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Indie Theater Roundup: Five Films to See This Weekend

Not your yoga teacher's mandala.

You'll never see a mandala like this at your yoga studio. Poster art for Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End.

Ah, spring in San Francisco: Shorts weather 'til sundown, then quick, strap on your longjohns and get thee indoors before the temperatures drop and punishing winds leave you looking like a shoddy stunt double for Lance Henricksen. With SF Indiefest in town once again, there's plenty of genre goo to keep you busy this weekend. Take a peek at the picks:

Shanghai Calling

Mining a similar expat narrative as last year's Asian co-pro $upercapitalist but trading that film's overwrought thriller aspirations for pleasantly lighter rom-com digs, Shanghai Calling was a big hit in its native Shanghai thanks, one can infer, to the numerous voice-over interludes toasting the ancestral home of Chicago-born director Daniel Hsia. Elsewhere, this fish-out-of-water tale about a New York attorney making a new life abroad is similarly cagey, and capable, populated by tested players Daniel Henny (Wolverine, innumerable Korean dramas), Alan Ruck, That Chick from Scrubs, Bill Paxton, and a cast of clever supporting characters. More to the point, its portrayal of expat life in Shanghai will surely strike a note with those who know. Starts Friday at Presidio Theatre, 2340 Chestnut Street.

John Dies at the End

Beast Master director Don Coscarelli loves the weird, and by all appearances, the weird likes him. While shopping his Bubba Ho-Tep sequel, Bubba Nosferatu to studios, he found an ally in actor Paul Giamatti. This eventually begat John Dies, an adaptation of the out-there slacker sci-fi odyssey of the same name by writer David Wong (actually a pseudonym for Cracked.com scribe Jason Pargin) that's as relentlessly innovative and hilarious as the book it's based on. It would be a shame to ruin the surprise, but in a movie that defies expectation at every frame, we'll give you a few things to look out for: Meat monsters, inter-dimensional travel, and a mysterious drug called soy sauce. Starts Friday at Embarcadero Center Cinemas, 1 Embarcadero Center.

Side Effects

Steven Soderberg is a director who continually perplexes with both his choice of films and his products' oddly wavering quality and levels of completion. Side Effects, apparently the next phase in his continuing project of trying to trick us into taking Channing Tatum seriously as an Actor (note the capital 'A'), isn't his most effective work, but it also isn't his most disappointing (that distinction belongs to the abysmal Sasha Grey vehicle The Girlfriend Experience). Winding through a plot with more caveats than the Viagra ads on which its premise is loosely based, Side Effects rests in large part on the charisma, if not necessarily technique, of its comely cast, who seem to say more with their presence than they do with their vocal chords. This one may be a grower. Starts Friday at AMC Van Ness 14, 1000 Van Ness Avenue.

West of Memphis

Viewed in the most general sense, documentaries serve two functions. They tell stories that have yet to be told, and they tell those that need to be told. In its attempt to serve the second function, Amy Berg's film became the first. Though not the first documentary on the subject of the dubious convictions of three Arkansas teens railroaded for the "Satanic ritual murders" of three youths, Berg, backed by Hollywood giant Peter Jackson and others, financed independent investigations of key evidence and witnesses that lead to new revelations in the case. This, of course, makes for great viewing, and ultimately helped lead to the release of subjects Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin. Myriad celebrity appearances feel a bit superfluous, but are more than made up for by the film's fascinating, frustrating presentation of the US judicial system and the American South. Starts Friday at Embarcadero Center Cinemas, 1 Embarcadero Center.

SF Indiefest 

Indiefest celebrates its 15th year by spreading out to underground screening house The Vortex Room, The Brava Theater and all the way across the bay to the New Parkway in Oakland and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. However, its main home is still the Mission's Roxie. Look for a full rundown of what to see at this year's fest in this space early next week, but in the meantime, don't miss weekend highlights Toys are Not For Children, an uncanny early 70s exploitation spectacle starring a young Linda Blair, and The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus, a doc about the eight-armed Nostradamus that made his fame predicting key plays in the 2010 World Cup. Starts today at venues around the Bay Area, visit website for details.