Persepolis, Rafael, Embarcadero, Shattuck, opens Friday. Can one call a 95-minute, low-budget, animated film an epic? I think this one qualifies. It may also qualify as a masterpiece. It’s certainly an excellent and an important movie. Iranian/French cartoonist Marjane Satrapi based Persepolis on her own autobiographical graphic novels (Vincent Paronnaud shares screenwriting and directing credits). Through the eyes of young Marjane (I’m calling the artist by her last name, the onscreen character by her first), we see Iran go through oppression, revolution, hope, worse oppression, war, and even worse oppression. The story covers the war with Iraq, a late adolescence in Vienna, a return to an Iran now at peace but still under the clergy’s thumb, and a romantic life made difficult by pressures internal and external. If you’re still not convinced, read my full review.
The Violin, Roxie, Shattuck, opens Friday. Francisco Vargas’ film of repression and rebellion opens with a brutal scene of torture and rape conducted by soldiers against their helpless, bound victims. Don’t let the title deceive you; The Violin is not a musical. In telling us the story of an old farmer and violinist (Ãngel Tavira) secretly active in rebellion, Vargas denies us the comforts of conventional entertainment. The grainy black-and-white photography and the emphasis on motion and close-ups give The Violin an almost unbearable urgency. We don’t get to revel in the heroes’ victories, and laughter breaks the tension only once in this remarkable film. Click here for my full review.
Neandertal, Castro, Saturday, 5:45. No cavemen here. Ingo Haeb’s sets his coming-of-age drama in the town where the famous pre-human’s bones were first found, and names the movie after the town. You’re free to add whatever evolutionary symbolism you like to this tale of a 17-year-old boy with a horrible skin condition. Most of the film doesn’t concern itself with the disease (although the scenes that do are not for the squeamish), but with young Guido’s growing maturity. Disenchanted with his parents (more than are most teenagers, and with good reason), he moves in with his older brother and begins to idolize one of the brother’s roommates–a young man who’s hardly a fit role model. Haeb sets his film in 1990, yet the recent fall of the Berlin Wall is barely mentioned. The characters have other problems. All around, an excellent film. Part of the Berlin & Beyond Festival.
Runaway Horse, Castro, Sunday, 8:15. Nothing like running into an old friend to ruin your vacation. You can certainly understand why Helmut feels that way. The old college buddy who suddenly turns up at the beach is loud, boisterous, and annoying, and comes adorned with a young, beautiful, and highly distracting girlfriend. Helmut can’t understand why his wife seems taken in with this new couple. But as we get to know Helmut better, the filmmakers show us that the friend isn’t the real problem. Deeply depressed socially, sexually, and emotionally, Helmut needs to be shocked back into life. At times Runaway Horse feels too pat, and the ending–which veers close to magical realism–only satisfies until the credits fade, but this story of four mismatched souls on vacation manages to be funny, heart-warming, intuitive, sexy, scary, suspenseful, and even occasionally wise. Part of the Berlin & Beyond Festival.
RiffTrax Live: Plan 9 From Outer Space, Castro, Thursday, 9:00. Mike Nelson and two other Mystery Science Theater veterans provide live commentary for the Citizen Kane of bad movies. If you enjoy this sort of thing (and I do), it’s hard to imagine this not working. And this time, the Castro is promising an actual 35mm print. Get to the theater early; MST3K fans are the Deadheads of television comedy. Read my report of RiffTrax’s last Bay Area visit.
Alexander Nevsky, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 2:00. Sergei Eisenstein’s first talkie (after a decade with no complete films) is a big, spectacular patriotic ritual–a call for the Russian people to band together and fight the Teutonic invaders. (Not surprisingly, Stalin banned the film in the days of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and then brought it out again after the Germans did invade.) As spectacle, few movies equal Alexander Nevsky, but there’s something dead on the inside. A film more to be admired than loved.
Who Killed the Electric Car?, Parkway, Sunday, 2:00, free. In the mid-90′s, General Motors released an electric car so wonderful that Chris Paine made this documentary about it. But GM leased these cars rather than selling them, and very few people got their hands on one. Then GM pulled the plug (so to speak) on the entire line, ceasing production and reclaiming all existing cars. Paine turns all of this into an informative, very partisan, yet breezy documentary. Interview subjects include a GM saleswoman turned activist, NIMH battery inventor Stanley Ovshinsky, and movie stars who were among the few people allowed to lease these cars (this may be the only progressive documentary with a positive image of Mel Gibson). Part of the Parkway’s Sunday Salon series.
The Maltese Falcon, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, Sunday, 5:00. Dashiell Hammett’s novel had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made.
Fashion Victims, Castro, Friday, 8:00. Financial, professional, and personal pressures push fashion salesman Wolfgang Zenker to the edge in Ingo Rasper’s vaguely serious comedy. We can laugh at this man’s self-destruction because he’s such a self-centered jerk, and because our sympathies go towards the people he hurts–primarily his son Karsten (Florian BartholomÃ¤i). The plot has about three too many coincidences, but that’s not enough to destroy the fun. Part of the Berlin & Beyond Festival.
And Along Come Tourists, Castro, Sunday, 6:00. Nothing much really happens in Robert Thalheim’s study of a young German in modern Auschwitz. He arrives to spend a year working there to fulfill his civil service obligation. He forms on odd love/hate friendship with an old Holocaust survivor who never left the camp and is now sort of a living museum exhibit. He sort of falls in love with a local girl who speaks fluent German. And he complains that things are too “complicated.” But the movie isn’t complicated enough. And while it earns some points for avoiding obvious clichés (I can’t tell you what they are without spoilers), its ending still feels contrived. Part of the Berlin & Beyond Festival.
Michael Clayton, Red Vic, Friday & Saturday. The flip side of Erin Brockovich, with the hero working for a law firm defending an evil corporate giant from the people it has poisoned. His crisis of conscience starts when an old friend–the head lawyer in a huge litigation case (Tom Wilkinson)–goes off his meds and develops a conscience. In true thriller fashion, the plot twists in surprising ways, people’s lives are in danger, and it’s not always easy to tell the friends from the enemies. Writer/director Tony Gilroy created some interesting people into his thriller, then cast them to perfection. He also supplied a wonderful ending. But he’s less sure of himself with the plot, which leaks with holes.
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