Monday, November 19, 2007

2007 San Francisco Asian Film Festival

The 2007 San Francisco Asian Film Festival ran from November 8 to 18. I saw eleven films at the 4 Star and Castro.

Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea - Japanese with subtitles; filmed on location in Mongolia; (2007)
Eye in the Sky with Tony Leung Ka Fai; Cantonese with subtitles; (2007) - Official Site
The Goddess with Ruan Lingyu; silent with intertitles; (1934)
Dragon Tiger Gate with Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue; directed by Wilson Yip; Cantonese with subtitles; (2006)
ZebraMan directed by Takashi Miike; Japanese with subtitles; (2004)
Barking Dogs Never Lie with Bae Doo-na; directed by Bong Joon-ho; Korean with subtitles; (2000)
Yakiniku The Movie Japanese with subtitles; (2007)
Nanking - English, Mandarin, and Japanese with subtitles; (2007) - Official Site
Confession of Pain with Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Shu Qi; Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles; (2006)
Flashpoint with Donnie Yen, Louis Koo; directed by Wilson Yip; Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles; (2007) - Official Website
Invisible Target with Nicholas Tse, Jaycee Chan, Shawn Yue; Cantonese with subtitles; (2007) - Official Site

A few quick notes. The film I most wanted to see was The Banquet with Ziyi Zhang. However, the film did not arrive in time for the screening. I am very disappointed. The film is characterized as "Hamlet with a kung fu twist." The proper term is Wǔxiá which literally translates into philosophical kung fu. Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragron are two well known wǔxiá films.

All the Chinese films were set in Hong Kong (HK) except the eponymous Nanking. My guilty pleasure is HK action films and this festival delivered. Flashpoint in particular was a gritty film about a cop that is as violent as the criminals he is trying to arrest. When the Vietnamese gang attacks the cops, Yen drops all pretense about upholding the law. He goes after them with guns and fists. The fight scenes were choreographed by star Donnie Yen. For added realism, Yen incorporates mixed martial arts into the fight scenes so it looks like something out of Ultimate Fighter.

Invisible Target is more like an American action movie with plenty of explosions. Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue were/are teenage pop stars which makes their acting and physicality more impressive. It would be like Justin Timberlake (is he sitll popular) making action movies and doing his stunts. Jaycee Chan is Jackie Chan's son. There is a definite facial resemblance.

Confession of Pain has a few action sequences but is more of a thriller. First, note there are two Tony Leungs that are well known Chinese actors. This films starred Tony Leung Chiu Wai. He is the Tony Leung (aka Short Tony) currently appearing in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution. Frequently co-starring with the beautiful Maggie Cheung, you may also remember him from Hero, 2046, In the Mood for Love, and Chungking Express.

The other Tony Leung is Tony Leung Ka Fai who appeared in Eye in the Sky. That Tony Leung (aka Big Tony) also has a more offbeat filmography including a movie I saw many years ago called The Lover with Jane March and based on a Marguerite Duras autobiographical novel. More recently he was in Johnny To's Election. I get them confused all the time.

Also, if you are wondering what a guy named Takeshi Kaneshiro is doing an HK action film, allow me to elaborate. Many people don't know this but Japan occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. Despite 62 years of being the Republic of China, there is still a Japanese presence on the island. Kaneshiro, born in 1973 to a Taiwanese mother & Japanese father, can speak Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and English. Also, Confession of Pain was made by the team that created Infernal Affairs (note infernal not internal). In the USA, Infernal Affairs was remade by Martin Scorcese with the title The Departed with Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson.

Barking Dogs Never Lie was made by the director who helmed The Host which was in US theaters earlier this year. Those two films starred a great Korean actress (Bae Doo-na) whom I became familiar with as the Korean exchange student in the Japanese film Linda Linda Linda.

Enough of the Kevin Bacon in Asia game.

Linda Linda LindaCast of Linda Linda Linda (Bae Doo-na, far right)

Tony Leung Chiu WaiTony Leung Chiu Wai

Tony Leung Ka FaiTony Leung Ka Fai

Saturday, November 17, 2007

El Paso Native Alan Tudyk

I recently read an article about character actors and their ability/freedom to give fascinating performances that lead actors are unable or not allowed to give. Most people have never heard of Alan Tudyk. In the article, he identified as a character actor giving great performances today and as soon I read it his name, I nodded my head in agreement.

Tudyck appeared in the British movie Death at a Funeral which was in theaters this summer. He played the nervous boyfriend who unknowingly took some hallucinogenic drugs. I think his most famous role to date is giving voice to the robot Sonny in I, Robot starring Will Smith. I thought he was British based on his voice but it turns out he was born in El Paso and grew up in Plano near Dallas. I grew up in El Paso so its a small world. I can't think of many "famous" people from El Paso. Sandra Day O'Connor grew up there as did ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson. The only other actor I can think of is former Miss USA Laura Harring who had roles in Mulholland Falls, The Punisher, and the TV show The Shield.

Tudyk has been busy this summer. He appeared as Doc Potter (sporting eyeglasses and a mustache) in the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Also, he was in the film Knocked Up which I did not see.

He has built an impressive filmography. I, Robot which I saw in the theaters has been on TV a lot the last few years. It's a film that is a full of small pleasures - James Cromwell's narration, Tudyk's voice and the animatronic facial features of Sonny. He had a small role in a little known film called Wonder Boys (based on a Michael Chabon novel by the same name) starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes, and Robert Downey Jr. and others. Set in Pittsburgh, Douglas is a English professor suffering from long-term writers block, Downey is his dubious agent, Maguire his sexually confused student with enormous creative talent and suicidal tendencies, and Holmes plays another student with a crush on teacher.

Tudyk's list of credits goes on and on - the cult hit Firefly and the movie sequel Serenity, Ice Age, its sequels, and A Knight's Tale.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Charlie Chaplin at the Castro

BAM/PFA is having a Charlie Chaplin retrospective in Berkeley and at the Castro in December. There are number of classic films that I want to see. Earlier, I listed City Lights on my film list. That film will be repeated in December. Not quite a silent film; it has a musical score and a muffled voice is heard a la Charlie Brown's teacher. Allegedly, it was Chaplin speaking through a kazoo.

Among the highlights I want to see are:

The Great Dictator (1940); Chaplin plays Adenoid Hynkel (and his Jewish barber) in this satirical criticism of Hitler and the Nazis. I've heard about this movie since I was a kid but have never seen it (not even on TV). The film co-stars Paulette Goddard (Mrs. Charlie Chaplin at the time of the film). Trivia - Paulette Goddard would divorce Chaplin and marry Burgess Meredith who is best known to audiences as Mickey from the Rocky movies or the Penguin from the 1960's Batman television series. Extra trivia - my favorite Burgess Meredith role is a supporting role he had in John Wayne's In Harm's Way. You may recall that WWII movie for Kirk Douglas' supporting role where he rapes a nurse and atones for it by flying a fighter plane into sure death.
The Great Dictator
Modern Times (1936); Chaplin's satirical criticism (he made a lot of
satirical criticisms) about the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. Slipping back into his familiar role as The Little Tramp, this film includes Chaplin's most famous visual gag when he gets pulled through some giant gears and cogs. Once again, this is a movie I've heard a lot about but have never seen. Co-stars Paulette Goddard. Similar to City Lights, this film contains limited dialogue but has a score and sound effects.
Modern Times
The Kid (1921); The Little Tramp teamed with the biggest child star of the time - a seven year old Jackie Coogan. I've never seen Jackie Coogan as a child in any films. Forty years after this film, Coogan would play Uncle Fester in the TV series "The Addams Family."

Monday, November 12, 2007

Taking Inventory through October 27

Continuing my movie inventory...

2007 DocFest - Official Site
American Scary (2006) - Official Site
Wiener Take All: A Dogumentary (2007) - Official Site
The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil (2006) - Official Site
Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) - Official Site
Shakey's Hill (2007) - Official Site
Read SF Chronicle story on Shakey's Hill.
Hell on Wheels (2007) - Official Site
Cowboys and Communists (2007) - Official Site
A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory (2007) - Official Site
Eat at Bill's (2007)
Audience of One (2007)
Manufacturing Dissent (2007) - Official Site

2007 Shock it To Me Film Festival - Official Site
Sugar Hill (1974)

Maria Montez Triple Feature
Cobra Woman (1944)
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944)
Arabian Nights (1943)

Creepshow with Leslie Nielsen, Ted Danson, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, E.G. Marshall; directed by George Romero (1982)

That takes me up through October 27. Currently, I'm attending the San Francisco Asian Film Festival (not to be confused with the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival). I'll post those films and some thumbnail sketches of the last 60 films I've seen during the Thanksgiving break.

Taking Inventory through September 28

I've been so busy at work and other personal tasks that I haven't blogged but as you'll see I have had time to go to the movies.

Here are the movies I've seen since July 8.

City Lights with Charlie Chaplin; (1931)

2007 San Francisco Silent Film Festival
All films were screened at the Castro Theater. All films were silent with live musical accompaniment.

Hal Roach Short Film Compilation
The Valley of the Giants (1927)
Maciste - Italian; (1915)
Camille with Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova; (1921)
Beggars of Life with Louise Brooks and Wallace Beery, directed by William Wellman; (1928)
Retour de Flamme - compilation of restored French silent films
Miss Lulu Bett directed by William C. de Mille; (1921)
A Cottage on Dartmoor directed by Anthony Asquith; (1929)
The Godless Girl directed by Cecil B. de Mille; (1929)

The Barbara Stanwyck retrospective sponsored by BAM/PFA to commemorate the centennial of her birth continued in July at the Castro.
Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson; (1944)
Clash by Night with Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, and Marilyn Monroe; directed by Fritz Lang; (1952)

Revenge of the Cheerleaders with David Hasselhoff in supporting role; (1976)

2007 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival - Official Site
His People - Silent film with live accompaniment; (1925)
Body and Soul with John Garfield; (1947)

Witchcraft Through the Ages - 1922 silent film (Häxan) from Denmark re-edited with narration by William S. Burroughs; (1968)

2007 Dead Channels Film Festival - Official Site
Happy Birthday Wanda June with Rod Steiger; based on a Kurt Vonnegut play; (1971)
Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975)
Freesia - Icy Tears - Japanese with subtitles; (2007) - Official Site (Japanese language)
Spider Baby with Lon Chaney Jr. and directed by Jack Hill; (1968)
Pit Stop with Brian Donlevy, Richard Davalos, and Ellen Burstyn (McRae); directed by Jack Hill; (1969)
Short and Really Scary short film compilation
Disquiet (2006) - Official Site
Jupiter Love (2006) - Official Site
The Secret Life of Sarah Sheldon (2006) - Official Site
Hot Baby! (2007) - Official Site

Le Doulos - French with subtitles; directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; (1962)
Massacre at Central High (1976)

Harry Potter Film Festival
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Death at a Funeral (2007) - Official Site
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) - Official Site
Cruising with Al Pacino and directed by William Friedkin; (1980)
Death Proof - second half of Grind House; directed by Quentin Tarantino; (2007)
Vanishing Point (1971)
3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe; (2007)
Seconds with Rock Hudson and directed by John Frankenheimer; (1966)

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Taking Inventory as of July 7

Since the end of the Hole in the Head Festival, I watched four outstanding films.

Rape of Europa; (2006) - Official Website
Colma The Musical; (2006) - Official Website
Ball of Fire with Gary Cooper & Barbara Stanwyck; (1941).
Forty Guns with Barbara Stanwyck; (1957).

Ball of Fire & Forty Guns are part of a Barbara Stanwyck retrospective sponsored by BAM/PFA to commemorate the centennial of her birth.

Another tie-in to the 2006 SFIAAFF - Forty Guns was directed by Sam Fuller. His best known film is The Big Red One (1980) with Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, and Robert Carradine. In 1959, Fuller directed The Crimson Kimono starting James Shigeta. I saw it at the 2006 SFIAAFF because they honored Shigeta. Come to think about it, Fuller made a great noir film in 1953 called Pickup on South Street with Richard Widmark. I saw it at the 2006 Noir City film festival. Fuller has a unique directorial style that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Forty Guns is the ultimate B western directed by the ultimate B movie director. Read more here and here.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

2006 Was a Very Good Year

One of the treats of going to film festivals occurs in the form of delayed gratification. I am referring to when a festival film gets wider distribution. It gives me a sense of having inside knowledge. This has occurred frequently as of late.

2006 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) was a cornucopia of pre-release films. The Special Jury Award went to Colma The Musical. I wanted to see that film because it was filmed near where I lived but the showings were sold out. Colma has a limited release (SF & NYC) this summer. It's in its third week at Embarcadero Cinema. I caught it a couple weekends ago and have to agree that it was deserving of an award. I recognized many of the filming locations (one shot was about 4 blocks my place). Beyond that, the tunes were catchy and the story was interesting enough. I won't go into too much detail because you can read the SF Chronicle's review. I largely agree with the review although I thought there was unrequited love between Rodel & Billy. I also thought that by making Rodel's character mean-spirited at times, it added some depth to his character. Allegedly, the creators of Colma are working on its sequel - Serramonte The Musical.

Colma The Musical 2006 SFIAAFF synopsis
Colma The Musicall - Official Website

Also from the 2006 SFIAAFF was Eve & the Fire Horse. It just opened on Friday, July 6. The Chronicle review panned it but I found the film quite endearing. Being half-Japanese, I found the scenes where Vivian Wu's character speak Chinese and her daughters respond in English to be dead on and insightful. It was a little touch that captures how I still communicate with my mother to this day. I haven't seen the film in 16 months but I recall laughing out loud. The film took place in the 70's which is time when I would have been Eve's age (9 years old). The fact that it is a period piece is not mentioned in the review but again the director/writer (Julia Kwan) got the details just right. Frequently, a film doesn't stand up to a second viewing so the criticisms may be valid but my initial response to the film was that it the film was wonderful.

Other films from the 2006 SFIAAFF that were later distributed were Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (pronounced ka-ka-zhi-lee), Journey From The Fall, and The Slanted Screen. For my money, the best film of the 2006 SFIAAFF was Linda, Linda, Linda, a Japanese comedy about four schoolgirls that form a rock band to enter their school's talent contest. In addition to the regular teenage angst, they must deal with the lead singer who is a Korean exchange student that barely speaks Japanese & can't carry a tune. By the way, the movie title is based on a song by the Blue Hearts, an 1980's punk rock group out of Japan.

From the 2007 SF IndieFest, Ten Canoes is being distributed. The film is an aboriginal tale within an aboriginal tale set in the time before time, in the Australian outback. It had its moments but I wasn't greatly impressed by the film.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bugs Bunny - Gay Panic?

The Bad Bugs Bunny program from the Hole in the Head festival reminded of an observation.

There is a strong element of homoeroticism in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. When Bugs is threatened, he frequently gets into a tight dress, puts on a wig, applies make-up, and sashays in front of Elmer Fudd or some other guy with a gun. Typically, Elmer becomes enchanted (i.e. aroused) with Bugs-in-drag. Elmer is abused by Bugs when he goes in for a kiss. Eventually Elmer learns the truth about the identity of the beautiful woman in front of him (usually the dress rides up and reveals Bugs' cottontail). This sends Elmer into a rage and he attempts kills Bugs. Sometimes, he'll even stick his shotgun in Bugs' mouth.

Dennis Nyback mentioned something that I was aware of but overlooked. The Looney Tunes were originally intended for adults. The cartoons were shown before the main feature film along with a newsreel. It wasn't until they started showing the cartoons on Saturday mornings that they became associated with children.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Taking Inventory as of June 14, Hole in the Head, & Citizen Kane

The Hole in the Head Festival ran June 1 to 14. I saw 11 programs; some good, some bad. All showings were at the Roxie.

Hole in the Head Film Festival:
Stagknight; (2007) - Official Website
Blood Car; (2007) - Official Website
Aachi & Ssipak; Anime; Korean with subtitles; (2006) - Official Website
Hazard; Directed by Sion Sono; Japanese with subtitles; (2005) - Official Website
The Thirst; (2006) - Official Website
El Muerto; Starring Wilmer Valderrama; (2005)
Special; Starring Michael Rapaport; (2006) - Official Website
Bad Bugs Bunny; Curated by Dennis Nyback; - Compilation of Warner Brother Cartoons
Murder Party; (2007) - Official Website
The Man from Earth; (2007) - Official Website
Automation Transfusion; (2006) - Official Website

Hole in the Head Film Festival Short Films (shown before some of the main features):
Night of the Hell Hamsters; 16 minute short film; (2006) - Official Website
Of Darkness; 21 minute short film; (2006) - Official Website
Splitting Hairs; 16 minute short film; (2007) - Official Website

In case you are curious, El Muerto has an official website at www.elmuertomovie.com but it's down whenever I visit it. If you are interested, you can visit the official website of El Muerto (the comic book version).

Bad Bugs Bunny was a program that included 10 uncensored cartoons that were modified or pulled from distribution due to their original racist, sexist or otherwise offensive comment.

Let's see if I can remember all ten. Some of the synopses are from Nyback's homepage.

    Hare Ribbin (Bob Clampett 1946) This is the original version of this cartoon with the homicide ending that was changed to suicide a month or so after it came out. - Wikipedia Entry

    He Was Her Man (Friz Freleng 1937) A long suppressed cartoon due to it's extreme violence toward women.

    Sioux Me (Ben Hardaway, 1939) Native American stereotypes galore. The rainmaker must produce rain or the chief will slit his throat.

    Let It Be Me (Friz Freleng, 1936) Caricature of Bing Crosby as a woman abusing cad. He successfully sued Warner's to stop the showing of this cartoon.

    Ali Baba Bound (Bob Clampett, 1940) Porky Pig battles stereotyped Arabs. This includes a tasteless joke about a suicide bomber.

    Tin Pan Alley Cats (Bob Clampett, 1943) An all black character cartoon starring a caricature of Fats Waller. - Wikipedia Entry

    Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips (Friz Freleng, 1944) Japanese bashing from WW II - Wikipedia Entry

    Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (Bob Clampett, 1943) Snow White set in Harlem with a bebop soundtrack - Wikipedia Entry

    Wise Quackers (Friz Freleng, 1949) Daffy Duck becomes Elmer Fudd's "slave."

    Wholly Smoke (Frank Tashlin, 1938) Porky Pig has hallucinations after smoking a cigar. Exactly what was in that cigar?

Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs and Tin Pan Alley Cat were pulled from distribution in 1968 but I distinctly recall seeing Tin Pan Alley Cat in the mid-70's on Saturday morning TV when I was a kid. Actually, I remember 9 out 10 of the cartoons from my childhood. I can't with certainty that I saw Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs before but seemed familiar to me.

Nyback was present to introduce his program and take questions after the show. He mentioned the URL for a site that catalogs the edits and cuts from the Looney Tunes. The URL is www.looney.goldenagecartoons.com/ltcuts/. By the way, note that the official title is Looney Tunes and not Looney Toons.

Out of those 11 programs, I can only recommend four. I recommend:

Hazard - Great Japanese film about a dissatisfied Japanese college student that drops out and goes to New York City because it is one of "the most dangerous places in the world"; i.e for some excitement. He falls in with another Japanese expat and a Japanese-Chinese drug dealer that sells snowballs (ice cream laced with ecstasy). The three of them become modern day cowboys before meeting a tragic end. The protagonist returns to Japan a changed man. The black comedy reminded me of Peckinpah.

Blood Car - Hilarious film about a (not to distant) future where gasoline is $30/gallon and no one can afford to drive. Archie (an earnest, vegan, school teacher) spends his nights tinkering on an engine that will run on wheat grass juice. He is unsuccessful until he accidentally cuts himself and some blood gets mixed with the juice. Eureka! Denise runs a "meat stick" stand next to the place where Archie buys his wheat grass. When he drives up in his car, Denise goes into full gold-digger mode. She gets so excited by riding in his car that she gives him a blowjob within minutes of getting in the car - while he is driving! That is just a precursor because Denise is a full-on sex freak that would make Rick James blush. Her sexual deviance awakens a dark side in Archie. To slake his sexual desires, Archie needs to feed the blood car so that Denise will remain interested. Archie progresses from killing small animals to making use of the recently deceased to killing people. All the while, the Feds are monitoring Archie and his blood car. The film is low budget but audacious as only independent film can be. Two gags made me laugh out loud. Anna Chlumsky (best known for her role in 1991's My Girl with Dan Aykroyd, Macaulay Culkin, and Jamie Lee Curtis) plays the wheat grass vendor that lusts after oblivious Archie. She is so desperate she draws her fantasies on paper which include her performing fellatio on Archie with the thought balloon "Your cum tastes like tofu." The other joke is when crass Denise rebuffs Archie's attempts to get closer to her. She says to Archie "Imagine me with a taco in my mouth. Think about that while you write haikus about my box."

Murder Party - Christopher is a lonely guy that sees an advertisement for a "murder party" on Halloween. He bakes a pumpkin loaf and heads over to the warehouse the "party" is being held. What he encounters is five artists that have planned the ultimate performance art piece - the murder of the anonymous guest of honor. He's bound & gagged while awaiting his execution. His fate would be sealed except for the dysfunctional quintet that have captured him. Sidenote - two of the artists are dressed as characters from two of my favorite movies. Lexi is dressed as Pris (Darryl Hannah's character) from Blade Runner. Another character (I cannot recall his name) was dressed as a baseball gang member from Walter Hill's The Warriors - "Can you dig it?!" Although a black comedy, slasher film, Murder Party is, at its core, an indictment of the pretentiousness, pettiness, and absurdity of the modern-day art world.

Special - Michael Rapaport plays Les, a loser who volunteers for a medical study for a test drug that will improve his confidence. Soon after starting the medication, he notices he has "super power" like his heroes in the comic books he reads. The only problem is that he doesn't have super powers; the drug is affecting his ability to comprehend reality. He thinks he is levitating or transporting himself through solid walls but everyone else sees falling on his face or running full speed into the wall. He even explains the blood and bruises as side effects of using his super power. The doctor prescribing the medication urges Les to stop taking the medication but Les knows the authorities have the office bugged and can communicate telepathically. He hears the doctor's real message - keep taking the pills to keep your new powers. As his superhero exploits (randon assaults and other bizarre behavior) begin making the nightly newscasts, the drug company gets nervous that Les' reaction will result in failure to get FDA approval. The two brothers that own the company will stop at nothing to protect their investment. This film is funny, bittersweet, & tragic.

Aachi and Ssipak wasn't my cup of tea but many people enjoy that kind of movie. It's an ultraviolent Korean anime about a society that uses human feces as their main fuel source. To monitor their fuel supply, they implant sensors in everyone's anus and keep them pliant with addictive popsicles. The Man from Earth gets an honorable mention. It's about a 14,000 year old man that tells his story to his friends. First, there is disbelief but eventually the conversation turns to existential, philosophical, historical, and anthropological matters. I enjoyed the film although some of the dialog was impossible to pull off. The final twist was one too many which downgraded it in my opinion. John Billingsley (Dr. Phlox from Enterprise), Tony Todd, and Nurse Lydia from ER co-star.

The Thirst should be avoided at all costs. This film about vampires near a college features dialog that is laughable, wooden performances, and a predictable plot. El Muerto was about an Aztec zombie that resists his evil impulses. I found it boring. Stagknight had a few laughs but was ultimately second rate and Automation Transfusion was nothing special - a predictable zombie flick that is most notable for its suprisingly good special effects given its ultralow budget.

In addition to all those films, I saw Citizen Kane which many people consider the greatest movie ever made. I won't write much about the film because so much has been written by others. A few pieces of trivia - early in the film, Charles Foster Kane's mother is played by Agnes Moorehead who 30 years later would play Endora, the mother-in-law in Bewitched. Bernard Herrmann who composed the original score for Citizen Kane at age 28 (his first film credit). He went on to compose original scores for Taxi Driver, Cape Fear, and several Hitchcock films including Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, The Birds, etc..

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs July 13 to 15 at the Castro.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Taking Inventory as of May 31

It was another slow month...since the last inventory, I have only seen three films.

Going Under; (2004) - Official Website
Waitress; (2007) - Official Website
The Prodigy; (2004) - Official Website

The Prodigy showed at the 2005 Hole in the Head but I didn't see it then. Dead Channels sponsored a director's cut at the Roxie last week.

Waitress is a sweet film from the late Adrienne Shelly which was fifth at the box office last week. I spoke a little about her death in the last post. The film is a small gem. I read a film review that said Waitress portended great things from Shelly. I don't necessarily agree with that statement but that shouldn't be interpreted as a negative opinion of the film.

The eponymous waitress is played by Keri Russell. She plays Jenna, a small-town waitress that is married to a lout and regretfully pregnant with his child. She impulsively jumps into a passionate affair with her obstetrician. As her pregnancy and ardor progress, Jenna becomes despondent as she faces her limited choices. Jenna's ultimate haven is baking pies. In voice-overs, she christens the pies with names like Abusive Husband Pie - start with bittersweet chocolate, crush it into the crust, etc. She also starts an open letter to her unborn child which makes clear her resentment of her baby because she is now permanently anchored to Earl, her possibly unstable husband. (Did I mention this film was a comedy?) I found the voice-overs to be mildly annoying but the rest of the audience seemed amused by them.

The strength of this movie is in the small scenes between the characters. In addition to Jenna (the reluctant mother-to-be), there are the two other waitress - Becky (married to an older invalid; vaguely slutty) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly as the mousy blonde who finds true love with a nebbish neurotic). Andy Griffith plays the cantankerous restaurant owner with a heart of gold that serves as Jenna's mentor. Nathan Fillion plays the awkward OB/GYN. Jeremy Sisto, as the husband, gives a tour de force performance that commands attention every minute he is on screen. The interactions between these characters are funny, painful, endearing, & illuminating. This film is a slice of life (pun intended). If you are looking for quick thumbnail description, call it deep fried Like Water for Chocolate with a strong surface similarity to Alice.

Speaking of Hole in the Head. The 2007 festival kicked off tonight at the Roxie with Stagknight.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Lord John Mabury Gets Freaky

I had a discount pass at the Roxie that expired on Thursday. It was a "use it or lose it" proposition so I trudged over to the Mission District to see Going Under.

Here is a tip. Many independent films do not get reviewed by the local newspaper or major media outlets. Variety is a good source of hard-to-find movie reviews. I looked up their Going Under review.

But in the end there's just not enough tension, emotional juice or narrative revelation in this portrait of two souls who flirt with borderline dangerous entanglement, yet are ultimately too intellectually removed to risk losing their heads. Despite the pushing-the-envelope theme, the pic has dull spots.

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement but I had to see a film at the Roxie before Thursday. The Roxie has two screens. My alternative was The Pervert's Guide to Cinema by Slavoj Zizek. This film was my preferred choice but I missed the last showing.

The two leads in Going Under are German actress Geno Lechner and Roger Rees. Rees is best known for his portrayal of Lord John Mabury from The West Wing. Mabury provides comic relief as the lecherous and insulting British Ambassador to the Bartlett administration. Rees also played Robin Colcord on Cheers about 15 years ago. Based on those roles, I thought Rees was a comic from the Monty Python branch of English comics. As it turns out, Rees was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.

Cheers & The West Wing gave no indication of the lead role in Going Under. Rees plays a counselor or psychiatrist that uses the service of a dominatrix (Lechner). When Suzanne (Lechner) announces she is getting out of the business, Peter (Rees) desires a social relationship with her. The rest of the film is a series of loosely connected vignettes. Suzanne is a lesbian that is stringing along her Japanese lover. She also has a dysfunctional and strained relationship with her mother. Peter has an open marriage (he tells his wife about Suzanne). He also tries out replacements for Suzanne's professional services. Throughout the film, we see glimpses of their interactions, Suzanne and Peter keep meeting for coffee, meals, and drinks. Suzanne keeps pulling away from Peter and Peter keeps pursuing her.

I found the whole film quite boring (although I was able to stay awake). There are at least three scene of hard-core S&M. Apparently, Peter is getting a penis piercing and knows where public S&M clubs. As the review mentions, Rees is in tremendous physical condition and is not shy. Sidebar - full, frontal, male nudity seems to be a trend in independent films lately.

Specifically, I never believed Peter's descent into obsession with Suzanne. Actually, his mild-mannered persona seems out of character with his submissive/masochist sex life. Aren't the mild ones supposed to fantasize about being dominant? Suzanne never engenders a feeling stronger than slight resentment. She seems confused about her sexuality. Her lies eventually drive away her lesbian girlfriend. It's never made clear why she is on the outs with her mother.

The ending leaves the impression that Peter is still fixated Suzanne a year after their "break-up." By that point, I was anxious for the film to be finished so I was grateful the credits started rolling.

My plan is to see a film this evening that I'm more excited about - Waitress. There is a lot of backstory to the film. The director, writer, and co-star of the film, Adrienne Shelly, was murdered in November. She was killed by a construction worker after arguing about the noise from a nearby construction site.

There is a connection between Waitress and Going Under. Shelly was associated with the director Hal Hartley. She starred in his 1989 film The Unbelievable Truth. Hartley's wife is Miho Nikaido who played Suzanne's lesbian lover in Going Under.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Taking Inventory as of May 5 & More

I started a new job in March and it's been more hectic than I imagined. I haven't had time to see many movies much less blog about them.

Since the last post, I've only seen seven films.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her; directed by Jean-Luc Godard; French with subtitles; (1967)
Grindhouse; directed by Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino; (2007)
Sacco & Vanzetti; documentary; (2006)

Dead Channels Sleazy Sundays:
The Crimson Cult with Boris Karloff & Christopher Lee; (1968)
Maniac; (1934)
Preacherman; (1971)
The Black Gestapo; (1975)

Dead Channels is a film festival that hasn't launched yet. Their inaugural festival is August 9 to 16. It put on a program at the Victoria Theater - triple features on four consecutive Sundays in April. From what I can tell, Dead Channels is a joint effort by Bruce Fletcher (formerly of IndieFest) and Cosmic Hex.

The April program was a Grindhouse homage featuring mainly exploitation films from the 1970's - schlock & maw as I sometimes refer to the films. I was too young to actually go to a grindhouse and see films like these but I had something better. We had cable TV when I was a teenager & I was an avid fan of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. For those who may not remember or know, Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) was originally a horror movie hostess on a cable TV channel in Los Angeles. Movie Macabre showed classic Grindhouse-style films - Count Yorga, Vampire, Blacula, a lot of stuff with William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine, Joan Collins, and English Gothic films. During the commercial breaks, she would do skits or lay on a chaise longue in that familiar black dress and tell corny, double entendres. The Sleazy Sunday films could very well have been shown on Movie Macabre.

Of the four I saw, the best was The Black Gestapo featuring Mac (Charles Robinson) from the 1980's television show Night Court. The plot is secondary in a film like The Black Gestapo. There a few moments that stand out in a film like this. First, the "bad" guys are supposed to be Italian Mafia but to me they look like California blond models. For some reason, every blond guy with a mustache from the 70's looks like a porn star to me. The main enforcer of the gang was a tall blond guy and two extremely violent acts in the film made me laugh. He rapes a black woman in the front seat of his car - the front seat was bench-style. While he is raping the woman in the middle seat, his henchman is sitting in the passenger looking on. That doesn't sound funny but there was something surreal about it and the look on the henchman's face is priceless - this detached, slightly interested gaze while he is sitting 6 inches from a woman getting raped. The rapist gets his comeuppance later when he takes a bath. There is something feminine about a bath and if I recall correctly this was a bubble bath. I laughed out loud at that as well. The big, tall, rapist taking a bubble bath. In retaliation, the Black Gestapo castrate the man in his bathtub. Grisly indeed but if you can't laugh at a rapist getting castrated, your sense of humor is warped. Come to think of it, the rapist uttered the best line of the film. The Black Gestapo is getting uppity so the Mafia sends out its enforcers to mete out discipline. The rapist goes to a hooker's apartment to find out where her pimp is. She is laying naked in bed and they pull off the sheets. After staring at her, he says "Nice bush." That line by itself was worth the price of admission but at the end of the film while reading the credits, I noticed that role was credited as "White Whore."

One more note - the Balboa had a Boris Karloff retrospective in 2006. The Crimson Cult is not one of his best. However, there is a film from this period that I have wanted to see for some time. It showed at the Balboa & I was unable to attend that day. It's called The Wurdalak (1963) - released in the US as Black Sabbath. Mario Bava directed it or part of it. Like Grindhouse, it is multiple (three) films in one.

That leads me to Grindhouse. I've been a fan of Tarantino since Reservoir Dogs. I'm a huge fan of Pulp Fiction & Kill Bill. I'm also a big fan of Rodriguez's Desperado. To a lesser degree, I enjoyed Once Upon a Time in Mexico, From Dusk to Dawn, and Sin City. The debate is which film in Grindhouse is better - Tarantino's Death Proof or Rodriguez's Planet Terror. For my money, it was Death Proof. Rodriguez certainly has a flare for horror films & Rose McGowan's peg leg is iconic but I enjoyed Death Proof immensely. I will say that Planet Terror by Rodriguez gets great performances out of McGowan & Freddy Rodriguez and has the requisite splatters and sound effects (my favorite was when Marley Shelton broke her wrist while trying to open her car door). The whole cast chews up the scenery with gusto but ultimately, this was Rodriguez channeling George Romero but I was never a zombie movie fan.

Tarantino does something extraordinary. He creates this dynamic between two sets of three women and makes them sexy & feminine but layers on a masculine appeal that I'm not sure is realistic but I can only hope that it is. Death Proof is two films within one film and the heart of each segment is the extended dialogue scenes between the women. I was riveted by the scenes in the car and bar during the first vignette featuring Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, and Sydney Tamiia Poitier. It was like a "chick flick" on crack - raunchy and hilarious. Add in Rose McGowan in blonde wig or dye job, Kurt Russell, and a letter perfect Texas Chilli Parlor - instant classic.
Tarantino tops himself by basically recreating and exceeding the same female dynamics in the second half of the film with Zoë Bell, Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thomas, and in a smaller role Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Tarantino continually references pop culture touchstones of which he himself has now become. The dialogue scenes in the car evoke Pulp Fiction. The scene in the diner is recreating Reservoir Dogs. He throws in a reference to Vanishing Point (which Dead Channels screened a preview).

Tarantino has always had an ear for dialogue. I can spout lines from all of his films. This film is no different. My favorite was when the women in the second segment were driving in a car and talking about their love lives. Dawson mentions that she is not sleeping with her boyfriend because once she sleeps with him, he will objectify her. However, her boyfriend has cheated on her by sleeping with "Darryl Hannah's body double." Two of the women express disbelief at her twisted logic which has resulted in him having sex with someone else. Tracie Thomas utters a line in retort that is one for the ages - "Nigger! You got to break off a piece and give him some!"

Another classic scene is Kurt Russell doing a John Wayne impersonation. He says "I really have a book [he pulls out a small notebook and pen] and keep track of everyone I meet. I'm going put you under 'Chickenshit'."

The other aspect that Tarantino has made his signature (especially since Kill Bill) is stunts. He eschews CGI and animatronics. In fact, I can't recall any wire work from Kill Bill. Zoe Bell was in a great documentary called Double Dare. I saw it a few years ago at the Roxie. In that film, Bell landed the job as Uma Thurman's stunt double in Kill Bill. In Double Dare and Death Proof, Bell shows a natural amiability on the screen. The fact that she does her own stunts adds greatly to the film. A friend thought the sequence was too long but I found the chase scene where Bell was draped on the hood of the car while Stuntman Mike terrorizes them to be exhilarating and one of the best stunts I can recall on film.

I was looking forward to Sacco and Vanzetti and was disappointed. The film features the voices of John Turturro & Tony Shalhoub reading the letters of the eponymous subjects. The topic is perhaps the Trial of the Century but some ham-handed reference to the present day situation at Guantanamo Bay and the glossing over of certain facts, left me luke warm about the film. Over the closing credits, Arlo Guthrie sings Red Wine - one of his father's ballad on the subject - that was treat.

I did not get a chance to attend any SF International Film Festival screenings. IndieFest's Hole in the Head festival is starting in June and the SF Silent Film Festival is in July. I hope to make some of those screenings. In addition, I've been trying to get to the Mechanics' Institute Library for their CinemaLit Film Series on Friday nights. Another organization that screens old films (noir only) is the Danger and Despair Knitting Circle. They are hosting a Charles McGraw marathon in June. McGraw had a distinctive, raspy voice & was a staple in film noir in the 40's and 50'. Perhaps he is best known as Marcellus, Kirk Douglas' gladiator trainer in Spartacus.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Taking Inventory as of March 28

I went 8-0 in March; I saw eight films and would recommend all of them. I saw seven at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) and The Rules of the Game.

SFIAAFF:
Summer Palace; Chinese with subtitles; (2006)
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time; Japanese with subtitles; (2006)
Mistress of Spices with Aishwarya Rai; (2005)
Shanghai Kiss with Kelly Hu; (2007)
Pavement Buttlerfly with Anna May Wong, directed by Richard Eichberg; Silent film; (1929)
King and the Clown; Korean with subtitles; (2005)
Hollywood Chinese; documentary directed by Arthur Dong; (2007)

Non-Festival Film:
The Rules of the Game directed by Jean Renoir; French with subtitles; (1939)

I saw all eight films at the Castro Theater.

A few tidbits. Mistress of Spices was directed by Paul Mayeda Berges, the husband of Gurinder Chadha (the director of Bend it Like Beckham). They met at a previous SFIAAFF (I can't recall the year). It may have been the year that Bend it Like Beckham played at SFIAAFF.

Also, Mistress of Spices was filmed near where I used to work. In the film, the stunning Aishwarya Rai plays a mystical woman that runs a spice shop. The shop's exterior is on Washington St. (between 7th & 8th Streets) in the area called Old Oakland. If you can't quite place it, Washington is parallel & one block over from Broadway. The most prominent landmark in the area is the Marriott on Broadway between 10th & 11th. I used to work at 9th and Washington. I saw my old office window in one shot (2nd floor, 3rd window from the corner, along Washington).

Hannibal Chew was in two of the SFIAAFF films that I saw. James Hong played the alcoholic father in Shanghai Kiss. He was also a talking head in Hollywood Chinese. Jason Wiener went to see Big Trouble in Little China in which Hong plays the main villain. I would have liked to have seen that movie on the big screen but it didn't start until 11 PM.

I am still without a computer. I'm writing this via an internet cafe that my gym provides to its members. Hopefully, I'll be up & running this week. There was quite a delay in getting my laptop fixed. First, I futzed around with it for a few days hoping I could reinstall the OS. Then it took Geek Squad a week to tell me that my hard drive was toast and nothing could be recovered. Finally, it took a week for me to decide on a desktop or a laptop (I was busy with other things). I decided to go cheap & stick with my XP laptop. I want to wait for the Vista bugs to be worked out.

I don't think I'll see anymore movies this month. I'm busy planning a banquet on Saturday.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Down but not Out

My computer crashed so I don't have access to the internet at home. It's at the repair shop now. I hope they can recover the hard drive. It wouldn't boot up because it couldn't read the hard drive.

In addtion, I started a new job on March 5 so I was very busy in the weeks leading up to that trying to get some stuff done.

New job notwithstanding, it's been rough on me the last few weeks - the car was leaking brake fluid and that cost $900 to repair (new pads also), the computer crashed (no cost yet), I may have to buy a new computer if the old one can't be repaired (I don't want to switch to Vista yet because a lot of software and peripherals aren't working on Vista), I'm organizing a banquet for my professional society, I feel overwhelmed at my new job, and I haven't had time to go to the movies (much less write about them).

I'd like to see Black Snake Moan. In addition, the Castro is showing Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939). The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival starts Thursday (March 15) and I haven't bought any tickets. I've barely been able to peruse the program guide. One film that looked interesting is the Japanamine The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006).

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Taking Inventory as of February 28

Here is a list of films I've seen since January 1. I have listed the year the movie was made because frequently people will ask me some variation of "Is that a real movie or one of those old ones you like to watch?"

As you can see, I've been more busy watching films than writing about them. By my count, I saw 61 films in 59 days. Many of those films were parts of film festivals or double features. Believe it or not, I wanted to see several more films but time did not allow - The Makioka Sisters (1983), a Hitchcock double feature consisting of The 39 Steps (1935) & The Lady Vanishes (1938), and 2006 Oscars nominees The Last King of Scotland & Pan's Labyrinth.

Indiefest:

Inland Empire directed by David Lynch with Laura Dern and Jeremy Irons; (2006)
Dance Pary USA (2006)
Viva; (2007)
Rock'n Tokyo; (2006)
Desperate Measures - Short Film Compilation
Green Mind, Metal Bats - Japanese with English Subtitles; (2006)
Inframan Produced by the Shaw Brothers, Dubbed in English; (1975)
Dante's Inferno with the voices of Dermot Mulroney and James Cromwell, paper puppets; (2007)
The Mermaid of the River Plate 40 minute film based on Charles Bukowski's Copulating Mermaids of Venice, CA; (2007)
Ballad of Greenwich Village, interviews with Norman Mailer, Tim Robbins, Maya Angelou, Woody Allen, et al.; (2006)
Ten Canoes Ganadingu (Australian Aboriginal language) with English Subtitles; (2006)
Special (Creepy) Talents - Short Film Compilation
Stalking Santa - mocumentary narrated by William Shatner; (2006)
Breath, Death and Prayer - Short Film Compilation
Yellow; (2006)
The Substance of Things Hoped For; (2007)
Unholy Women Japanese with English Subtitles; (2006)
The Shore; (2005)
Animation Amalgamation - Short Film Compilation
Cutting Edge; (2006)
The Hawk is Dying with Paul Giamatti; (2006)
Ripple in the Wind; (2007)
Gobshite; (2006)
The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell; (2006)
Neighborhood Watch; (2005)
All the Lonely People - Short Film Compilation
Fido with Carrie-Anne Moss, Billy Connolly; (2006)
Your Mommy Kills Animals; (2007)
25-Cent Preview; (2007)

Noir City 5 (Film Noir Festival):

Raw Deal (1948)
Kid Glove Killer (1942)
Cry Danger (1951)
Abandoned (1949)
99 River Street (1953)
Hell's Half Acre (1954)
The Threat (1949)
Roadblock (1951)
Framed with Glen Ford; (1947)
Affair in Trinidad with Rita Hayworth, Glen Ford; (1952)
Scarlet Street with Edward G. Robinson; (1945)
Wicked Woman (1953)
The Big Combo (1955)
The Spiritualist (1948)
I Walk Alone with Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas; (1948)
Kiss The Blood Off My Hands with Burt Lancaster, Joan Fontaine; (1948)
The Damned Don't Cry with Joan Crawford; (1950)
Possessed with Joan Crawford; (1947)

Robert Altman Retrospective:

The Long Goodbye with Elliott Gould and cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger; (1973)
California Split with Elliott Gould, George Segal; (1974)
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson with Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, Harvey Keitel; (1976)
Nashville with Lily Tomlin, Karen Black, Ned Beatty, Shelley Duvall; (1975)

Janus Films Retrospective:

Drunken Angel with Toshirô Mifune, directed by Akira Kurosawa; (1948)
Fires on the Plain directed by Kon Ichikawa; (1959)
La Belle et la bête (Beauty & the Beast) directed by Jean Cocteau; (1946)
The Seventh Seal with Max von Sydow, directed by Ingmar Bergman; (1957)
Kwaidan with Tetsuro Tamba, directed by Masaki Kobayashi; (1964) - Note: also titled Kaidan (Alternate Spelling)

Non-festival films:

Letters from Iwo Jima with Ken Watanabe, directed by Clint Eastwood; (2006)
The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith; (2006)
Casino Royale; (2006)
Breakfast at Tiffany's with Audrey Hepburn, directed by Blake Edwards; (1961)

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Viva: An Ode to Anna Biller

My favorite film from Indiefest was Viva. This film is a pastiche of different 70’s cultural touchstones. Anna Biller was the driving force behind this film. She was the star, director, producer, screenwriter, casting director, animator, and set designer. She procured and/or made the costumes and wrote the original songs. This may not seem unusual for a small independent film but she did two things that are atypical for independent films today. She shot on 35mm and she made a period piece; the film is set in 1972.

Viva is the story of Barbie Smith (Biller), a bored housewife in the LA suburbs. Her life is devoted to her husband but otherwise unfulfilled. She separates from her husband when he leaves to spend an extended ski vacation alone. This allows Barbie to pursue her dreams. The rest of the film is a series of vignettes that I would describe as Barbie's Sexual Misadventures. And what misadventures they are! Instead of modeling, Barbie and her best friend become prostitutes. The title of the film refers to the pseudonym that Barbie adopts when she becomes a prostitute.

By my count, Barbie was surreptitiously drugged twice (and both times sexually assaulted while unconscious) and separately forcibly raped. Despite those overtones, Viva is comedy.

The reason this film works is because Biller is relentless in spoofing the 70's or more accurately, she spoofs the media representation and cultural self-image of the times. Biller plays Barbie as naive or foolish depending on your point of view. Biller as a filmmaker and actress must be fearless or shameless. Foremost, Biller sashays across the screen, in scene after scene, wearing the most hideous collection 70's clothing since the last Austin Powers movie. That is when she is wearing clothes. Biller spends a significant amount of the film topless. She also applies a frightening amount of green eye shadow which accentuates that strange affectation she does with her eye. When sexually aroused, she squints her right eye. The effect is to appear confused or constipated. I would accuse the filmmaker of exploiting the actress except they are the same person.Viva - Anna Biller (in headdress) during the orgy scene.The film is not to be taken seriously. Biller has crafted a series of exquisitvely memorable scenes and she strings them together with little interruption. My favorite scenes include Barbie visiting a client at a nudist colony, Barbie visits a gay hairdresser, and the climactic bacchanal where Barbie drives the partygoers into a sexual frenzy. That orgy scene is an instant classic. The orgy is a costume party so it gives Biller a chance to wear what looks to be an Aztec headdress or it could be Chinese inspired.

I know I must be forgetting some stuff. The actors deliver their lines in an odd style that's kind of an exaggerated stage-acting with a healthy dose of self-mockery. Several of the principal actors sing, mostly off-key, lyrics such "Fly your freak flag high." If I understood the Q&A correctly, the score was "reworked" from Radley Metzger films. Metzger made porn films in the 70's so the score sounds as if Johnny "Wad" Holmes is going to show up any minute. Biller stayed true to the period if Playboy magazines are to believed. Let's just say that some of the female extras must have been prohibited from getting bikini waxes during production. Also, the nudist colony scene has the most full frontal male nudity this side of porn.

As I was watching Viva, I thought that there was something unidentifiably attractive about Anna Biller. Biller does not have the typical body that you would associate with an actress that is frequently topless. She's a little soft in the middle which is only highlighted by the unflattering costumes, camera angles, and her frequent state of undress. The running gag in the film is that Barbie is a sex goddess that no man (and few women) can resist. Having seen Biller in person, she is an attactive woman but there is some je ne sais quois sexuality on screen that is present despite her self-parodying performance. After seeing the film, I googled Biller and read she is part Japanese. I'm half Japanese so I wonder if there was a subconscious, Hapa connection.

I enjoyed the film so much that I saw it twice. I was debating whether to see Viva a second time or S&Man. I chose Viva because as I was exiting the theater for Fido, I saw Biller standing in front of the theater. Curious to hear her speak, I chose Viva. In hindsight, that may have been a mistake because the film isn't as funny the second time around. In fairness, most comedies are not as funny upon repeat viewing because you know the jokes and set-ups before they arrive. However, it was interesting to hear her field questions after the film. I was expecting Biller to be assertive and flamboyant. She came across as soft spoken and slightly self-conscious.

When Indiefest first screened the film, there were several scenes where the boom microphone was visible. It occurred in so many scenes that I thought Biller was making an intentional reference to shoddy, 1970's filmmaking without knowing which specific film or director she was lampooning. I hate it when the boom mike is visible so it really grated on my nerves to see that mike show up repeatedly. However, during the second screening (second for me, third screening of the festival), I don't recall seeing the mike. Biller showed this film in Rotterdam during the first screening. I wonder if Indiefest got the copy with the outtakes during the first screening. It's expensive to strike duplicate copies of 35mm print.

That reminds me, Biller should be complimented on filming on 35mm. She was able to recreate the soft-edged look of films of the period. Biller's skills as a director are on full display as there were many different sets and location shoots. Only a skilled director could have pulled all that off while shooting on 35. Even more impressive is that typically, directors will have a viewer so that they can see what is being filmed while it is filmed. Biller said she did not use one (presumably due to budget restraints). That means she had to film everything and hope that it came out ok because she wouldn't see the finished product until the film was developed later. I assume they didn't have dailies.

Biller was not the only person to give an unforgettable performance. Marcus DeAnda who played Clyde captured that Euro-trash look and sound perfectly. Similarly, John Klemantaski was spot on as stage director Arthur from Liverpool. Barry Morse as Sherman the hairdresser was at the screening & was unrecognizable.

I hope this film gets more screenings. I'm not sure if it'll get a distribution deal without some editing. In it's current state, it's probably an NC-17 film given the MPAA history on male nudity. The odd part is that given the premise of the movie, there is nothing gratuitous about the nudity.

Here is a link to Anna Biller Productions Website.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Strike One, Strike Two, Strike Three

As I mentioned, when I attend Indiefest each year, I am forced to endure some truly horrible films. Some of these films, I dislike as a matter of personal taste. Others, I dislike because they are poorly made, poorly acted, poorly directed, poorly scripted, et al.

This year, Indiefest showed a funny short film titled Moosecock. It was a film within a film. The film includes a vapid ~1 minute film plus 6 minutes of the Making of Moosecock mocumentary.

I think the Indiefest organizers should give out an award to the film that scores the lowest in audience voting. Perhaps they can chip in a few dollars or find a sponsor to give out the Golden Moosecock Audience Award. The cash prize would be contingent on the filmmaker agreeing not to make anymore films. I'd kick in $20 to stop some of these filmmakers from filming again.

My three worst films of the 2007 Indiefest are:

2nd Runner-Up: The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell; (2006). This film falls into the category of personal taste. The nonsensical plot (set in 2097) has to do with a post-apocalyptic United States. Tex Kennedy is destined to lead the US into a new future. He takes two human looking robot/bodyguards and his girlfriend Cannibal Sue along for the ride. There is a blind prophet, the Spawn of Satan dressed like a lounge singer, Satan's sadistic minions, Fidel Castro's descendant, and a rival gang that wants to kill Satan (or does he want to kill Tex?). This film reminds me of another film from my youth - The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. I never understood or liked that film and the production values were a lot better than The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell. The audience around me ate this film up so perhaps I "just don't get it."

At the beginning of the film, a very attractive 50something woman played the last President of the United States prior to the apocalypse. During the Q&A, I realized that she was Jane Seymour. Her daughter was involved in the project. Daniel Baldwin had a small role as well.

I will say that this film made me laugh at times and the directors did insert some Shakespearean threads into the film.

The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell Official Website

1st Runner-Up: A Ripple in the World; (2007). Get a load of this script: A 22 year old virgin works at a hotel. He sees a cute hooker coming through there on a regular basis. He calls up the escort agency and asks them to send over the girl based on his description. Instead of a girl, they send over a tranny who just happens to be the brother of the whore of his dreams! By the end of the movie the virgin has gotten a blowjob from the tranny and had sex with the sister (while her tranny brother is on murderous rampage). Add in an urban cowboy pimp, a blues singing/guitar playing preacher, and an obese, sociopathic, closeted homosexual for good measure.

You would think that would be enough for an entertaining if not trashy movie. Perhaps under more experienced/talented direction it would have been. Instead, we get crappy looking video, stultifying dialogue, clichés, and wooden acting. Director Aron Cho said he had more skills as a director on this film than he did on his first film. Maybe by his 10th film, we’ll get something worthwhile. The acting and dialogue constantly reminded me of how bad the acting and dialogue were instead of the advancing the plot. This film is the perfect example of a film that could have been much better with the same plot but with a different director and cast. I believe Cho wrote the screenplay so he should be congratulated on that; the potential of the film is apparent.

2007 Golden Moosecock Winner: Dance Party, USA; (2006). This film typifies everything I think is wrong with independent films today. Foremost, it is one of these films with minimal scripting. The dialogue sounds as if it was ad libbed by the actors. Rather than having a script, the director develops back stories for the characters and puts the actors together to brainstorm. The director tells the actors to advance the meager plot with dialogue they think appropriate.

The film was shot on video for a small amount. Filmmakers are hesitant to say how much a film costs because it is used against them when they negotiate for the film to be distributed. I don't think Dance Party, USA has anything to worry about but I won't say exactly how much the director quoted. I will say that many people in the Bay Area have monthly mortgages that exceed this film's budget.

Modern technology enables a film like this to be made. A person can go down to a consumer electronics store, buy a digital video recorder, and make a film. Some off-the-shelf software and a powerful PC are all that's needed to edit the film and do post-production. This may sound egalitarian but the net effect is that people that shouldn't be making films are making film. Because it is so cheap to make these films, the director is not disciplined with the script. If a film like this was shot on 35 mm film, the director would have to make specific choices about blocking the scene, how long the scene should last, etc. In other words, the director would have to direct.

A common retort I hear to my criticisms is that digital video or HD allows filmmakers to experiment with actors, plots, filming techniques, etc. That is a valid statement but why do I have to pay to watch an experiment or what is in essence, a film school project?

Worst of all, this film is plodding. I fell asleep about 2/3 of the way into this film. I didn’t wake up until the audience started clapping. The plot revolves around Gus (who looks older than his 17 year old character) who tells tales about his sexual conquests. He goes to a 4th of July party and meets up with an odd 17 year old girl, Jessica. Without much prompting Gus tells Jessica about how he raped a comatose 14 year old girl at a party last year (for added dramatic effect, the girl regains consciousness during the attack). This somehow strengthens the bond between Gus & Jessica. Gus does what any 17 year old in his situation would do – he tracks down the 14 year old, goes to her house, and asks her if anything bad has happened to her. She doesn’t recognize him so (apparently home alone) she invites him in to watch TV. The two share a long conversation filled with pauses. That was the best part of the film because the pauses between dialogue were long enough that I was able to doze off until the end of the film. I don’t know how the conversation turned out or how Gus and Jessica ended up but I can’t say that I care.

The interview after the film was very interesting. Indiefest Programming Director Bruce Fletcher blathered on about how the filmmaker was at the forefront of a new age of filmmaking – ostensibly a more realistic portrayal of life that eschewed scripted and stylized plots. Fletcher noted (without a hint of sarcasm) that the filmmaker had made three films in the year since Dance Party, USA. I guess the thought that making three feature length films in one year would stretch the creative limits of an artistic genius never crossed Fletcher’s mind. Aaron Katz, the director of the film and not an artistic genius, then noted that he made the film for such an inexpensive sum and that being able to make his films for such a small amount freed him from the constraints imposed by producers and financiers. I guess the constraints he was referring to were entertainment value and an audience that was awake.

Fletcher then brought up the director of a 2006 Indiefest entry, reverently invoked the name of Bujalski, and asked if these auteurs were the leaders of this New Wave Cinema Vérité. At least, I discovered that 2007 Indiefest film LOL was filmed in a similar style; that’s 2 hours of my life I was able to devote to something else.

The film scraped the bottom of the barrel. Do Indiefest programmers really enjoy these films or are they just jumping on the bandwagon (Katz’s next film is showing at SXSW)? For his next film, I hope Katz's budget allows for a few reams of paper so he can provide a script to his actors

The only good thing I can say about this film is that it is not as execrable or pathetic as some of the stuff Indiefest has shown in previous years.

Dance Party, USA Official Website

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

That's a Wrap!

Indiefest is finally over. I say that because for several years, I have seen 20+ movies over the 12 day festival. There are a few films I want to blog about but I'll save that for another day(s).

This year I went to 30 films in eleven days. Tonight was the 12th night but I had a dinner meeting that kept me from attending. Every year I tell myself that it is too much of an inconvenience to go to so many films. This year, I saw the two Japanese films during the festival (but not part of the festival). That's 32 films in 11 days which averages to nearly 3 films per day. So many films in such a short period of time exhausts me mentally. The maddening aspect about Indiefest is that it is hit or miss so you need to go to as many films as possible to find the few gems. Despite seeing 30 programs at Indiefest, I missed ten programs including films that won the Audience Awards for Best Feature (Rolling) and Best Documentary (Gypsy Caravan).

Out of those 30 programs (really 29 since I saw one film twice), I would only recommend a handful. A program is defined as a feature length film or a short film compilation. My top choices were Viva, Yellow, Neighborhood Watch, The Mermaid of the River Plate (40 minutes), The Ballad of Greenwich Village, and Green Minds, Metal Bats. I was highly entertained & impressed by numerous short films.

One of the best things about Indiefest is that their primary venue is the Roxie Theater. The theater itself is outdated and the floor is not pitched or sloped at a steep enough angle to see over the people in the row in front of you. The popcorn is not as good as the Castro or the Balboa and actually their concession stand menu is limited. The staff can be a little surly at times as well. Also the neighborhood is sketchy. Why do I like to go to the Roxie again? Oh yes - the best thing about the Roxie is that Truly Mediterranean is two doors down. If you haven't been to Truly Med, you need to go because their Falafel Deluxe and Shawerma are delicious. They serve them burrito style in lavash bread instead of in pita pockets. Despite the fact that their website lists their only location as in Bellevue, WA (across the lake from Seattle), they have a small take-out joint on 16th St. near Valencia. Trivial digression - I read that every culture has a variation of the wrap: falafel, burrito, spring roll, stromboli, etc.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Eating Japanese

Today, I took a break from Indiefest to see a double feature at the Castro.Toshirô Mifune in Drunken Angel
The first film was 1948's Drunken Angel. Directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshirô Mifune, this film is one of their earliest collaborations. According to IMDB, it was their first time working together.

I'm a fan of Kurosawa's films. Drunken Angel is a small masterpiece. The eponymous character is Dr. Sanada played by Takashi Shimura. Shimura was one of Kurosawa's stable of actors. Shimura & Kurosawa teamed up for 22 films together. Most famously, Shimura was the leader of the Seven Samurai.

In Drunken Angel, Shimura plays an alcoholic doctor that is serving the medical needs of a poor neighborhood in post-WWII Tokyo. Mifune comes to him with a bullet lodged in his hand. Mifune plays Matsunaga, the Yakuza boss of the neighborhood. Dr. Sanada immediately suspects Matsunaga is suffering from tuberculosis. Matsunaga dismisses his diagnosis with a punch to the face. Undeterred, Sanada seeks out Matsunaga the next day. Mainly through nagging and some brutally honest conversations, Sanada convinces Matsunaga to seek treatment. The treatment is short-lived as the previous Yakuza boss gets out of prison and returns to the neighborhood to reclaim his territory. Matsunaga is forced to defend his territory to the death.

From that simple plot, Kurosawa is able to show his mastery. Kurosawa usually has straight-forward narratives but what makes his films great are the memorable scenes that advance the story but when taken individually are special in their own right. In the middle of the neighborhood is a cesspool. I suppose it represents the moral character of the neighborhood. Kurosawa opens several scenes with shots of the cesspool - wind causing ripples on the water, bubbling water, people dumping garbage in the water, kids playing in the cesspool, etc. The audience comes to expect each scene to open with a different shot of the fetid water.

Kurosawa reaches into his cinematic bag of tricks for this film. He shoots several scenes through doorways. (I heard he learned this technique by watching John Ford films). Blocking scenes this way allow Kurosawa the literally frame the shot so that the characters are in close proximity and the viewer's attention is focused on the interaction of the characters.

He also inserts a dream sequence in what would later be associated with French New Wave style. Mifune is running along the beach when he sees a coffin. He takes an axe to the coffin to discover his tubercular self in the coffin. The tubercular Mifune chases the healthy Mifune by way double exposure on the frames.

Another gem of a scene occurs in the Yakuza nightclub Mifune owns. A Japanese woman sings an uptempo jazz number about jungle love. There is a call & response portion (I always like when songs have call & response). The groove is so powerful that the normally staid Yakuza supporting characters are driven to dance à la Blue Brothers.

Among the other memorable scenes/performances are the knife fight scene between Mifune & his rival in which they slip and slide in paint, a 17 year old schoolgirl and her crush on the doctor (complete with Sailor Moon school uniform), Matsunaga strolling the neighborhood market while everyone gets out of his way (comparable to Brando in The Godfather), and the moll that switches her affection from Mifune to his rival as his disease advances.

I don't have much to complain about with this movie but I can always find a few issues. It seems odd to me that they would have a cesspool in the middle of a neighborhood like that; especially in Japan. Mifune's make-up consisted of increasing rouge on his cheeks to give that hollowed out look as he wasted away from consumption. The application look very dated - similar to what the zombies looked like in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.

The second film was Fires on the Plain directed by Kon Ichikawa. Fires on the Plain
The Castro programming guide has this to say about the film:
Ichikawa’s ferocious adaptation of the Shohei Ooka novel is about a group of ragtag Japanese soldiers in the Philippines during the final days of WWII who are forced to survive under the most extreme conditions imaginable.

Fires on the Plain is nominally a war movie but at its heart, it is an exploration of humanity's depravity. The film opens with PFC Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) being chewed out (pun intended as you'll see) by his commanding officer in the Philippines. Tamura has TB and was sent to the field hospital. However, the doctors wouldn't admit someone that was ambulatory so they sent him back to his camp. Tamura's CO didn't want him because of his disease and weakened state. He sends him back to the hospital with some raw yams and a grenade. His orders are to stay at the hospital until admitted. If he is not admitted, he is to blow himself up with the grenade. Thus begins the nomadic, peripatetic journey of our protagonist. For a guy with TB, Tamura certainly has energy to walk all around Leyte.

Tamura is again denied admittance to the hospital so he falls in with some soldier/squatters who are in the same situation as him. He (and the hospital) get strafed or shelled and Tamura sets off alone to survive. The rest of the film are a series of vignettes as Tamura encounters Filipinos, Americans, & other Japanese soldiers before reuniting with a pair of soldiers from the hospital.

At that point, Tamura is starving and falls in and out of an altered states of consciousness. One of the soldiers has "monkey meat" which he offers Tamura (nice raw meat scene). Tamura refuses to eat the meat claiming he has sore teeth & gums from not having eaten for such a long time. I believe that was a lie (I'd have to watch the film again to be sure). By now, Tamura and the audience suspect the meat is primate but not from monkeys. Soylent Green is people!

Tamura is semi-lucid but disgusted by this dietary choice but his laconic and easy-going nature keep him with the cannibalistic pair. BTW, if you wondering why Tamura wasn't killed for his meat, it is because eating the flesh of a TB victim is unhealthy. Eventually one of the cannibals shoots the other and literally begins to eat him raw. That was another memorable scene. The camera is behind the soldier as he is hunched over the prone body. He tosses chunks of meat over his shoulder towards the camera. Tamura confronts him and shoots him dead.

Drunken Angel looks like a "classic" while Fires on the Plain looks dated. I'm certain that this film must have been shocking in 1959 but it is not as powerful today. Funakoshi in the lead role gives an oddly detached performance. There were several other issues that distracted me from the film. It did not look like the film was set in the Philippines. The landscape was at times devoid of vegetation and at one point I saw what looked to be an evergreen tree. Having never been to the Philippines, I don't have first hand experience. I was expecting a tropical jungle. Some of the dialogue was in Tagalog which Tamura spoke a smattering of. The Tagalog scenes were not fully subtitled which may have been intentional so that the audience could be as confused as Tamura.

A scene that stands out for me is when Tamura is contemplating surrendering to the "Yanks." From a hidden vantage point, he watches as another soldier approaches some Americans with his hands raised and yelling (in Japanese) that he is surrendering. The Americans allow him to approach but a crazed Filipina resistance fighter jumps out of the truck cuts him down with a machine gun. The American soldier chastises her but it's enough to dissuade Tamura from surrendering. It's interesting that Ichikawa had a Filipina kill the soldier. He could just have easily had an American kill the soldier. When I see a scene like that, I wonder if it was a purely artistic choice or it represented the cultural feelings of the time. In other words, a common belief is that despite losing the war, Japanese people are contemptuous of other Asian peoples. The same mindset that led to the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere still exists if you believe certain people.

War movies usually present the soldiers as a Band of Brothers but that was definitely not the case here. It was each man for himself and they were quite willing to rob, cheat, and ultimately kill each other to survive.

I read on IMDB that while shooting, Ichikawa kept the actors underfed and did not allow them to attend to personal hygiene. Kon Ichikawa is still alive at age 91 and directed a film last year.

Both films are part of a Janus Films 50th anniversary retrospective. Janus Films was one of the pioneering film distribution companies that specialized in Art House films. The list of directors whose films have been distributed by Janus is a Who's Who: Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Polanski, et al. Janus has released a 50 film box set titled "Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films." Fires on the Plain is part of the set. Drunken Angel is not on DVD.