Saturday, August 30, 2008

1 out of 8 Indie Films in SF and a Few Nazi and Stalin Era Films in Telluride

In the August 24 edition of the Pink Section, the Chronicle had an article titled 8 Best Indie Films That You Haven't Seen Yet.

I'm sad to say that I've only seen one film on the list. That would be Shotgun Stories, the opening night film at this year's IndieFest. I'm familiar with the other seven:

Chop Shop
Frozen River
Garden Party
Son of Rambow
War Inc.

Son of Rambow had a limited release in May. It looked kind of silly so I passed on it. I'm surprised that War Inc. made the list since the Little Man was asleep in his seat.

Baghead is the one I'm most familiar with and wish I saw. I believe it played at the Lumiere earlier this month. It's a thoughtful spoof of the "cabin in the woods" horror genre.

Frozen River is currently playing at the Opera Plaza.

Teeth is the perfect companion film to The Secret Life of Sarah Sheldon which I saw at last year's Dead Channels. Vagina Dentata meets The Penis Monster.

I would add a few more films to my list of "independent films" currently in release. I use the term loosely because I don't know what the financing arrangements for these films are. Actually, the Landmark Theaters film listing is a good indicator of independent films that have created a buzz and gotten some limited distribution. Speaking of Landmark, why don't they put their films in the SF Chronicle film listings?

The following films are playing at Landmark Theaters in SF:

A Jihad for Love
Roman de Gare
Bottle Shock
Man on Wire

The Landmark Theaters in SF are the Lumiere, the Opera Plaza , the Clay, the Bridge and Embarcadero Center.


I'd like to recognize Gary Meyer. Gary is the owner of the Balboa Theater in SF. For a few years, Gary tried to make the Balboa a modern day rep house. It was my favorite theater for a period of 1 to 2 years. I saw a great Samurai film festival there as well as a Boris Karloff Retrospective. In addition, Gary founded or co-founded Landmark Theaters although I believe he sold it to some corporate entity.

More recently, Gary was named the festival director at the Telluride Film Festival. The festival runs this weekend, August 29 to September 1. I've never been to Telluride. It's some skiing resort in the Colorado mountains. I associate it with hippies in the past and something akin to a poor man's Vail now. I have no idea if this is reality or my misconception.

I recall a series of television commercials in my youth somehow associating Coors Beer with Telluride. I recall there being some home movie type footage of guys sledding or something. What was the story with Coors Beer being outlawed in several states? Wasn't the premise of Smokey and the Bandit or Cannonball Run (or some ripoff film) smuggling Coors into a state which it was banned?

Rather than continuing to show my ignorance about Colorado history & demographics, I will say that perusing the Telluride Film Festival program makes me wish I has gone out there this weekend. I hope Gary can convince someone to screen a few of these in the Bay Area.

The Fall of Berlin - produced in the Soviet Union; (1949)
The Last Command - directed by Josef von Sternberg; (1928)
Lola Montès - directed by Max Ophüls; (1955)
The Great Sacrifice - "the supreme achievement of the Nazi melodrama;" (1944)
Waltz with Bashir - Israeli animation on Palestinian refugee camp atrocities; (2008)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Killer Hippo, Dorothy Receives Electroshock Therapy and Jayne Mansfield is Sexually Frustrated!

On August 7, I went to PFA to see Eddie Muller introduce two David Goodis films.

Nightfall with Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft; (1957)
The Burglar with Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield; (1957)

I am familiar with man-about-town Muller. He founded and continues to host the annual Noir City Film Festival every January. He gave a guest lecture at a SF Jazz class I took a few years ago called Jazz in Film Noir. He has collaborated with Russell Blackwood from Thrillpeddlers on a Grand Guignol style play. He writes a monthly book review on mystery novels for SF Chronicle. So it wasn’t surprising to see him pop up at PFA to introduce two late period noir films.

In many of noir films, the plot stretches belief and Nightfall was definitely in that category. Ray plays an innocent man on the run. He is surprisingly sanguine about the circumstances that have ruined his life. A year ago, Ray (he goes by several names so I'll just call him Ray) and his friend Doc go camping/hunting in the woods. What is strange about that is that Ray is having an affair with Doc’s wife and is racked with guilt. (#1 Why would someone go on a hunting trip with the guy he is cuckolding?) Ray’s character is portrayed as a decent guy put in an impossible situation. He is not really that decent since he is having an affair with his friend's wife, picks up women in a bar and is rather adept with his fists. While sitting at the campfire, Doc and Ray see a car drive off the road. They go to render medical assistance and meet Brian Keith (John) and Rudy Bond (Red). As is often the case, the villains have more interesting characters. John is a coldly, logical guy that would just as soon avoid violence if possible but doesn’t have any qualms about using it when necessary. Red is simply a sadistic sociopath. I think Ray and Keith are playing similar characters reacting differently under difficult circumstances.

John & Red have robbed a bank of 300something thousand dollars. Now that Doc and Ray have seen them, they have to be killed. Red shoots Doc in the back with Ray’s hunting rifle. Ray needs to shoot himself to make it appear as a murder/suicide. He refuses and a gunfight ensues. Red nicks Ray in the head and leaves him for dead. He picks up the satchel of money and drives off. Unfortunately, he took the wrong satchel. They take Doc’s black bag full of whatever doctors kept in those bags when they used to make house calls. (#2 Can you fit $300,000 in one of those black bags? #3 After killing two men, wouldn’t bank robbers check the bag? Doc had just administered first aid to John so they saw the black bag he was using and must have noticed it looked similar to the one they were carrying.)

When Ray awakes, he grabs the bag to administer first aid to Doc. That’s when he notices there is cash in the bag. He takes the money and runs. After all, it is his only chance. He could play dead and wait for the robbers to come back to switch bags but circumstantial evidence is against him. He is having an affair with Doc’s wife. Doc was shot with Ray’s hunting rifle. With the money bag gone, there is no evidence to indicate the robbers were there. Ray does what any reasonable person in film noir does. Rather than going to the police, he goes into hiding. He runs through the woods and across a river. Exhausted, he heads for a shack in the middle of a snow covered field to take shelter. Somewhere during the trek, he loses the bag of money. (#4 How could he lose the bag?)

Another noir trait is to tell the story out of linear sequence. As the film opens, we see Ray in a big city, one year after the aforementioned events. He is being shadowed by James Gregory, an investigator working for the insurance company that covered the bank loss from the robbery. He thinks Ray stole the money but has some nagging doubts.

Ray meets Anne Bancroft at a bar in an entertaining sequence. Ray approaches the bar like a hungry wolf by asking the bartender if “she is available” pointing towards the empty seat with women’s gloves or a scarf. The bartender says she is alone if that’s what he means. He takes the stool next to her and orders vodka. Bancroft returns to her seat and after a few minutes of banter, asks Ray for $5 to pay her bar tab. Ray gives her $5 but when the bartender returns, Bancroft orders another drink and magnanimously offers to buy Ray another vodka. Ray justifiably thinks Bancroft is a prostitute and treats her as such. Bancroft finds some self-respect and throws a drink in his face. Then they have dinner and agree to spend the night together.

As they leave the bar, Ray & Bancroft run into John & Red who have been watching them from the bar. They tell Bancroft to scram and she complies. It’s unclear if Bancroft is a plant which Ray assumes she is. I’m not sure why the director makes the situation ambiguous. Later, it seems clear that she was not but maybe it was just a false twist in the plot. The three men get in a car and drive away – John spouting voice of reason pleas to hand over the money, Red cackling from the driver’s seat and Ray claiming not to have the money.

I don’t want to devolve into straight plot summary so it is suffice to say that Ray extricates himself from his situation, meets up with Bancroft and the two fall in love. There is a hilarious scene where Ray shows up bloodied and bruised at Bancroft’s door. Ray knows the money bag is somewhere up by that shack and he and Bancroft go to retrieve it. (#5 Why go to the area during the winter when there is snow again? Why not go in the spring or summer when the snow has melted?).

In the end, Red kills John and hops into a snow plow. After some fisticuffs with Ray, Red meets his demise at the rotating blades of the slow moving snow plow.

Muller repeatedly compared this film to Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. I haven’t seen that film but my feeling is Nightfall is a very nicely made B movie noir. Keith, Bond and Bancroft deliver great performances. Ray plays the character with a strange sense of acceptance of his bad luck. Rather than being frustrated or angry, Ray is tired of running and depressed but persistently works towards his goal of recovering the money and clearing his name. He only breaks down towards the end when Gregory informs him of his identity. I can’t see Mitchum showing that kind of weakness. So once again, I have to say that PFA uncovers another hidden gem for me.


The Burglar is nominally about a jewelry heist but it is really about one man trying to live by his own code of honor and his conflicted feelings about his “sister.” I put sister in quotations marks because they are not related by blood. If Jayne Mansfield was my sister, I might think about incest too but that is not the case here. Duryea has assumed the big brother role as a promise to her late father and repeatedly rebuffs Mansfield’s advances with ever increasing difficulty. Maybe I’m parsing words but Duryea did not promise to be chaste with Mansfield so marrying her would have fulfilled his promise. Anyway, this promise causes all kinds of inner conflict in Duryea. Ratcheting up the stress levels are the need to fence a high profile stolen necklace and conflict among Duryea’s gang.

I enjoyed this film quite a bit. Muller shared some tidbits. Goodis and director Paul Wendkos were from Philadelphia where the film was shot. Mansfield was from nearby Bryn Mawr. The film was what would now be called an “independent” film.
Shot in 1955, the film was not released until 1957 to take advantage of Mansfield’s growing popularity. The film was unable to find a distributor initially.

This film is built around Duryea’s hangdog face. Not quite likeable, Duryea creates a sympathetic figure. Mansfield’s beauty is hard to conceal although her baby doll voice grew irritating. I thought she filled out a pair of jeans nicely in one scene. Designers cut women’s jeans differently now. Martha Vickers (looking a lot like Marilyn Monroe), has a memorable role as a man-eater with a sob story cum scam artist.

Muller didn’t mention it but John Facenda played a major role at the beginning of the film. I found out that Facenda was from Philadelphia but to most people he is known as the voice of NFL films.


On Friday, August 8 (the night of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies), I saw two thirds of a triple feature organized by Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ Midnite for Maniacs. I saw:

Return to Oz with Fairuza Balk and Tippi Hedren; (1985)
Meet the Feebles directed by Peter Jackson; (1989)

Before seeing Return to Oz, I was aware that L. Frank Baum wrote several Oz books of which The Wizard of Oz (1939) was only one. I also knew that the books became increasing bizarre but I was not prepared for Return to Oz in any sense of the word. First, the film (produced by Disney) seemed very cheaply made. The costumes and special effects were particularly amateurish. Though made in 1985, it seemed to be a cheap 1970’s film to me. Putting aside that the 1939 film was more impressive than the 1985 “sequel,” I wasn’t prepared for the fairly dark nature of the film. Dorothy receives electroshock treatment from a shady doctor and head nurse. When she arrives in Oz, she is met but some strange people called Wheelers that seemed like the retarded cousins of the S&M biker gang in Mad Max 2. There is another scene involving decapitated heads. Most bizarre was Jack Pumpkinhead who reminds me of a horror movie villain from the 80’s. Jack is basically a jack-o-lantern with tree branches for hands and legs. I found him to be menacing. More disturbing was his desire to refer to Dorothy as his “mother.” Think of a Jack In the Box commercial with pedophillic overtones.

Also, what made The Wizard of Oz great were the songs (which the organist played before the movie). Return to Oz was not a musical so there was no break in the action. The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) and the Flying Monkeys were quite frightening, particularly to children. By balancing the action with songs, the original film broadens its appeal and provides a nice rhythm. Return to Oz just goes from one bizarre episode to another.

Judy Garland was 18 years old when she made The Wizard of Oz and I think she looked older. Fairuza Balk was 13 when she made Return to Oz and she looked younger. I think she was too young for the role.

I can’t say I didn’t like Return to Oz. It seems to me like a near miss. There was a lot of potential that wasn’t quite achieved. I like Fairuza Balk. She has a unique face and a film presence that is ever present. My favorite role by her was in the delightfully bad The Craft where she plays the lead witch. Like Road House with Patrick Swayze, I’ve seen The Craft on television many times and it is a guilty pleasure. Balk also played a racist in American History X as Edward Norton’s girlfriend and Marlon Brando’s feline daughter in the hilariously dreadful The Island of Dr. Moreau.

I had dinner and got my car during the second film – Bettlejuice with Michael Keaton, Geena Davis and Winona Ryder. The midnight film was Meet the Feebles by New Zealand director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Ring trilogy). Meet the Feebles can best be described as The Muppets on Crack. There was a strange children’s show I watched called New Zoo Review that reminded me of this film. The Muppets television show and Avenue Q stage show are of the same lineage.

Meet the Feebles is completely populated by puppets – anthropomorphic animals such as an elephant, hippo, walrus, hedgehog, poodle, bulldog, fly, worm, etc. The film revolves around a theater that produces a weekly television variety show called Meet the Feebles. On the day of the show, we follow the soap opera that is backstage life at Meet the Feebles. To say the characters are dysfunctional is an understatement. Some of the backstage antics include making porn movies (with a cow with pierced udders), selling drugs, a panty sniffing aardvark and a paternity suit filed by a chicken against an elephant. There was also some animal spoofing gay theater stereotypes that sings about sodomy. In the end, the hippo goes on a Columbine style rampage with a machine gun.

This film was trumpeted by Ficks as the VCR “holy grail” during his college years. I can understand how this film has achieved cult status. Maybe I’m too old to enjoy it but I found the film to be boring and once you get past the puppets acting in decidedly adult ways, it wasn’t that funny.

The David Goodis double feature and Midnight for Maniacs films were well attended. I was surprised how many people came out at midnight for Meet the Feebles.

Friday, August 15, 2008


My internet connection at home is down and my company restricts access to certain websites. I'm writing from my library - not the public library but The Mechanics' Institute, a private library.

Last week, I saw Shoot the Piano Player at PFA as part of its film program titled Streets of No Return: The Dark Cinema of David Goodis. The film was introduced by Mike White. He wrote an extensive article on David Goodis titled The Serious Moonlight: The Cinematic World of David Goodis.

As you may notice, this article is published in White's blog - aka Cashiers du Cinemart; self-described as "the infamous Detroit film zine." I've been surfing the on-line version of Cashiers du Cinemart (before my internet connection crapped out) and rather enjoy it.

Being old school, I wanted the real magazine experience not a webpage. It appears as though one can buy a paper copy of the last three issues from Atomic Books in Baltimore for the low, low price of $5. I'm torn though, it seems like most of the content is free under the Archives section of Impossibly Funky.

Aside - I found one site that is dedicated to movie magazines simply called The Site of Movie Magazines.


When Eddie Muller introduced two Goodis films last week, he made reference that Paul Wendkos was "influenced" by Orson Welles when he made The Burglar. In particular, the amusement park ending from The Lady from Shanghai was evoked in The Burglar. The Lady from Shanghai was filmed in San Francisco and the ending in house of mirrors was filmed at Playland at the Beach. Sadly, Playland at the Beach is long gone and now is the site of some condos and Burger King.

That reminded me that I read about Playland Not at the Beach in El Cerrito. It saved some of the arcade games and seeks to recreate the atmosphere of the original. I haven't been there but would like to make it out there sometime. It's near (5 blocks) El Cerrito Del Norte BART.


I am always looking for upcoming films since most of the films I watch are one-night affairs. A few films catch my attention.

Trumbo opens today. In San Francisco, it is playing at the Landmark Lumiere on California. It's a documentary about screen writer/novelist Dalton Trumbo who was blacklisted during the HUAC hearings. Trumbo has numerous screenwriting credits including Spartacus, Papillon and Roman Holiday which was fronted by Ian McLellan Hunter.

The Castro Theater has posted their upcoming events and it includes a Bette Davis Centennial (Stanford Theater already had one earlier this year), a Nino Rota retrospective (part of the Legendary Composers series), Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha and four epic films by David Lean.

The 4 Star Theater is presenting Red Heroine on September 19. It's billed as a "1929 Silent Kung Fu Film." There will be live accompaniment by the Devil Music Ensemble.

The 4 Star Theater is also showing Exte: Hair Extensions which was one of my favorites from this year's Hole in the Head.

Dead Channels has announced the date of its festival - October 2-5. I haven't heard or read which films will screen. Dead Channels is Bruce Fletcher's "Festival of Fantastic Films." Bruce was formerly IndieFest's head programmer.

Speaking of Indiefest, they have announced that DocFest will run for 21 days. October 17 to 30 will be at the Roxie and October 30 to November 7 will be at the Shattuck in Berkeley.

From August 29 to September 4, the Roxie presents Rob Nilsson's complete 9 @ Night - "a series of nine feature films [Nilsson] produced over the last decade in collaboration with the Tenderloin yGroup, an inner-city acting and production workshop Nilsson developed in the San Francisco Tenderloin." The nine films have a total runtime of 735 minutes and the series will be presented twice at the Roxie. The films will then move to San Rafael Film Center and the two Speakeasy theaters in the East Bay.

Finally, there are two mainstream releases I want to see. The Dark Knight is getting great reviews. Tropic Thunder looks too audacious to pass up with Robert Downey Jr. in blackface and its lampooning of actors portraying mentally disabled people.

In my younger days, I was a huge fan of The X-Files. I still have some nostalgia and may try to catch the current movie version for old time's sake.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Weekend at Berkeley

I saw four movies at PFA this weekend.

David Goodis Retrospecitve
The Unfaithful with Ann Sheridan; (1947)
Shoot the Piano Player directed by François Truffaut; French with subtitles; (1960)

United Artists 90th Anniversary Retrospective
Broken Blossoms with Lillian Gish; directed by D.W. Griffith; silent with intertitles; live piano accompaniment (1919)

Celebration of Widescreen
Pierrot le Fou with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina; directed by Jean-Luc Godard; French with subtitles; (1965)

Broken Blossoms has the distinction of being the first United Artists film. Griffith founded UA with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. I was not aware of the film before reading the synopsis. I associate Griffith with epic films (the man who taught Cecil B. de Mille how to be Cecil B. de Mille) such as Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.

Broken Blossoms is a film on a smaller scale. Viewed 89 years after its release, it is a more racist film too. The lead actor is in yellowface and is credited as The Yellow Man. In one memorable scene, Gish (aka White Blossom) asks him “Why are you so kind to me Chinky?”

Regardless, this film is about two kind but abused souls that come together for a brief, tragic interlude before their deaths. Gish is Lucy, a poor cockney girl who is abused by her brutish, prizefighing father. She is literally forced to smile by using her two index fingers to push up the edges of her mouth. Despite the parental abuse she endures, her indominatible spirit shines through – best exemplified by her love of flowers and a doll she eyes in a shop window.

Richard Barthelmess is The Yellow Man who we first meet in China. Apparently versed in the philosophy of Buddhism, we see The Yellow Man get a punch in the mouth for his troubles when he preaches peace to some American sailors. Undeterred, he ventures to the West to spread his message of peace.

Within a few years, he ends up in a poor London neighborhood. Disillusioned by the Great War and blatant racism, he now runs an antique store and keeps his pacifist ideals to himself. He also keeps his attraction to Lucy to himself as well. After an especially violent encounter with her father, Lucy staggers into The Yellow Man’s shop. She is nursed back to health by her beloved “Chinky.” This was very likely a controversial aspect of the plot considering the KKK was on the rise and miscegenation laws were still common.

When Lucy’s father finds out of her whereabouts, he vandalizes the antique shop and drags her daughter home. There he beats her to death. When The Yellow Man returns to his shop and finds the damage, he grabs his revolver and goes to Lucy’s house. What is a pacifist doing with a gun? Upon arriving at the house, he sees Lucy’s lifeless body and is enraged. He is so enraged that he confronts the drunken father and shoots him (arguably in self-defense). He carries Lucy’s body back to his shop to properly mourn her. Despondent over Lucy’s death and/or breaking his pacifist beliefs, The Yellow Man commits suicide.

In essence, Griffith is saying that peace is the loser when it goes up against human’s natural inclination towards violence. This is not particularly surprising coming after four, brutal years of the Great War. It’s hard to fathom how shocking the death toll during WWI was and it must have made a deep impression on countless people around the world. Griffith combines his pacifist message with a somber tone and some interesting film editing. He employed quick cut editing to show how Lucy and The Yellow Man were following parallel paths. This kind of editing technique is still commonly used today.

Broken Blossoms hasn't aged well but Griffith's skills as a filmmaker are clear.


Pierrot le Fou allowed Godard to employ some interesting use of color, lighting and non-linear storytelling. Belmondo and Karina are lovers on the run. Its never clear why they are on the run. A few dead bodies show up but motive is not considered a necessary component of this script. Actually, plot is not a necessary component of the script. Rumors abound that the film was shot without a script. Karina is a shady character that (from my perspective) ensnares the bookish but bored Belmondo. She leaves him high and dry in the end. I won’t reveal the ending because the film is more about the journey.

I thought there were two and a half reasons for making this film. First, it allowed Godard to make film that plays with lighting. There are two scenes that stand out – one a party. As Belmondo walks from room to room, the lighting changes from green to red to blue, etc. The other scene involves Belmondo and Karina driving while the overhead lighting alternates – left, right, left, right, green, red, blue, yellow, etc. The second reason to make this film was to showcase Karina (Godard's wife – both her beauty and screen presence were considerable. The half reason was Belmondo who makes valiant effort to hold his own opposite Karina.

This is the second Godard film I've seen this year. I saw Contempt earlier this year and Breathless (1960) with Jean Seberg a few years ago. It is clear that Godard knew how to highlight feminine beauty. Breathless tells a similar story as Pierrot le Fou (Belmondo is in both films) - that is young lovers on the run from the law but as Godard grew as a director, he moved away from linear story telling.

Trivia - director Sam Fuller (Big Read One) makes a cameo in the film in an amusing sequence that says a lot about Goddard and presumably Fuller’s view of American movies of the era. Jack Palance's character in Contempt bears a resemblance to Fuller.


Finally, The Unfaithful was a film that must have caused a stir when it was released. Touching on the hardships on the homefront during WWII, The Unfaithful probably hit a nerve with many audience members. The story is about a Chris Hunter (Sheridan), a socialite that shoots an attacker in her house. As the story develops, it becomes clear that Chris knew the intruder (in the biblical sense) despite her claims otherwise.

This film deviates slightly from the standard of the era – evil women get their comeuppance. Chris is acquitted of the crime and reconciles with her husband. This ending reminds me of Clash by Night, Barbara Stanwyck film. The film portrays Chris in a realistic way which is to say that she is decent woman that was lonely during the war and got involved with a bad guy. The motivation and extent of her cover up was a little hard to fathom but it was the 1940’s and women didn’t have the opportunities they do today. I didn't like the semi-feel good ending.

Eve Arden as Chris' bitchy, boozy, newly divorced in-law stole just about every scene she was in.