Film Listings: March 12 - 18, 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.

CAAMFEST

The Center for Asian American Media's CAAMFest runs March 13-23. Major venues include the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; Great Star Theater, 636 Jackson, SF; New Parkway Theater, 474 24th St, Oakl; New People Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post, SF. For tickets (most shows $12) and complete schedule, visit www.caamedia.org. For commentary, see "The Art of Martial Arts," "Telling Tales, " and "Woman With a Movie Camera."

OPENING

Better Living Through Chemistry Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, and Michelle Monaghan star in this dark comedy about a mild-mannered pharmacist whose life is upended when he meets a pill-addicted trophy wife. (1:31) Balboa.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me See "Shooting Straight." (1:21) Opera Plaza, Shattuck.

The Face of Love Five years after her husband, Garrett (Ed Harris), drowns while on vacation for their 30th anniversary, Nikki (Annette Bening) chances upon his exact double, Tom (Harris again). She pretends to be a divorcée and hides all photographic evidence that would out her reason for pursing Tom, an easygoing art professor and painter who actually is divorced (he's buddies with his ex, a low-key Amy Brennemen). To her delight, he reciprocates her interest — but as their relationship grows, it becomes harder to conceal the, uh, doppelgänger situation from Nikki's adult daughter (Jess Weixler) and neighbor (Robin Williams), a widower who's jealous of Nikki's new love. Harris and especially Bening are great — and they're great together — but The Face of Love, from director and co-writer Arie Posin (2005's The Chumscrubber), is the romantic melodrama equivalent of a one-joke comedy, with at least one Vertigo-inspired scene, and a drippy score that underlines every emotional story beat. (1:32) Embarcadero. (Eddy)

Generation War German import Generation War was originally called Our Mothers, Our Fathers, to underline the relevancy of the discussion it's presumably trying to stir at home — even if for many viewers the war generation would have been their grandparents'. Directed by Philipp Kadelbach and written by Stefan Kolditz, it starts out in dismayingly hackneyed fashion as we're introduced to our youthful protagonists. Celebrating a birthday in 1941 near the war's start, when Axis victory seems assured, they pose for a photo you know damn well is going to be the heart-tugging emblem of innocence horribly lost for the next 270 minutes. Fast-paced yet never achieving the psychological depth of similarly scaled historical epics, Generation War grows most interesting in its late going, when for all practical purposes the Allies have already won the war, but Germany continues to self-destruct. Imminent peace provides no relief for protagonists who've survived only to find themselves fucked no matter what side they stay on, or surrender to. That moral and situational complexity is too often missing in a narrative that aims for sympathy via simplicity. The underrated recent film version of The Book Thief (2013) was criticized for soft-pedaling the era, but it was about (and from the viewpoint of) somewhat sheltered Aryan children living in a civilian wartime. Generation War's characters are of exactly the age to be fully indoctrinated young zealots, yet none of them seems touched by National Socialist dogma. Of course such naiveté is designed to maximize their later disillusionment. But War doesn't even try to approach the serious analysis of national character in something like Ursula Hegi's great novel Stones from the River, in which we come to understand how time, propaganda, and preyed-upon weaknesses can turn a town of perfectly nice Germans into fascists capable of turning a blind eye toward the Final Solution. (4:30) Embarcadero, Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

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. (Eddy)

Love and Demons A man (Chris Pfleuger) in the midst of a midlife crisis, a woman (Lucia Frangione) starting to realize she's completely dissatisfied with her life — does this relationship have a chance? Enter each partner's personal demon, eager to have a hand in shaping events in what turns into a not-so-friendly competition. At first, the intervention seems helpful; the male demon encourages the man, a wannabe screenwriter, to get a better job, clean up the apartment, and blurt out feel-good-isms like "I want to build something together." But what's this about murder? Meanwhile, the female demon (Arnica Skulstad Brown) appears to be the ultimate gal pal, stroking the woman's ego by telling her she could do so much better, going on shopping sprees with her, and sharing her stay-skinny coke stash. Temptations ahoy! Written, directed by, and costarring local filmmaker JP Allen (as the male demon, he's the cast's cigarette-smoking, smirking high point) this intriguing look at modern love earns bonus points for its excellent use of SF locations — and creative editing that helps break up the film's many voice-overs and fourth-wall-breaking moments. (1:24) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

Need for Speed Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul stars in this tale of a breakneck cross-country car race, an adaptation of the popular video game. (2:10)

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)

Veronica Mars The cult-beloved TV show hits the big screen, with Kristen Bell reprising her breakout role as the titular sleuth. (1:43)

ONGOING

About Last Night (1:40) Metreon.

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, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Beijing Love Story Writer-director-star Chen Sicheng adapts his 2012 Chinese TV series, adding movie stars Carina Lau and Tony Leung Ka-fai to the cast to up the big-screen wattage. The film follows an array of couples, starting with Chen and real-life wife Shen Yan as a young couple forced to make some hard choices after an unplanned pregnancy. "What's love? It's like a ghost. Everyone's heard of it, nobody's seen it," the reluctant father-to-be's cynical friend tells him. Said friend has been hitched for years; the film's next storyline follows what happens when his wife finds out he's been cheating (as it turns out, she has some secrets of her own). At one point, the action shifts from Beijing to Greece (for the Lau-Leung segment), before returning to the city for a teenage love story involving a cello prodigy who wants to compete on TV, and a boy who can "see auras," among other fanciful talents. Finally, an elderly man embarks on a series of blind dates, looking for a second chance at love, with a twist that's obvious to anyone who's ever seen a rom-com before. By the time this flowery Valentine's card of a movie reaches its melodramatic conclusion, it's abundantly clear that Chen knows his target audience — see: the film's multiple Titanic (1997) references — and that he's a huge fan of the romance genre himself. (2:02) Metreon. (Eddy)

Bethlehem Teenaged Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i) is the younger brother of Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), a leader in Palestinian militant group al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. When the latter claims responsibility for a suicide bombing in the center of Jerusalem, the Israelis want Ibrahim dead or in custody, immediately. That ought to be easy enough, since Sanfur is not just a potential freedom fighter himself but also, contrarily, an informant to Israeli Secret Service officer Razi (Tsahi Halevy). Their relationship is complex, to say the least, with an aspect of genuine paternal bonding even as Razi's superiors pressure him to treat the youth as an expendable asset; Sanfur in turn resents the position he's been cornered into. Just how he got there isn't revealed until near the end of this taut thriller, co-written by Palestinian Ali Waked and Israeli director Yuval Adler, and acted with considerable power by non professional leads. Bethlehem isn't quite as strikingly accomplished or ingeniously plotted as the concurrent, similarly themed Omar. But it delivers its own cumulative punch as characters likewise cross ethical and political lines in increasingly desperate efforts at self-preservation that can only end one bleak, bitter way. (1:39) 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, Presidio, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

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

Gloria The titular figure in Sebastian Lelio's film is a Santiago divorcee and white collar worker (Paulina Garcia) pushing 60, living alone in a condo apartment — well, almost alone, since like Inside Llewyn Davis, this movie involves the frequent, unwanted company of somebody else's cat. (That somebody is an upstairs neighbor whose solo wailings against cruel fate disturb her sleep.) Her two children are grown up and preoccupied with their adult lives. Not quite ready for the glue factory yet, Gloria often goes to a disco for the "older crowd," dancing by herself if she has to, but still hoping for some romantic prospects. She gets them in the form of Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), who's more recently divorced but gratifyingly infatuated with her. Unfortunately, he's also let his daughters and ex-wife remain ominously dependent on him, not just financially but in every emotional crisis that affects their apparently crisis-filled lives. The extent to which Gloria lets him into her life is not reciprocated, and she becomes increasingly aware how distant her second-place priority status is whenever Rodolfo's other loved ones snap their fingers. There's not a lot of plot but plenty of incident and insight to this character study, a portrait of a "spinster" that neither slathers on the sentimental uplift or piles on melodramatic victimizations. Instead, Gloria is memorably, satisfyingly just right. (1:50) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

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

The Lego Movie (1:41) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, 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) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (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)

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, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck. (Chun)

Omar Palestine's contender for Best Foreign Language Film is a mighty strong one, with a top-notch script and direction by previous nominee Hany Abu-Assad (2006's Paradise Now). After he's captured following the shooting of an Israeli soldier, the titular freedom fighter (a compelling Adam Bakri) is given an unsavory choice by his handler (Waleed F. Zuaiter): rot in jail for 90 years, or become an informant (or "collaborator") and rat out his co-conspirators. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Omar is in love with Nadia (Leem Lubany, blessed with a thousand-watt smile), the younger sister of his lifelong friend, Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), who planned the attack. Betrayals are imminent, but who will come out ahead, and at what price? Shot with gritty urgency — our hero is constantly on the run, ducking down alleys, scaling walls, scrambling across rooftops, sliding down drainpipes, etc. — Omar brings authenticity to its embattled characters and setting. A true thriller, right up until the last shot. (1:38) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (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) Albany. (Chun)

Pompeii There's not a single original idea in Resident Evil series prolonger Paul W.S. Anderson's take on the legendary volcanic eruption, but what did you expect? Among its cast, only Kiefer Sutherland (as a lasciviously evil Roman senator) seems to be enjoying himself, camping it up alongside deeply serious young leads Emily Browning and Kit Harington. The mop-topped Game of Thrones stud doesn't expand his brooding act beyond what we've seen him do in Westeros — though it's likely he expanded his workout routine, what with all the muscular emoting he gets to do in the gladiator ring. The tissue-thin plot involves forbidden romance, revenge, a couple of swipes at big-city corruption, and male bonding 'twixt Harington and Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who brings a certain amount of gravitas to his one-dimensional slave character. But the film's most interesting player is giant Mount Vesuvius, which grumbles in the background as it readies for its big scene — reassuring the audience that deadly chunks will eventually spew all over this mediocre movie and hasten its necessary conclusion. (1:45) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

The Rocket When a terrible accident befalls a Laotian family already in a bad situation — they're being displaced from their home thanks to a massive dam-building project — 10-year-old Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) is blamed, with particular malice coming from his superstitious grandmother, who believes the boy has been cursed since birth. In the squalid relocation camp, Ahlo finds a buddy in Kia (adorbs Loungnam Kaosainam), who lives with her James Brown-obsessed uncle (Thep Phongam), who provides drunken comic relief — but not without a certain sadness, since he's a former soldier still suffering, like Laos itself, from the aftereffects of war. Ahlo may be unlucky, but he's also crafty and fearless, and when he hears about a rocket-building competition offering a much-needed cash prize, he seizes the chance to prove to his family that he's no bad penny. Though The Rocket was made in Laos, it's from Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt, who frames his simple story with gorgeous photography and an admirable lack of sentimentality. He's also found a winner in first-time actor Disamoe, who's a natural. (1:36) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (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, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

7 Boxes If Paraguayan cinema can make such a splash with wheelbarrow chases, one wonders what Outer Mongolia can do with dolly races. Despite its determinedly lo-fi look and feel — US reality TV looks downright slick in comparison — and some very camp acting, 7 Boxes demands respect, like the scruffy street urchins it champions, for its will to cobble together movie magic out of gritty, street-level material. The scene is Asunción's municipal marketplace. Fascinated by the pirated DVD crime dramas playing out on the screens around him, wheelbarrow delivery boy Victor (Celso Franco) is determined to get a camera of his own — attached, of course, to a way-too-expensive phone. It seems far out of reach, until butchers offer him a US $100 bill to cart seven mysterious boxes away until the coast is clear. The meat purveyors' regular cart-pusher Nelson (Victor Sosa Traverzi) is desperate to get those boxes — and get paid — instead, and Victor has to depend on his mouthy, spunky friend Liz (Lali Gonzalez) to help him out, as they grapple with cops and robbers, attempt to collect, and uncover the boxes' nasty secrets. Like charismatic leads Ferreira and Gonzalez, 7 Boxes is full of promise. Directors Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori pour considerable energy into 7 Boxes' somewhat absurd wheelbarrow high jinks and attempt to humanize their characters while capturing some of the multicultural, screen-laden complexity of anarchic 21st-century urban life in Paraguay. Detracting from the cause are some of the more OTT, unintentionally laughable performances, gratuitous narrative twists, and the alternately jerky and fluid video work — which, appropriately enough, looks to be shot from a phone and, in spite of the moviemakers' moments of bravura editing and inventive swings in and out of the marketplace labyrinth, never manages to rise above the unlovely. (1:45) Roxie. (Chun)

Stalingrad Behold, Russia's highest-grossing blockbuster of all time, which presents (in 3D IMAX) a very small story contained within the enormous titular World War II battle, previously dramatized by the West in 2001's Enemy at the Gates. Stalingrad begins in the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese earthquake, in which an aid worker tells stories to a group of trapped German tourists as they await rescue. Seems the man's mother, a Russian teenager during the Battle of Stalingrad, met five Red Army soldiers who bonded while fighting the invading Nazis, and helped her survive while all kinda, sorta, falling for her at the same time. There are plenty of lavish battle scenes for war-movie buffs — likely the only people who will seek out this film during its limited US run, and it is interesting to see a WW2 tale with zero American perspective or involvement — but the film is earnest to a fault, with plot holes that may or may not be a result of cultural and language barriers. And speaking of the plot: isn't the bloody, epic tale of Stalingrad compelling enough without awkward romance(s) shoehorned in? Eliminate that, and you eliminate the need for that ham-fisted frame story, too. (2:15) Metreon. (Eddy)

3 Days to Kill (1:40) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

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) Balboa, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Tim's Vermeer "I'm not a painter," admits Tim Jenison at the start of Tim's Vermeer. He is, however, an inventor, a technology whiz specializing in video engineering, a self-made multimillionaire, and possessed of astonishing amounts of determination and focus. Add a bone-dry sense of humor and he's the perfect documentary subject for magicians and noted skeptics Penn & Teller, who capture his multi-year quest to "paint a Vermeer." Inspired by artist David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, Jenison became interested in the theory that 17th century painters used lenses and mirrors, or a camera obscura, to help create their remarkably realistic works. He was especially taken with Vermeer, feeling a "geek kinship" with someone who was able to apply paint to canvas and make it look like a video image. It took some trial-and-error, but Jenison soon figured out a way that would allow him — someone who barely knew how to hold a brush — to transform an old photograph into a strikingly Vermeer-like oil painting. He decides to recreate The Music Lesson (1662-65), using only materials Vermeer would have had access to, and working from an exact replica of the room in Vermeer's house where the painting was made. A few slow moments aside ("This project is a lot like watching paint dry," Jenison jokes), Tim's Vermeer is otherwise briskly propelled by the insatiable curiosity of the man at its center. And Jenison's finished work offers a clear challenge to anyone who subscribes to the modern notion that "art and technology should never meet." Why shouldn't they, when the end results are so sublime? (1:20) Balboa. (Eddy)

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, Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

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)

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) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy) *