Saturday, June 28, 2008

Ahead of the Curve

For once, I have a few spare moments to write about movies I am planning on seeing.

First up is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival running July 11 to 13 at the Castro Theater. I bought my festival pass yesterday. I believe this is the first year the pass is good for the opening night film (but not the opening night party). They are showing 12 programs and few caught my attention. I have to see ~10 films to make the pass cost effective. I'm not sure if I'll make that many but I'll try my best.

The most interesting film is Tod Browning's The Unknown (1927). This snippet from the program guide says it all - Lon Chaney stars as Alonzo the Armless, who performs a knife-throwing act with his feet, and Joan Crawford is Nanon, who has a pathological fear of a man's touch. It's one of the most brazenly bizarre films ever made... hands down! Browning is best known for directing Dracula (1931) which is the first time Bela Lugosi donned the cape and fangs. He also made a cult horror classic called Freaks (1932) which I have heard much about but never seen. That film was set in a circus and the lost footage supposedly includes a castration scene.

Another interesting film on the festival calendar is Jujiro (1928). This film has a two aspects that are interesting to me. First, if the film is silent, is the appeal universal? Having seen most (I dozed off for parts of it) of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I think the answer is no. There are cultural customs and aesthetics that show up on the screen which imprint the film with the origin of its director or its intended audience. It'll be interesting to see a Japanese film from this period. That leads to the second interesting point. I have a personal interest in Japanese culture and for the past 60 years, Japanese culture has been largely shaped by the Allied occupation after WWII and subsequent influence on the Japanese constitution and society. I'm very curious to see how pre-war Japanese society is depicted even though this film is described as avante-garde which is usually code for no discernible plot.

The closing night film is The Patsy (1928) directed by King Vidor and starring Marion Davies. As anyone who has been to Hearst Castle knows, Davies was William Randoph Heart's long-time mistress. I don't recall ever seeing a Davies film so it will be interesting to see Davies at the height of her beauty.


As I mentioned, I purchased membership to the Pacific Film Archive. I saw their July/August calendar yesterday and there were some interesting programs. Sidebar - the paper copies of the BAM/PFA calendar is huge; I think it is the size of a broadsheet newspaper except much thicker stock.

PFA has some programs coming up that caught my attention.

Streets of No Return: The Dark Cinema of David Goodis running August 1 to 23.

I had never heard of David Goodis until reading the program notes. He was a pulp fiction writer whose best known film adaptation was Dark Passage (1947) with Bogie and Bacall. That's the one where Bogie gets plastic surgery and spends most of the movie with bandages around his face.

Looking through the program which includes a couple of films introduced by local Czar of Noir Eddie Muller, founder and director of the Noir City Film Festival, I see a few diamonds in the rough.

The Burglar (1957) - Never one to fuss over a plot, Goodis is more interested in the queasy connection between [Dan] Duryea, his “adopted” sister, and their long-dead dad, a veteran burglar. An incestuous fog seems to permeate the proceedings as Duryea dotes on his mollish sis, played by Jayne Mansfield.

The Burglars (1971) - French remake of The Burglar steals nothing from its predecessor. Shifting the focus from incest to archrivalry, this Morricone-driven thriller pits a loopy Jean-Paul Belmondo as Azad, a crook, against dodgy cop Zacharia (Omar Sharif)—everything from A to Z. The caper consists of the theft of a fortune in emeralds from an Athens industrialist. But it’s the aftermath of the crime that counts, and according to Zacharia’s math he, not the thieves, should get all the green goodies.

Descent into Hell (1986) - Haiti stands in for hell, a place of steamy beaches, quaint cocktails, and death. Trying to salvage their frosty marriage, Alan (Claude Brasseur) and Lola (Sophie Marceau) head for the tropics, where the chill between them might thaw under the intense sun. Alan is a blocked mystery writer and a boozehound doggedly in descent; Lola, many years younger, is dogged by her own dire descent, an attempted rape that has left her iced over. In the throes of a bender, Alan wanders into the seamy side of Port-au-Prince looking for trouble, and trouble is more than happy to find him. Goodis’s sense that the past is inescapable is everywhere present in this slightly smarmy sojourn. And Lola’s body, like the desired manifestation of a mania, is everywhere to be seen, svelte, sweaty, and stripped.

Another program at PFA is The Long View: A Celebration of Widescreen - July 16 to August 30. 20th Century Fox introduced CinemaScope in 1953. Extending the movie screen to twice its previous width...CinemaScope was soon followed by other widescreen formats, including VistaVision, Superscope, Cinemiracle, and Panavision, most of which used anamorphic lenses to compress the visual information during filming and then re-expand it during projection.

Violent Saturday (1955) with Lee Marvin. Three stickup men posing as salesmen (it doesn’t get more ’50s) pull in for ‘business’; casing things out over a day and a night, they get acquainted with the population of Sherwood Anderson small-towners awash in hotel-bar cocktails, dreamy voyeurism, and infidelity..

Point Blank (1967) with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. Lee Marvin is Walker, left for dead in an Alcatraz heist and now out to find the $93,000 he has coming. No more, no less, unless you count revenge. If the plot sounds familiar, it's because Mel Gibson made an enjoyable remake titled Payback in 1999.

Other widescreen classics that need no synopsis include Lawrence of Arabia, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, 2001: A Space Odyssey, La Dolce Vita, and Yojimbo. You can't go wrong with David Lean, Francois Truffaut, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, and Akira Kurosawa.

The other program at PFA is United Artists: 90 Years - July 5 to August 31. I've seen a lot of films in this program but there are always old films that I haven't caught and this program provides a lot of opportunities. Most people don't know the story of the founding of UA. I always forget the founders except Chaplin. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Charles Chaplin had founded their own company, United Artists, in 1919. The idea of a 'studio without a studio'—a company that functioned primarily as a distributor, without the enormous overhead of a conventional Hollywood production/distribution/exhibition conglomerate—might have been crazy, but it stuck, and by the mid-fifties, UA was one of the most important forces in American cinema

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) with Buster Keaton and filmed on the Sacramento Delta.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941) directed by Josef von Sternberg.

The Killing (1956) directed by Stanley Kubrick with Sterling Hayden.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) directed by Raoul Walsh with Douglas Fairbanks and Anna May Wong.

Broken Blossoms (1919) directed by D.W. Griffith with Lillian Gish.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) directed by Charles Laughton with Robert Mitchum; I have never seen this film.


There are several other worthwhile screening this summer.

The Castro Theater is holding its annual 70 MM Film Festival with perennials Lawrence of Arabia, The Wild Bunch, and Tron. The festival runs July 1-9.

I've been to one screening a few years ago. For some reason I don't get their email updates. Despite this, I am intrigued by The 1st Annual Charlie McGraw Film Festival sponsored by The Danger and Despair Knitting Circle. DDKC is a local group that shows 16 MM noir films in vacant office spaces in Downtown SF. The location changes and you need to email an RSVP but its something different. No dates on the Charlie McGraw festival.

I am also a member of The Mechanics' Institute. They sponsor a CinemaLit series on Friday nights. I haven't made any of the showings. Earlier in the year, they were showing films every Friday but it seems like they drop to every other Friday through August. Mick LaSalle at the SF Chronicle recommended a Maurice Chevalier film called The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) with Claudette Colbert and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. It's showing on July 25.

If you miss the July 25 showing of The Smiling Lieutenant at The Mechanics' Institute, you can catch it at The Stanford Theater on July 9. Their summer series is heavy on old films including three Marx Brothers films and silent films every Wednesday night.

If that wasn't enough, there is one more festival where I want to catch at least one film. From July 24 to August 11, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival plays at various locations around the Bay Area. A few months ago, I was listening to NPR (which makes me sound much more liberal than I really am) and heard a segment about Stalag novels which were popular in Israel in the 1960's. If you are not familiar with a Stalag novel, it was a fiction genre popular in the aforementioned time and place. The plot typically involved a Allied flyers during WWII. Their planes are shot down over German territory and they are captured. They are "interrogated" by female SS/Gestapo guards who just happen to be stunningly beautiful. Tortured and humiliated by these freaky fräuleins, the flyers turn the tables on their captors and escape but not before raping and murdering their Aryan captors and thus settling the score. That sounds like a porno film or teenage boy's fantasy...actually, if you throw in werewolves, I think it also describes the plot of one of the fake previews in Grindhouse. I would like to see a legitimate film adaptation of a Stalag novel or just to read one of them (I Was Colonel Schultz’s Private Bitch sounds thought provoking). I guess I'll have to settle for a documentary on the phenomenon called Stalags - Holocaust and Pornography in Israel.

That reminds a unique San Francisco bookstore called Kayo Books that I have visited in the past. I think I'll stop by there to see if they carry stalag novels.


If that plethora of films is not enough to get you excited I don't know what can...except maybe these two Nazis questioning a POW. You may wonder why the swastika is inverted. After thinking about it, I believe it is because displaying the swastika was/is illegal in Israel.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Taking Inventory as of June 22

Excluding Hole in the Head, I haven't seen that many films since May. I did see two "major blockbusters."

Contempt with Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, and Fritz Lang; directed by Jean-Luc Godard; French with subtitles; (1963)
Iron Man with Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Bridges, and Gwyneth Paltrow; (2008) - Official Site
The Ipcress File with Michael Caine; (1965)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with Harrison Ford; (2008) - Official Site
Election; Cantonese with subtitles; directed by Johnny To; (2005)
Triad Election; Cantonese with subtitles; directed by Johnny To; (2006)
Exiled; Cantonese with subtitles; directed by Johnny To; (2006)

Hole in the Head
Tokyo Gore Police; Japanese with subtitles; (2008)

The Johnny To films are part of a retrospective at BAM/PFA (Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives). I ended up buying a membership. It saves me $4 per film. I'll have to see 13 films in a year to make the membership pay off. It'll be difficult because I don't get over to Berkeley often but I get a tax deduction and am supporting their worthy cause. From their website:

The Pacific Film Archive was conceived as an American version of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris—a center committed not only to exhibiting films under the best possible conditions, but also to increasing the understanding, appreciation, and preservation of cinema through its study center, collections, and publications.

I've seen two To (pronounced Dough) films previously - Running on Karma at a IndieFest a few years back and Breaking News at the Balboa a couple years ago when it was still a rep house. At the time (I saw Breaking News after Running on Karma), I didn't realize the two films were directed by the same person. In fact, Johnny To wasn't known to me at the time. Now that I've seen three more films by To, I realize that these earlier films were different from his later works. Running on Karma was a comedy with Andy Lau in a rubber bodybuilding suit. He plays a disgraced monk working as a male stripper. He crosses paths with a female cop and then things become metaphysical. Breaking News was about a hostage situation where the police and the criminals use modern technology and today's media culture to manipulate the public's opinion of the situation. Having seen these films, I wasn't sure what to expect of these other To films. To has developed quite a reputation in the past few years so I was looking forward to them.

Election, Triad Election and Exiled inhabit the world of Chinese gangsters. Triad Election is the sequel to Election and tells the story of the rise and fall of a Hong Kong gangster. In this tale, Chinese triads elect their "Chairman" for two year terms without the possibility of re-election. It seems unlikely that gangsters would voluntarily cede power after two years but that is the premise. In Election, Simon Yam and Tony Leung Ka Fai are vying for the top spot. Simon Yam's character wins the election but Tony Leung won't abide by the results. Leung's actions are unprecedented and threatens to destroy the delicate balance between the rival gangs. The key to holding power is a baton that signifies the power of the Chairman. After the election, Yam and Leung send their henchmen out to retrieve the baton - Yam to consolidate his power and Leung to give validity to his contesting the election. Ultimately, Yam gets the baton and he forges an uneasy truce with Leung...until Leung suggests that they be co-chairs. Although there is some violence, this film is about setting a mood. In that sense, it is not unlike The Godfather - a lot of men adhering to the customs of their community which includes violence.

Triad Election was my favorite of the three To films I saw in June. Set two years after Election, Yam's term is about to expire and he is seeking to break with tradition by running for a second term. Standing in his way is Jimmy Lee (portrayed by Louis Koo). Lee is a successful businessman with barely concealed triad roots. When his highway project is derailed, he is forced by circumstances and a shady Chinese government official to run in the election. This sets Yam and Koo on a collision course. This films had much more graphic violence. Koo's ruthlessness is something to behold. There is a horrific scene where he amputates the limbs from one of Yam's goons. He does it to make a point to the others that he will not let anything get in his way. The pièce de résistance was taking a meat grinder to the severed limbs and feeding the ground meat to some German shepherds. Yam and Koo deliver strong performances. Yam was the calm, voice of reason in Election who was not above using violence when necessary. In Triad Election, he has let power corrupt him and his ambitions overwhelm his discretion and better judgment. Koo is a cool-headed and cold-blooded gangster who exhibits some Yam's original level-headedness. The film sets Koo up for a different endgame than Yam so it's a variation on the familiar movie theme of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

Exiled has more stylized violence than any of the other To films I have seen. It reminded me of a John Woo film - slow motion gun fights and debris flying from bullets striking wood. Anthony Wong steals the movie as one of the five gangster friends. He wears a white-wall haircut, sunglasses and a bulletproof vest and he has gangster attitude to spare. The film defies logic at times but this is really a buddy film with a redemption theme layered on top. The basic premise is that two gangsters are sent to kill one of their friends. Two other gangster intervene to stop them. Collectively, the five men were boyhood friends and they look for a way to provide for the marked one's wife and child. The rest of the film is them executing their plan with varying degrees of success.

There is one more To film scheduled - Mad Detective on June 27.

When I went to see Election and Triad Election (they were shown as a double feature), it was during the height of the Berkeley tree sitter standoff. PFA is just down the street from Memorial Stadium on the UC campus. If you are not familiar with the tree-sitters, they are a group of student/activists that have lived in some tree on the UC campus for 18 months or so. The university wants to cut down the trees to build an athletic training facility. The tree sitters want the trees to stay and the facility to be built elsewhere. They built an elaborate tree house complex and pulley system to distribute food and water to several trees. The campus police have allowed them to stay unmolested but earlier this week, police began to dismantle their treehouses and forcibly removing the protesters. There were news helicopters hovering over the campus when I cut through to get to PFA.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

2008 Hole in the Head

I have completed most of this year's Hole in the Head festival at the Roxie. Hole in the Head is self-described as "two weeks of horror, sci-fi and fantasy." I'm glad they didn't use the term "fantastic films" which irks me for some reason.

I saw 15 films but the festival isn't over even though the closing night film has screened. I guess some background is necessary. Most film festivals open on a Thursday night and close on a Sunday night. They run for 4 or 11 days. Why open on a Thursday? I don't know. Maybe they figure people will come out on a Friday without any encouragement so they line up the opening night film and party on a Thursday to attract more people. Indiefest followed this pattern for the first few years I attended. However, the problem with closing on a Sunday is that theaters like to program their regular films from Friday through Thursday. If there is a festival that ends on Sunday, it makes it difficult to program a single screen theater that week. Maybe for a true rep house, it is not as bad because they show a different film every day. However, the Roxie programs its two screens on a weekly schedule.

A few years ago, Indiefest started showing two days of extra screenings after the closing night. Originally, I believe they said they would show encore screenings of films that rated high in the audience choice balloting. In reality, I think they showed films that they could keep the prints for a few extra days. Striking a 35 mm or even a 16 mm print is expensive for independent film makers. Typically, they would only strike one print and if the film was scheduled for another festival screening, they would have to take the print after the last showing at Indiefest. However, if the film was not needed elsewhere, the filmmaker would allow it to be shown again on the Monday or Tuesday after closing night. Now, most films are digital and burned onto a DVD. In fact, I believe The Gene Generation was shown from the producer's laptop this year.

Indiefest (who are the same people as Hole in the Head and Docfest) have turned the closing night concept on its head. HoleHead "closed" on Thursday, June 12 but continues showing films until Thursday, June 19 and then in conjunction with the Primitive Screwheads, sponsor a live play until June 21, and finally show an additional two films on June 22. Even more strange is that Festival Passes were only valid for films through June 12. Typically, Festival Passes are good for all showing with the possible exception of Opening and Closing night.

Regardless of these scheduling irregularities, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the films.

Exte: Hair Extentsion; Japanese with subtitles; (2007) - Official Site
The Gene Generation with Bai Ling; (2007) - Official Site
The Machine Girl; Japanese with subtitles; (2008)
Mutant Vampires Zombies from the 'Hood with C. Thomas Howell; (2008) - Official Site
Summer Scars; (2007)
Homeworld; (2008) - Official Site
Trailer Park of Terror; (2008) - Official Site
Yaji and Kita; Japanese with subtitles; (2005) - Official Site
Wicked Lake; (2008) - Official Site
The Vanguard; (2008) - Official Site
Brain Dead; (2007) - Official Site
The Wild Man of Navidad; (2008) - Official Site
Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer; (2007) - Official Site
Wasting Away; (2007) - Official Site
Tunnel Rats with Michael Paré and directed by Uwe Boll; (2008)

My favorite film by far was The Machine Girl. Honorable mentions are Exte: Hair Extentsion, The Wild Man of Navidad, and Wasting Away.

The Machine Girl was full of references to Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Or is it referencing the original Japanese material that Tarantino, in particular, pays homage to. Machine Girl is a tale of revenge. A boy is killed by a bully and his teenage sister (in plaid skirt and knee socks) avenges his death. So much more is added to that simple plot - the bully is the son of a Yakuza gangster and psychopathic mother. The girl is captured by the gangsters and has her left arm cut off. With the help of the mother of another victim of the bully, she obtains a machine gun prosthesis and wreaks havoc. That is very similar to Rose Magowan's character in Robert Rodriguez's half of Grind House. The Yakuza ganglord is named Hatori Hanzo which is the name of the swordmaker (Sonny Chiba) in Kill Bill Vol. 1 as well as a yakuza character Chiba played in Japanese films in the 70's and 80's. This description may give the impression that The Machine Girl is played straight up but it's a comedy as the violence is over the top and the character's so outrageous that you can't help but laugh. Among the loonier moments are the hero getting her arm burned with oil and tempura mix by a demure housewife, a Jean Paul Gaultier inspired brassiere with drills bits, a ritual where the boy has to drink copious amounts of his father's blood, and necrophilia. According to IMDB, Asami (the lead actress) used to be a porn star.

Choosing the runner-up film is a little more difficult.

As long as I mentioned Kill Bill Vol. 1, Exte: Hair Extentsion starred Chiaki Kuriyama (Gogo Yubari, Lucy Liu's mace-wielding protégé). Her role here couldn't be more different. She plays a happy-go-lucky, apprentice hairdresser. Things are going well for her until her ne'er-do-well sister abandons her daughter with her. The girl is the victim of child abuse and has some behavioral problems but aunt and niece become very devoted to each other. That story has probably been made several times (didn't Catherine Zeta Jone make a film similar to that a year or two ago?) but I've never seen one where the hair of a murder victim becomes possessed. Add in a creepy janitor with a hair obsession that works at the morgue who steals the body and things are looking good for a cult classic. The corpse's hair continues to grow at an incredible pace. The janitor clips the hair and sells them to beauty parlors as hair extensions but they (the extensions) are possessed by the spirit of the woman. The extensions kill the people that wear them. The janitor takes a vaguely pedophilic interest in the little girl and to make the circle complete he gives Gogo some extension which she attached to her niece. This is one weird film but not so weird that the plot is incomprehensible. The scenes with the marauding hair are fun and Kuriyama shows surprising versatility for young actress.

The Wild Man of Navidad was produced by one of the producers of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Wild Man has the cinematography of a 1970's low budget film and it is set in the rural Texas town of Sublime on the Navidad River in Lavaca County. Based on an actual legend, the film revolves around a man who opens his land up for deer hunting. He knows that a creature lives down by the river but he needs the money to care of his invalid wife (who is being abused by his glass-eyed, Mexican, live-in caretaker). As the deer hunters disappear, the sheriff begins to suspect the truth. The sheriff leads a posse to kill the beast. This film is all about the mood which was surprisingly understated for a horror film. The taciturn husband shows every flavor of introverted angst as he confronts the various situations. That tubby, little Mexican keeps the bizarre factor high. It was a nice touch that the two converse in Spanish while the husband speaks English with a slight Texas drawl. The beast's costume is laughable. It looks to have deer antlers for hands and wears pelts that look a rabbit skin jacket. At the end, they show a close up of its face but technical difficulties made the video skip so I could really get a good gander. It had tusks but I can't recall much else.

Wasting Away injects an original idea into the moribund zombie movie formula. The premise of the film is showing the action from the zombies' point of view. Four young people are hanging out a bowling alley. Nearby an Army facility is testing biological weapons. They test a drug by injecting it into a subject and he promptly turns into a zombie. Cut to the chase - that drug gets mixed into the ice cream maker at the bowling alley and the four people eat the ice cream. They get the worse ice cream headache ever. They think they are normal but in fact they are zombies. They view each other as unchanged in appearance but the rest of society see them as George Romero standard issue zombies. They run into a soldier who has been exposed to the drug and the five of them try to work their way through Los Angeles even though "everyone else" has been infected by the drug. At this point, the film milks the reverse perspective for everything it is worth. This film is a comedy and it gets off a few zingers. My favorite is towards the end of the film after the zombies realize they are zombies. They discuss their options. One person suggests that they can get night jobs and blend in the fringes of society. The response is "We're zombies not illegal immigrants." The film was low budget but inventive and funny. One of the main characters looked a lot like Seann William Scott.

I also enjoyed Trailer Park of Terror and Tunnel Rats. Trailer Park is one of those horror films where an area is haunted and some kids wander in. The ghosts can kill the kids but at the end of the film, the site is an old abandoned site. In this case, the ghosts are the trashiest poor white trash ever portrayed and the kids are troubled youngsters coming back from a Christian retreat. The has some gusto and the beautiful Nichole Hiltz to raise it a notch above the norm. Tunnel Rats is a dark combat film set in the tunnels under the Vietnam jungle. Most of the film takes place in dark tunnels with US soldiers and Charlies crawling around trying to kill each other. It gets confusing but there are enough grisly death scenes to satisfy anyone - hanging, punji sticks, drowning, sharp stick through the neck, and a particulary effective suffocation scene finale. Jane Le as the VC woman raising her kids in the tunnel delivers the standout performance; maybe because she is the only woman.

Yaji and Kita is about a pair of gay samurai that jumps through time and reality. It was way too incomprehensible for me. Wicked Lake was boring and unoriginal. Somehow it made scenes with beautiful, naked, women engaged in lesbian antics boring. It did have the obligatory felatio emasculation scene. I don't know much about rape but my guess is that putting your penis into an unwilling partner's mouth is not a good idea. Horror films have taught me that if nothing else.

On June 22, Hole in the Head is presenting Tokyo Gore Police by the same director as The Machine Girl. I'm going to try to make it. As I mentioned, Primitive Screwheads is producing Kentucky Jones and the Carpet of Doom - a live spoof on Indiana Jones.