Film Listings: March 26 - April 1, 2014

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

OPENING

Cesar Chavez "You always have a choice," Cesar Chavez (Michael Peña) tells his bullied son when advising him to turn the other cheek. Likewise, actor-turned-director Diego Luna had a choice when it came to tackling his first English-language film; he could have selected a less complicated, sprawling story. So he gets props for that simple act — especially at a time when workers' rights and union power have been so dramatically eroded — and for his attempts to impact some complicated nuance to Chavez's fully evident heroism. Painting his moving pictures in dusty earth tones and burnt sunlight with the help of cinematographer Enrique Chediak, Luna vaults straight into Chavez's work with the grape pickers that would come to join the United Farm Workers — with just a brief voiceover about Chavez's roots as the native-born son of a farm owner turned worker, post-Depression. Uprooting wife Helen (America Ferrera) and his family and moving to Delano as a sign of activist commitment, Chavez is seemingly quickly drawn into the 1965 strike by the Mexican workers' sometime rivals: Filipino pickers (see the recent CAAMFest short documentary Delano Manongs for some of their side of the story). From there, the focus hones in on Chavez, speaking out against violence and "chicken shit macho ideals," hunger striking, and activating unions overseas, though Luna does give voice to cohorts like Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), growers like Bogdanovitch (John Malkovich), and the many nameless strikers — some of whom lost their lives during the astonishingly lengthy, taxing five-year strike. Luna's win would be a blue-collar epic on par with 1979's Norma Rae, and on some levels, he succeeds; scanning the faces of the weathered, hopeful extras in crowd scenes, you can't help but feel the solidarity. The people have the power, as a poet once put it, and tellingly, his choice of Peña, stolidly opaque when charismatic warmth is called for, might be the key weakness here. One suspects the director or his frequent costar Gael García Bernal would make a more riveting Chavez. (1:38) (Chun)

Cheap Thrills Craig (Pat Healy) is having the worst day of his life — but it's going to get a lot worse before a new day dawns. Already in dire financial need supporting his loving wife (Amanda Fuller) and baby, he discovers they're about to be evicted from their apartment. And far from getting a hoped-for raise at his job, he's being laid off. Amidst this bitter news he runs into party-hearty, slightly gamey old high school bud Vince (Ethan Embry), who convinces him that the best immediate medicine is a drink or three. At the bar they are aggressively befriended by a deep pocketed couple consisting of overly palsy Colin (David Koechner) and his frigidly cool — but hawt — younger wife Violet (Sara Paxton). On the pretext that it's in pursuit of fun on her birthday, these strangers propose a series of dares to be performed (and competed over) by the two reunited classmates. The cash-money stakes rise as the "dares" escalate in antisocial behavior, humiliation, harm to others, and harm to oneself; milquetoast Craig's desperate circumstances make him a reluctant but willing participant dismayed to discover that Vince is a greedy competitor whose empathy vanishes at the sight of a greenback. This cheerfully mean black comedy, written by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo, is a first directorial feature for E.L. Katz, who'd previously contributed as a scenarist to some interesting early features by indie horror regulars Adam Wingard and Adam Gierasch. This kind of exercise in can-we-top-this-yes-we-can bad taste has been done better on occasion — and less well on many more. Cheap Thrills ultimately balances the cynical, clever, and exploitative to degrees that give good guilty pleasure, particularly if you're not the guilt-inclined type. (1:25) Roxie. (Harvey)

Ernest & Celestine Belgian animators Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier are best known for the stop-motion shorts series (and priceless 2009 subsequent feature) A Town Called Panic, an anarchic, absurdist, and hilarious creation suitable for all ages. Their latest (co-directed with Benjamin Renner) is ... not like that at all. Instead, it's a sweet, generally guileless children's cartoon that takes its gentle, watercolor-type visual style from late writer-illustrator Gabrielle Vincent's same-named books. Celestine (voiced by Pauline Brunner) is an orphaned girl mouse that befriends gruff bear Ernest (the excellent Lambert Wilson), though their improbable kinship invites social disapproval and scrapes with the law. There are some clever satirical touches, but mostly this is a softhearted charmer that will primarily appeal to younger kids. Adults will find it pleasant enough — but don't expect any Panic-style craziness. (1:20) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)

"I Wake Up Dreaming 2014 Preview Night" Elliot Lavine's latest Roxie film noir series, which starts May 16, gets an advance jump-start with this special fundraiser evening Wed/26. The program will include live music, intoxicating libations, the auctioning of relevant memorabilia, and more. Plus, of course, there are movies. The big attraction is The Argyle Secrets, an extremely rare 1948 mystery-thriller (even Lavine hadn't seen it until this 16mm print surfaced just recently) written and directed by the intriguing Cy Endfield, a Yalie whose idiosyncratic screen career spanned from novelty MGM shorts to programmers (1949's Joe Palooka in the Big Fight, 1952's Tarzan's Savage Fury) to big-budget adventures (Mysterious Island, Zulu) and 1969's Fellini-esque kinkfest misfire DeSade. Based on his own radio drama, Secrets revolves around a sheath of incriminating papers (we never really find out more about them) sought by a variety of shady types. Caught up in their midst is a William Gargan's exceptionally loutish "hero," a newspaper reporter not at all shy about misleading police or manhandling (even punching out) women in pursuit of a good story. (The two ladies he plays rough with here had very wholesome futures: Barbara Billingsley later essayed Mrs. Clever on Leave It to Beaver, while San Francisco-born Marjorie Lord likewise played mom on the even longer-running sitcom Make Room for Daddy.) It's a dirt-cheap independent production with a rather seedy atmosphere, colorfully broad character types and one very convoluted, possibly senseless plot. The festivities will also include Rudolph Mate's classic original 1950 D.O.A., with Edmund O'Brien as an accountant whose San Francisco vacation turns into a desperate race to discover who has fatally poisoned him, and why. Roxie. (Harvey)

Jodorowsky's Dune See "Lost in Space." (1:30) Embarcadero.

Mistaken for Strangers Tom Berninger, brother to the National vocalist Matt Berninger, is the maker of this doc — ostensibly about the band but a really about brotherly love, competition, and creation. It spins off a somewhat genius conceit of brother vs. brother, since the combo is composed of two sets of siblings: twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars and Scott and Bryan Devendorf on bass and drums respectively. The obvious question — what of singer Matt and his missing broheim? Turns out little bro Tom is one of those rock fans — of metal and not, it seems, the National — more interested in living the life and drinking the brewskis than making the music. So when Matt reaches out to Tom, adrift in their hometown of Cincinnati, to work as a roadie for the outfit, it's a handout, sure, but also a way for the two to spend time together and bond. A not-quite-realized moviemaker who's tried to make his own Z-budget scary flicks but never seems to finish much, Tom decides to document, and in the process gently poke fun at, the band (aka his authority-figures-slash-employers), which turns out to be much more interesting than gathering their deli platters and Toblerone. The National's aesthetic isn't quite his cup of tea: they prefer to wrap themselves in slinky black suits like Nick Cave's pickup band, and the soft-spoken Matt tends to perpetually stroll about with a glass of white wine or bubbly in hand when he isn't bursting into fourth-wall-busting high jinks on stage. Proud of his sib yet also intimidated by the National's fame and not a little envious of the photo shoots, the Obama meetings, and the like, Tom is all about having fun. But it's not a case of us vs. them, Tom vs. Matt, he discovers; it's a matter of connecting with family and oneself. In a Michael Moore-ian sense, the sweet-tempered Mistaken for Strangers is as much, if not more so, about the filmmaker and the journey to make the movie than the supposed subject. (1:15) Roxie. (Chun)

Noah Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, and Emma Watson star in Darren Aronofsky's take on the Bible tale. (2:07) Presidio, Shattuck.

Sabotage Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the head of a DEA task force that runs afoul of a drug cartel. (1:49)

ONGOING

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq Writer-director Nancy Buirski's documentary follows the short, brilliant career of a young dancer named Tanaquil Le Clercq, who came up in the New York City ballet world of the 1940s and '50s. Le Clercq was discovered by George Balanchine, married him (as three other dancers had done before her), sparked a paradigm shift in the ballet world regarding what was considered the quintessential dancer's body, had numerous ballets set on her by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and then, at the peak of her career, at age 27, was stricken by polio and left paralyzed in both legs. The film takes its time moving toward this catastrophe, recounting Le Clercq's early adult life through interviews with her contemporaries and tracking her professional progress through gorgeous archival footage of her performances. Equally moving archival material are the letters from a longtime correspondence between Le Clercq and Robbins that documented two very different periods of her life: the first, when Robbins was choreographing ballets for her, including Afternoon of a Faun, and professing his love; the second, after her paralysis, when she wrote him a series of poignant communications describing her impressions of her illness and her new, circumscribed world. The film has some trouble holding on to its center — as in life, Balanchine proves a magnetic force, and Afternoon of a Faun feels inexorably drawn to his professional and personal details. We don't get enough of Le Clercq, which you could say is the tragedy of her story — nobody did. But the letters do provide a sense of someone resourceful and responsive to life's richness and joys, someone who would get past this crisis and find a way to reshape her life. (1:31) Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)

American Hustle David O. Russell's American Hustle is like a lot of things you've seen before — put in a blender, so the results are too smooth to feel blatantly derivative, though here and there you taste a little Boogie Nights (1997), Goodfellas (1990), or whatever. Loosely based on the Abscam FBI sting-scandal of the late 1970s and early '80s (an opening title snarks "Some of this actually happened"), Hustle is a screwball crime caper almost entirely populated by petty schemers with big ideas almost certain to blow up in their faces. It's love, or something, at first sight for Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who meet at a Long Island party circa 1977 and instantly fall for each other — or rather for the idealized selves they've both strained to concoct. He's a none-too-classy but savvy operator who's built up a mini-empire of variably legal businesses; she's a nobody from nowhere who crawled upward and gave herself a bombshell makeover. The hiccup in this slightly tacky yet perfect match is Irving's neglected, crazy wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who's not about to let him go. She's their main problem until they meet Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent who entraps the two while posing as a client. Their only way out of a long prison haul, he says, is to cooperate in an elaborate Atlantic City redevelopment scheme he's concocted to bring down a slew of Mafioso and presumably corrupt politicians, hustling a beloved Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) in the process. Russell's filmmaking is at a peak of populist confidence it would have been hard to imagine before 2010's The Fighter, and the casting here is perfect down to the smallest roles. But beyond all clever plotting, amusing period trappings, and general high energy, the film's ace is its four leads, who ingeniously juggle the caricatured surfaces and pathetic depths of self-identified "winners" primarily driven by profound insecurity. (2:17) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Anita In 1991, Anita Hill found herself at the center of a political firestorm when she testified about being sexually harassed by US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. "The issue became my character as opposed to the character of the nominee," she recalls in Anita, a revealing new documentary from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Freida Mock (1994's Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision). Twenty years after she first made headlines, Hill recounts her story in the same eloquent voice familiar to anyone who watched her testimony; her first-person narrative, paired with accounts by her supporters, stresses the consequences many women suffer from daring to speak out. The documentary, which shows how one woman's forthrightness about sexual harassment can upturn her life, also explores the ways in which Hill's Bush-era notoriety laid the foundation for a prolific career dedicated to battling sexual harassment and women's oppression. She became an unlikely icon, and a role model for women battling similar circumstances. On the other hand, Thomas still sits on the bench. (1:17) Opera Plaza. (Laura B. Childs)

Bad Words Settling a grudge score whose precise origin remains unclear until late in the game, world-class misanthrope Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is celebrating his 40th birthday by competing in a national spelling bee. Yes, spelling bees are generally for children, and so is this one. But Guy has found a legal loophole permitting his participation, and the general hate wending his way from contest staff (Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall) — let alone the tiger-mom-and-dad parents ready to form a lynch mob — is just icing on the cake where he's concerned. What's more, as some sort of majorly underachieving near-genius, he's in fact well equipped to whup the bejesus out of overachieving eight-year-olds when it comes to saying the right letters out loud. The only people on his side, sorta, are the online journalist (Kathryn Hahn) reporting on his perverse quest, and the insidiously cute Indian American competitor (Rohan Chand) who wants to be besties, or perhaps just to psych him out. (Note: The tyke's admitted favorite word is "subjugate.") Written by Andrew Dodge, this comedy in the tradition (a little too obviously) of 2003's Bad Santa and such provides the always enjoyable Bateman with not only a tailor-made lead role, but a directorial debut as well. He does just fine by both. Yet as nicely crafted and frequently-pretty-funny Bad Words is, at core it's a rather petty movie — small, derivative, and cynically mean-spirited without the courage of genuine biliousness. It's at once not-half-bad, and not half as badass as it pretends to be. (1:29) Marina, Piedmont, Shattuck, SF Center. (Harvey)

Child's Pose The Romanian New Wave that began making waves internationally about a decade ago is as far from guilty pleasure genre terrain as possible, being heavy on the very long takes, cryptic narratives, and bleak realism of a particular, stratifying form of high art cinema. At last, however, it has its very own terrifying monster movie of sorts — since nothing has been quite as skin-crawling a filmic experience in a while as watching Luminita Gheorghiu as a Bucharest grande dame practicing her particular form of Machiavellian maternal concern in Child's Pose. Gheorghiu's Cornelia is introduced kvetching about her son's girlfriend; you sense right away she wouldn't approve of anyone who complicated her successful apron-string strangulation of said only child. When she gets an emergency call with some bad news — her thirtysomething "boy," driving recklessly on a country road, has hit and killed an actual boy — she immediately sets about intimidating the local police. This might be a heartrending tale of sacrifice and love under tragic circumstances, if it weren't for the fact that Cornelia is palpably a horrible, horrible person, and her son — who shows no signs of being much better — hates her guts. This Golden Bear winner by Calin Peter Netzer, who co-wrote it with Razvan Radulescu, is a bit over infatuated with hand-held jerky-cam at first, a distracting aesthetic choice that does not heighten the immediacy of its mostly cold, conversational scenes. But Netzer settles down after a while, his film's impact gathering as the camera grows more and more still. When Cornelia meets with the parents of the dead child, she tries every trick in the book to manipulate them. It's a bravura performance of grief, empathy, and desperation, such that Cornelia might even believe it herself. Like her peroxided hair, the emotions she expresses have been inauthentic for so long she can no longer tell the difference. (1:52) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Dallas Buyers Club Dallas Buyers Club is the first all-US feature from Jean-Marc Vallée. He first made a splash in 2005 with C.R.A.Z.Y., which seemed an archetype of the flashy, coming-of-age themed debut feature. Vallée has evolved beyond flashiness, or maybe since C.R.A.Z.Y. he just hasn't had a subject that seemed to call for it. Which is not to say Dallas is entirely sober — its characters partake from the gamut of altering substances, over-the-counter and otherwise. But this is a movie about AIDS, so the purely recreational good times must eventually crash to an end. Which they do pretty quickly. We first meet Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) in 1986, a Texas good ol' boy endlessly chasing skirts and partying nonstop. Not feeling quite right, he visits a doctor, who informs him that he is HIV-positive. His response is "I ain't no faggot, motherfucker" — and increased partying that he barely survives. Afterward, he pulls himself together enough to research his options, and bribes a hospital attendant into raiding its trial supply of AZT for him. But Ron also discovers the hard way what many first-generation AIDS patients did — that AZT is itself toxic. He ends up in a Mexican clinic run by a disgraced American physician (Griffin Dunne) who recommends a regime consisting mostly of vitamins and herbal treatments. Ron realizes a commercial opportunity, and finds a business partner in willowy cross-dresser Rayon (Jared Leto). When the authorities keep cracking down on their trade, savvy Ron takes a cue from gay activists in Manhattan and creates a law evading "buyers club" in which members pay monthly dues rather than paying directly for pharmaceutical goods. It's a tale that the scenarists (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) and director steep in deep Texan atmospherics, and while it takes itself seriously when and where it ought, Dallas Buyers Club is a movie whose frequent, entertaining jauntiness is based in that most American value: get-rich-quick entrepreneurship. (1:58) Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Divergent Based on the blockbuster dystopian-future YA novel by Veronica Roth (the first in a trilogy), Divergent is set in a future city-state version of Chicago in which society is divided into five character-based, color-coded factions: Erudite, Amity, Candor, Abnegation, and Dauntless. Like her peers, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), the film's Abnegation-born teenage heroine, must choose a permanent faction — with the help of a standardized aptitude test that forgoes penciling in bubbles in favor of virtual reality psychic manipulation. When the test fails to triangulate her sole innate personality trait, she learns that she belongs to a secret, endangered sixth category: Divergent, an astonishing set of people who are not only capable of, say, acts of selflessness but can also produce intelligent thought, or manifest bravery in the face of danger. Forced to hide her aberrant nature in a society whose leaders (Kate Winslet) are prone to statements like "The future belongs to those who know where they belong," and seemingly bored among Abnegation's hive of gray cardigan-wearing worker bees, Beatrice chooses Dauntless, a dashing gang of black-clad, alterna-rock music video extras who jump on and off moving trains and live in a warehouse-chic compound whose dining hall recalls the patio at Zeitgeist. Fittingly, a surly, tattooed young man named Four (Theo James) leads Beatrice, now Tris, and her fellow initiates through a harsh proving regimen that, if they fail, will cast them into an impoverished underclass. Director Neil Burger (2006's The Illusionist, 2011's Limitless) and the behemoth marketing force behind Divergent are clearly hoping to stir up the kind of madness stoked by the Twilight and Hunger Games series, but while there are bones a-plenty to pick with those franchises, Divergent may have them beat for pure daffiness of premise and diameter of plot holes — and that's after screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor's major suturing of the source material's lacunae. The daffiness doesn't translate into imaginative world-building, and while a couple of scenes convey the visceral thrills of life in Dauntless, the tension between Tris and Four is awkwardly ratcheted up, and the film's shift into a mode of crisis is equally jolting without generating much heat. (2:20) Balboa, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Frozen (1:48) Metreon.

The Grand Budapest Hotel Is this the first Wes Anderson movie to feature a shootout? It's definitely the first Anderson flick to include a severed head. That's not to say The Grand Budapest Hotel, "inspired by" the works of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, represents too much of a shift for the director — his intricate approach to art direction is still very much in place, as are the deadpan line deliveries and a cast stuffed with Anderson regulars. But there's a slightly more serious vibe here, a welcome change from 2012's tooth-achingly twee Moonrise Kingdom. Thank Ralph Fiennes' performance as liberally perfumed concierge extraordinaire M. Gustave, which mixes a shot of melancholy into the whimsy, and newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero, his loyal lobby boy, who provides gravitas despite only being a teenager. (Being played by F. Murray Abraham as an older adult probably helps in that department.) Hotel's early 20th century Europe setting proves an ideal canvas for Anderson's love of detail — the titular creation rivals Stanley Kubrick's rendering of the Overlook Hotel — and his supporting cast, as always, looks to be enjoying the hell out of being a part of Anderson's universe, with Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and Adrien Brody having particularly oversized fun. Is this the best Wes Anderson movie since 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums? Yes. (1:40) California, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Eddy)

Gravity "Life in space is impossible," begins Gravity, the latest from Alfonso Cuarón (2006's Children of Men). Egghead Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is well aware of her precarious situation after a mangled satellite slams into her ship, then proceeds to demolition-derby everything (including the International Space Station) in its path. It's not long before she's utterly, terrifyingly alone, and forced to unearth near-superhuman reserves of physical and mental strength to survive. Bullock's performance would be enough to recommend Gravity, but there's more to praise, like the film's tense pacing, spare-yet-layered script (Cuarón co-wrote with his son, Jonás), and spectacular 3D photography — not to mention George Clooney's warm supporting turn as a career astronaut who loves country music almost as much as he loves telling stories about his misadventures. (1:31) Metreon. (Eddy)

The Great Beauty The latest from Paolo Sorrentino (2008's Il Divo) arrives as a high-profile contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, already annointed a masterpiece in some quarters, and duly announcing itself as such in nearly every grandiose, aesthetically engorged moment. Yes, it seems to say, you are in the presence of this auteur's masterpiece. But it's somebody else's, too. The problem isn't just that Fellini got there first, but that there's room for doubt whether Sorrentino's homage actually builds on or simply imitates its model. La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963) are themselves swaying, jerry-built monuments, exhileratingly messy and debatably profound. But nothing quite like them had been seen before, and they did define a time of cultural upheaval — when traditional ways of life were being plowed under by a loud, moneyed, heedless modernity that for a while chose Rome as its global capital. Sorrentino announces his intention to out-Fellini Fellini in an opening sequence so strenuously flamboyant it's like a never-ending pirouette performed by a prima dancer with a hernia. There's statuary, a women's choral ensemble, an on-screen audience applauding the director's baffled muse Toni Servillo, standing in for Marcello Mastroianni — all this and more in manic tracking shots and frantic intercutting, as if sheer speed alone could supply contemporary relevancy. Eventually The Great Beauty calms down a bit, but still its reason for being remains vague behind the heavy curtain of "style." (2:22) Four Star, Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Her Morose and lonely after a failed marriage, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) drifts through an appealingly futuristic Los Angeles (more skyscrapers, less smog) to his job at a place so hipster-twee it probably will exist someday: beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, where he dictates flowery missives to a computer program that scrawls them onto paper for paying customers. Theodore's scripting of dialogue between happy couples, as most of his clients seem to be, only enhances his sadness, though he's got friends who care about him (in particular, Amy Adams as Amy, a frumpy college chum) and he appears to have zero money woes, since his letter-writing gig funds a fancy apartment equipped with a sweet video-game system. Anyway, women are what gives Theodore trouble — and maybe by extension, writer-director Spike Jonze? — so he seeks out the ultimate gal pal: Samantha, an operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson in the year's best disembodied performance. Thus begins a most unusual relationship, but not so unusual; Theodore's friends don't take any issue with the fact that his new love is a machine. Hey, in Her's world, everyone's deeply involved with their chatty, helpful, caring, always-available OS — why wouldn't Theo take it to the next level? Inevitably, of course, complications arise. If Her's romantic arc feels rather predictable, the film acquits itself in other ways, including boundlessly clever production-design touches that imagine a world with technology that's (mostly) believably evolved from what exists today. Also, the pants they wear in the future? Must be seen to be believed. (2:00) Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

The Lego Movie (1:41) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

The Lunchbox Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a self-possessed housewife and a great cook, whose husband confuses her for another piece of furniture. She tries to arouse his affections with elaborate lunches she makes and sends through the city's lunchbox delivery service. Like marriage in India, lunchbox delivery has a failure rate of zero, which is what makes aberrations seem like magical occurrences. So when widow Saajan (Irrfan Khan) receives her adoring food, he humbly receives the magical lunches like a revival of the senses. Once Ila realizes her lunchbox is feeding the wrong man she writes a note and Saajan replies — tersely, like a man who hasn't held a conversation in a decade — and the impossible circumstances lend their exchanges a romance that challenges her emotional fidelity and his retreat from society. She confides her husband is cheating. He confides his sympathy for men of lower castes. It's a May/December affair if it's an affair at all — but the chemistry we expect the actors to have in the same room is what fuels our urge to see it; that's a rare and haunting dynamic. Newcomer Kaur is perfect as Ila, a beauty unmarked by her rigorous distaff; her soft features and exhausted expression lend a richness to the troubles she can't share with her similarly stoic mother (Lillete Dubey). Everyone is sacrificing something and poverty seeps into every crack, every life, without exception — their inner lives are their richness. (1:44) Albany, Clay. (Vizcarrondo)

The Monuments Men The phrase "never judge a book by its cover" goes both ways. On paper, The Monuments Men — inspired by the men who recovered art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, and directed by George Clooney, who co-wrote and stars alongside a sparkling ensemble cast (Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh "Earl of Grantham" Bonneville, and Bill Fucking Murray) — rules. Onscreen, not so much. After they're recruited to join the cause, the characters fan out across France and Germany following various leads, a structural choice that results in the film's number one problem: it can't settle on a tone. Men can't decide if it wants to be a sentimental war movie (as in an overlong sequence in which Murray's character weeps at the sound of his daughter's recorded voice singing "White Christmas"); a tragic war movie (some of those marquee names die, y'all); a suspenseful war movie (as the men sneak into dangerous territory with Michelangelo on their minds); or a slapstick war comedy (look out for that land mine!) The only consistent element is that the villains are all one-note — and didn't Inglourious Basterds (2009) teach us that nothing elevates a 21st century-made World War II flick like an eccentric bad guy? There's one perfectly executed scene, when reluctant partners Balaban and Murray discover a trove of priceless paintings hidden in plain sight. One scene, out of a two-hour movie, that really works. The rest is a stitched-together pile of earnest intentions that suggests a complete lack of coherent vision. Still love you, Clooney, but you can do better — and this incredible true story deserved way better. (1:58) Four Star, Metreon, Piedmont. (Eddy)

Mr. Peabody and Sherman Mr. P. (voiced by Ty Burrell) is a Nobel Prize-winning genius dog, Sherman (Max Charles) his adopted human son. When the latter attends his first day of school, his extremely precocious knowledge of history attracts jealous interest from bratty classmate Penny (Ariel Winter), with the eventual result that all three end up being transported in Peabody's WABAC time machine to various fabled moments — involving Marie Antoinette, King Tut, the Trojan Horse, etc. — where Penny invariably gets them in deep trouble. Rob Minkoff's first all-animation feature since The Lion King 20 years ago is spun off from the same-named segments in Jay Ward's TV Rocky and Bullwinkle Show some decades earlier. It's a very busy (sometimes to the brink of clutter), often witty, imaginatively constructed, visually impressive, and for the most part highly enjoyable comic adventure. The only minuses are some perfunctory "It's about family"-type sentimentality — and scenarist Craig Wright's determination to draw from history the "lesson" that nearly all women are pains in the ass who create problems they must then be rescued from. (1:30) Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Harvey)

Muppets Most Wanted Building on the success of The Muppets, Jim Henson's beloved creations return to capitalize on their revitalized (and Disney-owned) fame. This follow-up from Muppets director James Tobin — technically, it's the seventh sequel to the original 1979 Muppet Movie, as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew points out in one of the film's many meta moments — improves upon the 2011 film, which had its charms but suffered by concentrating too much on the Jason Segal-Amy Adams romance, not to mention annoying new kid Walter. Here, human co-stars Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and others (there are more cameos than you can count) are relegated to supporting roles, with the central conflict revolving around the Muppets' inability to notice that Constantine, "the world's most dangerous frog," has infiltrated their group, sending Kermit to Siberian prison in his place. Constantine and his accomplice (Gervais, whose character's last name is "Badguy") use the Muppets' world tour as a front for their jewel-heist operation; meanwhile, his infatuated warden (Fey) forces Kermit to direct the annual gulag musical. Not helping matters are a bumbling Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) and his CIA counterpart (Sam the American Eagle, natch). Really, all that's needed is a simple plot, catchy songs, and plenty of room to let the Muppets do their thing — Miss Piggy and Animal are particularly enjoyable here; Walter's still around, but he's way more tolerable now that he's gotten past his "man or muppet" angst — and the film delivers. All the knowing winks to the grown-up fans in the audience are just an appreciated bonus. (1:46) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Need for Speed Speed kills, in quite a different way than it might in Breaking Bad, in Aaron Paul's big-screen Need for Speed. "Big" nonetheless signals "B" here, in this stunt-filled challenge to the Fast and the Furious franchise, though there's no shame in that — the drive-in is paved with standouts and stinkers alike. Tobey (Paul) is an ace driver who's in danger of losing his auto shop, also the hangout for his pals (Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez) and young sidekick Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), when archrival Dino (Dominic Cooper) arrives with a historic Mustang in need of restoration. Tragedy strikes, and Tobey must hook up with that fateful auto once more to win a mysterious winner-takes-all race, staged by eccentric, rich racing-fiend Monarch (Michael Keaton). Along for the ride are the (big) eyes and ears for the Mustang's new owner — gearhead Julia (Imogen Poots). All beside the point, since the racing stunts, including a showy helicopter canyon save, are the real stars of Speed, while the touchstone for stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh — considering the car and the final SF and Northern California race settings — is, of course, Bullitt (1968), which is given an overt nod in the opening drive-in scene. The overall larky effect, however, tends toward Smokey and the Bandit (1977), especially with Keaton's camp efforts at Wolfman Jack verbiage-slanging roaring in the background. And despite the efforts of the multicultural gallery of wisecracking side guys, this script-challenged popcorn-er tends to blur what little chemistry these characters have with each other, skip the residual car culture insights of the more specific, more urban Fast series, and leave character development, in particular Tobey's, in the dust in its haste to get from point A to B. (2:10) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Non-Stop You don't want to get between Liam Neeson and his human shield duties. The Taken franchise has restyled the once-gentle acting giant into the type of weather-beaten, all-business action hero that Harrison Ford once had a lock on. Throw in a bit of the flying-while-addled antihero high jinks last seen in Flight (2012) and that pressured, packed-sardine anxiety that we all suffer during long-distance air travel, and we have a somewhat ludicrous but nonetheless entertaining hybrid that may have you believing that those salty snacks and the seat-kicking kids are the least of your troubles. Neeson's Bill Marks signals the level of his freestyle alcoholism by giving his booze a stir with a toothbrush shortly before putting on his big-boy air marshal pants and boarding his fateful flight. Marks is soon contacted by a psycho who promises, via text, to kill one person at a time on the flight unless $150 million is deposited into a bank account that — surprise — is under the bad-good air marshal's name. The twists and turns — and questions of who to trust, whether it's Marks' vaguely likeable seatmate (Julianne Moore) or his business class flight attendant (Michelle Dockery) — keep the audience on edge and busily guessing, though director Jaume Collet-Serra doesn't quite dispel all the questions that arise as the diabolical scheme plays out and ultimately taxes believability. The fun is all in the getting there, even if the denouement on the tarmac deflates. (1:50) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)

Nymphomaniac: Volume I Found battered and unconscious in a back alley, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is taken in by good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), to whom she explains "It's all my fault — I'm just a bad human being." But he doesn't believe there are such things. She seeks to enlighten him by narrating the story of her life so far, from carnally curious childhood to sexually voracious adulthood. Stacy Martin plays her younger self through a guided tour of excesses variously involving Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen as her parents; a buncha guys fucked on a train, on a teenage dare; Uma Thurman as one histrionically scorned woman; and Shai LaBeouf as a first love who's a cipher either because he's written that way, or because this particular actor can't make sense out of him. For all its intended provocation, including some graphic but unsurprisingly (coming from this director) unerotic XXX action, von Trier's latest is actually less offensive than much of his prior output: He's regained his sense of humor here, and annoying as its "Look at me, I'm an unpredictable artist" crap can be (notably all the stuff about fly-fishing, cake forks, numerology, etc. that seems randomly drawn from some Great Big Book of Useless Trivia), the film's episodic progress is divertingly colorful enough. But is Joe going to turn out to be more than a two-dimensional authorial device from a director who's never exactly sussed women (or liked people in general)? Will Nymphomaniac arrive at some pointed whole greater than the sum of its naughty bits? The answer to both is probably "Nah." But we won't know for sure until the two-hour second half arrives (April 4) of a movie that, in fairness, was never really intended to be split up like this. (1:50) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Particle Fever "We are hearing nature talk to us," a physicist remarks in awe near the end of Particle Fever, Mark Levinson's intriguing doc about the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson particle. Earlier, another scientist says, "I've never heard of a moment like this in [science] history, where an entire field is hinging on a single event." The event, of course, is the launch of the Large Hardon Collider, the enormous machine that enabled the discovery. Though some interest in physics is probably necessary to enjoy Particle Fever, extensive knowledge of quarks and such is not, since the film uses elegant animation to refresh the basics for anyone whose eyes glazed over during high-school science. But though he offers plenty of context, Levinson wisely focuses his film on a handful of genial eggheads who are involved in the project, either hands-on at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), or watching from afar as the mighty LHC comes to life. Their excitement brings a welcome warmth to the proceedings — and their "fever" becomes contagious. (1:39) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Eddy)

RoboCop Truly, there was no need to remake 1987's RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven's smart, biting sci-fi classic that deploys heaps of stealth satire beneath its ultraviolent imagery. But the inevitable do-over is here, and while it doesn't improve on what came before, it's not a total lost cause, either. Thank Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, whose thrilling Elite Squad films touch on similar themes of corruption (within police, political, and media realms), and some inspired casting, including Samuel L. Jackson as the uber-conservative host of a futuristic talk show. Though the suit that restores life to fallen Detroit cop Alex Murphy is, naturally, a CG wonder, the guy inside the armor — played by The Killing's Joel Kinnaman — is less dynamic. In fact, none of the characters, even those portrayed by actors far more lively than Kinnaman (Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Jackie Earle Haley), are developed beyond the bare minimum required to serve RoboCop's plot, a mixed-message glob of dirty cops, money-grubbing corporations, the military-industrial complex, and a few too many "Is he a man...or a machine?" moments. But in its favor: Though it's PG-13 (boo), it's also shot in 2D (yay). (1:50) Metreon. (Eddy)

Shirin in Love This blandly TV-ready romantic comedy stars Nazanin Boniadi as a ditzy child of privilege in Beverly Hills' Iranian-American community. Sent by her aggressively shallow magazine-editor mother (Anita Khalatbari) to find an elusive best-selling novelist for an interview, she not only stumbles upon that author (Amy Madigan) but discovers she's already had a meet-cute with the latter's hunky son (Riley Smith) under embarrassing circumstances. Will Shirin be able to shrug off the future her family has planned for her (including Maz Jobrani as a plastic-surgeon fiancé ) in order to, y'know, find herself? The very obvious answer takes its sweet time arriving in writer-director Ramin Niami's innocuous film, which hews to a stale lineup of formulaic genre conventions even when relying on whopping coincidences to advance its predictable plot. The novelty of its particular social milieu goes unexplored in a movie that reveals even less about assimilated modern US Persian culture than My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) did about Greek Americans. (1:45) AMC Bay Street 16. (Harvey)

300: Rise of An Empire We pick up the 300 franchise right where director Zack Snyder left off in 2006, with this prequel-sequel, which spins off an as-yet-unreleased Frank Miller graphic novel. In the hands of director Noam Murro, with Snyder still in the house as writer, 300: Rise of an Empire contorts itself, flipping back and forth in time, in an attempt to explain the making of Persian evil prince stereotype Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) —all purring androgyny, fashionable piercings, and Iran-baiting, Bush-era malevolence — before following through on avenging 300's romantically outnumbered, chesty Spartans. As told by the angry, mourning Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey of Game of Thrones), the whole mess apparently began during the Battle of Marathon, when Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) killed Xerxes's royal father with a well-aimed miracle arrow. That act ushers in Xerxes's transformation into a "God King" bent on vengeance, aided and encouraged by his equally vengeful, elegantly mega-goth naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek-hating Greek who likes to up the perversity quotient by making out with decapitated heads. In case you didn't get it: know that vengeance is a prime mover for almost all the parties (except perhaps high-minded hottie Themistokles). Very loosely tethered to history and supplied with plenty of shirtless Greeks, taut thighs, wildly splintering ships, and even proto-suicide bombers, Rise skews toward a more naturalistic, less digitally waxy look than 300, as dust motes and fire sparks perpetually telegraph depth of field, shrieking, "See your 3D dollars hard at work!" Also working hard and making all that wrath look diabolically effortless is Green, who as the pitch-black counterpart to Gorga, turns out to be the real hero of the franchise, saving it from being yet another by-the-book sword-and-sandal war-game exercise populated by wholesome-looking, buff, blond jock-soldiers. Green's feline line readings and languid camp attitude have a way of cutting through the sausage fest of the Greek pec-ing order, even during the Battle of, seriously, Salamis. (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Tiger and Bunny: The Rising Based on the Japanese anime series (and a 2012 film, Tiger and Bunny: The Beginning), this lighthearted look at superheroes with human problems imagines a world in which the blaring Hero TV channel tracks the movements of various caped crusaders, who compete against each other for points as they race to defeat random villains. All of the heroes, who we meet both in and out of costume, work for the same parent company, and each has a corporate sponsor whose logo is a prominent part of his or her ensemble. (Heroes are big business, after all.) In the first film, we met "Wild Tiger," a bumbling single dad, who's reluctantly paired with talented new kid "Bunny." They clash at first, but eventually prove a powerful team. In The Rising, a douchey new boss relegates Tiger to the junior-varsity Second League, while Bunny gets an annoying new partner, "Golden Ryan." Meanwhile, a mysterious trio of baddies menaces the city, forcing all of the heroes to work together whether they want to or not. The most surprising part of The Rising is its sensitive development of the "Fire Emblem" character. Presented as a mincing gay stereotype in the first film, here he's given a sympathetic back story via dream sequences that detail his youthful exploration of cross-dressing and personal identity struggles. Encouraging, to say the least. (1:48) New People. (Eddy)

Veronica Mars Since the cult fave TV show Veronica Mars went off the air in 2007, fans of the series, about a smart, cynical teenager who solves mysteries and battles her high school's 1 percenters — a sort of adolescent noir minus the ex nihilo patois of Rian Johnson's 2005 Brick — have had their hopes raised and dashed several times regarding the possibility of a big-screen coda. While that sort of scenario usually involves a few of the five stages of grief, this one has a twist happy ending: a full-length film, directed by show creator Rob Thomas and cowritten by Thomas and show producer-writer Diane Ruggiero (with a budget aided by a crowdfunding campaign), that doesn't suck. It's been a decade since graduation, and Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) has put a continent between herself and her creepy, class war–torn hometown of Neptune, Calif. — leaving behind her P.I. vocation and a track record of exposing lies, corruption, and the dark side of the human soul in favor of a Columbia law degree and a career of covering up same. But when Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), her brooding, troubled ex, gets charged with the murder of his pop star girlfriend and asks Veronica for help, she can't resist the pull of what she admits is a pathological impulse. Plus, it's her 10-year reunion. And indeed, pretty much anyone who had a character arc during the show's three seasons makes an appearance — plus (naturally) James Franco, Dax Shepard (Bell's husband), and (oddly) Ira Glass. It could have been a cameo fusillade, but the writing here is as smart, tight, funny, and involving as it was on the TV series, and Thomas and Ruggiero for the most part manage to thread everyone in, taking pressure off a murder mystery that falls a little flat, updating the story to reflect current states of web surveillance and pop cultural mayhem, and keeping the focus on the joy of seeing Veronica back where she belongs. (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)

Le Week-End Director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi first collaborated two decades ago on The Buddha of Suburbia, when the latter was still in the business of being Britain's brashest multiculti hipster voice. But in the last 10 years they've made a habit of slowing down to sketching portraits of older lives — and providing great roles for the nation's bottomless well of remarkable veteran actors. Here Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent play a pair of English academics trying to re-create their long-ago honeymoon's magic on an anniversary weekend in Paris. They love each other, but their relationship is thorny and complicated in ways that time has done nothing to smooth over. This beautifully observed duet goes way beyond the usual adorable-old-coot terrain of such stories on screen; it has charm and humor, but these are unpredictable, fully rounded characters, not comforting caricatures. Briefly turning this into a seriocomedy three-way is Most Valuable Berserker Jeff Goldblum as an old friend encountered by chance. It's not his story, but damned if he doesn't just about steal the movie anyway. (1:33) Albany, Embarcadero, Smith Rafael, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

The Wind Rises Hayao Miyazaki announced that Oscar nominee The Wind Rises would be his final film before retiring — though he later amended that declaration, as he's fond of doing, so who knows. At any rate, it'd be a shame if this was the Japanese animation master's final film before retirement; not only does it lack the whimsy of his signature efforts (2001's Spirited Away, 1997's Princess Mononoke), it's been overshadowed by controversy — not entirely surprising, since it's about the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed war planes (built by slave labor) in World War II-era Japan. Surprisingly, a pacifist message is established early on; as a young boy, his mother tells him, "Fighting is never justified," and in a dream, Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni assures him "Airplanes are not tools for war." But that statement doesn't last long; Caproni visits Jiro in his dreams as his career takes him from Japan to Germany, where he warns the owlish young designer that "aircraft are destined to become tools for slaughter and destruction." You don't say. A melodramatic romantic subplot injects itself into all the plane-talk on occasion, but — despite all that political hullabaloo — The Wind Rises is more tedious than anything else. (2:06) California, Embarcadero, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy) *