Sunday, May 1, 2016

Castro Theater's May 2016 Calendar

I haven't been writing much.  I'm still dealing with my father's estate and I was in a minor car accident in March which has taken up an outsized portion of my time & attention.  I've also been seeing quite a few movies and seeing a film always takes precedence over writing about a film.

The Castro Theater's May 2016 calendar is underwhelming for me.

I'd like to catch the double feature of Mommie Dearest and Gypsy on May 4 but that is the penultimate night of the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival and I have purchased tickets to 2 films that evening.

Similarly, I have never seen Valley of the Dolls which screens May 10 with The Miracle Worker as part of a Patty Duke tribute.  Unfortunately, I have other plans that evening.

Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (May 14) caught my attention.  From May 13 to 16, the Roxie in conjunction with Midcentury Eclectic! (Elliot Lavine, Don Malcolm, et al.) is screening 12 films under the series title Archaeology of Arthouse.  I've bought a pass and plan to see several films in the series.  I'm not sure if I'll be able to get away to the Castro to see Argento's film.

I have yet to visit the new PFA.  There are three film series beginning in May which will likely lure me to Berkeley:  Mexican Film Noir (May 7 to June 11), The Films of Seijun Suzuki (May 7 to June 30) and the UCLA Festival of Preservation (May 15 to June 26).

Not shown on the Castro's May calendar is the 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival which runs from June 2 to 5 at the Castro.

Many years ago (the early 1990s), one of my first visits to the Roxie was to see a Pedro Almodovar film.  I think I caught a double bill or a couple films over a few night.  I recall one film distinctly as Tie Me Up!  Tie Me Down!  The other film was Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls like Mom which I thought was unbelievably outré at the time.  I subsequently seen films which renders Pepi, Luci, passé.  Almodovar has a special place in my cinematic pantheon as I relate those films with my early days in SF.  I mention this because the Roxie is screening six of his early films as part of a retrospective from May 20 to 26.


Castro Theater Calendar - May 2016

Monday, March 28, 2016

Castro Theater's April 2016 Calendar

Since it appears that there is no longer a puzzle within the Castro Theater's monthly calendar, I will modify my title lines appropriately.

Among the films on the April calendar which caught my attention are:

April 11 - Hail, Caesar! paired with Anomalisa. The latest Coen Brothers film is a flop at the box office but I read an interesting article about the film in Film Comment.  The film has a number of thinly veiled references to actual Hollywood figures which makes it more interesting for me.

April 15 - Midnites for Maniacs is presenting Big Trouble in Little China and Never Too Young to Die.  CAAMFest showed Big Trouble in Little China a few years ago.  I missed that screening and have not seen this film since the 1990s.  I remember enjoying this film quite a bit as a teenager & young man so I'm anxious to see how it stands up to my current sensibilities.

The San Francisco International Film Festival is at the Castro for six days between April 21 & 30 including the opening night film Love & Friendship.

I would like to see Mustang (April 5) & Breathless (April 6) but I have other plans on both evenings.


Castro Theater Calendar - April 2016

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Maggie Cheung Double Feature at the Roxie

Last week, I stopped by the Roxie to see a Maggie Cheung double feature.  It was presented as part of a Staff Picks series where Roxie staff members choose a film(s).  I cannot recall which staff member chose the films but Executive Director David Cowen introduced the films.

Irma Vep starring Maggie Cheung; directed by Olivier Assayas; French & English with subtitles; (1996)
The Heroic Trio starring Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh & Maggie Cheung; directed by Johnny To; Cantonese with subtitles; (1992)

I believe the choice was Irma Vep but Cowen augmented the choice with The Heroic Trio because the latter film is referenced in the former.

A few observations:

I'm surprised how many people don't know what a double feature is.  I heard both people in front of me in line ask if they could buy a ticket for only one film and cashier explained what a double feature is.

A few years after filming Irma Vep, Maggie Cheung married Irma Vep director Olivier Assayas.

Irma Vep was the first time I have heard Maggie Cheung speak English.  Surprisingly she spoke with an English accent which I later learned was due to her having lived in England between the ages of 8 and 18.

Irma Vep is an anagram for vampire.  The slender plot of the film has Maggie Cheung playing herself - a Hong Kong actor named Maggie Cheung who is in Paris to film a remake of Louis Feuillade's silent serial Les Vampires.  Why would they cast a Chinese woman (with limited language skills) to play a French vampire?  In the film, it is because the director (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is infatuated with Cheung based on her performance in The Heroic Trio.

Anything beyond this plot description is superfluous.  The production of Irma Vep (the film within the film) is chaotic and dysfunctional.  There is sniping, backstabbing, the director goes missing and Cheung seems to fall under the spell of vampire on the set.

 Irma Vep is one of these films that kind of meanders and is punctuated with memorable scenes (many with Cheung wearing a latex bodysuit modeled on Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman costume).  There is a amusing interview where a journalist interviews Cheung.  He launches into a diatribe of state sponsored films which are targeted towards the intelligentsia before singing the praises of Schwarzenegger and Van Damme.

Assayas positions the camera intrusively as if we are eavesdropping on the conversations.  I'm not sure how much of Cheung's performance is improvised or revealing of her true personality but Irma Vep's Maggie Cheung is a winsome & appealing woman as she tries to navigate the bizarre situation she has found herself in.

I have a suspicion that Irma Vep is a film that would benefit from repeat viewings.  It's likely littered with French film references that I didn't catch.  For example, I suspect that criticism of Léaud's character's films is really criticism of Jean-Luc Godard's work.  I'm sure the film must have seemed like a welcome change of pace for Cheung who was cranking out HK action and wuxia films at a prodigious pace in the first half of the 1990s.

Even without an intimate knowledge of the French film industry or the source material, Assayas' skill & vision as a director come through clearly in Irma Vep.

Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep

The Heroic Trio was directed by Johnny To and features an impressive cast of Chinese actresses - the late Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh & Maggie Cheung.  Mui who died at the age of 40 in 2003, is largely forgotten today.  In The Heroic Trio, she was the best known of the three lead actresses and her character was first among equals.  That Yeoh and particularly Cheung are heralded among their cohort of Chinese actresses make one wonder what Mui would have accomplished.  She was cast in Zhang Yimou's hit film House of the Flying Daggers (2004) but dropped out due to her failing health.

In the pantheon of great HK action films, The Heroic Trio is pretty far down the list.  It did well enough to merit a sequel but it felt more like a gimmick to get three attractive actresses on screen together.  Mui plays a police inspector's wife who has undergone rigorous training in martial arts.  When needed, she dons a mask and fights crime under the sobriquet of Wonder Woman.

Michelle Yeoh begins the film as the villain (Invisible Girl), the chief lieutenant of an evil master.  She uses an invisible cloak to kidnap male babies because her master has some plan to install the child as the next emperor of China.  In a subplot, Invisible Girl is Wonder Woman's younger sister who didn't make the cut with sifu who trained Wonder Woman.  They are estranged when the film begins.

Maggie Cheung plays the roguish Thief Catcher, a shotgun wielding, dynamite throwing, motorcycle riding, booty shorts wearing bounty hunter.  In another subplot, Invisible Girl & Thief Catcher trained together under the evil master but Thief Catcher has escaped his evil reach to make her living cashing in bounties.

The three converge when a high ranking police officer hires Thief Catcher to recover his kidnapped son.

The film is a series of fight scenes separated by flashbacks.  The action choreography isn't quite up to To's best work.  There are a few scenes that appear silly (typically at Thief Catcher's expense) but the film holds together as well as can be expected.  Eventually, Invisible Girl is convinced to join the other two in their battle against the evil master.

Watching The Heroic Trio is closer to an amusing check off on my cinematic bucket list than a rewarding film experience.

Maggie Cheung in The Heroic Trio

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's March 2016 Calendar

For the third consecutive month, there is not a puzzle in the Castro calendar.  As the saying goes, once means nothing and twice is a coincidence but thrice is a pattern.

Cinequest runs from March 1 to March 13 and CAAMFest runs from March 10 to March 20 so I won't have much time to drop by the Castro until the final part of the month.

Among the Castro highligts:

Elliot Lavine is back with Pre-Code films on Wednesday nights. 

Akira Kurosawa's Ran is paired with A.K. a documentary biopic on March 6.

A Sean Connery & Pierce Brosnan series from March 17 to 22 with an emphasis on their James Bond films.


The March series I am most excited about is not a Cinequest or at the Castro but instead at the Roxie.  From March 21 to 31, the Roxie is presenting Greenaway Week with screenings of The Belly of an Architect, Drowning by Number, The Baby of Macon and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.  Greenway's latest film Eisenstein in Guanajuato plays from March 25 to 31. 

It was The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (which I saw in a Los Angeles theater in the summer of 1989) that turned me on to art house films.


Castro Theater Calendar - March 2016

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's February 2016 Calendar

Nothing like posting the February calendar on the second to last day of the month. I'm lucky it's a leap year.

I saw three films at the Castro this month.

Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks & Mark Rylance; directed by Steven Spielberg; (2015) - Official Website
Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross; with Billy Dee Williams & Richard Pryor; directed by Sidney J. Furie; (1972)
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling starring and directed by Richard Pryor; (1986)


With Bridge of Spies I have seen six of the eight films nomination for the Oscar in the Best Picture category.  The two I am missing are Brooklyn & The Revenant.

What to say about Bridge of Spies?  It's another solid outing by Spielberg and Hanks.  I've never been a particular fan of either although they both have strong filmographies.  My favorite Spielberg film is Jaws which is over 40 years old.  My favorite Tom Hanks performance is Big which was almost 30 years ago.  Spielberg and Hanks have collaborated at least four time as director and actor (other titles are Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal) so they must have a simpatico.

Like many of their films (including their three previous collaborations), I'm mild about Bridge of Spies and I can't really say why.  Based on a true story, Hanks plays James Donovan, a NYC lawyer in the 1950s & 60s.  Donovan defends Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) who was a Soviet spy.  Donovan defends him to the best of his ability but is ultimately unsuccessful.  While Abel languishes in prison, Donovan is contacted Allen Dulles (Director of the CIA) to negotiate a prisoner exchange.  Not officially sanctioned by the US government, Dulles asks Donovan to negotiate a exchange as a private citizen - Abel for captured U-2 pilot Gary Francis Powers.

The film is divided into two parts - the arrest and trial of Abel and Donovan's negotiations with Soviet & East German quasi-officials in East Berlin soon after the Berlin Wall went up.  Tense, occasionally humorous and focusing on the basic perseverance, decency & humanity of Donovan, Spielberg & Hanks do what they do best; which is to create a empathetic character for the audience to root for.

I can't fault the performance or direction but like many of their films, Bridge of Spies lacks that ineffable quality that elevates a film to greatness or even memorable.  The Martian and Mad Max have a certain cinematic swagger about them which instantly registers with me and I know that I will recall certain scenes & dialogue years in the future.  Bridge of Spies lacks that.


Lady Sings the Blues is a biopic with Diana Ross as Billie Holiday.  Putting aside that the film is Ross' first major acting role, she gives a powerful performance as Holiday.  Ross was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance (she lost to Liza Minnelli in Cabaret).  BTW, two of the five Best Actress nominees and one of the five Best Actor nominees were African American that year.

Anyway Lady Sings the Blues is showcase for Ross (it was produced by Berry Gordy, her record producer, lover and mentor).  Ross shows considerable acting range playing the tragic singer Holiday.  Confident despite being raped, discriminated against and addicted to heroin, Holiday's downward trajectory is impressively performed by Ross...and Ross does a great job singing Holiday's songs.  Richard Pryor holds his own as Holiday's unnamed but steadfast accompanist credited as Piano Man.


Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling is a film I remember from the summer I graduated high school.  I didn't see it but I do recall it.  Reminding me of All That Jazz, Jo Jo Dancer (Richard Pryor) is a thinly disguised autobiographical character who begins the film by nearly burning himself to death while freebasing crack cocaine.  In fact, the film devotes quite a bit of screen time about the process which is not surprising given that Richard Pryor directed the film and almost burned himself to death freebasing crack cocaine a few years before making Jo Jo Dancer.

Pryor turns a critical eye on himself (technically Jo Jo Dancer, fictitious stand-up comedian) and the results are impressive; both Pryor performance as an actor and director.  Largely a confessional, Jo Jo Dancer appears to expose Pryor's shortcomings for all too see - born and raised in his grandmother's whorehouse, failed marriages, drug use and the fateful freebasing incident which is portrayed as a suicide attempt in the film.  Jo Jo Dancer is very dark film which is balanced by Dancer/Pryor's stand-up routines.  Pryor uses the alter ego or disembodied spirit of Dancer as the guide for the audience.  Constantly providing commentary on the events, Dancer serves as both narrator and anti-hero.

Paula Kelly (Sweet Charity) as the stripper who takes young Jo Jo under her wing and Barbara Williams & Debbie Allen as wives #2 and #3 are memorable.

I was moved by the film and felt almost a kinship to Pryor which I had never felt before.  That's my measuring stick - after the viewing I went from being mostly disinterested to sympathetic towards Pryor.


Castro Theater Calendar - February 2016

Monday, January 4, 2016

Black Mass

Last month, I saw Black Mass at the Castro Theater.

Black Mass starring Johnny Depp & Joel Edgerton; directed by Scott Cooper; (2015) - Official Website

A stylish 1970s period piece about Boston gangster Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp), Black Mass reminded me of Donnie Brasco, American Hustle & American Gangster.  Based on the true story of Bulger's co-opting his FBI handler into his accomplice.

South Boston gangster Whitey Bulger is surviving in the early 1970s until childhood acquaintance John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) returns to town.  Connolly is now an FBI agent and he proposes that Whitey become an FBI informant.  Whitey can feed Connolly information about the Patricia Crime Family, a rival criminal gang.  Connolly can bust the organized crime family while Whitey benefits from having his main rival gang busted up as well as from having FBI protection.

From the start, Connolly seems more eager to be Whitey's confidante and friend than his FBI handler.  Bulger is suspicious of the arrangement and loathes the prospect of being an informant even if he would benefit from it.  Ultimately, Whitey reluctantly accepts the arrangement but quickly turns Connolly's hero worship to his advantage.  When Whitey's son dies of Reye's Syndrome,  the already violence prone gangster loses much of his sense of self-control and Connolly willingly abets him at every turn.

While Connolly is covering up Bulger's criminal activities and harassing the Italian Mob, Bulger consolidates his power in Boston and gets involved in a money laundering scheme involving a professional jai alai league.  At times, it sounds too outlandish to be true but as far as my research shows, Black Mass gets the major facts correct.  Ultimately, Connolly's superiors become suspicious of his association with Bulger while Bulger's homicidal tendencies create plenty of enemies who are willing to turn state's evidence.

As usual, Depp disappears into the role with his balding pate and 1970s clothing.  However, Australian Joel Edgerton (The Square and Animal Kingdom) truly transforms himself physically and verbally by successfully affecting the Boston accent.  Benedict Cumberbatch has a nice turn as Whitey's younger brother & politician Billy Bulger.  Jesse Plemons is also memorable as a hardscrabble soldier in Whitey's Winter Hill Gang.

Black Mass is a solid film but now that it's been a month since seeing it, I have to admit that it wasn't particularly memorable or remarkable.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 By the Numbers

I saw 336 "films" on a theater screen in 2015. For these purposes, a film is not just a feature length film but also includes programs (typically from film festivals) which consist of multiple short films. If it was categorized as a single program in a festival guide, it counts as one film entry on my list. Conversely, I saw several programs which consisted of a short film and a feature length film. For my counting purposes, those are counted as a single film entry.

My annual film totals for the past few years are:

2010 - 385 films
2011 - 406 films
2012 - 436 films
2013 - 397 films
2014 - 388 films
2015 - 336 films

For the six years listed, 2015 had the largest year-on-year change of 52 films.  2015 was the first year since 2010 that I did not average one film per day.


The top 10 venues in which I saw films in 2015 were:

1) Castro Theater (88 films) - primarily the result of Noir City (19 films) and the SF Silent Film Festival (21 films over two festivals).  The Castro Theater has been my #1 film-going destination for three years in a row and four of the past five years.

2) Roxie Theater (55 films) - 11 films from A Rare Noir is Good to Find programmed by Elliot Lavine and 21 films between IndieFest & DocFest.  I'm counting the Roxie and Little Roxie as the same for these purposes.  The Roxie Theater has been my #2 film-going destination three years in a row and four of the past five years.

3) Vogue & Balboa (42 films) - 37 films at the Vogue and 5 at the Balboa.  The Vogue count was mainly due to the Mostly British Film Festival (17 films), the San Francisco Film Society's (SFFS) Hong Kong Cinema (6 films), SFFS' French Cinema Now (4 films) and SFFS' New Italian Cinema (4 films).  The Vogue & Balboa are owned and operated by the same people.

4) Camera Cinemas (29 films) - 25 films at the Camera 12, 3 films at the Camera 3 and 1 film at the Camera 7 Pruneyard.  I watched 24 films at the Camera 12 as part of Cinequest.

5) Landmark Theaters (18 films) - 9 films at the Opera Plaza, 8 films at the Clay and 1 film at the Aquarius.  I saw four films at the Clay as part of the 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival.

6) Four Star (15 films) - Mostly foreign films that weren't playing anywhere else or films late in their distribution run.

7) Kabuki Cinemas (14 films) - 9 films from SF International Film Festival (SFIFF) & 4 films at CAAMFest.

8) Crest Theater (11 films) - all films from the Sacramento French Film Festival.

9) California Theater in San Jose (10 films) - all films from Cinequest.

10) Stanford Theater and Viz (9 films each) - at the Viz I saw 8 films from the Japan Film Festival of San Francisco and 1 film at CAAMFest.  The Stanford was all rep house programs from their regular schedule.

The top 10 venues accounted for 89% of the films I saw this year.

Honorable Mentions:  YBCA (6 films) and the Sequoia Theater in Mill Valley (5 films).

I visited the Camera 7 and Alamo Drafthouse for first time in 2015.


On 208 days in 2015, I saw at least one film. The 2015 breakdown is:

On 157 days, I saw zero films.
On 118 days, I saw one film.
On 67 days, I saw two films.
On 11 days, I saw three films.
On 9 days, I saw four films.
On 3 days, I saw five films.

On both February 27 (Friday) and February 28 (Saturday), I saw five films at Cinequest.  On May 30 (Saturday), I saw five films at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Breaking down the number of films by month:

January - 33 films
February - 46 films
March - 43 films
April - 28 films
May - 35 films
June - 35 films
July - 21 films
August - 29 films
September - 8 films
October - 19 films
November 27 films
December - 12 films

Comparing 2014 vs. 2015 to see when the large decrease occurred:

January (2015 minus 2014):  +1
February:  +5
March:  -11
April:  +2
May:  -10
June:  +10
July:  +1
August:  -1
September:  -13
October:  -7
November:  -11
December:  -17

I was three films behind my 2014 pace as of August 31, 2015.  In addition to being busy at work, September was the month when I decided my father's living situation could not continue and started taking actions to have him put in an assisted living facility.  My father passed away in October and during the last two months of the year, I traveled frequently to Las Vegas to settle his estate.

Breaking down the number of films by day of the week:

Sunday - 67 films
Monday - 41 films
Tuesday - 36 films
Wednesday - 41 films
Thursday - 32 films
Friday - 45 films
Saturday - 74 films


The PFA closed on August 2, 2015.  I only saw one film at the PFA in 2015.  The PFA reopens at their new location on February 3 with Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal.  The new location is 2155 Center Street in Berkeley.

After a long delay, the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission opened in December 2015.  Only one auditorium has been in use but starting tomorrow the other four auditoriums become operational.

2015 is the first year I missed all screenings of Another Hole in the Head.  It coincided with one of my trips to Las Vegas.