Solaris at the Pacific Film Archive

The plot of Andrei Tarkovsky’s science fiction film Solaris could easily work as a Star Trek episode. Captain Kirk (or Picard) visits a troubled space station orbiting a strange, ocean-covered planet. The ocean appears to be sentient, and it’s playing tricks on minds of the human visitors, driving them mad.

But no Star Trek episode could feel so bleak and hopeless. And while it might bring up the question of what defines a human being, it would provide a clear and optimistic answer. Nor would it run nearly three hours, much of it made up of long takes of tormented faces. (Okay, the first Star Trek movie kind of matches that last description, but not in a good way.)

I caught Solaris Thursday night at the Pacific Film Archive, where it screened as part of the ongoing series, The Poetry of Time: Andrei Tarkovsky. This was my second Solaris experience; the first was probably around 1977. I don’t think I was mature enough to appreciate it then. This time around, I loved it. Definitely A material.

Tarkovsky keeps the story down to Earth for nearly 45 minutes. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), troubled with his memories and his journey to the troubled space station, prepares to say goodbye to his father, son, and the rural home he clearly loves so much. That home, which shows very few hints that this story is set in the future, provides an extreme contrast to the space-age setting of the rest of the film.

When Kelvin arrives at the space station, it looks like the morning after a frat party. Garbage is strewn everywhere, and no one is in a mood to meet with the newcomer. Of the three crewmembers, one of them rarely leaves his laboratory. Another is only a bit more friendly. The third, an old friend of Kelvin’s, has committed suicide.

Then Kelvin’s late wife, dead the past ten years (another suicide), shows up. An hallucination? Not quite. The other crewmembers see her and interact with her. She is unquestionably, really there. But she suffers from mercurial emotional shifts. And physically, she heals with stunning speed–even from death. She has his wife’s looks and love for Kelvin, but no memory of the past. Natalya Bondarchuk gives an amazing performance here.

Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris suggests that connecting to extraterrestrial life will be far more difficult than we imagine. And that connecting to ourselves, and each other, is almost as difficult.

Like I said, it’s bleak.

The screening at the PFA was a sell-out via advanced tickets, but apparently some people didn’t make it. A few seats were empty.

The print, from Kino, looked as if it had seen better days. Scratches were heavy at the beginning and end of each reel, and the colors looked a bit faded. I think Solaris needs a full restoration.

What’s Screening: July 17 – 23

The Frozen Film Festival opens today and runs through the weekend. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens Thursday night.

Here’s what else is screening:

Tangerine, Embarcadero Center, California (Berkeley), opens Friday

Sometimes a new movie blows apart every concept you had about what a motion picture can be. Sean Baker’s tale of a transgender prostitute out for justice creates just that sort of magic. Fast, frenetic, funny, and sad, Tangerine looks like no other movie I’ve ever seen, probably because it was shot entirely on iPhones. And yes, that works, allowing the filmmakers to capture the tarnished glamour of today’s Hollywood. The most exciting and original new film I’ve seen this year. Did I tell you it’s a Christmas movie? Read my full review. Special appearances by filmmakers at the Embarcadero (Friday after the 7:30 show) and the California (Saturday, after the 7:20 show)

B+ Mr. Holmes, Clay, Albany, Piedmont, Guild, opens Friday

Ian McKellen plays Sherlock Holmes as an old man and as a very old man—mostly the later—in this entertaining but not too deep drama. Retired from solving crimes, Holmes is now a 90ish beekeeper (the film is set in 1947–about 20 years after Doyle wrote his last Holmes story), living with a widowed housekeeper and her young son. Holmes is in a race against time, trying to write down the true story of his last case—to correct Watson’s exaggerations—before senility sinks too deep. For Holmes fans, and I’m one of them, this is a wonderful gift. For everyone else, it’s still an enjoyable day at the movies. Read my full review.

Panther Panchali, Rafael, Sunday

Our hero’s birth starts this first chapter of Satyajit Ray’s great Apu Trilogy, which then skips a few years so we can know him as a curious and mischievous child. Upbeat in nature, Apu seems to delight in the world around him–despite considerable hardship. His rural family lives in desperate poverty, and his educated but dreamy father’s unrealistic optimism doesn’t help. Apu’s mother is far more level-headed, and that makes her far more scared. Meanwhile, Apu and his older sister Durga play and fight and avoid their responsibilities. There’s a great deal of joy in this film, but a greater deal of tragedy. The Rafael will screen the trilogy chronologically over the course of three Sundays. Read my Apu discussion.

B+ Scarlet Street, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday

If you’re lonely, bored, professionally unfulfilled, and stuck in a bad marriage, beware of beautiful women who seem interested in you–especially if you look like Edward G. Robinson. A cashier who dabbles in painting on the side (Robinson) falls for a dame who easily wraps him around her finger (Joan Bennett). Soon he’s stealing from his boss and letting the dame take credit for his suddenly successful paintings. You know this isn’t going to go well. A fine noir written by Dudley Nichols and directed by Fritz Lang. On a double bill with Father of the Bride.

Early British Hitchcock double bill: The Lady Vanishes & the 39 Steps, Castro, Sunday

If you walked into The Lady Vanishes without knowing it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, you’d spend nearly half an hour thinking you were watching a very British screwball comedy. Then a nice old lady disappears on a moving train, and everyone denies that she was there. Now it feels like Hitchcock! Of his work, only North by Northwest is more entertaining. Read my Blu-ray review. Although The 39 Steps is the lesser of these twoit’s very well made and an important step in Hitchcock’s transition to the Master of Suspense. The basic story, which he’d repeat twice again, involves an everyman (Robert Donat) chased both by evil foreign spies and the police.

Tommy, Lark, Saturday, 8:00

Ken Russell’s over-the-top film version of Pete Townsend’s and The Who’s rock opera hits you over the head with all the subtlety of Pete Townsend smashing a guitar, while turning a parable of spiritual quest into a carnival satire of materialism and cults. Oliver Reed proves he can’t sing as he plays a male version of the stereotypical evil stepmother, but Roger Daltrey and Ann-Margaret sing, dance, and act like the professionals they are. So do Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, and Elton John in smaller roles. Townsend’s music is still brilliant, and if this isn’t the best version of Tommy, it’s certainly the most fun.

Double Indemnity, various CineMark theaters, Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday

Rich, unhappy, and evil housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray by the libido from adultery to murder in Billy Wilder’s near-perfect thriller. Not that she has any trouble leading him (this is not the wholesome MacMurray we remember from My Three Sons).  Edward G. Robinson is in fine form as the co-worker and close friend that MacMurray must deceive. A great, gritty thriller about sex (or the code-era equivalent) and betrayal, Double Indemnity can reasonably be called the first true film noir.

Pulp Fiction, Castro, Saturday

Quentin Tarantino achieved cult status by writing and directing this witty mesh of interrelated stories involving talkative killers, a crooked boxer, romantic armed robbers, and a former POW who hid a watch in a very uncomfortable place. Tarantino entertainingly plays with dialog, story-telling techniques, non-linear time, and any sense the audience may have of right and wrong. On a double bill with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which I haven’t seen in a very long time.

To Kill A Mockingbird, Elmwood, Sunday, 11:00am; Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday

The Elmwood will screen the film digitally off a DCP; the Stanford 35mm film. So you can choose your preferred technology, or go to both theaters and compare them.
The film version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel manages to be both a nostalgic reverie of depression-era small town Southern life and a condemnation of that life’s dark and ugly underbelly. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is the ultimate decent and moral father, a character so virtuous he’s only believable because the story is told through the eyes of his six-year-old daughter, Scout. (It’s worth noting that in the new sequel to the novel, the now-grown Scout discovers her father’s flaws.) The Stanford will screen it on a double bill with Billy Wilder’s comic murder mystery, Witness for the Prosecution.

B+ Fight Club, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00

This is one strange and disturbing flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s a free-spirited kind of guy and a real man. Besides, he’s shagging Helena Bonham Carter (who plays an American, and would therefore never use the verb shag). On the other hand, he just might be a fascist. Or maybe…better not give away the strangest plot twist this side of Psycho and Bambi, even if it strains more credibility than a Fox News commentary. And Bonham Carter gets to say the most shocking and hilariously obscene line in Hollywood history.

West Side Story, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00

West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songs and dances–especially the Jerome Robbins-choreographed dances–create a world of violent intensity and eroticism that both carry the story and shine in their own right. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better choreographed widescreen musical. It also contains magnificent supporting performances by Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and especially Rita Moreno. But the dialog is often stilted and stage-bound, and juvenile lead Richard Beymer is so bad he sinks every scene he’s in. See West Side Story in 70mm for more on the movie–even though the Paramount will screen the movie in 35mm (and, I assume in mono).

Genius in decline: My review of Mr. Holmes

B+ Drama

  • Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, from the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, and the character created by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Directed by Bill Condon

Anyone who loves fiction’s most famous detective knows that Sherlock Holmes eventually retired from detective work and moved to Sussex, where he took up beekeeping. And that’s where this story, set in 1947, mostly takes place. Set long after Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his last story, the movie deals with a Holmes whose famous mental facilities are sliding into senility.

In other words, this film shows us a Sherlock Holmes we haven’t seen before—aged, walking with a cane, and more interested in bees than crime. For anyone who loves the original stories and the many adaptations, it’s movie not to be missed. For everyone else, it’s merely a very enjoyable movie that entertains not through action, comedy, or special effects, but by providing us with interesting characters slightly larger than life.

image

Ian McKellen plays this Holmes as a very old man. In flashbacks, he plays a younger Holmes, but still older than we’re used to seeing him. In the film’s main story, he’s in a race against time. He always objected to the way Watson had romanticized their cases, turning them into adventure stories. The stories made him a celebrity, which he finds annoying and occasionally comical. Now Holmes wants to write the true story of his last case, correcting the record in at least this one situation. But he’s worried that his mind will fade before he’s finished.

He doesn’t live by himself. He has a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and she has a young son (Milo Parker). Remember that this is 1947; World War II left a lot of widows and fatherless children. Of course the boy clings to the one man in the house, even if it’s the cold and remote Sherlock. But the boy wants to learn beekeeping, and Holmes can’t help but react positively to that. They bond, of course.

But there are other things going on in Holmes’ life. He travels to Japan hoping to find an herb that will preserve his mental powers for a little longer. The bees are strangely dying off. And the housekeeper wants to take her son and move on to a hotel job where she isn’t dependent on one eccentric client. And yes, Holmes gets a moment to do "that think you do" where he looks at a person and deduces what only he can fathom.

This is one of those well-acted, well-directed, well-photographed films that come out of England on a regular basis. Every actor is spot on. McKellen’s makeup is a wonder, and not only in the aging. Even in the flashbacks, his nose and cheekbones offer a vague suggestion of the original Sidney Paget drawings, while allowing McKellen’s own wonderful face to shine through. But the makeup had one strange effect on me. Every so often, he look like John Gielgud.

For Holmes fans, and I’m one of them, this is a wonderful gift. For everyone else, it’s still an enjoyable day at the movies.

Tangerine: A Christmas in July cinematic gift

A Drama

Written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch

Directed by Sean Baker

Sometimes a new movie blows apart every concept you had about what a motion picture can be, and delights and excites you with the ever-growing possibilities of cinema. New attitudes, new concepts, and new technologies combine with a visionary filmmaker, and the result is a rare form of magic.

Sean Baker’s Tangerine has just that sort of magic, making it easily the most exciting and original new film I’ve seen this year. It doesn’t look like any other movie. It doesn’t sound like any other movie. And yet it’s alive with an electric charge of urban humanity and desperate sexuality.

The world of Tangerine is the outskirts of Hollywood on Christmas Eve–a Christmas without carols, Dickens, ornaments, or snow. It could be any time of year, and aside from the strange, wide, ugly streets of LA, it could be any city.

Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from a 28-day stretch in prison. We’re never told what for, but as she’s a streetwalker, we can guess. Her close friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), like Sin-Dee a transgender prostitute, tells her what’s up. Sin-Dee’s boyfriend Chester (who also pimps both of them) may have cheated on her while she was locked up. It’s only a rumor, but it turns Sin-Dee into a single-minded, wrathful avenger out to find the woman who stole her man.

All Alexandra can do is run after Sin-Dee, try to calm her down, and walk away to prepare herself for her singing debut later that night.

But there’s a subplot. Taxi-driver Ramzik (Karren Karagulian) drives people through Los Angeles, talks to his riders, and has to deal with the vomit in his backseat. He’s a husband and father, but he indulges in trans prostitutes like Sin-Dee and Alexandra. He’s the sort of john prostitutes like; he’s gentle, polite, and treats them as friends.

The Ramzik subplot provides us with one of the best sex scenes in cinema, and it’s in no way, shape, or form explicit. Shot from the cab’s back seat, it allows us to imagine what’s going on in the front seat as we watch the through-the-windshield spectacle of a drive-through carwash.

Tangerine looks like no other movie I’ve ever seen, largely I suspect because it was shot entirely on iPhone 5s, using an experimental anamorphic lens to give it a 2.35×1 scope aspect ratio. The colors are intense and super-saturated. And while it lacks the resolution of today’s best digital cameras (not to mention 35mm film), it captures the tarnished glamour of today’s Hollywood in a way that a more conventional (and expensive) approach couldn’t approach.

The film often feels speeded up, just a little too fast, with occasional, tiny jump cuts that suggest lost frames. Since these effects happened only in a few scenes (mostly near the beginning), I’m going to guess that this was intentional.

Maybe it was done to match the music. Music Supervisor Matthew Smith lays down some exciting rap beats to move Sin-Dee’s quest forward. He also lays down some equally exciting Beethoven.

Tangerine is not to be missed. It’s an exceptional and extraordinary work. It’s also an exciting and very entertaining.

And no, I have no idea why it’s called Tangerine. The film opens Friday.

Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve previewed five films that will screen at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Oddly, and I swear that this is only a coincidence, three of them are French.

Here’s what I thought of them, from best to worst.

A- My Shortest Love Affair

Funny, serious, sexy, and true to life, this French gem catches the struggles and futility of a bad romance. Months after a one-night stand resulted in pregnancy, Louisa (Karin Albou, who also wrote and directed) and Charles (Patrick Mimoun) move in together to raise their soon-to-be-born child. But they’re hopelessly incompatible. They like different music. He’s allergic to her cat. She takes her Jewish identity seriously; he doesn’t. But worst of all, they’re horrible together in bed. Attempts at sex continually turn into arguments. (Both stars are naked for much of the film, and you can clearly see that Albou was very pregnant while directing and acting with her clothes off.) The only misstep is the ending, which is too quick and convenient.

  • Castro, Wednesday, July 29, 6:30
  • CineArts (Palo Alto), Thursday, July 30, 6:15
  • California (Berkeley), Monday, August 3, 6:15
  • Rafael, Saturday, August 8, 8:30

The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films

Two cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, built a successful Israeli movie studio, then moved to Los Angeles, mass-produced action flicks, made huge amounts of money, became a power in Hollywood, and then saw their business empire collapse. Hilla Madalia’s documentary, filled with interviews and film clips, entertains and informs, but isn’t really exceptional. Both men, and especially the more artistic Golan, make good on-screen interview subjects, and their own interviews carry the movie.

  • Castro, Saturday, July 25, 6:50
  • CineArts (Palo Alto),Monday, July 27, 6:30
  • California (Berkeley), Sunday, August 2, 6:30
  • Rafael, Sunday, August 9, 4:20

A La Vie (To Life)

Three Auschwitz survivors, best friends in the camp, reunite at a French beach resort in 1962. The story really concentrates on Hélène (Julie Depardieu); married and very much in love with a man who was castrated by the Nazis (Hippolyte Girardot), her desires and her loyalties are in serious conflict. Rose (Suzanne Clément) seems at first to be the healthiest mentally, but her short temper belies issues she doesn’t want to surface. Lily (Johanna ter Steege) seems way ahead of her time as an activist for a feminist, egalitarian Judaism. The story is reasonably well-told, but predictable.

C The Law

A great cause doesn’t always create a great film. France’s struggle to legalize abortion in the mid-1970s comes off as a lot of compromises and backdoor deals done in smoke-filled rooms (literally smoke-filled; it’s France in the 1970s). As the film’s heroine, Minister of Health Simone Veil (Rue Mandar) comes off as steadfast and strong, but not particularly interesting. A subplot concerning a young photographer who wants to become a real journalist shows some human interest, but not enough. The real story, of pregnant women facing disaster, comes in rarely.

So why does this film belong in a Jewish film festival? Veil is a Holocaust survivor (she’s still alive). As the controversy over abortion grows in the film, some of the “pro-life” activists turn to anti-Semitism to attack her. But like all the other bits of human interest in this film, this gets buried under all of the political deals.

C- Mr. Kaplan

In Uruguay at the end of the 20th century, an old, senile Jewish man almost randomly decides that an equally old German man is a Nazi in hiding. So he teams up with an unemployed, alcoholic loser of an ex-cop to bring the mass murderer to justice. Writer/director Alvaro Brechner tries to mix broad comedy with sentimental drama, but he only moderately succeeds with either style, and never succeeds in bringing them satisfactorily together. I figured out the “surprise” ending less than half an hour into the movie.

  • CineArts (Palo Alto), Thursday, July 30, 8:35
  • Castro, Sunday, August 2, 5:35
  • Rafael, Friday, August 7, 6:20

What’s Screening: July 10 – 16

No film festivals this week, but there are still plenty of movies.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Castro, Sunday, 1:00

An evil, megalomaniac music teacher imprisons young boys in his strange world and forces them to play the piano. The only Dr. Seuss feature film made during his lifetime and with is input is as creative, visually daring, and funny as one would expect. Even the sets, photographed in three-strip Technicolor, look as if Seuss had painted them himself. At least that’s how I remember it. I haven’t seen Dr. T in many years.

A Airplane!, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

They’re flying on instruments, blowing the autopilot, and translating English into Jive. So win one for the Zipper, but whatever you do, don’t call him “Shirley.” Airplane! throws jokes like confetti–carelessly tossing them in all directions in hopes that some might hit their target. Surprisingly enough, most of them do. There’s no logical reason why a movie this silly can be so satisfying, but then logic never was part of the Airplane! formula. I’d be hard-pressed to name another post-silent feature-length comedy with such a high laugh-to-minute ratio.

? 3-D Rarities, Rafael, Sunday

I’ve seen two collections of 3D shorts in recent years (SFIFF and Mill Valley), but as near as I can tell, there aren’t many repeats in this one. It includes the earliest extant 3D film (from 1922), a color 3D short from the 1940 World’s Fair, a Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoon from 1953, and various 3D trailers.

B- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Castro, Sunday

Howard Hawks’  musical battle of the sexes contains a handful of wonderful dance numbers and some good comic moments, but there are too many weak scenes to wholeheartedly recommend it. The real surprise is in the leading ladies. Gentlemen helped turn Marilyn Monroe into a star, but co-star Jane Russell blows her out of the water, giving a far funnier and sexier performance. On a Marilyn Monroe double bill with Niagara.

A+ Groundhog Day, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00

Spiritual, humane, and hilarious, Groundhog Day wraps its thoughtful world view inside a slick, Hollywood comedy. Without explanation, the movie plunges its self-centered protagonist into a time warp that becomes his purgatory, living the same day over and over for who knows how long (it could be thousands of years). Bill Murray’s weatherman goes through stages of panic, giddiness, and despair before figuring out that life is about serving others. And yet not a frame of this movie feels preachy. Fast-paced and brilliantly edited, it’s pure entertainment. For more on this great comedy, see Wait 20 Years, and Then You Can Call a Groundhog Day a Classic.

The Maltese Falcon, Castro, Wednesday

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 (by Huston) that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett motion 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. This movie is truly the stuff that dreams are made of. On a double bill with In a Lonely Place.

A Blade Runner, Castro, Monday and Tuesday

Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. Read my longer essay.

Christopher Lee double bill: Horror of Dracula & the Wicker Man, Castro, Thursday

I haven’t seen either of these films in decades, but I have fond memories of both of them. I remember Horror of Dracula as a stylish, lurid, and–for 1958–rather sexy adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. I recall loving The Wicker Man as an anti-Puritan, pro-Pagan movie until…I should stop before giving too much away.

? The Lighthouse By the Sea, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

I haven’t seen this 1924 Warner Brothers programmer, but it stars Rin-Tin-Tin–the most charismatic movie star ever to walk on four legs and wear his own fur coat. The plot has something to do with outsmarting smugglers. But the title worries me; where else would you put a lighthouse? Also on the bill is the cute and entertaining A Canine Sherlock Holmes (it played at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival) and the Keystone classic Teddy at the Throttle, which I haven’t seen. With Bruce Loeb on the piano.

C+ Way Out West, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 4:00

Many fans count this western parody amongst Laurel and Hardy’s best movies, but I’m not one of them. It has its funny moments, including a very famous dance routine, but in too many places  the film drags. Like so many of their features, it gets hung up in plot (a plot, by the way, which the Marx Brothers stole for their western parody, Go West). L&H were always at their best in plotless or near-plotless stories.

? Mystery Science Theater 3000New Parkway, Friday, 10:30.

Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode; no one is telling us which one will be screened.

What’s Screening: July 3 – 9

No festivals this week. And unless I’ve missed something, it will be almost three weeks before the next one.

A+ The Third Man, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday

New 4K restoration. Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in impoverished, divided post-war Vienna to meet up with an old friend who has promised him a much-needed job. But he soon discovers that the friend is both newly dead and a wanted criminal. Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems tame by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, Orson Welles comes onscreen to steal everything but the sprocket holes. See my longer discussion on Noir City Opening Night.

C+In Stereo, Roxie, opens Friday

This story of former lovers who may or may not get back together has its own rewards, but also some serious flaws. Not funny enough to be a comedy nor deep enough to be a drama, it merely glides along on the charisma of the two leads, never really bringing us into their souls. In Stereo comes most alive in the second half, when the couple dance around the possibility of getting back together. Micah Hauptman and Beau Garrett have a nice chemistry together, and it’s easy to root for them falling back into love. Read my full review.

Andrei Rublev, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 7:00

How can a film that’s plotless, episodic, slow, and runs 205 minutes be so good? Andrei Rublev tells us multiple stories in the life of the title character–a famous 15th-century religious painter. Sometimes an active participant and sometimes a passive observer, Rublev observes is a world of poverty, faith, political and religious conflict, and horrifying, seemingly random violence. Andrei Tarkovsky’s great medieval epic questions the meaning of faith in a hostile universe, while emphasizing its immense importance. Truly magnificent. Part of the series The Poetry of Time: Andrei Tarkovsky.

A- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

Ang Lee and James Schamus turn the period kung fu epic into a character study of warriors who must choose between love and duty. The action scenes are among the most amazing ever filmed—complete with the gravity-defying leaps found only in Hong Kong cinema—but with a very human story at its core.

B+ V For Vendetta, New Parkway, Friday, 10:00

Stunningly subversive for a big-budget Hollywood explosion movie, V For Vendetta celebrates rebellion against an oppressive, ultra-Christian government that feeds on hatred of Muslims and homosexuals. It works as an escapist fantasy action flick and as a call to arms, but when its hero crosses the line (and he does), it forces you to wonder just what is justified in the fight against tyranny.

A+ Hungry fish double bill: Jaws & Piranha, Castro, Sunday

The A+ goes to Jaws, which starts as a suspenseful, witty variation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, An Enemy of the People, and ends as a hair-raising variation on Moby Dick. Its huge success made Steven Spielberg famous. See my Blu-ray review and Book vs. Movie article. Roger Corman’s low-budget Jaws rip-off, Piranha, has little wit, not much suspense, and a handful of modest but effective action scenes. But it’s John Sayles’ first produced screenplay, which makes it historically interesting. I give it a C.

A+ Casablanca, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

You’ve either already seen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, the sausage came out perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

A- The Princess Bride, Clay, Friday & Saturday, 1:55PM (just before midnight)

William Goldman’s enchanting and funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright , back when they were young and gorgeous, make a wonderful set of star-crossed lovers. And Mandy Patinkin has a lot of fun as a revenge-filled swashbuckler. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere, and who can forget cinema’s greatest acronym, ROUS (rodents of unusual size). On the other hand, some of the big-name cameos can grate on your nerves.

A- Ex Machina, Castro, Tuesday; New Parkway, opens Friday

This surprisingly intelligent film about artificial intelligence follows two men–one of whom is clearly insane–as they go beyond the Turing test to determine if a “female” robot is truly sentient. The story is basically Frankenstein, and like that classic, it’s not all-together believable, but still manages to bring up important questions. Can you be human without sexuality? Can the titans of tech do whatever they want with our private deeds and thoughts? Do you have a right to replace a sentient machine with version 2.0? And how does the sexual objectification of women fit in here? Read my full review. The Castro will screen Ex Machina on a double bill with Under the Skin.

C+ Dracula (1931 version)Stanford, through Friday

The film that started Universal’s famed horror series, and the first to star Bela Lugosi in the role that made him famous, really doesn’t deserve its classic status. The picture suffers from stilted blocking and too much mediocre dialog–common faults in early talkies, especially those based on stage plays. But it has a few wonderful moments, most of which are wordless. On a double bill with This Old Dark House.

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