Film Listings: March 5 - 11, 2014

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

OPENING

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) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

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) Clay. (Vizcarrondo)

Mr. Peabody and Sherman The time-traveling characters from the 1960s animated Rocky and Bullwinkle Show finally get their own feature film, with voices by Modern Family co-stars Ty Burrell and Ariel Winter. (1:30) Four Star, Presidio.

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) Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Run & Jump San Francisco-born director Steph Green's first feature is a likable seriocomedy about an Irish family trying to adjust to some drastic, unforeseen changes. After suffering a stroke and coming out of a coma, Conor Casey (Edward MacLiam) is a changed man — uncommunicative, sometimes volatile, seldom at all like the beloved husband and father he was. As wife Venetia (Maxine Peake) and their two kids tiptoe around him, they get a houseguest in the form of American neurologist Ted (Will Forte), who's here to study Conor's recovery (or lack thereof) with clinical detachment. The reserved, emotionally withdrawn Yank finds himself drawn into the Caseys' shared warmth, particularly in its current need for a fill-in adult male — opening up to the children and, more riskily, striking romantic sparks with the Mrs. A bit formulaic but a crowd-pleaser nonetheless, the film is perhaps most notable for its winning dramatic turn by Saturday Night Live alum Forte, after another excellent showing in last year's Nebraska. (1:42) Vogue. (Harvey)

300: Rise of An Empire Sequel to the 2006 action fantasy, because yelling "Spartaaaa!" never gets old. (1:43) Balboa, Marina.

Visitors Godfrey Reggio, the man behind the Qatsi Trilogy (1982's Koyaanisqatsi, 1988's Powaqqatsi, 2002's Naqoyqatsi), delivers a new feature-length serving of chicken soup for the soul — this time aimed at a more scopophillic society. A procession of viewers (watching what, it's never revealed) get patient close-ups, giving us time to observe the observers as their expressions change from elation to disappointment, rapture to ennui. The first observer is Triska, the famous gorilla on loan from the Bronx zoo, whose expressions are like a familiar foreign language conveyed by another species. Interpreting Triska begins a process that director Godfrey Reggio renews with every new take, and demands a degree of audience involvement that's not to everyone's taste — the Phillip Glass score throughout is a draw but is another factor for acquired tastes. Discretely we transition to a hollowed out building, an abandoned amusement park, the surface of the moon; in black and white the images have a coolness that undermines their grandeur. A slow moving camera circumnavigates an Louisiana swamp, and in the slits between the cypress roots you see new views of the distant terrain as if through a zoetrope, and the most mundane, ancient landscape is somehow new again. In an ocean of media, how often does a movie do that? (1:27) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Vizcarrondo)

ONGOING

About Last Night (1:40) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

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) Castro, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, 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)

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, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Endless Love Just about everything about this very, very loose rework of the 1981 Franco Zeffirelli schmaltzathon-slash-cinematic stab at Scott Spencer's well-regarded novel — apart from Alex Pettyfer's infallible chest — is endlessly laughable. The Zeffirelli effort was dedicated to the nation's sexualization of all things Brooke Shields, with an added Reagan-era rebuff of perceived loosey-goosey boomer mores. Mixed messages, certainly, but that was a different time and place, and instead of viewing youthful sexual obsession-cum-romance as an almost-anarchic force of nature, threatening life, limb, and everything we hold dear, this venture defuses much of that dangerous passion and turns it all into a fairly weak broth of watered-down Romeo and Juliet. Here, Jade (Gabriella Wilde) is the privileged, golden-girl bookworm who has no social life — her family, headed by control-freak doctor dad (Bruce Greenwood), has been preoccupied with the care and finally passing of her beloved, cancer-striken brother. Enter hunky po' boy David (Pettyfer), who finds a way into a lonely girl's heart, with, natch, his social savvy and fulsome pecs. Standing in the way of endless love? A great medical internship for Jade and a bossy pants father who worked very hard to get that internship for her. Pfft. Love finds its work-around amid those low stakes, and we're all left marveling at Wilde's posh, coltishly thin limbs and Pettyfer's depthless dimples. (1:44) Metreon. (Chun)

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) 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, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

In Secret Zola's much-adapted 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin is the source for this rather tepid period melodrama with Elizabeth Olsen as that character, dumped by the seafaring father she never sees again on the doorstep of a joyless aunt (Jessica Lange). The latter pretty much forces Thérèse to eventually marry her own son, sickly Camille (Tom Felton), and even a move to Paris does little to brighten our heroine's dreary existence. Until, that is, she meets Camille's contrastingly virile office coworker Laurent (Oscar Isaac), with whom she's soon more-or-less graphically doing all the sweaty sexy thangs Zola could only hint at. When their passion becomes more than they can bear maintaining "in secret," they find themselves considering murder as one way out. The original author's clever plot mechanizations create some suspense in the late going. But despite good performances around her, Olsen doesn't make her heroine very interesting, and director-adaptor Charlie Stratton is all too faithful to the depressing nature of this classic tale — visually the film too often seems to be crouching beneath a heavy, damp cloak, proud to be saving on candle wax. (1:47) Metreon. (Harvey)

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

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, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

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. (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) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

"Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Animated" Five nominees — plus a trio of "highly commended" additional selections — fill this program. If you saw Frozen in the theater, you've seen Get a Horse!, starring old-timey Mickey Mouse and some very modern moviemaking techniques. There's also Room on the Broom, based on a children's book about a kindly witch who's a little too generous when it comes to befriending outcast animals (much to the annoyance of her original companion, a persnickety cat). Simon Pegg narrates, and Gillian Anderson voices the red-headed witch; listen also for Mike Leigh regulars Sally Hawkins and Timothy Spall. Japanese Possessions is based on even older source material: a spooky legend that discarded household objects can gain the power to cause mischief. A good-natured fix-it man ducks into an abandoned house during a rainstorm, only to be confronted with playful parasols, cackling kimono fabric, and a dragon constructed out of kitchen junk. The most artistically striking nominee is Feral, a dialogue-free, impressionistic tale of a foundling who resists attempts to civilize him. But my top pick is another dialogue-free entry: Mr. Hublot, the steampunky tale of an inventor whose regimented life is thrown into disarray when he adopts a stray robot dog, which soon grows into a comically enormous companion. It's cute without being cloying, and the universe it creates around its characters is cleverly detailed, right down to the pictures on Hublot's walls. Embarcadero. (Eddy)

"Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Live Action" With the exception of one entry — wryly comedic The Voorman Problem, starring Sherlock's Martin Freeman as a prison doctor who has a most unsettling encounter with an inmate who believes he's a god — children are a unifying theme among this year's live-action nominees. Finnish Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, the shortest in the bunch, follows a cheerfully sloppy family's frantic morning as they scramble to get themselves to a wedding. Danish Helium skews a little sentimental in its tale of a hospital janitor who makes up stories about a fanciful afterlife (way more fun than heaven) for the benefit of a sickly young patient. Spanish That Wasn't Me focuses on a different kind of youth entirely: a child soldier in an unnamed African nation, whose brutal encounter with a pair of European doctors leads him down an unexpected path. Though it feels more like a sequence lifted from a longer film rather than a self-contained short, French Just Before Losing Everything is the probably the strongest contender here. The tale of a woman (Léa Drucker) who decides to take her two children and leave her dangerously abusive husband, it unfolds with real-time suspense as she visits her supermarket job one last time to deal with mundane stuff (collecting her last paycheck, turning in her uniform) before the trio can flee to safety. If they gave out Oscars for short-film acting, Drucker would be tough to beat; her performance balances steely determination and extreme fear in equally hefty doses. Embarcadero. (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, Sundance Kabuki. (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) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)

Ride Along By sheer dint of his ability to push his verbosity and non-threatening physicality into that nerd zone between smart and clueless, intelligent and irritating, Kevin Hart may be poised to become Hollywood's new comedy MVP. In the case of Ride Along, it helps that Ice Cube has comic talents, too — proven in the Friday movies as well as in 2012's 21 Jump Street — as the straight man who can actually scowl and smile at the same time. Together, in Ride Along, they bring the featherweight pleasures of Rush Hour-style odd-couple chortles. Hart is Ben, a gamer geek and school security guard shooting to become the most wrinkly student at the police academy. He looks up to hardened, street-smart cop James (Cube), brother of his new fiancée, Angela (Tika Sumpter). Naturally, instead of simply blessing the nuptials, the tough guy decides to haze the shut-in, disabusing him of any illusions he might have of being his equal. More-than-equal talents like Laurence Fishburne and John Leguizamo are pretty much wasted here — apart from Fishburne's ultra lite impression of Matrix man Morpheus — but if you don't expect much more than the chuckles eked out of Ride Along's commercials, you won't be too disappointed by this nontaxing journey. (1:40) Metreon. (Chun)

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)

Stranger by the Lake Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is an attractive young French guy spending his summer days hanging at the local gay beach, where he strikes up a platonic friendship with chunky older loner Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao). Still, the latter is obviously hurt when Franck practically gets whiplash neck swiveling at the sight of Michel (Christophe Paou), an old-school gay fantasy figure — think Sam Elliott in 1976's Lifeguard, complete with Marlboro Man 'stache and twinkling baby blues. No one else seems to be paying attention when Franck sees his lust object frolicking in the surf with an apparent boyfriend, one that doesn't surface again after some playful "dunking" gets rather less playful. Eventually the police come around in the form of Inspector Damroder (Jerome Chappatte), but Franck stays mum — he isn't sure what exactly he saw. Or maybe it's that he's quite sure he's happy how things turned out, now that sex-on-wheels Michel is his sorta kinda boyfriend. You have to suspend considerable disbelief to accept that our protagonist would risk potentially serious danger for what seems pretty much a glorified fuck-buddy situation. But Alain Guiraudie's meticulously schematic thriller- which limits all action to the terrain between parking lot and shore, keeping us almost wholly ignorant of the characters' regular lives — repays that leap with an absorbing, ingenious structural rigor. Stranger is Hitchcockian, all right, even if the "Master of Suspense" might applaud its technique while blushing at its blunt homoeroticism. (1:37) Roxie. (Harvey)

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

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, Embarcadero, Sundance Kabuki. (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, Vogue. (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) 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) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy) *