Wednesday, March 25, 2015

2014 San Francisco International Film Festival

The 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) ran from April 24 to May 8.  I saw 19 films but had tickets to 20.  I skipped the screening of Dear White People due to general fatigue.  I was secure in the knowledge that Dear White People was getting a limited/general release.

I saw 16 films at the Kabuki and 3 films at the Viz.  The "Viz" is getting to be an anachronistic term.  Confused about the screening location of one of my films, I asked a SFIFF volunteer "What film is screening at [insert time] at the Viz?"  The young man was perplexed by my location reference.  Eventually, I realized he only knew the location as New People Cinema.

Hellion starring Josh Wiggins & Aaron Paul; directed by Kat Candler; (2014) 
Tip Top starring Isabelle Huppert & Sandrine Kiberlain; directed by Serge Bozon; French with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
Queen Margot starring Isabelle Adjani & Daniel Auteuil; directed by Patrice Chéreau; French with subtitles; (1994)
Norte, The End of History starring Sid Lucero, Angeli Bayani & Archie Alemania; directed by Lav Diaz; Tagalog with subtitles; (2013) - Official Facebook
Stray Dogs; directed by Ming-liang Tsai; Mandarin with subtitles; (2013)
Young & Beautiful starring Marine Vacth; directed by François Ozon; French with subtitles; (2013) -  Official Website
Blind Dates; directed by Levan Koguashvili; Georgian with subtitles; (2013)
Coherence starring Emily Baldoni; directed by James Ward Byrkit; (2013) - Official Website
Tamako in Moratorium starring Atsuko Maeda; directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita; Japanese with subtitles; (2013)
Abuse of Weakness starring Isabelle Huppert & Kool Shen; directed by Catherine Breillat; French with subtitles; (2013) - Official Facebook
Manila in the Claws of Light starring Hilda Koronel & Bembol Roco; directed by Lino Brocka; Tagalog with subtitles; (1975)
Intruders starring Suk-ho Jun & Tae-kyung Oh; directed by Young-Seok Noh; Korean with subtitles; (2013)
Tonnerre starring Vincent Macaigne & Solène Rigot; directed by Guillaume Brac; French with subtitles; (2013)
Firestorm starring Andy Lau; directed by Alan Yuen; Cantonese & Mandarin with subtitles; (2013)
Club Sandwich starring Lucio Giménez Cacho, María Renée Prudencio & Danae Reynaud; directed by Fernando Eimbcke; Spanish with subtitles; (2013)
Ping Pong Summer starring Marcello Conte; with Lea Thompson, John Hannah, Amy Sedaris & Susan Sarandon; directed by Michael Tully; (2014) - Official Website
No No: A Dockumentary; directed by Official Website
Harmony Lessons starring Timur Aidarbekov; directed by Emir Baigazin; Kazakh & Russian with subtitles; (2013)
Trap Street starring Yulai Lu; directed by Vivian Qu; Mandarin with subtitles; (2013)
Manos Sucias starring Jarlin Martinez & Cristian Abvincula; directed by Josef Wladyka; Spanish with subtitles; (2014)  Official Twitter

I cannot even pretend to give these films the space they deserve on this blog.  I am so far behind.  I have to crank these entries out before I fall one year behind.

François Ozon's Young & Beautiful caused quite a splash upon its release and has stuck in my memory.  Marine Vacth gives a stellar performance as a teenage girl who budding sexuality morphs into prostitution.  Exhibiting a laissez-faire attitude towards underage prostitution and statutory rape, the film presents this extraordinarily nuanced view of this girl's coming of age.  From virgin to hesitant lover to self-confident prostitute, Vacth's Isabelle covers the gamut.  In particularly, she has a special bond with a client old enough to be her grandfather.  When he dies during sex, her life is turned upside down.  Inherently, we know Isabelle is at physical & emotional risk but she pushes the boundaries of social norms in satisfying her sexual needs.  In doing so, it made me question those norms & customs.  Stripping away the social taboos, Young & Beautiful is about a young woman stumbling her way through young adulthood.

In the same vein (albeit less sexualized) is Tamako in Moratorium.  The protagonist is a young woman, feeling her way through life with decidedly less than satisfactory results.  Tamako is a recent college graduate.  Unemployed, she moves back to her small hometown to live with her father who is divorced and runs a sporting good store.  Although an indulgent father, Tamako's many frustrations are taken out on him.  Unsure of what the next phase of her life will be and secretly harboring a desire to in an all-girl pop band.  This is an inside joke as Atsuko Maeda, the actress playing Tamako is famous in Japan for previously being in AKB48.  As Tamako's divorce father begins dating a woman, Tamako feels threatened but is ultimately forced to move on with her life.  A comedy with some poignant moments, Tamako in Moratorium was a surprise film for me.

I also enjoyed Club Sandwich (pun intended), a Mexican film about a single mother who struggles with her adolescent son's budding sexuality as it relates to their relationship (or lack thereof).  As the boy becomes infatuated with a teenage girl while on vacation, the mother feels threatened by the changes it portends for their relationship.  Unable to continue treating him like a young boy and unwilling to treat him like a sexualized young man, Club Sandwich is a coming of age comedy told from the reluctant mother's point of view.

Tonnerre is notable in that it stars a French actor who is becoming one of my favorites.  I have seen Vincent Macaigne in three films - Tonnerre2 Autumsn, 3 Winters and Age of Panic.  In Tonnerre (the name of a small town in the Burgundy region of France), Macaigne is a failed musician who returns to his hometown to live with his widower father.  While in town, he begins a relationship with a younger woman.  Mismatched in age, appearance and attitude, the affair is a rebound fling for the woman but for Macaigne's character, it become an all-encompassing obsession which is ratcheted up when he assaults her ex-boyfriend and kidnaps her.  It's a tense story which is highlighted by Macaigne and Bernard Menez's (as the father) performances.

These four films were the cream of the last year's crop at SFIFF for me.

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A cut below were the following films which may have suffered from the extreme delay in writing this post.

Hellion - SFFS funded film about a troubled teenage boy; nice performance by Josh Wiggins in the lead role but the plot bordered on a predictable.

Queen Margot - based on historical events involving French Catholics and Huguenots, I had a hard time keeping the characters straight.  Telling the story of the  St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572, the film quickly became a jumble of blood letting and duplicity.  Perhaps more familiarity with the events would helped me sort out the characters.

Norte, The End of History - Lav Diaz's loose but measured adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  Like the Russian author's novels, Norte, The End of History was long & complex to its own detriment...at least from my perspective.  I felt like I was in high school again, laboring away at some long Russian novel assigned in English class.  At 4+ hours, the film may have benefited from some editing but I can't complain about it too much because the ending tragedy was haunting indeed.

Coherence - a clever science fiction film about quantum mechanics and Schrödinger's Cat Paradox played out at a party on a night when comet flies by.  I remember liking this film when I left the theater but now I recall the plot more than the performances which must be a tacit criticism of the actors.

Abuse of Weakness - semi-autobiographical film about director Catherine Breillat.  Isabelle Huppert portrays a film director who has recently had a stroke.  While recovering, she sees con man Kool Shen on a television talkshow.  Ostensibly interested in making a documentary about him, Huppert/Breillat quickly allows the man into her life.  Although he is able to get several thousand Euros out of her (in real life Breillat alleged she was conned out of nearly  €1 Million).  However, the relationship is more complex than criminal and victim as the power shifts between the couple several times during the film.  Her victimhood seems less a matter of weakness than poor judgment.  This made the film a little too muddy for me; more confusing than ambiguous.

Manila in the Claws of Light - this 1970s film by acclaimed Filipino director Lino Brocka was social commentary dressed up as a tragedy.  Two young lovers from the countryside are reunited in the big city with tragic consequences.  They encounter the whole panoply of marginal characters - pimps, gay hustlers, homeless, etc.  

Intruders - a clever murder mystery/dark comedy about North Korean agents infiltrating a remote South Korean town.

No No: A Dockumentary - a documentary about 1970s MLB pitcher Doc Ellis who allegedly pitched a no-hitter while under the effects of LSD.  The film is replete with anecdotes from the wild 1970s.  This film was preceded by the short film The High Five - a 10 minute film about Glenn Burke, the first openly gay man to play in the MLB.  The film focused on an incident between Burke and former San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker.  During his playing days with the Dodgers, Baker hit 30 home runs one year.  As he approached home plate after belting out his 30th, Burke ran onto the field to congratulate him.  He held his hand over his head.  Baker was unsure what the gesture meant but spontaneously decided to slap his hand.  This incident has been credited as the first "high five."

The High Five; documentary; directed by Michael Jacobs; (2014)

Harmony Lessons - a bleak Kazakhi film which showcases the remoteness of the region.  A schoolyard drama about a bully and the boy who stands up to him with dire consequences.  Critical of ingrained corruption with Kazakh society, the film dresses it up with a character study of young men and some horrific prison/detention scenes.

Manos Sucias - this was the last film I saw in the festival and by this time I was exhausted.  I remember Gary Meyer sat a row or two in front of me.  Set in Colombia, two brother mule a drug shipment (in a torpedo?) up river for delivery.  It was a bit like Apocalypse Now in that as they work they way closer to their final destination, they encounter stranger & more dangerous individuals.  I dozed off for a bit but this film left a depressing shadow.

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Everything else left me less than impressed.  Called out for its particularly unwatchable quality is Stray Dogs, a Taiwanese film with limited dialog.  The finale featured a (seemingly) 10 minute shot of a man's and woman's faces as they reacts to artwork on a wall (which the audience has not seen).  The fact that I can even remember that scene a year later gives me pause.

One of the films from last year's festival (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter) is opening at the Landmark Theaters Opera Plaza in a few weeks.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's March 2015 Theater Calendar

For the second consecutive month, there was no puzzle in the Castro Theater's calendar.  The calendar indicates the theater is open to the public for all 31 days in March with March 16 "TBA."  However, the schedule page indicates the theater is closed on March 16.  Regardless, there are no actors' images in the calendar to decipher.

The Castro Theater has been relying on sing-alongs for the past few months.  In March and at least the first weekend in April, they are screening the sing-along version of Beauty & the Beast.  I don't like sing-alongs but to be fair, I doubt I would see a non-sing-along version of Beauty & the Beast.

Among the highlights on the March calendar are:

March 8 - Wild double billed with A Most Violent Year.  Reese Witherspoon was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category for her performance in Wild.  Oscar Isaac & Jessica Chastain (she turns up in a lot of films lately) were lauded for their performances in A Most Violent Year.

March 23 & 24 - Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice is being shown in 70 mm.

Films I have seen and will not likely rewatch this month at the Castro but recommend - Whiplash, La Dolce Vita, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Badlands, Some Like it Hot & Spring Breakers.

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Castro Theater Calendar - March 2015

Monday, February 23, 2015

Metropolis & 2014 CAAMFest San Jose

A few months ago, I received an email from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  I think it was from the Silent Film Festival.  It may have been on their blog.  Anyway, they included an incredible image of Metropolis.


I'm not sure if that is one of original lobby cards or posters.  It looks as though it is a modern image designed to look retro.  Regardless, the image appeals to my preference for geometric patterns and art deco.  I made this jpg my wallpaper on my work computer.

A co-worker asked me if the image represented Superman's Metropolis.  I had never made that connection before.  If you say "Metropolis" to me, the first thing that pops into my mind is the Fritz Lang film.  Apparently, for many people the first thing that pops into their mind is Superman.  It made me wonder if Superman's Metropolis is inspired by Fritz Lang's Metropolis. According to the Wikipedia article on Superman, co-creator Joe Shuster states "Jerry [Siegel] created all the names. We were great movie fans and were inspired a lot by the actors and actresses we saw. As for Clark Kent, he combined the names of Clark Gable and Kent Taylor. And Metropolis, the city in which Superman operated, came from the Fritz Lang film Metropolis, which we both loved."  I had never made that connection until my co-worker asked me about it.  I also have no idea who Kent Taylor was although I recognize a few of his films from the early 1930s.  Superman was first published in 1933.

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I've been busy attending film festival.  IndieFest wrapped up on Thursday but for the past week, I've been attending the Mostly British Film Festival.  The Mostly British had a rump session over the weekend.  They screened two Malcolm McDowell films:  If.... on Saturday and Aces High yesterday.  Cinequest begins tomorrow evening and runs through Sunday, March 8.  CAAMFest runs from March 12 to 22.  The Roxie is presenting what promises to be a popular noir series from March 19 to 23.  It's titled A Rare Noir is Good to Find! International Film Noir, 1949-1974.

Cinequest promises to be outstanding as usual and the Roxie (i.e. Elliot Lavine) is becoming Noir Central.  However, CAAMFest is looking a little bare.  0.5MM, Lav Diaz's Storm Children, Book One and Arthur Dong's Forbidden City, U.S.A. are the highlights.  Since Chi-hui Yang left CAAM as the head programmer, I've fallen out of step with the programming at CAAMFest.

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Speaking of CAAMFest, I should probably close out last year's films.  In September 2014, I made my way down to San Jose (Camera 3) to see one screening at CAAMFest San Jose.

27°C Loaf Rock starring Li Kuo-yi & Meng Keng-ju; directed by Lin Cheng-sheng; Taiwanese with subtitles; (2013) - Official Facebook

Based on the true story of Wu Pao-chun who won the title of Master Baker at the 2010 Bakery World Cup in Paris, 27°C Loaf Rock tells what is becoming a familiar tale.  I'm old enough to remember when being a chef or a baker was a job akin to plumber or electrician.  It took skill & knowledge but it was definitely something déclassé to the professions.  No parent dreamed of their child becoming a baker or chef.  At best, it was something like a carpenter where mixing skill and artistry were appreciated.  Anyway, television has changed all that in the US.  I'm not sure about other countries.  Perhaps France & China have long traditions of celebrating the master food-preparers.

I can't remember the details now.  Wu (Li Kuo-yi) does an  apprenticeship under a master baker which is grueling in its exactitude and physical demands.  Eventually, he opens his own shop only to be amazed by a new bakery that dares to change the time-honored recipes with Wu has been taught and zealously adheres to.  Seeing the possibilities, Wu attempts to broaden his baking horizons with a trip to Japan and his own experimentation.  The title refers to the temperatures at which is pastry rises.  Eventually, Wu goes to Paris to compete and (in true Chinese cinema tradition), his arch rival is an arrogant Japanese baker.  The subplot involves Wu's romance with Chen Hsin-Mei (Meng Keng-ju), the daughter in a wealthy family who oppose the romance.  Eventually, Wu is convinced to give up the romance but up arrival in Paris, he reunites Chen who is scheduled to be married the next day.  She asks him to bake his stalwart mung bean pastry as a wedding gift.  By the way, she is marrying a white guy!

Anyway, the rest is predictable enough that I don't need to recount it here.  27°C Loaf Rock isn't a horrible film.  It panders to those who like food porn and like all porn, unless you are one of the acolytes, it gets boring.  I don't even like pastry and baked good that much in real life much less endless shots of them in a movie.  Come to think of it, CAAM seems to be trying to find or create the intersection between food, music and film.  Of course, Gary Meyers' Eat Drink Film is aiming at much of the same audience.  Speaking of which, there was a screen advertisement at the Mostly British Film Festival for the first Eat Drink Film Festival in October 2015.

Even if I was a dyed-in-the-wool foodie, 27°C Loaf Rock was an earnest but second rate film which fell flat on plot and execution.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Boxing, Porn & the JFK Assassination

I recently noticed that my cable TV provider was offering free On Demand films from Starz for a weekend.  I had never heard of Starz.  As I was browsing the titles they offered, I saw a few obscure films which had come & gone from the theaters.  I ended up watching three films that weekend.

Facing Ali; documentary; directed by Pete McCormack; (2009) - Official Website
Meet Monica Velour starring Kim Cattrall & Dustin Ingram; directed by Keith Bearden; (2010)
Parkland starring Zac Efron, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti & Marcia Gay Harden; directed by Peter Landesman; (2013)

These three films took me back to my youth as they touched upon three interests which don't interest me so much anymore - boxing, porn & the JFK assassination.

I also cannot remember the last time I watched so many films (in their entirety) on television.  I will admit to pausing and stopping the films.  Now that I think of it, I cannot remember the last time I watched one film in its entirety on television.

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Of the three, Facing Ali was the most engaging film.  That's not surprising given that Muhammad Ali's life has provided the source material for so many tremendous documentaries.  I consider When We Were Kings (1996) as one of the best boxing documentaries I have seen.

Facing Ali tells Ali's stories from the perspective of ten men who fought against him.  Ali was not interviewed for the film although the fillmmakers use archival footage of interviews with Ali.  The 10 boxers were:   George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks & Ernie Terrell.

My father was a boxing fan and as a child boxing was on television quite a bit.  The World Heavyweight Championship Boxing Match was quite a societal event in the 1970s and even into the 1980s.  My father did not like Ali and I won't speculate as to why.  By the time I started watching boxing with my father in the late 1970s, Ali's greatest matches were behind him.  I didn't think much of Ali except that he seemed kind of sluggish and not very impressive for the self-proclaimed "Greatest."  It was only later that I learned of Ali's life and saw his earlier matches (particularly against Foreman & Frasier) that my opinion of Ali's boxing abilities increased.

The structure of the film is to provide a recap of Ali's boxing career in chronological order.  When the match featuring one of the ten interview subjects is featured, the filmmakers interviews the subject for his thoughts on Ali, their match and what has happened to them in the intervening years.  Most of fighters are gracious to Ali and recognize his contributions to society.  Of the 10, Larry Holmes was the only one who didn't lose at least one bout to Ali.

I was unfamiliar with several of the fighters and their matches with Ali.  Two observations about the fighters:  several of them seemed to suffer the effects of their boxing career; their words were slurred.  Joe Frasier was barely intelligible and his words needed to be subtitled.  Ken Norton seemed to be worse for wear as well.  In contrast, some of the boxers seemed to have no ill effect due to their boxing careers and were quite the raconteurs.  George Chuvalo (an ethnic Croatian from Canada) and George Foreman were very entertaining.

Foreman got off a great line.  In the lead-up to the fight between Ali & Joe Frasier, Ali was verbally haranguing Frasier unmercifully.  As recounted by Foreman, Frasier confided to him that all the insults from Ali meant nothing to him except Ali's charge that Frasier was an "Uncle Tom."  Frasier complained to Foreman that he didn't want his wife to think he peeked into women's bedroom windows.

For boxing fans of the era (1960s & 1970s), Facing Ali is extremely entertaining.

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In Meet Monica Velour, Kim Cattrall plays the titular 1980s porn star whose fortunes have changed much in the 35 years since her heyday.  Dustin Ingram is the socially awkward teenager who thinks all the best things in life happened before he was born.  He's into old songs, old movies & old porn videos.  A self-styled connoisseur Monica Velour's pornography,  Without plans after graduating from high school, Tobe (Ingram) plans a cross country trip to sell his grandfather's hot dog themed food truck and see Monica Velour perform at a seedy roadside strip club.

Velour has her own troubles which includes an ex-husband who is keeping her away from their daughter, money woes and a drinking problem.  Both Velour & Tobe get kicked out of the club and form an uneasy friendship.  For Tobe, it is a case of hero worship but Velour is more circumspect of the young man's attention.

Perhaps if the script was better developed, quite a bit could be made of this May-December "romance" but Meet Monica Velour suffers from a lack of execution.  Pathos & quirkiness are the hallmarks of the independent comedies but the film's reach exceeds its grasp.  The script is sparse and the film depends on the performances of its two lead characters.  Ingram isn't up to the task and I get the sense Cattrall took the role to be as different from her Sex in the City character as possible.  Although the film has a few comedic moments, it largely falls flat.  Meet Monica Velour felt like a cut rate Napoleon Dynamite which I was less than enamored with.

At the end of the film, Tobe & his more age appropriate girlfriend by a Honeymoon Killers movie poster from a yard sale.  By coincidence, the 2015 Noir City film festival closed with that film.

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Parkland reminds me a little of Selma - a flat almost documentary film about historic events.  Parkland covers the Friday through Sunday in November 1963 when JFK was assassinated.  The title refer Parkland Memorial Hospital, the location where JFK was brought after he was shot & two days later, Lee Harvey Oswald was brought after he was shot by Jack Ruby.  According to the film, the same doctor treated both men in the emergency room.

Parkland follows several plot lines.  First it follows the Secret Service detail assigned to the president from the time they arrive at Parkland to the time they return the body back to Air Force One.  The second plot follows Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) as he deals with various government officials and the media as they become aware of his film from Dealey Plaza.  Another plot thread deals with FBI agent James Hosty who had contact with Oswald in the months before the assassination.  The final plot line focuses on Robert Oswald (Lee's older brother) who lived in Dallas and had to deal with the fallout of his brother's actions and displaced anger directed toward him.

It's hard not to make an interesting film dealing with the JFK assassination and Parkland delivers.   James Badge Dale gives a strong performance as Robert Oswald.  Jeremy Strong impressively captures the mannerisms & appearance of Lee Harvey Oswald.  Rounding out the Oswald family is Jacki Weaver as their mother Marguerite Oswald who makes you think that Lee was not the crazies one in his family.

The disparate threads of Parkland do not allow for a cohesive plot but I thought that was one of the film's strengths.  It captured the chaos of that weekend in Dallas over 50 years ago.

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I don't think I'll subscribe to Starz as a result of the preview weekend but I enjoyed two of the film I watched and even the third wasn't a complete miss.

I have digressed from the unifying theme of these films.  My father introduced me to boxing as a spectator sport.  I've never boxed in my life.  I will still watch a boxing match occasionally on ESPN but I watch more MMA now.

In college I was exposed to quite a bit of porn.  Like any young man, I have watched porn but it bored me with its formulaic action and rigidly adhered tropes.  I can't remember the last time I watched porn.  I wonder if that says more about my advancing age and possible Low T rather than my feelings about porn.  I am also amazed at the attitude of young people today towards pornography.  There is actually a website called YouPorn.com (YouTube for porn).  My attitude is why would anyone post their own porn on-line without getting paid?  However, many young people think of homemade porn as part of their "brand" and it fits in nicely with their obsession to constantly update the world on the minutiae of their life which I consider a form of narcissism.  Of course, that is coming for a man who maintains a film blog...

Starting at a young age, I became aware of the conspiracy theories surrounding the JFK assassination.  I'm not sure how many books I have read but I have read quite a few.  I haven't read one in many years.  I'm ambivalent about the Lone Gunman theory.  Nowadays, I'm more interested in the broader topic of the number of high profile assassinations in the 1960s and the curious circumstances surrounding them.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's February 2015 Theater Calendar

The title of this post is a misnomer because there isn't a puzzle this month.  The Castro Theater is open everyday in February although it is holding a private event on February 9.

Among the calendar highlights are:

February 10 & 11 - Interstellar in 70 mm.  I have read & heard mixed reviews about Interstellar but if my schedule allows, I'll probably see it and if I'm going to see it, I'd just as soon see in in 70 mm.

February 12 & 13 - a four film Michael Keaton series with Night Shift being the highlight for me.

February 14 - I have never seen one of Marc Huestis Presents events.  I don't know if I will get to this screening of Romeo & Juliet on Valentine's Day but I want to see one of his shows one of these days.  I cannot remember the last time I saw a West Side Story screening advertised which was not a sing-along.  The Castro is screening West Side Story as a matinee on February 14.  No word yet as to whether it is a sing-along.  I want to see it without the crowd "singing" in unison.

February 16 & 17 - the Castro just screened Blade Runner The Final Cut in December.  I assume the version screening in February is one of the other half dozen or so versions of the film.

February 25 - I don't believe I have seen The Exorcist in a movie theater.  As I have gotten older and rewatched the film on multiple occasions, it's not as scary as the first time I saw it.  However, I have come to appreciate William Friedkin's directorial flourishes and the interaction between the two priests, Linda Blair and Mercedes McCambridge's voice.

Given that SF Indiefest and the Mostly British Film Festival are being held in February, I don't know how many films I'll be able to attend at the Castro.

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Castro Theater Calendar - February 2015


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Search for General Tso

On January 21, I took a partial break from Noir City to see a film at the 4 Star.

The Search for General Tso; documentary; directed by Ian Cheney; English & Mandarin with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website

The Search for General Tso traces the history of the ubiquitous dish called General Tso's Chicken.  The film can be broken down into three parts - Who was General Tso?  Who created General Tso's Chicken?  How did General Tso's Chicken come to be on just about every Chinese  restaurant menu in America?

Before I forget, I should note that I was the only person in the theater.  I believe that is only the third time that I have been the sole attendee for an entire film.  Maybe I should also note that I don't like General Tso's Chicken.  The taste is not to my liking.  I cannot recall the last time I had it.  I much prefer Kung Pao Chicken or Sesame Chicken.

It turns out there was a General Tso.  He was a 19th century general, "the hero of Hunan Province."  The filmmakers visited Hunan and were shown statues, museums and other memorials to General Tso.  Interestingly, none of the mainland Chinese interviewed had tasted or even heard of General Tso's Chicken.  When shown a photo, one lady thought the dish was frog meat.  Alas, General Tso never tasted the dish which bears his name.

Rather than venture into the origins of the dish, the film next explores the history of Chinese in America.  After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese were effectively limited in the jobs they could obtain.  One common job was restaurant worker.  In order to survive, Chinese restaurants would adapt to the tastes of local (i.e. Caucasian) customers.  The dish called chop suey (which I have never seen offered in a Chinese restaurant I have been to) became popular around this time.  The filmmakers were assisted by a gentlemen who had the Guinness World Record for largest menu collection.  Searching through his collection, we see that General Tso's Chicken did not appear on any menus until the 1970s whereas as Chop Suey's prevalence declined after the 1950s.  This corresponds with a culinary movement to bring more authentic flavors and dishes to Chinese restaurants in the US.

Michael Tong, owner of New York's Shun Lee Palace, claims his restaurant was the first to serve the dish in the US (in 1972).  This claims goes largely undisputed by the filmmakers.  Implicit in the filmmakers' narrative is that Tong or one of his kitchen chefs learned of the dish from a trip to Taiwan where Chef Peng Chang-kuei invented it.  Chef Peng was a native of Hunan who fled to Taiwan with Chang Kai-shek's Nationalist government for whom he was the official banquet chef.  Chef Peng & his son recall American visitors sampling his creation in the 1960s.  Not a traditional dish, Chef Peng's chicken recipe blended classic Hunan flavors in new ways and Peng named it after the well known general from his province.  Peng even moved to New York to open a restaurant.  Although the restaurant soon closed and Peng returned to Taiwan, the popularity of his chicken item is undisputed.

Whether Peng was first or Tong was first in the US is not really important.  The important point is that in the early 1970s, General Tso's Chicken was haute cuisine in NYC.  How did it find it's way to so many Chinese restaurants in the US?  According to the film, the Chinese family associations provided restaurant training to immigrants and had territorial agreements with each other.  When a Chinese immigrant would come to New York (or SF), they would be trained on how to run a restaurant and given some stake money to set up a Chinese restaurant in the hinterlands.  That is how it came to be that small towns with no significant Chinese population came to have at least one Chinese restaurant.  Since General Tso's Chicken was modified to suit American tastes (it's sweeter than the original recipe), it was taught to the would-be restaurateurs who, like Chinese Johnny Appleseeds, spread the dish to all parts of America.

The Search for General Tso was entertaining enough.  For better or worse, it had the look and feel of a PBS documentary.  At 71 minutes, it seems to have been constructed to be easily edited into a 60 minute television spot.  The filmmakers keep a light touch on a minor subject while touching briefly on the racism and other difficulties encountered by Chinese immigrants.  The film is a solid effort by an experienced documentary film director.  Ian Cheney directed King Corn (2007) which made a big splash on film festival and indie theater circuit.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Silver Screen Fiend

While visiting my father over New Year's week, I was watching television.  I flipped to The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.  I watched Nicole Kidman tease Jimmy Fallon about an awkward encounter they had years before.  The next guest was Patton Oswalt.  I don't know much about Patton Oswalt.  I recall seeing him occasionally on King of Queens,  a television show I've watched infrequently.  My awareness of him starts and ends with a film called Big Fan (2009),  I read a review of it in the Wall Street Journal which praised his performance.  Years later I enjoyed the film on a television premium channel during one of those windows where they make everything free on demand.

Oswalt was on The Tonight Show to promote his new book - Silver Screen Fiend:  Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film.  During the interview, Oswalt mentioned that he saw approximately 250 films in the theaters one calendar year.  This CNN article states "Between 1995 and 1999, Oswalt consumed nearly 700 films."  This gave me quite a bit of pause.  Last year, I saw 388 films.  Oswalt saw 700 films between May 20, 1995 and May 20, 1999 - exactly four years.  For the four years ending December 31, 2014, I saw 1,627 films.  If Oswalt characterizes himself as an addict, what am I?

For some time, I have been wondering why I am so compulsive in many areas of my life.  Seeing so many film and spending so many hours seeing so many films is not normal.  My main guess is that I'm dissatisfied with my job and am coping by seeing so many films.  This blog tells a different story.  I started this blog one month before starting the job I currently have.  In addition, I can recall times over the past 8 years when I was very satisfied with my job.  If anything, my film attendance has dropped over the past two years which is the time frame when my career frustrations have become acute.  In fact, the dip in my film attendance since 2012 is very confusing.  During that period, in addition to the issues related to my job, I've witnessed my father's deterioration due to aging.  This is extremely depressing.

In a nutshell, I don't know what is driving this compulsion of mine (which is 10% less compulsive over the past two years).  I bought Oswalt's book to see if i could gleam any insights.  I'm surprised at some of the similarities between us.  Oswalt is six months younger than me.  He moved to San Francisco on May 5, 1992.  I rolled into town in June of that year.  It's strange to think Oswalt and I could have encountered each other back then.  Oswalt moved to SF to perform standup comedy which was quite popular back then.  His homebase was the Holy City Zoo in the 400 block of Clement.  I never went there but I prowled Green Apple Books (500 block of Clement) for many hours back then.  Much life movie theaters today, I could lose myself within the stacks of books in Green Apple.  Oswalt lists the films he saw during this period.  By then he was living in LA (the New Beverly Cinema was to him what the Castro is to me now).  He came to San Francisco periodically and he seemed to prefer the Castro, Roxie and now defunct Red Vic and Royal Theaters.  My records don't go back that far but it is quite possible that Oswalt & I were in the same audience for screenings at the Castro or Roxie.

Given some of the topics Oswalt covers (tangentially to his film addiction), I think we could have had a few interesting conversations if we had met.  For Oswalt, his addiction was simple to trace to its roots.  He wanted to direct a film.  By watching films, he could learn the craft - like going to film school.  I have no desire to direct films.  The most I can say is that great films provide an insight into the human condition - kind of like a philosophy or sociology class.  I am frequently amazed at the imagination of some directors or their ability to draw me into their film so completely.

I guess I forgot to mention that I finished reading Silver Screen Fiend last week.  I found it compelling but I wonder how many people in the general population could relate to his memoir.  The Roxie and Booksmith is hosting "a night of comedy, books, and film at the Roxie Theater" on Tuesday, January 27 (7:30 PM).  The only tickets left are "one seat + one book" for $37.22 including service fee.  I don't think I'm going to go.  I already have the book and doubt I could actually have a conversation with Oswalt to compare our addictions but I recommend the event nonetheless.