Friday, August 28, 2015

Samba

The opening night film of the 2015 Sacramento French Film Festival was Samba.  I was not able to attend the June 19 screening but I was confident in my knowledge that it was coming to the Landmark Theaters.  Samba has come and gone from local area theaters but I was able to catch it a couple of weeks ago at the Opera Plaza.  The Opera Plaza is looking a little threadbare.  Reading how the Landmark Theaters renovated the Aquarius in Palo Alto only after a new lease had been signed, I suspect this has to be the case with the Opera Plaza which have had the same movie posters in the lobby since I first visited.  I can remember that first movie at the Opera Plaza.  It was The Lover with Jane March and Tony Leung Ka Fai Leung in 1992 or 1993.  The screening room it screened in was likely the smallest theater I've been in (possibly still the smallest).  The seats and screen look the same as I recall.  I wonder how much longer the Opera Plaza Theater's lease runs.

Samba starring Omar Sy & Charlotte Gainsbourg; directed by Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano; mostly French with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website

Omar Sy is the epnonymous Samba, a Senegalese (& undocumented) immigrant in France.  Caught in an immigration sweep, the good-natured Samba is held in a detention center to await his fate.  While there, he meets Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is a volunteer for an organization that provides legal council to immigrants.

I have missed (avoided?) Charlotte Gainsbourg's well-known collaborations with Lars von Trier (Nymphomaniac, Melancholia & Antichrist).  Looking at her filmography, I can only identify one other film that I've seen.  My sense is that Gainsbourg is well known & mildly controversial in Europe.  Her role in Samba reminded me of various performances I have seen of Valeria Bruni Tedeschi - a meek woman with repressed passions.

Samba is a like Gainsbourg's character in that you suspect there is more than meets the eye but you never really see what the film hints at.  Samba and Gainsbourg's Alice strike up a tentative relationship but it was the supporting cast that seemed more interesting.  Tahir Rahim is a fellow undocumented immigrant who gives Samba some help since he was indirectly responsible for his detention.  Rahim's character claims to be Brazilian but is actually Arab.  He maintains the charade because Brazilians do better with the ladies.  Sure enough, he begins dating a co-worker (Izïa Higelin) of Alice...the same co-worker who warns Alice not get involved with their clients.

Anyway, Samba (both the film and character) is amiable enough but not particularly satisfying.  Its feelgood ending is predicated on a hard-to-believe contrivance that borders on racist. If the film is any indication, there are a lot of parallels between undocumented immigrants in the US and France but all said, they seem to be treated better in France.  I'm not sure what elevated this film to opening night status at the Sacramento French Film Festival.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (Part 1 of 2)

The 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) ran from May 28 to June 1 at the Castro Theater.  The festival ran a record five days this year (Thursday through Monday).

I saw 16 feature films.

All Quiet on the Western Front starring Lew Ayres; directed by Lewis Milestone; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; (1930)
Cave of the Spider Women starring Yin Mingzhu; directed by Dan Duyu; silent with intertitles narrated by Lucy Laird; live accompaniment by Donald Sosin & Frank Bockius; (1927)
When the Earth Trembled starring Harry Myers; directed by Barry O'Neil; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne; (1913)
The Last Laugh starring Emil Jannings; directed by F.W. Murnau; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra; (1924)
Ghost Train starring Ilse Bois, Hilde Jennings; directed by Géza von Bolváry; silent with intertitles narrated by Paul McGann; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne & Frank Bockius; (1927)
Visages d'enfants starring Jean Forest; directed by Jacques Feyder; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne; (1925)
The Donovan Affair starring Jack Holt; directed by Frank Capra; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Gower Gulch Players with Bruce Goldstein on Piano; (1929)
Flesh and the Devil starring Greta Garbo, John Gilbert & Lars Hanson; directed by Clarence Brown; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble; (1926)
Pan starring Hjalmar Fries Schwenzen; directed by Harald Schwenzen; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald; (1922)
Why Be Good starring Colleen Moore & Neil Hamilton; directed by William A. Seiter; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; (1929)
Norrtullsligan starring Tora Teje, Inga Tidblad, Renée Björling & Linnéa Hillberg; directed by Per Lindberg; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble; (1923)
Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette; directed by Arthur Berthelet; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Donald Sosin Ensemble; (1916)
The Swallow and the Titmouse starring Maguy Deliac, Pierre Alcover, Louis Ravet & Jane Maylianes; directed by André Antoine; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne & Diana Rowan; (1920)
The Deadlier Sex starring Blanche Sweet & Mahlon Hamilton; with Boris Karloff; directed by Robert Thornby; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald; (1920)
Lime Kiln Club Field Day starring Bert Williams & Odessa Warren Grey; directed by Edwin Middleton, T. Hayes Hunter & Sam Corker Jr.; live accompaniment by Donald Sosin; (1913)
Ben-Hur:  A Tale of Christ starring Ramon Novarro & Francis X Bushman; directed by Fred Niblo; silent with intertitles; (1925)

There were a few firsts for this festival beyond its five day length.

The Donovan Affair was not a silent film.  It was a talkie but the sound discs were lost.  At a Frank Capra festival at the New York Film Forum many years ago, the dialog was recreated live by voice actors.  The performance was repeated last year at the Film Forum and this year at the SFSFF.  You can read Bruce Goldstein's (director of repertory programming at the Film Forum) article or an article in the SF Chronicle for more information.

Lime Kiln Club Field Day was abandoned in post-production so it has never been released theatrically.  The Museum of Modern Art acquired the film footage in 1938 and have sat on them until recently.  What was shown at SFSFF was not a film.  It was a long PowerPoint slide about Bert Williams and the making of the film.  That was followed by some footage including multiple takes of the same scene.

Ben-Hur:  A Tale of Christ did not have live accompaniment.  The soundtrack to the film (it may have been a digital projection) was by noted film composer Carl Davis and probably recorded in 1989 with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

Those are three firsts I don't recall from previous festivals.  They screened a talkie, a silent film without a live accompaniment and something that can't be called a film.

I've complained in the past that SFSFF does not allow enough time between programs to allow for any contingencies.  Many films at past festivals have started more than an hour late due to technical difficulties.  This year, the schedule was adhered to like a train schedule in Mussolini's Italy.

Lucy Laird who read the translated subtitles for Cave of the Spider Women is the Operations Director of the SFSFF.  I'm not sure what her experience is with voice overs and voice acting but she had enviable diction and elocution.  I recall that without notes and two months after the fact.

1915 is the 100th anniversary of the Pananma-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE).  An untitled PPIE short film (typically a home movie) screened before each feature.

The following "formal" short films screened during the festival:

Modern China; documentary; (1910)
A Trip Down Market Street; documentary; (1906)
A Canine Sherlock Holmes starring Spot the Urbanora Dog; directed by Stuart Kinder; (1912)

Modern China preceded Cave of the Spider Women.  A Trip Down Market Street A Canine Sherlock Holmes preceded When the Earth Trembled.

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Flesh and the Devil was my favorite film of the festival.  That was due, in no small part, to Greta Garbo's screen presence.  21 years old at the time of filming and in the midst of a legendarily torrid affair with her co-star John Gilbert, Garbo shined on screen like few have before or since.

The film is a romantic triangle with Gilbert as Leo and Lars Hanson as Ulrich.  Best friends since childhood, Leo & Ulrich are junior army officers who return home while on leave.  Leo quickly catches the eye of Felicitas (Garbo) a countess new to the area.  It would be too simplistic to call Felicitas a femme fatale.  She is an undeniably appealing woman who is aware of her charms and not inclined to hide her light under a bushel.  As in real life, Leo & Felicitas engage in a passionate affair but in the film, it is interrupted by the unexpected return of the Count, Felicitas' husband.  The Count challenges Leo to a duel but has one condition.  In order to protect the reputation of everyone involved, they will claim that their disagreement is over a card game.  Leo agrees; he is an officer & a gentlemen...albeit one who knowingly cuckolds another man.  Leo has kept his affair with Felicitas a secret from everyone (including Ulrich).

Leo wins the duel, leaving Felicitas a widow.  For the scandal of killing a man in a duel, Leo is transferred to a remote outpost in Africa.  Before leaving, he makes Ulrich promise to look after the Felicitas under the ruse that he is so upset at making her widow.  In reality, he wants Ulrich to scare off any suitors but unfortunately he is not explicit enough in his instructions.  Upon Leo's return from Africa, he finds that Ulrich has married Felicitas.  Ulrich is still unaware of the truth about Leo's duel with the Count or even Leo's feelings about Felicitas because she has forgotten to mention it.

Before long Leo & Felicitas are at it again.  Leo feels tremendous guilt due to cheating with his best friend's wife but not enough guilt to stop.  Felicitas is more dispassionate about the affair and its effect on Ulrich.  Although she is conflicted about her actions, her cool demeanor is easily interpreted as toying with the affections of both men.  Unable to commit to either man, her faltering actions lead the men to an unavoidable conflict.  I won't give away the ending except to say the film is a tragedy.

As I mentioned, Garbo is luminescent in the film and her love scenes with Gilbert stand out.  Hanson has the unenviable task of being third banana.  That's not because his character is less developed but even the brightest light would be eclipsed by the star power Garbo & Gilbert.   I also notice that Flesh and the Devil was accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble.  I think that of the musicians that regularly play SFSFF, the Matti Bye Ensemble best evoke pathos & tragedy with their music.  Despite the passion Felicitas inspires in the men in her orbit, ultimately tragedy befalls all whom she bestows her attention.   It as if she is modern day Helen of Troy except more willfully active in the discord she causes.

Flesh and the Devil is one of the best silent films I have seen. After a few years of being less than enthused by the silent films at the festival, Flesh and the Devil reminded me of when I first came to love silent films.

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If Flesh and the Devil re-energized my affection towards silent films, there was an unusually strong  program of films which almost daily reinforced the feeling.

All Quiet on the Western Front - I remember seeing the sound version of this film as a boy (most likely the Family Film Festival).  I also remember a TV movie with a memorable performance by Ernest Borgnine.  I always thought the 1930 film was a European production but it was a Hollywood film.  AQOTWF was made on the cusp of the transition between silent films and talkies.  The silent and talkie versions were filmed simultaneously.

In the opening days of WWI, a group of German college classmates enlist in the army.  We watch as this cohort of men go through basic training and combat.  Along the way, their ranks dwindle due to casualties.  The group of younger men are assigned to a squad led by a grizzled combat sergeant (Louis Wolheim).  In the 85 years since AQOTWF was released, its general plot line has been repeated to varying degrees of success in other films.  In a nutshell, young men are disabused of any romantic notions of warfare and either become that which they initially scorn or ridicule or retain their initial humanity.  Paul (Lew Ayres) has a pacifist tilt and is the most reluctant of his classmates to enlist.  The most psychologically harrowing scene involves Paul and a French soldier whom he has bayoneted.  Heavy shelling keeps Paul trapped in the foxhole while the French soldier slowly dies before his eyes.

There is also a memorable scene where a pair of high quality boots are worn by soldier after soldier as each one is killed in combat.  The camera focuses on the soldier's legs until the man falls.  The viewer doesn't know who is killed as the soldiers become interchangeable like it was in WWI where endless waves of men were ground up by machine guns and artillery shells.

Maybe the plot is no longer new or surprising because of subsequent films but the impact remains powerful.  This group of  young men are decimated by the war and the survivors are left broken in body & spirit.  Director Lewis Milestone and Lew Ayres capture the futility of war and the lasting effects of combat on the soldiers after the fighting as stopped.  AQOTWF remains a powerful film.

The Last Laugh - over the years, I have become quite a fan of Emil Jannings.  His performances in The Last Command and Blue Angel are among my favorite.  I can add The Last Laugh to that list.  Jannings plays the chief doorman at a luxury hotel.  I don't believe any of the characters in the film were ever given names.  Like other Murnau films, it has few intertitles.

Jannings takes great pride in his position.  He has a uniform that looks like something an army general would wear.  He literally struts around the neighborhood in it.  He is esteemed by his neighbors in no small part due to his grand uniform.  He is glimpsed by the hotel manager on a rainy night while struggling with heavy luggage (the younger porters are unavailable).  The manager decides the position of chief doorman is too much for the aging Jannings.  He is demoted to men's room attendant and forced to relinquish his prized uniform.  Unable to face his neighbors, his daughter or her in-laws, Jannings steals the overcoat and wears it home as if nothing has changed.

The charade continues until Jannings' in-law sees him at the hotel (and shrieks in horror).  News of his reduced stature quickly makes the rounds.  When he returns home, he is mocked by his neighbors and his daughter & in-laws shun him.  He is left a broken man...until Murnau inexplicably tacks on a happy ending where Jannings wins the lottery.  A title card apologetically sets ups the ending which is played as a farce.  You can almost sense Murnau's reluctance to film the footage.  I've read that Jannings requested the ending or that the German studio requested it.  I've also read that Carl Mayer (the screenwriter) had the ending in his original script.

The Last Laugh is only partially marred by the ending and Murnau softens the blow by way of an introductory intertitle card and the broad farcical overtones.  However, the film is memorable for Jannings performance and the innovative camera movements.  It was based on the critical and box office success of The Last Laugh that Murnau was signed by Fox Studios (pre-merger with 20th Century Pictures) and made Sunrise and the lost film 4 Devils.

When I read the title of The Swallow and the Titmouse, I first thought "Exactly what is a titmouse?"  I thought it was type of mouse - a house mouse, a pack rat, a field mouse and a titmouse.  It turns out that a titmouse is a bird.  My second thought was the film title sounded like something a porno film would be called.  I'm glad that my taxonomic ignorance, shameful affinity with exploitation films and the late showtime did not deter me from seeing The Swallow and the Titmouse.

It has been noted that The Swallow and the Titmouse bears a strong resemblance to L'Atalante, a Jean Vigo film made in 1934.  I enjoyed L'Atalante very much.  The titular Titmouse is the name of a river barge and its sister ship is the Swallow.  The film is a chamber piece set on the two barges with a generous serving documentary like footage of the life of a bargeman.  There are four primary character in the film.  Pierre (Louis Ravet), the owner and captain of the barges, Griet (Jane Maylianes), Marthe (Maguy Deliac) who is Griet's younger sister and Michel (Pierre Alcover) who is Pierre's new first mate.  The four of them live on the barge as it travels between Belgium and France.  The pace of the film is very much in tune with the pace of the barges - deliberate and unhurried.

The film focused so much on the landscape and barge operations that the producer of the film refused to release the film.  The film sat unedited for over 60 years until la Cinémathèque française found it and assembled it in the 1980s.  Given that provenance, any similarities between The Swallow and the Titmouse and L'Atalante must be coincidental.

The director André Antoine cast non-actors in the main roles to better achieve sense of realism or naturalism.  The plot of the film is simple but multi-layered.  Pierre makes some money under the table by smuggling items across the border.  Michel spies Pierre accepting a package from a diamond smuggler and quickly applies for the job of first mate.  The audience is aware of Michel ulterior motives but the character only slowly begin to suspect something is amiss.  Marthe is immediately attracted to Michel and Pierre approves of their budding relationship.  Griet is more circumspect of the new sailor.  As the film progresses, I wondered how Michel would reconcile his feelings for Michel with his desire to steal the diamonds (he does not know where the diamonds are hidden).

Antoine adds a final layer to the plot.  While alone, Michel makes clear his attraction to Griet which forms a love triangle that complicates the interlocking relationships.  Michel never wavers from his goal of having the diamonds for himself.  I won't give away the ending but will say that Pierre handles the situation in a phlegmatic manner which suggests that no matter what the tragedy or obstacle, he will continue with his life undeterred...tote that barge, lift that bale.

The Swallow and the Titmouse clocked in at an appropriately spare 79 minutes but the film achieved an oversized emotional impact on me.  For such a lean film with long segments on the river (Rivet & Alcover must have had experience working on a barge), I was strangely drawn into the plight of the four characters.  It's a sign of a superior film that despite all the reason to be underwhelmed by the film, I find it mesmerizing.  I find the most surprising films are inexplicable.

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Visages d'enfants starred Jean Forest who was the star of Gribiche at the 2013 SFSFF.  Forest plays Jean, a young boy whose mother has recently passed.  He and his father settle into a routine in their small village in Switzerland.  Sensing that Jean would be content living with just the three of them (Jean has a younger sister), Jean's father embarks on a surreptitious romance with the widowed neighbor Jeanette (Rachel Devirys).  Eventually Pierre sends Jean off on a multi-week journey with his godfather who is a priest.  The trip is a ruse as Pierre plans to marry Jeanette during Jean's absence and it is decided the priest will break the news to Jean prior to their return.  I thought that was a cowardly thing to do and would be resentful myself if that happened to me.

Although's Jean's initial intentions are to respect his father's decision, he quickly butts heads with his new stepsister and resents his stepmother's actions which he considers disrespectful of his late mother.  The blended family's dynamics deteriorate as time passes.  The nadir is reached during winter when Jean tosses his stepsister's beloved doll from a moving sled without her noticing.  When they arrive home that night, she is upset.  Jean tricks her into sneaking out of the house to find the doll.  She gets lost and eventually trapped in a old chapel after an avalanche.  Eventually, Jean's guilt gets the better of him and he admits his transgression to his father.  Although the girl is rescued, Jean receives the silent treatment from his family.  He decides to kill himself by drowning but just as he jumps into the river, his stepmother rescues him.  The film ends with the impression that the family has turned a corner and will live more harmoniously in the future.

I was drawn to the film and Jean's situation more than I would have imagined.  There was something about Forest's portrayal of the boy's grief and misguided resentment that struck a chord with me.   I think the film was more complex given the way the marriage was hidden from Jean.  He had reason to be resentful as his father made a decision without informing him.  I think it is important to make the distinction that Pierre certainly did not need his son's approval to re-marry but he owed his son the courtesy of telling him of his decision rather than leaving it to someone else and giving his son no time to prepare for the change.  The  film covers this decision with a scene between Pierre and the priest.  I'm not sure if the decision was consistent with the era's thinking or if the screenwriters decided to make the plot choice to add some depth to Jean's character.  I'm beginning to think the latter.  Regardless, this was key to the story because without it Jean would have been a petulant boy unable to get over his mother's death.  In fact, in the sequence where the stepsister is lost in the snow, Jean seeks solace from his mother's painting which has interacted with the boy in his imagination.  At this crucial moment, the image is faded and nearly vanished which symbolically represents Jean's self-awareness at a subconscious level that he cannot use his mother's death as an ongoing excuse for his bad behavior.  This is a crucial step in Jean's grieving process; albeit he nearly killed his stepsister to reach it.

Visages d'enfants turns on Forest's performance.  Forest deftly walks the line between sympathy and resentment.  In this regard, he plays off fine performance by Rachel Devirys & Arlette Peyran as his stepmother and stepsister, respectively.  Combined with his performance in Gribiche, I have to think that Forest was the preeminent French child actor of the silent era.  Although he lived until 1980, the majority of his IMDB credits occur in the 1920s between the ages of 10 and 15.  He has no credits after 1935, the year he turned 23.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's August 2015 Calendar

The clues in the Castro Theater's August 2015 calendar were easy to solve.

August 4 - I immediately recognized Omar Sharif since he passed away on July 10 and had been in the news lately.

August 10 - having recognized Sharif and even suspecting the August 4 photo was from Dr. Zhivago, it was easy to identify Julie Christie (again the photo is from Dr. Zhivago).

Seeing a pattern with Dr. Zhivago & the Russian headgear in the photos, I quickly identified August 17 & 24.

August 17 - Geraldine Chaplin

August 24 - Rod Steiger

August 31 - this took me a bit of time but browsing through photos of the cast of Dr. Zhivago, I found this was Rita Tushingham whom I recall from The Knack ...and How to Get It.

So the clues are screaming Dr. Zhivago but that film is not on the calendar.  I'm a little surprised that there are no Omar Sharif films on the calendar to pay tribute to the actor.

By the way, 2015 marks Dr. Zhivago's 50th anniversary.  Regarding the puzzle in the calendar, I'm not sure if it is pointing to any specific film or event other than Sharif's death.

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Another month, another screening of Blade Runner at the Castro.  I guess it packs them in.  Having seen the film so many times, I'll probably skip the August 9 screening.

The Muni Metro will be closing at 9:30 PM every night for the next six months.  I typically take the K, L or M to Castro Station when I go to the Castro Theatre.  Muni will run bus shuttles between West Portal & Embarcadero Stations during the closure.  I have yet to experience the bus shuttles so I cannot say how much (if any) delay is caused by the closure.

Thursday nights in August (up to September 3) at the Castro are programmed by Elliot Lavine and are collectively called I Wake Up Dreaming.  Lavine has moved his popular series from the Roxie to the Castro.  The move caught me by surprise.  Somehow, I missed the news.  Five consecutive Thursdays is preferable than 10 consecutive days which they did at the Roxie.  However, of the 12 films being screened over the five Thursdays, I have seen 10 (possibly 11) of the films.  I will likely be skipping I Wake Up Dreaming this year. 

The Castro is closed for six days in August which seems high.   Even though the printed calendar states "TBA" for August 11, their website states the theater will be closed on that date.  August 18 & 25 are still TBA on the website.

What will I be seeing at the Castro this month?

August 5 (today) - a Maysles Brothers documentary double feature:  Grey Gardens is about the impoverished aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy.  Iris is Albert Maysles final film about New York fashion maven and nonagenerian Iris Apfel.

August 12 - Blue Steel is director Kathryn Bigelow's effort in between Near Dark & Point Break and I have read it features a strong performance by Jaime Lee Curtis.  Blue Steel is paired with James Cameron's Aliens.  Cameron is Bigelow's ex-husband.

August 22 - Capricorn One; a cult film which has escaped me for many years.  In this one, NASA fakes a manned landing on Mars (with OJ Simpson as one of the astronauts!).

August 23 - Zardoz; another cult film which has escaped me.  Starring Sean Connery & directed by John Boorman, this 1974 sci-fi film has the added bonus of creating an Easter egg on the calendar.  The title of the film is derived from the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz which is the source material for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz which screens August 14-16.  Capricorn One & Zardoz screen with 2001: A Space Odyssey.

August 26 - Mad Max: Fury Road was the critics' darling at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

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Castro Theater Calendar - August 2015


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Wet Hot American Summer

Last Friday (technically early Saturday morning), I saw a midnight movie at the Landmark Clay.

Wet Hot American Summer starring Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Showater & Marguerite Moreau; with Paul Rudd, Christopher Meloni, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Molly Shannon, Joe Lo Truglio & Michael Ian Black; directed by David Wain; (2001) - Official Website

Before I forget, the Landmark Aquarius in Palo Alto reopened on July 24 after being closed for remodeling for almost four months.  Included among the renovations are "the addition of larger screens; luxury leather seats and recliners; a new sound system, acoustics and lighting; updated bathrooms; a new marquee and a restructured lobby including a concession stand serving gourmet hot treats like sweet potato fries and Gouda macaroni-and-cheese bites."  Beer & wine service is also forthcoming.  The general admission price has increased from $10 to $12.

From the photo below, the auditoriums look smaller.  Theater #2 is eight seats wide with one aisle.  Granted, the new seats are wider than the old seats but the photo below makes the room look thinner and shorter.

Aquarius Theater #2

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Wet Hot American Summer (WHAS) has been a cult film for years.  I've heard about it but had never seen it.  The film had a very limited theatrical release in the summer of 2001.

The film has received renewed attention as of late due to an eight episode prequel miniseries on Netflix.  The conceit of the original WHAS is the actors were portraying characters 10 to 20 years younger than themselves.  The prequel, called Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, is set a few months before the events depicted in WHAS.  Now, 14 years after the original film, most of the principal cast has returned to play the same characters which they are now 25 to 30 years older than.

WHAS is set in 1981 & is a parody of (primarily) summer camp films of which the only one I can recall by name is Meatballs.  However, at various points, WHAS parodies Rocky 3 & various science fiction films.  It throws in some gay sex and even makes fun of heroin junkies shooting up (Trainspotting reference?).  The plot is nothing more than a fig leaf for the cast perform some sketch comedy scenes...and what a cast.  Janeane Garofalo & David Hyde Pierce had the biggest profiles in 2001 but the supporting cast went on to have tremendous careers.  Paul Rudd plays a sexist & boorish womanizer, Bradley Cooper plays one half of the gay duo mentioned previously, Amy Poehler is the overenthusiastic talent director of the summer camp, Christopher Meloni plays a Vietnam vet with PTSD and some kinky sexual practices, Molly Shannon is an arts & crafts instructor who is not coping well with over her divorce but gets some help from one of her students and the list goes on...

WHAS is a series of sexual encounters and thwarted sexual encounters between the counselors at Camp Firewood.  The film begins on the morning of the last full day of summer camp and culminates that evening with a camp talent show interrupted by falling space debris from Skylab.  The film is silly and at times it falls flat.  Not as manic as the Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker films of the era when WHAS is set or as raunchy as say The Hangover, the film would have benefited from a little more pasta against the wall.

Still, checking WHAS off my list was satisfying in itself.  I didn't even fall asleep.  Looking at the Clay's midnight lineup, strangely Hitchcock's Vertigo is screening on August 14 & 15.  I'm more interested in Mad Max on August 21 & 22.  The Castro is screening Mad Max: Fury Road on August 26.  Seeing the two films in such a short period of time (coming on top of Midnites for Maniacs screening of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior in July) could prove interesting and insightful.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Mr. Holmes in the Tri-Valley

Once again, I had a two day meeting in the Tri-Valley.  This appears as though it will be an annual occurrence.  I took the opportunity to visit the Vine Cinema & Alehouse for the second time to see Mr. Holmes which screened at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival.

Mr. Holmes starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney & Milo Parker; directed by Bill Condon; (2015) - Official Website

Remembering last year's visit, I skipped food service at the Vine.  I had enough time to explore the downtown area which is about four blocks from the Vine.  I ended up at Spanky's Dog House more because I ran out of time than I wanted a hot dog.  I briefly considered taking the Atomic Chili Cheese Dog Challenge but figured I'm getting to old for that kind of stuff.

More befitting a man of my age, I selected the Reuben Dog with Bavarian Bratwurst instead of the hot dog.  A Saag's sausage with a more than generous amount of sauerkraut, 1000 Island Dressing and cheese was served.  It was so much that I couldn't eat it with my hands.  I had to use a knife and fork and left a fair amount of cheese on the plate.

I'm not sure if I would recommend the bare bones Spanky's to everyone but a more than adequate sausage combined with their perennial sponsorship of local Little League teams and cheeky merchandise is enough to draw me back if I am again in the vicinity.

There was a fair amount of people in the audience for Mr. Holmes.  I caught a 7 PM weekday screening and there was some sort of group event in the other screening room which drew a large crowd.  It seems as though the Vine is thriving.

Ian McKellen is an actor I'm not too familiar with.  Looking at his filmography, he has experienced considerable box office success with The X-Men and Hobbit film franchises.  I have not seen any films from those franchises in their entirety or at a theater.  I've long wanted to see Gods and Monsters.  Mr. Holmes is a reunion for McKellen and Gods and Monsters' director Bill Condon. 

My primary familiarity with McKellen is from his well known stage collaboration and friendship with Patrick Stewart and a memorable appearance on Saturday Night Live.  Earlier this week, I heard McKellan on NPR telling an amusing story of how he had to ask a straight man to draw him a diagram of heterosexual coitus as research for his role in Scandal (1989) opposite Joanne Whalley-Kilmer.

Mr. Holmes tells the story of Sherlock Holmes as a nonagenerian in the post-WWII years.  Not only is Holmes in his twilight years but he is suffering from advanced dementia.  No longer does Holmes live with Watson at 221B Baker St. (in this film they never did live at that address).  Instead he lives in a remote cottage on the English Channel (within walking distance of the White Cliffs of Dover).  All the other familiar characters are dead - Mycroft, John Watson & Mrs. Hudson.  Holmes now has Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) as a his housekeeper.  The widow Munro has a young son Roger (Milo Parker) whom she is overprotective of due to her husband's death during the war.

The film weaves together three plot lines.  Holmes can no longer remember the circumstances that lead to his self-imposed exile.  He recalls the case which forced him into retirement but not the details.  When he reads Watson's story about the case, he knows something is off but can't recall exactly.  As Holmes struggles to put his memories of the case to paper, he strikes up a friendship born out of necessity with Roger.  Holmes still has his beloved bees and apiary but needs help caring for them.  His last mystery to solve is the Case of Dying Bees.  Seeing Roger's innate intelligence, Holmes encourages the boy's curiosity.  Mrs. Munro is leery of the developing bond between Holmes & her son since she knows how fragile Holmes' health is.

Much of the film switches back and forth between Holmes investigating a case of a distraught wife and her obsession with a glass harmonica in pre-WWI London and the interactions with the Munros in post-WWII Dover.  The third plot line involves Holmes' recent trip to Hiroshima to find a prickly ash plant.  In this version of the Holmes mythos, the bees provide Royal jelly and the prickly ash is ground into a paste as both are reputed to have memory enhancing abilities.

McKellan's Holmes is a sad sight.  He must write the names of close acquaintances on his shirtsleeve cuffs.  Aware of his failing memory and health, Holmes still flashes the extraordinary powers of deduction which Watson has made famous.  In this version, Holmes does not wear a deerstalker hat or smoke a calabash pipe as those were fictional affectations created by Watson.  Much of the film deals with Holmes dealing with people's expectations of him which are based on fictionalized writings of the late Dr. Watson.

The plot is sufficient to sustain interest.  It deals with Holmes recalling the circumstances of the old case and his guilt/regret at his behavior.  He attempts to assuage his conscience with acts of kindness towards the Munros and his Japanese host in Hiroshima.

McKellen is given enough room to showcase his acting talents.  His interactions with Milo Parker are particularly rewarding although Linney holds her own as the dour Mrs. Munro.  All three of these characters are emotionally stunted and are looking for ways to connect with each other.

The plot gives a few sops to casual fans of Holmes.  It creates an interesting alternate biography of Holmes and Watson's face is always obscured to create mystery.  Ultimately, this is the story of an old man whose failing memory inconveniently does not allow him to forget his sense guilt and regret.

By any objective standard, I would rate this film as slightly above average but the story has some added resonance with me as it reminds me slightly of certain circumstances in my life at present.

Monday, July 13, 2015

2015 New Filipino Cinema

The 2015 New Filipino Cinema series ran from June 11 to 21 at the YBCA.  As in previous years, they tacked on a rump session.  This year, they screened Lav Diaz's film From What is Before (2014) which ran 338 minutes with a 40 minute intermission on June 27 & 28.  I passed on the Lav Diaz films so I could go to the Sacramento French Film Festival.

I saw four films at this year's New Filipino Cinema series.

Reptilia in Suburbia; directed by Timmy Harm; Tagalog with subtitles; (2013)
T-Bird at Ako starring Nora Aunor & Vilma Santos; directed by Danny Zialcita; Tagalog with subtitles; (1982)
Esprit de Corps; directed by Kanakan-Balintagos; Tagalog with subtitles; (2014) - Official Facebook
Dynamite Fishing; directed by Chito Roño; Tagalog with subtitles; (2013)

I listed the films in the order I saw them but it turned out to be reverse order of preference too.

Dynamite Fishing is a cryptic title.  The literal translation of the Tagalog title Badil, is Casualties.  I should note that Joel Shepard of the YBCA & Philbert Ortiz Dy, a film reviewer in the Philippines have been the co-curators of the New Filipino Cinema for the past few years.  The took turns introducing the films.  I believe Dy introduced Dynamite Fishing and explained the term was slang in the Philippines for fixing an election.  The reference is foreign to me but after watching the film, I suspect it refers to a sense of overkill as when you use dynamite to stun/kill the fish in a lake or pond.

Dynamite Fishing is the story of Lando (Jhong Hilario), the son of the political boss in a small village.  When his father has a stroke, Lando is forced to assume some of his father's typical duties in the upcoming mayoral election.  Sensing weakness, his candidate's opponents launch a counteroffensive.  Some shady characters from a different island show up and villagers get paid to not vote.

When did elections in Third World countries start using indelible purple ink on the index finger to denote a voter had cast a ballot?  I don't remember it before a few years ago and now it seems ubiquitous.  Anyway, in Dynamite Fishing, the payoff is to have one's finger dipped in the ink prior to the election.  That way, it looks like one voted when in fact they didn't.  This allows the villagers to double dip on payoffs.  Once from Lando's father's machine and once from the outsiders.

Heretofore rather unambitious, Lando earnestly tries to step into his father's shoes as the election seems to be tilting towards his opponents.  Lando's actions have fatal consequences which Lando will long regret.

Not quite as gritty as some of Brillante Mendoza's films, Dynamite Fishing captures the casual and deep-rooted corruption in the Philippines that is Mendoza's stock-in-trade.  There are some tense moments and Lando looks like he is in over his head throughout the film.  The film is an indictment of Filipino society in that it is easier for a decent man like Lando to purposely and inadvertently perpetuate the corruption than to fight against it.  The corruption is also insidious.  It seems like a way of life until the machine is threatened and fights back with deadly force.

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Esprit de Corps was based on a play and it felt like a play that had been adapted for the cinema.  Much of the film takes place in a sparsely furnished armory room.  Director  Kanakan-Balintagos (a nom de plume for Auraeus Solito) was in attendance for the film and introduced the film.  He mentioned that he was among the last cohort of men who had to serve compulsory military service.

The setting of the film was confusing to me.  I believe it was set at a military academy or ROTC equivalent organization.  The major plot line is a triangle between two cadets named Cain & Abel and their commanding officer, another cadet named Lt. Mac Favila.  Cain & Abel are among the candidates being considered to succeed Favila as commanding officer for the next semester. The selection process includes a one-on-one interview/interrogation with Favila in the aforementioned armory room.  These interactions (which are extended scenes) form the crux of the film.

As depicted, the scenes begin like so many military films.  The subordinate assumes a subordinate position but slowly the necessary tensions and conflicts come to the surface.  In Esprit de Corps, Favila adds a decidedly "civilian" aspect to the interactions.  In addition to the verbal abuse and displays of physical fitness, Favila has an unusual criteria in determining his successor.  At one point, he orders Abel to kiss him.  Taken aback, Abel eventually manages a peck on the cheek.  Favila is unimpressed and shows Abel the proper way military personnel of the same gender kiss each other.  Ever obsequious, Abel compliments his superior officer on his kissing abilities.

For several scenes, the film veers to the unbelievable but I guess it represents Solito's experience in the military or perhaps exaggerates it.  The gist of the films is that homosexual tendencies come to the forefront in the cloistered, hypermasculine atmosphere of the military.  In Esprit de Corps, the homosexuality is not just at the forefront but it's tacitly approved by military superiors and understood to be necessary in the promotion process.  In fact, one of the implications is that the homosexuality is inculcated in the troops or at least, any latent desires are brought to fruition.

It was an interesting film; too doctrinaire to be concerned with plot.  Solito also uses non-linear story techniques which can be confusing.  The distinction between Cain & Abel (starting with their names) was too obvious for my tastes.  The finale takes place in the hollow of a tree and reminded me of two things - first is the mental image I have of the Garden of Eden when Eve accepted the apple (which is probably based on some Renaissance painting) and a scene from John Boorman's Excalibur between Lancelot & Guenevere.

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Like Dynamite Fishing, I wonder what the T-Bird in T-Bird at Ako referred to.  Apparently it is a slang term for lesbians in the Phillipines.  I wasn't sure if it referred to all lesbians or just the bull dyke variety.

I am not a devotee of 1980s Filipino cinema but apparently the two biggest female stars of the era were Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos. Aunor still acts (she was in Brillante Mendoza's ThyWomb in 2012).  Santos has been a politician since 1998; first as a mayor and since 2007 as a governor in the Phillipines.  Apparently, the actresses or at least their fans had quite a rivalry back in the day.  None of that is relevant to the film although I suppose it could affect the viewing experience.

One piece of trivia - Lando's father in Dynamite Fishing is played by Dick Israel.  In T-Bird at Ako (32 years before Dynamite Fishing) Israel plays a rapist whose death kicks off the film.

In T-Bird, Aunor plays a criminal defense lawyer who gets involved in a murder case.  The defendant is Santos who plays a cabaret dancer accused of murdering her rapist.  The highlight of the film is Santos dancing to a preposterously simple song while she seduces Aunor in the audience.  I have to admit that Santos certainly swayed her hips effectively.  Aunor's character is repressing her bi-curious thoughts and she is unable to withstand the charms of her client.

The courtroom scenes are a hoot as well since the prosecutor can barely contain his contempt for the filthy lesbians.

Ultimately, T-Bird is an example of a time and society that I'm unfamiliar with.  Rather than having universal & timeless appeal, the films appears dated and provincial.  I couldn't tell if the parts I found funny were intentionally funny.  T-Bird is an interesting diversion but I'm too far removed from it to give its proper due.

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Reptilia in Suburbia is best described as an experimental film.  There are scenes set in the 1980s at a family dinner table.  There are scenes in some prison/dungeon with a bound person/mad scientist.  I can't recall the film to be honest.  Within 20 minutes, the film lost my attention and it's easy for me to tune out subtitled films because there are no verbal cues to refocus my attention.  Perhaps there was more to the film but it lost me at the beginning and never caught my attention again.

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The director Lav Diaz appeared on screen in Lorna which won this year's Audience Favorite Award.  The film was directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo who made Anita’s Last Cha-Cha which screened at last year's New Filipino Cinema and Frameline.  I was on the fence about Lorna but now I regret missing the film.

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Friday, July 10, 2015

2015 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival

The 2015 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival (SF DocFest) ran from June 4 to 18 at various locations.  I saw 10 films at the Roxie but they also screened films at the Vogue and Brava Theaters.

Due to various reasons, I wasn't able to attend many films at this year's DocFest although I think I skipped the festival completely last year.  Originally, I had only planned on attending the opening weekend but I was able to clear some time later in the festival.  Still, 10 films in 15 days is not a film viewing pace any self-respecting cinephile should be proud of.

As the name of the festival implies; all the films were documentaries.

The Desk; directed by Andrew Goldman; (2015) - Official Website
20 Years of Madness; directed by Jeremy Royce; (2015) - Official Website
The Barge; directed by Ben Powell; (2015) - Official Website
Pervert Park; directed by Frida Barkfors & Lasse Barkfors; (2014)
The Sandwich Nazi; directed by Lewis Bennett; (2015) - Official Website
GTFO: Get The Fuck Out; directed by Shannon Sun-Higginson; (2015) - Official Website
Top Spin; directed by Sara Newens & Mina T. Son; (2014) - Official Website
Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile; directed by Norah Shapiro; Tibetan & English with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website
For Grace; directed by Mark Helenowski & Kevin Pang; (2015) - Official Website
The Decent One; directed by Vanessa Lapa; German with subtitles; (2014)

I saw five short films during the festival.

The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers; directed by Michael T. Vollmann; (2015) - Official Website
Boxeadora; directed by Meg Smaker; Spanish with subtitles; (2015) - Official Website
Calls to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story; directed by Bradley Beesley & Ben Steinbauer; (2015)
Dukha in Summer; directed by Cameo Wood; Mongolian with subtitles; (2014)
Read Chuna; directed by Micro Documentaries; Nepali with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website

The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers preceded GTFO: Get The Fuck Out.  Boxedora preceded Top SpinCalls to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story preceded The Sandwich NaziDukha in Summer & Read Chuna preceded Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile.

The 10 films I caught were pretty solid this year.  In roughly the order of my preference:

Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile - the story of a young Tibetan woman living in Minnesota.  Feeling disconnected from her Tibetan roots, she enters a Tibetan beauty pageant in Dharamsala. Ostensibly about learning Tibetan history and values, she eventually becomes embroiled in a controversy about the crowning of Miss Tibet.  Although, Tenzin Khecheo espoused Buddhist principles throughout the pageant, when the winner was crowned she joined the revolt against the organizer.  The flamboyant organizer, Lobsang Wangyal, is worthy of his own documentary.  Somehow, the film made the mystery of the results of a beauty pageant with six contestants interesting.  You see, there was a secret criteria that judges used to declare the winner.  Also, the judges' ballots went missing the day after the pageant.

The Sandwich Nazi - the life and times of Salam Kahil, a foul mouthed Lebanese sandwich shop owner in Vancouver, BC.  Although he exhibits some similarities to the infamous Soup Nazi from Seinfeld, Kahil talks a lot about his penis, his sexual experiences, his time as a male escort, his brother molesting him, etc.  Oddly sympathetic, during the making of the film, Kahil has two serious car accidents, closes his shop and returns to Lebanon for an emotional family reunion..

GTFO: Get The Fuck Out - a look at the hypermasculinized culture of video gaming.  The film went into some detail about the root causes of the misogyny but I can't recall the potential solutions.  I'm not sure if my latent sexism is being exposed but the stories of sexual harassment and threats of violence were the most memorable parts of the film.

Top Spin - I can't find it on this blog but somewhere I saw a film or short film about Ariel Hsing and/or Lily Zhang.  Hsing & Zhang are female table tennis players from the Bay Area who represented the US at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.  Michael Landers from Long Island was favored to qualify on the men's side for the US but didn't make the cut.  The film treats its subject with kid gloves but two things were clear to me.  The film foreshadowed Landers' failure to qualify.  That may be the result of skillful editing.  The second theme was that Zhang is intimidated by Hsing.  One year younger than Hsing, Zhang is less self-confident.  Perhaps it is because Hsing refers to Warren Buffet and Bill Gates as Uncles Warren  & Bill.  Regardless, there is an unstated but perceptible sense that Zhang chafes in the shadow of Hsing although both seem like perfectly pleasant young women.  There was short but very telling scene where Zhang & Hsing are sitting next to each other.  The voice off camera asks about their previous match.  The voice asks who won.  Hsing lets out some nervous laughter and says she won.  Zhang is silent and looks humiliated.

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The Barge - a barebones documentary that follows a barge crew trip down the Mississippi River.  At times, it reminded me of Deadliest Catch on Discovery in that it mixed personal conflict amongst the crew with the operations of the barge.

Pervert Park - an unusual & unique trailer park exists in Florida.  Due to laws in many communities, registered sex offenders are not allowed to live in certain areas.  This trailer park (started by a woman whose son was an RSO and couldn't find a place to live) consists solely of residents who are RSOs.  Many of the residents seems like "normal" people and elicit empathy or even sympathy although there is one chilling scene where a man describes (in a matter-of-fact tone of voice) how he had an argument with his wife/girlfriend, drove to Mexico, abducted a 7 year old girl off the streets and raped her.

For Grace - a surprisingly uninspiring documentary about Curtis Duffy's long struggle to open his own restaurant in his quest for three Michelin stars.  The restaurant (named Grace) eventually opens towards the end of the film but I felt as exhausted as Duffy by the long process.  Some tragedies from Duffy's life are shared.  Duffy seems to cope by being emotionally distant.  There is one memorable scene where Duffy attempts to have a meal at Charlie Trotter's restaurant before it closes but Trotter bars him from entering due to a class action lawsuit Duffy was a part of.  Duffy claims not to remember signing on to the lawsuit.

The Decent One - another surprisingly unengaging film about Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS.  Based on Himmler's letters, diaries and home films which were allegedly captured by Allied soldier but not turned over to authorities.  Much of the film consists of actors reading Himmler's letters.  I seem to recall some of them in English but I cannot be sure.  As a young man, Himmler seems a bit of a whiner.  Later in life, Himmler either has an incredible capacity to deflect responsibility or is intentionally downplaying his activities for the recipient's benefit (frequently his allegedly apolitical wife).

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The Desk - not quite a documentary as director and former NY Times columnist Andrew Goldman includes scenes from his short film which features controversial New Zealand television personality Paul Henry and an actor portraying Goldman.  The subject was mildly interesting although Goldman was shocked (absolutely shocked) to learn that the line between advertising and editorial contents is not so distinct at the NYT when he runs afoul of former editor Jill Abramson & fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg.

20 Years of Madness - the alumni of a public access television show in Detroit reunite 20 years later.  Some of the old rivalries and animosities come to the forefront.  The original show (made when the subjects were teenagers) didn't seem that funny to me so I was hard pressed to get excited about the reunion.  You can view the original shows (called 30 Minutes of Madness) on-line.  Having seen Wayne's World a few weeks earlier, I thought the show was a real world example of what would have happened to Wayne & Garth after the film ends.

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As for the short films, The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers was my favorite.  It tells the story of a group of teenagers and young men in the early 1980s who hacked into Los Alamos National Laboratory among others.  Seemingly inspired by War Games, the hackers were among the first to be targetted by the FBI.  The title refers to the area code in Milwaukee where the hackers lived.


Boxeadora profiled Namibia, a Cuban woman who dreams of representing Cuba in the Olympics.  I didn't know that female boxing was an Olympic sport.  Apparently, neither does the Cuban government whose sexist policies have long denied Namibia and all Cuban female boxers a spot in the Olympics.


Calls to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story is about some glorified prank calls.  If the film is to be believed, a bunch of teenage boys in the 1980s were an underground sensation.  They would prank call people and record the calls onto cassette tapes.  The tapes would get copied and passed around.  That is how the legend of Park Grubbs started.  I wouldn't be surprised if this was a mocumentary as a woman allegedly recalls a prank call she received 30 years previously.

As an aside, the eponymous Park Grubbs (a pseudonym for the prank calls) was based in Bartlesville, OK.  Bartlesville was/is the headquarters for Phillips Petroleum who owned the Phillips 66 gas stations.  I had a job offer to work in Bartlesville in the 1990s but thankfully declined the offer.