’t significantly better than various fine indie horrors of recent vintage and various nationality that went direct to DVD. (Quality, let alone originality, aren’t necessarily a commercial pluses in this genre.) But it is dang good, and that cuts it above most current theatrical horror releases. (1:33) Lumiere. (Harvey)

The Maid In an upper-middle class subdivision of Santiago, 40-year-old maid Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), perpetually stony and indignant, operates a rigorous dawn-to-dusk routine for the Valdez family. Although Raquel rarely behaves as an intimate of her longtime hosts, she remains convinced that love, not labor, bonds them. (Whether the family shares Raquel’s feelings of devotion is highly dubious.) When a rotating cast of interlopers is hired to assist her, she stoops to machinations most vile to scare them away — until the arrival of Lucy (Mariana Loyola), whose unpredictable influence over Raquel sets the narrative of The Maid on a very different psychological trajectory, from moody chamber piece to eccentric slice-of-life. If writer-director Sebastián Silva’s film taunts the viewer with the possibility of a horrific climax, either as a result of its titular counterpart — Jean Genet’s 1946 stage drama The Maids, about two servants’ homicidal revenge — or from the unnerving "mugshot" of Saavedra on the movie poster, it is neither self-destructive nor Grand Guignol. Rather, it it is much more prosaic in execution. Sergio Armstrong’s fidgety hand-held camera captures Raquel’s claustrophobic routine as it accentuates her Sisyphean conundrum: although she completely rules the inner workings of the house, she remains forever a guest. But her character’s motivations often evoke as much confusion as wonder. In the absence of some much needed exposition, The Maid’s heavy-handed silences, plaintive gazes, and inexplicable eruptions of laughter feel oddly sterile, and a contrived preciousness begins to creep over the film like an effluvial whitewash. Its abundance makes you aware there is a shabbiness hiding beneath the dramatic facade — the various stains and holes of an unrealized third act. (1:35) Clay, Shattuck. (Erik Morse)

The Men Who Stare at Goats No! The Men Who Stare at Goats was such an awesome book (by British journalist Jon Ronson) and the movie boasts such a terrific cast (George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor). How in the hell did it turn out to be such a lame, unfunny movie? Clooney gives it his all as Lyn Cassady, a retired "supersolider" who peers through his third eye and realizes the naïve reporter (McGregor) he meets in Kuwait is destined to accompany him on a cross-Iraq journey of self-discovery; said journey is filled with flashbacks to the reporter’s failed marriage (irrelevant) and Cassady’s training with a hippie military leader (Bridges) hellbent on integrating New Age thinking into combat situations. Had I the psychic powers of a supersoldier, I’d use some kind of mind-control technique to convince everyone within my brain-wave radius to skip this movie at all costs. Since I’m merely human, I’ll just say this: seriously, read the book instead. (1:28) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

*The Messenger Ben Foster cut his teeth playing unhinged villains in Alpha Dog (2006) and 3:10 to Yuma (2007), but he cements his reputation as a promising young actor with a moving, sympathetic performance in director Oren Moverman’s The Messenger. Moverman (who also co-authored the script) is a four-year veteran of the Israeli army, and he draws on his military experience to create an intermittently harrowing portrayal of two soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army’s Casualty Notification Service. Will Montgomery (Foster) is still recovering from the physical and psychological trauma of combat when he is paired with Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a by-the-book Captain whose gruff demeanor and good-old-boy gallows humor belie the complicated soul inside. Gut-wrenching encounters with the families of dead soldiers combine with stark, honest scenes that capture two men trying to come to grips with the mundane horrors of their world, and Samantha Morton completes a trio of fine acting turns as a serene Army widow. (1:45) Albany, Smith Rafael. (Richardson)

*Michael Jackson’s This Is It Time –- and a tragic early death –- has a way of coloring perception, so little surprise that these thought pops into one’s head throughout This Is It: when did Michael Jackson transform himself into such an elegant, haute-pop sylph? Such a pixie-nosed, lacy-haired petit four of music-making delicacy? And where can I get his to-die-for, pointy-shouldered, rhinestone-lapeled Alexander McQueen-ish jacket? Something a bit bewitching this way comes as Michael Jackson –- now that he’s gone, seemingly less freakish than an outright phenomenon –- gracefully flits across the screen in this final (really?) document of his last hurrah, the rehearsals for his sold-out shows at O2 Arena in London. This Is It is far from perfect: this grainy video scratchpad of a film obviously wasn’t designed by the perfectionist MJ to be his final testament to pop. Director Kenny Ortega does his best to cobble together what looks like several rehearsal performances with teary testimonials from dancers (instilled with the intriguing idea that they are extensions of the surgery-friendly Jackson’s body onstage), interviews with musicians, minimal archival footage, and glimpses of Jacko protesting about being encouraged to "sing through" certain songs when he’s trying to preserve his voice, urging the band to play it "like the record," and still moving, dancing, and gesticuutf8g with such grace that you’re left with more than a tinge of regret that "This Is It," the tour, never came to pass. It’s a pure, albeit adulterated, pleasure to watch the man do the do, even with the gaps in the flow, even with the footage filtered by a family intent on propping up the franchise. Amid the artistry and kitsch, critics, pop academics, and superfans will find plenty to chew over –- from Jackson’s curiously timed physical complaints as the Jackson 5 segment kicks in, to the surreally CGI-ed, golden-age-of-Hollywood mash-up sequence.(1:52) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck. (Chun)

New York, I Love You A dreamy mash note to the city that never sleeps, New York, I Love You is the latest installment in a series of omnibus odes to world metropolises and the denizens that live and love within the city limits. Less successful than the Paris, je t’aime (2006) anthology — which roped in such disparate international directors as Gus Van Sant and Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron and Olivier Assayas — New York welcomes a more minor-key host of directors to the project with enjoyable if light-weight results. Surely any bite of the Big Apple would be considerably sexier. Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo tease out a one-night stand with legs, and Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q generate a wee bit of verbal fire over street-side cigs, yet there’s surprisingly little heat in this take on a few of the 8 million stories in the archetypal naked city. Most memorable are the strangest couplings, such as that of Natalie Portman, a Hasidic bride who flirtatiously haggles with Irrfan Khan, a Jain diamond merchant, in a tale directed by Mira Nair. Despite the pleasure of witnessing Julie Christie, Eli Wallach, and Cloris Leachman in action, many of these pieces — written by the late Anthony Minghella, Israel Horovitz, and Portman, among others — feel a mite too slight to nail down the attention of all but the most desperate romantics. (1:43) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Chun)

*Paranormal Activity In this ostensible found-footage exercise, Katie (Katie Featherson) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are a young San Diego couple whose first home together has a problem: someone, or something, is making things go bump in the night. In fact, Katie has sporadically suffered these disturbances since childhood, when an amorphous, not-at-reassuring entity would appear at the foot of her bed. Skeptical technophile Micah’s solution is to record everything on his primo new video camera, including a setup to shoot their bedroom while they sleep — surveillance footage sequences that grow steadily more terrifying as incidents grow more and more invasive. Like 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, Oren Peli’s no-budget first feature may underwhelm mainstream genre fans who only like their horror slick and slasher-gory. But everybody else should appreciate how convincingly the film’s very ordinary, at times annoying protagonists (you’ll eventually want to throttle Micah, whose efforts are clearly making things worse) fall prey to a hostile presence that manifests itself in increments no less alarming for being (at first) very small. When this hits DVD, you’ll get to see the original, more low-key ending (the film has also been tightened up since its festival debut two years ago). But don’t wait — Paranormal‘s subtler effects will be lost on the small screen. Not to mention that it’s a great collective screaming-audience experience. (1:39) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

*Paris Cédric Klapisch’s latest offers a series of interconnected stories with Paris as the backdrop, designed — if you’ll pardon the cliché — as a love letter to the city. On the surface, the plot of Paris sounds an awful lot like Paris, je t’aime (2006). But while the latter was composed entirely of vignettes, Paris has an actual, overarching plot. Perhaps that’s why it’s so much more effective. Juliette Binoche stars as Élise, whose brother Pierre (Romain Duris) is in dire need of a heart transplant. A dancer by trade, Pierre is also a world-class people watcher, and it’s his fascination with those around him that serves as Paris‘ wraparound device. He sees snippets of these people’s lives, but we get the full picture — or at least, something close to it. The strength of Paris is in the depth of its characters: every one we meet is more complex than you’d guess at first glance. The more they play off one another, the more we understand. Of course, the siblings remain at the film’s heart: sympathetic but not pitiable, moving but not maudlin. Both Binoche and Duris turn in strong performances, aided by a supporting cast of French actors who impress in even the smallest of roles. (2:04) Opera Plaza. (Peitzman)

Pirate Radio I wanted to like Pirate Radio, a.k.a., The Boat That Rocked –- really, I did. The raging, stormy sounds of the British Invasion –- sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and all that rot. Pirate radio outlaw sexiness, writ large, influential, and mind-blowingly popular. This shaggy-dog of a comedy about the boat-bound, rollicking Radio Rock is based loosely on the history of Radio Caroline, which blasted transgressive rock ‘n’ roll (back when it was still subversive) and got around stuffy BBC dominance by broadcasting from a ship off British waters. Alas, despite the music and the attempts by filmmaker Richard Curtis to inject life, laughs, and girls into the mix (by way of increasingly absurd scenes of imagined listeners creaming themselves over Radio Rock’s programming), Pirate Radio will be a major disappointment for smart music fans in search of period accuracy (are we in the mid- or late ’60s or early or mid-’70s –- tough to tell judging from the time-traveling getups on the DJs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Darby, among others?) and lame writing that fails to rise above the paint-by-the-numbers narrative buttressing, irksome literalness (yes, a betrayal by a lass named Marianne is followed by "So Long, Marianne"), and easy sexist jabs at all those slu*tty birds. Still, there’s a reason why so many artists –- from Leonard Cohen to the Stones –- have lent their songs to this shaky project, and though it never quite gets its sea legs, Pirate Radio has its heart in the right place –- it just lost its brains somewhere along the way down to its crotch. (2:00) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Planet 51 (1:31) Oaks, 1000 Van Ness.

*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 (she was only 15 at the time of filming) 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) SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

*The September Issue The Lioness D’Wintour, the Devil Who Wears Prada, or the High Priestess of Condé Nasty — it doesn’t matter what you choose to call Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. If you’re in the fashion industry, you will call her — or at least be amused by the power she wields as the overseer of style’s luxury bible, then 700-plus pages strong for its legendary September fall fashion issue back in the heady days of ’07, pre-Great Recession. But you don’t have to be a publishing insider to be fascinated by director R.J. Cutler’s frisky, sharp-eyed look at the making of fashion’s fave editorial doorstop. Wintour’s laser-gazed facade is humanized, as Cutler opens with footage of a sparkling-eyed editor breaking down fashion’s fluffy reputation. He then follows her as she assumes the warrior pose in, say, the studio of Yves St. Laurent, where she has designer Stefano Pilati fluttering over his morose color choices, and in the offices of the magazine, where she slices, dices, and kills photo shoots like a sartorial samurai. Many of the other characters at Vogue (like OTT columnist André Leon Talley) are given mere cameos, but Wintour finds a worthy adversary-compatriot in creative director Grace Coddington, another Englishwoman and ex-model — the red-tressed, pale-as-a-wraith Pre-Raphaelite dreamer to Wintour’s well-armored knight. The two keep each other honest and craftily ingenious, and both the magazine and this doc benefit. (1:28) Presidio. (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) California, Embarcadero, Empire, Piedmont. (Chun)

2012 I don’t need to give you reasons to see this movie. You don’t care about the clumsy, hastily dished-out pseudo scientific hoo-ha that explains this whole mess. You don’t care about John Cusack or Woody Harrelson or whoever else signed on for this embarrassing notch in their IMDB entry. You don’t care about Mayan mysteries, how hard it is for single dads, and that Danny Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor jointly stand in for Obama (always so on the zeitgeist, that Roland Emmerich). You already know what you’re in store for: the most jaw-dropping depictions of humankind’s near-complete destruction that director Emmerich –- who has a flair for such things –- has ever come up with. All the time, creative energy, and money James Cameron has spent perfecting the CGI pores of his characters in Avatar is so much hokum compared to what Emmerich and his Spartan army of computer animators dish out: the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy emerging through a cloud of toxic dust like some Mary Celeste of the military-industrial complex, born aloft on a massive tidal wave that pulverizes the White House; the dome of St. Paul’s flattening the opium-doped masses like a steamroller; Hawaii returned to its original volcanic state; and oodles more scenes in which we are allowed to register terror, but not horror, at the gorgeous destruction that is unfurled before us as the world ends (again) but no one really dies. Get this man a bigger budget. (2:40) California, Empire, Marina, 1000 Van Ness. (Sussman)

The Twilight Saga: New Moon Oh my God, you guys, it’s that time of the year: another Twilight chapter hits theaters. New Moon reunites useless cipher Bella (Kristen Steward) and Edward (Robert Pattinson), everyone’s favorite sparkly creature of darkness. Because this is a teen wangstfest, the course of true love is kind of bumpy. This time around, there’s a heavy Romeo and Juliet subplot and some interference from perpetually shirtless werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Chances are you know this already, as you’ve either devoured Stephenie Meyer’s book series or you were one of the record-breaking numbers in attendance for the film’s opening weekend. And for those non-Twilight fanatics — is there any reason to see New Moon? Yes and no. Like the 2008’s Twilight, New Moon is reasonably entertaining, with plenty of underage sexual tension, supernatural slugfests, and laughable line readings. But there’s something off this time around: New Moon is fun but flat. For diehard fans, it’s another excuse to shriek at the screen. For anyone else, it’s a soulless diversion. (2:10) Cerrito, Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Peitzman)

(Untitled) The sometimes absurd pretensions of the modern art world have –- for many decades –- been so easily, condescendingly ridiculed that its intelligently knowing satire is hard to come by. (How much harder still would it be for a fictive film to convey the genius of, say Anselm Kiefer? Even Ed Harris’ 2000 Pollock less vividly captured the art or its creation –- better done by Francis Ford Coppola and Nick Nolte in their 1989 New York Stories segment –- than the usual tortured-artist histrionics.) Bay Arean Jonathan Parker attempts to correct that with this perhaps overly low-key witticism. Erstwhile Hebrew Hammer Adam Goldberg plays a composer of painfully retro, plink-plunk 1950s avant-gardism. (His favorite instrument is the tin bucket.) His lack of success is inevitable yet chafes nonetheless, because he’s a) humorlessly self-important, and b) sibling to a painter (Eion Bailey) whose pleasant, unchallenging abstracts are hot properties amongst corporate-art buyers. But not hot enough for his gorgeous agent (Marley Shelton), who puts off showing him at her Chelsea gallery in favor of cartoonishly "edgy" artists –- like soccer hooligan Vinnie Jones as a proponent of lurid taxidermy sculpture –- and takes a contrary (if unlikely) fancy to Goldberg. (How could her educated like not know his music is even less cutting-edge than the brother’s canvases?) (Untitled) holds interest, but it’s at once too glib and modest –- exaggerative sans panache. This is equivalently if differently problematic from Parker’s 2005 Henry James-goes-Marin County The Californians. It can’t compare to his 2001 feature debut, the excellent Crispin Glover-starring translation of Melville’s Bartleby to Rhinoceros-like modern office culture. (1:30) Bridge, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Where the Wild Things Are From the richly delineated illustrations and sparse text of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, director Spike Jonze and cowriter (with Jones) Dave Eggers have constructed a full-length film about the passions, travails, and interior/exterior wanderings of Sendak’s energetic young antihero, Max. Equally prone to feats of world-building and fits of overpowering, destructive rage, Max (Max Records) stampedes off into the night during one of the latter and journeys to the island where the Wild Things (voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, and Michael Berry Jr.) live — and bicker and tantrum and give in to existential despair and no longer all sleep together in a big pile. The place has possibilities, though, and Max, once crowned king, tries his best to realize them. What its inhabitants need, however, is not so much a visionary king as a good family therapist — these are some gripey, defensive, passive-aggressive Wild Things, and Max, aged somewhere around 10, can’t fix their interpersonal problems. Jonze and Eggers do well at depicting Max’s temporary kingdom, its forests and deserts, its creatures and their half-finished creations from a past golden era, as well as subtly reminding us now and again that all of this — the island, the arguments, the sadness — is streaming from the mind of a fierce, wildly imaginative young child with familial troubles of his own, equally beyond his power to resolve. They’ve also invested the film with a slow, grim depressive mood that can make for unsettling viewing, particularly when pondering the Maxes in the audience, digesting an oft-disheartening tale about family conflict and relationship repair. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

*William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe A middle-class suburban lawyer radicalized by the Civil Rights era, Kunstler became a hero of the left for his fiery defenses of the draft-card-burning Catonsville Nine, the Black Panthers, the Chicago Twelve, and the Attica prisoners rioting for improved conditions, and Native American protestors at Wounded Knee in 1973. But after these "glory days," Kunstler’s judgment seemed to cloud while his thirst for "judicial theatre" and the media spotlight. Later clients included terrorists, organized-crime figures, a cop-killing drug dealer, and a suspect in the notorious Central Park "wilding" gang rape of a female jogger –- unpopular causes, to say the least. "Dad’s clients gave us nightmares. He told us that everyone deserves a lawyer, but sometimes we didn’t understand why that lawyer had to be our father" says Emily Kunstler, who along with sister Sarah directed this engrossing documentary about their late father. Growing up under the shadow of this larger-than-life "self-hating Jew" and "hypocrite" –- as he was called by those frequently picketing their house –- wasn’t easy. Confronting this sometimes bewildering behemoth in the family, Disturbing the Universe considers his legacy to be a brave crusader’s one overall –- even if the superhero in question occasionally made all Gotham City and beyond cringe at his latest antics. (1:30) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Drunk on holiday spirit

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>culture@sfbg.com

I have to admit it. I love Christmas. I don’t mean the day, or even the presents, though those both have their charm. But I love the whole damn holiday season and everything that comes with it. Little white lights wrapped around trees downtown, fake icicles dangling from apartment windows, plastic nativity scenes in storefronts and Muzak versions of "The Little Drummer Boy" playing in elevators. I like spray snow and real snow and cheap batting that’s meant to look like snow. Ribbons and dangling ornaments, train sets and Santa scenes, really sappy Christmas movies featuring washed-up TV stars. This time of year, I even like the mall.

I’m not sure who to blame this obsession on: My Jewish dad, who considered Christmas a national holiday and therefore only celebrated the season (not the reason)? My Christian agnostic mom, who could never find the right denomination but always found the best Christmas Eve candlelight service, complete with bell choir and carols? Or perhaps it’s something innate in me that made me love the cold weather and warm drinks, the dark nights and bright lights, finding it all comforting and safe and magical. There’s certainly an element of fantasy that’s consistently charmed me: as a kid, my favorite game of Pretend was called Tinsel Fairies – one whose garland outfits and Christmas Tree scenery rendered it purely seasonal. And now, my favorite game of Pretend is called Boyfriend at Christmas – a whimsical daydream that involves mistletoe, a fireplace, and that elusive creature: a man who likes this crap as much as I do.

Whatever the reason, while most people are gearing up for their "Christmas decorations in November?!?" complaints, I’m getting out my calendar to schedule two months of awesome. In fact, I attempted to make a spreadsheet of every holiday fair, festival, and destination I wanted to hit this year, but it turns out there are too many to fit into one calendar year. (Seriously, planners, what’s up with Dec. 5? Does everything have to happen the first weekend of the month?) Instead, I’ve compiled a list of those places, shows, and events that I simply cannot miss.

Marlena’s

Best known as a drag bar, I’ve had my eye on this Hayes Valley watering hole for years, thanks to its Christmas tradition of drowning the place in Santa figurines (more than 800 of them) and twinkling lights. Add an enclosed smoking area, pool table, and amazing jukebox and it’s the perfect stop for a bit of holiday cheer any day of the week.

488 Hayes, SF. (415) 864-6672, www.marlenasbarsf.com

Union Square Ice Rink

Sure, there’s an outdoor ice skating rink at the Embarcadero too, but I prefer this one, situated beneath the giant tree amidst the glittering lights of San Francisco’s downtown. Despite the often annoying music, it’s one of the most beautiful spots to celebrate the holidays in the city. Now if only my pretend boyfriend would come with me and hold my hand&ldots;

Nov. 11-Jan. 18. Sun.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m. $4.50-$9.50 for 90 minute sessions. ($4-$5 for skate rentals.) 555 Pine, SF. (415) 781-2688, www.unionsquareicerink.com

Let it Snow!

As much as I love this season, even I get sick of the predictable storylines of the Christmas Carol/Nutcracker/Miracle on 34th Street trinity (and their endless adaptations). This year, I’m looking forward to watching the Un-Scripted Theater Company weave an entirely unique story, based on audience participation, and present it in spontaneous Broadway song-and-dance fashion.

Nov. 19-Dec. 19, except Nov. 21 and 26. 8 p.m., $8-$20. Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 and 8 p.m. SF Playhouse, Stage 2, 533 Sutter, SF. (415) 869-5384, www.un-scripted.com

Black Rock Artumnal Gathering

Considering that Christmas Camp was one of the first theme camps at Burning Man, it seems only fitting to ring in the season with a playa-related event. This gorgeous gala benefiting the Black Rock Arts Foundation – an organization that supports Burning Man-style art outside of Burning Man — features performances by Fou Fou HA! and Lucent Dossier, beats by Freq Nasty, and visuals by Shrine and Andrew Jones.

Nov. 20, dinner at 6 p.m., late entry at 9 p.m. $35-$200. Bently Reserve, 400 Sansome, SF. (415) 626-1248, blackrockarts.org

Dickens Fair

The endless iterations of Dickens’ Christmas tale might get stale (OK, fine. I’ll never tire of Bill Murray in Scrooged), but the festivity of the story’s setting never will. I can’t wait to don my Victorian finest (acquired from La Rosa on Haight Street) and get my Christmas geek on with dance parties, Christmas shops, holiday food and drinks, and hundreds of costumed players roaming winding lanes.

Nov. 27 and Sat.-Sun. through Dec. 20. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. $10-$22. Cow Palace Exhibition Halls, 2600 Geneva Ave, SF. (800) 510-1558, www.dickensfair.com

San Francisco Motorized Cable Car Holiday Lights Tour

So maybe we don’t have horse drawn carriages, but we do have those charming cable cars. Why not channel a West Coast version of Christmas in Central Park by grabbing a blanket and some roasted chestnuts and boarding festively-decorated public transportation for a tour of the city’s lights, including Fisherman’s Wharf, Polk Street Shops, the tree and menorah at Union Square, and stops to appreciate the Golden Gate Bridge?

Nov. 27-Dec. 15, Wed.-Sun., 5 and 7 p.m. Dec. 16-Jan. 3, 5 and 7 p.m. daily. $14-$24. Departs from either Fisherman’s Wharf or Union Square, www.buysanfranciscotours.com/tours/holiday_lights_tour_ccc.html

Women’s Building Celebration of Craftswomen

Who doesn’t love a good holiday crafts fair? Especially one that supports such a good cause. This four-day event features unique hand-made crafts and art pieces by more than 200 female American artists, all supplemented with live music, gourmet food, and a benefit silent auction.

Nov. 28-29, Dec. 5-6, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., $6.50-$12. Herbst Pavilion, Fort Mason Center, SF. (650) 615-6838, www.celebrationsofcraftwomen.org

Vandals Christmas Formal

The punk rock veterans host this year’s version of their legendary holiday show, where they’ll play nearly their entire Oi! To the World album, including (if we’re lucky) that heart-warming family classic "Christmas Time for My Penis." Now the only question is where to get a studded corsage.

Dec. 5, 8 p.m. $16 G.A.; $40.95 with dinner. Slim’s, 333 11th St., SF. www.slims-sf.com

Cantare Con Vivo Choral Concert

My mom has a Master’s in music, so it’s probably no surprise that I can’t make it through a holiday season without seeking out some classic carols. This year, I’ll forego Handel’s Messiah for this stunning 100-voice ensemble, accompanied by brass and organ.

Dec. 6, 3 – 5 p.m. $10-$40. First Presbyterian Church, 27th and Broadway, Oakl. (510) 836-0789, www.cantareconvivo.org

The Making of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol

Author Darrell Van Citters discusses his book about the first-ever animated Christmas special, a ’60s classic that’s all but forgotten to new generations.
Dec. 8, 7:30 p.m.-9:00 p.m., free. Cartoon Art Museum, 655 Mission, SF. (415) CAR-TOON, www.cartoonart.org

Santacon
The only thing more delightful than the sight of hundreds of Santas drinking, dancing, and causing a rukus in public is being one of those Santas. Perhaps the best known and loved creation of the Cacophony Society, this annual bar crawl/flash mob/guerilla art piece has become one of my favorite holiday traditions (at least, the parts I can remember). Plus, as a walking and transportation tour led by volunteers, it’s a fantastic way to see parts of the city I’d rarely visit otherwise.
Dec. 12, times and locations TBA. www.santarchy.com

Dance-Along Nutcracker
This year sees Tchaikovsky’s characters translated through a Western lens with "Blazing Nutcrackers," a Wild West-themed participatory dance event with accompaniment by the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band. My plan? To channel Clara, by way of Mae West.
Dec. 12, 2:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. gala, Dec. 13, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. $16-$50. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission, SF. (415) 978-2787, www.dancealongnutcracker.org

MOCHA Makers’ Studio: Adult Art Night
Call it a throwback to my days doing Sunday School crafts (at any one of several churches), but there’s something appealing about learning to make paper – and then make holiday cards or 3-D shapes and sculptures – while enjoying beer, wine, and each other at this kids’ night for grown-ups.
Dec. 17, 7:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m., $5. Museum of Children’s Art, 538 Ninth St., Oakl. (510) 465-8770, www.mocha.org

Carols in the Caves
For more than 20 years, David Auerbach – better known as The Improvisator – has been sharing the solstice spirit by playing his impressive bevy of instruments in natural caverns and wine cellars. Wondrous, reverent, and – especially during the audience participation part – fun, this is the event I’m perhaps looking forward to most. (But don’t tell the Vandals.)
Weekends Dec.19-Jan. 10. $40-$65. Various wineries. (707) 224-4222, www.carolsinthecaves.com

Have different taste than I do? (Apparently, that’s possible.) Check out our events, music, and stage listings throughout the holiday season. For information on tree lightings at places like city hall, check out www.sanfrancisco.com. And if you’re a fan of Christmas Tree Lanes, visit www.lightsofthevalley.com, a not-for-profit Website compiling information on more than 460 decorated homes in 105 cities, to be updated the day after Thanksgiving.

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, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, Matt Sussman, and Laura Swanbeck. The film intern is Fernando F. Croce. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

OPENING

*Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans See "Call of the Weird." (2:01) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael.

*Black Dynamite A lot of movies have spoofed in passing the cliches and excesses of 70s blaxploitation movies. But this collaboration between director Scott Sanders and coscenarist-star Michael Jai White makes you realize they only scratched the surface. It takes real love to meticulously reproduce not just the obvious retro pimp-wear, but every cheesy 70s graphic, wah-wah soundtrack riff, arbitrary plot development, and horrendous interior decoration tip the genre once offered up with a straight face. The brawny White plays our titular hero, a one-man ghetto militia out to avenge the inevitable death of the inevitable kid brother, in the process naturally exposing The Man’s latest heinous plot to keep the Black Man down. Between dealings with the CIA, the mob, pushers, narcs, and righteous soul sisters, B.D. of course finds plenty of time to satisfy a rainbow coalition of topless foxes. (There are also sidekicks like Arsenio Hall as Tasty Freeze and comedian Tommy Davison as Cream Corn.) Every ludicrous yet deadpan detail here is perfect, such that you could take any few seconds here and pass them off as snipped from a real grindhouse relic circa 1975. It’s in the bigger picture that Black Dynamite eventually flags a bit — when the movie ought to be getting its second wind, instead it begins to run out of steam, with a White House finale that’s just too silly. Nonetheless, this is easily one of the year’s best comedies. After inexplicably bombing in limited theatrical release elsewhere last month, it’s finally reaching the Bay Area in midnight-only showings, and is not to be missed. (1:28) Castro, Grand Lake. (Harvey)

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) Cerrito, Grand Lake, Presidio. (Daniel Alvarez)

Defamation See "What’s Hate Got to Do With It?" (1:33) Roxie.

*The House of the Devil Ti West’s The House of the Devil is a retro thrillfest quite happy to sacrifice the babysitter to the Dark Lord. "Based on true unexplained events" (uh-huh), the buzzed-about indie horror has fanboy casting both old school (Dee Wallace, Mary Woronov, Tom Noonan — all performing seriously rather than campily) and new (AJ Bowen of 2007’s The Signal and mumblecore regular Greta Gerwig). Its heroine (Jocelin Donahue), a 1980 East Coast collegiate sophom*ore desperate for rent cash so she can escape her dorm roomie’s loud nightly promiscuity, signs on for a baby- (actually, grandma-) sitting gig advertised on telephone poles. For tonight. During a lunar eclipse. Bad move. Devil takes its time, springing nothing lethal until nearly halfway through. Its period setting allows for ultratight jeans, feathered hair, rotary dialing, a synth-New Wavey score, and other potentially campy elements the film manages to render respectfully appreciative rather than silly. Ultimately, it isn’t significantly better than various fine indie horrors of recent vintage and various nationality that went direct to DVD. (Quality, let alone originality, aren’t necessarily a commercial pluses in this genre.) But it is dang good, and that cuts it above most current theatrical horror releases. (1:33) Lumiere. (Harvey)

*The Messenger Ben Foster cut his teeth playing unhinged villains in Alpha Dog (2006) and 3:10 to Yuma (2007), but he cements his reputation as a promising young actor with a moving, sympathetic performance in director Oren Moverman’s The Messenger. Moverman (who also co-authored the script) is a four-year veteran of the Israeli army, and he draws on his military experience to create an intermittently harrowing portrayal of two soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army’s Casualty Notification Service. Will Montgomery (Foster) is still recovering from the physical and psychological trauma of combat when he is paired with Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a by-the-book Captain whose gruff demeanor and good-old-boy gallows humor belie the complicated soul inside. Gut-wrenching encounters with the families of dead soldiers combine with stark, honest scenes that capture two men trying to come to grips with the mundane horrors of their world, and Samantha Morton completes a trio of fine acting turns as a serene Army widow. (1:45) Albany, Smith Rafael. (Richardson)

Planet 51 In this animated adventure, Earth astronauts realize they’re the aliens when they visit a populated planet elsewhere in the galaxy. (1:31) Oaks.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon The one with the werewolf. (2:10) Cerrito, Grand Lake, Presidio.

*William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe A middle-class suburban lawyer radicalized by the Civil Rights era, Kunstler became a hero of the left for his fiery defenses of the draft-card-burning Catonsville Nine, the Black Panthers, the Chicago Twelve, and the Attica prisoners rioting for improved conditions, and Native American protestors at Wounded Knee in 1973. But after these "glory days," Kunstler’s judgment seemed to cloud while his thirst for "judicial theatre" and the media spotlight. Later clients included terrorists, organized-crime figures, a cop-killing drug dealer, and a suspect in the notorious Central Park "wilding" gang rape of a female jogger –- unpopular causes, to say the least. "Dad’s clients gave us nightmares. He told us that everyone deserves a lawyer, but sometimes we didn’t understand why that lawyer had to be our father" says Emily Kunstler, who along with sister Sarah directed this engrossing documentary about their late father. Growing up under the shadow of this larger-than-life "self-hating Jew" and "hypocrite" –- as he was called by those frequently picketing their house –- wasn’t easy. Confronting this sometimes bewildering behemoth in the family, Disturbing the Universe considers his legacy to be a brave crusader’s one overall –- even if the superhero in question occasionally made all Gotham City and beyond cringe at his latest antics. (1:30) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

ONGOING

Amelia Unending speculation surrounds the fate of aviator Amelia Earhart, who, with navigator Fred Noonan, disappeared in 1937 over the Pacific while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. However, Mira Nair’s biopic Amelia clarifies at least one fact: that Earhart (played by Hilary Swank) was a free-spirited freedom-loving lover of being free. We learn this through passages of her writing intoned in voice-over; during scenes with publisher and eventual husband George Putnam (Richard Gere); and via wildlife observations as she flies her Lockheed Electra over some 22,000 miles of the world. Not much could diminish the glory of Earhart’s achievements in aviation, particularly in helping open the field to other female pilots. And Swank creates the impression of a charming, intelligent, self-possessed woman who manages to sidestep many of fame’s pitfalls while remaining resolute in her lofty aims. She’s also slightly unknowable in her cheery, near-seamless virtue, and the film’s adoring depiction, with its broad, heavy strokes, at times inspires a different sort of restlessness than the kind that compels Earhart to take flight. Amelia is structured as a series of flashbacks in which the aviator, while circling the earth, retraces her life –- or rather, the highlights of her career in flying, her marriage to Putnam, and her affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), another champion of aviation (and the father of author Gore). And this, too, begins to feel lazily repetitive, as we return and return again to that co*ckpit to stare at a doomed woman as she stares emotively into the wild blue yonder. (1:51) Elmwood. (Rapoport)

Art and Copy Doc maker Doug Pray (1996’s Hype!, 2001’s Scratch, 2007’s Surfwise) uses the mid-twentieth century’s revolution in advertising to background an absorbing portrait of the industry’s leading edge, with historical commentary, philosophical observations, and pop-psych self-scrutiny by some of the rebel forces and their descendants (including locals Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein). We see the ads that made a permanent dent in our consciousness over the past five decades. We hear conference-room tales of famous campaigns, like "Got Milk?" and "I Want My MTV." And during quieter interludes, stats on advertising’s global cultural presence drift on-screen to astonish and unnerve. Lofty self-comparisons to cave painters and midwives may raise eyebrows, but Pray has gathered some of the industry’s brighter, more engaging lights, and his subjects discuss their métier thoughtfully, wittily, and quite earnestly. There are elisions in the moral line some of them draw in the process, and it would have been interesting to hear, amid the exalted talk of advertising that rises to the level of art, some philosophizing on where all this packaging and selling gets us, in a branding-congested age when it’s hard to deny that breakneck consumption is having a deleterious effect on the planet. Instead the film occasionally veers in the direction of becoming an advertisem*nt for advertising. Still, Art and Copy complicates our impressions of a vilified profession, and what it reveals about these creatives’ perceptions of their vocation (one asserts that "you can manufacture any feeling that you want to manufacture") makes it worth watching, even if you usually fast-forward through the ads. (1:30) Roxie. (Rapoport)

*The Box In recent interviews, Donnie Darko (2001) director Richard Kelly has sounded like he’s outright begging to go Hollywood with The Box. But try as he might (and the horribly cheesy trailer does try to puff up this dread-imbued, downbeat thriller into the stuff of big-box blockbuster numbers), Kelly can’t stop himself from making a movie that rises above its intentions — and its trashy entertainment value. Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) seem like a perfect, beautiful couple, until the cracks begin to quickly appear in their sporty, well-groomed facade: the victim of a girlhood accident, Norma has a startling masoch*stic streak, while NASA engineer and would-be astronaut Arthur is eager to channel his interest in exploring outer space toward mysteries closer to home: a box that suddenly appears, courtesy of the maimed, besuited Arlington Stewart (Frank Langella). Press the button and someone will die — but the couple will receive one million dollars. Pointing to the existential parable of No Exit like a pretentious, AP-course-loaded high-schooler, The Box also touches on such memorable genre-busters as Kiss Me Deadly (1955) with its Pandora’s box conceit, but more obviously it’s boxed in and stuck in the ’70s, fascinated by the fear, loathing, and paranoia generated by conspiracy-obsessed flicks like The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). Those films reveled in a romantic fatalism and radiating all-encompassing negativity that had its roots in the conformity-fearing Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and found its amplified, arguable apotheosis in the body horror of David Cronenberg. The analog synth score by Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne and Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett also cues memories of Cronenberg, while the soft-focus shots of Cameron Diaz with Charlie’s Angels hair and well-chosen songs like "Bell Bottom Blues" conjure a mood that overcomes narrative potholes as big as the Scanners-like gap in Arlington Stewart’s face. (1:56) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)

*Capitalism: A Love Story Gun control. The Bush administration. Healthcare. Over the past decade, Michael Moore has tackled some of the most contentious issues with his trademark blend of humor and liberal rage. In Capitalism: A Love Story, he sets his sights on an even grander subject. Where to begin when you’re talking about an economic system that has defined this nation? Predictably, Moore’s focus is on all those times capitalism has failed. By this point, his tactics are familiar, but he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. As with Sicko (2007), Moore proves he can restrain himself — he gets plenty of screen time, but he spends more time than ever behind the camera. This isn’t about Moore; it’s about the United States. When he steps out of the limelight, he’s ultimately more effective, crafting a film that’s bipartisan in nature, not just in name. No, he’s not likely to please all, but for every Glenn Beck, there’s a sane moderate wondering where all the money has gone. (2:07) California. (Peitzman)

Coco Before Chanel Like her designs, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was elegant, très chic, and utterly original. Director Anne Fontaine’s French biopic traces Coco (Audrey Tautou) from her childhood as a struggling orphan to one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. You’ll be disappointed if you expect a fashionista’s up close and personal look at the House of Chanel, as Fontaine keeps her story firmly rooted in Coco’s past, including her destructive relationship with French playboy Etienne Balsar (Benoît Poelvoorde) and her ill-fated love affair with dashing Englishman Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola). The film functions best in scenes that display Coco’s imagination and aesthetic magnetism, like when she dances with Capel in her now famous "little black dress" amidst a sea of stiff, white meringues. Tautou imparts a quiet courage and quick wit as the trailblazing designer, and Nivola is unmistakably charming and compassionate as Boy. Nevertheless, Fontaine rushes the ending and never truly seizes the opportunity to explore how Coco’s personal life seeped into her timeless designs that were, in the end, an extension of herself.(1:50) Lumiere, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Swanbeck)

*The Damned United Like last year’s Frost/Nixon, The Damned United features a lush 70’s backdrop, a screenplay by Peter Morgan, and a commanding performance by Michael Sheen as an ambitious egotist. A promising young actor, Sheen puts on the sharp tongue and charismatic monomania of real-life British soccer coach Brian Clough like a familiar garment, blustering his way through a fictionalized account of Clough’s unsuccessful 44-day stint as manager of Leeds United. Though the details of high-stakes professional "football" will likely be lost on American viewers, the tale of a talented, flawed sports hero spiraling deeper into obsession needs no trans-Atlantic translation, and the film is an engrossing portrait of a captivating, quotable character. (1:38) Opera Plaza. (Richardson)

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (1:36) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki.

*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) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont. (Chun)

For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism Informative, nostalgic, and incredibly depressing, Gerald Peary’s For the Love of Movies traces film criticism from ye olden days (Vachel Lindsay’s appreciation of Mary Pickford) to today (Harry Knowles drooling over Michael Bay). Peary, himself a film critic, captures big-name writers working (or recently out-of-work) today, with Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, J. Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and multiple others explaining why they chose to make a career out of their love for movies, and how the gig has changed over the years. Peary clearly believes the heyday of film criticism is over, having hit peak in the 60s and 70s, when new releases by filmmakers like Scorsese and Altman were argued-about in print and on talk shows by longtime rivals Andrew Sarris (who weighs in here) and the late Pauline Kael. Of course, these days, anyone with a blog can call him or herself a film critic, and while For the Love of Movies acknowledges the importance of the internet, it also points out that when "everyone’s a critic," quality control suffers. Welcome to the future. (1:21) Roxie. (Eddy)

The Fourth Kind (1:38) 1000 Van Ness.

*Good Hair Spurred by his little daughter’s plaintive query ("Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?"), Chris Rock gets his Michael Moore freak on and sets out to uncover the racial and cultural implications of African-American hairstyling. Visiting beauty salons, talking to specialists, and interviewing celebrities ranging from Maya Angelou to Ice-T, the comic wisecracks his way into some pretty trenchant insights about how black women’s coiffures can often reflect Caucasian-set definitions of beauty. (Leave it to Rev. Al Sharpton to voice it ingeniously: "You comb your oppression every morning!") Rock makes an affable guide in Jeff Stilson’s breezy documentary, which posits the hair industry as a global affair where relaxers work as "nap-antidotes" and locks sacrificially shorn in India end up as pricey weaves in Beverly Hills. Maybe startled by his more disquieting discoveries, Rock shifts the focus to flamboyant, crowd-pleasing shenanigans at the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show. Despite such softball detours, it’s a genial and revealing tour. (1:35) Opera Plaza. (Croce)

Law Abiding Citizen "Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006) as re-imagined by the Saw franchise folks" apparently sounded like a sweet pitch to someone, because here we are, stuck with Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler playing bloody and increasingly ludicrous cat-and-mouse games. Foxx stars as a slick Philadelphia prosecutor whose deal-cutting careerist ways go easy on the scummy criminals responsible for murdering the wife and daughter of a local inventor (Butler). Cut to a decade later, and the doleful widower has become a vengeful mastermind with a yen for Hannibal Lecter-like skills, gruesome contraptions, and lines like "Lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten." Butler metes out punishment to his family’s killers as well as to the bureocratic minions who let them off the hook. But the talk of moral consequences is less a critique of a faulty judicial system than mere white noise, vainly used by director F. Gary Gray and writer Kurt Wimmer in hopes of classing up a grinding exploitation drama. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness. (Croce)

The Maid In an upper-middle class subdivision of Santiago, 40-year-old maid Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), perpetually stony and indignant, operates a rigorous dawn-to-dusk routine for the Valdez family. Although Raquel rarely behaves as an intimate of her longtime hosts, she remains convinced that love, not labor, bonds them. (Whether the family shares Raquel’s feelings of devotion is highly dubious.) When a rotating cast of interlopers is hired to assist her, she stoops to machinations most vile to scare them away — until the arrival of Lucy (Mariana Loyola), whose unpredictable influence over Raquel sets the narrative of The Maid on a very different psychological trajectory, from moody chamber piece to eccentric slice-of-life. If writer-director Sebastián Silva’s film taunts the viewer with the possibility of a horrific climax, either as a result of its titular counterpart — Jean Genet’s 1946 stage drama The Maids, about two servants’ homicidal revenge — or from the unnerving "mugshot" of Saavedra on the movie poster, it is neither self-destructive nor Grand Guignol. Rather, it it is much more prosaic in execution. Sergio Armstrong’s fidgety hand-held camera captures Raquel’s claustrophobic routine as it accentuates her Sisyphean conundrum: although she completely rules the inner workings of the house, she remains forever a guest. But her character’s motivations often evoke as much confusion as wonder. In the absence of some much needed exposition, The Maid’s heavy-handed silences, plaintive gazes, and inexplicable eruptions of laughter feel oddly sterile, and a contrived preciousness begins to creep over the film like an effluvial whitewash. Its abundance makes you aware there is a shabbiness hiding beneath the dramatic facade — the various stains and holes of an unrealized third act. (1:35) Clay, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Erik Morse)

The Men Who Stare at Goats No! The Men Who Stare at Goats was such an awesome book (by British journalist Jon Ronson) and the movie boasts such a terrific cast (George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor). How in the hell did it turn out to be such a lame, unfunny movie? Clooney gives it his all as Lyn Cassady, a retired "supersolider" who peers through his third eye and realizes the naïve reporter (McGregor) he meets in Kuwait is destined to accompany him on a cross-Iraq journey of self-discovery; said journey is filled with flashbacks to the reporter’s failed marriage (irrelevant) and Cassady’s training with a hippie military leader (Bridges) hellbent on integrating New Age thinking into combat situations. Had I the psychic powers of a supersoldier, I’d use some kind of mind-control technique to convince everyone within my brain-wave radius to skip this movie at all costs. Since I’m merely human, I’ll just say this: seriously, read the book instead. (1:28) Empire, Grand Lake, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

*Michael Jackson’s This Is It Time –- and a tragic early death –- has a way of coloring perception, so little surprise that these thought pops into one’s head throughout This Is It: when did Michael Jackson transform himself into such an elegant, haute-pop sylph? Such a pixie-nosed, lacy-haired petit four of music-making delicacy? And where can I get his to-die-for, pointy-shouldered, rhinestone-lapeled Alexander McQueen-ish jacket? Something a bit bewitching this way comes as Michael Jackson –- now that he’s gone, seemingly less freakish than an outright phenomenon –- gracefully flits across the screen in this final (really?) document of his last hurrah, the rehearsals for his sold-out shows at O2 Arena in London. This Is It is far from perfect: this grainy video scratchpad of a film obviously wasn’t designed by the perfectionist MJ to be his final testament to pop. Director Kenny Ortega does his best to cobble together what looks like several rehearsal performances with teary testimonials from dancers (instilled with the intriguing idea that they are extensions of the surgery-friendly Jackson’s body onstage), interviews with musicians, minimal archival footage, and glimpses of Jacko protesting about being encouraged to "sing through" certain songs when he’s trying to preserve his voice, urging the band to play it "like the record," and still moving, dancing, and gesticuutf8g with such grace that you’re left with more than a tinge of regret that "This Is It," the tour, never came to pass. It’s a pure, albeit adulterated, pleasure to watch the man do the do, even with the gaps in the flow, even with the footage filtered by a family intent on propping up the franchise. Amid the artistry and kitsch, critics, pop academics, and superfans will find plenty to chew over –- from Jackson’s curiously timed physical complaints as the Jackson 5 segment kicks in, to the surreally CGI-ed, golden-age-of-Hollywood mash-up sequence.(1:52) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

New York, I Love You A dreamy mash note to the city that never sleeps, New York, I Love You is the latest installment in a series of omnibus odes to world metropolises and the denizens that live and love within the city limits. Less successful than the Paris, je t’aime (2006) anthology — which roped in such disparate international directors as Gus Van Sant and Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron and Olivier Assayas — New York welcomes a more minor-key host of directors to the project with enjoyable if light-weight results. Surely any bite of the Big Apple would be considerably sexier. Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo tease out a one-night stand with legs, and Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q generate a wee bit of verbal fire over street-side cigs, yet there’s surprisingly little heat in this take on a few of the 8 million stories in the archetypal naked city. Most memorable are the strangest couplings, such as that of Natalie Portman, a Hasidic bride who flirtatiously haggles with Irrfan Khan, a Jain diamond merchant, in a tale directed by Mira Nair. Despite the pleasure of witnessing Julie Christie, Eli Wallach, and Cloris Leachman in action, many of these pieces — written by the late Anthony Minghella, Israel Horovitz, and Portman, among others — feel a mite too slight to nail down the attention of all but the most desperate romantics. (1:43) Bridge, Shattuck. (Chun)

*Paranormal Activity In this ostensible found-footage exercise, Katie (Katie Featherson) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are a young San Diego couple whose first home together has a problem: someone, or something, is making things go bump in the night. In fact, Katie has sporadically suffered these disturbances since childhood, when an amorphous, not-at-reassuring entity would appear at the foot of her bed. Skeptical technophile Micah’s solution is to record everything on his primo new video camera, including a setup to shoot their bedroom while they sleep — surveillance footage sequences that grow steadily more terrifying as incidents grow more and more invasive. Like 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, Oren Peli’s no-budget first feature may underwhelm mainstream genre fans who only like their horror slick and slasher-gory. But everybody else should appreciate how convincingly the film’s very ordinary, at times annoying protagonists (you’ll eventually want to throttle Micah, whose efforts are clearly making things worse) fall prey to a hostile presence that manifests itself in increments no less alarming for being (at first) very small. When this hits DVD, you’ll get to see the original, more low-key ending (the film has also been tightened up since its festival debut two years ago). But don’t wait — Paranormal‘s subtler effects will be lost on the small screen. Not to mention that it’s a great collective screaming-audience experience. (1:39) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

*Paris Cédric Klapisch’s latest offers a series of interconnected stories with Paris as the backdrop, designed — if you’ll pardon the cliché — as a love letter to the city. On the surface, the plot of Paris sounds an awful lot like Paris, je t’aime (2006). But while the latter was composed entirely of vignettes, Paris has an actual, overarching plot. Perhaps that’s why it’s so much more effective. Juliette Binoche stars as Élise, whose brother Pierre (Romain Duris) is in dire need of a heart transplant. A dancer by trade, Pierre is also a world-class people watcher, and it’s his fascination with those around him that serves as Paris‘ wraparound device. He sees snippets of these people’s lives, but we get the full picture — or at least, something close to it. The strength of Paris is in the depth of its characters: every one we meet is more complex than you’d guess at first glance. The more they play off one another, the more we understand. Of course, the siblings remain at the film’s heart: sympathetic but not pitiable, moving but not maudlin. Both Binoche and Duris turn in strong performances, aided by a supporting cast of French actors who impress in even the smallest of roles. (2:04) Opera Plaza. (Peitzman)

Pirate Radio I wanted to like Pirate Radio, a.k.a., The Boat That Rocked –- really, I did. The raging, stormy sounds of the British Invasion –- sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and all that rot. Pirate radio outlaw sexiness, writ large, influential, and mind-blowingly popular. This shaggy-dog of a comedy about the boat-bound, rollicking Radio Rock is based loosely on the history of Radio Caroline, which blasted transgressive rock ‘n’ roll (back when it was still subversive) and got around stuffy BBC dominance by broadcasting from a ship off British waters. Alas, despite the music and the attempts by filmmaker Richard Curtis to inject life, laughs, and girls into the mix (by way of increasingly absurd scenes of imagined listeners creaming themselves over Radio Rock’s programming), Pirate Radio will be a major disappointment for smart music fans in search of period accuracy (are we in the mid- or late ’60s or early or mid-’70s –- tough to tell judging from the time-traveling getups on the DJs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Darby, among others?) and lame writing that fails to rise above the paint-by-the-numbers narrative buttressing, irksome literalness (yes, a betrayal by a lass named Marianne is followed by "So Long, Marianne"), and easy sexist jabs at all those slu*tty birds. Still, there’s a reason why so many artists –- from Leonard Cohen to the Stones –- have lent their songs to this shaky project, and though it never quite gets its sea legs, Pirate Radio has its heart in the right place –- it just lost its brains somewhere along the way down to its crotch. (2:00) Elmwood, Oaks, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

*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 (she was only 15 at the time of filming) 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) SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

*The September Issue The Lioness D’Wintour, the Devil Who Wears Prada, or the High Priestess of Condé Nasty — it doesn’t matter what you choose to call Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. If you’re in the fashion industry, you will call her — or at least be amused by the power she wields as the overseer of style’s luxury bible, then 700-plus pages strong for its legendary September fall fashion issue back in the heady days of ’07, pre-Great Recession. But you don’t have to be a publishing insider to be fascinated by director R.J. Cutler’s frisky, sharp-eyed look at the making of fashion’s fave editorial doorstop. Wintour’s laser-gazed facade is humanized, as Cutler opens with footage of a sparkling-eyed editor breaking down fashion’s fluffy reputation. He then follows her as she assumes the warrior pose in, say, the studio of Yves St. Laurent, where she has designer Stefano Pilati fluttering over his morose color choices, and in the offices of the magazine, where she slices, dices, and kills photo shoots like a sartorial samurai. Many of the other characters at Vogue (like OTT columnist André Leon Talley) are given mere cameos, but Wintour finds a worthy adversary-compatriot in creative director Grace Coddington, another Englishwoman and ex-model — the red-tressed, pale-as-a-wraith Pre-Raphaelite dreamer to Wintour’s well-armored knight. The two keep each other honest and craftily ingenious, and both the magazine and this doc benefit. (1:28) Presidio. (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) California, Embarcadero, Empire, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

*Skin This is one of those movies that works in large part because you know it’s a true story –- its truth is almost too strange to be credible as fiction. In 1955 the Laings, a white Afrikaner couple (played by the blond and blue-eyed likes of Sam Neill and Alice Krige) gave birth to a second child quite unlike their first, or themselves. Indeed, Sandra (Ella Ramangwane) was, by all appearances, black. Mrs. Laing insisted she hadn’t been unfaithful –- further, the couple were firm believers in the apartheid system –- and it was eventually determined Sandra’s looks were the result of a rare but not-unheard-of flashback to some "colored" genes no doubt well-buried far in their colonialist ancestry. Living in rural isolation, the well-intentioned Laings were able to keep Sandra oblivious to her being at all "different." But when time came to send her off to boarding school, she got a rude awakening in matters of race and class, resulting in court battles and myriad humiliations. Sophie Okonedo (2004’s Hotel Rwanda) plays the rebellious adult Sandra, who must reject her upbringing to find an identity she can live with –- as opposed to the wishful-thinking one her parents insist upon. Based on the real protagonist’s memoir, Anthony Fabian’s first feature observes the institutional cruelty and eventual fall of apartheid from the uniquely vivid perspective of someone yanked from privilege to prejudice. It’s a sprawling, involving story that affords excellent opportunities for its very good lead actors (also including Tony Kgoroge as Sandra’s abusive eventual husband). (1:47) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

2012 I don’t need to give you reasons to see this movie. You don’t care about the clumsy, hastily dished-out pseudo scientific hoo-ha that explains this whole mess. You don’t care about John Cusack or Woody Harrelson or whoever else signed on for this embarrassing notch in their IMDB entry. You don’t care about Mayan mysteries, how hard it is for single dads, and that Danny Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor jointly stand in for Obama (always so on the zeitgeist, that Roland Emmerich). You already know what you’re in store for: the most jaw-dropping depictions of humankind’s near-complete destruction that director Emmerich –- who has a flair for such things –- has ever come up with. All the time, creative energy, and money James Cameron has spent perfecting the CGI pores of his characters in Avatar is so much hokum compared to what Emmerich and his Spartan army of computer animators dish out: the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy emerging through a cloud of toxic dust like some Mary Celeste of the military-industrial complex, born aloft on a massive tidal wave that pulverizes the White House; the dome of St. Paul’s flattening the opium-doped masses like a steamroller; Hawaii returned to its original volcanic state; and oodles more scenes in which we are allowed to register terror, but not horror, at the gorgeous destruction that is unfurled before us as the world ends (again) but no one really dies. Get this man a bigger budget. (2:40) California, Empire, Grand Lake, Marina, 1000 Van Ness. (Sussman)

(Untitled) The sometimes absurd pretensions of the modern art world have –- for many decades –- been so easily, condescendingly ridiculed that its intelligently knowing satire is hard to come by. (How much harder still would it be for a fictive film to convey the genius of, say Anselm Kiefer? Even Ed Harris’ 2000 Pollock less vividly captured the art or its creation –- better done by Francis Ford Coppola and Nick Nolte in their 1989 New York Stories segment –- than the usual tortured-artist histrionics.) Bay Arean Jonathan Parker attempts to correct that with this perhaps overly low-key witticism. Erstwhile Hebrew Hammer Adam Goldberg plays a composer of painfully retro, plink-plunk 1950s avant-gardism. (His favorite instrument is the tin bucket.) His lack of success is inevitable yet chafes nonetheless, because he’s a) humorlessly self-important, and b) sibling to a painter (Eion Bailey) whose pleasant, unchallenging abstracts are hot properties amongst corporate-art buyers. But not hot enough for his gorgeous agent (Marley Shelton), who puts off showing him at her Chelsea gallery in favor of cartoonishly "edgy" artists –- like soccer hooligan Vinnie Jones as a proponent of lurid taxidermy sculpture –- and takes a contrary (if unlikely) fancy to Goldberg. (How could her educated like not know his music is even less cutting-edge than the brother’s canvases?) (Untitled) holds interest, but it’s at once too glib and modest –- exaggerative sans panache. This is equivalently if differently problematic from Parker’s 2005 Henry James-goes-Marin County The Californians. It can’t compare to his 2001 feature debut, the excellent Crispin Glover-starring translation of Melville’s Bartleby to Rhinoceros-like modern office culture. (1:30) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Where the Wild Things Are From the richly delineated illustrations and sparse text of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, director Spike Jonze and cowriter (with Jones) Dave Eggers have constructed a full-length film about the passions, travails, and interior/exterior wanderings of Sendak’s energetic young antihero, Max. Equally prone to feats of world-building and fits of overpowering, destructive rage, Max (Max Records) stampedes off into the night during one of the latter and journeys to the island where the Wild Things (voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, and Michael Berry Jr.) live — and bicker and tantrum and give in to existential despair and no longer all sleep together in a big pile. The place has possibilities, though, and Max, once crowned king, tries his best to realize them. What its inhabitants need, however, is not so much a visionary king as a good family therapist — these are some gripey, defensive, passive-aggressive Wild Things, and Max, aged somewhere around 10, can’t fix their interpersonal problems. Jonze and Eggers do well at depicting Max’s temporary kingdom, its forests and deserts, its creatures and their half-finished creations from a past golden era, as well as subtly reminding us now and again that all of this — the island, the arguments, the sadness — is streaming from the mind of a fierce, wildly imaginative young child with familial troubles of his own, equally beyond his power to resolve. They’ve also invested the film with a slow, grim depressive mood that can make for unsettling viewing, particularly when pondering the Maxes in the audience, digesting an oft-disheartening tale about family conflict and relationship repair. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

*The Yes Men Fix the World Can you prank shame, if not sense, into the Powers That Be? Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, the jesters-activists who punked right-wing big-business in the documentary The Yes Men (2003), continue to play Groucho Marx to capitalism’s mortified Margaret Dumont in this gleeful sequel. Decked in sharp suits and packing fake websites and catchphrases, the duo bluffs its way into conferences and proceeds to give corporate giants the Borat treatment. The stunts are often inspired and, in their visions of fantasy justice, poignant: Bichlbaum and Bonnano pose as Dow envoys and announce the company’s plans to send billions to treat victims of the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster, and later appear as HUD representatives offering a corrective to the shameful neglect of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Yes Men may not fix the world, but their ruses once more prove the awareness-raising potential of comedy. (1:30) Smith Rafael. (Croce)

Sexual “pun”-ishment

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By Juliette Tang

Movies Archives — Page 48 of 69 — San Francisco Bay Guardian Archive 1966–2014 (19)

Punning and naughty Photoshopping can be extremely funny, extremely horrible, or both at the same time. A bad pun can empty a room, but a good bad pun always elicits a laugh. Similarly, while naughty Photoshopping is juvenile and distasteful, you can’t help but admire the cleverness of a really good digitally altered photograph, regardless of content.

Movies Archives — Page 48 of 69 — San Francisco Bay Guardian Archive 1966–2014 (20)

p*rn is an industry that fully embraces parallel punning — Muffy the Vampire Layer, Chitty Chitty Gang Bang, A Rear and Pleasant Danger, Romancing the Bone, etc. — and suffice it to say, some of these puns are pretty adroit. The meme-generating folks at B3ta asked people to post their own Photoshopped p*rn posters based off actual movies, and the slightly NSFW 30+ pages of puerility are a must see for those who like their humor lower than low-brow. Personally, I can’t get enough of these. Assablanca, The Crotchmen, Hymen Popper and the Chamber of sem*n, Lawrence of a Labia, Metropenis, Iporkyalips Now… sexual punishment never felt so good!

Movies Archives — Page 48 of 69 — San Francisco Bay Guardian Archive 1966–2014 (21)

Hell yeah!

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Before the Halloween and Friday the 13th series made slasher cinema’s top instruments of unstoppable evil, and after Frankenstein, Dracula, and Werewolf pretty much had their day, there was a brief sunny window of opportunity for Satan. Or rather, Satan and his Satanists — sounds like a garage band, yes? — who dominated horror for a few years highlighted by Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976). Not to mention 1975’s Race with the Devil, that same year’s The Devil’s Rain (Ernest Borgnine as Satan’s acolyte? Credible!) and 1973’s Satan’s School for Girls.

Ah, those were the days. Who gives much screen time to Beelzebub now, when the multiplexes are cluttered with routine slasher sequels and Japanese horror remakes?

Somebody called Ti West evidently does. Bringing it all back with extra hugs, his new The House of the Devil is a retro thrillfest quite happy to sacrifice that babysitter to the Dark Lord. Without even a tip for her labor.

"Based on true unexplained events" (uh-huh), the buzzed-about indie horror has fanboy casting both old school (Dee Wallace, Mary Woronov, Tom Noonan — all performing seriously rather than campily) and new (AJ Bowen of 2007’s The Signal and mumblecore regular Greta Gerwig). Its heroine (Jocelin Donahue), a 1980 East Coast collegiate sophom*ore desperate for rent cash so she can escape her dorm roomie’s loud nightly promiscuity, signs on for a baby- (actually, grandma-) sitting gig advertised on telephone poles. For tonight. During a lunar eclipse. Bad move.

The House of the Devil takes its time, springing nothing lethal until nearly halfway through. Even then, things escalate ever-so-slowly. Its 1980s setting allows for ultratight jeans, feathered hair, rotary dialing, a synth-New Wavey score, and other potentially campy elements the film manages to render respectfully appreciative rather than silly.

All freakdom doesn’t break loose until very late, at which point writer-director West effectively abandons all restraint (and hope), much assisted by The Last Winter (2006) composer Jeff Grace’s suddenly panicked score. The best contemporary horror has understood that potency of waiting. Prolonged development of relatable characters, agonizing our dread for their fates, amplifies standard terror to no end in movies like 2005’s Wolf Creek or Paranormal Activity.

House isn’t significantly better than various fine indie horrors of recent vintage and various nationality that went direct to DVD. (Quality, let alone originality, aren’t necessarily a commercial pluses in this genre.) But it is dang good, and that cuts it above most current theatrical horror releases. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t be watching 1977’s Suspiria, 2005’s Satan’s Playground, 1994’s Aswang (a.k.a. The Unearthling) or 1981’s Possession instead of this deft throwback: now those surreal visions truly gave the Devil his due.

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL opens Fri/20 in San Francisco.

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, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, Matt Sussman, and Laura Swanbeck. The film intern is Fernando F. Croce. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

OPENING

Art and Copy Doc maker Doug Pray (1996’s Hype!, 2001’s Scratch, 2007’s Surfwise) uses the mid-twentieth century’s revolution in advertising to background an absorbing portrait of the industry’s leading edge, with historical commentary, philosophical observations, and pop-psych self-scrutiny by some of the rebel forces and their descendants (including locals Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein). We see the ads that made a permanent dent in our consciousness over the past five decades. We hear conference-room tales of famous campaigns, like "Got Milk?" and "I Want My MTV." And during quieter interludes, stats on advertising’s global cultural presence drift on-screen to astonish and unnerve. Lofty self-comparisons to cave painters and midwives may raise eyebrows, but Pray has gathered some of the industry’s brighter, more engaging lights, and his subjects discuss their métier thoughtfully, wittily, and quite earnestly. There are elisions in the moral line some of them draw in the process, and it would have been interesting to hear, amid the exalted talk of advertising that rises to the level of art, some philosophizing on where all this packaging and selling gets us, in a branding-congested age when it’s hard to deny that breakneck consumption is having a deleterious effect on the planet. Instead the film occasionally veers in the direction of becoming an advertisem*nt for advertising. Still, Art and Copy complicates our impressions of a vilified profession, and what it reveals about these creatives’ perceptions of their vocation (one asserts that "you can manufacture any feeling that you want to manufacture") makes it worth watching, even if you usually fast-forward through the ads. (1:30) Roxie. (Rapoport)

The Boondock Saints II: All Saint’s Day Track down 2003’s Overnight if you have any urge to see this. (1:57)

For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism Informative, nostalgic, and incredibly depressing, Gerald Peary’s For the Love of Movies traces film criticism from ye olden days (Vachel Lindsay’s appreciation of Mary Pickford) to today (Harry Knowles drooling over Michael Bay). Peary, himself a film critic, captures big-name writers working (or recently out-of-work) today, with Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, J. Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and multiple others explaining why they chose to make a career out of their love for movies, and how the gig has changed over the years. Peary clearly believes the heyday of film criticism is over, having hit peak in the 60s and 70s, when new releases by filmmakers like Scorsese and Altman were argued-about in print and on talk shows by longtime rivals Andrew Sarris (who weighs in here) and the late Pauline Kael. Of course, these days, anyone with a blog can call him or herself a film critic, and while For the Love of Movies acknowledges the importance of the internet, it also points out that when "everyone’s a critic," quality control suffers. Welcome to the future. (1:21) Roxie, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

The Maid See "Clean Freak." (1:35) Shattuck, Smith Rafael.

Pirate Radio I wanted to like Pirate Radio, a.k.a., The Boat That Rocked –- really, I did. The raging, stormy sounds of the British Invasion –- sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and all that rot. Pirate radio outlaw sexiness, writ large, influential, and mind-blowingly popular. This shaggy-dog of a comedy about the boat-bound, rollicking Radio Rock is based loosely on the history of Radio Caroline, which blasted transgressive rock ‘n’ roll (back when it was still subversive) and got around stuffy BBC dominance by broadcasting from a ship off British waters. Alas, despite the music and the attempts by filmmaker Richard Curtis to inject life, laughs, and girls into the mix (by way of increasingly absurd scenes of imagined listeners creaming themselves over Radio Rock’s programming), Pirate Radio will be a major disappointment for smart music fans in search of period accuracy (are we in the mid- or late ’60s or early or mid-’70s –- tough to tell judging from the time-traveling getups on the DJs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Darby, among others?) and lame writing that fails to rise above the paint-by-the-numbers narrative buttressing, irksome literalness (yes, a betrayal by a lass named Marianne is followed by "So Long, Marianne"), and easy sexist jabs at all those slu*tty birds. Still, there’s a reason why so many artists –- from Leonard Cohen to the Stones –- have lent their songs to this shaky project, and though it never quite gets its sea legs, Pirate Radio has its heart in the right place –- it just lost its brains somewhere along the way down to its crotch. (2:00) Oaks, Piedmont. (Chun)

*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 (she was only 15 at the time of filming) 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) Shattuck. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

2012 Smash-happy director Roland Emmerich (1996’s Independence Day; 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow) returns with yet another sapocalyptic tale. (2:40) California.

ONGOING

Amelia Unending speculation surrounds the fate of aviator Amelia Earhart, who, with navigator Fred Noonan, disappeared in 1937 over the Pacific while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. However, Mira Nair’s biopic Amelia clarifies at least one fact: that Earhart (played by Hilary Swank) was a free-spirited freedom-loving lover of being free. We learn this through passages of her writing intoned in voice-over; during scenes with publisher and eventual husband George Putnam (Richard Gere); and via wildlife observations as she flies her Lockheed Electra over some 22,000 miles of the world. Not much could diminish the glory of Earhart’s achievements in aviation, particularly in helping open the field to other female pilots. And Swank creates the impression of a charming, intelligent, self-possessed woman who manages to sidestep many of fame’s pitfalls while remaining resolute in her lofty aims. She’s also slightly unknowable in her cheery, near-seamless virtue, and the film’s adoring depiction, with its broad, heavy strokes, at times inspires a different sort of restlessness than the kind that compels Earhart to take flight. Amelia is structured as a series of flashbacks in which the aviator, while circling the earth, retraces her life –- or rather, the highlights of her career in flying, her marriage to Putnam, and her affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), another champion of aviation (and the father of author Gore). And this, too, begins to feel lazily repetitive, as we return and return again to that co*ckpit to stare at a doomed woman as she stares emotively into the wild blue yonder. (1:51) Oaks. (Rapoport)

Antichrist Will history judge Lars von Trier as the genius he’s sure he is? Or as a humorless, slightly less cartoonish Ken Russell, whipping images and actors into contrived frenzies for ersatz art’s sake? You’re probably already on one side of the fence or the other. Notorious Cannes shocker Antichrist will only further divide the yeas and nays, though the film does offers perhaps the most formally beautiful filmmaking von Trier’s bothered with since 1984’s The Element of Crime. Grieving parents Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe retreat to a forest primeval enabling widescreen images of poetic succulence. Yet that beauty only underlines Antichrist‘s garishness. One film festival viewer purportedly barfed onto the next row — and you too might recoil, particularly if unaccustomed to gore levels routinely surpassed by mainstream horror. Does Antichrist earn such viewer punishment by dint of moral, character, narrative, or artistic heft? Like slurp it does. What could be more reactionary than an opening in which our protagonists "cause" their angelic babe’s accidental death by obliviously enjoying one another? Shot in "lyrical" slow-mo black and white, it’s a shampoo commercial hard-selling Victorian sexual guilt. Later, Dafoe’s "He" clings to hollow psychiatric reason as only an embittered perennial couch case might imagine. Gainsbourg’s "She" morphs from maternal mourner to castrating shrike as only one terrified of femininity could contrive. They’re tortured by psychological and/or supernatural events existing solely to bend game actors toward a tyrant artiste’s whims. There’s no devil here — just von Trier’s punitive narcissism. (1:49) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

*The Box In recent interviews, Donnie Darko (2001) director Richard Kelly has sounded like he’s outright begging to go Hollywood with The Box. But try as he might (and the horribly cheesy trailer does try to puff up this dread-imbued, downbeat thriller into the stuff of big-box blockbuster numbers), Kelly can’t stop himself from making a movie that rises above its intentions — and its trashy entertainment value. Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) seem like a perfect, beautiful couple, until the cracks begin to quickly appear in their sporty, well-groomed facade: the victim of a girlhood accident, Norma has a startling masoch*stic streak, while NASA engineer and would-be astronaut Arthur is eager to channel his interest in exploring outer space toward mysteries closer to home: a box that suddenly appears, courtesy of the maimed, besuited Arlington Stewart (Frank Langella). Press the button and someone will die — but the couple will receive one million dollars. Pointing to the existential parable of No Exit like a pretentious, AP-course-loaded high-schooler, The Box also touches on such memorable genre-busters as Kiss Me Deadly (1955) with its Pandora’s box conceit, but more obviously it’s boxed in and stuck in the ’70s, fascinated by the fear, loathing, and paranoia generated by conspiracy-obsessed flicks like The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). Those films reveled in a romantic fatalism and radiating all-encompassing negativity that had its roots in the conformity-fearing Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and found its amplified, arguable apotheosis in the body horror of David Cronenberg. The analog synth score by Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne and Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett also cues memories of Cronenberg, while the soft-focus shots of Cameron Diaz with Charlie’s Angels hair and well-chosen songs like "Bell Bottom Blues" conjure a mood that overcomes narrative potholes as big as the Scanners-like gap in Arlington Stewart’s face. (1:56) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck. (Chun)

*Capitalism: A Love Story Gun control. The Bush administration. Healthcare. Over the past decade, Michael Moore has tackled some of the most contentious issues with his trademark blend of humor and liberal rage. In Capitalism: A Love Story, he sets his sights on an even grander subject. Where to begin when you’re talking about an economic system that has defined this nation? Predictably, Moore’s focus is on all those times capitalism has failed. By this point, his tactics are familiar, but he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. As with Sicko (2007), Moore proves he can restrain himself — he gets plenty of screen time, but he spends more time than ever behind the camera. This isn’t about Moore; it’s about the United States. When he steps out of the limelight, he’s ultimately more effective, crafting a film that’s bipartisan in nature, not just in name. No, he’s not likely to please all, but for every Glenn Beck, there’s a sane moderate wondering where all the money has gone. (2:07) California. (Peitzman)

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (1:48) SF Center.

Coco Before Chanel Like her designs, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was elegant, très chic, and utterly original. Director Anne Fontaine’s French biopic traces Coco (Audrey Tautou) from her childhood as a struggling orphan to one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. You’ll be disappointed if you expect a fashionista’s up close and personal look at the House of Chanel, as Fontaine keeps her story firmly rooted in Coco’s past, including her destructive relationship with French playboy Etienne Balsar (Benoît Poelvoorde) and her ill-fated love affair with dashing Englishman Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola). The film functions best in scenes that display Coco’s imagination and aesthetic magnetism, like when she dances with Capel in her now famous "little black dress" amidst a sea of stiff, white meringues. Tautou imparts a quiet courage and quick wit as the trailblazing designer, and Nivola is unmistakably charming and compassionate as Boy. Nevertheless, Fontaine rushes the ending and never truly seizes the opportunity to explore how Coco’s personal life seeped into her timeless designs that were, in the end, an extension of herself.(1:50) Albany, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Swanbeck)

Couples Retreat You could call Couples Retreat a romantic comedy, but that would imply that it was romantic and funny instead of an insipid, overlong waste of time. This story of a group of married friends trying to bond with their spouses in an exotic island locale is a failure on every level. Romantic? The titular couples — four total — represent eight of the most obnoxious characters in recent memory. Sure, you’re rooting for them to work out their issues, but that’s only because awful people deserve one another. (And in a scene with an almost-shark attack, you’re rooting for the shark.) Funny? The jokes are, at best, juvenile (boners are silly!) and, at worse, offensive (sexism and hom*ophobia once more reign supreme). There is an impressive array of talent here: Vince Vaugh, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Jean Reno, etc. Alas, there’s no excusing the script, which puts these otherwise solid actors into exceedingly unlikable roles. Even the gorgeous island scenery — Couples Retreat was filmed on location in Bora-Bora — can’t make up for this waterlogged mess. (1:47) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Peitzman)

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (1:36) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki.

*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) Albany, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

The Fourth Kind (1:38) 1000 Van Ness.

*Gentlemen Broncos One of the sweet (and pleasantly sour) surprises to come out of the otherwise deadly serious fall movie season, Gentlemen Broncos is both a jab in the gut and loving wink to freaks and geeks of the homeschooled, sci-fi/fantasy-loving variety. Napoleon Dynamite (2004) director Jared Hess is apparently their chief champion — and tormenter — by the looks of Gentlemen Broncos, which wallows in the quirk of high-waisted, acid-washed mom jeans; mullets and outta-hand facial hair; and the clumsily airbrushed, outsider fantasies that accompany them. Perpetually put-upon, home-schooled Benjamin (Michael Angarano) has a healthy fantasy life, which he jots down in the form of thinly veiled and highly sexualized sci-fi stories collected in collaged binders when he isn’t helping his mother Judith (Jennifer Coolidge) sell her "country balls" and prim nighties. The latest — starring redneck space-cowboy figure Bronco (Sam Rockwell) who bears an uncanny resemblance to Benjamin’s dead father and a lost yeti member of Lynyrd Skynyrd — makes its way to a writing workshop and into the hands of pompous sci-fi author Dr. Chevalier (Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords). Benjamin must cope with a Hollywood screenwriter’s fate as his work is (hilariously) mangled by friends and would-be indie filmmakers Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and Lonnie (Hector Jimenez) and mooched by the plagiarizing Chevalier. Much snake poo and many ardent would-be Wondercon attendees later, Benjamin learns how to fight for his vision — and we learn that Hess is the Mormon nerd bard, its latest latter-day cinematic saint. (1:51) Embarcadero. (Chun)

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)

Law Abiding Citizen "Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006) as re-imagined by the Saw franchise folks" apparently sounded like a sweet pitch to someone, because here we are, stuck with Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler playing bloody and increasingly ludicrous cat-and-mouse games. Foxx stars as a slick Philadelphia prosecutor whose deal-cutting careerist ways go easy on the scummy criminals responsible for murdering the wife and daughter of a local inventor (Butler). Cut to a decade later, and the doleful widower has become a vengeful mastermind with a yen for Hannibal Lecter-like skills, gruesome contraptions, and lines like "Lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten." Butler metes out punishment to his family’s killers as well as to the bureocratic minions who let them off the hook. But the talk of moral consequences is less a critique of a faulty judicial system than mere white noise, vainly used by director F. Gary Gray and writer Kurt Wimmer in hopes of classing up a grinding exploitation drama. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness. (Croce)

The Men Who Stare at Goats No! The Men Who Stare at Goats was such an awesome book (by British journalist Jon Ronson) and the movie boasts such a terrific cast (George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor). How in the hell did it turn out to be such a lame, unfunny movie? Clooney gives it his all as Lyn Cassady, a retired "supersolider" who peers through his third eye and realizes the naïve reporter (McGregor) he meets in Kuwait is destined to accompany him on a cross-Iraq journey of self-discovery; said journey is filled with flashbacks to the reporter’s failed marriage (irrelevant) and Cassady’s training with a hippie military leader (Bridges) hellbent on integrating New Age thinking into combat situations. Had I the psychic powers of a supersoldier, I’d use some kind of mind-control technique to convince everyone within my brain-wave radius to skip this movie at all costs. Since I’m merely human, I’ll just say this: seriously, read the book instead. (1:28) Cerrito, Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

*Michael Jackson’s This Is It Time –- and a tragic early death –- has a way of coloring perception, so little surprise that these thought pops into one’s head throughout This Is It: when did Michael Jackson transform himself into such an elegant, haute-pop sylph? Such a pixie-nosed, lacy-haired petit four of music-making delicacy? And where can I get his to-die-for, pointy-shouldered, rhinestone-lapeled Alexander McQueen-ish jacket? Something a bit bewitching this way comes as Michael Jackson –- now that he’s gone, seemingly less freakish than an outright phenomenon –- gracefully flits across the screen in this final (really?) document of his last hurrah, the rehearsals for his sold-out shows at O2 Arena in London. This Is It is far from perfect: this grainy video scratchpad of a film obviously wasn’t designed by the perfectionist MJ to be his final testament to pop. Director Kenny Ortega does his best to cobble together what looks like several rehearsal performances with teary testimonials from dancers (instilled with the intriguing idea that they are extensions of the surgery-friendly Jackson’s body onstage), interviews with musicians, minimal archival footage, and glimpses of Jacko protesting about being encouraged to "sing through" certain songs when he’s trying to preserve his voice, urging the band to play it "like the record," and still moving, dancing, and gesticuutf8g with such grace that you’re left with more than a tinge of regret that "This Is It," the tour, never came to pass. It’s a pure, albeit adulterated, pleasure to watch the man do the do, even with the gaps in the flow, even with the footage filtered by a family intent on propping up the franchise. Amid the artistry and kitsch, critics, pop academics, and superfans will find plenty to chew over –- from Jackson’s curiously timed physical complaints as the Jackson 5 segment kicks in, to the surreally CGI-ed, golden-age-of-Hollywood mash-up sequence.(1:52) Cerrito , Empire, Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

New York, I Love You A dreamy mash note to the city that never sleeps, New York, I Love You is the latest installment in a series of omnibus odes to world metropolises and the denizens that live and love within the city limits. Less successful than the Paris, je t’aime (2006) anthology — which roped in such disparate international directors as Gus Van Sant and Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron and Olivier Assayas — New York welcomes a more minor-key host of directors to the project with enjoyable if light-weight results. Surely any bite of the Big Apple would be considerably sexier. Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo tease out a one-night stand with legs, and Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q generate a wee bit of verbal fire over street-side cigs, yet there’s surprisingly little heat in this take on a few of the 8 million stories in the archetypal naked city. Most memorable are the strangest couplings, such as that of Natalie Portman, a Hasidic bride who flirtatiously haggles with Irrfan Khan, a Jain diamond merchant, in a tale directed by Mira Nair. Despite the pleasure of witnessing Julie Christie, Eli Wallach, and Cloris Leachman in action, many of these pieces — written by the late Anthony Minghella, Israel Horovitz, and Portman, among others — feel a mite too slight to nail down the attention of all but the most desperate romantics. (1:43) Shattuck. (Chun)

*Paranormal Activity In this ostensible found-footage exercise, Katie (Katie Featherson) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are a young San Diego couple whose first home together has a problem: someone, or something, is making things go bump in the night. In fact, Katie has sporadically suffered these disturbances since childhood, when an amorphous, not-at-reassuring entity would appear at the foot of her bed. Skeptical technophile Micah’s solution is to record everything on his primo new video camera, including a setup to shoot their bedroom while they sleep — surveillance footage sequences that grow steadily more terrifying as incidents grow more and more invasive. Like 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, Oren Peli’s no-budget first feature may underwhelm mainstream genre fans who only like their horror slick and slasher-gory. But everybody else should appreciate how convincingly the film’s very ordinary, at times annoying protagonists (you’ll eventually want to throttle Micah, whose efforts are clearly making things worse) fall prey to a hostile presence that manifests itself in increments no less alarming for being (at first) very small. When this hits DVD, you’ll get to see the original, more low-key ending (the film has also been tightened up since its festival debut two years ago). But don’t wait — Paranormal‘s subtler effects will be lost on the small screen. Not to mention that it’s a great collective screaming-audience experience. (1:39) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Saw VI (1:30) 1000 Van Ness.

*The September Issue The Lioness D’Wintour, the Devil Who Wears Prada, or the High Priestess of Condé Nasty — it doesn’t matter what you choose to call Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. If you’re in the fashion industry, you will call her — or at least be amused by the power she wields as the overseer of style’s luxury bible, then 700-plus pages strong for its legendary September fall fashion issue back in the heady days of ’07, pre-Great Recession. But you don’t have to be a publishing insider to be fascinated by director R.J. Cutler’s frisky, sharp-eyed look at the making of fashion’s fave editorial doorstop. Wintour’s laser-gazed facade is humanized, as Cutler opens with footage of a sparkling-eyed editor breaking down fashion’s fluffy reputation. He then follows her as she assumes the warrior pose in, say, the studio of Yves St. Laurent, where she has designer Stefano Pilati fluttering over his morose color choices, and in the offices of the magazine, where she slices, dices, and kills photo shoots like a sartorial samurai. Many of the other characters at Vogue (like OTT columnist André Leon Talley) are given mere cameos, but Wintour finds a worthy adversary-compatriot in creative director Grace Coddington, another Englishwoman and ex-model — the red-tressed, pale-as-a-wraith Pre-Raphaelite dreamer to Wintour’s well-armored knight. The two keep each other honest and craftily ingenious, and both the magazine and this doc benefit. (1:28) Marina. (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) California, Empire, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

*Skin This is one of those movies that works in large part because you know it’s a true story –- its truth is almost too strange to be credible as fiction. In 1955 the Laings, a white Afrikaner couple (played by the blond and blue-eyed likes of Sam Neill and Alice Krige) gave birth to a second child quite unlike their first, or themselves. Indeed, Sandra (Ella Ramangwane) was, by all appearances, black. Mrs. Laing insisted she hadn’t been unfaithful –- further, the couple were firm believers in the apartheid system –- and it was eventually determined Sandra’s looks were the result of a rare but not-unheard-of flashback to some "colored" genes no doubt well-buried far in their colonialist ancestry. Living in rural isolation, the well-intentioned Laings were able to keep Sandra oblivious to her being at all "different." But when time came to send her off to boarding school, she got a rude awakening in matters of race and class, resulting in court battles and myriad humiliations. Sophie Okonedo (2004’s Hotel Rwanda) plays the rebellious adult Sandra, who must reject her upbringing to find an identity she can live with –- as opposed to the wishful-thinking one her parents insist upon. Based on the real protagonist’s memoir, Anthony Fabian’s first feature observes the institutional cruelty and eventual fall of apartheid from the uniquely vivid perspective of someone yanked from privilege to prejudice. It’s a sprawling, involving story that affords excellent opportunities for its very good lead actors (also including Tony Kgoroge as Sandra’s abusive eventual husband). (1:47) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

(Untitled) The sometimes absurd pretensions of the modern art world have –- for many decades –- been so easily, condescendingly ridiculed that its intelligently knowing satire is hard to come by. (How much harder still would it be for a fictive film to convey the genius of, say Anselm Kiefer? Even Ed Harris’ 2000 Pollock less vividly captured the art or its creation –- better done by Francis Ford Coppola and Nick Nolte in their 1989 New York Stories segment –- than the usual tortured-artist histrionics.) Bay Arean Jonathan Parker attempts to correct that with this perhaps overly low-key witticism. Erstwhile Hebrew Hammer Adam Goldberg plays a composer of painfully retro, plink-plunk 1950s avant-gardism. (His favorite instrument is the tin bucket.) His lack of success is inevitable yet chafes nonetheless, because he’s a) humorlessly self-important, and b) sibling to a painter (Eion Bailey) whose pleasant, unchallenging abstracts are hot properties amongst corporate-art buyers. But not hot enough for his gorgeous agent (Marley Shelton), who puts off showing him at her Chelsea gallery in favor of cartoonishly "edgy" artists –- like soccer hooligan Vinnie Jones as a proponent of lurid taxidermy sculpture –- and takes a contrary (if unlikely) fancy to Goldberg. (How could her educated like not know his music is even less cutting-edge than the brother’s canvases?) (Untitled) holds interest, but it’s at once too glib and modest –- exaggerative sans panache. This is equivalently if differently problematic from Parker’s 2005 Henry James-goes-Marin County The Californians. It can’t compare to his 2001 feature debut, the excellent Crispin Glover-starring translation of Melville’s Bartleby to Rhinoceros-like modern office culture. (1:30) Shattuck. (Harvey)

Where the Wild Things Are From the richly delineated illustrations and sparse text of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, director Spike Jonze and cowriter (with Jones) Dave Eggers have constructed a full-length film about the passions, travails, and interior/exterior wanderings of Sendak’s energetic young antihero, Max. Equally prone to feats of world-building and fits of overpowering, destructive rage, Max (Max Records) stampedes off into the night during one of the latter and journeys to the island where the Wild Things (voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, and Michael Berry Jr.) live — and bicker and tantrum and give in to existential despair and no longer all sleep together in a big pile. The place has possibilities, though, and Max, once crowned king, tries his best to realize them. What its inhabitants need, however, is not so much a visionary king as a good family therapist — these are some gripey, defensive, passive-aggressive Wild Things, and Max, aged somewhere around 10, can’t fix their interpersonal problems. Jonze and Eggers do well at depicting Max’s temporary kingdom, its forests and deserts, its creatures and their half-finished creations from a past golden era, as well as subtly reminding us now and again that all of this — the island, the arguments, the sadness — is streaming from the mind of a fierce, wildly imaginative young child with familial troubles of his own, equally beyond his power to resolve. They’ve also invested the film with a slow, grim depressive mood that can make for unsettling viewing, particularly when pondering the Maxes in the audience, digesting an oft-disheartening tale about family conflict and relationship repair. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Whip It What’s a girl to do? Stuck in small town hell, Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), the gawky teen heroine of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, faces a pressing dilemma — conform to the standards of stifling beauty pageantry to appease her mother or rebel and enter the rough-and tumble world of roller derby. Shockingly enough, Bliss chooses to escape to Austin and join the Hurl Scouts, a rowdy band of misfits led by the maternal Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig) and the accident-prone Smashley Simpson (Barrymore). Making a bid for grrrl empowerment, Bliss dawns a pair of skates, assumes the moniker Babe Ruthless, and is suddenly throwing her weight around not only in the rink, but also in school where she’s bullied. Painfully predictable, the action comes to a head when, lo and behold, the dates for the Bluebonnet Pageant and the roller derby championship coincide. At times funny and charming with understated performances by Page and Alia Shawcat as Bliss’ best friend, Whip It can’t overcome its paper-thin characters, plot contrivances, and requisite scenery chewing by Jimmy Fallon as a cheesy announcer and Juliette Lewis as a cutthroat competitor. (1:51) SF Center. (Swanbeck)

*The Yes Men Fix the World Can you prank shame, if not sense, into the Powers That Be? Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, the jesters-activists who punked right-wing big-business in the documentary The Yes Men (2003), continue to play Groucho Marx to capitalism’s mortified Margaret Dumont in this gleeful sequel. Decked in sharp suits and packing fake websites and catchphrases, the duo bluffs its way into conferences and proceeds to give corporate giants the Borat treatment. The stunts are often inspired and, in their visions of fantasy justice, poignant: Bichlbaum and Bonnano pose as Dow envoys and announce the company’s plans to send billions to treat victims of the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster, and later appear as HUD representatives offering a corrective to the shameful neglect of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Yes Men may not fix the world, but their ruses once more prove the awareness-raising potential of comedy. (1:30) Roxie, Smith Rafael. (Croce)

*Zombieland First things first: it’s clever, but it ain’t no Shaun of the Dead (2004). That said, Zombieland is an outstanding zombie comedy, largely thanks to Woody Harrelson’s performance as Tallahassee, a tough guy whose passion for offing the undead is rivaled only by his raging Twinkie jones. Set in a world where zombies have already taken over (the beginning stages of the outbreak are glimpsed only in flashback), Zombieland presents the creatures as yet another annoyance for Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg, who’s nearly finished morphing into Michael Cera), a onetime antisocial shut-in who has survived only by sticking to a strict set of rules (the "double tap," or always shooting each zombie twice, etc.) This odd couple meets a sister team (Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin), who eventually lay off their grifting ways so that Columbus can have a love interest (in Stone) and Tallahassee, still smarting from losing a loved one to zombies, can soften up a scoch by schooling the erstwhile Little Miss Sunshine in target practice. Sure, it’s a little heavy on the nerd-boy voiceover, but Zombieland has just enough goofiness and gushing guts to counteract all them brrraiiinss. (1:23) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Eddy)

David Wilson

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johnny@sfbg.com

You can stare blankly at a museum piece for three seconds, or you can view a drawing through one of David Wilson’s events — through a swim in the Pacific Ocean, or through staring at a sky criss-crossed by an intricate lattice of branches. You can do the gallery troll stroll, or you can walk over hills and small mountains into caves and coves where, thanks to Wilson and friends, music and movies reside.

If you experienced Wilson’s "Open Endless" and "Memorial Fort" this year, you’ve been to places you likely wouldn’t have encountered otherwise, and have memories to draw from as you move on. Though these were autonomous-zone community gatherings, subtextually and privately, they were partly inspired by Wilson’s father, who died the day after "Open Endless" traversed the Marin Headlands. "Everything I felt excited about [artistically] took on a different tone," he says, when asked about the initial cancer diagnosis. "I started a six-month drawing project up in the hills. It was personal meditation on what was happening, and also a chance to be removed from my life in a way that I could feel like I was sending thoughts out eastward. I was drawing eastward."

"Drawing is a tool that I carry with me," he continues, as we sit on a patch of grass in Dolores Park, where a dog tries to munch on our pastries. "It’s a viewfinder to orient my wanders while trying to find places, and find myself in places."

For Wilson, this journey traces back to annual visits to Cape Cod during his youth. His drawings and paintings range from life-size shells to a 22-foot watercolor coastline rendered on the aged white paper of record sleeves. "I like seeing what’s already invested in a piece of parchment," he says, agreeing about a kinship with Todd Bura, Ajit Chauhan, and Colter Jacobsen. "Age marked in that gentle way on paper is beautiful."

Wilson’s drawings have metamorphosed into site-specific events in eucalyptus groves, military tunnels, and even islands. Last year, and he and some co-conspirators woke up on New Year’s morning to reserve every campsite on Angel Island for one July weekend. With "Memorial Fort," Wilson’s process has progressed to additions to the landscape, resulting in an unlikely oasis in the woods of Richmond. "Ideas in general are infectious," he observes. "If an idea is exciting, then things can fall into place."

www.ribbonsribbons.blogspot.com

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, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, Matt Sussman, and Laura Swanbeck. The film intern is Fernando F. Croce. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

OPENING

The Box Donnie Darko (2001) director Richard Kelly’s latest is an adaptation of the Richard Matheson story about a mysterious box causes both riches and destruction. Cameron Diaz and Frank Langella star. (1:56) California, Four Star, Presidio.

Disney’s A Christmas Carol Jim Carrey plays multiple roles in this 3-D animated take on the Dickens classic, directed by Robert Zemeckis (2004’s The Polar Express). (1:36) Presidio.

The Fourth Kind Milla Jovovich stars as an Alaska doctor investigating alien abductions. (1:38)

Gentlemen Broncos The latest from Napoleon Dynamite (2004) director Jared Hess is about a Utah teen (Michael Angarano) who is obsessed with science fiction. (1:51) Embarcadero.

The Men Who Stare at Goats Jon Ronson’s nonfiction book about government psy-ops gets the lighthearted screen treatment, with George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, and Ewan McGregor. (1:28) Cerrito, Presidio, Shattuck.

*Skin This is one of those movies that works in large part because you know it’s a true story –- its truth is almost too strange to be credible as fiction. In 1955 the Laings, a white Afrikaner couple (played by the blond and blue-eyed likes of Sam Neill and Alice Krige) gave birth to a second child quite unlike their first, or themselves. Indeed, Sandra (Ella Ramangwane) was, by all appearances, black. Mrs. Laing insisted she hadn’t been unfaithful –- further, the couple were firm believers in the apartheid system –- and it was eventually determined Sandra’s looks were the result of a rare but not-unheard-of flashback to some "colored" genes no doubt well-buried far in their colonialist ancestry. Living in rural isolation, the well-intentioned Laings were able to keep Sandra oblivious to her being at all "different." But when time came to send her off to boarding school, she got a rude awakening in matters of race and class, resulting in court battles and myriad humiliations. Sophie Okonedo (2004’s Hotel Rwanda) plays the rebellious adult Sandra, who must reject her upbringing to find an identity she can live with –- as opposed to the wishful-thinking one her parents insist upon. Based on the real protagonist’s memoir, Anthony Fabian’s first feature observes the institutional cruelty and eventual fall of apartheid from the uniquely vivid perspective of someone yanked from privilege to prejudice. It’s a sprawling, involving story that affords excellent opportunities for its very good lead actors (also including Tony Kgoroge as Sandra’s abusive eventual husband). (1:47) Clay, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

(Untitled) The sometimes absurd pretensions of the modern art world have –- for many decades –- been so easily, condescendingly ridiculed that its intelligently knowing satire is hard to come by. (How much harder still would it be for a fictive film to convey the genius of, say Anselm Kiefer? Even Ed Harris’ 2000 Pollock less vividly captured the art or its creation –- better done by Francis Ford Coppola and Nick Nolte in their 1989 New York Stories segment –- than the usual tortured-artist histrionics.) Bay Arean Jonathan Parker attempts to correct that with this perhaps overly low-key witticism. Erstwhile Hebrew Hammer Adam Goldberg plays a composer of painfully retro, plink-plunk 1950s avant-gardism. (His favorite instrument is the tin bucket.) His lack of success is inevitable yet chafes nonetheless, because he’s a) humorlessly self-important, and b) sibling to a painter (Eion Bailey) whose pleasant, unchallenging abstracts are hot properties amongst corporate-art buyers. But not hot enough for his gorgeous agent (Marley Shelton), who puts off showing him at her Chelsea gallery in favor of cartoonishly "edgy" artists –- like soccer hooligan Vinnie Jones as a proponent of lurid taxidermy sculpture –- and takes a contrary (if unlikely) fancy to Goldberg. (How could her educated like not know his music is even less cutting-edge than the brother’s canvases?) (Untitled) holds interest, but it’s at once too glib and modest –- exaggerative sans panache. This is equivalently if differently problematic from Parker’s 2005 Henry James-goes-Marin County The Californians. It can’t compare to his 2001 feature debut, the excellent Crispin Glover-starring translation of Melville’s Bartleby to Rhinoceros-like modern office culture. (1:30) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Visual Acoustics Chances are you’ve seen one of Julius Shulman’s photographs. As the premiere architectural photographer during an outpouring of California-based creativity, Shulman captured the work of legends like Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright, transutf8g their constructive triumphs into powerful, iconic images. He is the subject of Visual Acoustics, a documentary by director Eric Bricker, which splits its time between the photographer’s long history and his current activities. A vital, avuncular nonagenarian, Shulman’s wit, optimistic outlook, and undimmed passion for design provide the film’s best moments; he is frequently found strolling arm and arm with the owner of some Modernist marvel, dispensing wisdom with a smile. The film is not strictly for the architectural cognoscenti, and though a familiarity with the medium is recommended, it holds up well enough as the story of a lovable, talented old man. (1:24) Lumiere. (Richardson)

ONGOING

Amelia Unending speculation surrounds the fate of aviator Amelia Earhart, who, with navigator Fred Noonan, disappeared in 1937 over the Pacific while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. However, Mira Nair’s biopic Amelia clarifies at least one fact: that Earhart (played by Hilary Swank) was a free-spirited freedom-loving lover of being free. We learn this through passages of her writing intoned in voice-over; during scenes with publisher and eventual husband George Putnam (Richard Gere); and via wildlife observations as she flies her Lockheed Electra over some 22,000 miles of the world. Not much could diminish the glory of Earhart’s achievements in aviation, particularly in helping open the field to other female pilots. And Swank creates the impression of a charming, intelligent, self-possessed woman who manages to sidestep many of fame’s pitfalls while remaining resolute in her lofty aims. She’s also slightly unknowable in her cheery, near-seamless virtue, and the film’s adoring depiction, with its broad, heavy strokes, at times inspires a different sort of restlessness than the kind that compels Earhart to take flight. Amelia is structured as a series of flashbacks in which the aviator, while circling the earth, retraces her life –- or rather, the highlights of her career in flying, her marriage to Putnam, and her affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), another champion of aviation (and the father of author Gore). And this, too, begins to feel lazily repetitive, as we return and return again to that co*ckpit to stare at a doomed woman as she stares emotively into the wild blue yonder. (1:51) Oaks, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Antichrist Will history judge Lars von Trier as the genius he’s sure he is? Or as a humorless, slightly less cartoonish Ken Russell, whipping images and actors into contrived frenzies for ersatz art’s sake? You’re probably already on one side of the fence or the other. Notorious Cannes shocker Antichrist will only further divide the yeas and nays, though the film does offers perhaps the most formally beautiful filmmaking von Trier’s bothered with since 1984’s The Element of Crime. Grieving parents Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe retreat to a forest primeval enabling widescreen images of poetic succulence. Yet that beauty only underlines Antichrist‘s garishness. One film festival viewer purportedly barfed onto the next row — and you too might recoil, particularly if unaccustomed to gore levels routinely surpassed by mainstream horror. Does Antichrist earn such viewer punishment by dint of moral, character, narrative, or artistic heft? Like slurp it does. What could be more reactionary than an opening in which our protagonists "cause" their angelic babe’s accidental death by obliviously enjoying one another? Shot in "lyrical" slow-mo black and white, it’s a shampoo commercial hard-selling Victorian sexual guilt. Later, Dafoe’s "He" clings to hollow psychiatric reason as only an embittered perennial couch case might imagine. Gainsbourg’s "She" morphs from maternal mourner to castrating shrike as only one terrified of femininity could contrive. They’re tortured by psychological and/or supernatural events existing solely to bend game actors toward a tyrant artiste’s whims. There’s no devil here — just von Trier’s punitive narcissism. (1:49) Lumiere, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

*Astro Boy How can a robo-kid so cute be so sad? That’s the beautiful paradox of Astro Boy, the atomic age Japanese manga-cum-Pinocchio parable here given loving new life. Genius creator Osamu Tezuka’s original Astro Boy cannily grappled with the seductions and dangers of Japan’s economic miracle, the country’s conflicted emotions about the technology that fueled both Astro Boy and the war machine, and the struggle between industrialization and the environment. This update adds the recurring favorite sci-fi leitmotif of artificial intelligence — and by extension what it means to be human and non-human — to the mix. This adorable toaster (voiced by Freddie Highmore) awakens with memories of Toby, the brilliant, rebellious son of robotics genius Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), believing he is a boy not a robot. The grief-stricken Tenma built him after the original Toby was killed during the test of a new robotic weapon. Eventually cast out by his Frankenstein father-creator and coping with some major identity issues, Astro Boy finds his place among a slew of outcasts on the now garbage- and robot part-strewn Wall-E-esque Earth, where his sense of compassion and mega powers threaten to bridge the seemingly insurmountable differences between humans and robots. Despite the speed with which director David Bowers and his team put together this animated feature, which boasts the voicings of stars like Charlize Theron and Nathan Lane, Astro Boy succeeds in delivering that crucial hybrid of action, comedy, and emotional heft that the best of classic animation offers, while touching lightly out relevant ideas about technology. (1:34) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Chun)

*The Beaches of Agnès Director’s commentaries are par for the course in the DVD age, but few filmmakers posses the élan to warrant a feature length auto-exegesis. Agnès Varda is one, and her most recent memory machine — she claims it’s her last — cheerfully dissolves the boundaries between memoir, retrospective, and installation. We begin on the beach, with the 80-year old Varda spryly instructing her young assistants on the placement of various mirrors. "If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes," she explains of her motivation for filmmaking, before embarking on an unclassifiable daisy chain of reenactment and reminiscence. The film moves at the leisurely pace of the flâneur’s walk, the better to relish Varda’s joie de vivre and sweet bawdiness. Her chameleon colored bowl cut dares us to keep abreast of her quicksilver digressions on the past (fact or fiction matters less than then and now). As with 2000’s The Gleaners and I, she’s most free with the things she adores: blurry foregrounds, old photographs, heart-shaped potatoes, ancient frescoes, the human body and neighbors. "All the dead lead me back to Jacques," she says, referring to her great love, Jacques Demy, and their life together loops The Beaches of Agnès with a beauty not soon forgotten. (1:40) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Goldberg)

*Bright Star Is beauty truth; truth, beauty? John Keats, the poet famed for such works as "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and Jane Campion, the filmmaker intent on encapsuutf8g the last romance of the archetypal Romantic, would have undoubtedly bonded over a love of sensual details — and the way a certain vellum-like light can transport its viewer into elevated reverie. In truth, Campion doesn’t quite achieve the level of Keats’ verse with this somber glimpse at the tubercular writer and his final love, neighbor Fanny Brawne. But she does bottle some of their pale beauty. Less-educated than the already respected young scribe, Brawne nonetheless may have been his equal in imagination as a seamstress, judging from the petal-bonneted, ruffled-collar ensembles Campion outfits her in. As portrayed by the soulful-eyed Abbie Cornish, the otherwise-enigmatic, plucky Brawne is the singularly bright blossom ready to be wrapped in a poet’s adoration, worthy of rhapsody by Ben Whishaw’sshaggily, shabbily puppy-dog Keats, who snatches the preternaturally serene focus of a fine mind cut short by illness, with the gravitational pull of a serious indie-rock hottie. The two are drawn to each other like the butterflies flittering in Brawne’s bedroom/farm, one of the most memorable scenes in the dark yet sweetly glimmering Bright Star. Bathing her scenes in lengthy silence, shot through with far-from-flowery dialogue, Campion is at odds with this love story, so unlike her joyful 1990 ode to author Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table (Kerry Fox appears here, too, as Fanny’s mother): the filmmaker refuses to overplay it, sidestepping Austenian sprightliness. Instead she embraces the dark differences, the negative inevitability, of this death-steeped coupling, welcoming the odd glance at the era’s intellectual life, the interplay of light and shadow. (1:59) Elmwood. (Chun)

*Capitalism: A Love Story Gun control. The Bush administration. Healthcare. Over the past decade, Michael Moore has tackled some of the most contentious issues with his trademark blend of humor and liberal rage. In Capitalism: A Love Story, he sets his sights on an even grander subject. Where to begin when you’re talking about an economic system that has defined this nation? Predictably, Moore’s focus is on all those times capitalism has failed. By this point, his tactics are familiar, but he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. As with Sicko (2007), Moore proves he can restrain himself — he gets plenty of screen time, but he spends more time than ever behind the camera. This isn’t about Moore; it’s about the United States. When he steps out of the limelight, he’s ultimately more effective, crafting a film that’s bipartisan in nature, not just in name. No, he’s not likely to please all, but for every Glenn Beck, there’s a sane moderate wondering where all the money has gone. (2:07) California, 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (1:48) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

Coco Before Chanel Like her designs, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was elegant, très chic, and utterly original. Director Anne Fontaine’s French biopic traces Coco (Audrey Tautou) from her childhood as a struggling orphan to one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. You’ll be disappointed if you expect a fashionista’s up close and personal look at the House of Chanel, as Fontaine keeps her story firmly rooted in Coco’s past, including her destructive relationship with French playboy Etienne Balsar (Benoît Poelvoorde) and her ill-fated love affair with dashing Englishman Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola). The film functions best in scenes that display Coco’s imagination and aesthetic magnetism, like when she dances with Capel in her now famous "little black dress" amidst a sea of stiff, white meringues. Tautou imparts a quiet courage and quick wit as the trailblazing designer, and Nivola is unmistakably charming and compassionate as Boy. Nevertheless, Fontaine rushes the ending and never truly seizes the opportunity to explore how Coco’s personal life seeped into her timeless designs that were, in the end, an extension of herself.(1:50) Albany, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Swanbeck)

Couples Retreat You could call Couples Retreat a romantic comedy, but that would imply that it was romantic and funny instead of an insipid, overlong waste of time. This story of a group of married friends trying to bond with their spouses in an exotic island locale is a failure on every level. Romantic? The titular couples — four total — represent eight of the most obnoxious characters in recent memory. Sure, you’re rooting for them to work out their issues, but that’s only because awful people deserve one another. (And in a scene with an almost-shark attack, you’re rooting for the shark.) Funny? The jokes are, at best, juvenile (boners are silly!) and, at worse, offensive (sexism and hom*ophobia once more reign supreme). There is an impressive array of talent here: Vince Vaugh, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Jean Reno, etc. Alas, there’s no excusing the script, which puts these otherwise solid actors into exceedingly unlikable roles. Even the gorgeous island scenery — Couples Retreat was filmed on location in Bora-Bora — can’t make up for this waterlogged mess. (1:47) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Peitzman)

*The Damned United Like last year’s Frost/Nixon, The Damned United features a lush 70’s backdrop, a screenplay by Peter Morgan, and a commanding performance by Michael Sheen as an ambitious egotist. A promising young actor, Sheen puts on the sharp tongue and charismatic monomania of real-life British soccer coach Brian Clough like a familiar garment, blustering his way through a fictionalized account of Clough’s unsuccessful 44-day stint as manager of Leeds United. Though the details of high-stakes professional "football" will likely be lost on American viewers, the tale of a talented, flawed sports hero spiraling deeper into obsession needs no trans-Atlantic translation, and the film is an engrossing portrait of a captivating, quotable character. (1:38) Elmwood, Opera Plaza. (Richardson)

*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) Albany, Embarcadero, Empire, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

*Good Hair Spurred by his little daughter’s plaintive query ("Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?"), Chris Rock gets his Michael Moore freak on and sets out to uncover the racial and cultural implications of African-American hairstyling. Visiting beauty salons, talking to specialists, and interviewing celebrities ranging from Maya Angelou to Ice-T, the comic wisecracks his way into some pretty trenchant insights about how black women’s coiffures can often reflect Caucasian-set definitions of beauty. (Leave it to Rev. Al Sharpton to voice it ingeniously: "You comb your oppression every morning!") Rock makes an affable guide in Jeff Stilson’s breezy documentary, which posits the hair industry as a global affair where relaxers work as "nap-antidotes" and locks sacrificially shorn in India end up as pricey weaves in Beverly Hills. Maybe startled by his more disquieting discoveries, Rock shifts the focus to flamboyant, crowd-pleasing shenanigans at the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show. Despite such softball detours, it’s a genial and revealing tour. (1:35) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Croce)

*Heart of Stone With metal-detectors blocking its entrance, gang fights breaking out in the halls, and teachers wearing bulletproof vests, it’s clear that Weequahic High School is not your usual blackboard jungle. Once one of the nation’s most respected schools, the Newark, NJ institution was by 2000 plagued by the urban violence that claimed an alarming number of lives. Beth Toni Kruvant’s first-rate documentary chronicles the place’s gradual recovery thanks to Ron Stone, the passionate principal who, using a mixture of diplomacy and compassion, struggled to control the brutality that loomed over a new generation of students. Though similar in subject to Rollin Binzer’s recent The Providence Effect, Heart of Stone is easily the better film, less an infomercial for enrollment than a tough-minded analysis of the historical upheavals and social conditions forming Weequahic’s fall and rise. "Inspiring" is an abused term when it comes to movies about teachers, but Kruvant’s inquiry and Stone’s dedication earn it. (1:24) Roxie. (Croce)

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)

The Invention of Lying Great concept. Great cast. All The Invention of Lying needed was a great script editor and it might have reached classic comedy territory. As it stands, it’s dragged down to mediocrity by a weak third act. This is the story of a world where no one can lie — and we’re not just talking about big lies either. The Invention of Lying presents a vision of no sarcasm, no white lies, no — gasp —creative fiction. All that changes when Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) realizes he can bend the truth. And because no one else can, everything Mark makes up becomes fact to the rubes around him. If you guessed that hilarity ensues, you’re right on the money! Watching Mark use his powers for evil (robbing the bank! seducing women!) makes for a very funny first hour. Then things take a turn for the heavy when Mark becomes a prophet by letting slip his vision of the afterlife. Faster than you can say "Jesus beard," he’s rocking a God complex and the audience is longing for the simpler laughs, like Jennifer Garner admitting to some pre-date masturbation. (1:40) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

Law Abiding Citizen "Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006) as re-imagined by the Saw franchise folks" apparently sounded like a sweet pitch to someone, because here we are, stuck with Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler playing bloody and increasingly ludicrous cat-and-mouse games. Foxx stars as a slick Philadelphia prosecutor whose deal-cutting careerist ways go easy on the scummy criminals responsible for murdering the wife and daughter of a local inventor (Butler). Cut to a decade later, and the doleful widower has become a vengeful mastermind with a yen for Hannibal Lecter-like skills, gruesome contraptions, and lines like "Lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten." Butler metes out punishment to his family’s killers as well as to the bureocratic minions who let them off the hook. But the talk of moral consequences is less a critique of a faulty judicial system than mere white noise, vainly used by director F. Gary Gray and writer Kurt Wimmer in hopes of classing up a grinding exploitation drama. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness. (Croce)

*Michael Jackson’s This Is It Time –- and a tragic early death –- has a way of coloring perception, so little surprise that these thought pops into one’s head throughout This Is It: when did Michael Jackson transform himself into such an elegant, haute-pop sylph? Such a pixie-nosed, lacy-haired petit four of music-making delicacy? And where can I get his to-die-for, pointy-shouldered, rhinestone-lapeled Alexander McQueen-ish jacket? Something a bit bewitching this way comes as Michael Jackson –- now that he’s gone, seemingly less freakish than an outright phenomenon –- gracefully flits across the screen in this final (really?) document of his last hurrah, the rehearsals for his sold-out shows at O2 Arena in London. This Is It is far from perfect: this grainy video scratchpad of a film obviously wasn’t designed by the perfectionist MJ to be his final testament to pop. Director Kenny Ortega does his best to cobble together what looks like several rehearsal performances with teary testimonials from dancers (instilled with the intriguing idea that they are extensions of the surgery-friendly Jackson’s body onstage), interviews with musicians, minimal archival footage, and glimpses of Jacko protesting about being encouraged to "sing through" certain songs when he’s trying to preserve his voice, urging the band to play it "like the record," and still moving, dancing, and gesticuutf8g with such grace that you’re left with more than a tinge of regret that "This Is It," the tour, never came to pass. It’s a pure, albeit adulterated, pleasure to watch the man do the do, even with the gaps in the flow, even with the footage filtered by a family intent on propping up the franchise. Amid the artistry and kitsch, critics, pop academics, and superfans will find plenty to chew over –- from Jackson’s curiously timed physical complaints as the Jackson 5 segment kicks in, to the surreally CGI-ed, golden-age-of-Hollywood mash-up sequence.(1:52) Cerrito , Empire, Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

My One and Only (1:48) Opera Plaza.

New York, I Love You A dreamy mash note to the city that never sleeps, New York, I Love You is the latest installment in a series of omnibus odes to world metropolises and the denizens that live and love within the city limits. Less successful than the Paris, je t’aime (2006) anthology — which roped in such disparate international directors as Gus Van Sant and Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron and Olivier Assayas — New York welcomes a more minor-key host of directors to the project with enjoyable if light-weight results. Surely any bite of the Big Apple would be considerably sexier. Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo tease out a one-night stand with legs, and Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q generate a wee bit of verbal fire over street-side cigs, yet there’s surprisingly little heat in this take on a few of the 8 million stories in the archetypal naked city. Most memorable are the strangest couplings, such as that of Natalie Portman, a Hasidic bride who flirtatiously haggles with Irrfan Khan, a Jain diamond merchant, in a tale directed by Mira Nair. Despite the pleasure of witnessing Julie Christie, Eli Wallach, and Cloris Leachman in action, many of these pieces — written by the late Anthony Minghella, Israel Horovitz, and Portman, among others — feel a mite too slight to nail down the attention of all but the most desperate romantics. (1:43) Bridge, Shattuck. (Chun)

The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D (1:16) Castro.

*Paranormal Activity In this ostensible found-footage exercise, Katie (Katie Featherson) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are a young San Diego couple whose first home together has a problem: someone, or something, is making things go bump in the night. In fact, Katie has sporadically suffered these disturbances since childhood, when an amorphous, not-at-reassuring entity would appear at the foot of her bed. Skeptical technophile Micah’s solution is to record everything on his primo new video camera, including a setup to shoot their bedroom while they sleep — surveillance footage sequences that grow steadily more terrifying as incidents grow more and more invasive. Like 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, Oren Peli’s no-budget first feature may underwhelm mainstream genre fans who only like their horror slick and slasher-gory. But everybody else should appreciate how convincingly the film’s very ordinary, at times annoying protagonists (you’ll eventually want to throttle Micah, whose efforts are clearly making things worse) fall prey to a hostile presence that manifests itself in increments no less alarming for being (at first) very small. When this hits DVD, you’ll get to see the original, more low-key ending (the film has also been tightened up since its festival debut two years ago). But don’t wait — Paranormal‘s subtler effects will be lost on the small screen. Not to mention that it’s a great collective screaming-audience experience. (1:39) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

*Paris Cédric Klapisch’s latest offers a series of interconnected stories with Paris as the backdrop, designed — if you’ll pardon the cliché — as a love letter to the city. On the surface, the plot of Paris sounds an awful lot like Paris, je t’aime (2006). But while the latter was composed entirely of vignettes, Paris has an actual, overarching plot. Perhaps that’s why it’s so much more effective. Juliette Binoche stars as Élise, whose brother Pierre (Romain Duris) is in dire need of a heart transplant. A dancer by trade, Pierre is also a world-class people watcher, and it’s his fascination with those around him that serves as Paris‘ wraparound device. He sees snippets of these people’s lives, but we get the full picture — or at least, something close to it. The strength of Paris is in the depth of its characters: every one we meet is more complex than you’d guess at first glance. The more they play off one another, the more we understand. Of course, the siblings remain at the film’s heart: sympathetic but not pitiable, moving but not maudlin. Both Binoche and Duris turn in strong performances, aided by a supporting cast of French actors who impress in even the smallest of roles. (2:04) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Peitzman)

Saw VI (1:30) 1000 Van Ness.

*The September Issue The Lioness D’Wintour, the Devil Who Wears Prada, or the High Priestess of Condé Nasty — it doesn’t matter what you choose to call Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. If you’re in the fashion industry, you will call her — or at least be amused by the power she wields as the overseer of style’s luxury bible, then 700-plus pages strong for its legendary September fall fashion issue back in the heady days of ’07, pre-Great Recession. But you don’t have to be a publishing insider to be fascinated by director R.J. Cutler’s frisky, sharp-eyed look at the making of fashion’s fave editorial doorstop. Wintour’s laser-gazed facade is humanized, as Cutler opens with footage of a sparkling-eyed editor breaking down fashion’s fluffy reputation. He then follows her as she assumes the warrior pose in, say, the studio of Yves St. Laurent, where she has designer Stefano Pilati fluttering over his morose color choices, and in the offices of the magazine, where she slices, dices, and kills photo shoots like a sartorial samurai. Many of the other characters at Vogue (like OTT columnist André Leon Talley) are given mere cameos, but Wintour finds a worthy adversary-compatriot in creative director Grace Coddington, another Englishwoman and ex-model — the red-tressed, pale-as-a-wraith Pre-Raphaelite dreamer to Wintour’s well-armored knight. The two keep each other honest and craftily ingenious, and both the magazine and this doc benefit. (1:28) Marina. (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) California, Embarcadero, Empire, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

The Stepfather (1:41) 1000 Van Ness.

Where the Wild Things Are From the richly delineated illustrations and sparse text of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, director Spike Jonze and cowriter (with Jones) Dave Eggers have constructed a full-length film about the passions, travails, and interior/exterior wanderings of Sendak’s energetic young antihero, Max. Equally prone to feats of world-building and fits of overpowering, destructive rage, Max (Max Records) stampedes off into the night during one of the latter and journeys to the island where the Wild Things (voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, and Michael Berry Jr.) live — and bicker and tantrum and give in to existential despair and no longer all sleep together in a big pile. The place has possibilities, though, and Max, once crowned king, tries his best to realize them. What its inhabitants need, however, is not so much a visionary king as a good family therapist — these are some gripey, defensive, passive-aggressive Wild Things, and Max, aged somewhere around 10, can’t fix their interpersonal problems. Jonze and Eggers do well at depicting Max’s temporary kingdom, its forests and deserts, its creatures and their half-finished creations from a past golden era, as well as subtly reminding us now and again that all of this — the island, the arguments, the sadness — is streaming from the mind of a fierce, wildly imaginative young child with familial troubles of his own, equally beyond his power to resolve. They’ve also invested the film with a slow, grim depressive mood that can make for unsettling viewing, particularly when pondering the Maxes in the audience, digesting an oft-disheartening tale about family conflict and relationship repair. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Whip It What’s a girl to do? Stuck in small town hell, Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), the gawky teen heroine of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, faces a pressing dilemma — conform to the standards of stifling beauty pageantry to appease her mother or rebel and enter the rough-and tumble world of roller derby. Shockingly enough, Bliss chooses to escape to Austin and join the Hurl Scouts, a rowdy band of misfits led by the maternal Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig) and the accident-prone Smashley Simpson (Barrymore). Making a bid for grrrl empowerment, Bliss dawns a pair of skates, assumes the moniker Babe Ruthless, and is suddenly throwing her weight around not only in the rink, but also in school where she’s bullied. Painfully predictable, the action comes to a head when, lo and behold, the dates for the Bluebonnet Pageant and the roller derby championship coincide. At times funny and charming with understated performances by Page and Alia Shawcat as Bliss’ best friend, Whip It can’t overcome its paper-thin characters, plot contrivances, and requisite scenery chewing by Jimmy Fallon as a cheesy announcer and Juliette Lewis as a cutthroat competitor. (1:51) SF Center. (Swanbeck)

*The Yes Men Fix the World Can you prank shame, if not sense, into the Powers That Be? Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, the jesters-activists who punked right-wing big-business in the documentary The Yes Men (2003), continue to play Groucho Marx to capitalism’s mortified Margaret Dumont in this gleeful sequel. Decked in sharp suits and packing fake websites and catchphrases, the duo bluffs its way into conferences and proceeds to give corporate giants the Borat treatment. The stunts are often inspired and, in their visions of fantasy justice, poignant: Bichlbaum and Bonnano pose as Dow envoys and announce the company’s plans to send billions to treat victims of the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster, and later appear as HUD representatives offering a corrective to the shameful neglect of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Yes Men may not fix the world, but their ruses once more prove the awareness-raising potential of comedy. (1:30) Oaks, Roxie, Smith Rafael, Sundance Kabuki. (Croce)

*Zombieland First things first: it’s clever, but it ain’t no Shaun of the Dead (2004). That said, Zombieland is an outstanding zombie comedy, largely thanks to Woody Harrelson’s performance as Tallahassee, a tough guy whose passion for offing the undead is rivaled only by his raging Twinkie jones. Set in a world where zombies have already taken over (the beginning stages of the outbreak are glimpsed only in flashback), Zombieland presents the creatures as yet another annoyance for Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg, who’s nearly finished morphing into Michael Cera), a onetime antisocial shut-in who has survived only by sticking to a strict set of rules (the "double tap," or always shooting each zombie twice, etc.) This odd couple meets a sister team (Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin), who eventually lay off their grifting ways so that Columbus can have a love interest (in Stone) and Tallahassee, still smarting from losing a loved one to zombies, can soften up a scoch by schooling the erstwhile Little Miss Sunshine in target practice. Sure, it’s a little heavy on the nerd-boy voiceover, but Zombieland has just enough goofiness and gushing guts to counteract all them brrraiiinss. (1:23) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Anti-doofus agenda

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arts@sfbg.com

LIT/MUSIC With influences ranging from the Cuban Revolution and Malcolm X to musical orishas such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Sun Ra, Amiri Baraka is renowned as the founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the 1960s that became, though short-lived, the virtual blueprint for a new American theater aesthetic. The movement and his published work — such as 1963’s signature study on African American music Blues People and the same year’s play Dutchman — practically seeded "the cultural corollary to black nationalism" of that revolutionary American milieu.

Baraka lives in Newark, N.J., with his wife and author Amina Baraka; they have five children and head the word-music ensemble Blue Ark: The Word Ship and co-direct Kimako’s Blues People, an art space housed in their theater basem*nt for some 15 years. I spoke with him on the eve of an upcoming visit.

SFBG What brings you to the Bay Area this time around?

AMIRI BARAKA We’re doing two sets at Yoshi’s with Howard Wiley. Those are the kinds of musical things we have a nice time doing.I hope to bring the poetry and music to Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. And I’m giving a talk at the library.

SFBG What will you be discussing?

AB Obama and his first 10 months, based on an essay I wrote a few months ago called "We’re Already in the Future." I support Obama and I think that the people who supported him initially should keep supporting him because they are forgetting the huge difficulty he faces.This society, they don’twant any kind of change.They do not want him, first of all.Only 43 percent of the white people even voted for him, and a lot those people resent the fact that white America is now mulatto. That election proved that it’s not white America, it’s multinational America, so they’ve set up this roadblock to almost anything he does.

Anytime you can, you see how doofus Americans are, to oppose their own quality of life improvement, their own health care. They’d rather mope along with little health care or none simply because the corporations have convinced them it’s bad for them — it shows you that we have a real education gap in America. Not to mention the racism, which is behind a lot of it, big time.

The people who support Obama need to stand together to fight the right wing.It’s the right wing that is the enemy. Those huge corporations including those mouthpieces they have.The media is just absurd, with [Sean] Hannity, [Bill] O’Reilly, [Glenn] Beck, Rush Limbaugh. These guys are just too much.If they’re not racist, there is no such thing as racism.

SFBG I know that you spent some time in SF. What are your impressions of our city?

AB I was a visiting professor at San Francisco State for about three or four months, that was the extent of my residency.I like San Francisco. I’m drawn to the vibe there. The last time I was in San Francisco, I was reading at Ferlinghetti’s bookstore [City Lights]. Most of my stuff is in Oakland, but whenever I’m in Oakland, I stop by San Francisco.

Seems to me that San Francisco is very expensive, like New York. I live in Newark, N.J., which is 12 miles outside of New York City — it’s got that Oakland-San Francisco relationship. When you’re dealing with New York, you have that high-rent district all the way around.San Francisco is a beautiful city, but going there and being there are two different things.

SFBG Happy birthday.I know you just turned 75.Any wisdom to impart from three-quarters of a century?

AB I’ve been 75 for about five days. I can say that you really need to take care of yourself.That’s the cliché: "If I knew I was going be this old,I would have taken better care of myself," but it’s some better wisdom than what you hear generally.

SFBG You coined the term "Afrosurreal Expressionism."Can you share your definition?

AB If you know the African tales or even African writers and African cultures, then you know they understand the concept of having relationships reversed, which exposes new concepts and dimensions. They understood the power of the conscious and unconscious mind to change the dimensions of the world. The various forces of nature that people developed, that people saw as gods, theseelemental forces: the wind, the water, the sun, the moon.They understood how human beings interrelate to those forces.Henry Dumas’ work dealt with these changing dimensions, and people who do strange things in realistic situations. It was Surrealism that changed the relationship to things.Dumas influenced Toni Morrison, who was his editor at Random House. He was a strong writer and he went out of here in a tragic way, being murdered by the police. His stories and poems areAfrosurreal, with African psychology imposing these dimensions on reality.

SFBG What is the role of the artist in the current climate, and what are the tools we can use to bring about social change?

AB The way things work: cause and effect, action and reaction.The ’60s and the ’70s were a period of intense struggle.The Black Arts Movement and the antiimperialist movement laid the foundation to get Obama elected.But then you get a reaction, and it has been quite evident. Imperialist commerce has taken over the arts.Once we were struggling to get black movies made — now we see what kinds of movies are being made by black people, and they are very backward.Act, react.We have to struggle anew to do something about these backwards elements.

Black people have 27 cities: we need 27 theaters, 27 galleries, 27 periodicals. We need to have poets, rappers, painters, actors struggling to raise the consciousness of the people.That is the role of the artist.Black people still live in these ghettos and these ‘hoods.There may be more of a black middle-class, but they often are the ones helping to keep us duped and bamboozled.This is a struggle that has to be.This is reality — like they say, "Keep it real."This is a struggle that has to be.

AMIRI BARAKA WITH THE HOWARD WILEY TRIO

Nov. 9, 8 p.m., $16–$20

Yoshi’s San Francisco

1330 Fillmore, SF

www.yoshis.com

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, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, Matt Sussman, and Laura Swanbeck. The film intern is Fernando F. Croce. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

SF DOCFEST

The eighth annual San Francisco Documentary Film Festival runs through Oct 29 at the Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF. Tickets ($11) are available by visiting www.sfindie.com. All times p.m.

WED/28

American Artifact: The Rise of American Rock Poster Art 7. The Great Contemporary Art Bubble 7. The Philosopher Kings 9:15. Pop Star on Ice 9:15.

THURS/20

Nursery University 7. Speaking in Code 7. Trimpin: The Sound of Invention 9:15. Cropsey 9:15.

OPENING

*The Beaches of Agnès Director’s commentaries are par for the course in the DVD age, but few filmmakers posses the élan to warrant a feature length auto-exegesis. Agnès Varda is one, and her most recent memory machine — she claims it’s her last — cheerfully dissolves the boundaries between memoir, retrospective, and installation. We begin on the beach, with the 80-year old Varda spryly instructing her young assistants on the placement of various mirrors. "If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes," she explains of her motivation for filmmaking, before embarking on an unclassifiable daisy chain of reenactment and reminiscence. The film moves at the leisurely pace of the flâneur’s walk, the better to relish Varda’s joie de vivre and sweet bawdiness. Her chameleon colored bowl cut dares us to keep abreast of her quicksilver digressions on the past (fact or fiction matters less than then and now). As with 2000’s The Gleaners and I, she’s most free with the things she adores: blurry foregrounds, old photographs, heart-shaped potatoes, ancient frescoes, the human body and neighbors. "All the dead lead me back to Jacques," she says, referring to her great love, Jacques Demy, and their life together loops The Beaches of Agnès with a beauty not soon forgotten. (1:40) Opera Plaza. (Goldberg)

Brain Dead With the zombedy combedy genre — I’m sick of "zomcom," aren’t you? — having reached mass impact via Zombietown, you might be hungry if not chalk-facedly ravenous for more of the same. In which case you’ll enjoy this Thrillville-presented West Coast theatrical debut of 1980s horror fave (1986’s Witchboard) Kevin Tenney’s own more modestly scaled mixup of undead mayhem and laughs. When a tiny asteroid lands in a rural area — instantly turning one unlucky fisherman into green-faced chomper and his buddy into lunch — it’s not long before shambling carnivores are imperiling the requisite cabinful of ill-matched strandees. Their number include a televangelist, lost sorority sisters, and two escaped convicts, one nice and one psycho-mean. While the latter takes everyone hostage at gunpoint, those carnivorous ghouls gathering outside have a strictly take-no-hostages policy. They’ll take brains, though. BRAAAAAAAAINS!!! Brain Dead is fun — if kinda dumb fun, compared to Shaun of the Dead or even Zombieland. (Let alone Peter Jackson’s 1992 splatsterpiece Braindead, or the 1990 Bill Paxton-Bill Pullman non-zom horror faceoff also called Brain Dead). But if it lacks that special edge of originality and/or wit, it’s still a whole lot better than 2008’s Zombie Strippers, of which we shall never speak again. (1:35) Four Star. (Harvey)

*Bronson In 2000’s Chopper (2000), Eric Bana killed as Australia’s most notorious psychotic extortionist-killer-jailbird-celebrity autobiographer — more vividly than in any part serving his subsequent, slightly bland leading-hunk status. Tom Hardy is another handsome bloke at risk of looking competent and versatile without fully impressing. Yet here comes Bronson, a film (and role) offering up a dramatized "Man. Myth. Celebrity" (as per its ad line) of actual "worst prisoner in Britain." The real Michael Gordon Peterson, better known as "Charles Bronson" (a PR-minded friend fitted the Death Wish star as nom de notoriety), was an extreme anger-management case whose working-class struggle ended when he robbed a post office in 1974. As the film details, prison spectacularly agreed with him. He enjoyed the tension and violence — between himself and fellow inmates as well as guards — so much that he got sent to a high-security psychiatric hospital. Worry not: even drugged to the gills, he managed to create ruckuses that won national attention. This is the second English-language directing effort by Dane Nicolas Winding Refn, of the crime-drama Pusher trilogy. Bronson is utterly revved up in a way that’s showy but not at all dumbed-down, and it’s pure cinematic inspiration at least half-transcending even a case of snarkish hom*ophobia as you haven’t seen since … well, Chopper maybe? (1:32) Lumiere. (Harvey)

The Canyon See "Into the Wild." (1:42) Opera Plaza.

Gentlemen Broncos The latest from Napoleon Dynamite (2004) director Jared Hess is about a Utah teen (Michael Angarano) who is obsessed with science fiction. (1:51)

*Heart of Stone With metal-detectors blocking its entrance, gang fights breaking out in the halls, and teachers wearing bulletproof vests, it’s clear that Weequahic High School is not your usual blackboard jungle. Once one of the nation’s most respected schools, the Newark, NJ institution was by 2000 plagued by the urban violence that claimed an alarming number of lives. Beth Toni Kruvant’s first-rate documentary chronicles the place’s gradual recovery thanks to Ron Stone, the passionate principal who, using a mixture of diplomacy and compassion, struggled to control the brutality that loomed over a new generation of students. Though similar in subject to Rollin Binzer’s recent The Providence Effect, Heart of Stone is easily the better film, less an infomercial for enrollment than a tough-minded analysis of the historical upheavals and social conditions forming Weequahic’s fall and rise. "Inspiring" is an abused term when it comes to movies about teachers, but Kruvant’s inquiry and Stone’s dedication earn it. (1:24) Roxie. (Croce)

Michael Jackson’s This Is It This concert doc compiles behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage for what would have been Jacko’s run of London shows. (1:52) Cerrito , Four Star, Marina.

Walt and El Grupo This highly authorized documentary chronicles the 1941 South American tour Disney staff took as part of the U.S. "Good Neighbor" policies. The creative results were several fascinating wartime pastiches, including 1944’s anarchic, marvelous feature Three Caballeros. But that last is inexplicably not excerpted here — while tedious home-movie footage with Walt and company on their well-recorded trip, not to mention surviving relatives’ clucking over how wonderful it all was, go on and on. It’s worth noting that this studio vanity project has reached theaters, if minimally — while John-Paul Davidson and Trudi Styler’s The Sweatbox, an unvarnished behind-scenes portrait of the thorny processes behind latter-day Disney ‘toon The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), mysteriously vanished from the planet after its 2002 festival debut. That documentary offered real insight without reducing appreciation for its original talents. This one is a timid, worshipful bore. (1:46) (Harvey)

*The Yes Men Fix the World Can you prank shame, if not sense, into the Powers That Be? Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, the jesters-activists who punked right-wing big-business in the documentary The Yes Men (2003), continue to play Groucho Marx to capitalism’s mortified Margaret Dumont in this gleeful sequel. Decked in sharp suits and packing fake websites and catchphrases, the duo bluffs its way into conferences and proceeds to give corporate giants the Borat treatment. The stunts are often inspired and, in their visions of fantasy justice, poignant: Bichlbaum and Bonnano pose as Dow envoys and announce the company’s plans to send billions to treat victims of the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster, and later appear as HUD representatives offering a corrective to the shameful neglect of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Yes Men may not fix the world, but their ruses once more prove the awareness-raising potential of comedy. (1:30) Oaks, Roxie. (Croce)

ONGOING

Amelia Unending speculation surrounds the fate of aviator Amelia Earhart, who, with navigator Fred Noonan, disappeared in 1937 over the Pacific while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. However, Mira Nair’s biopic Amelia clarifies at least one fact: that Earhart (played by Hilary Swank) was a free-spirited freedom-loving lover of being free. We learn this through passages of her writing intoned in voice-over; during scenes with publisher and eventual husband George Putnam (Richard Gere); and via wildlife observations as she flies her Lockheed Electra over some 22,000 miles of the world. Not much could diminish the glory of Earhart’s achievements in aviation, particularly in helping open the field to other female pilots. And Swank creates the impression of a charming, intelligent, self-possessed woman who manages to sidestep many of fame’s pitfalls while remaining resolute in her lofty aims. She’s also slightly unknowable in her cheery, near-seamless virtue, and the film’s adoring depiction, with its broad, heavy strokes, at times inspires a different sort of restlessness than the kind that compels Earhart to take flight. Amelia is structured as a series of flashbacks in which the aviator, while circling the earth, retraces her life –- or rather, the highlights of her career in flying, her marriage to Putnam, and her affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), another champion of aviation (and the father of author Gore). And this, too, begins to feel lazily repetitive, as we return and return again to that co*ckpit to stare at a doomed woman as she stares emotively into the wild blue yonder. (1:51) California, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Antichrist Will history judge Lars von Trier as the genius he’s sure he is? Or as a humorless, slightly less cartoonish Ken Russell, whipping images and actors into contrived frenzies for ersatz art’s sake? You’re probably already on one side of the fence or the other. Notorious Cannes shocker Antichrist will only further divide the yeas and nays, though the film does offers perhaps the most formally beautiful filmmaking von Trier’s bothered with since 1984’s The Element of Crime. Grieving parents Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe retreat to a forest primeval enabling widescreen images of poetic succulence. Yet that beauty only underlines Antichrist‘s garishness. One film festival viewer purportedly barfed onto the next row — and you too might recoil, particularly if unaccustomed to gore levels routinely surpassed by mainstream horror. Does Antichrist earn such viewer punishment by dint of moral, character, narrative, or artistic heft? Like slurp it does. What could be more reactionary than an opening in which our protagonists "cause" their angelic babe’s accidental death by obliviously enjoying one another? Shot in "lyrical" slow-mo black and white, it’s a shampoo commercial hard-selling Victorian sexual guilt.

Later, Dafoe’s "He" clings to hollow psychiatric reason as only an embittered perennial couch case might imagine. Gainsbourg’s "She" morphs from maternal mourner to castrating shrike as only one terrified of femininity could contrive. They’re tortured by psychological and/or supernatural events existing solely to bend game actors toward a tyrant artiste’s whims. There’s no devil here — just von Trier’s punitive narcissism. (1:49) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*Astro Boy How can a robo-kid so cute be so sad? That’s the beautiful paradox of Astro Boy, the atomic age Japanese manga-cum-Pinocchio parable here given loving new life. Genius creator Osamu Tezuka’s original Astro Boy cannily grappled with the seductions and dangers of Japan’s economic miracle, the country’s conflicted emotions about the technology that fueled both Astro Boy and the war machine, and the struggle between industrialization and the environment. This update adds the recurring favorite sci-fi leitmotif of artificial intelligence — and by extension what it means to be human and non-human — to the mix. This adorable toaster (voiced by Freddie Highmore) awakens with memories of Toby, the brilliant, rebellious son of robotics genius Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), believing he is a boy not a robot. The grief-stricken Tenma built him after the original Toby was killed during the test of a new robotic weapon. Eventually cast out by his Frankenstein father-creator and coping with some major identity issues, Astro Boy finds his place among a slew of outcasts on the now garbage- and robot part-strewn Wall-E-esque Earth, where his sense of compassion and mega powers threaten to bridge the seemingly insurmountable differences between humans and robots. Despite the speed with which director David Bowers and his team put together this animated feature, which boasts the voicings of stars like Charlize Theron and Nathan Lane, Astro Boy succeeds in delivering that crucial hybrid of action, comedy, and emotional heft that the best of classic animation offers, while touching lightly out relevant ideas about technology. (1:34) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck. (Chun)

*Big Fan The Wrestler screenwriter Robert Siegel continues to trawl tri-state working class blues for his directorial debut, Big Fan, a darkened fairy tale of sports mania and the male ego. Sandpaper rough comic Patton Oswalt is Paul Aufiero, a thirtysomething New York Giants nut who lives with his mother and scripts huffy raps for his nightly 1AM "Paul from Staten Island" call to the local sports radio station. Siegel locates a revealing stage for anxious performances of masculinity in the motor-mouthed rituals of sports talk radio. Big Fan is at its best when Aufiero is locked in dubious battle with abstract foes like "Philadelphia Phil," but the film starts to slow down as soon as our anti-hero and his lone pal Sal (Kevin Corrigan) spot Giants QB Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) at a Staten Island gas station. They tail him to a strip club in New York City, where Bishop gives Aufiero a bruising upon discovering he’s been followed, thus compromising the Giants’ playoff chances. What a tangled web we weave and all that. It’s telling of Siegel’s limited talents that the best part of the fateful trip into Manhattan is Oswalt’s grimace when faced with a nine buck Budweiser. We’re so hungry for any kind of regionalism in mainstream filmmaking that even Big Fan‘s cheapest shots (all its women characters, for instance) don’t overpower the pleasure of Oswalt’s marshy profanities and the provincial jabber of New York vs. Philadelphia and Staten Island vs. Manhattan. (1:35) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Goldberg)

*Bright Star Is beauty truth; truth, beauty? John Keats, the poet famed for such works as "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and Jane Campion, the filmmaker intent on encapsuutf8g the last romance of the archetypal Romantic, would have undoubtedly bonded over a love of sensual details — and the way a certain vellum-like light can transport its viewer into elevated reverie. In truth, Campion doesn’t quite achieve the level of Keats’ verse with this somber glimpse at the tubercular writer and his final love, neighbor Fanny Brawne. But she does bottle some of their pale beauty. Less-educated than the already respected young scribe, Brawne nonetheless may have been his equal in imagination as a seamstress, judging from the petal-bonneted, ruffled-collar ensembles Campion outfits her in. As portrayed by the soulful-eyed Abbie Cornish, the otherwise-enigmatic, plucky Brawne is the singularly bright blossom ready to be wrapped in a poet’s adoration, worthy of rhapsody by Ben Whishaw’sshaggily, shabbily puppy-dog Keats, who snatches the preternaturally serene focus of a fine mind cut short by illness, with the gravitational pull of a serious indie-rock hottie. The two are drawn to each other like the butterflies flittering in Brawne’s bedroom/farm, one of the most memorable scenes in the dark yet sweetly glimmering Bright Star. Bathing her scenes in lengthy silence, shot through with far-from-flowery dialogue, Campion is at odds with this love story, so unlike her joyful 1990 ode to author Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table (Kerry Fox appears here, too, as Fanny’s mother): the filmmaker refuses to overplay it, sidestepping Austenian sprightliness. Instead she embraces the dark differences, the negative inevitability, of this death-steeped coupling, welcoming the odd glance at the era’s intellectual life, the interplay of light and shadow. (1:59) Elmwood, Opera Plaza. (Chun)

*Capitalism: A Love Story Gun control. The Bush administration. Healthcare. Over the past decade, Michael Moore has tackled some of the most contentious issues with his trademark blend of humor and liberal rage. In Capitalism: A Love Story, he sets his sights on an even grander subject. Where to begin when you’re talking about an economic system that has defined this nation? Predictably, Moore’s focus is on all those times capitalism has failed. By this point, his tactics are familiar, but he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. As with Sicko (2007), Moore proves he can restrain himself — he gets plenty of screen time, but he spends more time than ever behind the camera. This isn’t about Moore; it’s about the United States. When he steps out of the limelight, he’s ultimately more effective, crafting a film that’s bipartisan in nature, not just in name. No, he’s not likely to please all, but for every Glenn Beck, there’s a sane moderate wondering where all the money has gone. (2:07) California, Empire, Grand Lake, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Peitzman)

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (1:48) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (1:21) Oaks.

Coco Before Chanel Like her designs, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was elegant, très chic, and utterly original. Director Anne Fontaine’s French biopic traces Coco (Audrey Tautou) from her childhood as a struggling orphan to one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. You’ll be disappointed if you expect a fashionista’s up close and personal look at the House of Chanel, as Fontaine keeps her story firmly rooted in Coco’s past, including her destructive relationship with French playboy Etienne Balsar (Benoît Poelvoorde) and her ill-fated love affair with dashing Englishman Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola). The film functions best in scenes that display Coco’s imagination and aesthetic magnetism, like when she dances with Capel in her now famous "little black dress" amidst a sea of stiff, white meringues. Tautou imparts a quiet courage and quick wit as the trailblazing designer, and Nivola is unmistakably charming and compassionate as Boy. Nevertheless, Fontaine rushes the ending and never truly seizes the opportunity to explore how Coco’s personal life seeped into her timeless designs that were, in the end, an extension of herself.(1:50) Albany, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Swanbeck)

Couples Retreat You could call Couples Retreat a romantic comedy, but that would imply that it was romantic and funny instead of an insipid, overlong waste of time. This story of a group of married friends trying to bond with their spouses in an exotic island locale is a failure on every level. Romantic? The titular couples — four total — represent eight of the most obnoxious characters in recent memory. Sure, you’re rooting for them to work out their issues, but that’s only because awful people deserve one another. (And in a scene with an almost-shark attack, you’re rooting for the shark.) Funny? The jokes are, at best, juvenile (boners are silly!) and, at worse, offensive (sexism and hom*ophobia once more reign supreme). There is an impressive array of talent here: Vince Vaugh, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Jean Reno, etc. Alas, there’s no excusing the script, which puts these otherwise solid actors into exceedingly unlikable roles. Even the gorgeous island scenery — Couples Retreat was filmed on location in Bora-Bora — can’t make up for this waterlogged mess. (1:47) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck. (Peitzman)

*The Damned United Like last year’s Frost/Nixon, The Damned United features a lush 70’s backdrop, a screenplay by Peter Morgan, and a commanding performance by Michael Sheen as an ambitious egotist. A promising young actor, Sheen puts on the sharp tongue and charismatic monomania of real-life British soccer coach Brian Clough like a familiar garment, blustering his way through a fictionalized account of Clough’s unsuccessful 44-day stint as manager of Leeds United. Though the details of high-stakes professional "football" will likely be lost on American viewers, the tale of a talented, flawed sports hero spiraling deeper into obsession needs no trans-Atlantic translation, and the film is an engrossing portrait of a captivating, quotable character. (1:38) Elmwood, Embarcadero. (Richardson)

*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) Albany, Embarcadero, Empire, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

*Good Hair Spurred by his little daughter’s plaintive query ("Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?"), Chris Rock gets his Michael Moore freak on and sets out to uncover the racial and cultural implications of African-American hairstyling. Visiting beauty salons, talking to specialists, and interviewing celebrities ranging from Maya Angelou to Ice-T, the comic wisecracks his way into some pretty trenchant insights about how black women’s coiffures can often reflect Caucasian-set definitions of beauty. (Leave it to Rev. Al Sharpton to voice it ingeniously: "You comb your oppression every morning!") Rock makes an affable guide in Jeff Stilson’s breezy documentary, which posits the hair industry as a global affair where relaxers work as "nap-antidotes" and locks sacrificially shorn in India end up as pricey weaves in Beverly Hills. Maybe startled by his more disquieting discoveries, Rock shifts the focus to flamboyant, crowd-pleasing shenanigans at the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show. Despite such softball detours, it’s a genial and revealing tour. (1:35) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Croce)

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, SF Center. (Harvey)

*The Informant! The best satire makes you uncomfortable, but nothing will make you squirm in your seat like a true story that feels like satire. Director Steven Soderbergh introduces the exploits of real-life agribusiness whistleblower Mark Whitacre with whimsical fonts and campy music — just enough to get the audience’sguard down. As the pitch-perfect Matt Damon — laden with 30 extra pounds and a fright-wig toupee — gee-whizzes his way through an increasingly complicated role, Soderbergh doles out subtle doses of torturous reality, peeling back the curtain to reveal a different, unexpected curtain behind it. Informant!’s tale of board-room malfeasance is filled with mis-directing cameos, jokes, and devices, and its ingenious, layered narrative will provoke both anti-capitalist outrage and a more chimerical feeling of satisfied frustration. Above all, it’s disquietingly great. (1:48) SF Center. (Richardson)

The Invention of Lying Great concept. Great cast. All The Invention of Lying needed was a great script editor and it might have reached classic comedy territory. As it stands, it’s dragged down to mediocrity by a weak third act. This is the story of a world where no one can lie — and we’re not just talking about big lies either. The Invention of Lying presents a vision of no sarcasm, no white lies, no — gasp —creative fiction. All that changes when Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) realizes he can bend the truth. And because no one else can, everything Mark makes up becomes fact to the rubes around him. If you guessed that hilarity ensues, you’re right on the money! Watching Mark use his powers for evil (robbing the bank! seducing women!) makes for a very funny first hour. Then things take a turn for the heavy when Mark becomes a prophet by letting slip his vision of the afterlife. Faster than you can say "Jesus beard," he’s rocking a God complex and the audience is longing for the simpler laughs, like Jennifer Garner admitting to some pre-date masturbation. (1:40) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

Law Abiding Citizen "Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006) as re-imagined by the Saw franchise folks" apparently sounded like a sweet pitch to someone, because here we are, stuck with Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler playing bloody and increasingly ludicrous cat-and-mouse games. Foxx stars as a slick Philadelphia prosecutor whose deal-cutting careerist ways go easy on the scummy criminals responsible for murdering the wife and daughter of a local inventor (Butler). Cut to a decade later, and the doleful widower has become a vengeful mastermind with a yen for Hannibal Lecter-like skills, gruesome contraptions, and lines like "Lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten." Butler metes out punishment to his family’s killers as well as to the bureocratic minions who let them off the hook. But the talk of moral consequences is less a critique of a faulty judicial system than mere white noise, vainly used by director F. Gary Gray and writer Kurt Wimmer in hopes of classing up a grinding exploitation drama. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness. (Croce)

My One and Only (1:48) Opera Plaza.

New York, I Love You A dreamy mash note to the city that never sleeps, New York, I Love You is the latest installment in a series of omnibus odes to world metropolises and the denizens that live and love within the city limits. Less successful than the Paris, je t’aime (2006) anthology — which roped in such disparate international directors as Gus Van Sant and Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron and Olivier Assayas — New York welcomes a more minor-key host of directors to the project with enjoyable if light-weight results. Surely any bite of the Big Apple would be considerably sexier. Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo tease out a one-night stand with legs, and Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q generate a wee bit of verbal fire over street-side cigs, yet there’s surprisingly little heat in this take on a few of the 8 million stories in the archetypal naked city. Most memorable are the strangest couplings, such as that of Natalie Portman, a Hasidic bride who flirtatiously haggles with Irrfan Khan, a Jain diamond merchant, in a tale directed by Mira Nair. Despite the pleasure of witnessing Julie Christie, Eli Wallach, and Cloris Leachman in action, many of these pieces — written by the late Anthony Minghella, Israel Horovitz, and Portman, among others — feel a mite too slight to nail down the attention of all but the most desperate romantics. (1:43) Bridge, Shattuck. (Chun)

The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D (1:16) Castro, Grand Lake.

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning Important: though it does star the original’s Tony Jaa, this is not a sequel to 2003 Thai hit Ong-bak, about a pious martial-arts master who journeys to the big city to retrieve the stolen head of his village’s sacred Buddha. Rather, Ong Bak 2 travels back in time so that lethally limber star Jaa (who also directs) can portray a young man adopted by bandits after his noble parents are slaughtered by a corrupt general. Along the way, he learns multiple fighting styles; bones are crunched, elephants are charmed, and emo flashbacks abound. The cool thing about Ong-bak was that it showcased Jaa’s unique Thai fighting style in an urban environment — his country-bumpkin character took down mobs of petty hoods and smugglers, and he faced an array of ridiculous foes in underground pit fights (for righteous reasons, natch). Ong Bak 2‘s historic setting feels a tad generic, even if it does provide an excuse for a crocodile-wrestling scene. Also, the tragic storyline calls for the kind of acting depth Jaa simply doesn’t have. Though he glowers with conviction, his fists and feet are the most charismatic things about him. (1:55) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Eddy)

*Paranormal Activity In this ostensible found-footage exercise, Katie (Katie Featherson) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are a young San Diego couple whose first home together has a problem: someone, or something, is making things go bump in the night. In fact, Katie has sporadically suffered these disturbances since childhood, when an amorphous, not-at-reassuring entity would appear at the foot of her bed. Skeptical technophile Micah’s solution is to record everything on his primo new video camera, including a setup to shoot their bedroom while they sleep — surveillance footage sequences that grow steadily more terrifying as incidents grow more and more invasive. Like 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, Oren Peli’s no-budget first feature may underwhelm mainstream genre fans who only like their horror slick and slasher-gory. But everybody else should appreciate how convincingly the film’s very ordinary, at times annoying protagonists (you’ll eventually want to throttle Micah, whose efforts are clearly making things worse) fall prey to a hostile presence that manifests itself in increments no less alarming for being (at first) very small. When this hits DVD, you’ll get to see the original, more low-key ending (the film has also been tightened up since its festival debut two years ago). But don’t wait — Paranormal‘s subtler effects will be lost on the small screen. Not to mention that it’s a great collective screaming-audience experience. (1:39) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

*Paris Cédric Klapisch’s latest offers a series of interconnected stories with Paris as the backdrop, designed — if you’ll pardon the cliché — as a love letter to the city. On the surface, the plot of Paris sounds an awful lot like Paris, je t’aime (2006). But while the latter was composed entirely of vignettes, Paris has an actual, overarching plot. Perhaps that’s why it’s so much more effective. Juliette Binoche stars as Élise, whose brother Pierre (Romain Duris) is in dire need of a heart transplant. A dancer by trade, Pierre is also a world-class people watcher, and it’s his fascination with those around him that serves as Paris‘ wraparound device. He sees snippets of these people’s lives, but we get the full picture — or at least, something close to it. The strength of Paris is in the depth of its characters: every one we meet is more complex than you’d guess at first glance. The more they play off one another, the more we understand. Of course, the siblings remain at the film’s heart: sympathetic but not pitiable, moving but not maudlin. Both Binoche and Duris turn in strong performances, aided by a supporting cast of French actors who impress in even the smallest of roles. (2:04) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Peitzman)

Saw VI (1:30) 1000 Van Ness.

*The September Issue The Lioness D’Wintour, the Devil Who Wears Prada, or the High Priestess of Condé Nasty — it doesn’t matter what you choose to call Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. If you’re in the fashion industry, you will call her — or at least be amused by the power she wields as the overseer of style’s luxury bible, then 700-plus pages strong for its legendary September fall fashion issue back in the heady days of ’07, pre-Great Recession. But you don’t have to be a publishing insider to be fascinated by director R.J. Cutler’s frisky, sharp-eyed look at the making of fashion’s fave editorial doorstop. Wintour’s laser-gazed facade is humanized, as Cutler opens with footage of a sparkling-eyed editor breaking down fashion’s fluffy reputation. He then follows her as she assumes the warrior pose in, say, the studio of Yves St. Laurent, where she has designer Stefano Pilati fluttering over his morose color choices, and in the offices of the magazine, where she slices, dices, and kills photo shoots like a sartorial samurai. Many of the other characters at Vogue (like OTT columnist André Leon Talley) are given mere cameos, but Wintour finds a worthy adversary-compatriot in creative director Grace Coddington, another Englishwoman and ex-model — the red-tressed, pale-as-a-wraith Pre-Raphaelite dreamer to Wintour’s well-armored knight. The two keep each other honest and craftily ingenious, and both the magazine and this doc benefit. (1:28) Presidio. (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) California, Embarcadero, Empire, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

The Stepfather (1:41) 1000 Van Ness.

The Vanished Empire Pink Floyd records may become contraband once behind the Iron Curtain, but coming-of-age clichés remain the same in Karen Shakhnazarov’s seriocomic tale of adolescent ecstasies and agonies in 1973 Moscow. Lenin’s words are taught in school, though 18-year-old Sergey (Alexander Lyapin) is more interested in chasing girls, scoring pot, and savoring such illicit pop pleasures as jeans and rock music. Cool Kostya (Ivan Kupreyenko) and geeky Stepan (Yegor Baranovsky) are his contrasting cohorts, forming a trio of pubescent anxiety whose rites of passage are complicated by the arrival of Sergey’s girlfriend, Lyuda (Lidiya Milyuzina). The empire of the title is an ideological one, crumbled by a pleasure-seeking new generation who sell their grandfathers’ Marxist tomes in order to pay for Mick Jagger’s latest hit. Despite its evocative sense of time and place, however, the film’s teen nostalgia remains frustratingly amorphous, squandering the chance to find the youthful pulse of the nation’s transitory upheavals. (1:45) Sundance Kabuki. (Croce)

Where the Wild Things Are From the richly delineated illustrations and sparse text of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, director Spike Jonze and cowriter (with Jones) Dave Eggers have constructed a full-length film about the passions, travails, and interior/exterior wanderings of Sendak’s energetic young antihero, Max. Equally prone to feats of world-building and fits of overpowering, destructive rage, Max (Max Records) stampedes off into the night during one of the latter and journeys to the island where the Wild Things (voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, and Michael Berry Jr.) live — and bicker and tantrum and give in to existential despair and no longer all sleep together in a big pile. The place has possibilities, though, and Max, once crowned king, tries his best to realize them. What its inhabitants need, however, is not so much a visionary king as a good family therapist — these are some gripey, defensive, passive-aggressive Wild Things, and Max, aged somewhere around 10, can’t fix their interpersonal problems. Jonze and Eggers do well at depicting Max’s temporary kingdom, its forests and deserts, its creatures and their half-finished creations from a past golden era, as well as subtly reminding us now and again that all of this — the island, the arguments, the sadness — is streaming from the mind of a fierce, wildly imaginative young child with familial troubles of his own, equally beyond his power to resolve. They’ve also invested the film with a slow, grim depressive mood that can make for unsettling viewing, particularly when pondering the Maxes in the audience, digesting an oft-disheartening tale about family conflict and relationship repair. (1:48) Cerrito, Four Star, Grand Lake, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Whip It What’s a girl to do? Stuck in small town hell, Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), the gawky teen heroine of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, faces a pressing dilemma — conform to the standards of stifling beauty pageantry to appease her mother or rebel and enter the rough-and tumble world of roller derby. Shockingly enough, Bliss chooses to escape to Austin and join the Hurl Scouts, a rowdy band of misfits led by the maternal Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig) and the accident-prone Smashley Simpson (Barrymore). Making a bid for grrrl empowerment, Bliss dawns a pair of skates, assumes the moniker Babe Ruthless, and is suddenly throwing her weight around not only in the rink, but also in school where she’s bullied. Painfully predictable, the action comes to a head when, lo and behold, the dates for the Bluebonnet Pageant and the roller derby championship coincide. At times funny and charming with understated performances by Page and Alia Shawcat as Bliss’ best friend, Whip It can’t overcome its paper-thin characters, plot contrivances, and requisite scenery chewing by Jimmy Fallon as a cheesy announcer and Juliette Lewis as a cutthroat competitor. (1:51) SF Center. (Swanbeck)

*Zombieland First things first: it’s clever, but it ain’t no Shaun of the Dead (2004). That said, Zombieland is an outstanding zombie comedy, largely thanks to Woody Harrelson’s performance as Tallahassee, a tough guy whose passion for offing the undead is rivaled only by his raging Twinkie jones. Set in a world where zombies have already taken over (the beginning stages of the outbreak are glimpsed only in flashback), Zombieland presents the creatures as yet another annoyance for Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg, who’s nearly finished morphing into Michael Cera), a onetime antisocial shut-in who has survived only by sticking to a strict set of rules (the "double tap," or always shooting each zombie twice, etc.) This odd couple meets a sister team (Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin), who eventually lay off their grifting ways so that Columbus can have a love interest (in Stone) and Tallahassee, still smarting from losing a loved one to zombies, can soften up a scoch by schooling the erstwhile Little Miss Sunshine in target practice. Sure, it’s a little heavy on the nerd-boy voiceover, but Zombieland has just enough goofiness and gushing guts to counteract all them brrraiiinss. (1:23) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Night of the living theater

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER A small Texas ‘burb has just suffered attack by a horde of reanimated corpses, which can happen to anyone. But as luck would have it, the members of a bold experimental San Francisco theater company have taken it upon themselves to alight on the ravaged community, channel their story to the world, and thereby bestow on the good folk of Harwood "the healing that only theater can provide."

The actors of "the Catharsis Theatre Collective," dressed uniformly in black pants and tees, give or take a beret, begin by introducing themselves to the audience and explaining their modus operandi: in-depth interviews with a cross-section of the town’s population, whose personalities and stories they will then assume and relay to the audience as a living, breathing, documentary account.

We get reincarnations of the town’s mayor (Damian Lanahan), for instance, who happens also to be a car salesman, amid gradual intimations of a political cover-up and regular references to the superior craftsmanship in various makes of Toyotas. Or we hear from the proprietor of a local tavern (Ariane Owens) as she intones last call to her regulars on the night in question: "OK folks, you don’t have to go out and face the undead, but you can’t stay here." And, at steady intervals, we get the reenacted tale of three unlikely allies — an unabashed rocker dude (Ian Riley); a prissy and reluctant high school party chick (Owens); and an egotistical accountant (Drew Lanning) — holed up together through the night in an out-of-the-way cabin, where they battle an army of brain-eating creatures risen from the local cemetery (for reasons various characters are at pains to hypothesize over) while bickering ferociously among themselves.

As this familiar-sounding scenario of late-night TV and the multiplex develops, so too does another, equally familiar-sounding, meta-narrative, as we the audience get treated to the thoughts and feelings and interpersonal exchanges of the Catharsis members themselves, wrestling with the awesome responsibility of their task.

The real theatrical mavericks behind this Laramie-style "Zombie Project" are, of course, the members of Sleepwalkers Theatre, the talented young San Francisco–based company exclusively devoted to producing original plays. This gem is penned by Tim Bauer, a San Francisco playwright and former Texas resident, whose eye and ear for the culture clashes attendant not only in zombie movies but also between the humbler masses and certain rarified sections of the theater world makes Zombie Town a consistently witty treat. Sleepwalkers’ artistic director Tore Ingersoll-Thorp directs with an equally strong parodic sense a lively cast of living and post-living characters — played to perfection by an ensemble that could hardly be sharper or funnier were it to have a mining pick protruding from its collective forehead.

ZOMBIE TOWN

Through Nov. 7

Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m., $14–$20

Exit Stage Left

156 Eddy, SF

www.sleepwalkerstheatre.com

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, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, Matt Sussman, and Laura Swanbeck. The film intern is Fernando F. Croce. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.

SF DOCFEST

The eighth annual San Francisco Documentary Film Festival runs through Oct 29 at the Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF. Tickets ($11) are available by visiting www.sfindie.com. For commentary, see "Is the Truth Out There?" All times p.m.

WED/21

"Bay Area Shorts: The People and Places of the SF Experience" (shorts program) 7. Shooting Robert King 7. Cat Ladies 9:15. Houston We Have a Problem 9:15.

THURS/22

Dust and Illusion 7. What’s the Matter With Kansas? 7. The Entrepreneur 9:15. Homegrown 9:15.

FRI/23

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison 7. Mine 7. October Country 9:15. Speaking in Code 9:15.

SAT/24

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison 2:30. Nursery University 2:30. Apology of an Economic Hitman 4:45. Youth Knows No Pain 4:45. Marina of the Zabbaleen 7. Trimpin: The Sound of Invention 7. The Philosopher Kings 9:15. Proceed and Be Bold! 9:15.

SUN/25

Pop Star on Ice 2:30. "Worldwide Shorts: Snapshots of Life in Five Different Countries" (shorts program) 2:30. Junior 4:45. Only When I Dance 4:45. The Great Contemporary Art Bubble 7. Rabbit Fever 7. American Artifact 9:15. Cropsey 9:15.

MON/26

Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero 7. "Worldwide Shorts" 7. Proceed and Be Bold! 9:15. Youth Knows No Pain 9:15.

TUES/27

Junior 7. "Worldwide Shorts" 7. Marina of the Zabbaleen 9:15. Mine 9:15.

OPENING

Amelia Mira Nair directs Hilary Swank in this Amelia Earhart biopic. (1:51) Albany, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki.

Antichrist See "Lars Loves Lars." (1:49) Embarcadero.

Astro Boy The popular manga and Japanese television series finally gets an animated film, featuring voice work by Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, and others. (1:34) Presidio, Shattuck.

*Big Fan The Wrestler screenwriter Robert Siegel continues to trawl tri-state working class blues for his directorial debut, Big Fan, a darkened fairy tale of sports mania and the male ego. Sandpaper rough comic Patton Oswalt is Paul Aufiero, a thirtysomething New York Giants nut who lives with his mother and scripts huffy raps for his nightly 1AM "Paul from Staten Island" call to the local sports radio station. Siegel locates a revealing stage for anxious performances of masculinity in the motor-mouthed rituals of sports talk radio. Big Fan is at its best when Aufiero is locked in dubious battle with abstract foes like "Philadelphia Phil," but the film starts to slow down as soon as our anti-hero and his lone pal Sal (Kevin Corrigan) spot Giants QB Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) at a Staten Island gas station. They tail him to a strip club in New York City, where Bishop gives Aufiero a bruising upon discovering he’s been followed, thus compromising the Giants’ playoff chances. What a tangled web we weave and all that. It’s telling of Siegel’s limited talents that the best part of the fateful trip into Manhattan is Oswalt’s grimace when faced with a nine buck Budweiser. We’re so hungry for any kind of regionalism in mainstream filmmaking that even Big Fan‘s cheapest shots (all its women characters, for instance) don’t overpower the pleasure of Oswalt’s marshy profanities and the provincial jabber of New York vs. Philadelphia and Staten Island vs. Manhattan. (1:35) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Goldberg)

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant Time to officially declare a vampire overload. (1:48) Shattuck.

*The Damned United Like last year’s Frost/Nixon, The Damned United features a lush 70’s backdrop, a screenplay by Peter Morgan, and a commanding performance by Michael Sheen as an ambitious egotist. A promising young actor, Sheen puts on the sharp tongue and charismatic monomania of real-life British soccer coach Brian Clough like a familiar garment, blustering his way through a fictionalized account of Clough’s unsuccessful 44-day stint as manager of Leeds United. Though the details of high-stakes professional "football" will likely be lost on American viewers, the tale of a talented, flawed sports hero spiraling deeper into obsession needs no trans-Atlantic translation, and the film is an engrossing portrait of a captivating, quotable character. (1:38) Embarcadero. (Richardson)

*Good Hair Spurred by his little daughter’s plaintive query ("Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?"), Chris Rock gets his Michael Moore freak on and sets out to uncover the racial and cultural implications of African-American hairstyling. Visiting beauty salons, talking to specialists, and interviewing celebrities ranging from Maya Angelou to Ice-T, the comic wisecracks his way into some pretty trenchant insights about how black women’s coiffures can often reflect Caucasian-set definitions of beauty. (Leave it to Rev. Al Sharpton to voice it ingeniously: "You comb your oppression every morning!") Rock makes an affable guide in Jeff Stilson’s breezy documentary, which posits the hair industry as a global affair where relaxers work as "nap-antidotes" and locks sacrificially shorn in India end up as pricey weaves in Beverly Hills. Maybe startled by his more disquieting discoveries, Rock shifts the focus to flamboyant, crowd-pleasing shenanigans at the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show. Despite such softball detours, it’s a genial and revealing tour. (1:35) Lumiere. (Croce)

Motherhood Introducing this film at the Mill Valley Festival recently, director Katherine Dieckmann — of 2000’s awkward A Good Baby and ingratiating 2006 Diggers, on whose screenplays she did and didn’t contribute, respectively — said she made it because she’d never seen a movie reflecting modern motherhood "as it really is." So why does this slick indie seriocomedy feel like a baby-burpup of things we’ve seen a million times before? Perhaps because its beleaguered heroine (Uma Thurman, straining for stringy-haired, sweaty "realism") is the same comically frazzled, faux-deglamorized, supposedly endearing quirky girl sitcoms have served up for decades. She’s got a brash single-mom pal (Minnie Driver, suddenly doing Catherine Zeta-Jones), a semi-negligent husband (Anthony Edwards), aching authorial aspirations (currently expressed via an unconvincingly delightful motherhood blog), and two very young children. Taking place over a single day’s contrived mummy stressouts, Motherhood self-sabotages at nearly every turn. It renders the seldom unappealing Thurman a tiresome ditz whose potential extra-parental fulfillment arrives stupidly deus-ex-machina. No less plastic than Baby Boom (1987), this movie suffocates her, while that one at least gave Diane Keaton room to rise above condescending material. (1:30) (Harvey)

The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D The Tim Burton-produced tale returns in 3D form. (1:16) Castro, Grand Lake.

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning Important: though it does star the original’s Tony Jaa, this is not a sequel to 2003 Thai hit Ong-bak, about a pious martial-arts master who journeys to the big city to retrieve the stolen head of his village’s sacred Buddha. Rather, Ong Bak 2 travels back in time so that lethally limber star Jaa (who also directs) can portray a young man adopted by bandits after his noble parents are slaughtered by a corrupt general. Along the way, he learns multiple fighting styles; bones are crunched, elephants are charmed, and emo flashbacks abound. The cool thing about Ong-bak was that it showcased Jaa’s unique Thai fighting style in an urban environment — his country-bumpkin character took down mobs of petty hoods and smugglers, and he faced an array of ridiculous foes in underground pit fights (for righteous reasons, natch). Ong Bak 2‘s historic setting feels a tad generic, even if it does provide an excuse for a crocodile-wrestling scene. Also, the tragic storyline calls for the kind of acting depth Jaa simply doesn’t have. Though he glowers with conviction, his fists and feet are the most charismatic things about him. (1:55) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Saw VI If this keeps up, ol’ Jigsaw will soon have as many movies as Godzilla. (1:30)

The Vanished Empire Pink Floyd records may become contraband once behind the Iron Curtain, but coming-of-age clichés remain the same in Karen Shakhnazarov’s seriocomic tale of adolescent ecstasies and agonies in 1973 Moscow. Lenin’s words are taught in school, though 18-year-old Sergey (Alexander Lyapin) is more interested in chasing girls, scoring pot, and savoring such illicit pop pleasures as jeans and rock music. Cool Kostya (Ivan Kupreyenko) and geeky Stepan (Yegor Baranovsky) are his contrasting cohorts, forming a trio of pubescent anxiety whose rites of passage are complicated by the arrival of Sergey’s girlfriend, Lyuda (Lidiya Milyuzina). The empire of the title is an ideological one, crumbled by a pleasure-seeking new generation who sell their grandfathers’ Marxist tomes in order to pay for Mick Jagger’s latest hit. Despite its evocative sense of time and place, however, the film’s teen nostalgia remains frustratingly amorphous, squandering the chance to find the youthful pulse of the nation’s transitory upheavals. (1:45) Sundance Kabuki. (Croce)

ONGOING

*Bright Star Is beauty truth; truth, beauty? John Keats, the poet famed for such works as "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and Jane Campion, the filmmaker intent on encapsuutf8g the last romance of the archetypal Romantic, would have undoubtedly bonded over a love of sensual details — and the way a certain vellum-like light can transport its viewer into elevated reverie. In truth, Campion doesn’t quite achieve the level of Keats’ verse with this somber glimpse at the tubercular writer and his final love, neighbor Fanny Brawne. But she does bottle some of their pale beauty. Less-educated than the already respected young scribe, Brawne nonetheless may have been his equal in imagination as a seamstress, judging from the petal-bonneted, ruffled-collar ensembles Campion outfits her in. As portrayed by the soulful-eyed Abbie Cornish, the otherwise-enigmatic, plucky Brawne is the singularly bright blossom ready to be wrapped in a poet’s adoration, worthy of rhapsody by Ben Whishaw’sshaggily, shabbily puppy-dog Keats, who snatches the preternaturally serene focus of a fine mind cut short by illness, with the gravitational pull of a serious indie-rock hottie. The two are drawn to each other like the butterflies flittering in Brawne’s bedroom/farm, one of the most memorable scenes in the dark yet sweetly glimmering Bright Star. Bathing her scenes in lengthy silence, shot through with far-from-flowery dialogue, Campion is at odds with this love story, so unlike her joyful 1990 ode to author Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table (Kerry Fox appears here, too, as Fanny’s mother): the filmmaker refuses to overplay it, sidestepping Austenian sprightliness. Instead she embraces the dark differences, the negative inevitability, of this death-steeped coupling, welcoming the odd glance at the era’s intellectual life, the interplay of light and shadow. (1:59) Empire, Four Star, Opera Plaza, Piedmont. (Chun)

*Capitalism: A Love Story Gun control. The Bush administration. Healthcare. Over the past decade, Michael Moore has tackled some of the most contentious issues with his trademark blend of humor and liberal rage. In Capitalism: A Love Story, he sets his sights on an even grander subject. Where to begin when you’re talking about an economic system that has defined this nation? Predictably, Moore’s focus is on all those times capitalism has failed. By this point, his tactics are familiar, but he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. As with Sicko (2007), Moore proves he can restrain himself — he gets plenty of screen time, but he spends more time than ever behind the camera. This isn’t about Moore; it’s about the United States. When he steps out of the limelight, he’s ultimately more effective, crafting a film that’s bipartisan in nature, not just in name. No, he’s not likely to please all, but for every Glenn Beck, there’s a sane moderate wondering where all the money has gone. (2:07) California, Empire, Grand Lake, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Peitzman)

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (1:21) Oaks, 1000 Van Ness.

Coco Before Chanel Like her designs, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was elegant, très chic, and utterly original. Director Anne Fontaine’s French biopic traces Coco (Audrey Tautou) from her childhood as a struggling orphan to one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. You’ll be disappointed if you expect a fashionista’s up close and personal look at the House of Chanel, as Fontaine keeps her story firmly rooted in Coco’s past, including her destructive relationship with French playboy Etienne Balsar (Benoît Poelvoorde) and her ill-fated love affair with dashing Englishman Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola). The film functions best in scenes that display Coco’s imagination and aesthetic magnetism, like when she dances with Capel in her now famous "little black dress" amidst a sea of stiff, white meringues. Tautou imparts a quiet courage and quick wit as the trailblazing designer, and Nivola is unmistakably charming and compassionate as Boy. Nevertheless, Fontaine rushes the ending and never truly seizes the opportunity to explore how Coco’s personal life seeped into her timeless designs that were, in the end, an extension of herself.(1:50) Albany, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Swanbeck)

Couples Retreat You could call Couples Retreat a romantic comedy, but that would imply that it was romantic and funny instead of an insipid, overlong waste of time. This story of a group of married friends trying to bond with their spouses in an exotic island locale is a failure on every level. Romantic? The titular couples — four total — represent eight of the most obnoxious characters in recent memory. Sure, you’re rooting for them to work out their issues, but that’s only because awful people deserve one another. (And in a scene with an almost-shark attack, you’re rooting for the shark.) Funny? The jokes are, at best, juvenile (boners are silly!) and, at worse, offensive (sexism and hom*ophobia once more reign supreme). There is an impressive array of talent here: Vince Vaugh, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Jean Reno, etc. Alas, there’s no excusing the script, which puts these otherwise solid actors into exceedingly unlikable roles. Even the gorgeous island scenery — Couples Retreat was filmed on location in Bora-Bora — can’t make up for this waterlogged mess. (1:47) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck. (Peitzman)

*District 9 As allegories go, District 9 is not all that subtle. This is a sci-fi action flick that’s really all about racial intolerance — and to drive the point home, they went and set it in South Africa. Here’s the set-up: 20 years ago, an alien ship arrived and got stuck, hovering above the Earth. Faster than you can say "apartheid," the alien refugees were confined to a camp — the titular District 9 — where they have remained in slum-level conditions. As science fiction, it’s creative; as a metaphor, it’s effective. What’s most surprising about District 9 is the way everything comes together. This is a big, bloody summer blockbuster with feelings: for every viscera-filled splatter, there’s a moment of poignant social commentary, and nothing ever feels forced or overdone. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp has found the perfect balance and created a film that doesn’t have to compromise. District 9 is a profoundly distressing look at the human condition. It’s also one hell of a good time. (1:52) Castro. (Peitzman)

*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) Albany, Embarcadero, Empire, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

The Horse Boy Rupert Isaacson and Kristin Neff are a Texas couple struggling to raise their five-year-old autistic son Rowan. When they discover that the boy’s tantrums are soothed by contact with horses, they set out on a journey to Mongolia, where horseback riding is the preferred mode of traveling across the steppe and sacred shamans hold the promise of healing. Michael Orion Scott’s documentary is many things — lecture on autism, home video collage, family therapy session, and exotic travelogue. Above all, unfortunately, it’s a star vehicle for Isaacson, whose affecting concern for his son is constantly eclipsed by his screen-hogging concern for his own paternal image (more than once he declares that he’s a better father thanks to Rowan’s condition). The contradiction brings to mind doomed activist Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man (2005), and indeed the film could have used some of Werner Herzog’s inquisitive touch, if only to question the artistic merits of showing your son going "poopie." Twice. (1:33) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Croce)

*In the Loop A typically fumbling remark by U.K. Minister of International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) ignites a media firestorm, since it seems to suggest war is imminent even though Brit and U.S. governments are downplaying the likelihood of the Iraq invasion they’re simultaneously preparing for. Suddenly cast as an important arbiter of global affairs — a role he’s perhaps less suited for than playing the Easter Bunny — Simon becomes one chess piece in a cutthroat game whose participants on both sides of the Atlantic include his own subordinates, the prime minister’s rageaholic communications chief, major Pentagon and State Department honchos, crazy constituents, and more. Writer-director Armando Iannucci’s frenetic comedy of behind-the-scenes backstabbing and its direct influence on the highest-level diplomatic and military policies is scabrously funny in the best tradition of English television, which is (naturally) just where its creators hail from. (1:49) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

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, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)

*The Informant! The best satire makes you uncomfortable, but nothing will make you squirm in your seat like a true story that feels like satire. Director Steven Soderbergh introduces the exploits of real-life agribusiness whistleblower Mark Whitacre with whimsical fonts and campy music — just enough to get the audience’sguard down. As the pitch-perfect Matt Damon — laden with 30 extra pounds and a fright-wig toupee — gee-whizzes his way through an increasingly complicated role, Soderbergh doles out subtle doses of torturous reality, peeling back the curtain to reveal a different, unexpected curtain behind it. Informant!’s tale of board-room malfeasance is filled with mis-directing cameos, jokes, and devices, and its ingenious, layered narrative will provoke both anti-capitalist outrage and a more chimerical feeling of satisfied frustration. Above all, it’s disquietingly great. (1:48) Oaks, Opera Plaza, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Richardson)

The Invention of Lying Great concept. Great cast. All The Invention of Lying needed was a great script editor and it might have reached classic comedy territory. As it stands, it’s dragged down to mediocrity by a weak third act. This is the story of a world where no one can lie — and we’re not just talking about big lies either. The Invention of Lying presents a vision of no sarcasm, no white lies, no — gasp —creative fiction. All that changes when Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) realizes he can bend the truth. And because no one else can, everything Mark makes up becomes fact to the rubes around him. If you guessed that hilarity ensues, you’re right on the money! Watching Mark use his powers for evil (robbing the bank! seducing women!) makes for a very funny first hour. Then things take a turn for the heavy when Mark becomes a prophet by letting slip his vision of the afterlife. Faster than you can say "Jesus beard," he’s rocking a God complex and the audience is longing for the simpler laughs, like Jennifer Garner admitting to some pre-date masturbation. (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Peitzman)

Law Abiding Citizen "Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006) as re-imagined by the Saw franchise folks" apparently sounded like a sweet pitch to someone, because here we are, stuck with Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler playing bloody and increasingly ludicrous cat-and-mouse games. Foxx stars as a slick Philadelphia prosecutor whose deal-cutting careerist ways go easy on the scummy criminals responsible for murdering the wife and daughter of a local inventor (Butler). Cut to a decade later, and the doleful widower has become a vengeful mastermind with a yen for Hannibal Lecter-like skills, gruesome contraptions, and lines like "Lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten." Butler metes out punishment to his family’s killers as well as to the bureocratic minions who let them off the hook. But the talk of moral consequences is less a critique of a faulty judicial system than mere white noise, vainly used by director F. Gary Gray and writer Kurt Wimmer in hopes of classing up a grinding exploitation drama. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio. (Croce)

My One and Only (1:48) Opera Plaza.

New York, I Love You A dreamy mash note to the city that never sleeps, New York, I Love You is the latest installment in a series of omnibus odes to world metropolises and the denizens that live and love within the city limits. Less successful than the Paris, je t’aime (2006) anthology — which roped in such disparate international directors as Gus Van Sant and Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron and Olivier Assayas — New York welcomes a more minor-key host of directors to the project with enjoyable if light-weight results. Surely any bite of the Big Apple would be considerably sexier. Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo tease out a one-night stand with legs, and Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q generate a wee bit of verbal fire over street-side cigs, yet there’s surprisingly little heat in this take on a few of the 8 million stories in the archetypal naked city. Most memorable are the strangest couplings, such as that of Natalie Portman, a Hasidic bride who flirtatiously haggles with Irrfan Khan, a Jain diamond merchant, in a tale directed by Mira Nair. Despite the pleasure of witnessing Julie Christie, Eli Wallach, and Cloris Leachman in action, many of these pieces — written by the late Anthony Minghella, Israel Horovitz, and Portman, among others — feel a mite too slight to nail down the attention of all but the most desperate romantics. (1:43) Bridge, Shattuck. (Chun)

*Paranormal Activity In this ostensible found-footage exercise, Katie (Katie Featherson) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are a young San Diego couple whose first home together has a problem: someone, or something, is making things go bump in the night. In fact, Katie has sporadically suffered these disturbances since childhood, when an amorphous, not-at-reassuring entity would appear at the foot of her bed. Skeptical technophile Micah’s solution is to record everything on his primo new video camera, including a setup to shoot their bedroom while they sleep — surveillance footage sequences that grow steadily more terrifying as incidents grow more and more invasive. Like 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, Oren Peli’s no-budget first feature may underwhelm mainstream genre fans who only like their horror slick and slasher-gory. But everybody else should appreciate how convincingly the film’s very ordinary, at times annoying protagonists (you’ll eventually want to throttle Micah, whose efforts are clearly making things worse) fall prey to a hostile presence that manifests itself in increments no less alarming for being (at first) very small. When this hits DVD, you’ll get to see the original, more low-key ending (the film has also been tightened up since its festival debut two years ago). But don’t wait — Paranormal‘s subtler effects will be lost on the small screen. Not to mention that it’s a great collective screaming-audience experience. (1:39) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

*Paris Cédric Klapisch’s latest offers a series of interconnected stories with Paris as the backdrop, designed — if you’ll pardon the cliché — as a love letter to the city. On the surface, the plot of Paris sounds an awful lot like Paris, je t’aime (2006). But while the latter was composed entirely of vignettes, Paris has an actual, overarching plot. Perhaps that’s why it’s so much more effective. Juliette Binoche stars as Élise, whose brother Pierre (Romain Duris) is in dire need of a heart transplant. A dancer by trade, Pierre is also a world-class people watcher, and it’s his fascination with those around him that serves as Paris‘ wraparound device. He sees snippets of these people’s lives, but we get the full picture — or at least, something close to it. The strength of Paris is in the depth of its characters: every one we meet is more complex than you’d guess at first glance. The more they play off one another, the more we understand. Of course, the siblings remain at the film’s heart: sympathetic but not pitiable, moving but not maudlin. Both Binoche and Duris turn in strong performances, aided by a supporting cast of French actors who impress in even the smallest of roles. (2:04) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Peitzman)

The Providence Effect Located in Chicago’s gang-infested West side, the illustrious Providence St. Mel School rises above its surroundings like a flower in a swamp. Or at least it does in Rollin Binzer’s documentary, where analysis of the institution’s great achievements at times edges into a virtual pamphlet for enrollment. Focusing mainly on affable school president Paul J. Adams III, a veteran of the civil rights movement whose "impossible dream" made Providence possible, the film chronicles the daily activities of teachers and students vying for success in the face of poverty and crime. Given the school’s notoriously unwholesome environment, it’s a bit disappointing that the film chooses to exclusively follow the trajectory of model pupils, trading grittier tales of struggle in favor of a smoother ride of feel-god buzzwords and uplifting anecdotes. The documentary isn’t free of scholarly platitudes straight out of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), but, in times when teachers get as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield, its celebration of the importance of education is valuable. (1:32) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Croce)

*The September Issue The Lioness D’Wintour, the Devil Who Wears Prada, or the High Priestess of Condé Nasty — it doesn’t matter what you choose to call Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. If you’re in the fashion industry, you will call her — or at least be amused by the power she wields as the overseer of style’s luxury bible, then 700-plus pages strong for its legendary September fall fashion issue back in the heady days of ’07, pre-Great Recession. But you don’t have to be a publishing insider to be fascinated by director R.J. Cutler’s frisky, sharp-eyed look at the making of fashion’s fave editorial doorstop. Wintour’s laser-gazed facade is humanized, as Cutler opens with footage of a sparkling-eyed editor breaking down fashion’s fluffy reputation. He then follows her as she assumes the warrior pose in, say, the studio of Yves St. Laurent, where she has designer Stefano Pilati fluttering over his morose color choices, and in the offices of the magazine, where she slices, dices, and kills photo shoots like a sartorial samurai. Many of the other characters at Vogue (like OTT columnist André Leon Talley) are given mere cameos, but Wintour finds a worthy adversary-compatriot in creative director Grace Coddington, another Englishwoman and ex-model — the red-tressed, pale-as-a-wraith Pre-Raphaelite dreamer to Wintour’s well-armored knight. The two keep each other honest and craftily ingenious, and both the magazine and this doc benefit. (1:28) Presidio. (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) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

The Stepfather (1:41) 1000 Van Ness.

Toy Story and Toy Story 2 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

Where the Wild Things Are From the richly delineated illustrations and sparse text of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, director Spike Jonze and cowriter (with Jones) Dave Eggers have constructed a full-length film about the passions, travails, and interior/exterior wanderings of Sendak’s energetic young antihero, Max. Equally prone to feats of world-building and fits of overpowering, destructive rage, Max (Max Records) stampedes off into the night during one of the latter and journeys to the island where the Wild Things (voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, and Michael Berry Jr.) live — and bicker and tantrum and give in to existential despair and no longer all sleep together in a big pile. The place has possibilities, though, and Max, once crowned king, tries his best to realize them. What its inhabitants need, however, is not so much a visionary king as a good family therapist — these are some gripey, defensive, passive-aggressive Wild Things, and Max, aged somewhere around 10, can’t fix their interpersonal problems. Jonze and Eggers do well at depicting Max’s temporary kingdom, its forests and deserts, its creatures and their half-finished creations from a past golden era, as well as subtly reminding us now and again that all of this — the island, the arguments, the sadness — is streaming from the mind of a fierce, wildly imaginative young child with familial troubles of his own, equally beyond his power to resolve. They’ve also invested the film with a slow, grim depressive mood that can make for unsettling viewing, particularly when pondering the Maxes in the audience, digesting an oft-disheartening tale about family conflict and relationship repair. (1:48) Four Star, Grand Lake, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Whip It What’s a girl to do? Stuck in small town hell, Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), the gawky teen heroine of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, faces a pressing dilemma — conform to the standards of stifling beauty pageantry to appease her mother or rebel and enter the rough-and tumble world of roller derby. Shockingly enough, Bliss chooses to escape to Austin and join the Hurl Scouts, a rowdy band of misfits led by the maternal Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig) and the accident-prone Smashley Simpson (Barrymore). Making a bid for grrrl empowerment, Bliss dawns a pair of skates, assumes the moniker Babe Ruthless, and is suddenly throwing her weight around not only in the rink, but also in school where she’s bullied. Painfully predictable, the action comes to a head when, lo and behold, the dates for the Bluebonnet Pageant and the roller derby championship coincide. At times funny and charming with understated performances by Page and Alia Shawcat as Bliss’ best friend, Whip It can’t overcome its paper-thin characters, plot contrivances, and requisite scenery chewing by Jimmy Fallon as a cheesy announcer and Juliette Lewis as a cutthroat competitor. (1:51) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Swanbeck)

*Zombieland First things first: it’s clever, but it ain’t no Shaun of the Dead (2004). That said, Zombieland is an outstanding zombie comedy, largely thanks to Woody Harrelson’s performance as Tallahassee, a tough guy whose passion for offing the undead is rivaled only by his raging Twinkie jones. Set in a world where zombies have already taken over (the beginning stages of the outbreak are glimpsed only in flashback), Zombieland presents the creatures as yet another annoyance for Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg, who’s nearly finished morphing into Michael Cera), a onetime antisocial shut-in who has survived only by sticking to a strict set of rules (the "double tap," or always shooting each zombie twice, etc.) This odd couple meets a sister team (Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin), who eventually lay off their grifting ways so that Columbus can have a love interest (in Stone) and Tallahassee, still smarting from losing a loved one to zombies, can soften up a scoch by schooling the erstwhile Little Miss Sunshine in target practice. Sure, it’s a little heavy on the nerd-boy voiceover, but Zombieland has just enough goofiness and gushing guts to counteract all them brrraiiinss. (1:23) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

REP PICKS

*Sorry, Thanks Though part of San Francisco Film Society’s week-long "Cinema by the Bay" program and featuring plenty of choice views of the Mission district, Dia Sokol’s feature debut is really set in the mythical land of Mumblecoria, where conversations are only half heard and fuzzy twentysomethings looking for self-discovery make up most of the population. We meet Kira (Kenya Miles) and Max (Wiley Wiggins) in the awkward aftermath of a one-night stand, hoping to not run into each other as they go their separate paths. Naturally, the opposite happens and the two develop a tentatively flirtatious relationship, complicated by Kira’s recent romantic woes and Max’s sweet-natured girlfriend (Ia Hernandez). Brimming with alternately whimsical and irritating mumblecore staples (complete with an appearance by mumble-auteur Andrew Bujalski as Max’s crabby pal), Sorry, Thanks is a modest but often affecting deadpan comedy that, due to Sokol’s deft sense of crisscrossing emotions and winning performances by Miles and Wiggins (who still has the softness he showed in 1993’s Dazed and Confused), ends up more "thanks" than "sorry." (1:33) Clay. (Croce)

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Movies Archives — Page 48 of 69 — San Francisco Bay Guardian Archive 1966–2014 (2024)

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