Film Listings and Reviews

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.

OPENING

Back to 1942 Multiple storylines wend through Feng Xiaogang's historical epic about a devastating drought that brought famine to China's Henan province. Abandoned by their government, millions of refugees would eventually die in a situation compounded by corrupt officials, the Chinese army's demands on the region's nonexistent grain stores, and looming Japanese troops. The scenes from the road are grim, on both small (a desperate family tries to trade their child for grain) and larger (Japanese bombing raids, cannibalism) scales — though there are moments of hope, as when rival families put aside their differences to help a pregnant daughter. (Hope doesn't last, though: when the baby is born, the half-dead mother mutters, "Kill it.") Meanwhile, an American journalist (Adrien Brody) chases the story with the help of a priest (Tim Robbins, working a distracting accent); after witnessing horrors in Henan, his reporting helps nudge the government into action, however slightly. It would take an exceptionally even hand to prevent this heavily tragic material from sliding face first into melodrama, something Back to 1942 doesn't even attempt to do. Whether you feel moved or manipulated is up to you. (2:26) Presidio. (Eddy)

The Collection A young woman is kidnapped by a torture-happy killer. (1:23)

Dragon Donnie Yen and Takeshi Kaneshiro star in this detective-meets-wuxia film set in 1917 China. (1:51)

Just 45 Minutes From Broadway Henry Jaglom's latest is about a struggling actor who heads to upstate New York for a her eclectic family's Passover Seder. (1:59) Roxie.

Killing Them Softly Lowest-level criminal fuckwits Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are hired to rob a mob gambling den, a task which miraculously they fail to blow. Nevertheless, the repercussions are swift and harsh, as a middleman suit (Richard Jenkins) to the unseen bosses brings in one hitman (Brad Pitt), who brings in another (James Gandolfini) to figure out who the thieves are and administer extreme justice. Based on a 1970s novel by George V. Higgins, this latest collaboration by Pitt and director-scenarist Andrew Dominik would appear superficially to be a surer commercial bet after the box-office failure of their last, 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford — one of the great films of the last decade. But if you're looking for action thrills or even Guy Ritchie-style swaggering mantalk (though there is some of that), you'll be disappointed to find Killing more in the abstracted crime drama arena of Drive (2011) or The American (2010), landing somewhere between the riveting former and the arid latter. This meticulously crafted tale is never less than compelling in imaginative direction and expert performance, but it still carries a certain unshakable air of so-what. Some may be turned off by just how vividly unpleasant Mendelsohn's junkie and Gandolfini's alchie are. Others will shrug at the wisdom of re-setting this story in the fall of 2008, with financial-infrastructure collapse and the hollow promise of President-elect Obama's "Change" providing ironical background noise. It's all a little too little, too soon. (1:37) Four Star, Marina. (Harvey)

Starlet Fresh off the bus from Florida, Jane (Dree Hemingway, daughter of the perennially undervalued Mariel) is living an indolent existence in the San Fernando Valley — it takes a while for us to realize she even has a job, albeit a pretty irregular and undemanding one. (Hint: What movie industry is largely based in the Valley? Second hint: It's not the non-porn one.) Most of the time she just hangs about with her equally immature, similarly employed housemates, tanning and playing with her little dog. When a chance find at a yard sale yields a stash of hidden cash, Jane goes on a brief spending spree, then guiltily tries to return the remaining cash to Sadie (Besedka Johnson). The latter is an extra-cranky elderly woman who has no idea she's missing any money and slams the door in Jane's face before she can explain. Undaunted, perhaps needing some semblance of family in her vapid new life, Jane basically forces her friendship on the old lady, with eventual success albeit a few speed bumps. Sean Baker's film is often an uncomfortable watch, because the dynamic between lead characters is so frequently awkward and discordant. (And also because the other major figures, Jane's housemates played by Stella Maeve and James Ransome, are so completely obnoxious.) But its resistance to easy odd-couple sentimentality ultimately works to Starlet's favor, making the low key (like everything else here) close unexpectedly poignant. Real-life adult entertainment stars Manuel Ferrara and Asa Akira appear as themselves. (1:59) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

ONGOING

Anna Karenina Joe Wright broke out of British TV with the 9,000th filmed Pride and Prejudice (2005), unnecessary but quite good. Too bad it immediately went to his head. His increasing showiness as director enlivened the silly teenage-superspy avenger fantasy Hanna (2011), but it started to get in the way of Atonement (2007), a fine book didn't need camera gymnastics to make a great movie. Now it's completely sunk a certified literary masterpiece still waiting for a worthy film adaptation. Keira Knightley plays the titular 19th century St. Petersburg aristocrat whose staid, happy-enough existence as a doting mother and dutiful wife (to deglammed Jude Law's honorable but neglectful Karenin) is upended when she enters a mutually passionate affair with dashing military officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, miscast). Scandal and tragedy ensue. There's nothing wrong with the screenplay, by Tom Stoppard no less. What's wrong is Wright's bright idea of staging the whole shebang as if it were indeed staged — a theatrical production in which nearly everything (even a crucial horse race) takes place on a proscenium stage, in the auditorium, or "backstage" among riggings. Whenever we move into a "real" location, the director makes sure that transition draws attention to its own cleverness as possible. What, you might ask, is the point? That the public social mores and society Anna lives in are a sort of "acting"? Like wow. Add to that another brittle, mannered performance by Wright's muse Knightley, and there's no hope of involvement here, let alone empathy — in love with its empty (but very prettily designed) layers of artifice, this movie ends up suffocating all emotion in gilded horseshit. The reversed-fortune romance between Levin (Domhall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander) does work quite well — though since Tolstoy called his novel Anna Karenina, it's a pretty bad sign when the subsidiary storyline ends up vastly more engaging than hers. (2:10) Albany, Metreon, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Argo If you didn't know the particulars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, you won't be an expert after Argo, but the film does a good job of capturing America's fearful reaction to the events that followed it — particularly the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran. Argo zeroes in on the fate of six embassy staffers who managed to escape the building and flee to the home of the sympathetic Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Back in Washington, short-tempered CIA agents (including a top-notch Bryan Cranston) cast about for ways to rescue them. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs), exfil specialist and father to a youngster wrapped up in the era's sci-fi craze. While watching 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Tony comes up with what Cranston's character calls "the best bad idea we have:" the CIA will fund a phony Canadian movie production (corny, intergalactic, and titled Argo) and pretend the six are part of the crew, visiting Iran for a few days on a location shoot. Tony will sneak in, deliver the necessary fake-ID documents, and escort them out. Neither his superiors, nor the six in hiding, have much faith in the idea. ("Is this the part where we say, 'It's so crazy it just might work?'" someone asks, beating the cliché to the punch.) Argo never lets you forget that lives are at stake; every painstakingly forged form, every bluff past a checkpoint official increases the anxiety (to the point of being laid on a bit thick by the end). But though Affleck builds the needed suspense with gusto, Argo comes alive in its Hollywood scenes. As the show-biz veterans who mull over Tony's plan with a mix of Tinseltown cynicism and patiotic duty, John Goodman and Alan Arkin practically burst with in-joke brio. I could have watched an entire movie just about those two. (2:00) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

The Big Picture Trading places, especially under sinister circumstances, seems unnervingly easy to do — if you're the talented Mr. Ripley or The Big Picture's adorably scruffy bourgeois-on-the-run Paul (Romain Duris of 2005's The Beat That My Heart Skipped). Coming from wealth and amiably going through the motions of upper-middle-class lawyerly life with his wife (Marina Fois) and kids, Paul is accustomed to relegating his love of photography to the sidelines as a hobby. So when photojournalist neighbor Gregoire (Eric Ruf) has a freakish accident, Paul throws himself down the rabbit hole of another man's identity. Is it possible to completely start over — and is there a kind of freedom in death? Working from Douglas Kennedy's novel, director and co-writer Eric Lartigau keeps his camera firmly fixed on his camera-wielding, metamorphosing lead, sidestepping the meta and going for the clearly Hitchcockian (though Hitch would probably reject the occasional cheesy slow-motion effect and reach for something more visually or technically audacious). To his credit, Lartigau keeps the audience guessing even beyond the credits, making this noir something of an artist's parable, while Duris makes you root for his haunted, puppy-dog-ish Paul as he falls, finds his métier, and tumbles once more. (1:50) Embarcadero. (Chun)

Chasing Ice Even wild-eyed neocons might reconsider their declarations that global warming is a hoax after seeing the work of photographer James Balog, whose images of shrinking glaciers offer startling proof that our planet is indeed being ravaged by climate change (and it's getting exponentially worse). Jeff Orlowski's doc follows Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey team as they brave cruel elements in Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska, using time-lapse cameras to record glacier activity, some of it quite dramatic, over months and years. Balog is an affable subject, doggedly pursuing his work even after multiple knee surgeries make him a less-than-agile hiker, but it's the photographs — as hauntingly beautiful as they are alarming — that make Chasing Ice so powerful. Could've done without Scarlett Johansson crooning over the end credits, though. (1:15) California, Embarcadero. (Eddy)

Cloud Atlas Cramming the six busy storylines of David Mitchell's wildly ambitious novel into just three hours — the average reader might have thought at least 12 would be required — this impressive adaptation directed (in separate parts) by Tom Twyker (1998's Run Lola Run) and Matrix siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski has a whole lot of narrative to get through, stretching around the globe and over centuries. In the mid 19th century, Jim Sturgess' sickly American notory endures a long sea voyage as reluctant protector of a runaway-slave stowaway from the Chatham Islands (David Gyasi). In 1931 Belgium, a talented but criminally minded British musician (Ben Whishaw) wheedles his way into the household of a famous but long-inactive composer (Jim Broadbent). A chance encounter sets 1970s San Francisco journalist Luisa (Halle Berry) on the path of a massive cover-up conspiracy, swiftly putting her life in danger. Circa now, a reprobate London publisher's (Broadbent) huge windfall turns into bad luck that gets even worse when he seeks help from his brother (Hugh Grant). In the not-so-distant future, a disposable "fabricant" server to the "consumer" classes (Doona Bae) finds herself plucked from her cog-like life for a rebellious higher purpose. Finally, in an indeterminately distant future after "the Fall," an island tribesman (Tom Hanks) forms a highly ambivalent relationship toward a visitor (Berry) from a more advanced but dying civilization. Mitchell's book was divided into huge novella-sized blocks, with each thread split in two; the film wastes very little time establishing its individual stories before beginning to rapidly intercut between them. That may result in a sense of information (and eventually action) overload, particularly for non-readers, even as it clarifies the connective tissues running throughout. Compression robs some episodes of the cumulative impact they had on the page; the starry multicasting (which in addition to the above mentioned finds many uses for Hugo Weaving, Keith David, James D'Arcy, and Susan Sarandon) can be a distraction; and there's too much uplift forced on the six tales' summation. Simply put, not everything here works; like the very different Watchmen, this is a rather brilliant "impossible adaptation" screenplay (by the directors) than nonetheless can't help but be a bit too much. But so much does work — in alternating currents of satire, melodrama, pulp thriller, dystopian sci-fi, adventure, and so on — that Cloud Atlas must be forgiven for being imperfect. If it were perfect, it couldn't possibly sprawl as imaginatively and challengingly as it does, and as mainstream movies very seldom do. (2:52) California, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)

The Comedy Though it stars Adult Swim personalities Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, and has a seemingly obvious title, The Comedy is not what you think it is. Prepare to cringe, be outraged, or (worst of all) be bored, as Heidecker's character — a 35-year-old hipster whose schlubby appearance belies the fact that he's swimming in inherited wealth — drifts around New York, provoking unsuspecting victims with his awkward, obnoxious behavior. He's sarcastic, entitled, and appears to have no actual emotions. It's possible that The Comedy (directed by Rick Alverson, who's also credited as a co-writer, though I'd guess some of the film is improvised) is aiming to make a larger statement (generational malaise?), but the film is most notable for its sustained mood of who-gives-a-fuck-ness. Tight close-ups further underscore how self-centered the characters are, a choice designed to heighten the audience's discomfort. You can't engage with anyone in The Comedy, but neither can you look away. (1:34) Roxie. (Eddy)

The Flat Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat begins as the filmmaker's family descends upon the Tel Aviv apartment of his recently-deceased grandmother, "a bit of a hoarder" who lived to 95 and seemingly never got rid of anything. This includes, as Goldfinger discovers, copies of the Joseph Goebbels-founded newspaper Der Angriff, containing articles about "the Nazi who visited Palestine." The Nazi was Leopold von Mildenstein, an SS officer with an interest in Zionism. Turns out he made the journey in 1933 with his wife and a Jewish couple named Kurt and Gerda Tuchler — Goldfinger's grandparents. Understandably intrigued and more than a little baffled, Goldfinger investigates, finding letters and diary entries that reveal the unlikely traveling companions were close friends, even after World War II. His mother, the Tuchler's daughter, prefers to "keep the past out," but curiosity (and the pursuit of a good documentary) presses Goldfinger forward; he visits von Mildenstein's elderly daughter in Germany, digs through German archives, and unearths even more suprises about his family tree. Broader themes about guilt and denial emerge — post-traumatic coping mechanisms that echo through generations.

(1:37) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

Flight To twist the words of one troubled balladeer, he believes he can fly, he believes he can touch the sky. Unfortunately for Denzel Washington's Whip Whitaker, another less savory connotation applies: his semi-sketchy airline captain is sailing on the overconfidence that comes with billowing clouds of blow. Beware the quickie TV spot — and Washington's heroic stance in the poster — that plays this as a quasi-action flick: Flight is really about a man's efforts to escape responsibility and his flight from facing his own addiction. It also sees Washington once again doing what he does so well: wrestling with the demons of a charismatic yet deeply flawed protagonist. We come upon Whip as he's rousing himself from yet another bender, balancing himself out with a couple lines with a gorgeous, enabling flight attendant by his side. It's a checks-and-balances routine we're led to believe is business as usual, as he slides confidently into the cockpit, gives the passengers a good scare by charging through turbulence, and proceeds to doze off. The plane, however, goes into fail mode and forces the pilot to improvise brilliantly and kick into hero mode, though he can't fly from his cover, which is slowly blown despite the ministrations of kindred addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and dealer Harling (John Goodman at his most ebullient) and the defensive moves of his pilots union cohort (Bruce Greenwood) and the airline's lawyer (Don Cheadle). How can Whip fly out of the particular jam called his life? Working with what he's given, Washington summons reserves of humanity, though he's ultimately failed by John Gatins' sanctimonious, recovery-by-the-numbers script and the tendency of seasoned director Robert Zemeckis to blithely skip over the personal history and background details that would have more completely filled out our picture of Whip. We're left grasping for the highs, waiting for the instances that Harling sails into view and Whip tumbles off the wagon. (2:18) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Hitchcock On the heels of last year's My Week With Marilyn comes another biopic about an instantly recognizable celebrity viewed through the lens of a specific film shoot. Here, we have Anthony Hopkins (padded and prosthetic'd) playing the Master of Suspense, mulling over which project to pursue after the success of 1959's North by Northwest. Even if you're not a Hitch buff, it's clear from the first scene that Psycho, based on Robert Bloch's true crime-inspired pulpy thriller, is looming. We open on "Ed Gein's Farmhouse, 1944;" Gein (Michael Wincott) is seen in his yard, his various heinous crimes — murder, grave-robbing, body-part hoarding, human-skin-mask crafting, etc. — as yet undiscovered. Hitchcock, portrayed by the guy who also played the Gein-inspired Hannibal Lecter, steps into the frame with that familiar droll greeting: "Guhhd eevvveeeening." And we're off, following the veteran director as he muses "What if somebody really good made a horror picture?" Though his wife and collaborator, Alma (Helen Mirren), cautions him against doing something simply because everyone tells him not to, he plows ahead; the filmmaking scenes are peppered with behind-the-scenes moments detailed in Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the source material for John J. McLaughlin's script. But as the film's tagline — "Behind every Psycho is a great woman" — suggests, the relationship between Alma and Hitch is, stubbornly, Hitchcock's main focus. While Mirren is effective (and I'm all for seeing a lady who works hard behind the scenes get recognition), the Hitch-at-home subplot exists only to shoehorn more conflict into a tale that's got plenty already. Elsewhere, however, Hitchcock director Sacha Gervasi — making his narrative debut after hit 2008 doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil — shows stylistic flair, working Hitchcock references into the mise-en-scène. (1:32) California, Metreon, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Holy Motors Holy moly. Offbeat auteur Leos Carax (1999's Pola X) and frequent star Denis Lavant (1991's Lovers on the Bridge) collaborate on one of the most bizarrely wonderful films of the year, or any year. Oscar (Lavant) spends every day riding around Paris in a white limo driven by Céline (Edith Scob, whose eerie role in 1960's Eyes Without a Face is freely referenced here). After making use of the car's full complement of wigs, theatrical make-up, and costumes, he emerges for "appointments" with unseen "clients," who apparently observe each vignette as it happens. And don't even try to predict what's coming next, or decipher what it all means, beyond an investigation of identity so original you won't believe your eyes. This wickedly humorous trip through motion-capture suits, graveyard photo shoots, teen angst, back-alley gangsters, old age, and more (yep, that's the theme from 1954's Godzilla you hear; oh, and yep, that's pop star Kylie Minogue) is equal parts disturbing and delightful. Movies don't get more original or memorable than this. (1:56) Embarcadero. (Eddy)

A Late Quartet Philip Seymour Hoffman is fed up playing second fiddle — literally. He stars in this grown-up soap opera about the internal dramas of a world-class string quartet. While the group is preparing for its 25th season, the eldest member (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with early stage Parkinson's. As he's the base note in the quartet, his retirement challenges the group's future, not just his own. Hoffman's second violinist sees the transition as an opportunity to challenge the first violin (Mark Ivanir) for an occasional Alpha role. When his wife, the quartet's viola player (Catherine Keener), disagrees, it's a slight ("You think I'm not good enough?") and a betrayal because prior to their marriage, viola and first violin would "duet" if you get my meaning. This becomes a grody aside when Hoffman and Keener's violin prodigy daughter (Imogen Poots) falls for her mother's old beau and Hoffman challenges their marriage with a flamenco dancer. These quiet people finds ways to use some loud instruments (a flamenco dancer, really?) and the music as well as the views of Manhattan create a deeply settled feeling of comfort in the cold —insulation can be a dangerous thing. When we see (real world) cellist Nina Lee play, and her full body interacts with a drama as big as vaudeville, we see what tension was left out of the playing and forced into the incestuous "family" conflicts. In A Late Quartet, pleasures are great and atmosphere, heavy. You couldn't find a better advertisement for this symphonic season; I wanted to buy tickets immediately. And also vowed to stay away from musicians. (1:45) Albany, Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Vizcarrondo)

Life of Pi Several filmmakers including Alfonso Cuarón, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and M. Night Shyamalan had a crack at Yann Martel's "unfilmable" novel over the last decade, without success. That turns out to have been a very good thing, since Ang Lee and scenarist David Magee have made probably the best movie possible from the material — arguably even an improvement on it. Framed as the adult protagonist's (Irrfan Khan) lengthy reminiscence to an interested writer (Rafe Spall) it chronicles his youthful experience accompanying his family and animals from their just shuttered zoo on a cargo ship voyage from India to Canada. But a storm capsizes the vessel, stranding teenaged Pi (Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with a mini menagerie — albeit one swiftly reduced by the food chain in action to one Richard Parker, a whimsically named Bengal tiger. This uneasy forced cohabitation between Hindu vegetarian and instinctual carnivore is an object lesson in survival as well as a fable about the existence of God, among other things. Shot in 3D, the movie has plenty of enchanted, original imagery, though its outstanding technical accomplishment may lie more in the application of CGI (rather than stereoscopic photography) to something reasonably intelligent for a change. First-time actor Sharma is a natural, while his costar gives the most remarkable performance by a wild animal this side of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. It's not a perfect film, but it's a charmed, lovely experience. (2:00) Balboa, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Lincoln Distinguished subject matter and an A+ production team (Steven Spielberg directing, Daniel Day-Lewis starring, Tony Kushner adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Williams scoring every emotion juuust so) mean Lincoln delivers about what you'd expect: a compelling (if verbose), emotionally resonant (and somehow suspenseful) dramatization of President Lincoln's push to get the 13th amendment passed before the start of his second term. America's neck-deep in the Civil War, and Congress, though now without Southern representation, is profoundly divided on the issue of abolition. Spielberg recreates 1865 Washington as a vibrant, exciting place, albeit one filled with so many recognizable stars it's almost distracting wondering who'll pop up in the next scene: Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant! Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln! Lena Dunham's shirtless boyfriend on Girls (Adam Driver) as a soldier! Most notable among the huge cast are John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a daffy James Spader as a trio of lobbyists; Sally Field as the troubled First Lady; and likely Oscar contenders Tommy Lee Jones (as winningly cranky Rep. Thaddeus Stevens) and Day-Lewis, who does a reliably great job of disappearing into his iconic role. (2:30) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

The Other Son The plot of ABC Family's Switched at Birth gets a politically-minded makeover in Lorraine Lévy's The Other Son, in which the mixed-up teens represent both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. When mop-topped wannabe rocker Joseph (Jules Sitruk) dutifully signs up for Israeli military duty, the required blood test reveals he's not the biological son of his parents. Understandably freaked out, his French-Israeli mother (Emmanuelle Devos) finds out that a hospital error during a Gulf War-era evacuation meant she and husband Alon (Pascal Elbé) went home with the wrong infant — and their child, aspiring doctor Yacine (Medhi Dehbi), was raised instead by a Palestinian couple (Areen Omari, Khalifia Natour). It's a highly-charged situation on many levels ("Am I still Jewish?", a tearful Joseph asks; "Have fun with the occupying forces?", Yacine's bitter brother inquires after his family visits Joseph in Tel Aviv), and potential for melodrama is sky-high. Fortunately, director and co-writer Levy handles the subject with admirable sensitivity, and the film is further buoyed by strong performances. (1:53) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Move over, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series — there's a new shrinking-violet social outcast in town. These days, life might not suck quite so hard for 90-pound weaklings in every age category, what with so many films and TV shows exposing, and sometimes even celebrating, the many miseries of childhood and adolescence for all to see. In this case, Perks author Stephen Chbosky takes on the directorial duties — both a good and bad thing, much like the teen years. Smart, shy Charlie is starting high school with a host of issues: he's painfully awkward and very alone in the brutal throng, his only friend just committed suicide, and his only simpatico family member was killed in a car accident. Charlie's English teacher Mr. Andersen (Paul Rudd) appears to be his only connection, until the freshman strikes up a conversation with feline, charismatic, shop-class jester Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his magnetic, music- and fun-loving stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). Who needs the popular kids? The witty duo head up their gang of coolly uncool outcasts their own, the Wallflowers (not to be confused with the deeply uncool Jakob Dylan combo), and with them, Charlie appears to have found his tribe. Only a few small secrets put a damper on matters: Patrick happens to be gay and involved with football player Brad (Johnny Simmons), who's saddled with a violently conservative father, and Charlie is in love with the already-hooked-up Sam and is frightened that his fragile equilibrium will be destroyed when his new besties graduate and slip out of his life. Displaying empathy and a devotion to emotional truth, Chbosky takes good care of his characters, preserving the complexity and ungainly quirks of their not-so-cartoonish suburbia, though his limitations as a director come to the fore in the murkiness and choppily handled climax that reveals how damaged Charlie truly is. (1:43) Bridge, Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Chun)

Pitch Perfect As an all-female college a cappella group known as the Barden Bellas launches into Ace of Base's "The Sign" during the prologue of Pitch Perfect, you can hear the Glee-meets-Bring It On elevator pitch. Which is fine, since Bring It On-meets-anything is clearly worth a shot. In this attempt, Anna Kendrick stars as withdrawn and disaffected college freshman Beca, who dreams of producing music in L.A. but is begrudgingly getting a free ride at Barden University via her comp lit professor father. Clearly his goal is not making sure she receives a liberal arts education, as Barden's academic jungle extends to the edges of the campus's competitive a cappella scene, and the closest thing to an intellectual challenge occurs during a "riff-off" between a cappella gangs at the bottom of a mysteriously drained swimming pool. When Beca reluctantly joins the Bellas, she finds herself caring enough about the group's fate to push for an Ace of Base moratorium and radical steps like performing mashups. Much as 2000's Bring It On coined terms like "cheerocracy" and "having cheer-sex," Pitch Perfect gives us the infinitely applicable prefix "a ca-" and descriptives like "getting Treble-boned," a reference to forbidden sexual relations with the Bellas' cocky rivals, the Treblemakers. The gags get funnier, dirtier, and weirder, arguably reaching their climax in projectile-vomit snow angels, with Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as grin-panning competition commentators offering a string of loopily inappropriate observations. (1:52) Metreon. (Rapoport)

Red Dawn A remake of a 1984 movie that seemed a pretty nutty ideological throwback even during the Reagan Era's revived Cold War air conditioning, Red Dawn should have come out a couple years ago, having been shot late 2009. But in the meantime MGM was undergoing yet another seismic financial rupture, and as the film sat around for lack of the means needed for distribution and marketing, it occurred that perhaps it already had a fatal, internal flaw. You see, this update re-cast our invaders from Russkies to People's Republicans, tapping into the modern fear of China as debtor and international bully. But: China is also a huge fledgling market for Hollywood product. So a tortured makeover of the remake ensued; scenes were added, re-shot, and digitally altered to impose a drastic narrative change. The new villain is absurd it gets acknowledged as such by dialogue: "North Korea? It doesn't make any sense!" Yup, in the new Red Dawn a coastal Washington state burg is the first attack point in a wholesale invasion of the U.S. (pop. 315 million) by the Democratic People's Republic (pop. 25 million). It's football season, so a Spokane suburb's team — Wolverines!! — lends its name as battle cry and its revved up healthy young flesh as guerilla martyrs to the fight for, ohm yeah, freedom. Do they drink beer? Do they rescue cheerleader girlfriends from concentration camps? Do they kick North Korean ass? Do you really need to ask? (1:34) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Rise of the Guardians There's nothing so camp as "Heat Miser" from The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) in Rise of the Guardians,, but there's plenty here to charm all ages. The mystery at its center: we open on Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine) being born, pulled from the depths of a frozen pond by the Man on the Moon and destined to spread ice and cold everywhere he goes, invisible to all living creatures. It's an individualistic yet lonely lot for Jack, who's styled as an impish snowboarder in a hoodie and armed with an icy scepter, until the Guardians — spirits like North/Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) — call on him to join them. Pitch the Boogeyman (Jude Law) is threatening to snuff out all children's hopes and dreams with fears and nightmares, and it's up to the Guardians must keep belief in magic alive. But what's in it for Jack, except the most important thing: namely who is he and what is his origin story? Director Peter Ramsey keeps those fragile dreams aloft with scenes awash with motion and animation that evokes the chubby figures and cozy warm tones of '70s European storybooks. And though Pine verges on blandness with his vocal performance, Baldwin, Jackman, and Fisher winningly deliver the jokes. (1:38) Balboa, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

A Royal Affair At age 15 in 1766, British princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) travels abroad to a new life — as queen to the new ruler of Denmark, her cousin. Attractive and accomplished, she is judged a great success by everyone but her husband. King Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is just a teenager himself, albeit one whose mental illness makes him behave alternately like a debauched libertine, a rude two year-old, a sulky-rebellious adolescent, and a plain old abusive spouse. Once her principal official duty is fulfilled — bearing a male heir — the two do their best to avoid each other. But on a tour of Europe Christian meets German doctor Johann Friedrich Struenesse (Mads Mikkelsen), a true man of the Enlightenment who not only has advanced notions about calming the monarch's "eccentricities," but proves a tolerant and agreeable royal companion. Lured back to Denmark as the King's personal physician, he soon infects the cultured Queen with the fervor of his progressive ideas, while the two find themselves mutually attracted on less intellectual levels as well. When they start manipulating their unstable but malleable ruler to push much-needed public reforms through in the still basically feudal nation, they begin acquiring powerful enemies. This very handsome-looking history lesson highlights a chapter relatively little-known here, and finds in it an interesting juncture in the eternal battle between masters and servants, the piously self-interested and the secular humanists. At the same time, Nikolaj Arcel's impressively mounted and acted film is also somewhat pedestrian and overlong. It's a quality costume drama, but not a great one. (2:17) Clay, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter's stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock'n'roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician — long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) Opera Plaza. (Chun)

The Sessions Polio has long since paralyzed the body of Berkeley poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) from the neck down. Of course his mind is free to roam — but it often roams south of the personal equator, where he hasn't had the same opportunities as able-bodied people. Thus he enlists the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate, to lose his virginity at last. Based on the real-life figures' experiences, this drama by Australian polio survivor Ben Lewin was a big hit at Sundance this year (then titled The Surrogate), and it's not hard to see why: this is one of those rare inspirational feel-good stories that doesn't pander and earns its tears with honest emotional toil. Hawkes is always arresting, but Hunt hasn't been this good in a long time, and William H. Macy is pure pleasure as a sympathetic priest put in numerous awkward positions with the Lord by Mark's very down-to-earth questions and confessions. (1:35) Embarcadero, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Seven Psychopaths Those nostalgic for 1990s-style chatty assassins will find much to love in the broadly sketched Seven Psychopaths. Director-writer Martin McDonough already dipped a pen into Tarantino's blood-splattered ink well with his 2008 debut feature, In Bruges, and Seven Psychopaths reads as larkier and more off-the-cuff, as the award-winning Irish playwright continues to try to find his own discomfiting, teasing balance between goofy Grand Guignol yuks and meta-minded storytelling. Structured, sort of, with the certified lucidity of a thrill killer, Seven Psychopaths opens on Boardwalk Empire heavies Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg bantering about the terrors of getting shot in the eyeball, while waiting to "kill a chick." The talky twosome don't seem capable of harming a fat hen, in the face of the Jack of Spades serial killer, who happens to be Psychopath No. One and a serial destroyer of hired guns. The key to the rest of the psychopathic gang is locked in the noggin of screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell), who's grappling with a major block and attempting the seeming impossible task of creating a peace-loving, Buddhist killer. Looking on are his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) and actor best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who has a lucrative side gig as a dog kidnapper — and reward snatcher — with the dapper Hans (Christopher Walken). A teensy bit too enthusiastic about Marty's screenplay, Billy displays a talent for stumbling over psychos, reeling in Zachariah (Tom Waits) and, on his doggie-grabbing adventures, Shih Tzu-loving gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Unrest assured, leitmotifs from McDonough plays — like a preoccupation with fiction-making (The Pillowman) and the coupling of pet-loving sentimentality and primal violence (The Lieutenant of Inishmore) — crop up in Seven Psychopaths, though in rougher, less refined form, and sprinkled with a nervous, bromantic anxiety that barely skirts homophobia. Best to bask in the cute, dumb pleasures of a saucer-eyed lap dog and the considerably more mental joys of this cast, headed up by dear dog hunter Walken, who can still stir terror with just a withering gaze and a voice that can peel the finish off a watch. (1:45) Metreon. (Chun)

Silver Linings Playbook After guiding two actors to Best Supporting Oscars in 2010's The Fighter, director David O. Russell returns (adapting his script from Matthew Quick's novel) with another darkly comedic film about a complicated family that will probably earn some gold of its own. Though he's obviously not ready to face the outside world, Pat (Bradley Cooper) checks out of the state institution he's been court-ordered to spend eight months in after displaying some serious anger-management issues. He moves home with his football-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and worrywart mother (Jacki Weaver of 2010's Animal Kingdom), where he plunges into a plan to win back his estranged wife. Cooper plays Pat as a man vibrating with troubled energy — always in danger of flying into a rage, even as he pursues his forced-upbeat "silver linings" philosophy. But the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, who proves the chops she showcased (pre-Hunger Games megafame) in 2010's Winter's Bone were no fluke. As the damaged-but-determined Tiffany, she's the left-field element that jolts Pat out of his crazytown funk; she's also the only reason Playbook's dance-competition subplot doesn't feel eye-rollingly clichéd. The film's not perfect, but Lawrence's layered performance — emotional, demanding, bitchy, tough-yet-secretly-tender — damn near is. (2:01) Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Skyfall Top marks to Adele, who delivers a magnificent title song to cap off Skyfall's thrilling pre-credits chase scene. Unfortunate, then, that the film that follows squanders its initial promise. After a bomb attack on MI6, the clock is running out for Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench), accused of Cold War irrelevancy in a 21st century full of malevolent, stateless computer hackers. The audience, too, will yearn for a return to simpler times; dialogue about "firewalls" and "obfuscated code" never fails to sound faintly ridiculous, despite the efforts Ben Whishaw as the youthful new head of Q branch. Javier Bardem is creative and creepy as keyboard-tapping villain Raoul Silva, but would have done better with a megalomaniac scheme to take over the world. Instead, a small-potatoes revenge plot limps to a dull conclusion in the middle of nowhere. Skyfall never decides whether it prefers action, bons mots, and in-jokes to ponderous mythologizing and ripped-from-the-headlines speechifying — the result is a unsatisfying, uneven mixture. (2:23) Four Star, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Ben Richardson)

Taken 2 Surprise hit Taken (2008) was a soap opera produced by French action master Luc Besson and designed for export. The divorced-dad-saves-daughter-from-sex-slavery plot may have nagged at some universal parenting anxieties, but it was a Movie of the Week melodrama made on a major movie budget. Taken 2 begins immediately after the last, with sweet teen Kim (Maggie Grace) talking about normalizing after she was drugged and bought for booty. Papa Neeson sees Kim's mom (Famke Janssen) losing her grip on husband number two and invites them both to holiday in Istanbul following one of his high-stakes security gigs. When the assistant with the money slinks him a fat envelope, Neeson chuckles at his haul. This is the point when women in the audience choose which Neeson they're watching: the understated super-provider or the warrior-dad whose sense of duty can meet no match. For family men, this is the breeziest bit of vicarious living available; Neeson's character is a tireless daddy duelist, a man as diligent as he is organized. (This is guy who screams "Victory loves preparation!") As head-splitting, disorienting, and generally exhausting as the action direction is, Neeson saves his ex-wife and the show in a stream of unclear shootouts. Taken 2 is best suited for the small screen, but whatever the size, no one can stop an international slave trade (or wolves, or Batman) like 21st century Liam. Swoon. (1:31) Metreon. (Vizcarrondo)

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 The final installment of the Twilight franchise picks up shortly after the medical-emergency vampirization of last year's Breaking Dawn - Part 1, giving newly undead Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) just enough time to freshen up after nearly being torn asunder during labor by her hybrid spawn, Renesmee. In a just world, Bella and soul mate Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) would get more of a honeymoon period, given how badly Part 1's actual honeymoon turned out. Alas, there's just enough time for some soft-focus vampire-on-vampire action (a letdown after all the talk of rowdy undead sex), some catamount hunting, some werewolf posturing, a reunion with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), and a few seconds of Cullen family bonding, and then those creepy Volturi are back, convinced that the Cullens have committed a vampire capital crime and ready to exact penance. Director Bill Condon (1998's Gods and Monsters, 2004's Kinsey) knows what the Twi-hards want and methodically doles it out, but the overall effect is less sweeping action and shivery romance and more "I have bugs crawling on me — and yet I'm bored." Some of that isn't his fault — he bears no responsibility for naming Renesmee, for instance, to say nothing of a January-May subplot that we're asked to wrap our brains around. But the film maintains such a loose emotional grip, shifting clumsily and robotically from comic interludes to unintentionally comic interludes to soaring-music love scenes to attempted pathos to a snowy battlefield where the only moment of any dramatic value occurs. Weighed down by the responsibility of bringing The Twilight Saga to a close, it limps weakly to its anticlimax, leaving one almost — but not quite — wishing for one more installment, a chance for a more stirring farewell. (1:55) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Wreck-It Ralph Wreck-It Ralph cribs directly from the Toy Story series: when the lights go off in the arcade, video game characters gather to eat, drink, and endure existential crises. John C. Reilly is likable and idiosyncratic as Ralph, the hulking, ham-fisted villain of a game called Fix-It-Felix. Fed up with being the bad guy, Ralph sneaks into gritty combat sim Hero's Duty under the nose of Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a blond space marine who mixes Mass Effect's Commander Shepard with a PG-rated R. Lee Ermey. Things go quickly awry, and soon Ralph is marooned in cart-racing candyland Sugar Rush, helping Vanellope Von Schweetz (a manic Sarah Silverman), with Calhoun and opposite number Felix (Jack McBrayer) hot on his heels. Though often aggressively childish, the humor will amuse kids, parents, and occasionally gamers, and the Disney-approved message about acceptance is moving without being maudlin. The animation, limber enough to portray 30 years of changing video game graphics, deserves special praise. (1:34) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Ben Richardson)