Film Listings: December 25 - 31, 2013

|
()

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

47 Ronin Keanu Reeves, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa star in this action film about a posse of vengeful 18th-century Japanese samurai. (2:00) Shattuck.

Grudge Match If the prospect of watching Rocky go glove-to-glove with Jake LaMotta sounds either tired or exploitive, Grudge Match wants to change your mind. A comedy that delivers a decent bout inside the ring and a worthwhile message about fulfilling your potential at every age, Grudge Match is 100 percent feel-good movie, 100 percent of the time. Yes, the publicity campaign contrived by Kevin Hart's promoter character is embarrassing. Yes, Alan Arkin plays yet another foul-mouthed curmudgeon. And yes, the boxers have a torn family this match could heal (though fighting threatens to kill them both). But the takeaway is an all-ages lesson our elders are most qualified to teach: having guts is pretty glorious. And at 68 and 70, Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro seem delighted to lampoon past greatness. "Kid" (DeNiro) does a puppet show that's less pathos-filled than the poetry he spouted in 1980's Raging Bull; the training montages "Razor" (Stallone) slogs through naturally recall 1976's Rocky. But Grudge Match is about today — not yesterday. Alongside Gravity and The Wolf of Wall Street, Grudge Match is yet another populist lovefest throwaway, but who cares? Few have cornered the market on audience affection like Stallone, and he's helped De Niro find that love too. (1:53) (Vizcarrondo)

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) Shattuck. (Eddy)

I Am Divine Bringing joy to a lot of people during his too-brief life was Glenn Milstead, the subject of Jeffrey Schwarz's I Am Divine. A picked-on sissy fat kid, he blossomed upon discovering Baltimore's gay underground — and starring in neighbor John Waters' underground movies, made by and for the local "freak" scene they hung out in. Yet even their early efforts found a following; when "Divine" appeared in SF to perform at one of the Cockettes' midnight movie/theater happenings, he was greeted as a star. This was before his greatest roles for Waters, as the fearsome anti-heroines of Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), then the beleaguered hausfraus of Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988). Despite spending nearly his entire career in drag, he wanted to be thought of as a character actor, not a "transvestite" novelty. Sadly, he seemed on the verge of achieving that — having been signed to play an ongoing male role on Married ... with Children — when he died of respiratory failure in 1988, at age 42. (1:25) Roxie. (Harvey)

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom As tough as it is to separate the man from the monument, Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, director Justin Chadwick manage it in this cinematic rendering of Nelson Mandela's autobiography — perfectly if unintentionally timed, all us cynics recognize, to coincide with the sad passing of the father of the modern South Africa. Chadwick starts slow, and somewhat chaotically, by quickly sketching out Mandela's relatively wild youth, with plenty of women and clubbing and few specifics on particulars like, say, the fact that he established the first black law firm in South Africa. So when Mandela finally joins forces with the ANC, you wonder at his sudden radicalization — the context is taken for granted. Not so when Mandela is sentenced to life in prison and he turns into an international symbol of anti-apartheid injustice, and the white authorities turn desperately to him for ways to quell a country erupting in violence. Meanwhile wife Winnie (a surprisingly fiery Harris) gets her just share of screen time as Chadwick concentrates on the couple's romance and marriage. She's also offered ample reason for her promotion of violence in the struggle when she's harassed by the police and put in solitary confinement for more than a year, for no cause. Here the Mandelas come to conveniently embody polar opposite approaches in the movement, and it works, as Chadwick attempts to show how political the personal became. When Mandela's amazing story takes over, it blows away reservations and inconvenient codas, and remembers the leader at his most triumphant. As the film's iconic lead character, Elba at first seems physically miscast, but nevertheless effortlessly projects Mandela's authority, gravitas, and charisma. (2:26) Piedmont. (Chun)

The Past Splits in country, culture, and a harder-to-pinpoint sense of morality mark The Past, the latest film by Asghar Farhadi, the first Iranian moviemaker to win an Oscar (for 2011's A Separation.) At the center of The Past's onion layers is a seemingly simple divorce of a binational couple, but that act becomes more complicated — and startlingly compelling — in Farhadi's capable, caring hands. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has returned to Paris from Tehran, where he's been living for the past four years, at the request of French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo of 2011's The Artist). She wants to legalize their estrangement so she can marry her current boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim of 2009's A Prophet), whose wife is in a coma. But she isn't beyond giving out mixed messages by urging Ahmad to stay with her, and her daughters by various fathers, rather than at a hotel — and begging him to talk to teen Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who seems to despise Samir. The warm, nurturing Ahmad falls into his old routine in Marie's far-from-picturesque neighborhood, visiting a café owned by fellow Iranian immigrants and easily taking over childcare duties for the overwhelmed Marie, as he tries to find out what's happening with Lucie, who's holding onto a secret that could threaten Marie's efforts to move on. The players here are all wonderful, in particular the sad-faced, humane Mosaffa. We never really find out what severed his relationship with Marie, but in the end, it doesn't really matter. We care about, and end up fearing for, all of Farhadi's everyday characters, who are observed with a tender and unsentimental understanding that US filmmakers could learn from. The effect, when he finally racks focus on the forgotten member of this triangle (or quadrilateral?), is heartbreaking. (2:10) Clay. (Chun)

Reaching for the Moon Brazilian director Bruno Barreto (1997's Four Days in September) offers a moving account of the romantic relationship between the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) and the Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Glória Pires), which spanned the 1950s and the better part of the '60s. The pair meet under inauspicious circumstances: traveling to Brazil, Elizabeth visits her old Vassar friend Mary (Tracy Middendorf) at the gorgeous rural estate where she lives with Lota, a wealthy woman from one of Brazil's prominent political families. Unfortunately for Mary, Lota's regard for the timid, restrained Elizabeth moves along a precipitous arc from irritation to infatuation, her subsequent impetuous pursuit of her lover's friend revealing a heartless egoism — as well as an attitude toward householding that blends a poly sensibility with a ruling-class sense of entitlement. The film tracks Elizabeth and Lota's enduring affair during a period marked by professional triumphs, personal lows, and political turmoil, all of which take their toll on the relationship. (1:56) Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) works at the Life magazine archives, where the world's greatest photojournalists send him images of their extraordinary adventures. Walter lives vicariously. When he imagines his office crush (Kristen Wiig) trapped in a burning building, his inner superhero arrests his faculties and sends him flying through windows, racing up stairs to liberate children from their flaming homes. It's all a fantasy, of course: the man works in a basement with pictures and George Bailey-styled dreams of travel, what does he have but his imagination to keep him warm? Turns out his workplace is planning to kill off its print edition and become LifeOnline — so facing the end of Life, and imminent quiet desperation, this office-mouse is tasked with delivering the last cover the magazine will ever have. But frame 25 on the contact sheet — the one the magazine's star photog (Sean Penn) calls "The Quintessence of Life" — is blank. Instead of crying defeat, Walter goes on a hunt for the photographer, his avatar of rugged outdoorsmanship, and the realization of his dreams of adventure. It's liberating to watch him take risks — Stiller says years of watching Danny Kaye movies (Kaye starred in the 1947 adaptation of James Thurber's short story) inspired the awkwardly balletic gestures of roving, frightened, ultimately exuberant Walter. The film, which Stiller also directed, is ultimately a dreamy parable about getting caught up in imagination — or just confusing images for real life — both of which feel timely in a world where libraries are cyberplaces and you can play "tennis" in front of your couch. The kind of guy who thought the biggest threat was making the first move, Walter learns differently when he takes actual risks: there is magic in this. (2:05) (Vizcarrondo)

The Wolf of Wall Street Three hours long and breathless from start to finish, Martin Scorsese's tale of greed, stock-market fraud, and epic drug consumption has a lot going on — and the whole thing hinges on a bravado, breakneck performance by latter-day Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio. As real-life sleaze Jordan Belfort (upon whose memoir the film is based), he distills all of his golden DiCaprio-ness into a loathsome yet maddeningly likable character who figures out early in his career that being rich is way better than being poor, and that being fucked-up is, likewise, much preferable to being sober. The film also boasts keen supporting turns from Jonah Hill (as Belfort's crass, corrupt second-in-command), Matthew McConaughey (who has what amounts to a cameo — albeit a supremely memorable one — as Belfort's coke-worshiping mentor), Jean Dujardin (as a slick Swiss banker), and newcomer Margot Robbie (as Belfort's cunning trophy wife). But this is primarily the Leo and Marty Show, and is easily their most entertaining episode to date. Still, don't look for an Oscar sweep: Scorsese just hauled huge for 2011's Hugo, and DiCaprio's flashy turn will likely be passed over by voters more keen on honoring subtler work in a shorter film. (2:59) California, Vogue. (Eddy)

 

ONGOING

About Time Richard Curtis, the man behind 2003's Love Actually, must be enjoying his days in England, rolling in large piles of money. Coinciding with the 10-year anniversary of that twee cinematic love fest comes Curtis' latest ode to joy, About Time. The film begins in Cornwall at an idyllic stone beach house, as Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) describes his family members (Bill Nighy is dad; Richard Cordery is the crazy uncle) and their pleasures (tea on the beach, ping pong). Despite beachside bliss, Tim is lovelorn and ready to begin a career as a barrister (which feels as out of the blue as the coming first act break). Oh! And as it happens, the men in Tim's family can travel back in time. There are no clear rules, though births and deaths are like no-trespass signs on the imaginary timeline. When he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams), he falls in love, but if he paves over his own evening by bouncing back and spending that night elsewhere, he loses the path he's worn into the map and has to fix it. Again and again. Despite potential repetition, About Time moves smoothly, sweetly, slowly along, giving its audience time enough to feel for the characters, and then feel for the characters again, and then keep crying just because the ball's already in motion. It's the most nest-like catharsis any British film ever built. (2:03) SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)

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) Four Star, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues Look, I fully understand that Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues — which follows the awkward lumberings of oafish anchor Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and his equally uncouth team (Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner) as they ditch San Diego in favor of New York's first 24-hour news channel, circa 1980 — is not aimed at film critics. It's silly, it's tasteless, and it's been crafted purely for Ferrell fans, a lowbrow army primed to gobble up this tale of Burgundy's national TV rise and fall (and inevitable redemption), with a meandering storyline that includes chicken-fried bat, a pet shark, an ice-skating sequence, a musical number, epic amounts of polyester, lines ("by the bedpan of Gene Rayburn!") that will become quoteable after multiple viewings, and the birth of infotainment as we know it. But what if a film critic happened to be a Ferrell fan, too? What if, days later, that film critic had a flashback to Anchorman 2's amplified news-crew gang war (no spoilers), and guffawed at the memory? I am fully aware that this ain't a masterpiece. But I still laughed. A lot. (1:59) Four Star, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

The Armstrong Lie "This is a story about power, not doping," a talking head points out in Alex Gibney's latest doc, The Armstrong Lie. Gibney, an Oscar winner for 2007's Taxi to the Dark Side, set out to make something more along the lines of The Armstrong Return, shadowing Lance Armstrong as he prepped for his 2009 Tour de France comeback. He envisioned crafting a "feel-good movie," especially when Armstrong notched an impressive third-place finish — a feat intended to silence those performance-enhancing drug rumors once and for all. In the end, it only amplified the skepticism that loomed over his accomplishments. And as the evidence against Armstrong mounted, Gibney scrapped his original concept and went in a decidedly darker direction. Armstrong's critics, interviewed for Lie, admit they spotted the acclaimed documentarian among Armstrong's Tour de France entourage and feared he was "buying into the bullshit." Among these voices are Armstrong's former US Postal Service teammate, Frankie Andreu, and his wife, Betsy, who'd been excoriated by their former good friend and his supporters for speaking out against him. A feel-good movie, this is not. And ultimately, Gibney's film probes deeper than Armstrong's flaws; it's careful to point out that drug use is widespread among professional cyclists, who are surrounded by an insular, high-stakes culture that encourages it. The sports world lives and dies by the next world record or superhuman achievement. Is it any wonder that elite athletes seek out that extra competitive edge? And that Armstrong, in fully-inflated ego mode, would believe he had the power to rearrange reality to keep his victories intact? (2:03) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Bettie Page Reveals All Mark Mori's affectionate Bettie Page Reveals All is narrated in the form of a rambling, chuckle-punctuated interview with the late pin-up icon herself. (We never actually see her except in archival film and images.) Even die-hards who already know the story behind the legend — a rough childhood, several unsuccessful marriages, mental-health issues — will likely learn some new tidbits. (A friend recalls watching 2005's unauthorized biopic The Notorious Bettie Page with its subject, who hollered her opinion — "Lies! Lies!" — throughout.) Associates like Hugh Hefner and Dita Von Teese drop by to praise Page's talents and legacy, but there's no greater proof of lasting glamour than Page's famous photographs, which she clearly loved posing for, and never regretted, even after embracing Christianity later in life. (1:41) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

The Book Thief One of those novels that seems to have been categorized as "young adult" more for reasons of marketing than anything else, Markus Zusak's international best seller gets an effective screen adaptation from director Brian Percival and scenarist Michael Petroni. Liesl (Sophie Nelisse) is an illiterate orphan — for all practical purposes, that is, given the likely fate of her left-leaning parents in a just-pre-World War II Nazi Germany — deposited by authorities on the doorstep of the middle-aged, childless Hubermanns in 1938. Rosa (Emily Watson) is a ceaseless nag and worrywart, even if her bark is worse than her bite; kindly housepainter Hans (Geoffrey Rush), who's lost work by refusing to join "the Party," makes a game of teacher Liesl how to read. Her subsequent fascination with books attracts the notice of the local Burgermeister's wife (Barbara Auer), who under the nose of her stern husband lets the girl peruse tomes from her manse's extensive library. But that secret is trivial compared to the Hubermanns' hiding of Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), son of Jewish comrade who'd saved Hans' life in the prior world war. When war breaks out anew, this harboring of a fugitive becomes even more dangerous, something Liesl can't share even with her best friend Rudy (Nico Liersch). While some of the book's subplots and secondary characters are sacrificed for the sake of expediency, the filmmakers have crafted a potent, intelligent drama whose judicious understatement extends to the subtlest (and first non-Spielberg) score John Williams has written in years. Rush, Watson, and newcomer Schnetzer are particularly good in the well-chosen cast. (2:11) SF Center. (Harvey)

Blue is the Warmest Color The stars (Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux) say the director was brutal. The director says he wishes the film had never been released (but he might make a sequel). The graphic novelist is uncomfortable with the explicit 10-minute sex scene. And most of the state of Idaho will have to wait to see the film on Netflix. The noise of recrimination, the lesser murmur of backpedaling, and a difficult-to-argue NC-17 rating could make it harder, as French director Abdellatif Kechiche has predicted, to find a calm, neutral zone in which to watch Blue is the Warmest Color, his Palme d'Or–winning adaptation (with co-writer Ghalya Lacroix) of Julie Maroh's 2010 graphic novel Le Blue Est une Couleur Chaude. But once you've committed to the three-hour runtime, it's not too difficult to tune out all the extra noise and focus on a film that trains its mesmerized gaze on a young woman's transforming experience of first love. (2:59) Smith Rafael. (Rapoport)

Blue Jasmine The good news about Blue Jasmine isn't that it's set in San Francisco, but that it's Woody Allen's best movie in years. Although some familiar characteristics are duly present, it's not quite like anything he's done before, and carries its essentially dramatic weight more effectively than he's managed in at least a couple decades. Not long ago Jasmine (a fearless Cate Blanchett) was the quintessential Manhattan hostess, but that glittering bubble has burst — exactly how revealed in flashbacks that spring surprises up to the script's end. She crawls to the West Coast to "start over" in the sole place available where she won't be mortified by the pity of erstwhile society friends. That would be the SF apartment of Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a fellow adoptive sister who was always looked down on by comparison to pretty, clever Jasmine. Theirs is an uneasy alliance — but Ginger's too big-hearted to say no. It's somewhat disappointing that Blue Jasmine doesn't really do much with San Francisco. Really, the film could take place anywhere — although setting it in a non-picture-postcard SF does bolster the film's unsettled, unpredictable air. Without being an outright villain, Jasmine is one of the least likable characters to carry a major US film since Noah Baumbach's underrated Margot at the Wedding (2007); the general plot shell, moreover, is strongly redolent of A Streetcar Named Desire. But whatever inspiration Allen took from prior works, Blue Jasmine is still distinctively his own invention. It's frequently funny in throwaway performance bits, yet disturbing, even devastating in cumulative impact. (1:38) 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) Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Ender's Game Those entering Ender's Game in search of homophobic threads or politically unsavory themes will likely be frustrated. After all, Orson Scott Card — once a board member of the National Organization for Marriage, and here serving as a producer intent on preserving the 1985 novel that netted him acclaim — has revisited what was initially a short story multiple times over the years, tweaking it to reflect a new political climate, to ready it for new expedient uses. Who knows — the times are a-changin' fast enough, with the outcry of LGBT activists and the growing acceptance of gay military members, to hope that a gay character might enter the mix someday. Of course, sexuality of all sorts is kept firmly in check in the Ender's world. Earth has been invaded by an insect-like species called the Formics, and the planet unifies to serve up its best and brightest (and, it's implied, most ruthless) young minds, sharpened on first-person-shooters and tactical games, to the cause of defeating the alien "other." Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is the knowing hybrid of his sociopath brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and compassionate sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) — of the trinity, he's "the One," as Han Solo, I mean, Harrison Ford, cadet talent-spotter and trainer Colonel Graff, puts it. Ender impresses the leather off the hardened old war horse, though the Colonel's psychologically more equipped cohort Major Anderson (Viola Davis) suspects there's more going on within their chosen leader. Director-screenwriter Gavin Hood demonstrates his allegiance to Card's vision, valorizing the discipline and teamwork instilled by military school with the grim purpose and dead serious pleasure one might take in studying a well-oiled machine, while Ender is sharpened and employed as a stunningly effective tool in a war he never truly conceived of. This game has a bit more in common with the recent Wii-meets-Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Godzillas of Pacific Rim than the winking, acidic satire of Starship Troopers (1997), echoing a drone-driven War on Terror that has a way of detaching even the most evolved fighter from the consequences of his or her actions. The question is how to undo, or rewrite, the damage done. (1:54) SF Center. (Chun)

Frozen (1:48) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Vogue.

Go For Sisters "Looks like trouble," grumbles disgraced former LAPD detective Freddy Suárez when he spots Bernice (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) on his front lawn. The women — childhood friends, recently reunited by the awkward circumstance of parole officer Bernice being assigned to recovering drug addict Fontayne's case — are looking for Bernice's estranged son, missing and probably in grave danger due to his entanglements with gangsters in Mexico. Suárez, nicknamed "the Terminator" despite his grizzled exterior, agrees to help (for a price), and the unlikely threesome travel to Tijuana on Rodney's trail. Border tales are the specialty of writer-director John Sayles (1996's Lone Star), and as usual, "border" doesn't only refer to a line on a map. Go For Sisters' characters are mostly living between worlds, with morals that shift according to the situation. (The constant is the rekindled friendship between Bernice and Fontayne, once so close they could pass for sisters, or "go for sisters," per the title.) If the resulting film is a little more rambling than Sayles' best work, it still offers an experience that feels lived-in and authentic. (2:02) Opera Plaza. (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) Castro, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (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) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Just when you'd managed to wipe 2012's unwieldy The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey from your mind, here comes its sequel — and it's actually good! Yes, it's too long (Peter Jackson wouldn't have it any other way); arachnophobes (and maybe small children) will have trouble with the creepy, giant-spider battle; and Orlando Bloom, reprising his Lord of the Rings role as Legolas the elf, has been CG'd to the point of looking like he's carved out of plastic. But there's much more to enjoy this time around, with a quicker pace (no long, drawn-out dinner parties); winning performances by Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Ian McKellan (Gandalf); and Benedict Cumberbatch (as the petulent voice of Smaug the dragon); and more shape to the quest, as the crew of dwarves seeks to reclaim their homeland, and Gandalf pokes into a deeper evil that's starting to overtake Middle-earth. (We all know how that ends.) In addition to Cumberbatch, the cast now includes Lost's Evangeline Lilly as elf Tauriel, who doesn't appear in J.R.R. Tolkien's original story, but whose lady-warrior presence is a welcome one; and Luke Evans as Bard, a human poised to play a key role in defeating Smaug in next year's trilogy-ender, There and Back Again. (2:36) Balboa, Cerrito, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Before succumbing to the hot and heavy action inside the arena (intensely directed by Francis Lawrence) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire force-feeds you a world of heinous concept fashions that'd make Lady Gaga laugh. But that's ok, because the second film about one girl's epic struggle to change the world of Panem may be even more exciting than the first. Suzanne Collins' YA novel The Hunger Games was an over-literal metaphor for junior high social survival and the glory of Catching Fire is that it depicts what comes after you reach the cool kids' table. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) inspired so much hope among the 12 districts she now faces pressures from President Snow (a portentous Donald Sutherland) and the fanatical press of Capital City (Stanley Tucci with big teeth and Toby Jones with big hair). After she's forced to fake a romance with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the two watch with horror as they're faced with a new Hunger Game: for returning victors, many of whom are too old to run. Amanda Plummer and Jeffrey Wright are fun as brainy wackjobs and Jena Malone is hilariously Amazonian as a serial axe grinder still screaming like an eighth grader. Inside the arena, alliances and rivalries shift but the winner's circle could survive to see another revolution; to save this city, they may have to burn it down. (2:26) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)

Inside Llewyn Davis In the Coen Brothers' latest, Oscar Isaac as the titular character is well on his way to becoming persona non grata in 1961 NYC — particularly in the Greenwich Village folk music scene he's an ornery part of. He's broke, running out of couches to crash on, has recorded a couple records that have gone nowhere, and now finds out he's impregnated the wife (Carey Mulligan) and musical partner of one among the few friends (Justin Timberlake) he has left. She's furious with herself over this predicament, but even more furious at him. This ambling, anecdotal tale finds Llewyn running into one exasperating hurdle after another as he burns his last remaining bridges, not just in Manhattan but on a road trip to Chicago undertaken with an overbearing jazz musician (John Goodman) and his enigmatic driver (Garrett Hedlund) to see a club impresario (F. Murray Abraham). This small, muted, droll Coens exercise is perfectly handled in terms of performance and atmosphere, with pleasures aplenty in its small plot surprises, myriad humorous idiosyncrasies, and T. Bone Burnett's sweetened folk arrangements. But whether it actually has anything to say about its milieu (a hugely important Petri dish for later '60s political and musical developments), or adds up to anything more profound than an beautifully executed shaggy-dog story, will be a matter of personal taste — or perhaps of multiple viewings. (1:45) Embarcadero, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Lenny Cooke In 2001, Brooklyn-raised Lenny Cooke was the number one high school basketball player in America — rated higher than future NBA megastars like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. This doc from brothers Joshua and Benny Safdie is largely a cautionary tale, starting with Cooke's decision to forego college and enter the NBA draft after a much-hyped but unstable high school career. Footage shot by producer Adam Shopkorn — who followed Cooke during his late teenage years, hoping to track a star being born — captures Cooke excitedly watching the 2001 draft, when multiple "prep-to-pro" players were selected in the first round. It also shows him engaged in a fierce basketball camp match-up with the slightly younger James, who gets the better of him. An unlikely voice of reason comes early, when Kobe Bryant advises Cooke and other young players "Don't rely on basketball for your happiness, because it's not gonna happen." Indeed, the 19-year-old Cooke goes undrafted in 2002, instead playing in various lesser leagues (including a stint in Quezon City, Philippines) before drifting away from his dreams. Inevitably, Lenny Cooke catches up with its subject in more recent years: nearing 30, noticeably overweight, and by turns reflective, regretful, angry, and humbled, cooking for his family as a New York Times sports reporter takes notes on what "not making it" looks like. (1:30) Roxie. (Eddy)

Nebraska Alexander Payne may be unique at this point in that he's in a position of being able to make nothing but small, human, and humorous films with major-studio money on his own terms. It's hazardous to make too much of a movie like Nebraska, because it is small — despite the wide Great Plains landscapes shot in a wide screen format — and shouldn't be entered into with overinflated or otherwise wrong-headed expectations. Still, a certain gratitude is called for. Nebraska marks the first time Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor weren't involved in the script, and the first one since their 1996 Citizen Ruth that isn't based on someone else's novel. (Hitherto little-known Bob Nelson's original screenplay apparently first came to Payne's notice a decade ago, but getting put off in favor of other projects.) It could easily have been a novel, though, as the things it does very well (internal thought, sense of place, character nuance) and the things it doesn't much bother with (plot, action, dialogue) are more in line with literary fiction than commercial cinema. Elderly Woody T. Grant (Bruce Dern) keeps being found grimly trudging through snow and whatnot on the outskirts of Billings, Mont., bound for Lincoln, Neb. Brain fuzzed by age and booze, he's convinced he's won a million dollars and needs to collect it him there, though eventually it's clear that something bigger than reality — or senility, even — is compelling him to make this trek. Long-suffering younger son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him in order to simply put the matter to rest. This fool's mission acquires a whole extended family-full of other fools when father and son detour to the former's podunk farming hometown. Nebraska has no moments so funny or dramatic they'd look outstanding in excerpt; low-key as they were, 2009's Sideways and 2011's The Descendants had bigger set pieces and narrative stakes. But like those movies, this one just ambles along until you realize you're completely hooked, all positive emotional responses on full alert. (1:55) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

Out of the Furnace Scott Cooper is best-known for directing Jeff Bridges to a long-overdue Oscar in 2009 country-music yarn Crazy Heart. Perhaps that's why his follow-up contains so many stars: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard, Zoe Saldana, and Woody Harrelson. That cast is the main draw for Out of the Furnace, a glum fable of dying American dreams co-written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby. Furnace retains Crazy Heart's melodramatic tendencies and good ol' boy milieu, though this time we're deep in Pennsylvania's Rust Belt, which manages to be even more depressing than Crazy Horse's honky-tonks. Cue gray skies, repeated shots of train tracks and smoke stacks, an emo banjo score, and dialogue that casually mentions that "the mill," the only source of income for miles around, is about to close. Probably the nicest guy in town is Bale's character, arrested early on for causing a fatal car accident thanks to his inability to turn down a drink offered by the town heavy (Dafoe). Post-prison, he discovers that his girlfriend (Saldana) has taken up with another man, and that his money-troubled Iraq-vet brother (Affleck) has been entering high-stakes pit fights. Really, this can't end well for anyone. Adding to Out of the Furnace's bleak take on modern masculinity is Harrelson, stealing all his scenes with ease as a psychotically violent redneck. Mickey Knox lives! (1:56) SF Center. (Eddy)

Philomena Judi Dench gives this twist on a real-life scandal heart, soul, and a nuanced, everyday heft. Her ideal, ironic foil is Steve Coogan, playing an upper-crusty irreverent snob of an investigative journalist. Judging by her tidy exterior, Dench's title character is a perfectly ordinary Irish working-class senior, but she's haunted by the past, which comes tumbling out one day to her daughter: As an unwed teenager, she gave birth to a son at a convent. She was forced to work there, unpaid; as supposed penance, the baby was essentially sold to a rich American couple against her consent. Her yarn reaches disgraced reporter Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), who initially turns his nose up at the tale's piddling "human interest" angle, but slowly gets drawn in by the unexpected twists and turns of the story — and likely the possibility of taking down some evil nuns — as well as seemingly naive Philomena herself, with her delight in trash culture, frank talk about sex, and simple desire to see her son and know that he thought, once in a while, of her. It turns out Philomena's own sad narrative has as many improbable turnarounds as one of the cheesy romance novels she favors, and though this unexpected twosome's quest for the truth is strenuously reworked to conform to the contours of buddy movie-road trip arc that we're all too familiar with, director Stephen Frears' warm, light-handed take on the gentle class struggles going on between the writer and his subject about who's in control of the story makes up for Philomena's determined quest for mass appeal. (1:35) Embarcadero, Marina, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

The Punk Singer It was strange when Kathleen Hanna — riot grrrl activist, iconic Bikini Kill battle cry leader, electro-popping Le Tigre singer — went silent. Beat down by a mysterious illness, she seemingly tumbled into hardcore self-preservation mode, contributing her personal files of zines, show flyers, and lyrics to the "Riot Grrrl Collection" at New York University's Fales Library. This archival material would prove key to Sini Anderson's new documentary about Hanna, The Punk Singer. The film includes many lesser-seen clips from the early days of Bikini Kill, the band's tours through Europe, and early moments with Hanna's husband, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, and it uses archival footage and present-day interviews to color in Hanna's childhood, the beginning of the riot grrrl movement, Le Tigre, and her post-Bikini Kill solo project, the Julie Ruin. The bulk of filming was done over the course of a year — and it was a momentous one: Halfway through, Hanna was diagnosed with late-stage neurological Lyme disease. The revelation spurred Anderson (who also has Lyme disease) to focus on the strength in Hanna's vulnerability, and to depict how her subject chose to view her illness as motivation to return to music. Anderson's interviews with Hanna are intimate and enlightening; the film also features commentary from Bikini Kill's Tobi Vail, Billy Karren, and Kathi Wilcox (now of the Julie Ruin); Kim Gordon; Joan Jett; Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker; and teenage Rookie Magazine editor Tavi Gevinson. (1:56) Roxie. (Emily Savage)

Saving Mr. Banks Having promised his daughters that he would make a movie of their beloved Mary Poppins books, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has laid polite siege to author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) for over 20 years. Now, in the early 1960s, she has finally consented to discuss the matter in Los Angeles — albeit with great reluctance, and only because royalty payments have dried up to the point where she might have to sell her London home. Bristling at being called "Pam" and everything else in this sunny SoCal and relentlessly cheery Mouse House environ, the acidic English spinster regards her creation as sacred. The least proposed changes earn her horrified dismissal, and the very notion of having Mary and company "prancing and chirping" out songs amid cartoon elements is taken as blasphemy. This clash of titans could have made for a barbed comedy with satirical elements, but god forbid this actual Disney production should get so cheeky. Instead, we get the formulaically dramatized tale of a shrew duly tamed by all-American enterprise, with flashbacks to the inevitable past traumas (involving Colin Farrell as a beloved but alcoholic ne'er-do-well father) that require healing of Travers' wounded inner child by the magic of the Magic Kingdom. If you thought 2004's Finding Neverland was contrived feel-good stuff, you'll really choke on the spoons full of sugar force-fed here. (2:06) Balboa, Cerrito, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)

12 Years a Slave Pop culture's engagement with slavery has always been uneasy. Landmark 1977 miniseries Roots set ratings records, but the prestigious production capped off a decade that had seen some more questionable endeavors, including 1975 exploitation flick Mandingo — often cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorite films; it was a clear influence on his 2012 revenge fantasy Django Unchained, which approached its subject matter in a manner that paid homage to the Westerns it riffed on: with guns blazing. By contrast, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is nuanced and steeped in realism. Though it does contain scenes of violence (deliberately captured in long takes by regular McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt, whose cinematography is one of the film's many stylistic achievements), the film emphasizes the horrors of "the peculiar institution" by repeatedly showing how accepted and ingrained it was. Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, an African American man who was sold into slavery in 1841 and survived to pen a wrenching account of his experiences. He's portrayed here by the powerful Chiwetel Ejiofor. Other standout performances come courtesy of McQueen favorite Michael Fassbender (as Epps, a plantation owner who exacerbates what's clearly an unwell mind with copious amounts of booze) and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, as a slave who attracts Epps' cruel attentions. (2:14) Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas (1:45) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Walking With Dinosaurs Like hungry, fast-moving Chirostenotes, movieland has a habit of poaching from all comers, be it a toy, video game, or here, a hugely successful 1999 BBC documentary miniseries of the same name. This 3D hamburger version of the award-winning six-parter plays to dinos' most avid audience, traditionally — kids — by anthropomorphizing runt Pachyrhinosaurus, otherwise known as Patchi (voiced by Justin Long), as the scrappy young hero of this adventure and dramatizing life-and-death migrations his herd undertakes each year as rites of passage. Framing the adventure is a present-day dig with archaeologist Zack (Karl Urban), his skeptical nephew (Charlie Rowe), and gung-ho niece (Angourie Rice). With a broken 70 million-year-old tooth in hand — and with help from prehistoric Alexomis bird Alex (John Leguizamo, who provides most of the levity), we learn about Patchi, his brother Scowler (Skyler Stone), and their herd of horned, thick-noised lizards as they make their way south for winter and back, encountering multiple dangers and predators, as well as let's-make-a-family delights in the form of young female Juniper (Tiya Sircar) along with way. Count on the CGI to be seamless, the 3D to come in handy when it comes to incoming Quetzalcoatlus, and the choice of not having the lizards' lips move as they speak to seem tasteful and wise — especially when it comes dubbing for a global audience. (1:27) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

White Reindeer Washington, DC area realtor Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) is in full Yuletide spirit well before Jesus' actual b-day, looking forward to moving in the new year to Hawaii with her TV weatherman husband. But holiday cheer goes down the toilet when she comes home one day to find he's been shot to death during an attempted break-in. While attempting to be supportive, her parents offer further trauma by announcing that they're about to break up after probably 40 years or so of marriage. And a mourner at the wake unnecessarily unburdens himself of a secret he might well have kept: Suzanne's late husband was pretty heavily involved with a local stripper, Autumn, a.k.a. Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough). Suzanne seeks her out, first to get some closure, then to "hang out" — part of a pretty crazed grieving process that eventually involves much clubbing, drinking, snorting, and some swinging (new neighbors who bought their home through her turn out to be sexually ... adventurous). Zach Clark's bittersweet semi-black comedy set during a very white Christmas delivers outré content in a low-key, attuned to the emotional realities of characters whose actions make a certain internal sense even when they make absolutely none externally. It's a holiday movie about depression that is not, ultimately, depressing in itself. (1:22) Roxie. (Harvey) *