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

    OPENING

    Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away The fanciful, high-flying circus troupe hits the big screen in 3D. (1:31)

    Citadel See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (1:24) Roxie.

    Deadfall See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (1:35) Opera Plaza.

    Django Unchained See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (2:45) Four Star, Presidio.

    Five and Six Hundred and Sixty-Six The Vortex's apocalyptic December continues with two offbeat end-of-the-world dramas, one obscure and the other really, really, really obscure. Five (1951) was one of the few features written and directed by Arch Oboler, whose next (1952's Bwana Devil) would have the (sole) distinction of kicking off that decade's short-lived 3D craze. This black and white tale is less historically important but a lot more interesting thematically and otherwise. The title refers to the number of survivors whose paths cross after nuclear war presumably wipes out the rest of humanity (they'd each happened to be in lead encased surroundings when it the bomb hit). Beardo Michael (William Phipps) says good riddance: "I'm glad it's dead, cheap honkytonk of a world." However, his attitude turns around once pregnant Rosanne (Susan Douglas Rubes) shows up, then others. Unfortunately, their modest attempts to restart civilization are threatened by the fact that arrival number five (James Anderson) has a German accent and a Nazi attitude to go with it. Sans FX, this psychodrama uses sci-fi to ask some basic questions about existence and humanity; it may not be wildly sophisticated, but it's surprisingly void of cliché and progressive in ideas (notably racial ones, as the villain's most loathsome quality is his attitude toward Charles Lampkin's genial African American ex-soldier). Five is one of the first and also best of its era's many films about man's potential self-destruction. Co-feature Six Hundred and Sixty-Six, by contrast, is pretty torturous — an endless talkfest among male staffers (and one female-voiced master computer) in a government installation deep underground that they can't leave when total war extinguishes all life on the surface above. As they slowly suffocate to death, there is much debate about Biblical prophecies and Satan (who regrettably does not put in an appearance). While the combination of sci-fi suspense and religious proselytizing might sound irresistible, this extremely rare production from the "Evangelical Christian Research Foundation" is perhaps the dullest of all early '70s dystopian indies. Vortex Room. (Harvey)

    The Guilt Trip Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand play a mother and son driving across the country. (1:35) Marina, Presidio.

    The Impossible See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (1:54)

    Jack Reacher Tom Cruise: kickin' ass, taking names, doing Tom Cruise things. (2:10)

    Les Misérables See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (2:37) Balboa, Marina.

    Monsters, Inc. 3D Pixar's 2001 hit about good-natured monsters returns in 3D form. (1:35)

    The New Jerusalem Will Oldham stars as an Evangelical Christian in Rick Alverson's drama. (1:34) Roxie.

    Parental Guidance Billy Crystal and Bette Midler star as babysitting grandparents in this family comedy. (1:36)

    Rust and Bone See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (2:00) Embarcadero.

    This is 40 See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (2:14) Four Star, Marina.

    ONGOING

    Anna Karenina Joe Wright broke out of British TV with the 9,000th filmed Pride and Prejudice (2005), unnecessary but quite good. Too bad it immediately went to his head. His increasing showiness as director enlivened the silly teenage-superspy avenger fantasy Hanna (2011), but it started to get in the way of Atonement (2007), a fine book didn't need camera gymnastics to make a great movie. Now it's completely sunk a certified literary masterpiece still waiting for a worthy film adaptation. Keira Knightley plays the titular 19th century St. Petersburg aristocrat whose staid, happy-enough existence as a doting mother and dutiful wife (to deglammed Jude Law's honorable but neglectful Karenin) is upended when she enters a mutually passionate affair with dashing military officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, miscast). Scandal and tragedy ensue. There's nothing wrong with the screenplay, by Tom Stoppard no less. What's wrong is Wright's bright idea of staging the whole shebang as if it were indeed staged — a theatrical production in which nearly everything (even a crucial horse race) takes place on a proscenium stage, in the auditorium, or "backstage" among riggings. Whenever we move into a "real" location, the director makes sure that transition draws attention to its own cleverness as possible. What, you might ask, is the point? That the public social mores and society Anna lives in are a sort of "acting"? Like wow. Add to that another brittle, mannered performance by Wright's muse Knightley, and there's no hope of involvement here, let alone empathy — in love with its empty (but very prettily designed) layers of artifice, this movie ends up suffocating all emotion in gilded horseshit. The reversed-fortune romance between Levin (Domhall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander) does work quite well — though since Tolstoy called his novel Anna Karenina, it's a pretty bad sign when the subsidiary storyline ends up vastly more engaging than hers. (2:10) Albany, Metreon, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

    Any Day Now In 1970s West Hollywood, flamboyant drag queen Rudy (Alan Cumming) and closeted, newly divorced lawyer Paul (Garret Dillahunt) meet and become an unlikely but loving couple. Their opposites-attract bond strengthens when they become de facto parents to Marco (Isaac Leyva), a teen with Down syndrome left adrift when his party-girl mother (Jamie Anne Allman) is arrested. Domestic bliss — school for Marco with a caring special-education teacher (Kelli Williams); a fledgling singing career for Rudy (so: lots of crooning, for Cumming superfans) — is threatened by rampant homophobia, so Rudy and Paul must conceal their true relationship from Paul's overbearing boss and the other parents at Marco's school. When the secret gets out, the fact that Marco is being well cared-for matters not to the law; he's immediately shunted into a foster home while Paul and Rudy battle the court for custody. Actor-turned-director and co-writer Travis Fine (2010's The Space Between) guides a veteran cast through this based-on-true-events tale, with sensitive performances and realistic characterizations balancing out the story's broader strokes. (1:43) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

    Argo If you didn't know the particulars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, you won't be an expert after Argo, but the film does a good job of capturing America's fearful reaction to the events that followed it — particularly the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran. Argo zeroes in on the fate of six embassy staffers who managed to escape the building and flee to the home of the sympathetic Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Back in Washington, short-tempered CIA agents (including a top-notch Bryan Cranston) cast about for ways to rescue them. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs), exfil specialist and father to a youngster wrapped up in the era's sci-fi craze. While watching 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Tony comes up with what Cranston's character calls "the best bad idea we have:" the CIA will fund a phony Canadian movie production (corny, intergalactic, and titled Argo) and pretend the six are part of the crew, visiting Iran for a few days on a location shoot. Tony will sneak in, deliver the necessary fake-ID documents, and escort them out. Neither his superiors, nor the six in hiding, have much faith in the idea. ("Is this the part where we say, 'It's so crazy it just might work?'" someone asks, beating the cliché to the punch.) Argo never lets you forget that lives are at stake; every painstakingly forged form, every bluff past a checkpoint official increases the anxiety (to the point of being laid on a bit thick by the end). But though Affleck builds the needed suspense with gusto, Argo comes alive in its Hollywood scenes. As the show-biz veterans who mull over Tony's plan with a mix of Tinseltown cynicism and patiotic duty, John Goodman and Alan Arkin practically burst with in-joke brio. I could have watched an entire movie just about those two. (2:00) Embarcadero, Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

    The Central Park Five Acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns takes on the 1989 rape case that shocked and divided a New York City already overwhelmed by racially-charged violence. The initial crime was horrible enough — a female jogger was brutally assaulted in Central Park — but what happened after was also awful: cops and prosecutors, none of whom agreed to appear in the film, swooped in on a group of African American and Latino teenagers who had been making mischief in the vicinity (NYC's hysterical media dubbed the acts "wilding," a term that became forever associated with the event). Just 14 to 16 years old, the boys were questioned for hours and intimidated into giving false, damning confessions. Already guilty in the court of public opinion, the accused were convicted in trials — only to see their convictions vacated years after they'd served their time, when the real assailant was finally identified. Using archival news footage (in one clip, Gov. Mario Cuomo calls the crime "the ultimate shriek of alarm that says none of us are safe") and contemporary, emotional interviews with the Five, Burns crafts a fascinating study of a crime that ran away with itself, in an environment that encouraged it, leaving lives beyond just the jogger's devastated in the process. (1:59) Shattuck. (Eddy)

    Chasing Ice Even wild-eyed neocons might reconsider their declarations that global warming is a hoax after seeing the work of photographer James Balog, whose images of shrinking glaciers offer startling proof that our planet is indeed being ravaged by climate change (and it's getting exponentially worse). Jeff Orlowski's doc follows Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey team as they brave cruel elements in Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska, using time-lapse cameras to record glacier activity, some of it quite dramatic, over months and years. Balog is an affable subject, doggedly pursuing his work even after multiple knee surgeries make him a less-than-agile hiker, but it's the photographs — as hauntingly beautiful as they are alarming — that make Chasing Ice so powerful. Could've done without Scarlett Johansson crooning over the end credits, though. (1:15) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Eddy)

    Cloud Atlas Cramming the six busy storylines of David Mitchell's wildly ambitious novel into just three hours — the average reader might have thought at least 12 would be required — this impressive adaptation directed (in separate parts) by Tom Twyker (1998's Run Lola Run) and Matrix siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski has a whole lot of narrative to get through, stretching around the globe and over centuries. In the mid 19th century, Jim Sturgess' sickly American notory endures a long sea voyage as reluctant protector of a runaway-slave stowaway from the Chatham Islands (David Gyasi). In 1931 Belgium, a talented but criminally minded British musician (Ben Whishaw) wheedles his way into the household of a famous but long-inactive composer (Jim Broadbent). A chance encounter sets 1970s San Francisco journalist Luisa (Halle Berry) on the path of a massive cover-up conspiracy, swiftly putting her life in danger. Circa now, a reprobate London publisher's (Broadbent) huge windfall turns into bad luck that gets even worse when he seeks help from his brother (Hugh Grant). In the not-so-distant future, a disposable "fabricant" server to the "consumer" classes (Doona Bae) finds herself plucked from her cog-like life for a rebellious higher purpose. Finally, in an indeterminately distant future after "the Fall," an island tribesman (Tom Hanks) forms a highly ambivalent relationship toward a visitor (Berry) from a more advanced but dying civilization. Mitchell's book was divided into huge novella-sized blocks, with each thread split in two; the film wastes very little time establishing its individual stories before beginning to rapidly intercut between them. That may result in a sense of information (and eventually action) overload, particularly for non-readers, even as it clarifies the connective tissues running throughout. Compression robs some episodes of the cumulative impact they had on the page; the starry multicasting (which in addition to the above mentioned finds many uses for Hugo Weaving, Keith David, James D'Arcy, and Susan Sarandon) can be a distraction; and there's too much uplift forced on the six tales' summation. Simply put, not everything here works; like the very different Watchmen, this is a rather brilliant "impossible adaptation" screenplay (by the directors) than nonetheless can't help but be a bit too much. But so much does work — in alternating currents of satire, melodrama, pulp thriller, dystopian sci-fi, adventure, and so on — that Cloud Atlas must be forgiven for being imperfect. If it were perfect, it couldn't possibly sprawl as imaginatively and challengingly as it does, and as mainstream movies very seldom do. (2:52) Elmwood, SF Center. (Harvey)

    The Collection As soon as you behold the neon sign "Hotel Argento" shining over the grim warehouse-cum-evil dead trap, you know exactly what you're in for — a wink, and even a little bit of a horror superfan's giggle. In other words, to tweak that killer Roach Motel tagline: kids check in, but they don't check out. No need to see 2009's The Collector— the previous movie by director-cowriter Marcus Dunstan and writer Patrick Melton (winners of the third season of Project Greenlight, now with the screenplays for multiple Saw films beneath their collective belt) — the giallo fanboy and gorehound hallmarks are there for all to enjoy: tarantulas (straight from 1981's The Beyond), a factory kitted out as an elaborate murder machine, and end credits that capture characters' last moments. Plus, plenty of fast-paced shocks and seemingly endless splatter, with a heavy sprinkle of wince-inducing compound fractures. The Collection ups the first film's ante, as gamine Elena (Emma Fitzpatrick) is lured to go dancing with her pals. Their underground party turns out to be way beyond the fringe, as the killer mows down the dance floor, literally, and gives the phrase "teen crush" a bloody new spin. Stumbling on The Collector's antihero thief Arkin (Josh Stewart) locked in a box, Elena releases him but can't prevent her own capture, so killer-bodyguard Lucello (Oz's Lee Tergesen) snatches Arkin from the hospital and forces him to lead his team of toughs through a not-so-funhouse teeming with booby traps as well as victims-turned-insidious-weapons. All of which almost convinces you of nutty-nutball genius of the masked, dilated-pupiled Collector (here stuntman Randall Archer), who takes trendy taxidermy to icky extremes — even when his mechanism is threatened by a way smart last girl and a lock picker who's adept at cracking building codes. Despite Dunstan's obvious devotion to horror-movie landmarks, The Collection doesn't turn out to be particularly original: rather, it attempts to stand on the shoulders — and arms and dismembered body parts — of others, in hopes of finding its place on a nonexistent drive-in bill. (1:23) Metreon. (Chun)

    Flight To twist the words of one troubled balladeer, he believes he can fly, he believes he can touch the sky. Unfortunately for Denzel Washington's Whip Whitaker, another less savory connotation applies: his semi-sketchy airline captain is sailing on the overconfidence that comes with billowing clouds of blow. Beware the quickie TV spot — and Washington's heroic stance in the poster — that plays this as a quasi-action flick: Flight is really about a man's efforts to escape responsibility and his flight from facing his own addiction. It also sees Washington once again doing what he does so well: wrestling with the demons of a charismatic yet deeply flawed protagonist. We come upon Whip as he's rousing himself from yet another bender, balancing himself out with a couple lines with a gorgeous, enabling flight attendant by his side. It's a checks-and-balances routine we're led to believe is business as usual, as he slides confidently into the cockpit, gives the passengers a good scare by charging through turbulence, and proceeds to doze off. The plane, however, goes into fail mode and forces the pilot to improvise brilliantly and kick into hero mode, though he can't fly from his cover, which is slowly blown despite the ministrations of kindred addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and dealer Harling (John Goodman at his most ebullient) and the defensive moves of his pilots union cohort (Bruce Greenwood) and the airline's lawyer (Don Cheadle). How can Whip fly out of the particular jam called his life? Working with what he's given, Washington summons reserves of humanity, though he's ultimately failed by John Gatins' sanctimonious, recovery-by-the-numbers script and the tendency of seasoned director Robert Zemeckis to blithely skip over the personal history and background details that would have more completely filled out our picture of Whip. We're left grasping for the highs, waiting for the instances that Harling sails into view and Whip tumbles off the wagon. (2:18) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)

    Hitchcock On the heels of last year's My Week With Marilyn comes another biopic about an instantly recognizable celebrity viewed through the lens of a specific film shoot. Here, we have Anthony Hopkins (padded and prosthetic'd) playing the Master of Suspense, mulling over which project to pursue after the success of 1959's North by Northwest. Even if you're not a Hitch buff, it's clear from the first scene that Psycho, based on Robert Bloch's true crime-inspired pulpy thriller, is looming. We open on "Ed Gein's Farmhouse, 1944;" Gein (Michael Wincott) is seen in his yard, his various heinous crimes — murder, grave-robbing, body-part hoarding, human-skin-mask crafting, etc. — as yet undiscovered. Hitchcock, portrayed by the guy who also played the Gein-inspired Hannibal Lecter, steps into the frame with that familiar droll greeting: "Guhhd eevvveeeening." And we're off, following the veteran director as he muses "What if somebody really good made a horror picture?" Though his wife and collaborator, Alma (Helen Mirren), cautions him against doing something simply because everyone tells him not to, he plows ahead; the filmmaking scenes are peppered with behind-the-scenes moments detailed in Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the source material for John J. McLaughlin's script. But as the film's tagline — "Behind every Psycho is a great woman"— suggests, the relationship between Alma and Hitch is, stubbornly, Hitchcock's main focus. While Mirren is effective (and I'm all for seeing a lady who works hard behind the scenes get recognition), the Hitch-at-home subplot exists only to shoehorn more conflict into a tale that's got plenty already. Elsewhere, however, Hitchcock director Sacha Gervasi — making his narrative debut after hit 2008 doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil— shows stylistic flair, working Hitchcock references into the mise-en-scène. (1:32) California, Embarcadero, Metreon, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

    The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Make no mistake: the Lord of the Rings trilogy represented an incredible filmmaking achievement, with well-deserved Oscars handed down after the third installment in 2003. If director Peter Jackson wanted to go one more round with J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved characters for a Hobbit movie, who was gonna stop him? Not so fast. This return to Middle-earth (in 3D this time) represents not one but three films — which would be self-indulgent enough even if part one didn't unspool at just under three hours, and even if Jackson hadn't decided to shoot at 48 frames per second. (I can't even begin to explain what that means from a technical standpoint, but suffice to say there's a certain amount of cinematic lushness lost when everything is rendered in insanely crystal-clear hi-def.) Journey begins as Bilbo Baggins (a game, funny Martin Freeman) reluctantly joins Gandalf (a weary-seeming Ian McKellan) and a gang of dwarves on their quest to reclaim their stolen homeland and treasure, batting Orcs, goblins, Gollum (Andy Serkis), and other beasties along the way. Fan-pandering happens (with characters like Cate Blanchett's icy Galadriel popping in to remind you how much you loved LOTR), and the story moves at a brisk enough pace, but Journey never transcends what came before — or in the chronology of the story, what comes after. I'm not quite ready to declare this Jackson's Phantom Menace (1999), but it's not an unfair comparison to make, either. (2:50) Balboa, California, Cerrito, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

    Hyde Park on Hudson Weeks after the release of Lincoln, Hyde Park on Hudson arrives with a lighthearted (-ish) take on Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1939 meeting with King George VI (of stuttering fame) and Queen Elizabeth at FDR's rural New York estate. Casting Bill Murray as FDR is Hyde Park's main attraction, though Olivia Williams makes for a surprisingly effective Eleanor. But the thrust of the film concerns FDR's relationship with his cousin, Daisy — played by Laura Linney, who's relegated to a series of dowdy outfits, pouting reaction shots, and far too many voice-overs. The affair has zero heat, and the film is disappointingly shallow — how many times can one be urged to giggle at someone saying "Hot dogs!" in an English accent? — not to mention a waste of a perfectly fine Bill Murray performance. As that sideburned Democrat bellows in Lincoln, "Howwww dare you!" (1:35) Clay, Embarcadero. (Eddy)

    Killing Them Softly Lowest-level criminal fuckwits Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are hired to rob a mob gambling den, a task which miraculously they fail to blow. Nevertheless, the repercussions are swift and harsh, as a middleman suit (Richard Jenkins) to the unseen bosses brings in one hitman (Brad Pitt), who brings in another (James Gandolfini) to figure out who the thieves are and administer extreme justice. Based on a 1970s novel by George V. Higgins, this latest collaboration by Pitt and director-scenarist Andrew Dominik would appear superficially to be a surer commercial bet after the box-office failure of their last, 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford— one of the great films of the last decade. But if you're looking for action thrills or even Guy Ritchie-style swaggering mantalk (though there is some of that), you'll be disappointed to find Killing more in the abstracted crime drama arena of Drive (2011) or The American (2010), landing somewhere between the riveting former and the arid latter. This meticulously crafted tale is never less than compelling in imaginative direction and expert performance, but it still carries a certain unshakable air of so-what. Some may be turned off by just how vividly unpleasant Mendelsohn's junkie and Gandolfini's alchie are. Others will shrug at the wisdom of re-setting this story in the fall of 2008, with financial-infrastructure collapse and the hollow promise of President-elect Obama's "Change" providing ironical background noise. It's all a little too little, too soon. (1:37) Elmwood, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

    A Late Quartet Philip Seymour Hoffman is fed up playing second fiddle — literally. He stars in this grown-up soap opera about the internal dramas of a world-class string quartet. While the group is preparing for its 25th season, the eldest member (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with early stage Parkinson's. As he's the base note in the quartet, his retirement challenges the group's future, not just his own. Hoffman's second violinist sees the transition as an opportunity to challenge the first violin (Mark Ivanir) for an occasional Alpha role. When his wife, the quartet's viola player (Catherine Keener), disagrees, it's a slight ("You think I'm not good enough?") and a betrayal because prior to their marriage, viola and first violin would "duet" if you get my meaning. This becomes a grody aside when Hoffman and Keener's violin prodigy daughter (Imogen Poots) falls for her mother's old beau and Hoffman challenges their marriage with a flamenco dancer. These quiet people finds ways to use some loud instruments (a flamenco dancer, really?) and the music as well as the views of Manhattan create a deeply settled feeling of comfort in the cold —insulation can be a dangerous thing. When we see (real world) cellist Nina Lee play, and her full body interacts with a drama as big as vaudeville, we see what tension was left out of the playing and forced into the incestuous "family" conflicts. In A Late Quartet, pleasures are great and atmosphere, heavy. You couldn't find a better advertisement for this symphonic season; I wanted to buy tickets immediately. And also vowed to stay away from musicians. (1:45) Albany, Smith Rafael. (Vizcarrondo)

    Life of Pi Several filmmakers including Alfonso Cuarón, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and M. Night Shyamalan had a crack at Yann Martel's "unfilmable" novel over the last decade, without success. That turns out to have been a very good thing, since Ang Lee and scenarist David Magee have made probably the best movie possible from the material — arguably even an improvement on it. Framed as the adult protagonist's (Irrfan Khan) lengthy reminiscence to an interested writer (Rafe Spall) it chronicles his youthful experience accompanying his family and animals from their just shuttered zoo on a cargo ship voyage from India to Canada. But a storm capsizes the vessel, stranding teenaged Pi (Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with a mini menagerie — albeit one swiftly reduced by the food chain in action to one Richard Parker, a whimsically named Bengal tiger. This uneasy forced cohabitation between Hindu vegetarian and instinctual carnivore is an object lesson in survival as well as a fable about the existence of God, among other things. Shot in 3D, the movie has plenty of enchanted, original imagery, though its outstanding technical accomplishment may lie more in the application of CGI (rather than stereoscopic photography) to something reasonably intelligent for a change. First-time actor Sharma is a natural, while his costar gives the most remarkable performance by a wild animal this side of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. It's not a perfect film, but it's a charmed, lovely experience. (2:00) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

    Lincoln Distinguished subject matter and an A+ production team (Steven Spielberg directing, Daniel Day-Lewis starring, Tony Kushner adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Williams scoring every emotion juuust so) mean Lincoln delivers about what you'd expect: a compelling (if verbose), emotionally resonant (and somehow suspenseful) dramatization of President Lincoln's push to get the 13th amendment passed before the start of his second term. America's neck-deep in the Civil War, and Congress, though now without Southern representation, is profoundly divided on the issue of abolition. Spielberg recreates 1865 Washington as a vibrant, exciting place, albeit one filled with so many recognizable stars it's almost distracting wondering who'll pop up in the next scene: Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant! Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln! Lena Dunham's shirtless boyfriend on Girls (Adam Driver) as a soldier! Most notable among the huge cast are John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a daffy James Spader as a trio of lobbyists; Sally Field as the troubled First Lady; and likely Oscar contenders Tommy Lee Jones (as winningly cranky Rep. Thaddeus Stevens) and Day-Lewis, who does a reliably great job of disappearing into his iconic role. (2:30) Cerrito, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

    The Master Paul Thomas Anderson's much-hyped likely Best Picture contender lives up: it's easily the best film of 2012 so far. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dodd, the L. Ron Hubbard-ish head of a Scientology-esque movement. "The Cause" attracts Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, in a welcome return from the faux-deep end), less for its pseudo-religious psychobabble and bizarre personal-growth exercises, and more because it supplies the aimless, alcoholic veteran — a drifter in every sense of the word — with a sense of community he yearns for, yet resists submitting to. As with There Will Be Blood (2007), Anderson focuses on the tension between the two main characters: an older, established figure and his upstart challenger. But there's less cut-and-dried antagonism here; while their relationship is complex, and it does lead to dark, troubled places, there are also moments of levity and weird hilarity — which might have something to do with Freddie's paint-thinner moonshine. (2:17) Elmwood. (Eddy)

    The Matchmaker In 2006, amid ongoing conflict with Lebanon, an Israeli novelist learns he's received an unexpected inheritance from a man he knew in 1968, the summer before he turned 16. Most of Avi Nesher's The Matchmaker takes place during those golden months in Haifa, when young Arik (Tuval Shafir) — lover of Dashiell Hammett, son of Holocaust survivors — takes a job working for a charismatic but vaguely shady matchmaker (comedian Adir Miller, who won the Israeli equivalent of a Best Actor Oscar), following potential clients to assure their quest for love is on the level. His exciting new gig whisks the budding writer out of middle-class monotony and introduces him to a wealth of colorful "Low Rent district" types; he also nurses a raging crush on his best friend's free-spirited American cousin. Mostly a gently nostalgic tale, The Matchmaker also offers an unusual take on the Holocaust, viewing it from two decades later and using its looming memory to shape the characters who experienced it firsthand — as well as members of the younger generation, like Arik, who pages through The House of Dolls to learn more, even as he refers to the concentration camp where his father was held as simply "there." (1:52) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)

    The Perks of Being a Wallflower Move over, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series — there's a new shrinking-violet social outcast in town. These days, life might not suck quite so hard for 90-pound weaklings in every age category, what with so many films and TV shows exposing, and sometimes even celebrating, the many miseries of childhood and adolescence for all to see. In this case, Perks author Stephen Chbosky takes on the directorial duties — both a good and bad thing, much like the teen years. Smart, shy Charlie is starting high school with a host of issues: he's painfully awkward and very alone in the brutal throng, his only friend just committed suicide, and his only simpatico family member was killed in a car accident. Charlie's English teacher Mr. Andersen (Paul Rudd) appears to be his only connection, until the freshman strikes up a conversation with feline, charismatic, shop-class jester Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his magnetic, music- and fun-loving stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). Who needs the popular kids? The witty duo head up their gang of coolly uncool outcasts their own, the Wallflowers (not to be confused with the deeply uncool Jakob Dylan combo), and with them, Charlie appears to have found his tribe. Only a few small secrets put a damper on matters: Patrick happens to be gay and involved with football player Brad (Johnny Simmons), who's saddled with a violently conservative father, and Charlie is in love with the already-hooked-up Sam and is frightened that his fragile equilibrium will be destroyed when his new besties graduate and slip out of his life. Displaying empathy and a devotion to emotional truth, Chbosky takes good care of his characters, preserving the complexity and ungainly quirks of their not-so-cartoonish suburbia, though his limitations as a director come to the fore in the murkiness and choppily handled climax that reveals how damaged Charlie truly is. (1:43) Bridge, Shattuck. (Chun)

    Playing For Keeps Not a keeper: the marketing imagery that makes Gerard Butler look like an insufferable creep with bad hair. Dennis Quaid, seen in a small pic toward the base of the Playing For Keeps poster, gets that thankless role instead in this family-oriented rom-com, which is better than some while still being capable of eliciting very audible yawns from an audience supposedly primed for cutesy hijinks. Butler is George Dryer, a onetime pro soccer star now on the decline yet desperately seeking his next opening — a career as a sportscaster. To get there he has to run a networking gauntlet called coaching children's soccer, which he gets roped into by ex Stacie (Jessica Biel) and spawn Lewis (Noah Lomax). The ankle biters are the least of his problems: more challenging are hot 'n' horny soccer moms like TV sports vet Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones), cry-face Barn (Judy Greer), and desperate trophy housewife Patti (Uma Thurman), who's saddled with all-American a-hole Carl (Dennis Quaid). The charisma-oozing George has to practically fight them off, while somehow shooting for that family-first goal. With its sex farce tendencies, rom-com DNA, and vaguely sour attitude toward hard-up moms, hot or not, I'm not sure who Playing For Keeps is really making a play for — perhaps married ladies looking for date-night possibilities and some shirtless Butler action? Projecting believability even under the most plausibility-taxing circumstances, Butler manages, as always, to be the best thing in the movie, though it seems like less of an achievement when his projects tend toward mediocrity. (1:46) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Chun)

    Red Dawn A remake of a 1984 movie that seemed a pretty nutty ideological throwback even during the Reagan Era's revived Cold War air conditioning, Red Dawn should have come out a couple years ago, having been shot late 2009. But in the meantime MGM was undergoing yet another seismic financial rupture, and as the film sat around for lack of the means needed for distribution and marketing, it occurred that perhaps it already had a fatal, internal flaw. You see, this update re-cast our invaders from Russkies to People's Republicans, tapping into the modern fear of China as debtor and international bully. But: China is also a huge fledgling market for Hollywood product. So a tortured makeover of the remake ensued; scenes were added, re-shot, and digitally altered to impose a drastic narrative change. The new villain is absurd it gets acknowledged as such by dialogue: "North Korea? It doesn't make any sense!" Yup, in the new Red Dawn a coastal Washington state burg is the first attack point in a wholesale invasion of the U.S. (pop. 315 million) by the Democratic People's Republic (pop. 25 million). It's football season, so a Spokane suburb's team — Wolverines!! — lends its name as battle cry and its revved up healthy young flesh as guerilla martyrs to the fight for, ohm yeah, freedom. Do they drink beer? Do they rescue cheerleader girlfriends from concentration camps? Do they kick North Korean ass? Do you really need to ask? (1:34) Metreon. (Harvey)

    Rise of the Guardians There's nothing so camp as "Heat Miser" from The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) in Rise of the Guardians,, but there's plenty here to charm all ages. The mystery at its center: we open on Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine) being born, pulled from the depths of a frozen pond by the Man on the Moon and destined to spread ice and cold everywhere he goes, invisible to all living creatures. It's an individualistic yet lonely lot for Jack, who's styled as an impish snowboarder in a hoodie and armed with an icy scepter, until the Guardians — spirits like North/Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) — call on him to join them. Pitch the Boogeyman (Jude Law) is threatening to snuff out all children's hopes and dreams with fears and nightmares, and it's up to the Guardians must keep belief in magic alive. But what's in it for Jack, except the most important thing: namely who is he and what is his origin story? Director Peter Ramsey keeps those fragile dreams aloft with scenes awash with motion and animation that evokes the chubby figures and cozy warm tones of '70s European storybooks. And though Pine verges on blandness with his vocal performance, Baldwin, Jackman, and Fisher winningly deliver the jokes. (1:38) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

    A Royal Affair At age 15 in 1766, British princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) travels abroad to a new life — as queen to the new ruler of Denmark, her cousin. Attractive and accomplished, she is judged a great success by everyone but her husband. King Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is just a teenager himself, albeit one whose mental illness makes him behave alternately like a debauched libertine, a rude two year-old, a sulky-rebellious adolescent, and a plain old abusive spouse. Once her principal official duty is fulfilled — bearing a male heir — the two do their best to avoid each other. But on a tour of Europe Christian meets German doctor Johann Friedrich Struenesse (Mads Mikkelsen), a true man of the Enlightenment who not only has advanced notions about calming the monarch's "eccentricities," but proves a tolerant and agreeable royal companion. Lured back to Denmark as the King's personal physician, he soon infects the cultured Queen with the fervor of his progressive ideas, while the two find themselves mutually attracted on less intellectual levels as well. When they start manipulating their unstable but malleable ruler to push much-needed public reforms through in the still basically feudal nation, they begin acquiring powerful enemies. This very handsome-looking history lesson highlights a chapter relatively little-known here, and finds in it an interesting juncture in the eternal battle between masters and servants, the piously self-interested and the secular humanists. At the same time, Nikolaj Arcel's impressively mounted and acted film is also somewhat pedestrian and overlong. It's a quality costume drama, but not a great one. (2:17) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

    Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter's stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock'n'roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician — long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) Elmwood. (Chun)

    The Sessions Polio has long since paralyzed the body of Berkeley poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) from the neck down. Of course his mind is free to roam — but it often roams south of the personal equator, where he hasn't had the same opportunities as able-bodied people. Thus he enlists the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate, to lose his virginity at last. Based on the real-life figures' experiences, this drama by Australian polio survivor Ben Lewin was a big hit at Sundance this year (then titled The Surrogate), and it's not hard to see why: this is one of those rare inspirational feel-good stories that doesn't pander and earns its tears with honest emotional toil. Hawkes is always arresting, but Hunt hasn't been this good in a long time, and William H. Macy is pure pleasure as a sympathetic priest put in numerous awkward positions with the Lord by Mark's very down-to-earth questions and confessions. (1:35) Elmwood, Four Star, Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

    Silver Linings Playbook After guiding two actors to Best Supporting Oscars in 2010's The Fighter, director David O. Russell returns (adapting his script from Matthew Quick's novel) with another darkly comedic film about a complicated family that will probably earn some gold of its own. Though he's obviously not ready to face the outside world, Pat (Bradley Cooper) checks out of the state institution he's been court-ordered to spend eight months in after displaying some serious anger-management issues. He moves home with his football-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and worrywart mother (Jacki Weaver of 2010's Animal Kingdom), where he plunges into a plan to win back his estranged wife. Cooper plays Pat as a man vibrating with troubled energy — always in danger of flying into a rage, even as he pursues his forced-upbeat "silver linings" philosophy. But the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, who proves the chops she showcased (pre-Hunger Games megafame) in 2010's Winter's Bone were no fluke. As the damaged-but-determined Tiffany, she's the left-field element that jolts Pat out of his crazytown funk; she's also the only reason Playbook's dance-competition subplot doesn't feel eye-rollingly clichéd. The film's not perfect, but Lawrence's layered performance — emotional, demanding, bitchy, tough-yet-secretly-tender — damn near is. (2:01) Piedmont, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck. (Eddy)

    Sister Twelve-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) looks like any other kid vacationing with a family on the slopes of a Swiss ski resort. That's a big plus, because he's not one of them — he's a local living "downhill" in an anonymous high-rise apartment block, sustaining himself and his pretty but irresponsible older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) by stealing expensive sports equipment and clothes from the oblivious guests. He has no guilt about what he does, but then why should he? Those people are rich, he's not, and sis' short attention span toward jobs and boyfriends isn't going to pay the rent. Ursula Meier's French-language second feature isn't heavily plot-driven, though it doesn't feel like a second is wasted. The casual, somewhat furtive relationships that develop between Simon and stray adults who glean enough to worry about him — a seasonal restaurant worker (Martin Compston), a maternal resort guest (Gillian Anderson), Louise's better-than-usual new beau (Yann Tregouet) — come and go but are toeholds on stability for him. It's the contrast between Simon's aggressively take-charge premature adulthood and his unaddressed needs as a child that ultimately make Sister rather devastating. It's been aptly compared to the Dardenne Brothers' similar dramas, but Meier lets her film's heart beat a little more in open empathy with its protagonist while aping those Belgians' brisk surface objectivity. (1:37) Elmwood. (Harvey)

    Skyfall Top marks to Adele, who delivers a magnificent title song to cap off Skyfall's thrilling pre-credits chase scene. Unfortunate, then, that the film that follows squanders its initial promise. After a bomb attack on MI6, the clock is running out for Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench), accused of Cold War irrelevancy in a 21st century full of malevolent, stateless computer hackers. The audience, too, will yearn for a return to simpler times; dialogue about "firewalls" and "obfuscated code" never fails to sound faintly ridiculous, despite the efforts Ben Whishaw as the youthful new head of Q branch. Javier Bardem is creative and creepy as keyboard-tapping villain Raoul Silva, but would have done better with a megalomaniac scheme to take over the world. Instead, a small-potatoes revenge plot limps to a dull conclusion in the middle of nowhere. Skyfall never decides whether it prefers action, bons mots, and in-jokes to ponderous mythologizing and ripped-from-the-headlines speechifying — the result is a unsatisfying, uneven mixture. (2:23) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Ben Richardson)

    The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 The final installment of the Twilight franchise picks up shortly after the medical-emergency vampirization of last year's Breaking Dawn - Part 1, giving newly undead Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) just enough time to freshen up after nearly being torn asunder during labor by her hybrid spawn, Renesmee. In a just world, Bella and soul mate Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) would get more of a honeymoon period, given how badly Part 1's actual honeymoon turned out. Alas, there's just enough time for some soft-focus vampire-on-vampire action (a letdown after all the talk of rowdy undead sex), some catamount hunting, some werewolf posturing, a reunion with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), and a few seconds of Cullen family bonding, and then those creepy Volturi are back, convinced that the Cullens have committed a vampire capital crime and ready to exact penance. Director Bill Condon (1998's Gods and Monsters, 2004's Kinsey) knows what the Twi-hards want and methodically doles it out, but the overall effect is less sweeping action and shivery romance and more "I have bugs crawling on me — and yet I'm bored." Some of that isn't his fault — he bears no responsibility for naming Renesmee, for instance, to say nothing of a January-May subplot that we're asked to wrap our brains around. But the film maintains such a loose emotional grip, shifting clumsily and robotically from comic interludes to unintentionally comic interludes to soaring-music love scenes to attempted pathos to a snowy battlefield where the only moment of any dramatic value occurs. Weighed down by the responsibility of bringing The Twilight Saga to a close, it limps weakly to its anticlimax, leaving one almost — but not quite — wishing for one more installment, a chance for a more stirring farewell. (1:55) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)

    Wreck-It Ralph Wreck-It Ralph cribs directly from the Toy Story series: when the lights go off in the arcade, video game characters gather to eat, drink, and endure existential crises. John C. Reilly is likable and idiosyncratic as Ralph, the hulking, ham-fisted villain of a game called Fix-It-Felix. Fed up with being the bad guy, Ralph sneaks into gritty combat sim Hero's Duty under the nose of Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a blond space marine who mixes Mass Effect's Commander Shepard with a PG-rated R. Lee Ermey. Things go quickly awry, and soon Ralph is marooned in cart-racing candyland Sugar Rush, helping Vanellope Von Schweetz (a manic Sarah Silverman), with Calhoun and opposite number Felix (Jack McBrayer) hot on his heels. Though often aggressively childish, the humor will amuse kids, parents, and occasionally gamers, and the Disney-approved message about acceptance is moving without being maudlin. The animation, limber enough to portray 30 years of changing video game graphics, deserves special praise. (1:34) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Ben Richardson)

     



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

    OPENING

    Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away The fanciful, high-flying circus troupe hits the big screen in 3D. (1:31)

    Citadel See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (1:24) Roxie.

    Deadfall See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (1:35) Opera Plaza.

    Django Unchained See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (2:45) Four Star, Presidio.

    Five and Six Hundred and Sixty-Six The Vortex's apocalyptic December continues with two offbeat end-of-the-world dramas, one obscure and the other really, really, really obscure. Five (1951) was one of the few features written and directed by Arch Oboler, whose next (1952's Bwana Devil) would have the (sole) distinction of kicking off that decade's short-lived 3D craze. This black and white tale is less historically important but a lot more interesting thematically and otherwise. The title refers to the number of survivors whose paths cross after nuclear war presumably wipes out the rest of humanity (they'd each happened to be in lead encased surroundings when it the bomb hit). Beardo Michael (William Phipps) says good riddance: "I'm glad it's dead, cheap honkytonk of a world." However, his attitude turns around once pregnant Rosanne (Susan Douglas Rubes) shows up, then others. Unfortunately, their modest attempts to restart civilization are threatened by the fact that arrival number five (James Anderson) has a German accent and a Nazi attitude to go with it. Sans FX, this psychodrama uses sci-fi to ask some basic questions about existence and humanity; it may not be wildly sophisticated, but it's surprisingly void of cliché and progressive in ideas (notably racial ones, as the villain's most loathsome quality is his attitude toward Charles Lampkin's genial African American ex-soldier). Five is one of the first and also best of its era's many films about man's potential self-destruction. Co-feature Six Hundred and Sixty-Six, by contrast, is pretty torturous — an endless talkfest among male staffers (and one female-voiced master computer) in a government installation deep underground that they can't leave when total war extinguishes all life on the surface above. As they slowly suffocate to death, there is much debate about Biblical prophecies and Satan (who regrettably does not put in an appearance). While the combination of sci-fi suspense and religious proselytizing might sound irresistible, this extremely rare production from the "Evangelical Christian Research Foundation" is perhaps the dullest of all early '70s dystopian indies. Vortex Room. (Harvey)

    The Guilt Trip Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand play a mother and son driving across the country. (1:35) Marina, Presidio.

    The Impossible See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (1:54)

    Jack Reacher Tom Cruise: kickin' ass, taking names, doing Tom Cruise things. (2:10)

    Les Misérables See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (2:37) Balboa, Marina.

    Monsters, Inc. 3D Pixar's 2001 hit about good-natured monsters returns in 3D form. (1:35)

    The New Jerusalem Will Oldham stars as an Evangelical Christian in Rick Alverson's drama. (1:34) Roxie.

    Parental Guidance Billy Crystal and Bette Midler star as babysitting grandparents in this family comedy. (1:36)

    Rust and Bone See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (2:00) Embarcadero.

    This is 40 See "Holiday Movie Massacre." (2:14) Four Star, Marina.

    ONGOING

    Anna Karenina Joe Wright broke out of British TV with the 9,000th filmed Pride and Prejudice (2005), unnecessary but quite good. Too bad it immediately went to his head. His increasing showiness as director enlivened the silly teenage-superspy avenger fantasy Hanna (2011), but it started to get in the way of Atonement (2007), a fine book didn't need camera gymnastics to make a great movie. Now it's completely sunk a certified literary masterpiece still waiting for a worthy film adaptation. Keira Knightley plays the titular 19th century St. Petersburg aristocrat whose staid, happy-enough existence as a doting mother and dutiful wife (to deglammed Jude Law's honorable but neglectful Karenin) is upended when she enters a mutually passionate affair with dashing military officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, miscast). Scandal and tragedy ensue. There's nothing wrong with the screenplay, by Tom Stoppard no less. What's wrong is Wright's bright idea of staging the whole shebang as if it were indeed staged — a theatrical production in which nearly everything (even a crucial horse race) takes place on a proscenium stage, in the auditorium, or "backstage" among riggings. Whenever we move into a "real" location, the director makes sure that transition draws attention to its own cleverness as possible. What, you might ask, is the point? That the public social mores and society Anna lives in are a sort of "acting"? Like wow. Add to that another brittle, mannered performance by Wright's muse Knightley, and there's no hope of involvement here, let alone empathy — in love with its empty (but very prettily designed) layers of artifice, this movie ends up suffocating all emotion in gilded horseshit. The reversed-fortune romance between Levin (Domhall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander) does work quite well — though since Tolstoy called his novel Anna Karenina, it's a pretty bad sign when the subsidiary storyline ends up vastly more engaging than hers. (2:10) Albany, Metreon, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

    Any Day Now In 1970s West Hollywood, flamboyant drag queen Rudy (Alan Cumming) and closeted, newly divorced lawyer Paul (Garret Dillahunt) meet and become an unlikely but loving couple. Their opposites-attract bond strengthens when they become de facto parents to Marco (Isaac Leyva), a teen with Down syndrome left adrift when his party-girl mother (Jamie Anne Allman) is arrested. Domestic bliss — school for Marco with a caring special-education teacher (Kelli Williams); a fledgling singing career for Rudy (so: lots of crooning, for Cumming superfans) — is threatened by rampant homophobia, so Rudy and Paul must conceal their true relationship from Paul's overbearing boss and the other parents at Marco's school. When the secret gets out, the fact that Marco is being well cared-for matters not to the law; he's immediately shunted into a foster home while Paul and Rudy battle the court for custody. Actor-turned-director and co-writer Travis Fine (2010's The Space Between) guides a veteran cast through this based-on-true-events tale, with sensitive performances and realistic characterizations balancing out the story's broader strokes. (1:43) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

    Argo If you didn't know the particulars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, you won't be an expert after Argo, but the film does a good job of capturing America's fearful reaction to the events that followed it — particularly the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran. Argo zeroes in on the fate of six embassy staffers who managed to escape the building and flee to the home of the sympathetic Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Back in Washington, short-tempered CIA agents (including a top-notch Bryan Cranston) cast about for ways to rescue them. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs), exfil specialist and father to a youngster wrapped up in the era's sci-fi craze. While watching 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Tony comes up with what Cranston's character calls "the best bad idea we have:" the CIA will fund a phony Canadian movie production (corny, intergalactic, and titled Argo) and pretend the six are part of the crew, visiting Iran for a few days on a location shoot. Tony will sneak in, deliver the necessary fake-ID documents, and escort them out. Neither his superiors, nor the six in hiding, have much faith in the idea. ("Is this the part where we say, 'It's so crazy it just might work?'" someone asks, beating the cliché to the punch.) Argo never lets you forget that lives are at stake; every painstakingly forged form, every bluff past a checkpoint official increases the anxiety (to the point of being laid on a bit thick by the end). But though Affleck builds the needed suspense with gusto, Argo comes alive in its Hollywood scenes. As the show-biz veterans who mull over Tony's plan with a mix of Tinseltown cynicism and patiotic duty, John Goodman and Alan Arkin practically burst with in-joke brio. I could have watched an entire movie just about those two. (2:00) Embarcadero, Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

    The Central Park Five Acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns takes on the 1989 rape case that shocked and divided a New York City already overwhelmed by racially-charged violence. The initial crime was horrible enough — a female jogger was brutally assaulted in Central Park — but what happened after was also awful: cops and prosecutors, none of whom agreed to appear in the film, swooped in on a group of African American and Latino teenagers who had been making mischief in the vicinity (NYC's hysterical media dubbed the acts "wilding," a term that became forever associated with the event). Just 14 to 16 years old, the boys were questioned for hours and intimidated into giving false, damning confessions. Already guilty in the court of public opinion, the accused were convicted in trials — only to see their convictions vacated years after they'd served their time, when the real assailant was finally identified. Using archival news footage (in one clip, Gov. Mario Cuomo calls the crime "the ultimate shriek of alarm that says none of us are safe") and contemporary, emotional interviews with the Five, Burns crafts a fascinating study of a crime that ran away with itself, in an environment that encouraged it, leaving lives beyond just the jogger's devastated in the process. (1:59) Shattuck. (Eddy)

    Chasing Ice Even wild-eyed neocons might reconsider their declarations that global warming is a hoax after seeing the work of photographer James Balog, whose images of shrinking glaciers offer startling proof that our planet is indeed being ravaged by climate change (and it's getting exponentially worse). Jeff Orlowski's doc follows Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey team as they brave cruel elements in Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska, using time-lapse cameras to record glacier activity, some of it quite dramatic, over months and years. Balog is an affable subject, doggedly pursuing his work even after multiple knee surgeries make him a less-than-agile hiker, but it's the photographs — as hauntingly beautiful as they are alarming — that make Chasing Ice so powerful. Could've done without Scarlett Johansson crooning over the end credits, though. (1:15) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Eddy)

    Cloud Atlas Cramming the six busy storylines of David Mitchell's wildly ambitious novel into just three hours — the average reader might have thought at least 12 would be required — this impressive adaptation directed (in separate parts) by Tom Twyker (1998's Run Lola Run) and Matrix siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski has a whole lot of narrative to get through, stretching around the globe and over centuries. In the mid 19th century, Jim Sturgess' sickly American notory endures a long sea voyage as reluctant protector of a runaway-slave stowaway from the Chatham Islands (David Gyasi). In 1931 Belgium, a talented but criminally minded British musician (Ben Whishaw) wheedles his way into the household of a famous but long-inactive composer (Jim Broadbent). A chance encounter sets 1970s San Francisco journalist Luisa (Halle Berry) on the path of a massive cover-up conspiracy, swiftly putting her life in danger. Circa now, a reprobate London publisher's (Broadbent) huge windfall turns into bad luck that gets even worse when he seeks help from his brother (Hugh Grant). In the not-so-distant future, a disposable "fabricant" server to the "consumer" classes (Doona Bae) finds herself plucked from her cog-like life for a rebellious higher purpose. Finally, in an indeterminately distant future after "the Fall," an island tribesman (Tom Hanks) forms a highly ambivalent relationship toward a visitor (Berry) from a more advanced but dying civilization. Mitchell's book was divided into huge novella-sized blocks, with each thread split in two; the film wastes very little time establishing its individual stories before beginning to rapidly intercut between them. That may result in a sense of information (and eventually action) overload, particularly for non-readers, even as it clarifies the connective tissues running throughout. Compression robs some episodes of the cumulative impact they had on the page; the starry multicasting (which in addition to the above mentioned finds many uses for Hugo Weaving, Keith David, James D'Arcy, and Susan Sarandon) can be a distraction; and there's too much uplift forced on the six tales' summation. Simply put, not everything here works; like the very different Watchmen, this is a rather brilliant "impossible adaptation" screenplay (by the directors) than nonetheless can't help but be a bit too much. But so much does work — in alternating currents of satire, melodrama, pulp thriller, dystopian sci-fi, adventure, and so on — that Cloud Atlas must be forgiven for being imperfect. If it were perfect, it couldn't possibly sprawl as imaginatively and challengingly as it does, and as mainstream movies very seldom do. (2:52) Elmwood, SF Center. (Harvey)

    The Collection As soon as you behold the neon sign "Hotel Argento" shining over the grim warehouse-cum-evil dead trap, you know exactly what you're in for — a wink, and even a little bit of a horror superfan's giggle. In other words, to tweak that killer Roach Motel tagline: kids check in, but they don't check out. No need to see 2009's The Collector— the previous movie by director-cowriter Marcus Dunstan and writer Patrick Melton (winners of the third season of Project Greenlight, now with the screenplays for multiple Saw films beneath their collective belt) — the giallo fanboy and gorehound hallmarks are there for all to enjoy: tarantulas (straight from 1981's The Beyond), a factory kitted out as an elaborate murder machine, and end credits that capture characters' last moments. Plus, plenty of fast-paced shocks and seemingly endless splatter, with a heavy sprinkle of wince-inducing compound fractures. The Collection ups the first film's ante, as gamine Elena (Emma Fitzpatrick) is lured to go dancing with her pals. Their underground party turns out to be way beyond the fringe, as the killer mows down the dance floor, literally, and gives the phrase "teen crush" a bloody new spin. Stumbling on The Collector's antihero thief Arkin (Josh Stewart) locked in a box, Elena releases him but can't prevent her own capture, so killer-bodyguard Lucello (Oz's Lee Tergesen) snatches Arkin from the hospital and forces him to lead his team of toughs through a not-so-funhouse teeming with booby traps as well as victims-turned-insidious-weapons. All of which almost convinces you of nutty-nutball genius of the masked, dilated-pupiled Collector (here stuntman Randall Archer), who takes trendy taxidermy to icky extremes — even when his mechanism is threatened by a way smart last girl and a lock picker who's adept at cracking building codes. Despite Dunstan's obvious devotion to horror-movie landmarks, The Collection doesn't turn out to be particularly original: rather, it attempts to stand on the shoulders — and arms and dismembered body parts — of others, in hopes of finding its place on a nonexistent drive-in bill. (1:23) Metreon. (Chun)

    Flight To twist the words of one troubled balladeer, he believes he can fly, he believes he can touch the sky. Unfortunately for Denzel Washington's Whip Whitaker, another less savory connotation applies: his semi-sketchy airline captain is sailing on the overconfidence that comes with billowing clouds of blow. Beware the quickie TV spot — and Washington's heroic stance in the poster — that plays this as a quasi-action flick: Flight is really about a man's efforts to escape responsibility and his flight from facing his own addiction. It also sees Washington once again doing what he does so well: wrestling with the demons of a charismatic yet deeply flawed protagonist. We come upon Whip as he's rousing himself from yet another bender, balancing himself out with a couple lines with a gorgeous, enabling flight attendant by his side. It's a checks-and-balances routine we're led to believe is business as usual, as he slides confidently into the cockpit, gives the passengers a good scare by charging through turbulence, and proceeds to doze off. The plane, however, goes into fail mode and forces the pilot to improvise brilliantly and kick into hero mode, though he can't fly from his cover, which is slowly blown despite the ministrations of kindred addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and dealer Harling (John Goodman at his most ebullient) and the defensive moves of his pilots union cohort (Bruce Greenwood) and the airline's lawyer (Don Cheadle). How can Whip fly out of the particular jam called his life? Working with what he's given, Washington summons reserves of humanity, though he's ultimately failed by John Gatins' sanctimonious, recovery-by-the-numbers script and the tendency of seasoned director Robert Zemeckis to blithely skip over the personal history and background details that would have more completely filled out our picture of Whip. We're left grasping for the highs, waiting for the instances that Harling sails into view and Whip tumbles off the wagon. (2:18) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)

    Hitchcock On the heels of last year's My Week With Marilyn comes another biopic about an instantly recognizable celebrity viewed through the lens of a specific film shoot. Here, we have Anthony Hopkins (padded and prosthetic'd) playing the Master of Suspense, mulling over which project to pursue after the success of 1959's North by Northwest. Even if you're not a Hitch buff, it's clear from the first scene that Psycho, based on Robert Bloch's true crime-inspired pulpy thriller, is looming. We open on "Ed Gein's Farmhouse, 1944;" Gein (Michael Wincott) is seen in his yard, his various heinous crimes — murder, grave-robbing, body-part hoarding, human-skin-mask crafting, etc. — as yet undiscovered. Hitchcock, portrayed by the guy who also played the Gein-inspired Hannibal Lecter, steps into the frame with that familiar droll greeting: "Guhhd eevvveeeening." And we're off, following the veteran director as he muses "What if somebody really good made a horror picture?" Though his wife and collaborator, Alma (Helen Mirren), cautions him against doing something simply because everyone tells him not to, he plows ahead; the filmmaking scenes are peppered with behind-the-scenes moments detailed in Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the source material for John J. McLaughlin's script. But as the film's tagline — "Behind every Psycho is a great woman"— suggests, the relationship between Alma and Hitch is, stubbornly, Hitchcock's main focus. While Mirren is effective (and I'm all for seeing a lady who works hard behind the scenes get recognition), the Hitch-at-home subplot exists only to shoehorn more conflict into a tale that's got plenty already. Elsewhere, however, Hitchcock director Sacha Gervasi — making his narrative debut after hit 2008 doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil— shows stylistic flair, working Hitchcock references into the mise-en-scène. (1:32) California, Embarcadero, Metreon, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

    The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Make no mistake: the Lord of the Rings trilogy represented an incredible filmmaking achievement, with well-deserved Oscars handed down after the third installment in 2003. If director Peter Jackson wanted to go one more round with J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved characters for a Hobbit movie, who was gonna stop him? Not so fast. This return to Middle-earth (in 3D this time) represents not one but three films — which would be self-indulgent enough even if part one didn't unspool at just under three hours, and even if Jackson hadn't decided to shoot at 48 frames per second. (I can't even begin to explain what that means from a technical standpoint, but suffice to say there's a certain amount of cinematic lushness lost when everything is rendered in insanely crystal-clear hi-def.) Journey begins as Bilbo Baggins (a game, funny Martin Freeman) reluctantly joins Gandalf (a weary-seeming Ian McKellan) and a gang of dwarves on their quest to reclaim their stolen homeland and treasure, batting Orcs, goblins, Gollum (Andy Serkis), and other beasties along the way. Fan-pandering happens (with characters like Cate Blanchett's icy Galadriel popping in to remind you how much you loved LOTR), and the story moves at a brisk enough pace, but Journey never transcends what came before — or in the chronology of the story, what comes after. I'm not quite ready to declare this Jackson's Phantom Menace (1999), but it's not an unfair comparison to make, either. (2:50) Balboa, California, Cerrito, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

    Hyde Park on Hudson Weeks after the release of Lincoln, Hyde Park on Hudson arrives with a lighthearted (-ish) take on Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1939 meeting with King George VI (of stuttering fame) and Queen Elizabeth at FDR's rural New York estate. Casting Bill Murray as FDR is Hyde Park's main attraction, though Olivia Williams makes for a surprisingly effective Eleanor. But the thrust of the film concerns FDR's relationship with his cousin, Daisy — played by Laura Linney, who's relegated to a series of dowdy outfits, pouting reaction shots, and far too many voice-overs. The affair has zero heat, and the film is disappointingly shallow — how many times can one be urged to giggle at someone saying "Hot dogs!" in an English accent? — not to mention a waste of a perfectly fine Bill Murray performance. As that sideburned Democrat bellows in Lincoln, "Howwww dare you!" (1:35) Clay, Embarcadero. (Eddy)

    Killing Them Softly Lowest-level criminal fuckwits Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are hired to rob a mob gambling den, a task which miraculously they fail to blow. Nevertheless, the repercussions are swift and harsh, as a middleman suit (Richard Jenkins) to the unseen bosses brings in one hitman (Brad Pitt), who brings in another (James Gandolfini) to figure out who the thieves are and administer extreme justice. Based on a 1970s novel by George V. Higgins, this latest collaboration by Pitt and director-scenarist Andrew Dominik would appear superficially to be a surer commercial bet after the box-office failure of their last, 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford— one of the great films of the last decade. But if you're looking for action thrills or even Guy Ritchie-style swaggering mantalk (though there is some of that), you'll be disappointed to find Killing more in the abstracted crime drama arena of Drive (2011) or The American (2010), landing somewhere between the riveting former and the arid latter. This meticulously crafted tale is never less than compelling in imaginative direction and expert performance, but it still carries a certain unshakable air of so-what. Some may be turned off by just how vividly unpleasant Mendelsohn's junkie and Gandolfini's alchie are. Others will shrug at the wisdom of re-setting this story in the fall of 2008, with financial-infrastructure collapse and the hollow promise of President-elect Obama's "Change" providing ironical background noise. It's all a little too little, too soon. (1:37) Elmwood, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

    A Late Quartet Philip Seymour Hoffman is fed up playing second fiddle — literally. He stars in this grown-up soap opera about the internal dramas of a world-class string quartet. While the group is preparing for its 25th season, the eldest member (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with early stage Parkinson's. As he's the base note in the quartet, his retirement challenges the group's future, not just his own. Hoffman's second violinist sees the transition as an opportunity to challenge the first violin (Mark Ivanir) for an occasional Alpha role. When his wife, the quartet's viola player (Catherine Keener), disagrees, it's a slight ("You think I'm not good enough?") and a betrayal because prior to their marriage, viola and first violin would "duet" if you get my meaning. This becomes a grody aside when Hoffman and Keener's violin prodigy daughter (Imogen Poots) falls for her mother's old beau and Hoffman challenges their marriage with a flamenco dancer. These quiet people finds ways to use some loud instruments (a flamenco dancer, really?) and the music as well as the views of Manhattan create a deeply settled feeling of comfort in the cold —insulation can be a dangerous thing. When we see (real world) cellist Nina Lee play, and her full body interacts with a drama as big as vaudeville, we see what tension was left out of the playing and forced into the incestuous "family" conflicts. In A Late Quartet, pleasures are great and atmosphere, heavy. You couldn't find a better advertisement for this symphonic season; I wanted to buy tickets immediately. And also vowed to stay away from musicians. (1:45) Albany, Smith Rafael. (Vizcarrondo)

    Life of Pi Several filmmakers including Alfonso Cuarón, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and M. Night Shyamalan had a crack at Yann Martel's "unfilmable" novel over the last decade, without success. That turns out to have been a very good thing, since Ang Lee and scenarist David Magee have made probably the best movie possible from the material — arguably even an improvement on it. Framed as the adult protagonist's (Irrfan Khan) lengthy reminiscence to an interested writer (Rafe Spall) it chronicles his youthful experience accompanying his family and animals from their just shuttered zoo on a cargo ship voyage from India to Canada. But a storm capsizes the vessel, stranding teenaged Pi (Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with a mini menagerie — albeit one swiftly reduced by the food chain in action to one Richard Parker, a whimsically named Bengal tiger. This uneasy forced cohabitation between Hindu vegetarian and instinctual carnivore is an object lesson in survival as well as a fable about the existence of God, among other things. Shot in 3D, the movie has plenty of enchanted, original imagery, though its outstanding technical accomplishment may lie more in the application of CGI (rather than stereoscopic photography) to something reasonably intelligent for a change. First-time actor Sharma is a natural, while his costar gives the most remarkable performance by a wild animal this side of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. It's not a perfect film, but it's a charmed, lovely experience. (2:00) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

    Lincoln Distinguished subject matter and an A+ production team (Steven Spielberg directing, Daniel Day-Lewis starring, Tony Kushner adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Williams scoring every emotion juuust so) mean Lincoln delivers about what you'd expect: a compelling (if verbose), emotionally resonant (and somehow suspenseful) dramatization of President Lincoln's push to get the 13th amendment passed before the start of his second term. America's neck-deep in the Civil War, and Congress, though now without Southern representation, is profoundly divided on the issue of abolition. Spielberg recreates 1865 Washington as a vibrant, exciting place, albeit one filled with so many recognizable stars it's almost distracting wondering who'll pop up in the next scene: Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant! Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln! Lena Dunham's shirtless boyfriend on Girls (Adam Driver) as a soldier! Most notable among the huge cast are John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a daffy James Spader as a trio of lobbyists; Sally Field as the troubled First Lady; and likely Oscar contenders Tommy Lee Jones (as winningly cranky Rep. Thaddeus Stevens) and Day-Lewis, who does a reliably great job of disappearing into his iconic role. (2:30) Cerrito, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

    The Master Paul Thomas Anderson's much-hyped likely Best Picture contender lives up: it's easily the best film of 2012 so far. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dodd, the L. Ron Hubbard-ish head of a Scientology-esque movement. "The Cause" attracts Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, in a welcome return from the faux-deep end), less for its pseudo-religious psychobabble and bizarre personal-growth exercises, and more because it supplies the aimless, alcoholic veteran — a drifter in every sense of the word — with a sense of community he yearns for, yet resists submitting to. As with There Will Be Blood (2007), Anderson focuses on the tension between the two main characters: an older, established figure and his upstart challenger. But there's less cut-and-dried antagonism here; while their relationship is complex, and it does lead to dark, troubled places, there are also moments of levity and weird hilarity — which might have something to do with Freddie's paint-thinner moonshine. (2:17) Elmwood. (Eddy)

    The Matchmaker In 2006, amid ongoing conflict with Lebanon, an Israeli novelist learns he's received an unexpected inheritance from a man he knew in 1968, the summer before he turned 16. Most of Avi Nesher's The Matchmaker takes place during those golden months in Haifa, when young Arik (Tuval Shafir) — lover of Dashiell Hammett, son of Holocaust survivors — takes a job working for a charismatic but vaguely shady matchmaker (comedian Adir Miller, who won the Israeli equivalent of a Best Actor Oscar), following potential clients to assure their quest for love is on the level. His exciting new gig whisks the budding writer out of middle-class monotony and introduces him to a wealth of colorful "Low Rent district" types; he also nurses a raging crush on his best friend's free-spirited American cousin. Mostly a gently nostalgic tale, The Matchmaker also offers an unusual take on the Holocaust, viewing it from two decades later and using its looming memory to shape the characters who experienced it firsthand — as well as members of the younger generation, like Arik, who pages through The House of Dolls to learn more, even as he refers to the concentration camp where his father was held as simply "there." (1:52) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)

    The Perks of Being a Wallflower Move over, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series — there's a new shrinking-violet social outcast in town. These days, life might not suck quite so hard for 90-pound weaklings in every age category, what with so many films and TV shows exposing, and sometimes even celebrating, the many miseries of childhood and adolescence for all to see. In this case, Perks author Stephen Chbosky takes on the directorial duties — both a good and bad thing, much like the teen years. Smart, shy Charlie is starting high school with a host of issues: he's painfully awkward and very alone in the brutal throng, his only friend just committed suicide, and his only simpatico family member was killed in a car accident. Charlie's English teacher Mr. Andersen (Paul Rudd) appears to be his only connection, until the freshman strikes up a conversation with feline, charismatic, shop-class jester Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his magnetic, music- and fun-loving stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). Who needs the popular kids? The witty duo head up their gang of coolly uncool outcasts their own, the Wallflowers (not to be confused with the deeply uncool Jakob Dylan combo), and with them, Charlie appears to have found his tribe. Only a few small secrets put a damper on matters: Patrick happens to be gay and involved with football player Brad (Johnny Simmons), who's saddled with a violently conservative father, and Charlie is in love with the already-hooked-up Sam and is frightened that his fragile equilibrium will be destroyed when his new besties graduate and slip out of his life. Displaying empathy and a devotion to emotional truth, Chbosky takes good care of his characters, preserving the complexity and ungainly quirks of their not-so-cartoonish suburbia, though his limitations as a director come to the fore in the murkiness and choppily handled climax that reveals how damaged Charlie truly is. (1:43) Bridge, Shattuck. (Chun)

    Playing For Keeps Not a keeper: the marketing imagery that makes Gerard Butler look like an insufferable creep with bad hair. Dennis Quaid, seen in a small pic toward the base of the Playing For Keeps poster, gets that thankless role instead in this family-oriented rom-com, which is better than some while still being capable of eliciting very audible yawns from an audience supposedly primed for cutesy hijinks. Butler is George Dryer, a onetime pro soccer star now on the decline yet desperately seeking his next opening — a career as a sportscaster. To get there he has to run a networking gauntlet called coaching children's soccer, which he gets roped into by ex Stacie (Jessica Biel) and spawn Lewis (Noah Lomax). The ankle biters are the least of his problems: more challenging are hot 'n' horny soccer moms like TV sports vet Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones), cry-face Barn (Judy Greer), and desperate trophy housewife Patti (Uma Thurman), who's saddled with all-American a-hole Carl (Dennis Quaid). The charisma-oozing George has to practically fight them off, while somehow shooting for that family-first goal. With its sex farce tendencies, rom-com DNA, and vaguely sour attitude toward hard-up moms, hot or not, I'm not sure who Playing For Keeps is really making a play for — perhaps married ladies looking for date-night possibilities and some shirtless Butler action? Projecting believability even under the most plausibility-taxing circumstances, Butler manages, as always, to be the best thing in the movie, though it seems like less of an achievement when his projects tend toward mediocrity. (1:46) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Chun)

    Red Dawn A remake of a 1984 movie that seemed a pretty nutty ideological throwback even during the Reagan Era's revived Cold War air conditioning, Red Dawn should have come out a couple years ago, having been shot late 2009. But in the meantime MGM was undergoing yet another seismic financial rupture, and as the film sat around for lack of the means needed for distribution and marketing, it occurred that perhaps it already had a fatal, internal flaw. You see, this update re-cast our invaders from Russkies to People's Republicans, tapping into the modern fear of China as debtor and international bully. But: China is also a huge fledgling market for Hollywood product. So a tortured makeover of the remake ensued; scenes were added, re-shot, and digitally altered to impose a drastic narrative change. The new villain is absurd it gets acknowledged as such by dialogue: "North Korea? It doesn't make any sense!" Yup, in the new Red Dawn a coastal Washington state burg is the first attack point in a wholesale invasion of the U.S. (pop. 315 million) by the Democratic People's Republic (pop. 25 million). It's football season, so a Spokane suburb's team — Wolverines!! — lends its name as battle cry and its revved up healthy young flesh as guerilla martyrs to the fight for, ohm yeah, freedom. Do they drink beer? Do they rescue cheerleader girlfriends from concentration camps? Do they kick North Korean ass? Do you really need to ask? (1:34) Metreon. (Harvey)

    Rise of the Guardians There's nothing so camp as "Heat Miser" from The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) in Rise of the Guardians,, but there's plenty here to charm all ages. The mystery at its center: we open on Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine) being born, pulled from the depths of a frozen pond by the Man on the Moon and destined to spread ice and cold everywhere he goes, invisible to all living creatures. It's an individualistic yet lonely lot for Jack, who's styled as an impish snowboarder in a hoodie and armed with an icy scepter, until the Guardians — spirits like North/Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) — call on him to join them. Pitch the Boogeyman (Jude Law) is threatening to snuff out all children's hopes and dreams with fears and nightmares, and it's up to the Guardians must keep belief in magic alive. But what's in it for Jack, except the most important thing: namely who is he and what is his origin story? Director Peter Ramsey keeps those fragile dreams aloft with scenes awash with motion and animation that evokes the chubby figures and cozy warm tones of '70s European storybooks. And though Pine verges on blandness with his vocal performance, Baldwin, Jackman, and Fisher winningly deliver the jokes. (1:38) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

    A Royal Affair At age 15 in 1766, British princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) travels abroad to a new life — as queen to the new ruler of Denmark, her cousin. Attractive and accomplished, she is judged a great success by everyone but her husband. King Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is just a teenager himself, albeit one whose mental illness makes him behave alternately like a debauched libertine, a rude two year-old, a sulky-rebellious adolescent, and a plain old abusive spouse. Once her principal official duty is fulfilled — bearing a male heir — the two do their best to avoid each other. But on a tour of Europe Christian meets German doctor Johann Friedrich Struenesse (Mads Mikkelsen), a true man of the Enlightenment who not only has advanced notions about calming the monarch's "eccentricities," but proves a tolerant and agreeable royal companion. Lured back to Denmark as the King's personal physician, he soon infects the cultured Queen with the fervor of his progressive ideas, while the two find themselves mutually attracted on less intellectual levels as well. When they start manipulating their unstable but malleable ruler to push much-needed public reforms through in the still basically feudal nation, they begin acquiring powerful enemies. This very handsome-looking history lesson highlights a chapter relatively little-known here, and finds in it an interesting juncture in the eternal battle between masters and servants, the piously self-interested and the secular humanists. At the same time, Nikolaj Arcel's impressively mounted and acted film is also somewhat pedestrian and overlong. It's a quality costume drama, but not a great one. (2:17) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

    Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter's stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock'n'roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician — long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) Elmwood. (Chun)

    The Sessions Polio has long since paralyzed the body of Berkeley poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) from the neck down. Of course his mind is free to roam — but it often roams south of the personal equator, where he hasn't had the same opportunities as able-bodied people. Thus he enlists the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate, to lose his virginity at last. Based on the real-life figures' experiences, this drama by Australian polio survivor Ben Lewin was a big hit at Sundance this year (then titled The Surrogate), and it's not hard to see why: this is one of those rare inspirational feel-good stories that doesn't pander and earns its tears with honest emotional toil. Hawkes is always arresting, but Hunt hasn't been this good in a long time, and William H. Macy is pure pleasure as a sympathetic priest put in numerous awkward positions with the Lord by Mark's very down-to-earth questions and confessions. (1:35) Elmwood, Four Star, Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

    Silver Linings Playbook After guiding two actors to Best Supporting Oscars in 2010's The Fighter, director David O. Russell returns (adapting his script from Matthew Quick's novel) with another darkly comedic film about a complicated family that will probably earn some gold of its own. Though he's obviously not ready to face the outside world, Pat (Bradley Cooper) checks out of the state institution he's been court-ordered to spend eight months in after displaying some serious anger-management issues. He moves home with his football-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and worrywart mother (Jacki Weaver of 2010's Animal Kingdom), where he plunges into a plan to win back his estranged wife. Cooper plays Pat as a man vibrating with troubled energy — always in danger of flying into a rage, even as he pursues his forced-upbeat "silver linings" philosophy. But the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, who proves the chops she showcased (pre-Hunger Games megafame) in 2010's Winter's Bone were no fluke. As the damaged-but-determined Tiffany, she's the left-field element that jolts Pat out of his crazytown funk; she's also the only reason Playbook's dance-competition subplot doesn't feel eye-rollingly clichéd. The film's not perfect, but Lawrence's layered performance — emotional, demanding, bitchy, tough-yet-secretly-tender — damn near is. (2:01) Piedmont, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck. (Eddy)

    Sister Twelve-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) looks like any other kid vacationing with a family on the slopes of a Swiss ski resort. That's a big plus, because he's not one of them — he's a local living "downhill" in an anonymous high-rise apartment block, sustaining himself and his pretty but irresponsible older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) by stealing expensive sports equipment and clothes from the oblivious guests. He has no guilt about what he does, but then why should he? Those people are rich, he's not, and sis' short attention span toward jobs and boyfriends isn't going to pay the rent. Ursula Meier's French-language second feature isn't heavily plot-driven, though it doesn't feel like a second is wasted. The casual, somewhat furtive relationships that develop between Simon and stray adults who glean enough to worry about him — a seasonal restaurant worker (Martin Compston), a maternal resort guest (Gillian Anderson), Louise's better-than-usual new beau (Yann Tregouet) — come and go but are toeholds on stability for him. It's the contrast between Simon's aggressively take-charge premature adulthood and his unaddressed needs as a child that ultimately make Sister rather devastating. It's been aptly compared to the Dardenne Brothers' similar dramas, but Meier lets her film's heart beat a little more in open empathy with its protagonist while aping those Belgians' brisk surface objectivity. (1:37) Elmwood. (Harvey)

    Skyfall Top marks to Adele, who delivers a magnificent title song to cap off Skyfall's thrilling pre-credits chase scene. Unfortunate, then, that the film that follows squanders its initial promise. After a bomb attack on MI6, the clock is running out for Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench), accused of Cold War irrelevancy in a 21st century full of malevolent, stateless computer hackers. The audience, too, will yearn for a return to simpler times; dialogue about "firewalls" and "obfuscated code" never fails to sound faintly ridiculous, despite the efforts Ben Whishaw as the youthful new head of Q branch. Javier Bardem is creative and creepy as keyboard-tapping villain Raoul Silva, but would have done better with a megalomaniac scheme to take over the world. Instead, a small-potatoes revenge plot limps to a dull conclusion in the middle of nowhere. Skyfall never decides whether it prefers action, bons mots, and in-jokes to ponderous mythologizing and ripped-from-the-headlines speechifying — the result is a unsatisfying, uneven mixture. (2:23) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Ben Richardson)

    The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 The final installment of the Twilight franchise picks up shortly after the medical-emergency vampirization of last year's Breaking Dawn - Part 1, giving newly undead Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) just enough time to freshen up after nearly being torn asunder during labor by her hybrid spawn, Renesmee. In a just world, Bella and soul mate Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) would get more of a honeymoon period, given how badly Part 1's actual honeymoon turned out. Alas, there's just enough time for some soft-focus vampire-on-vampire action (a letdown after all the talk of rowdy undead sex), some catamount hunting, some werewolf posturing, a reunion with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), and a few seconds of Cullen family bonding, and then those creepy Volturi are back, convinced that the Cullens have committed a vampire capital crime and ready to exact penance. Director Bill Condon (1998's Gods and Monsters, 2004's Kinsey) knows what the Twi-hards want and methodically doles it out, but the overall effect is less sweeping action and shivery romance and more "I have bugs crawling on me — and yet I'm bored." Some of that isn't his fault — he bears no responsibility for naming Renesmee, for instance, to say nothing of a January-May subplot that we're asked to wrap our brains around. But the film maintains such a loose emotional grip, shifting clumsily and robotically from comic interludes to unintentionally comic interludes to soaring-music love scenes to attempted pathos to a snowy battlefield where the only moment of any dramatic value occurs. Weighed down by the responsibility of bringing The Twilight Saga to a close, it limps weakly to its anticlimax, leaving one almost — but not quite — wishing for one more installment, a chance for a more stirring farewell. (1:55) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)

    Wreck-It Ralph Wreck-It Ralph cribs directly from the Toy Story series: when the lights go off in the arcade, video game characters gather to eat, drink, and endure existential crises. John C. Reilly is likable and idiosyncratic as Ralph, the hulking, ham-fisted villain of a game called Fix-It-Felix. Fed up with being the bad guy, Ralph sneaks into gritty combat sim Hero's Duty under the nose of Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a blond space marine who mixes Mass Effect's Commander Shepard with a PG-rated R. Lee Ermey. Things go quickly awry, and soon Ralph is marooned in cart-racing candyland Sugar Rush, helping Vanellope Von Schweetz (a manic Sarah Silverman), with Calhoun and opposite number Felix (Jack McBrayer) hot on his heels. Though often aggressively childish, the humor will amuse kids, parents, and occasionally gamers, and the Disney-approved message about acceptance is moving without being maudlin. The animation, limber enough to portray 30 years of changing video game graphics, deserves special praise. (1:34) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Ben Richardson)

     



  • The Best Astronomy Images of 2012
  • The Universe is beautiful.

    Which is interesting. It doesn’t have to be; it could be all colorless and weird and lumpy. Instead, it’s bursting with color, sculpted by vast forces, molded into fantastic shapes that please our eyes and delight our brains—especially once we understand what we’re seeing.

    Every December I pick my favorite images from the previous year to display, a task that is extraordinarily difficult. I always wind up with a list of about 60 or 70, and I have to cull it down mercilessly. Such is the case this year again, and I could pare it only to 21, a score and more of gorgeousness for you to soak in. I choose the pictures not just for their beauty but also because they are interesting, and different—ones that stand out from the crowd somehow. I usually put them in order with my favorite one last, but this year I just can’t. I’ll let you know my favorite when you get to it—I expect you’ll agree—but other than that it’s just a dead tie.

    Many of these, you might expect, are from Hubble, but other telescopes get their share, as well as some that were taken by amateur astronomers with not much more than good cameras and a desire to see and capture the Universe.

    I can’t argue with that sentiment. So here they are; enjoy.

    The Sun’s Arch Rival

    On Aug. 31, 2012, the Sun had a major hissy fit: A vast arch of material was lifted up off the surface by the Sun’s powerful magnetic field. Sometimes these arches collapse back down, but this one erupted, blasting literally hundreds of millions of tons of superheated plasma into space at a speed of 1,400 kilometers per second (900 miles per second)—over a thousand times faster than a rifle bullet. The scale of this is crushing—the arch was 300,000 kilometers (200,000) miles) across, 25 times larger than the Earth. As we near the peak of the Sun’s magnetic cycle, we’ll be seeing even more activity like this in the coming months.

    Venus Transits the Sun

    Venus orbits closer to the Sun than the Earth does, and on rare occasions our orbits align such that Venus passes directly in front of the Sun. The last time this happened was in 2004, and it happened again on June 5, 2012. Probably millions of photos of the event were taken, but one of my favorites is this view from the NASA/JAXA (Japanese Space Agency) Hinode spacecraft, just as Venus was fully entering the Sun’s disk. The Sun looks like a boiling cauldron with Venus silhouetted against it. The ring around the planet is from Venus’s thick atmosphere, scattering and bending the sunlight coming through from the other side.

    If you missed the transit, you’re probably out of luck: The next one isn’t until December of 2117! So you’ll have to be satisfied with pictures; I have a gallery of them, as well as a few others I liked here and here.

    The Best Vacation Photo Ever

    One of the single biggest events of the year was the successful—if hair-raising—touchdown of the Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, on the surface of the red planet. The most advanced piece of hardware ever to set foot wheel on another world, Curiosity is equipped with an array of cameras, geological tools, and even a high-powered laser to zap rocks and determine their composition. On Halloween, it used its Mars Hand Lens Imager to take 55 high-resolution pictures of itself, which were assembled to create this amazing self-portrait. The reason you can’t see the arm holding the camera is that it was essentially edited out of the final shot by careful selection of which pictures were used in the mosaic.

    This picture stands as proof of what we humans can do: fling a spacecraft to another planet and safely land a one-ton, laser-eyed, nuclear-powered mobile chemistry lab.

    Devils in the Dust

    Mars is an amazing place. I sometimes still think of it as cold, barren, and dead, but this is simply prejudice on my part. Well, it is cold, but dead it is not: It has an atmosphere capable of astonishing feats, including creating enormous dust devils—mini-tornadoes— like the one seen here by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This towering vortex was 800 meters (half a mile) long as it swept across the ochre landscape. The plume was bent by the wind, creating that gently sweeping tail, and you can see its shadow on the ground. Dust devils form when air warmed by the ground below rises. If there’s a steady wind it can wrap the rising air into a vortex that can tip vertically and swirl around. They’re common on Mars, but one this big is unusual … though not long afterward, another one formed that was a staggering 20 kilometers (12 miles) high!

    Saturn’s Eye into the Abyss

    Saturn is most famous for its magnificent rings and bizarre fleet of moons. But the planet itself has some major weirdness going on as well. Saturn is a gas giant, with a tremendously thick atmosphere that is tens of thousands of kilometers deep. At its north pole there is a hexagonal vortex, a swirling system of clouds and storms 25,000 kilometers (15,000 miles) across—twice the size of the Earth! In the very center of the hexagon is a circular weather system, the Eye of Saturn, seen here by the Cassini spacecraft. You can clearly see storms clouds rising above the cloud deck, and the detail is phenomenal. This feature is about 2,000 km (1,200 miles) across—two-thirds the length of the United States.

    Rotating Gas Cloud

    IC1396 is a huge cloud of gas and dust, a star-forming factory 100 light years across. Massive, hot, young stars in the center have blown an enormous cavity in the center of the nebula, their fierce stellar winds and blasting ultraviolet light eating the cloud away from the inside out. J-P Metsävainio is a Finnish astrophotographer who took several images of this sprawling cloud, broke them up into layers, made a computer surface model of the structure, then remapped it all into different frames seen from different angles. The finished product is this jaw-dropping three-dimensional animation. I’ll note this is an approximation to the real structure of the nebula, an educated guess. But it gives an incredible feel to the object and a real sense of what it must really be like. (Image credit: J-P Metsävainio).

    When a 30-Octillion-Ton Baby Throws an Epic Fit

    When humans are babies, they tend throw lots of tantrums and, um, spew material out of both ends. Stars do that too: Meet Sharpless 2-106, a baby star just getting its start but still capable of throwing epic fits. At 30 octillion tons, it packs a bit more oomph than your standard human baby! You can see it in this Hubble Space Telescope picture just below center. Like many young stars, it has a disk of material swirling around it (too small to see here), and this can focus twin beams of matter and energy which blast away from it like the beams of a lighthouse. This expanding material slams into the surrounding cloud of gas and dust, pushing it aside and creating the hollowed-out region you can see in blue. The actual process is fairly complex and not perfectly understood, but what’s not hard to understand is the terrible and stunning beauty of this scene.

    In fact, this picture is so gorgeous it inspired my friend, space artist Lucy West, to paint it, and the results are remarkable, to say the least.

    [And yes, this one is my favorite of them all. Seriously, wow.]

    Cold Fire in Orion

    In astronomy, as in life, what you see depends on how you see it. Our eyes are sensitive to visible light, a very narrow slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. When we look at M78, a cloud of gas and dust near Orion’s belt, we see only the material that emits or reflects visible light. Interstellar dust, thickly spread throughout the region, is cold and black.

    But if you had infrared eyes, that dust would glow with thermal light in the far, far infrared. The APEX telescope is designed to see that light, and when combined with a visible light image from the Digitized Sky Survey, you get the incredible picture above.The APEX shot is colored orange, so what looks black to our eyes glows like fire in this image. The bright knots of light are where new stars are being born, enshrouded in thick dust. If all we could see was visible light, those stars would be completely invisible, and we’d be missing the best part of the show.

    Monster in the Middle

    Deep in the heart of the galaxy Hercules A is a monster black hole. Vast amounts of material are falling into it, swirling in a disk that’s heated to millions of degrees. The disk is so hot in the center that material wants to expand violently and blow away. Magnetism, friction, and other forces focus that expanding material into twin beams which blast out of the poles of the disk with such speed and ferocity that they travel for hundreds of thousands of light years before finally slowing down and puffing out into twin lobes of matter. This image is a combination of observations from the Hubble Space Telescope—which shows the galaxy Hercules A, stars, and background galaxies—and the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, which detects the radio waves emitted by the jets and lobes. The structure is well over a million light years end-to-end, but what else would you expect from an object whose central engine is a black hole with 2.5 billion times the Sun’s mass?

    Orion Over the Temple of the Serpent God

    Astrophotographer Stéphane Guisard took this remarkable picture of Orion rising over the Temple of Kukulkan in the ancient Maya city of Chichen Itza. The temple is 30 meters (100 feet) high, a monument to the architectural savvy of the Maya. In Orion you can see the orange glow of Betelegeuse, bright blue Rigel, and the fuzzy pink glow of the Orion Nebula (below the belt), a star-forming nebula over 1,000 light years away.

    Going Deep. Really, Really Deep

    The image you see here is nothing short of mind-blowing, for any number of reasons. Called the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, it’s a combination of 2,000 separate exposures by the orbiting observatory for a total of over two million seconds, or 23 days! For another, nearly every single object you see in that picture is actually a galaxy, a vast collection of billions of stars. Yet this region of the sky was chosen for this observation specifically because it was previously thought to be relatively empty! Hubble’s sharp and sensitive vision reveals that the Universe, no matter where you look, is never empty. Extrapolating from this image to the rest of the sky, it means there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in our Universe, most, like those seen here, billions of light years away. The current record-holder for most distant galaxy ever seen was detected in this picture as well. It’s a profound and thought-provoking picture—a common characteristic of astronomical images.

    Icy Aurora

    On March 28, 2012, photographer Helge Mortensen was in Tromso, Norway on a mission to capture the aurora borealis, the northern lights. He succeeded magnificently, taking this beautiful shot of the eerily-glowing green lights over the icy landscape. You can see the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and the Pleaides cluster in the picture as the particles from the solar wind slam into Earth’s atmosphere, lighting up atoms of oxygen and nitrogen. I also like the water flowing in the bottom part of the shot; in the 10-second exposure it forms a soft, smooth surface. By coincidence, one part of it forms a pattern remarkably like a face, an aquatic Shroud of Turin. Can you spot it?

    Milky Way and Mashed Potato Mountain

    “This means something.”

    Photographer Randy Halverson took this moody picture of the Milky Way rising behind the iconic silhouette of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, known to countless dorks like me as the location of the alien rendezvous in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Halverson is amazing, and his time-lapse video “Temporal Distortion” is well worth your time to watch.

    Galaxy With Arms Flung Wide

    For sheer beauty, there is little in the sky to match a magnificent open-armed spiral galaxy. This is NGC 5033, which is located 50 million light years away from Earth. That’s relatively close by cosmic standards, allowing us to get a good peek at it even though we see it at a low angle. Accomplished astronomer Adam Block took this image using the 0.8-meter Schulman Telescope on Mount Lemmon in Arizona, and it’s a total exposure of 13 hours. You can see the combined glow of billions of older, redder stars in the center, and the blue light from younger stars being born in the arms—the pink blobs festooned on the arms are gigantic nebulae, clouds of gas and dust, where stars are being born and lit from within by those stars. The oddly distorted shape to the arms (together with some other unusual features) makes me think NGC 5033 recently had a close encounter with another galaxy, its gravity warping the shape of the spiral. That’s actually pretty common in the life of big galaxies like this. It’s a dangerous Universe out there.

    Pencil Thin

    Massive stars do not go gentle into that good night; they rage, rage against the dying of the light. In fact, they do more than rage: They explode. A hundred centuries ago, a far-away star did just that. At the end of its life, the forces inside it tore it apart, detonating it, blasting away the star’s outer layers in the most violent event in the Universe: a supernova. What you see here is called the Pencil Nebula, one small part of the vast Vela Supernova Remnant, what was once a star but is now an ever expanding cloud of gas. Material from the explosion is moving outward at thousands of kilometers per second, slamming into gas floating in space, compressing it and causing it to glow. The colors in this picture, taken by the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope, represent different elements: Oxygen is blue, and hydrogen red. Mixed in there are also elements like iron, nitrogen, carbon, and more. These are essential for life as we know it, and in fact all the iron in your blood and calcium in your bones were created in stellar explosions like this one. You are, very literally, made out of the ashes of stars long—and violently—dead.

    Rocket. Laser. Aurora

    If you asked a space nerd what the ultimate picture would be, they would say one that has a rocket, a laser, and the aurora in it. Behold! Your wish is granted. (If it had a T. rex eating bacon it would be too awesome to even gaze upon.) This picture, taken by Lee Wingfield, shows a rocket launch on Feb. 18, 2012 from a launch facility near Fairbanks, Alaska. The rocket carried an instrument on board to measure how the Earth’s magnetic field interacts with storms from the Sun that cause aurorae. The laser is a nice touch, but also has a scientific purpose: It can be used to measure the properties of the atmosphere at different heights, dovetailing with the observations made by the detector on the rocket. Experiments like this will help scientists understand the phenomenon of “space weather,” which can affect satellites in orbit and our power grid here on Earth. But also? This picture is just pure awesome.

    Scorched Comet

    In late 2011, a new comet was discovered. Named Comet Lovejoy (after its discoverer), it has an orbital period of more than 600 years, and at closest approach to the Sun skims right over the surface of our star at a distance of 150,000 kilometers (90,000 miles). It reached this point in its orbit in December, and most people thought it wouldn’t survive … but it did. And as it pulled away from the Sun, the intense heat blew a magnificent tail from the comet that extended for millions of kilometers. This picture, taken in late December 2011, shows the comet rising in the pre-dawn sky next to one of the domes of the European Very Large Telescope in Chile, which was using a laser at the time to help it focus on its astronomical target. The Moon and Milky Way punctuate this shot, as well as the stars Alpha and Beta Centauri. If you follow the tail down, you’ll see it get redder nearer the horizon, which is due to dust in our own atmosphere scattering away blue light from the comet, leaving only the red to get through to our eyes.

    Very Large Telescope, Very Large Nebula

    Stars are born in clouds of gas and dust that collapse (perhaps when they collide with each other, or a star nearby explodes and compresses the cloud). These nebulae can be small, enough to form a single star, or huge, forming thousands. The Carina Nebula is one of these monsters: Even from more than 7,000 light years away, it’s bright enough to see with the unaided eye. This stunning image is from the VLT Survey Telescope and shows very nearly the entire cloud, a span of about 100 light years.

    The Chaos of Creation

    30 Doradus is another vast star-forming factory, and this image is Hubble’s view of it. You’d never guess it’s located about 170,000 light years away, 25 times the distance to the Carina Nebula! 30 Dor is one of the largest stellar nurseries known, with some estimates of it having more than 100,000 stars inside. It’s ridiculously complex, as you can tell if you get the 4,000 x 3,000 pixel image, and most certainly if you get the monster 20,000 x 16,000 pixel one. That one will keep you busy for a long time; you’ll see stars being born, stars dying, shock waves compressing material into filaments, and just crazy beauty everywhere you look. I seriously can’t recommend enough you explore it.

    Garden Sprinkler Star

    R Sculptoris is a star in trouble. It’s old and dying. It’s a red giant, a star once like our Sun but now swollen, bloated, and blowing off a dense wind of particles into space. However, it’s not all bad: It has a friend, probably a low-mass star orbiting it. They actually orbit each other, and as R Sculptoris dances in a circle, the wind that blows off from it forms a spiral pattern like a garden sprinkler shooting out water. This picture is actually a slice of three-dimensional data taken by the ALMA radio telescope, a new telescope designed to see cold dust and gas like that blown out of R Sculptoris. I’ll note the details of what this star is doing are fascinating, and I suggest you read the original post I wrote about it. It’s amazing, though, what subtle beauty can be created when a star beings to die.

    The Ghost in the Shell

    Like R Scupltoris, the star named U Camelopardalis (or U Cam for short) is dying. Unlike R Scul, it’s a solitary star. Its core is going through some pretty epic paroxysms, spasms that episodically eject vast spherical shells of gas into space. This Hubble Space Telescope image shows the latest shell, ejected just 700 years ago. The amount of material in it is pretty small by stellar standards, just a tenth the mass of the Earth. But it’s enough to make the beautiful and slightly eerie object you see here. I’ll note that U Cam used to be a star very much like the Sun. When you look at it, you may be seeing the Sun’s future, about 8 billion years from now.



  • Article 9
  • The Best Astronomy Images of 2012

    I couldn’t pick just 10—you have to see all 21 of these mind-bending shots.

    The Universe is beautiful.

    Which is interesting. It doesn’t have to be; it could be all colorless and weird and lumpy. Instead, it’s bursting with color, sculpted by vast forces, molded into fantastic shapes that please our eyes and delight our brains—especially once we understand what we’re seeing.

    Every December I pick my favorite images from the previous year to display, a task that is extraordinarily difficult. I always wind up with a list of about 60 or 70, and I have to cull it down mercilessly. Such is the case this year again, and I could pare it only to 21, a score and more of gorgeousness for you to soak in. I choose the pictures not just for their beauty but also because they are interesting, and different—ones that stand out from the crowd somehow. I usually put them in order with my favorite one last, but this year I just can’t. I’ll let you know my favorite when you get to it—I expect you’ll agree—but other than that it’s just a dead tie.

    Many of these, you might expect, are from Hubble, but other telescopes get their share, as well as some that were taken by amateur astronomers with not much more than good cameras and a desire to see and capture the Universe.

    I can’t argue with that sentiment. So here they are; enjoy.

    The Sun’s Arch Rival
    On Aug. 31, 2012, the Sun had a major hissy fit: A vast arch of material was lifted up off the surface by the Sun’s powerful magnetic field. Sometimes these arches collapse back down, but this one erupted, blasting literally hundreds of millions of tons of superheated plasma into space at a speed of 1,400 kilometers per second (900 miles per second)—over a thousand times faster than a rifle bullet. The scale of this is crushing—the arch was 300,000 kilometers (200,000) miles) across, 25 times larger than the Earth. As we near the peak of the Sun’s magnetic cycle, we’ll be seeing even more activity like this in the coming months.

    SDO_arch
    NASA/GSFC/SDO.
    Venus Transits the Sun
    Venus orbits closer to the Sun than the Earth does, and on rare occasions our orbits align such that Venus passes directly in front of the Sun. The last time this happened was in 2004, and it happened again on June 5, 2012. Probably millions of photos of the event were taken, but one of my favorites is this view from the NASA/JAXA (Japanese Space Agency) Hinode spacecraft, just as Venus was fully entering the Sun’s disk. The Sun looks like a boiling cauldron with Venus silhouetted against it. The ring around the planet is from Venus’s thick atmosphere, scattering and bending the sunlight coming through from the other side.

    If you missed the transit, you’re probably out of luck: The next one isn’t until December of 2117! So you’ll have to be satisfied with pictures; I have a gallery of them, as well as a few others I liked here and here.

    hinode_venustransit
    JAXA/NASA/Lockheed Martin.
    The Best Vacation Photo Ever
    One of the single biggest events of the year was the successful—if hair-raising—touchdown of the Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, on the surface of the red planet. The most advanced piece of hardware ever to set foot wheel on another world, Curiosity is equipped with an array of cameras, geological tools, and even a high-powered laser to zap rocks and determine their composition. On Halloween, it used its Mars Hand Lens Imager to take 55 high-resolution pictures of itself, which were assembled to create this amazing self-portrait. The reason you can’t see the arm holding the camera is that it was essentially edited out of the final shot by careful selection of which pictures were used in the mosaic.

    This picture stands as proof of what we humans can do: fling a spacecraft to another planet and safely land a one-ton, laser-eyed, nuclear-powered mobile chemistry lab.

    msl_selfportrait
    NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems.

    Devils in the Dust
    Mars is an amazing place. I sometimes still think of it as cold, barren, and dead, but this is simply prejudice on my part. Well, it is cold, but dead it is not: It has an atmosphere capable of astonishing feats, including creating enormous dust devils—mini-tornadoes— like the one seen here by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This towering vortex was 800 meters (half a mile) long as it swept across the ochre landscape. The plume was bent by the wind, creating that gently sweeping tail, and you can see its shadow on the ground. Dust devils form when air warmed by the ground below rises. If there’s a steady wind it can wrap the rising air into a vortex that can tip vertically and swirl around. They’re common on Mars, but one this big is unusual … though not long afterward, another one formed that was a staggering 20 kilometers (12 miles) high!

    hirise_dustdevil
    NASA/JPL/ University of Arizona.
    Saturn’s Eye into the Abyss
    Saturn is most famous for its magnificent rings and bizarre fleet of moons. But the planet itself has some major weirdness going on as well. Saturn is a gas giant, with a tremendously thick atmosphere that is tens of thousands of kilometers deep. At its north pole there is a hexagonal vortex, a swirling system of clouds and storms 25,000 kilometers (15,000 miles) across—twice the size of the Earth! In the very center of the hexagon is a circular weather system, the Eye of Saturn, seen here by the Cassini spacecraft. You can clearly see storms clouds rising above the cloud deck, and the detail is phenomenal. This feature is about 2,000 km (1,200 miles) across—two-thirds the length of the United States.

    saturn_vortex
    NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
    Rotating Gas Cloud
    IC1396 is a huge cloud of gas and dust, a star-forming factory 100 light years across. Massive, hot, young stars in the center have blown an enormous cavity in the center of the nebula, their fierce stellar winds and blasting ultraviolet light eating the cloud away from the inside out. J-P Metsävainio is a Finnish astrophotographer who took several images of this sprawling cloud, broke them up into layers, made a computer surface model of the structure, then remapped it all into different frames seen from different angles. The finished product is this jaw-dropping three-dimensional animation. I’ll note this is an approximation to the real structure of the nebula, an educated guess. But it gives an incredible feel to the object and a real sense of what it must really be like. (Image credit: J-P Metsävainio).


    When a 30-Octillion-Ton Baby Throws an Epic Fit
    When humans are babies, they tend throw lots of tantrums and, um, spew material out of both ends. Stars do that too: Meet Sharpless 2-106, a baby star just getting its start but still capable of throwing epic fits. At 30 octillion tons, it packs a bit more oomph than your standard human baby! You can see it in this Hubble Space Telescope picture just below center. Like many young stars, it has a disk of material swirling around it (too small to see here), and this can focus twin beams of matter and energy which blast away from it like the beams of a lighthouse. This expanding material slams into the surrounding cloud of gas and dust, pushing it aside and creating the hollowed-out region you can see in blue. The actual process is fairly complex and not perfectly understood, but what’s not hard to understand is the terrible and stunning beauty of this scene.

    In fact, this picture is so gorgeous it inspired my friend, space artist Lucy West, to paint it, and the results are remarkable, to say the least.

    [And yes, this one is my favorite of them all. Seriously, wow.]

    hst_sharpless2-106Hubble: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).
    Cold Fire in Orion
    In astronomy, as in life, what you see depends on how you see it. Our eyes are sensitive to visible light, a very narrow slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. When we look at M78, a cloud of gas and dust near Orion’s belt, we see only the material that emits or reflects visible light. Interstellar dust, thickly spread throughout the region, is cold and black.

    But if you had infrared eyes, that dust would glow with thermal light in the far, far infrared. The APEX telescope is designed to see that light, and when combined with a visible light image from the Digitized Sky Survey, you get the incredible picture above.The APEX shot is colored orange, so what looks black to our eyes glows like fire in this image. The bright knots of light are where new stars are being born, enshrouded in thick dust. If all we could see was visible light, those stars would be completely invisible, and we’d be missing the best part of the show.

    Cosmic dust clouds in Messier 78
    ESO/APEX (MPIfR/ESO/OSO)/T. Stanke et al./Igor Chekalin/Digitized Sky Survey 2.

    Monster in the Middle
    Deep in the heart of the galaxy Hercules A is a monster black hole. Vast amounts of material are falling into it, swirling in a disk that’s heated to millions of degrees. The disk is so hot in the center that material wants to expand violently and blow away. Magnetism, friction, and other forces focus that expanding material into twin beams which blast out of the poles of the disk with such speed and ferocity that they travel for hundreds of thousands of light years before finally slowing down and puffing out into twin lobes of matter. This image is a combination of observations from the Hubble Space Telescope—which shows the galaxy Hercules A, stars, and background galaxies—and the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, which detects the radio waves emitted by the jets and lobes. The structure is well over a million light years end-to-end, but what else would you expect from an object whose central engine is a black hole with 2.5 billion times the Sun’s mass?

    hst_vla_herca
    NASA, ESA, S. Baum and C. O'Dea (RIT), R. Perley and W. Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

    Orion Over the Temple of the Serpent God
    Astrophotographer Stéphane Guisard took this remarkable picture of Orion rising over the Temple of Kukulkan in the ancient Maya city of Chichen Itza. The temple is 30 meters (100 feet) high, a monument to the architectural savvy of the Maya. In Orion you can see the orange glow of Betelegeuse, bright blue Rigel, and the fuzzy pink glow of the Orion Nebula (below the belt), a star-forming nebula over 1,000 light years away.

    guisard_orion_kukulkan
    Stephane Guisard www.astrosurf.com/sguisard

    Going Deep. Really, Really Deep
    The image you see here is nothing short of mind-blowing, for any number of reasons. Called the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, it’s a combination of 2,000 separate exposures by the orbiting observatory for a total of over two million seconds, or 23 days! For another, nearly every single object you see in that picture is actually a galaxy, a vast collection of billions of stars. Yet this region of the sky was chosen for this observation specifically because it was previously thought to be relatively empty! Hubble’s sharp and sensitive vision reveals that the Universe, no matter where you look, is never empty. Extrapolating from this image to the rest of the sky, it means there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in our Universe, most, like those seen here, billions of light years away. The current record-holder for most distant galaxy ever seen was detected in this picture as well. It’s a profound and thought-provoking picture—a common characteristic of astronomical images.

    The Hubble eXtreme Deep Field
    NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team.

    Icy Aurora
    On March 28, 2012, photographer Helge Mortensen was in Tromso, Norway on a mission to capture the aurora borealis, the northern lights. He succeeded magnificently, taking this beautiful shot of the eerily-glowing green lights over the icy landscape. You can see the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and the Pleaides cluster in the picture as the particles from the solar wind slam into Earth’s atmosphere, lighting up atoms of oxygen and nitrogen. I also like the water flowing in the bottom part of the shot; in the 10-second exposure it forms a soft, smooth surface. By coincidence, one part of it forms a pattern remarkably like a face, an aquatic Shroud of Turin. Can you spot it?

    mortensen_aurora_ice
    Helge Mortensen.

    Milky Way and Mashed Potato Mountain
    “This means something.”

    Photographer Randy Halverson took this moody picture of the Milky Way rising behind the iconic silhouette of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, known to countless dorks like me as the location of the alien rendezvous in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Halverson is amazing, and his time-lapse video “Temporal Distortion” is well worth your time to watch.

    halverson_mw_devilstower
    Randy Halverson.

    Galaxy With Arms Flung Wide
    For sheer beauty, there is little in the sky to match a magnificent open-armed spiral galaxy. This is NGC 5033, which is located 50 million light years away from Earth. That’s relatively close by cosmic standards, allowing us to get a good peek at it even though we see it at a low angle. Accomplished astronomer Adam Block took this image using the 0.8-meter Schulman Telescope on Mount Lemmon in Arizona, and it’s a total exposure of 13 hours. You can see the combined glow of billions of older, redder stars in the center, and the blue light from younger stars being born in the arms—the pink blobs festooned on the arms are gigantic nebulae, clouds of gas and dust, where stars are being born and lit from within by those stars. The oddly distorted shape to the arms (together with some other unusual features) makes me think NGC 5033 recently had a close encounter with another galaxy, its gravity warping the shape of the spiral. That’s actually pretty common in the life of big galaxies like this. It’s a dangerous Universe out there.

    block_ngc5033Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona.
    Pencil Thin
    Massive stars do not go gentle into that good night; they rage, rage against the dying of the light. In fact, they do more than rage: They explode. A hundred centuries ago, a far-away star did just that. At the end of its life, the forces inside it tore it apart, detonating it, blasting away the star’s outer layers in the most violent event in the Universe: a supernova. What you see here is called the Pencil Nebula, one small part of the vast Vela Supernova Remnant, what was once a star but is now an ever expanding cloud of gas. Material from the explosion is moving outward at thousands of kilometers per second, slamming into gas floating in space, compressing it and causing it to glow. The colors in this picture, taken by the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope, represent different elements: Oxygen is blue, and hydrogen red. Mixed in there are also elements like iron, nitrogen, carbon, and more. These are essential for life as we know it, and in fact all the iron in your blood and calcium in your bones were created in stellar explosions like this one. You are, very literally, made out of the ashes of stars long—and violently—dead.

    The Pencil Nebula, a strangely shaped leftover from a vast explosion
    ESO.
    Rocket. Laser. Aurora
    If you asked a space nerd what the ultimate picture would be, they would say one that has a rocket, a laser, and the aurora in it. Behold! Your wish is granted. (If it had a T. rex eating bacon it would be too awesome to even gaze upon.) This picture, taken by Lee Wingfield, shows a rocket launch on Feb. 18, 2012 from a launch facility near Fairbanks, Alaska. The rocket carried an instrument on board to measure how the Earth’s magnetic field interacts with storms from the Sun that cause aurorae. The laser is a nice touch, but also has a scientific purpose: It can be used to measure the properties of the atmosphere at different heights, dovetailing with the observations made by the detector on the rocket. Experiments like this will help scientists understand the phenomenon of “space weather,” which can affect satellites in orbit and our power grid here on Earth. But also? This picture is just pure awesome.

    rocket_laser_aurora
    Lee Wingfield, NASA Wallops.

    Scorched Comet
    In late 2011, a new comet was discovered. Named Comet Lovejoy (after its discoverer), it has an orbital period of more than 600 years, and at closest approach to the Sun skims right over the surface of our star at a distance of 150,000 kilometers (90,000 miles). It reached this point in its orbit in December, and most people thought it wouldn’t survive … but it did. And as it pulled away from the Sun, the intense heat blew a magnificent tail from the comet that extended for millions of kilometers. This picture, taken in late December 2011, shows the comet rising in the pre-dawn sky next to one of the domes of the European Very Large Telescope in Chile, which was using a laser at the time to help it focus on its astronomical target. The Moon and Milky Way punctuate this shot, as well as the stars Alpha and Beta Centauri. If you follow the tail down, you’ll see it get redder nearer the horizon, which is due to dust in our own atmosphere scattering away blue light from the comet, leaving only the red to get through to our eyes.
    cometlovejoy
    Gabriel Brammer/European Southern Observatory.

    Stars are born in clouds of gas and dust that collapse (perhaps when they collide with each other, or a star nearby explodes and compresses the cloud). These nebulae can be small, enough to form a single star, or huge, forming thousands. The Carina Nebula is one of these monsters: Even from more than 7,000 light years away, it’s bright enough to see with the unaided eye. This stunning image is from the VLT Survey Telescope and shows very nearly the entire cloud, a span of about 100 light years.

    The Carina Nebula imaged by the VLT Survey Telescope
    ESO. Acknowledgement: VPHAS+ Consortium/Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit.

    The Chaos of Creation
    30 Doradus is another vast star-forming factory, and this image is Hubble’s view of it. You’d never guess it’s located about 170,000 light years away, 25 times the distance to the Carina Nebula! 30 Dor is one of the largest stellar nurseries known, with some estimates of it having more than 100,000 stars inside. It’s ridiculously complex, as you can tell if you get the 4,000 x 3,000 pixel image, and most certainly if you get the monster 20,000 x 16,000 pixel one. That one will keep you busy for a long time; you’ll see stars being born, stars dying, shock waves compressing material into filaments, and just crazy beauty everywhere you look. I seriously can’t recommend enough you explore it.

    Hubble's panoramic view of a star-forming region
    Hubble: NASA, ESA, ESO, D. Lennon and E. Sabbi (ESA/STScI), J. Anderson, S. E. de Mink, R. van der Marel, T. Sohn, and N. Walborn (STScI), N. Bastian (Excellence Cluster, Munich), L. Bedin (INAF, Padua), E. Bressert (ESO), P. Crowther (Sheffield), A. de Koter (Amsterdam), C. Evans (UKATC/STFC, Edinburgh), A. Herrero (IAC, Tenerife), N. Langer (AifA, Bonn), I. Platais (JHU) and H. Sana (Amsterdam); Chandra: NASA/CXC/PSU/L.Townsley et al. & NASA/JPL/PSU/L.Townsley et al.

    Garden Sprinkler Star
    R Sculptoris is a star in trouble. It’s old and dying. It’s a red giant, a star once like our Sun but now swollen, bloated, and blowing off a dense wind of particles into space. However, it’s not all bad: It has a friend, probably a low-mass star orbiting it. They actually orbit each other, and as R Sculptoris dances in a circle, the wind that blows off from it forms a spiral pattern like a garden sprinkler shooting out water. This picture is actually a slice of three-dimensional data taken by the ALMA radio telescope, a new telescope designed to see cold dust and gas like that blown out of R Sculptoris. I’ll note the details of what this star is doing are fascinating, and I suggest you read the original post I wrote about it. It’s amazing, though, what subtle beauty can be created when a star beings to die.

    Curious spiral spotted by ALMA around red giant star R Sculptoris (data visualisation)
    ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO).

    The Ghost in the Shell
    Like R Scupltoris, the star named U Camelopardalis (or U Cam for short) is dying. Unlike R Scul, it’s a solitary star. Its core is going through some pretty epic paroxysms, spasms that episodically eject vast spherical shells of gas into space. This Hubble Space Telescope image shows the latest shell, ejected just 700 years ago. The amount of material in it is pretty small by stellar standards, just a tenth the mass of the Earth. But it’s enough to make the beautiful and slightly eerie object you see here. I’ll note that U Cam used to be a star very much like the Sun. When you look at it, you may be seeing the Sun’s future, about 8 billion years from now.

    Red giant blows a bubble
    ESA/Hubble, NASA and H. Olofsson (Onsala Space Observatory).


  • Countdown to the End of the World

  • My Story

    I must have been about 12 years old when I first saw a History Channel documentary with a segment on the Mayan Calendar. I believe it was an old episode of History's Mysteries focusing on something known as the "Bible Code" - the jist of it being some guy claiming he could uncover hidden messages from god by fitting Bible passages into some sort of matrix. He said he found "2012" and "asteroid" in one of these matrices, which the narrator suggested could be a reference to the end of the Mayan Calendar. Having considered myself nominally Christian at that point in my life, I found the idea tantalizing  After all, if the Bible were already full of explicit doomsday prophecies (the entirety or Revelations, for example), who's to say it couldn't contain some kind of hidden message as well?

    I'll be honest. I was a late bloomer as far as the whole skeptic thing is concerned. I fell for this idea - hard. I figured if my classmates knew they only had a decade or so left to live, they might live their lives a little differently. I was compelled spread the rumor around like wildfire. Suffice it to say I wasn't simply a believer in the Mayan Doomsday Prophecy, I was a veritable doomsday evangelist.

    In fact, I told so many people about the impending destruction of the planet that I was continually pestered about it for years. They'd ask me: "So Derek, you don't really  think the world's going to end in 2012, right?"

    As my answers began to change. "Just you wait" when I was 13 "Well, the Mayans were talented astronomers" at 15; and finally "No, of course not" by 17. And now, I sit here quite comfortably mere hours before the date I once thought would bring about the end of all life on earth. On the internet and in person, I only hear the 21st of December referenced as an offhand joke. Hell, it seems like more people took the May 2012 rapture seriously than the end of the Mayan calendar.

    But this Mayan Doomsday Prophecy has been such a large part of my life for so long, I feel obliged to indulge myself in giving it one final moment of thought before it is relegated to obscurity. There are three basic questions I'm hoping to answer: what is this whole Mayan Calendar business about, why is it bullshit, and is anybody actually taking this seriously? Feel free to skip around as your interests dictate.

    What are the various Doomsday Predictions for December 21, and how do they relate to the Mayans?

    Without getting too technical, these predictions stem from the "end" of the Mayan Long Count Calendar, which records the passage of time using a mythological creation date as a reference point. After 5125 years, we reach the end of a cyclical period known as a b'ak'tun. We are currently living in the 13th b'ak'tun, and which is the last of the b'ak'tuns specifically enumerated on the long count calendar. On 21 December 2012, that final cycle will come to an end.

    Nobody's quite sure exactly what the end of the Long Count Calendar is supposed to signify, but in this ambiguity lies the beauty of the thing. Since the Mayans themselves made no specific predictions, you're more or less free to make up whatever you want and claim that it stems from their overly complicated and impractical calendar. As such, there are a litany of ideas about what is supposed to happen on Friday - each more entertaining than the last.

    1. Asteroid/Nibiru/Planet X Collision with Earth


    This is probably the most widely accepted doomsday theory out there among believers. It is predicated on the idea that the Mayans (who were avid astronomers) were somehow able to predict a catastrophic collision between earth and a mysterious interstellar object two thousand years in the future. The actual object differs significantly depending on who you talk to; it could be anything from a large asteroid to a hidden planet on the edge of the solar system called Nibiru or Planet X.

    2. Massive Solar Flare/Geomagnetic Reversal


    Another idea is that the Mayans were able to predict unusual activity on the surface of the sun. They chose for the end of their long count calendar to coincide some kind of solar flare which was able to completely engulf the Earth, or failing that, mess with the Earth's magnetic field. What I find most interesting about this theory are the uniquely modern concerns associated with it. What would the Mayans have cared if the magnetic poles on earth changed? Not to mention they would be similarly uninterested in satellite or radio interference...

    3. First Contact With Aliens


    Considering the rise in popularity of the Ancient Aliens interpretation of human origins and development, it's only natural that our little green friends would play a role here. Naturally, the hypothesis here is that extraterrestrial visitors helped the Mayans design their long count calendar, and would return on Friday in order to...enslave all humanity? Give us a high five for progress? Deliver some sort of important message? The "why" here isn't clearly defined, but hey, you can't prove aliens didn't visit the Mayans. Checkmate.

    4. Simultaneous Earthquakes and Volcanic Activity



    Okay, now we're starting to get a little far out. Whereas every theory up until this point incorporated some sort of interstellar element, this idea is basically that December 21st will be marked by more conventional natural disasters. This makes less intuitive 'sense' because you can't even resort to the "Mayans liked looking at stars" argument as a last ditch effort. It's entirely unknown how the Mayans would have known anything about when or where seismic activity would occur - unless maybe the ancient Mayan religion was the one true religion and their gods are still actively guiding our affairs today.

    5. Spontaneous Spiritual Awakening


    From the New Age tradition, we come to the most horrendous cataclysm yet: a spiritual rebirth ushering in a time of peace, love, and understanding. Rather than interpreting the end of the cycles in the Mayan Calendar as necessarily negative, this theory assigns an acute spiritual awareness to the Maya. I can't explain how this is supposed to work, but I can link you to a source so you can recognize spiritual awakening when it happens to you.

    So how can we be sure this is bullshit?

    In a word - math. Sure, the Mayans paid attention to the stars and made some accurate predictions. But the size and scale of their observations pale in comparison to the sheer computational powers of modern astronomy. Last week, NASA released a video from the future confirming what they thought all along: that human life would continue well beyond December 21, 2012. If you haven't seen this, it's well worth a watch. The NASA scientists clearly and calmly explain why each and every one of these theories are entirely implausible - with just the right amount of whimsy.



    Is anybody actually taking this seriously?

    Unfortunately, yes. Despite the fact that a moment of research can quickly dispel any anxiety surrounding December 21st, the hype continues to set in around the world. In Russia, people all over the country have been rushing local stores for food and supplies for the better part of a week. The hype has been so bad that the President of Chechnya has ridiculed it in an official statement to the press:

    "People are buying candles, [matches, salt, and torches] saying the end of the world is coming...Does no one realize that once the end of the world comes, candles won't help them?"
    Regardless, stores all over Russia are reporting shortages of essential living staples as people flock to try and ride out the apocalypse.

    In China, officials are desperate to keep this kind of hysteria from taking root in the first place. Already, Chinese authorities have arrested nearly 100 people for spreading rumors of impending disaster on Friday. According to the Guardian, the feature film 2012 first spread the idea of an apocalypse based on the Mayan Calendar to the Chinese people when it was released in 2009. The situation there is already rapidly getting out of hand:
    "Authorities in far north-western Qinghai province arrested 37 members of a group called the Church of the Almighty God for spreading doomsday rumours last Thursday, according to a provincial government website. The group, which was founded in 1992, believes that a female Jesus has been, or will be, reincarnated in mainland China. It has called for death to the "Big Red Dragon", its term for the Communist party. Hundreds of its followers have clashed with police in three provinces over the past week.
    "A big eye was found in the sun on 9 December in Beijing, and female Jesus manifested herself with her name. Great tsunamis and earthquakes are about to happen around the world," said part of a text message that the group sent to its adherents, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper. Chinese authorities call the group an "evil cult" that is guilty of embezzlement, kidnapping and torture."
    Even here in the United States, misconceptions surrounding the Mayan Long Count Calendar are a serious concern. NASA astrobiologist David Morrison (featured in the above video), can speak to this problem better than most:

    "...the fantasy has real-life consequences. As one of NASA's prominent speakers on 2012 doomsday myths, Morrison said, he receives many emails and letters from worried citizens, particularly young people. Some say they can't eat, or are too worried to sleep, Morrison said. Others say they're suicidal.
    'While this is a joke to some people and a mystery to others, there is a core of people who are truly concerned,' he said. 
    Not every 2012 apocalypse believer thinks the world will end on Dec. 21. Some, inspired by New Age philosophies, expect a day of universal peace and spiritual transformation. But it's impressionable kids who have NASA officials worried. 
    'I think it's evil for people to propagate rumors on the Internet to frighten children,' Morrison said."
    Conclusion

    This Friday will be one of those unique times during which expertise of skeptics will be of interest to the general population. If you know someone who is or even may be a believer in the Mayan Doomsday Prophecy, make it your duty to inform them of the truth. Life will go on through the weekend, and we ought to do our very best to make it that far with as little tragedy as possible.

    I'm still very excited to live through December 21, 2012. It is a date that has occupied a prominent spot in popular culture - and indeed my own life - for many years. While I feel the mysteries surrounding the date itself have been all but entirely dispelled, I look forward to exploring the greatest lingering mystery of them all: Why did this idea ever take off in the first place?


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