Film Listings: January 8 - 14, 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

August: Osage County Considering the relative infrequency of theater-to-film translations today, it's a bit of a surprise that Tracy Letts had two movies made from his plays before he even got to Broadway. Bug and Killer Joe proved a snug fit for director William Friedkin (in 2006 and 2011, respectively), but both plays were too outré for the kind of mainstream success accorded 2007's August: Osage County, which won the Pulitzer, ran 18 months on Broadway, and toured the nation. As a result, August was destined — perhaps doomed — to be a big movie, the kind that shoehorns a distracting array of stars into an ensemble piece, playing jes' plain folk. But what seemed bracingly rude as well as somewhat traditional under the proscenium lights just looks like a lot of reheated Country Gothic hash, and the possibility of profundity you might've been willing to consider before is now completely off the menu. If you haven't seen August before (or even if you have), there may be sufficient fun watching stellar actors chew the scenery with varying degrees of panache — Meryl Streep (who else) as gorgon matriarch Violet Weston; Sam Shepard as her long-suffering spouse; Julia Roberts as pissed-off prodigal daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), etc. You know the beats: Late-night confessions, drunken hijinks, disastrous dinners, secrets (infidelity, etc.) spilling out everywhere like loose change from moth-eaten trousers. The film's success story, I suppose, is Roberts: She seems very comfortable with her character's bitter anger, and the four-letter words tumble past those jumbo lips like familiar friends. On the downside, there's Streep, who's a wizard and a wonder as usual yet also in that mode supporting the naysayers' view that such conspicuous technique prevents our getting lost in her characters. If Streep can do anything, then logic decrees that includes being miscast. (2:10) Presidio. (Harvey)

The Invisible Woman See "A Tale of Two." (1:51) Embarcadero.

The Legend of Hercules Renny Harlin rises from the dead to direct Twilight series hunk Kellan Lutz in this 3D, CG-laden retelling of you know which myth. (1:38)

Lone Survivor Peter Berg (2012's Battleship, 2007's The Kingdom) may officially be structuring his directing career around muscular tails of bad-assery. This true story follows a team of Navy SEALs on a mission to find a Taliban group leader in an Afghani mountain village. Before we meet the actors playing our real-life action heroes we see training footage of actual SEALs being put through their paces; it's physical hardship structured to separate the tourists from the lifers. The only proven action star in the group is Mark Wahlberg — as Marcus Luttrell, who wrote the film's source-material book. His funky bunch is made of heartthrobs and sensitive types: Taylor Kitsch (TV's Friday Night Lights); Ben Foster, who last portrayed William S. Burroughs in 2013's Kill Your Darlings but made his name as an officer breaking bad news gently to war widows in 2009's The Messenger; and Emile Hirsch, who wandered into the wilderness in 2007's Into the Wild. We know from the outset who the lone survivors won't be, but the film still manages to convey tension and suspense, and its relentlessness is stunning. Foster throws himself off a cliff, bounces off rocks, and gets caught in a tree — then runs to his also-bloody brothers to report, "That sucked." (Yesterday I got a paper cut and tweeted about it.) But the takeaway from this brutal battle between the Taliban and America's Real Heroes is that the man who lived to tell the tale also offers an olive branch to the other side — this survivor had help from the non-Taliban locals, a last-act detail that makes Lone Survivor this Oscar season's nugget of political kumbaya. (2:01) (Vizcarrondo)

Liv and Ingmar You wouldn't expect anything less than soul-scorching intimacy from a documentary on the relationship of acting icon Liv Ullmann and moviemaking maestro Ingmar Bergman. And Dheeraj Akolkar satisfies with the help of plentiful clips from Bergman's filmography, disarmingly frank interviews with Ullmann, behind-the-scenes footage, and grainy images of and excerpts from letters and memoirs by Bergman. Ullmann was the unforgettable face and inspiration for Persona (1966) and other Bergman classics; he was her director, mentor, and teacher; and they were brought together by film and remained drawn to each other despite the scandal of their respective spouses. Their at-first-happy then increasingly jealously-filled and isolated life is translated into intensely personal, searing visions like Shame (1968), which sparks at least one close-to-the-bone anecdote from Ullmann. She shows Akolkar photos of a bundled-up Bergman in a boat beside a vessel carrying an underdressed, freezing Ullmann and Max Von Sydow. "He was really angry that day," she recounts. "You ask if he was ever cruel to me. This time, he was really cruel. I hated him so much and I was planning to leave him." Some might criticize Akolkar for his loose hand with the couple's story and his heavy reliance on invaluable Bergman works like 1973's Scenes From a Marriage — no dates or clues to the films or productions used are given until the credits roll — but more irksome are the sentimental montages, "reenactments," and score: one can picture Bergman convulsed in the beyond during the most saccharine moments. Liv and Ingmar's strength is the woman at its center. Revealing mementos from her "dearest Pingmar," as well as unguarded glimpses into her heart, the almost achingly sincere Ullmann gets the last word here, as befits a survivor and an actress who never hesitated to let the camera see every emotion flitting across her lush features — making this doc less about Ingmar and the specifics of his career, and more about Liv and her still living, breathing emotional life. (1:23) Opera Plaza. (Chun)

ONGOING

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, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, 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)

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) Opera Plaza. (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) Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

47 Ronin (2:00) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

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

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

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

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) Metreon. (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) Presidio, SF Center. (Eddy)

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, 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)

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)

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)

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) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)

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)

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (1:24) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

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, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

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)

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, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Harvey)

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) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)

A Touch of Sin This bleak, gritty latest from Jia Zhangke (2004's The World) is said to be based on actual incidents of violence in China. The writer-director also drew inspiration — as the title suggests — from King Hu's martial arts epic A Touch of Zen (1971). And despite some scattered Buddhist references, sin — delivered in heavy doses, hardly just "a touch" — reigns over zen in the film's four barely connected stories. Before the credits finish rolling, we've witnessed a stone-faced man in a Chicago Bulls beanie (Wang Baoqiang) respond to a trio of roadside muggers with a hail of bullets. Is he a vigilante, or did the robbers just mess with the wrong motorcyclist? Next, we visit "Black Gold Mountain," site of a coal mine whose profits have been funneled into the pockets of its obscenely rich owner and the corrupt local village chief, who's prone to put-downs like "You'll be a loser all your life." On the receiving end of that insult is worker Dahai (the magnetic Wu Jiang), a human pressure cooker of rage and resentment. Later, we pick up the thread of the man in the Bulls hat. He's a migrant worker, traveling home to a mother who ignores him and a wife who insists "I don't want your money." Another fractured family appears in the film's next chapter, as a woman (Zhao Tao, Jia's wife and muse) gives her married boyfriend an ultimatum. As the man's train rumbles away (A Touch of Sin's characters are constantly in motion: trains, buses, motorcycles, riding in the backs of trucks, etc.), she travels to her job, working the front desk at "Nightcomer Sauna," as unglamorous a joint as the name suggests. When a pair of wealthy customers decide she's on the menu ("I'll smother you with money, bitch!"), she's forced to defend herself, with blood-drenched consequences. In the film's final segment, we follow a young man drifting between jobs, finally settling into soul-stifling tech-gadget factory work. That his company housing is dubbed the "Oasis of Prosperity" would be funny, if it wasn't so depressing. In A Touch of Sin's final scene, the film's one potentially salvageable character passes by an opera being performed in the street. "Do you understand your sin?" the singer warbles. The character pauses, remembering what happened — and why it had to happen. So do we. And yes, we understand. (2:13) Roxie, Smith Rafael. (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. (Eddy)

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. (Chun)

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, Vogue. (Eddy) *