March 18 2015 02:42 PM

New documentary about public-relations specialists leads our rundown of movies screening around town

Merchants of Doubt

"I'm not a scientist, but I occasionally play one on television." Marc Morano, executive director of, chuckles to himself after making this statement during a key interview with the filmmakers of Merchants of Doubt. It's a bold and gregarious confession by one of America's most successful professional "skeptics," lobbyists posing as experts who are paid by corporations to debunk environmental concerns like global warming through shock-and-awe sensationalism.  

Robert Kenner's new film examines the role of these skeptics in helping shape the national narrative and shift public perception about the addictiveness of tobacco, financial malfeasance on Wall Street and Big Oil. These spin doctors offer a simplistic and accessible retort to the scientific facts presented by the actual specialists in these respective fields.

Merchants of Doubt uses talking-heads interviews, flashy graphics and b-roll footage to tell the long-gestating story of these skeptics and their influence on recent American history. As a result, it's not that stylistically inventive, instead leaning heavily on the allure of the sometimes nefarious subject matter. One section of the film looks at the disturbing history of the unnecessary use of cancerous flame retardants in couches to reduce fires caused by cigarettes. 

Kenner presents the isolation and alienation of hard-working scientists as an American tragedy, one that's as disappointing as it is absurd. Merchants of Doubt, which opens Friday, March 20, toes the line between being a blatant critique and an entertainingly dark history lesson. Still, it seems like the film could be just a prologue to a much deeper examination of America's pervasive desire to always deflect the boring truth of our imminent demise through show-business theatrics. 

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Merchants of Doubt: Robert Kenner's documentary about pundits-for-hire tells an unspeakable truth about corporate malfeasance in America today. See our review on Page 21.

The Divergent Series: Insurgent: Super-revolutionary Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) confronts the powerful alliance that threatens to tear her society apart. 

The Gunman: Sean Penn plays a former special-forces soldier who must clear his name after his old compatriots try to frame him. See our review on Page 21. 

The Wrecking Crew: This documentary tells the story of The Wrecking Crew, a group of studio musicians who helped revolutionize the West Coast sound and win multiple Grammy awards in the 1960s and '70s. Screens through Thursday, March 26, at the Ken Cinema

One time only

Drake's Homecoming: The Lost Footage: This concert documentary depicting a pivotal 2009 performance by the Toronto-based rap star was thought to be lost. Screens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 19, at various theaters. Visit 

La Cose Belle (Beautiful Things): A documentary that was shot over the course of 13 years and follows four young subjects growing up in Southern Italy. Screens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 19, at Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. 

This is Where I Leave You: Jason Bateman and Tina Fey, leading an all-star cast, play members of a family thrust together in the wake of the father's death. Screens at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 20 and 21, at Cinema Under the Stars in Mission Hills. 

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Tim Curry's sci-fi madman dresses up in drag and decides to torture newlyweds whose car has broken down in the rain. Screens at 11:55 p.m Saturday, March 21, at the Ken Cinema.

Maestra: Catherine Murphy's pivotal documentary examines the story behind Cuba's push to create a literate country in the early 1960s. Screens at 5 p.m. Sunday, March 22, at the Women's Museum of California in Point Loma's Liberty Station. 

Gabrielle: A sickly musician attempts to see the world anew after meeting a new love. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 23, at the San Diego Central Library in East Village. 

Rosewater: An Iranian-Canadian journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal) attempts to survive a prison sentence after he's detained while covering Iran's corrupt elections. Screens at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 24, at the Point Loma / Hervey Branch Library. 

Calvary: Brendan Gleeson plays a Catholic priest who gets a death threat from one of his constituents and decides to spend the last week of his life finding out who in his community hates him that much. Screens at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 25, at the Mission Valley Library.  

The Matrix: As Neo (Keanu Reeves) would say, "Whoa." Screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 25, at Arclight La Jolla. 

Garden State: Zach Braff created the hipster aesthetic with this whiny, entitled, ironic comedy about a young man searching for meaning. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 25, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.

Now playing

'71: During a violent battle in the middle of Belfast, an English solider is left behind to fend for himself against a hostile community. 

Ballet 422: Jody Lee Lipes' documentary goes backstage at New York City Ballet to watch the process of an exciting new choreographer named Justin Peck. 

Cinderella: Kenneth Branagh's lavish live-action retelling of the classic fairy tale stars Lily James as the servant stepdaughter who wins the heart of a dashing prince. 

Deli Man: Hungry? This delicious-looking documentary takes a look at the history of delicatessens in New York City and the United States at large. 

Run All Night: A former hit man (Liam Neeson) must go back to his old ways to save his son from a mafia boss out who's for revenge.  

Chappie: Neill Blomkamp (District 9) directs this sci-fi film about a police robot who's reprogrammed to think and feel for himself, drawing the wrath of his totalitarian overlords. 

The Salvation: Starring Mads Mikkelsen as a Danish immigrant seeking revenge for the death of his family, this western set in the 1870s echoes the work of Leone and Eastwood.  

The Second Best Marigold Hotel: The long-awaited, much-anticipated sequel to the movie you never thought would get a sequel, this time sporting the charms of Richard Gere. 

Timbuktu: This Oscar-nominated drama by Abderrahmane Sissako depicts the oppression of a Malian town under siege by Islamic militants. 

Unfinished Business: Three hard-working business associates travel to Europe, hoping to close a massive deal, only to get sidetracked by numerous distractions involving booze and women. 

Focus: Will Smith and Margot Robbie talk wise and look sexy as grifters embarking on one last con job. It's directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris).

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem: A distraught Israeli woman spends years in a rabbinical court trying to obtain a divorce from her well-respected husband. 

The Lazarus Effect: Olivia Wilde stars in this thriller about a team of medical students who discover a way to bring back the dead. From the looks of the creepy trailer, this was not the best idea. 

Leviathan: A land dispute in a rural Russian town escalates quickly, leaving a family in ruin and reinforcing the corruption wielded by government and religious institutions. Director Andrei Zvyagintsev updates The Book of Job with striking force.

Red Army: Documentary about the Soviet Union's famed Red Army hockey team, as seen through the eyes of the squad's leader.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2: In order to save a friend who's been shot, the Hot Tub gang jumps back into the time machine and begins messing with the past.

McFarland, U.S.A.: Kevin Costner stars as a cross-country coach in a small California town who takes a team of Latino athletes and transforms them into championship contenders. Disney strikes again. 

The Duff: Bianca (Mae Whitman), a teenager who's been labeled unattractive by her more popular friends, decides to lead a social revolution that will undermine the pecking order at her high school. 

The Last Five Years: Richard LaGravenese adapts the famous musical about a struggling actress (Anna Kendrick) and her novelist lover (Jeremy Jordan) who experience the highs and lows of a volatile relationship. 

What We Do in the Shadows: Four vampires living in modern-day New Zealand struggle to find happiness and friendship in Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi's hilarious mockumentary.

Fifty Shades of Grey: The perfect Valentine's Day present for your masochistic significant other. 

Kingsman: The Secret Service: Colin Firth leads a team of British secret agents against a maniacal bad guy played by Samuel L. Jackson. 

Seventh Son: Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore team up in the craziest sequel to The Big Lebowski that you could possibly imagine.  

Jupiter Ascending: Have you ever hoped to experience Channing Tatum in full eye shadow and Mila Kunis as a world-saving goddess? Andy and Lana Wachowski's long-delayed sci-fi opus will be your chance. 

Humpback Whales: Experience the awe-inspiring and diverse world of the humpback whale, which 50 years ago was on the verge of extinction. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of the Water: "Making waves in our world." That tagline says it all, really. 

Still Alice: Columbia University professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease and must come to grips with her own fading memory and mortality.

Song of the Sea: Merging folklore and fairy tale, Tomm Moore's gorgeous animated film tells the story of a brother and sister who get swept up into a fantasy world of selkies, sprites and giants. Screens at Reading Gaslamp Cinemas.

A Most Violent Year: When his business is threatened by a string of armed robberies, the owner of a New York City gas company (Oscar Isaac) must adapt to the volatile surroundings to survive. 

American Sniper: Clint Eastwood's unflinching and critical biopic of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), who became the deadliest sniper during four tours in Iraq.

Paddington: Traveling from Peru, a young bear arrives in London hoping to find a home. There he meets the Brown family, who offer him a temporary safe haven. 

The Wedding Ringer: Who best to impress your new in-laws than a loud, vivacious Kevin Hart? Josh Gad's shy young groom-to-be agrees.

Selma: Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) attempts to create voter reform in Selma, Alabama, a hotbed of racism and disenfranchisement.

Taken 3: Liam Neeson reprises his role as the badass who keeps losing family members to kidnappings. Maybe third time's a charm? 

Into the Woods: Beware the Wolf, Sondheim. Beware the Wolf. 

The Imitation Game: Benedict Cumberbatch stars as real-life code breaker Alan Turing, who led a squad of British mathematicians in breaking the Enigma code during World War II.

Unbroken: Angelina Jolie's sophomore effort examines the life of Olympic athlete and World War II prisoner of war Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) who overcame extreme odds to survive a Japanese internment camp.

Wild: Based on the best-selling novel, this drama tells the story of Cheryl Strayed, who trekked more than 1,000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail to reassess her troubled life. 

Foxcatcher: Bennett Miller's dark sports film tells the tragic true story of the Schultz brothers (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum), wrestlers who became forever entwined with the wealthy heir to the du Pont fortune (Steve Carell).

The Theory of Everything: Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is diagnosed with motor-neuron disease just as he's graduating with a doctorate degree in physics from Cambridge and starting a new life with his wife (Felicity Jones).

Birdman: A burnt-out superhero actor (Michael Keaton) tries to mount a play on Broadway in order to prove his worth. It co-stars Naomi Watts, Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough.

Whiplash: A sadistic music teacher tortures a young drummer at a posh New York City conservatory. 

Hidden Universe: Blast off into the stratosphere with this documentary that uses real images captured from telescopes to examine the vast reaches of space. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. 

Journey to the South Pacific: Let the glorious scale of IMAX take you to the tropical islands of West Papua, where life under the sea is just as lush and vibrant as it is on shore. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: The camp classic continues its ongoing run, Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.


See all events on Wednesday, Dec 7