Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chilean Domestics, Minnesota Jews, Crescent City Cops and Italian Bicycle Thieves

I caught a few films here and there in December.

At the Balboa (which has a new URL and redesigned website), I watched a fabulous double feature consisting of The Maid (2009) and A Serious Man (2009).

I first became aware of The Maid at this year's Mill Valley Film Festival. The Chilean film, directed by Sebastian Silva, was screened with subtitles. I previouly mentioned my desire to see it.

I enjoyed the film quite a bit. Catalina Saavedra in the title role gives a complex performance for a simple character. Raquel, the maid, is insecure with her position in the family (both formally and emotionally). She is envious of her employers and at times, quite cruel. Her headaches and dizzy spells are likely the result of self-induced stress. She has imposed herself on the family, particularly the matriarch, to the point that she is neither fish nor fowl. She is not fully embraced by the family as an equal but yet she is much more than an employee. At times, she exhibits maternal, sibling, romantic and childish tendencies. She is largely estranged from her own mother so Raquel has nothing but her employers. The film is bittersweet even with the heartwarming ending. I can't help but feel this woman has spent the best years of her life caring for someone else's family to her own emotional detriment.

A Serious Man is a Coen Brothers film.

Imaginatively exploring questions of faith, familial responsibility, delinquent behavior, dental phenomena, academia, mortality, and Judaism – and intersections thereof – A Serious Man is the new film from Academy Award-winning writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen.

A Serious Man is the story of an ordinary man’s search for clarity in a universe where Jefferson Airplane is on the radio and F-Troop is on TV. It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous acquaintances, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who seems to her a more substantial person than the feckless Larry. Larry’s unemployable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew school, and his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is filching money from his wallet in order to save up for a nose job.

While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry’s chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person – a mensch – a serious man?

I am a Coen Brothers fan. The first film I saw on VHS at my parents' house was Miller's Crossing (1990). They were late adaptapters to VHS. The first (and to date only) film I watched on an ipod was No Country for Old Men (2007). I also greatly enjoyed The Big Lebowski (1998) and Fargo (1996).

A Serious Man has been well reviewed and mentioned as a possible Oscar Best Picture nominee. I was not familiar with many of the actors in the cast so their performances were all the more effective. I enjoyed it from start to finish - the dybbuk, the Korean exchange student, the mentaculus, Sy Ableman, the goy's teeth, Jefferson Airplane, et al.

One aspect of the film that I have not seen any comments about are the striking (even frightening) eyes of Amy Landecker who plays Mrs. Samsky, the next door neighbor that likes to sunbathe nude. Her eyes are steel blue and with black eye shadow, the effect of her stare is quite discomforting. I could not hold up to her stare for more than a few seconds.

Amy Landecker in A Serious Man

At the Roxie, I saw Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009) starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes and Val Kilmer and directed by Werner Herzog. Peter Hartlaub of the SF Chonicle wrote "you'll need to be a little bit screwed up in the head yourself to enjoy director Werner Herzog's drug-fueled journey in the abyss of the human condition." I'll give you one guess whether or not I enjoyed the film.

I can't say it any better than Hartlaub. I would say that I don't know if Cage overacts per se. It seems to me like he only has one mode - wooden, slow to react, alternating between feeble minded and psychotic. Sometimes it works such as Raising Arizona (1987) which was a Coen Brothers film, Moonstruck (1987) where ironically he has a wooden arm, Wild at Heart (1990), Red Rock West (1993), Face/Off (1997), Leaving Las Vegas (1999) and...well, the rest of the time it doesn't work. So it's been 10 years since I saw Nicholas Cage film I enjoyed.

The supporting characters in Bad Lieutenant add quite a bit of color - Val Kilmer was mentioned in the article. Shea Whigham, as politically john who beats up Mendes, stole every scene he was in. Herzog had to coach him to act that badly because no actor would dare interpret his character in such a manner.

Bad Lieutenant...New Orleans was much more enjoyable than the Abel Ferrara/Harvey Keitel film. No nuns are raped, you don't see full frontal male nudity and Keitel was bad in an ugly way. Cage is just as bad but he has more weird panache. Keitel jerked off to two teenage girls in a car; Cage screws a woman and makes her boyfriend watch at gunpoint. Keitel didn't hallucinate iguanas.


Also at the Roxie, I saw The Bicycle Thief (1948; Italian with subtitles) directed by Vittorio De Sica. I first saw this film in January 2003 at the Roxie. It is one of the most celebrated films in Italian cinema. It is considered the preeminent example of Italian Neorealism and ranks among the top films of all time.

Having appreciated the film in 2003 but not fully recognizing its greatness, I decided to see it again. I'm glad I did.

The plot centers on Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), an unemployed man in post WWII Italy. He lands a job hanging street posters or playbills. The only requirement is that he needs a bicycle. He's hocked his bike but his supportive hocks the bed linens so they can have money to get his bike out of the pawnshop. All is looking up for Ricci until a thief steals his bike. This starts Ricci and his son Bruno (7 year old Enzo Staiola) on a quest around the city to find his stolen bike. The search is ultimately fruitless but Ricci loses more than his bike. He loses his dignity and son's respect when he is caught stealing a bike.

That plot is deceptively simple. Ricci represent an entire society trying to navigate its way through the ruins of a city in a nation that lost the war. Ricci is a good and decent man but he is poor and can't get a job. When he finally gets a job, it is literally stolen from him. As he wanders the city, he sees that there are a lot of people worse off than him and that he is not equipped to deal with the rampant corruption and deceit that others will resort. Ricci finds the bicycle thief but he can't prove it's him and the thief's lack of morals preclude him from admitting his crime. Left with the impossible choice of remaining unemployed and not being able to provide for his family or stealing a bike, he chooses the latter. However, Ricci is not a thief and is quickly caught. Instead of admitting his desperation, he accepts his fate at the mob. It is only the compassion of the victim that saves him from serious trouble. In that sense, society is redeemed by the forgiveness of that man but surely Ricci is lost.

On second viewing, I am impressed with the performance turned in by Enzo Staiola as the son. In his debut role, Staiola imbues his character with more than any 7 year old (actor or character) could imagine or at least that I could imagine. I have read that Staiola is more like a small man acting opposite Maggiorani. Lamberto Maggiorani also debuted in The Bicycle Thief which makes his performance and the film all the more amazing. Both Staiola and Maggiorani had modest film careers and never acheived similar critical acclaim again. In both cases, their performances must not have been much different from their actual lives. That may impune their acting skills but it certainly says alot about their courage to basically play themselves on screen. I have to wonder if Maggiorani had faced a similar dilemma in his life. As for Staiola, Bruno has innocence that seems tempered by the reality of his situation but not conquered by it. Bruno wants to believe in his father and society but seems to know that he cannot. Still, he somehow suspends disbelief until it impossible to continue. His face seemed unusually mature for a 7 year old.

Several scenes stand out. Ricci & his son splurge by going to a restaurant for a meal. There is a boy at another table (from a wealthy family) who makes eye contact with Bruno and twirls his spaghetti in a manner to flaunt his good fortune while Bruno looks on hungrily and enviously. At the end, when Ricci is contemplating his crime, he sees hundred of bikes parked outside a soccer stadium and it drive him mad. Then he sits on a curb, head in hands, and a peloton cruises right in front of him further enticing him. When Ricci finds the thief and confronts him, the entire neighborhood come out to oppose him. The thief fakes a seizure and Ricci has a look of utter futility as he realizes that he can't do anything, the police won't do anything and the crowd (complicit in the crime or unsympathetic to his plight) won't do anything.

The proper translation of the film title, Ladri di biciclette, is The Bicycle Thieves. The second thief being Ricci. The mistranslated title has endured.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Otto Preminger at PFA

I also caught a very enjoyable Otto Preminger series called Anatomy of a Movie at the PFA in December. I watched 10 of the 14 films in the series. The series is one of my favorites since I have started frequenting PFA on a habitual basis.

Anatomy of a Murder starring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and George C. Scott; (1959)
Whirlpool starring Gene Tierney, Richard Conte and Jose Ferrer; (1950)
Advise and Consent starring Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, Franchot Tone, Gene Tierney and Peter Lawford; (1962)
The Moon Is Blue starring William Holden, David Niven and Maggie McNamara; (1953)
Saint Joan starring Jean Seberg, Richard Widmark and John Gielgud; (1957)
The Man with the Golden Arm starring Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak and Darren McGavin; (1955)
Exodus starring Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint & Sal Mineo; (1960)
Carmen Jones starring Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey; lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein; music by Georges Bizet; (1955)
Bonjour Tristesse starring Jean Seberg, David Niven and Deborah Kerr; (1958)
Skidoo starring Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Groucho Marx, Frank Gorshin and George Raft; (1968)

In addition, Film on Film Foundation sponsored a screening at the PFA of Preminger's The Cardinal starring Tom Tryon, John Huston and Ossie Davis (1963).


With the exception of Anatomy of a Murder, I had not previously seen any of the films in their entirety. I had watched portions of Advise and Consent and Exodus on television. Somehow, Carmen Jones and The Man with the Golden Arm had completely escaped my viewing history. The rest were completely new to me.

They were a mixed bag to be sure but Preminger clearly seemed more of a master craftsman than inspired artists. His films were eminently watchable with the exception of Skidoo.


In my opinion, Anatomy of a Murder is his best film. The professor who introduced it said it was perhaps the best courtroom drama ever. 12 Angry Men also gets frequent mention. Anatomy of a Murder benefits greatly from a ferocious courtroom rivalry between Jimmy Stewart & George C. Scott as the defense lawyer and prosecutor, respectively. Scott plays his character like an aggressive animal looking to tear into anything that moves. Stewart is all corn pone as a small town lawyer whose country bumpkin acts hide a sharp legal mind and highly competitive personality. Lee Remick is as slutty as a 1959 film would allow and Ben Gazzara plays Remick's husband and the accused murderer with a mean, deceitful streak. Actually, the whole plot must have been groundbreaking in 2009. Remick is raped and Gazzara kills the alleged rapist but is charged with murder. Joseph Welch of Army-McCarthy Hearing fame (Have you no sense of decency, sir?), played the judge as an experience judge who has seen every trick in the book but yet not completely jaded on the process. I can't really add anything to the many reviews of this film except to say this is one of my favorite films of all time. Did I mention Duke Ellington provided the soundtrack?


A step below Anatomy of a Murder is Carmen Jones which benefits greatly from Bizet's canonical opera and Hammerstein inventive lyrics. Carmen Jones takes the Carmen story and sets it during WWII in the Deep South with an all African American cast. The plot lends itself well to the film; the major revision being the substitution of a prize fighter for the bull fighter. If you are not familiar with the plot...well, it's like a lot of operas - boy loves good girl, boy meets bad girl, bad girl leads boy to ruin, boy kills bad girl. That summarizes at least 30% of all operas. Another frequent variation is the good girl selflessly hides a secret to protect the boy's feelings or social standing. Frequently, the girl is deathly ill too but I digress.

Carmen Jones shines because Dorothy Dandridge sings and shimmies her way into Belafonte's heart and other body parts. Preminger was rumored to have an affair with Dandridge during the film and I can't say I don't envy him. How wonderfully scandalous it must have been for an Austrian Jew to be cavorting with an African American woman in 1955. Pearl Bailey contributes the blues influenced “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” and Joe Adams sings “Stan’ Up and Fight” to the Toreador Song.

Dat's love
You go for me
And I'm taboo
But if you're
hard to get
I go for you


Another film I enjoyed was the flawed and dated Bonjour Tristesse. Jean Seberg and David Niven liven up the film about a spoiled, rich girl (the delicious Jean Seberg) and her randy and immoral father. Niven flouts his mistresses in front of his 17 year old daughter (Seberg) to the point where she doesn't blink an eye. In fact, father & daughter have formed a symbiotic relationship that crosses the line into perverse. The film did not suggest incest but rather a lax attitude towards sexuality but other people's feelings. This attitude eventually drives Deborah Kerr to suicide although she is generous enough to not leave a note and make it look like a car accident. Daughter & father are equally complicit. French actress Mylène Demongeot stands out as Niven's ditzy paramour while Kerr plays a more mature and serious love interest. Seberg & Niven are decadent Eurotrash with expensive tastes and exquisite late 1950's fashion. PFA curator Steve Seid said that Jean-Luc Godard greatly admired this film and cast Jean Seberg in Breathless (1960) on the basis of her this performance. Godard envisioned Seberg character in Breathless as an extension of her character in Bonjour Tristesse - hollowed out by three years of immorality, apathy and alcohol; washed up and prematurely jaded by age 20.

The film looks rather quaint 50 years after the fact but Niven's cavalier attitudes regarding his paternal duties still is disquieting and Seberg youthful exuberance is still intoxicating.

An aside - when my mother passed away, I looked through her belongings and she had a small magazine photo cutout of a blonde woman with a pixie haircut that looked a lot like Jean Seberg. My mother never mentioned Jean Seberg to me and I'm not even aware if she knew who Seberg was. I believe she liked the haircut and wore her hair in a similar style for many years. It lends a vaguely oedipal color to my attraction to Seberg. Seberg seemed to live up to her Bonjour Tristesse role - an affair with Clint Eastwood while married to another man (the husband challenged Clint to a duel), under surveillance by the FBI, suicidal, addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs, married to an Arab playboy and finally a questionable death in Paris which was ultimately ruled a suicide.

Jean Seberg in Bonjour Tristesse


Advise and Consent and The Cardinal were two films that explored the inner workings of two powerful and august organizations - the US Senate and the Catholic Church. They both had their moments but of the two, I slightly preferred Advise and Consent.

The Cardinal told the story of Stephen Fermoyle from the time of his ordination to his elevation to cardinal about 20 years later. The film is set 1920's and 30's so Fermoyle (Tom Tryon) has encounters with Jim Crow attitudes in the Deep South and Nazis in Austria. In addition, viewers get a glimpse of the inner workings, politics and rivalries at the Vatican. The film never drags (it is 175 minutes) but it feels like an epic film which it was intended to be. It seemed overly melodramatic with Fermoyle's sister dying during childbirth, his parish priest suffering a slow but brave death, his crisis of faith and subsequent romance in Austria, his being whipped by the Ku Klux Klan and finally confronting a Nazi enabling priest as well as the Nazis themselves. I didn't really get a feel for what drove Fermoyle. He was intelligent, brave and devout but he overcame every crisis and indeed seemed to be stronger for it. Fermoyle received the short end of the stick when it came to character development. Instead, it was the events of the first half of the 20th century and internal politics of the Catholic Church that were the true stars of the film.

Advise and Consent is a similar film that centers on the confirmation hearings of Robert A. Leffingwell, theS ecretary of State-Designate (Henry Fonda). The proceedings are rife with intrigue and personal rivalries. A Dixiecrat (Charles Laughton in his last role) opposes the nomination due to personal animosity with the nominee. The Senate Majority leader (Walter Pidgeon) tries to shepherd the nomination along even though he was blindsided by the President (Franchot Tone). Leffingwell has Communist ties in his past which ratchet up the tension. Don Murray plays Brig Anderson, the committee chair who opposes the nomination on principle despite the President and Majority Leader's urgings to the contrary. Evenetually, an unscrupulous senator (George Grizzard in a memorable performance) blackmails Anderson by threatening to expose his past homosexual behavior. Lew Ayres plays the affable but ineffectual, Gene Tierney (in her comeback role after a 7 year absence due to mental healt problems) plays the premier Washington socialite and Burgess Meredith, Peter Lawford and Betty White have small roles as well.

This film must have been one of the most anticipated films of the period with its all star cast and sensational subject matter. I recall seeing a documentary on PBS (perhaps The Celluloid Closet) that featured the scene where Murray goes to gay bar in Greenwich Village to confront his former lover. The scene draws guffaws now but I can only imagine how it was received in 1962. Imagine this - a bunch of men, dressed like preppies, crowded around a bar, with a Frank Sinatra song playing while closeted Murray has to make his way past a couple of queens guarding the doorway. The entrance is elevated so when the bartender sees Murray, he yells and waves for him to come in. This is too much for Murray so he runs away as fast as he can with his ex in pursuit, calling out his name. Murray flags a taxi just in a nick of time while his ex lunges for the taxi door, apologizing profusely and eventually stumbling into a puddle. This encounter was enough to drive Murray to suicide. Actually, this plot line was based on the real events involvings Senators Lester Hunt and Styles Bridges.

Several scenes stood out for me in Advise and Consent. In particular, I enjoyed the scenes as Don Muuray's mounting angst become apparent as he becomes more desperate to avoid having his secret exposed. Another memorable scene involves Larry Tucker as an obese, effeminate (swishy is the term they used) gay man that treats Murray like an anxious gay man looking to find a lover. The final roll call vote was also tense. Any scene with the horn rimmed Gizzard playing the manipulative senator with his gaggle of sycophants in tow was a treat. Franchot Tone gave a strong performance as the supremely skilled President who bullies, cajoles and guilts others into doing what he wants.

The performances all around were strong and after writing these paragraphs, I can't recall why I didn't think more highly of the film when I saw it. I definitely recall thinking the film had missed the mark slightly when the credits rolled but now I can't recall why I felt that way. Instead, I recall enjoyable performances from the entire cast.


Several of the film from the series were less than enjoyable. Two stage adaptations failed badly - The Moon Is Blue and Saint Joan.

The Moon Is Blue was quite risque at the time and Preminger had to fight censors to get it released. A rather forward woman (Maggie McNamara channeling Audrey Hepburn) encounters Wiliam Holden at the Empire State Building. After some surprisingly frank dialogue about their love lives, the woman stops at Holden's apartment (so he change I believe). Holden has recently broken up with his girlfriend (the beautiful Dawn Addams) who lives upstairs with her father (David Niven). Niven's performance is essentially the same as he will give in Bonjour Tristesse five years later. Anyway, the whole plot is unbelievable even by modern standards. I guess this was some playwright's vision of sophisticated urbanites' liberated sexuality was in the middle of the 20th century. I can't believe many people behaved this way in 1953. I also began to tire of Maggie McNamara's character and eventually found her irritating.

Saint Joan was Jean Seberg film debut. With a haircut like Falconetti
in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Seberg looked like Joan of Arc but was never believable as the Maid of Orleans. Perhaps she didn't have the gravitas but it didn't help that the dialogue was weak and she had to act opposite the silly, milquetoast portrayal of Charles VII by Richard Widmark. The film was based on a play by George Bernard Shaw and screenwriting credit was given to Graham Greene so talent was clearly present. I have read that Greene's treatment differs signficantly from Shaw's play by trying to absolve the Catholic Church of blame in Joan's death. This may explain some of the problems but to me it seemed like Preminger didn't reign in the actors or encouraged them to ham it up just enough to dilute the drama of the story.


Skidoo takes bad filmmaking to new heights. PFA curator Steve Seid stated that the Preminger estate owned the rights to Skidoo and had pulled it from distribution due to embarrassment. Seid had convinced them to allow the film to be screened as part of the series. I wish he had been unsuccessful. Preminger is alleged to have to taken LSD in researching the film. From what I saw, it seems like he was dropping acid the filming as well. I fell asleep twice but that could only have improved matters. The plot involved a retired hitman (Jackie Gleason) coming out of retirement on the orders of the head mobster, referred to as God and played by Groucho Marx. Somehow hippies are involved and Frankie Avalon has a swinging bachelor pad with a secret bed that descends into the floor. The audience was treated to Carol Channing doing a striptease as she attempts to seduce Avalon. Groucho also smokes dope with an Indian Yogi. The grand finale has Channing singing and dancing to the eponymous song. Actually, the final credits were sung in their entirety and I think that was the highpoint of the film. Avoid Skidoo at all costs unless you are high on marijuana or some stronger narcotic.


Preminger was infamous for being a bully on the set. Tom Tryon allegedly quit acting as a result of his experience on The Cardinal but I notice that Preminger had a stock of actor he used repeatedly - Burgess Meredith, Jean Seberg, David Niven and Gene Tierney. Preminger played the POW camp commandant in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953). On that set, he worked with William Holden (The Moon is Blue) and Robert Strauss (The Man with the Golden Arm). He must have had a rapport with several of his actors.

Two of Preminger's best known films were absent from the series - The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) starring Gary Cooper and In Harm's Way (1965) starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. By the way, Tom Tryon who was mistreated on Preminger's set during the filming of The Cardinal (1963) accepted a role two year's later in In Harm's Way.


Preminger must have also had a rapport with graphic designer Saul Bass. Bass made several movie posters for the biggest hits of his era including North by Northwest, Spartacus, West Side Story, Ocean's Eleven and Goodfellas.

I noticed and admired Bass' distinctive style on several of the opening credits during the Preminger series. There is something aesthetically pleasing in Bsss' style that I cannot articulate.

Advise and Consent post by Saul Bass

Exodus poster by Saul Bass

Anatomy of a Murder poster by Saul Bass

The Man with the Golden Arm poster by Saul Bass

Carmen Jones poster by Saul Bass

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ingrid Bergman at PFA

I was able to catch six films at the Ingrid Bergman retrospective at the PFA.

The Count of the Old Town; Swedish with electronic subtitles; (1935)
Walpurgis Night; Swedish with electronic subtitles; (1935)
A Woman’s Face; Swedish with subtitles; (1938)
June Night; Swedish with electronic subtitles; (1940)
Voyage in Italy with George Sanders; directed by Roberto Rossellini; (1953)
Autumn Sonata with Liv Ullmann; directed by Ingmar Bergman; Swedish with subtitles; (1978)

Electronic subtitling means that a person was operating a laser device that projected subtitles onto the screen. Subtitles means that the subtitles were on the film stock. I make a distinction between subtitles and electronic subtitles because the electronic subtitling frequently malfunctioned (either the device or the person) which detracted from the films.

Of the films, I was largely unimpressed by Bergman's earlier works except to say she was quite attractive as a young woman. A Woman’s Face was interesting because Bergman was wearing Lon Chaney type makeup to portray a disfigured woman; I can't recall what caused the facial scar. I chuckled at the ending which in hindsight was rather depressing. After having her scars surgically removed and assuming an alias to conceal her criminal history, Bergman emigrates to 1938. I'm sure the Japanese treated foreign nationals well when they occupied Manchukuo. An attractive, statuesque, Aryan woman must have fared well in Nanking.

The film was quite melodramatic. Bergman runs a blackmail racket but after her surgery, Bergman becomes a nanny for a wealthy family. Of course, she has agreed to kill the boy she whose care she is charged with. Over time, her inner beauty catches up to her newly restored external beauty. A tragic sleigh ride accident stunts her emotional growth and happiness. Bergman was quite interesting when she played the sneering and malevolent scarfaced blackmailer. A Woman’s Face was remade with Joan Crawford in the lead role. By comparison, Bergman portrayal was subtle genius but the film is too melodramatic to be taken seriously.


Voyage in Italy was the most influential of the film I saw. I guess I would call it post-neorealism with some foreshadowing of Godard's Contempt. Bergman is directed by her husband, Roberto Rossellini. The plot, such that it is, is about English couple visiting Italy while their marriage is disintegrating. Much of the film serves as a visual travelogue of Naples (similar to the role Capri served in Contempt).

Sanders and Bergman portray Mr. and Mrs. Joyce who bicker constantly for reasons which are unclear. Sanders has a roving eye but when confronted with an opportunity for adultery, he demures. In very British fashion, they politely agree to a divorce but they get caught in a crowded parade route and reconcile in the last 5 minutes of the film. Before that, we are treated to some nice dialogue as they trade barbs about his behavior, her relationship with a deceased friend and argue about her taking the car. It sounds trivial and in fact, the dialogue was trivial. I could never figure out what was driving them apart other than the fact their marriage had stagnated to the degree they allowed it. Cinematically, it was an opportunity of Bergman and Sanders to play off each other with detached, British sensibilities and for Rossellinni to film the scenic areas near Naples. Bergman was quite convincing as a middle-aged Brit.

Autumn Sonata united the Bergmans - Ingmar and Ingrid although rather late in the careers. The film is an exploration of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship (Bergman and Liv Ullmann). There is a lot more to be said but I was mild about the film. Bergman turned in a nice performance; Ullman tended towards histrionics. Mom is selfish because she was a dedicated concert pianist; daughter doesn't have the inner passion to be a great pianist and she also hates her mother. There is a disabled sister and hints of pedophilia that give Bergman discomfort because of her tacit complicity.

All things considered, I didn't find the Bergman series so entertaining. I missed some of the better known films in the series - Stromboli and Intermezzo. I didn't really see her star power in the the early Bergman films. I saw her beauty, a few respectable performances and some forgettable films. Voyage in Italy teamed Rossellini & Bergman at their creative peaks but that was after Bergman conquered Hollywood and was driven from the US in disgrace (for her adulterous affair with Rossellini).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sam Goldwyn, W.C. Fields & Bitch Slap

I caught three films from the recent Samuel Goldwyn series at the Castro.

They Got Me Covered starring Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour; (1943)
They Shall Have Music! starring Joel McCrea, Walter Brennan and Jascha Heifetz; (1939)
The Best Years of Our Lives starring Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo; directed by William Wyler; (1946)

I have seen They Got Me Covered before (most likely on Tom Hatten's Family Film Festival in the 80's). I recall enjoying it but I must have gotten it confused with another Hope film. His jokes were flat in They Got Me Covered. He played the cowardly protagonist like most of his films (Paleface is my favorite incarnation) but I didn't laugh as much as I remembered. Dorothy Lamour was as beautiful as I remember and They Got Me Covered had the added bonus of Otto Preminger playing a Nazi but the film is one of Hope's lesser work.

I'm currently reading a book about WWII and the film made comic reference to Quisling as in Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian politician who collaborated with the Nazis. The book I'm reading devotes a fair amount of space to Quisling. At the time of the film, the reference was probably to the man or the nascent synonym of traitor that his surname came to represent. What is the word that means to make a verb or noun out of a personal pronoun?

They Shall Have Music! is a film that I was completely unaware about. The main character is portrayed by Gene Reynolds who is best known for his role as a director and producer of the television series M*A*S*H. On screen, his most famous role is probably Boys Town (1938) starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney.

They Shall Have Music! is a formula film about poor kids overcoming long odds to triumph over hard-hearted capitalists. In this case, Frankie (Reynolds) is a street punk that runs away from home but happens to hear Jascha Heifetz play the violin. He is so moved by the experience that enrolls in a music school that caters to underprivileged kids. It helps that Frankie has perfect pitch and learns the violin with admirable speed. The school (run by Walter Brennan and his fetching daughter played by the relatively unknown Andrea Leeds) is on the brink of financial ruin. The school rents the musical instruments from a store and the owner wants the rent paid in full or he'll repossess the instruments before the big concert (The Barber of Seville's overture). The only solution is to get the great Heifetz to play at the concert.

The film was mildly entertaining - Walter Brennan has to rank among the all-time character actors that steal every scene they are in (along with Strother Martin and Steve Buscemi among others). The film also gave generous time to Heifetz's performances which were amazing. Andrea Leeds was awfully beautiful too. Terry Kilburn, best known as Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol (1938), was a bit annoying as the cockney accented sidekick. According to IMDB, William Wyler directed the scenes of Heifetz playing.

Speaking of Wyler, his The Best Years of Our Lives is a film that I have never seen in the movie theaters. I had not seen it in one sitting on television either. I watched bits and pieces out of order from repeated screenings on television. Two scenes stood out from memory - a scene where Dana Andrews and Fredric March have a confrontation about Andrew's relationship with March's daughter and towards the end, a scene where Andrews is roaming around an airplane graveyard. Also, all the scenes with double-amputee Harold Russell stuck in my memory as it is still unusual to see actors with physical injuries on screen.

Having watched the film from start to finish and on the big screen, Myrna Loy's performance as Fredric March's patient and supportive wife stands out. In her early 40's at the time of the film, Loy's beauty still shined bright but she was perfectly cast as the tremendously endearing wife of a banker, antiquated portrayed by March. Meant to be a pseudo-comic representation of upper middle-class, I found his character to be the poster boy for functional alcoholism. Teresa Wright as Peggy, their daughter and Dana Andrew's would-be love interest, delivered a congenial performance also.

Dana Andrew was cast as Fred Derry, a man of modest stature before the war but an officer and a gentleman and a decorated bombardier during the war. Derry is forced to confront the unappealing realities of his post-war life. He has to take a demotion from his old job in a drug store. His wife (the delicious Virginia Mayo in a very good performance) fell in love with an Army captain and doesn't enjoy being married to a soda jerk. She also enjoys the nightlife and the company other men; both of which Derry cannot afford.

Rounding out the trio is Harold Russell as the ex-sailor (March's character was in the infantry and Andrews in the US Army Air Corp). In real-life, Russell lost his hands in a grenade accident; in the film, Homer Parrish lost his to a fire. Parrish was a football star before the war and now he is a freak and the object of pity. He does have a sweet girlfriend but he is pushing her away because he doesn't want to saddle her as his caregiver.

The performances were dated but Wyler deserves credit for confronting issues that I haven't seen elsewhere from movies of the time - disable veterans, the difficulty servicemen had in reintegrating into society and coping with the death of comrades.

I enjoyed The Best Years of Our Lives quite a bit.


At the YBCA, they screened It's a Gift (1934) starring W.C. Fields with Baby Leroy getting equal billing. The plot was vaguely similar to most Fields vehicles not co-starring Mae West centers around Harold Bissonette's (pronounced Bee-zon-nay) goal of owning an orange orchard. First, he must convince his shrewish wife, spoiled daughter and bratty son to go along with the idea. Then he must survive his last day at the general store he owns. This featured an extended scene with Charles Sellon as Mr. Muckle, a blind and deaf customer who nearly destroys the store. What Muckle doesn't break, Baby Leroy covers in molasses. All the while, Morgan Wallace keeps bellowing about his kumquats (although he spells it cumquats).

Next up is the cross country drive with expected mishaps to the ramshackle house on a dusty stretch of land not fit to grow a tumbleweed much less an orange grove. In the end, Fields lucks out because a land developer wants to build a horse racing track on the property; he holds out for top dollar.

The film is a series of slapstick scenes for Fields to strut his comic stuff. I liked the scene where Fields has to gyrate around a hanging mirror to shave because his vain daughter is hogging the mirror. Another standout scene was Fields sleeping on a balcony in a broken swinging bench while every conceivable noise keeps him from his slumber.

It's a Gift has supposedly been re-discovered as one of Fields' masterpieces. It was amusing but to me it seems like Fields keep going back to the same comic well in all his films. I thought it was funny but no more or less than his other films.


On January 8, Bitch Slap opens at the Landmark Theaters in San Francisco.

Bitch Slap is a post-modern, thinking man's throwback to the B movie/exploitation films of the 1950s though 1970s, as well as a loving, sly parody of them. Inspired by the likes of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Kung Fu Nun and the pantheon of Blacksploitation films, Bitch Slap mixes hot girls, fast cars, big guns, nasty tongues, outrageous action and jaw-dropping eye candy with a message: Don't be naughty! At its core, the action follows three bad girls (a down-and-out stripper, a drug-running killer and a corporate powerbroker) as they arrive at a remote desert hideaway to extort massive booty from a ruthless underworld kingpin. Things quickly spin out of control as allegiances change, truths are revealed and other criminals arrive for the score. With "cult classic" written all over it, Bitch Slap is a cat-fighting, pile-driving, go-go dancing, bronco-busting, bumping & grinding, philosophy-touting, breast-augmenting, femme-tastic fight-fantasy of epic proportions!

They had me hooked when I read the name of the film.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Thrillville, Black Christmas and Silent Film Era Pornography

I caught the Thrillville show on December 3 at the 4 Star. The show featured Project Pimento and the film Black Christmas.

This was my first Thrillville show. There were 40 or 50 people in the audience. To recap the show, the hosts are Will The Thrill Viharo (trading his trademark fez for a Santa hat) and his wife, Monica the Tiki Goddess. As I entered the theater, the film The Snow Queen, a 1957 Soviet animated film based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, was screening. The version screening was the 1959 English language version. I recall seeing this film as a child on television (perhaps courtesy of Tom Hatten and KTLA).

Before The Snow Queen finished, Will & Monica started their schtick. First, they got up on the stage and danced a little to their theme music. Then they kibitzed and told a few jokes. Next they introduced Project Pimento which for the uninitiated is a lounge band featuring a theremin. The five piece band was quite entertaining. The members included Dr. Robby Virus on theremin, Lola Bombay on lead vocals, Gentleman Jack on guitar, Carolyn Curacao on bass and Aaron Wallbanger on drums. I'm not sure why they chose psuedonyms. They played smooth jazz covers. The finale was the theme to the original Star Trek televion series with the seldom heard lyrics.

Next, Will & Monica gave away some schwag. Nominally a raffle contest based on the admittance ticket numbers or a trivia question prize, they seemed to be disinterested as to whether the answer was correct or the ticket number matched. Since the film was Black Christmas, Will asked a number of questions along the lines of "Who would be best cast in the film Black Valentine's Day?" The floor show was pretty low key.

Finally, the movie started. Will joked that Black Christmas is actually a good film as opposed to most of the films he screens. I have to agree. The 1974 film starring Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder and John Saxon was groundbreaking on its release. It allegedly originated two staples of the slasher film genre - the sorority house massacre and the telephone call from within house.

The plot...well the plot is now cliché - unseen stalker terrorizes a house full of women. Despite being 35 years old, predictable and saddled with some questionable 1970's attire, I was able to enjoy the film. The phone calls (it's me Billy) are still disturbing. There are some humorous scenes (intentionally and unintentionally) to move the film along. My favorite is when they trace the phone call, there is a technician in a old landline switching center running around the racks looking for the one where the call is being routed through. Also, the film leaves the identity of the killer (and Hussey's fate) open ended. Hussey, with her British accent, seemed like a fish out of water in the film but gave it her all. I would imagine that the star of Romeo and Juliet (1968) must have wondered what she was doing in a schlock film like Black Christmas. In hindsight, the film was quite tame and sophisticated compared to what came after it.

My bottom line is passively mild: Project Pimento - not bad, I'd like to see them again; Black Christmas - not bad but not good enough that I'll watch it again; Thrillville - not bad and I'll probably go to another show although I doubt I'll drive to the Camera Cinemas in San Jose or the East Bay to see them again.


I was looking at the paper copy of the November/December calendar from the Red Vic. I can't recall the dates except it's in the first half of January 2010, the Vic will present The Good Old Naughty Days - a compilation released in 2003 of "12 silent hardcore pornographic shorts." The Red Vic screened this program in January 2006.

Copying from their website which, if memory serves me, is identical to its description in the latest published calendar:

The Good Old Naughty Days is a collection of 12 silent hardcore pornographic shorts from the early 1900's. Beautifully restored by the National Cinematheque in France, these films were originally created to “entertain” brothel patrons as they awaited their turn. The exhibitionists in Naughty Days are a far cry from the pumped and greased up, silicone-injected bodies of our current porn stars. And although the set-ups are rather similar to contemporary plots (the pizza delivery guy is replaced by a monk) there is more humor and variance than by today's standards. Most scenes begin with two women (men have always liked to watch women go at it) and then in walks - surprise, a man. But if he doesn't watch out when he bends over he may also be happily surprised from behind. For adults only, no one under 18 admitted.

I usually don't watch porn but it is commonly understood that pornography transforms itself into art or erotica after 75 years. By the halfway point of this century, John Holmes will be considered a master thespian. Actually, that's not far from the truth as I recall seeing Deep Throat at the Roxie a few years ago. At the time, a documentary called Inside Deep Throat was a modest success on the art house circuit. I watched Deep Throat so I would have a point of reference but somehow I missed the documentary before it left the theaters.

Check out the Red Vic calendar for January to see dates and showtimes.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

2010 Noir City Preview

Even though Noir City is two months away, they have posted their line-up. The schedule showtimes and descriptions are missing but the 24 films of the festival have been announced. The festival runs from January 22 to 31 at the Castro. They are screening a double feature everyday of the festival except Saturdays (January 23 & 30) when they are screening two double features (a different twin bill in the afternoon & at night).

Pitfall starring Dick Powell; (1948)
Larceny starring John Payne; (1948)
Fly by Night; directed by Robert Siodmak; (1942)
Deported; directed by Robert Siodmak; (1950)
Cry Danger starring Dick Powell & Rhonda Fleming; (1951)
The Mob starring Broderick Crawford; (1951)
Niagara starring Marilyn Monroe & Joseph Cotten; (1953)
The Asphalt Jungle starring Sterling Hayden; directed by John Huston; (1950)
Suspense starring Barry Sullivan; (1946)
The Gangster starring Barry Sullivan; (1947)
The Postman Always Rings Twice starring John Garfield & Lana Turner; (1946)
He Ran All the Way starring John Garfield & Shelley Winters; (1951)
One Girl's Confession; (1953)
Women's Prison starring Ida Lupino; (1955)
Red Light starring George Raft & Virginia Mayo; (1949)
Walk a Crooked Mile; (1948)
Slattery's Hurricane starring Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell & Veronica Lake; (1949)
Pickup on South Street starring Richard Widmark; directed by Sam Fuller; (1953)
Inside Job; (1946)
Human Desire starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame & Broderick Crawford; directed by Fritz Lang; (1954)
Odds Against Tomorrow starring Harry Belafonte & Robert Ryan; (1959)
Kansas City starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson & Harry Belafonte; directed by Robert Altman; (1996)
Escape in the Fog; (1945)
A Place in the Sun starring Montgomery Clift & Elizabeth Taylor; (1951)


The first thing I notice is that the Roxie stole some of Eddie Muller's thunder. Human Desire was part of Best of Columbia Noir series at the Roxie in September and Suspense screened in May as part of I Wake Up Dreaming: The Haunted World of the B Film Noir (also at the Roxie).

A number of the films have previously been shown at Noir City (particularly in 2005). I saw Odds Against Tomorrow at the Balboa in 2005 as part of that year's Noir City. I also saw Pickup on South Street at the 2005 Noir City. He Ran All The Way and Pitfall were also on that year's program but I don't recall seeing either. I'll have to check my film list to see if I saw them that year.

Cry Danger screened at the 2007 Noir City.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic from the Golden Age of Hollywood which I have seen before although not on the big screen. The same can be said of The Asphalt Jungle (Marilyn Monroe has a supporting role in the film) although it has not acheived the iconic status of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Harry Belafonte is scheduled to be on stage on January 30 - the night they screen Odds Against Tomorrow & Kansas City.

Monday, November 30, 2009


When I saw the Chinese American Film Festival at the 4 Star, I noticed they had some Thrillville postcard advertisements.

I've never been to a Thrillville show. They used to put on shows at the now defunct Speakeasy Theaters. Quoting from their homepage:

Thrillville is a City of B Movie Dreams in a State of Culture Shock, where Time stands still and aesthetics supercede politics; where monsters, babes, hipsters and swingers mingle and mate over Martinis and Mai Tais; where Style rules over Fashion, Elvis is King, the Rat Pack rules, and Will the Thrill, a beatnik lounge lizard, is Mayor. Mr. Thrill and his lovely assistant and bride, Monica, Tiki Goddess, host a live cult movie cabaret celebrating Classic Retro Pop Culture, from the Atomic Age to Zombies.

I notice that they are producing shows at three theaters that I frequent to varying degrees - 4 Star, Balboa and Camera Cinemas in San Jose.

Their schedule looks interesting. On December 3, they are screening Black Christmas (1974) at the 4 Star. Perhaps the original sorority house slasher film, Black Christmas has achieved cult status in the last 35 years. I don't think I've ever seen the unedited version. I've seen it on network or cable TV but those sanitized for broadcast.

On January 21 (during Noir City), they are screening Shanty Tramp (1967) at the 4 Star. I don't believe I've ever seen this film in any version. Certainly, it's title does not sound familiar but how can you not be intrigued by a title like that. A one star rating in TV Guide only whets my appetite. It looks to be an insightful treatise on death, racism, rape and religion.

Another quickly made movie from the South (shot on location in Florida) designed for the drive-in crowd. This one involves a young woman of loose morals who tries to seduce an evangelist. She then gets involved with a motorcycle gang, which only leads to trouble. She is saved by a black youth who is accused by the girl's sharecropper father of raping his daughter, and a sheriff's posse is sent out after him. The boy is forced to steal a car (from a moonshiner, no less) but dies when the vehicle crashes. The daughter has it out with her father, stabbing him to death, and heads off to her evangelist in hopes of leaving town.

On February 25, they are showing a Mamie Van Doren double feature at the Camera 3. The two films are Untamed Youth (1957) and Sex Kittens Go To College (1960). I didn't think I've ever seen a Mamie Van Doren film. Looking at her IMDB filmography, I notice Francis Joins the WACS (1954). I watched quite of the Talking Mule films and Francis Joins the WACS actually registers in my memory.

At this year's Hole in the Head Film Festival, they screened Sex Galaxy which consisted exclusively of footage from a Mamie Van Doren film called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) with new voice over that didn't match the original film (a la Mystery Science Theater 3000). Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, incredibly, was Peter Bogdanovich's first feature film credit as a director (under the Alan Smithee of "Derek Thomas"). I think the film was so bad that it's copyrights lapsed so it's in the public domain.

Mamie Van Doren is oft referred to as "the poor man's Jayne Mansfield." Of course, Mansfield was referred to as "the poor man's Marilyn Monroe." I guess that makes her the bankrupted man's Marilyn Monroe. To my surprise, Maime Van Doren is not just alive but has her own website, still makes appearances and photographs incredibly well for a 78 year old woman.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Black Dynamite

On November 20, I caught the midnight showing of Black Dynamite (2009) at the Castro. The film was scheduled for 11:59 PM but was late to start so technically it was November 21. The screening was sponsored by the Oakland Underground Film Festival. I would guess there were over 500 people in the audience - several in period costumes. Many people had gained admittance with a printed piece of paper so I wonder if there was a promotion that I wasn't aware of. The film starred Michael Jai White who said a few words before the screening. Tommy Davidson, Arsenio Hall, Nicole Sullivan and John Salley were also in the film but hard to recognize under their afros and 70's garb.

The film was a throwback to 70's blaxpoitation films like Shaft, Foxy Brown, etc. The plot isn't important but to summarize, Black Dynamite (the name of the lead character) is an ex-CIA assassin. His brother is killed in a drug deal gone bad so Black Dynamite (BD) kicks ass in da hood (I think they called it the ghetto back then) to find out who killed his brother. After beating every pimp and drug dealer (not to mention bedding dozens of women), BD finds out that the government is selling Anaconda Malt Liqour and lacing it with chemicals that "shrink black men's dicks." Actually, they showed a man's penis after copious consumption of Anaconda - I didn't think it wasn't that small.

Anyway, the film switches to kung fu throwback because there is some evil Chinese doctor that is producing the chemicals. After kicking Chinese ass, BD goes to take on the man ultimately responisible for Anaconda Malt Liquor - President Richard Nixon. Tricky Dick proves surprisingly adept with nunchucks but BD gets him to change his evil ways. Pat Nixon, on the other hand, seemed to be sexually aroused when she got bitch slapped by BD.

That's enough about the plot because this film is all about bitches, hoes, bruthas & sistas with big afros, ass kicking, bell bottom pants, leisure suits, synthetic fabrics, the origins of Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles, sticking it to The Man and unprotected sex with multiple partners.

It's hard to criticize a film like this because it is over the top satire. I wished they dialed it back a little, played it straight up and let the humor come from the societal anachronisms. Black Dynamite was more like Undercover Brother and I wish it would have been more like Quentin Tarantino say - the humor coming from the absurdity of the situations but the characters remaining true to their surrounding and not giving the slightest hint of the fourth wall or what they are satirizing. I will say that cinematographer Shawn Maurer nailed the 70's film stock look - flat images without sharp defintions.

Left to right: Nicole Sullivan, Michael Jai White and Salli Richardson-Whitfield in Black Dynamtie

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sophie's Revenge

I was able to watch the English subtitled version of Sophie's Revenge (2009) at the 4 Star. Advertised as a romantic comedy, the film featured a barely recognizable Ziyi Zhang. I can't put my finger on it but her face looked different than she did in Memoirs of a Geisha, Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Maybe it was the hair bangs.

Ziyi Zhang in Sophie's Revenge

The lack of recognition may be due to seeing her in slaptstick role. The film is obviously a showcase for Zhang's comedic talents. She shows a flair for physical comedy in the film that I had not seen before. The film itself was lacking the plot to showcase her skills.

The story involves comic book artist Sophie (Zhang) and her carefully planned/horribly executed plans to take revenge on her ex-boyfriend Jeff. Jeff dumped Sophie to date movie star Joanna (nice performance by Bingbing Fan). Putting aside the farcical elements of the film, Sophie seems like she is in need of serious psychiatric treatment. She exhibits severe manic-depressive symptoms and frequently hallucinates. She is fixated on winning Jeff back only to break up with him on their wedding day. Sophie and Jeff were engaged before the breakup but Sophie hasn't worked up the courage to tell her mother that they're no longer a couple so the wedding plans continue unabated.

Sophie begins her plan of revenge with the half-hearted help of Joanna's ex-boyfriend Gordon. From an objective viewpoint, Sophie stalks her ex at the hospital he works at, illegally enters his home to plant love notes and her brassiere and finally attempts to become Joanna's friend under a false identity. Gordon, for some reason is attracted to Sophie, but looks on in bewilderment and disgust as Sophie plans and executes her machinations.

The sum total of the movie is a series of slapstick scenes - Sophie wreaking unintentional havoc at the hospital, Sophie scrambling to avoid Jeff & Joanna when they arrive home while she is planting the love notes, Sophie out of her element at the gym where Joanna works out, Sophie drunk at a costume party, etc. I'm not even sure what Jeff's appeal is - he seems kind of buttoned down and boring. Gordon on the hand is a perfect match for Sophie but she can't see it because she is fixated on her revenge plans...and it turns out that Gordon is really Joanna's brother and spying on her at Joanna's behest.

Sophie has two best friends, Lucy (Ruby Lin) and Lily (Chen Yao), that serve as her sounding boards and cohorts. Both of them (particularly Lin) make the most of their limited roles although I couldn't get over how sophisticated and beautiful they looked compared to Sophie.

Did I like the film? I laughed a fair amount. The film was interesting for the upscale world that Sophie, et al. inhabit - bright & airy lofts with hardwood floors, stylish clothes, luxury cars, etc. So much for the cold, grey Chinese urban landscapes that you typically see. Who could have imagined that a comic book writer could afford all that? The film reminded me a little of My Best Friend's Wedding with Julia Roberts. The main character in both films were attractive & successful women who behaved deplorably by real-world standards but yet I was able to laugh at their antics and even feel slight bit of empathy.

Ziyi Zhang in Sophie's Revenge

Friday, November 27, 2009

Happily Ever After Plus Linda^3 & The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

I watched my second film at Viz Cinema/New People. I enjoyed Happily Ever After (2007) much better than Battle League Horumô. Sadly, New People isn't introducing many new people to J-Pop cinema. Seven people were in the audience for Battle League Horumô and only four people (including me) saw Happily Ever After on the Tuesday night (7 PM) screening I went to.

The film isn't great by any standards. It starts off silly and veers towards melodrama but provides a nice vehicle for actress Miki Nakatani. Opposite her is the capable actor Hiroshi Abe who I recently saw in Still Walking as the put upon surviving son.

Happily Ever After centers around the long-suffering Yukie Morita. She is suffering because her loutish boyfriend doesn't work, is frequently drunk and has a tendency to flip over the dinner table at the slightest provocation. Her downstairs neighbor (Maki Carousel) counts how often the table is flipped as well as how often they have sex (table flips far outnumber coitus).

Why does Yukie put up with his behavior with a cheerful demeanor and never a complaint? The movie explains it through her backstory - Yukie's father was a convicted bank robber so she was ostracized at school. After graduation, she went to Tokyo to start anew...she started streetwalking and a heroin addiction. For some reason, gangster Isao Hayama (Abe) took a liking to her. Why? I'm not sure what he saw in a strung out whore who mocks his declarations of love but he saw something. After hallucinating that a chicken is pecking her, Yukie slits her own throat but her life is saved when Hayama rushes her to the hospital. Upon release from the hospital, Hayama and Yukie leave to start a new life. Hayama is missing his pinkie finger which is shorthand for saying he has left the Yakuza.

After some undefined period of time, that is where the film begins. Hayama doesn't know how to do anything except be a Yakuza gangster and he's bored, frustrated and resentful about his situation. Yukie tries to ease his pain by being the best wife possible (even though they aren't married). She waitresses at a restaurant to support them and makes dinner every night which he more often than not, overturns when something bothers him.

This description sounds very serious and downbeat but the film is mostly a comedy. Hayama's outbursts and behavior played for laughs and Yukie's boss fruitlessly pines for her (to the point of exclusively visiting a massage parlor to see another woman named Yukie). And of course, it has a happy ending with even an unusual bi-racial couple thrown in for good measure.

Happily Ever After is an entertaining enough film. Apparently, based on a manga series, the film may or may not have captured the spirit of the graphic novels.

Miki Nakatani (left) and Hiroshi Abe in Happily Ever After


In December, New People is screening two films that I have seen and enjoyed.

From December 4 to 10, Linda Linda Linda (2005) is screening. I enjoyed the teenage comedy about an all-girl band performing at their high school's spring festival. The film featured a strong performance by Korean actress Doo-na Bae. I saw it at the 2006 SFIAAFF.

On December 15 & 16, New People screens The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) - an anime whose title says it all. The film, which I saw at the 2007 SFIAAFF, was unusually poignant for an anime (which I am typically not a fan of). I can still recall the scene(s) where she is riding her bicycle down a steep hill to a fateful train crossing.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I was able to catch Defamation (2009) at the Roxie and was mightily impressed. Israeli director Yoav Shamir’s controversial documentary on anti-Semitism has been denounced as anti-Semitic in some circles but I thought it critical but not anti-Semitic. Shamir’s conclusions are that there are Jewish organizations with a vested interest in perpetuating anti-Semitism or maybe more accurately the myth of modern day anti-Semitism. It’s obvious that this has the potential for controversy. To his credit, Shamir tackles this issue and others (such as linking anti-Semitism to anti-Zionism) with a perceptive eye and fair dose of humor.

The two entities that are most criticized in the film are the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Israeli government. Rather than direct criticism, Shamir lets their own words and actions sway the audience. That Shamir was able to capture so many revealing moments on camera is amazing it its own right.

Some of the highlights for me:

A Jewish activist or reporter (he seemed to be both) contended that in Brooklyn, Jewish people were seen as “soft targets.” I liked the way he co-opted terrorist lexicon for his purposes. He said that if a robber sees a Jewish man and a black man walking the streets, he is more likely to target the Jewish man because he doesn’t know if the black man is carrying a weapon. The irony of racially stereotyping black men seems lost upon the man. Shamir takes to the streets to question black men about this assumption. He has the most remarkable interview with a group of black people. First, they contend that a black robber would target the black man in this hypothetical because if a Jewish man was robbed by a black man, it would be prosecuted as a hate crime. Then after some Jewish stereotyping by a black woman, the man invokes The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In my mind, mentioning that book automatically prefaces the statement as satire or hyperbole. It’s like saying, with a straight face, that you won a million dollars in the Nigerian lottery and that you took some pills to enlarge your penis. It’s ridiculous by definition. However, Shamir found a man walking the streets of Brooklyn that was willing to share his beliefs in the "tenets" espoused in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

An ADL representative states that their annual budget is on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars and they have offices all over the world. Later, the ADL claims that there were ~1500 cases of documented anti-Semitism in the US "last year." I thought 1500 was extremely small. Shamir wants to investigate one of the cases for the film. As he goes over the specifics, all except one are cases of Jewish employees not being allowed to take time off for Jewish holidays. On the scale of anti-Semitism, this seems to me to be a rather mild form. I was expecting vandalization of synagogues or crosses burned in people's yards. I have to wonder how many of these cases were actually anti-Semitism vs. not being able to schedule a day off for an employee.

The "money shot" came at the expense of Abe Foxman, the influential National Director of the ADL. Shamir follows Foxman as he travels to meet senior officials of a foreign government (Lithuania, I believe). The ADL is not a government entity of either the US or Israel. Shamir asks Foxman why foreign governments want to meet with him or ADL. Foxman explains (almost apologetically) that there is a perception that the ADL has access to influential lawmakers in Washington, DC. He goes on to say that he has to walk a fine line between perpetuating the myth and maintaining the myth. I think he says something like "We [ADL] are not as powerful as non-Jews think we are and we are more powerful than Jews think we are." As I heard this, I thought this is just the flip side of the International Jewish Conspiracy Theory that there is a secret cabal of Jews that control the money supply and whose ultimate goal is world domination.


For a film dealing with such a sensitive subject, Shamir deftly uses comedy throughout. There is an entertaining side story about Israeli teenagers going to visit the Auschwitz Concentration Camp on a government sponsored program.

He also gets some candid and irreverent moments with Professor Norman Finkelstein, a controversial scholar who has criticized the Israeli government on the Palestinian issue and exploiting the Holocaust for political gains.

The film was very skillfully made - mixing humor and serious discussion on a topic that makes most people uncomfortable. Only an Israeli Jew could make this film because anyone attempting it would be tarred and feathered.

My closing thought on the film is that I wonder how Jewish self-identity will change when the last Holocaust victim passes. A person that has survived the camps will have a different perspective and be treated differently than someone who hasn't. Can someone who wasn't born at the time Auschwitz was in operation, for example, invoke the Holocaust with the same tenor or draw the same response?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

2009 Chinese American Film Festival

The 2009 Chinese American Film Festival closed on November 22. The festival name seems a misnomer since all the films were from China and set in China.

I was able to see 5 of the 8 films. I previously watched Red Cliff (2009) and The Equation of Love and Death (2008) and I mentioned the subtitling problems with Sophie's Revenge (2009). Although not advertised on their website, Sophie's Revenge is opening at the 4 Star on November 25 for at least 8 days. I've been assured by Frank Lee that it will be the English subtitled version.

The five films I screened at the festival were:

The Message; (2009)
The Founding of a Republic; (2009)
Turning Point 1977; (2009)
And The Spring Comes; (2007)
Stirring Trip to Mutuo; (2003)

I believe all the films were in Mandarin with English subtitles.


I was not that impressed with the films except for the relentlessly bleak And The Spring Comes.

Stirring Trip to Mutuo and Turning Point 1977 were formulaic. Stirring Trip to Mutuo was the classic MacGuffin based road trip. A Shanghai reporter and a Shanghai doctor chase after an old man that built a school in the remotest regions of Tibet. They trek by foot for six days days and encounter life and death along the way. They never meet the old man as he has moved on to another town to build another school. The man was near near death when they started the trek and after the arduous journey, you would think they would continue chasing the man. The closest they get to Old Man Do or Lu or whatever his name was is by seeing his blissful visage in the clouds.

The film featured a unbearably selfish, shrill and germaphobic female doctor. She causes an avalanche, she refuses to wear someone's dirty shoes after being rescued from quicksand and she turns up her nose at strange food (seemingly she would rather starve). It was predictable, featured some cheesy special effects and too schmaltzy for my taste. The most groan inducing moment for me was when a boy (15 or 16 years old) is hanging onto a twig on a sheer cliff wall. He has a pack of book bags on his back for the kids (and his sister) at the school the old man built. The party throws down a rope to save the boys. Before the twig gives way, the boy attaches the rope to the bundle of book bags rather than save himself. He subsequently plunges to his death.

Turning Point 1977 was not nearly as overly sentimental and had the benefit of dealing with the Cultural Revolution. Teenagers from the cities were sent to collective farms and factories out in the countryside. A whole generation of Chinese were left without post-secondary education as they spent their formative years plowing fields in the middle of nowhere and learning Communist dogma.

In 1977, Deng Xiaoping returned to power and opened the college admission process to everyone and instituted a national entrance exam. Prior to that, recommendations from local commisars and being from a family without convicted "traitors" were the main qualifications for college admission. Amidst this backdrop, Turning Point 1977 tells the fictitious story of some young men and women struggling to take their exams.

They work on a farm and the farm director doesn't want them to leave. It would destroy the productivity of his farm if all his workers left to go to university. In addition, he has formed a paternal affection for them and is loathe to see them leave. Eventually, his handpicked successor convinces him to let the young people take the exam. There is a subplot involving a female whose father was convicted early in the Cultural Revolution.

Schmaltzy moment - the kids are taking the backup tractor to the train station to go the exam site. The tractor breaks down so they run through the forest catch the only train that will get them to the site. The implacable rail station master refuses to hold the train for the students even as son begs him with tears running down his cheek and the gaggle of would-be students within eyesight. The kids miss the train by seconds; exhausted and dejected, they begin to sob. The farm director (who has a gruff exterior but a heart of gold), drives up in the primary tractor and drives them to the exam site.


The Founding of a Republic was produced by the Chinese government so I was expecting to see Communist propaganda. The film delivered that but wasn't very good. The film relied on quick-fire scenes, jump cuts and the audiences knowledge of events. Character development was nil although Chiang Kai-chek was portrayed more evenly than I expected. Chiang was largely absolved of any wrongdoing from the Communist perspective. His son, Chiang Ching-kuo, was nearly heroic if not naive on his portrayal. The main venon was reserved for dreaded capitalists and graft/corruption, their constant companion.

I saw Jet Li (one scene) and Jackie Chan (two scenes) but missed Andy Lau and Ziyi Zhang. One piece of trivia - Madame Chiang was portrayed by Vivian Wu. In 1997, she played the same role in The Soong Sisters which I saw at the 4 Star as well. Three sisters - "One loved money. One loved power. And one loved China." Madame Chiang love power. Maggie Cheung played Madame Sun (as in Sun Yat-sen) who loved China and played a role in drafting the Chinese constitution after the Communists took over. The third sister was played by Michelle Yeoh. That sister married H.H. Kung who was a financier and the object of scorn in The Founding of a Republic as his family was one of the most corrupt among the Nationalists.


The Message was a bit like a locked room mystery. In 1942 Nanking, the Japanese occupiers are suffering assassinations from local counter-revolutionaries. The Japanese gather all the suspects in a remote, mountainous retreat and aim to flush out the culprit(s). I found the story tedious. One by one, each suspect is accused, tortured, killed and exonerated (after death). It was one of those films where it was confusing but at the end of the movie, they showed the audience what really happened - the argument and attempted rape behind a locked door was actually a cover story so the two conspirators could discuss the situation in a bugged room.

One memorable moment was when they suspected a woman of being involved. For torture, they took a thick rope and suspended it about five feet off the ground. They used a straight razor to fray the surface of the rope slightly. They straddled the woman on the rope in her slip (presumably without panties) and pulled her along the rope. She would get hemp splinters and rope burn on her vagina. Absolutely diabolical! I don't know if that was a real technique used by the Japanese but you have to wonder what kind of person (Japanese interrogators or screenwriters) would think of such a thing.


That leaves my favorite film of the festival - And The Spring Comes. This film is an indictment against humanity. Jiang Wenli delivers an award winning performance as Wang Cailing, an unattractive woman in every sense of the word. Blessed with a beautiful singing voice, she is bereft of everything else particularly compassion and honesty. If this were a US film, the character would be immensely likable to make up for her frumpy appearance and severe acne. Thankfully, it was made in China.

Wang is a voice instructor at local school in a grimy industrial town. Her dream is to be an opera singer in Beijing. In fact, she tells her neighbors that she is soon "returning" to Beijing to take a position with the National Opera. This, of course, is a lie but Wang has convinced herself that it will eventually happen. That doesn't explain her haughty or prideful manner. I think her behavior towards others is a coping mechanism for her self-consciousness about her appearance.

Let's start cataloging the wrongs against her and committed by her. She convinces herself a painter is in love with her when he is actually using her to get a resident permit in Beijing. An alcoholic, he continually fails his art school entrance exams. During one of his stupors, Wang takes advantage of him sexually. Publicly confronted by him, she attempts suicide but only succeeds in breaking her arm.

Next she meets a gay ballet instructor. They strike up a friendship as they are two artists in town that eschews opera and ballet. The man is constantly harrassed and ostracized for his sexuality. He proposes marriage to Wang to solve both their problems as people are "beginning to talk" about her as well. She becomes indignant and turns down his offer. He goes on to "sexually assault" a woman to prove his heterosexuality. The last we see of him is an awkward visit to his prison by Wang.

Next is her next door neighbor, an attractive wife. Largely standoffish, Wang is forced to seek her help when suffering from a severe stomach ache. Again Wang becomes friendly. One nice scene was when the woman gives Wang a vibrator as a gift. Certainly a method for some sexual release but also a backhanded way of saying no one is going to have sex with her. Eventually, the woman's husband leaves her. In despair, the woman comes to Wang for sympathy but she makes offhand comment - "Now, I'll be worse off than you." Wang reacts with callousness. Wang coldly tells the woman that she was only being friendly with her (Wang) because she felt superior and now that her situation has changed, she is trying to console herself at Wang's expense. This was the most painful scene to watch for me because of its complexity. I think both women were right. They did have a friendship but much of it was predicated on one being young, pretty and happy and the other being ugly and unsatisfied.

The final straw is a young girl who comes to Wang. She has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In her remaining time, she wants to take singing lessons from Wang so she can win an "American Idol" type television contest. Despite her better judgment, Wang agrees to help the girl. Wang gives the girl the money she has been saving to bribe her way to a Beijing residency permit. The girl uses the money to bribe her way onto the television show. She eventually wins the contest and Wang is overjoyed. However, the girl confesses that it is a hoax. She doesn't have cancer, she shaved her head to appear she took chemotherapy and she came to Wang not because she wanted singing lessons (she was already an accomplished singer) but to use her connections to get on the show. Wang's lies about her connections at the National Opera have spread around town.

At this point, Wang gives up her dream of singing in the opera and adopts a baby girl (with an authentic cleft palate). Throwing herself into being a mother, the film ends with the girl transfixed by the Forbidden City on a daytrip to Beijing - dreams are eternal and Wang's daughter will have a dream just like she had; presumably with the same results.

This film left me exhausted. Every character lied and had ulterior motives. Each had their dreams crushed (except the television contest winner). Speaking of the television contest winner, I think this was based on a real-life incident.

Life goes on. I guess in a country like China with over a billion people, dreams are devalued as the grinding day-to-day existence mixed with a Confuscian outlook drain the spirit from the masses. At least, that's the message I took away.

Jiang Wenli is the wife of the film's director, Gu Changwei. Here are two photos that show the remarkable transformation of Jiang Wenli for the role. Jiang won numerous awards for her performance including the Golden Rooster Award for Best Actress.

Jiang Wenli in And The Spring Comes

Zhou Xun (left) and Jiang Wenli share the Golden Rooster Best Actress Award.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tokyo Record

My father recently gave me an old copy of "Tokyo Record." The 400 page memoir chronicled the dispatches sent from Tokyo by Otto Tolischus. Tolischus was the Tokyo correspondent for the New York Times and the Times of London beginning in January 1941.

My father raved about the book but I found it quite a slog. Tolischus had been expelled from Germany in 1940 for his reporting. When he arrived in Tokyo (Germany's ally and similar totalitarian state) in January 1941, he embarked on a style of reportage that probably saved his life. Rather than develop confidential sources and back channel communications, Tolischus culled his reports from various official sources such as government press releases, reports and speeches as well news articles and editorials from Japanese newspapers (which were controlled by government agencies). By comparing these different sources, Tolischus was able to coax out nuanced report about the state of affairs in Japan.

Rather than a monolithic government marching in lockstep, Tolischus showed how there were disparate elements among Japanese leaders regarding national policy and in particular, the view towards the United States. This was not news to me. Japan had three cabinet changes or governments in 1941 and there were numerous assassination attempts on political leaders. However, everything is now viewed through the prism of the inevitability of December 7.

Tolischus published "Tokyo Record" in 1943 and after he had been tortured by the Japanese so I will forgive his outmoded and jingoistic prose. The premise and his story are amazing but somewhat lost upon me by page after page of direct quotations of Japanese governmental proclamations in stilted English. The story truly becomes interesting on December 8 when Tolischus is arrested for revealing state secrets in his news dispatches. I found it striking that some of the torture techniques the Japanese police used on him were extended periods in "stress positions" and solitary confinement in a cold cell. It was sobering to see the parallels between Tokyo 1941 and Guantanamo Bay 2005 drawn by someone other than a rabid anti-war activist.

One of Tolischus' main defense arguments was that he only quoted from public sources and submitted everything to a government censor ergo everything he published was public record and de facto not a state secret. Despite these cogent arguments, Tolischus was sentenced to 18 months in prison but the sentence was suspended during a three year probationary period. Soon after sentencing, Tolischus was allowed to leave Japan as part of a prisoner exchange with the US.

It wasn't until Tolischus described in detail his 6 months in captivity that I found the book worthwhile. Regardless, Tolischus threw out some choice bon mots along the way. I chuckled at these three in particular.

"After seeing it [the Tokyo Red Light District], I realized that the Japanese like their loves cold and businesslike; and I understood why the rape of girls in their early teens was a favorite topic of Japanese literati."

"That was the first Japanese I had met who could see himself as others saw him. I thought it must be his French studies that gave him [one of his interrogators] this rare objectivity."

"When she [his interpreter] saw me look around, she smiled and shook hands with herself in congratulation. I always did feel that the Japanese women were a different race from the men."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Previewing the Rest of 2009

As I mentioned, the 3rd Annual Chinese American Film Festival is currently running at the 4 Star. Originally scheduled for November 12 to 19, I was informed (by Frank Lee Jr.) that the festival has been extended through Sunday, November 22. The schedule for November 20 to 22 has yet to be announced

They are screening 8 films at the festival. I've previously seen two of them - Red Cliff at last month's Mill Valley Film Festival and The Equation of Love and Death at this year's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. This festival is referring to the film as Red Cliff II but I'm certain that there is only one English subtitled version. Confusion arises because in China, the film was released in two parts but the English subtitled version is an abridged version of the two Chinese films. I think it is referred to as Red Cliff II because most of the footage in English subtitled version is taken from the second Chinese film.

Of course I shouldn't be so quick to assume subtitles because the 4 Star did it again. What exactly did they do? They screened a Chinese language film without English subtitles. The program guide states "All films are presented in Chinese with English subtitles at 4-Star Theatre unless specified otherwise" and nowhere was it specified that Sophie's Revenge was not subtitled. The 4 Star did this last year with Shanghai Red.

I sat through the first 10 minutes of Sophie's Revenge wondering if I could catch the gist of the Ziyi Zhang comedy but there was too much dialogue.

As I left, I asked Frank if "future screenings" will be subtitled. He said yes. I was referring to future screening of Sophie's Revenge but I wonder if he thought I was referring to future screenings of all the other films at the festival. I didn't realize there may have been a confusion until I was driving home.

Among the films I want to see at the festival are:

The Founding of A Republic - Filmed for the celebration of the country’s 60th birthday, this offering from China Film Board chairman Sanping Han tells the story of the founding of the PRC. The movie talks about a series of stories from 1945 up until 1949 when the PRC was founded. Chinese megacelebrities Chen Kaige, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Andy Lau, Chen Daoming star.

Turning Point 1977 - a ground-breaking drama that won critical and box office acclaim when it opened in China earlier this year. Set at the close of the Cultural Revolution, it tells the story of a group of young people on a remote state-run farm who must fight for the right to determine their own futures.

Sophie's Revenge - Sophie (Ziyi Zhang) is a talented cartoonist who seems to have it all - a successful career, great friends, and the perfect, handsome, fiancé, Jeff (Ji-seob So), a surgeon who her mother adores. So when Jeff is stolen away by Anna (Bingbing Fan), a beautiful actress, Sophie wants revenge. This assumes that an English subtitled version is screened.


The PFA has two series that interest me.

A Woman’s Face: Ingrid Bergman in Europe run from November 4 to December 19.

While many viewers will always remember her for American films like Casablanca and Notorious, there is much more to the work of Ingrid Bergman (1915–1982) than her Hollywood heyday. Bergman’s radiant looks and her distinctive combination of sensual directness and exquisite sensitivity were already evident in the films she made in Sweden in the 1930s; it was her work in Intermezzo (1936) that inspired David O. Selznick to sign her to MGM. The American career that followed was abruptly derailed when she had an extramarital affair with Roberto Rossellini and became pregnant with his child during the production of Stromboli in 1949, causing an international uproar and tainting the reception of the fascinating films the director and actress made together. Bergman eventually returned to the United States, but continued working in Europe on occasion; her last big-screen performance was for that other Swedish Bergman, Ingmar, in Autumn Sonata.

The series consists of nine films and a presentation. The highlights for me are:

A Woman’s Face (1936) - Bergman is cast very much against type in this darkly atmospheric film. Her Anna Holm is a disfigured and embittered young woman whose revenge is to blackmail illicit lovers at the peak of a happiness she can never know—because of her face. But behind her distorted visage and vicious personality crouches a little girl whose world was destroyed, and it is this role that Bergman develops most subtly. With classic soap-opera inevitability, the husband of one of her victims is a plastic surgeon, but now we have a beauty amid beasts—sinister, greedy blackmailers abound—and Anna Holm plotting a murder. In the film’s pivotal scene, a kiss from a child succeeds where a surgeon’s knife failed—and Bergman (with the help of some luminous lighting) transforms “before our eyes” in a wholly internal special effect. “A woman’s face” becomes “a woman’s place.”

Stromboli (1949) - The first of Bergman’s films for Roberto Rossellini, Stromboli was shot on the volcanic island of the title, with the townspeople playing a part in the drama. Bergman portrays a Lithuanian refugee, Karin, who, in order to escape the horrors of postwar internment camps, agrees to marry an Italian fisherman and live with him on his island. Tied to the traditions of marriage and faced with a culture whose profoundly simple way of life is incomprehensible to her, she finds that her new “security” is worse than her former existence as a displaced person. Rossellini sets his tale against stunning natural imagery, including a documentary-like tuna-catch sequence and a dramatic finale, during which Karin, trying to flee, is caught not by her husband but by the island itself.

Autumn Sonata (1978) - The warm autumnal hues of a house on a lake give a false, perhaps wished-for sense of security to the setting, the home of a pastor and his wife, Eva (Liv Ullmann). Very soon the steely tone of love avoided, attempted, and denied overrides any hope. The arrival of Eva’s mother (Ingrid Bergman), a world-traveling concert pianist, for their first meeting in seven years occasions a near-complete opening out of feelings by daughter and mother. Near complete, for Ingrid Bergman subtly portrays the mother’s love, grief, and guilt as mercurial posturings of a virtuoso performer. The better for our understanding of Eva’s sense of abandonment and loss, conveyed in Ullmann’s bruising honesty and echoed in the utterings of Eva’s disabled sister, Helena. Bergman uses a formal combination of flashback tableau and piercing close-up to answer the daughter’s worst fear—that her grief is her mother’s secret pleasure—with the reality of indifference.


The other PFA program that caught my attention is Otto Preminger: Anatomy of a Movie.

As legend would have it, Otto Preminger was a bald-headed baddy scolding helpless actors about flaws in their performance—the tyrant on the set. But Preminger’s films, some thirty-seven in all, bear no sign of this heated temperament, instead sharing a muted detachment that ironically excites our own engagement with his complex characters. A transplant from Viennese theater, Preminger proffered an overarching vision that found its way into almost every genre, whether it be mystery, melodrama, biopic, comedy, musical, or historical saga. From his earliest triumphs, a string of taut noirs like Laura, Fallen Angel, and Whirlpool, through his feisty indie films of the fifties, Saint Joan, The Man with the Golden Arm, and others, to his politically inflected epics like Exodus and Advise and Consent, Preminger promoted a cool take on human nature that simultaneously savored cinema’s expansive visual spaces; over time his eloquent way with the camera grew complex and sensuous. The willful director’s insistence on artistic autonomy compelled him to become one of the first champions of independent film. Beginning with 1953’s The Moon Is Blue, Preminger released a trove of spirited works (Anatomy of a Murder, Carmen Jones, Bonjour Tristesse) notable for their single-minded pursuit of prickly social ills like drug addiction, racism, and promiscuity. Join us for this fourteen-film survey of a director who, when he was bad, was better.

Jam packed with 14 films from November 27 to December 20, I can tell that I'll be spending a lot of time in Berkeley this December.

Advise and Consent (1962) - A riveting political thriller, Advise and Consent is also proof positive that nothing changes. This decades-old drama of Beltway intrigue reads like a contemporary playbook for political maneuvering. When an ailing president (Franchot Tone) nominates a controversial figure (Henry Fonda) to be secretary of state, the confirmation hearing becomes a blind covering cabals of conniving senators bent on achieving self-serving ends. The two camps are led by Majority Leader Bob Munson (Walter Pidgeon), a glib gladhander lining up the liberals, and Sen. Seabright Cooley (Charles Laughton), a smarmy Dixiecrat agitating for the conservative ranks. From the glitzy estates of Washington power brokers to grimy gay bars in Greenwich Village, the subterfuge and scandal never lose hold. Preminger’s screenplay retains the smart precision of Allen Drury’s novel, in which the language of innuendo is as lethal as a Luger. Compellingly caustic, Advise and Consent ends with a simple lesson: “This is a Washington, D.C., kind of lie. It’s when the other person knows you’re lying and also knows you know he knows.”

Saint Joan (1957) - In 1956, Preminger began a search for an unknown actress to play Joan of Arc in an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s flamboyant play. Eighteen-year-old Jean Seberg was selected from the pool of eighteen thousand applicants. As the Maid of Orléans, Seberg stands amidst a compact version of the stinging play, pared down by Graham Greene to a fleet rendition of the testy three-and-a-half-hour original. This handsome black-and-white production, with more circumstance than pomp, follows the cross-dressing saint-to-be as she leads the rout of the British at Orléans. Richard Widmark plays Charles VII, Joan’s patron and a true pretender to the throne in that his retardation makes him unfit to rule. Answering God’s guidance, the butch-coiffed combatant leads the French forces to further victories until she is captured by the British invaders. Joan is tried for heresy in a clerical tribunal that bears the Church’s immense weight. These scenes of theological debate are handled in sprightly fashion by the slight Seberg, who rises to the occasion like an ember in an updraft.

Carmen Jones (1955) - In Preminger’s all-black-cast feature, Dorothy Dandridge is a “hot bundle,” a first-class floozie with a fiery frame. The object of her amorous activation is Joe, played forthrightly by Harry Belafonte, a G.I. heading for flight school. A black man who has succeeded within the white confines of a military at war, Joe is all control. But Dandridge’s infectious pleasure seeker Carmen Jones has enough hormonal heft to undo legions. This darkly jubilant musical is based on an Oscar Hammerstein adaptation of Bizet’s famed opera, transported to a Florida army base and then Chicago in the forties. Except for irrepressible Pearl Bailey, the principal singers are dubbed—Dandridge by Marilyn Horne and Belafonte by Le Vern Hutcherson. But the vernacular lyrics sit surprisingly well inside Bizet’s melodies, especially Bailey’s jumpin’ “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” and Joe Adams’s “Stan’ Up and Fight.” A hip-swirling hedonist, Carmen Jones has a flammable lust for life. And her pilot project? Joe burns, then crashes.

Bonjour Tristesse (1958) - This Jean Seberg is not the butch ascetic of Saint Joan, but a haughty teenybopper idling away her extravagant summer on the Riviera. Her closest companion is her daddy, an aging playboy flawlessly tippled by a decadent David Niven. Indulgent daughter and reckless role model languish in the posh pleasure of the moment. Then Anne (Deborah Kerr) arrives, a stately and worldly wise woman, unlike the nymphets typically trailed by Dad. Based on Françoise Sagan’s notorious novel, the film begins in the black-and-white dreariness of a wintry Paris, then effortlessly revisits the past in a profusion of widescreen Technicolor. When Daddy succumbs to the ripe charms of Anne and marriage is imminent, Seberg’s Cécile attempts to undermine their sobering relationship, to tragic ends. This restored CinemaScope print brings to the fore Preminger’s masterful use of color and composition, but it is a visual delight paradoxically tinted by sadness (the tristesse of the title), the woeful outcome of that long, hot, and ignominious summer.

Although I saw Anatomy of a Murder at a Jazz in Noir Film Festival at the Balboa a few years ago, the print was horrible. The PFA is screening a "Restored Print." I enjoyed the film so much that I've mentally committed to making the December 2 screening.


To complement the PFA's Preminger program, Film on Film is screening The Cardinal - a 1963 film directed by Preminger. The Vatican's liaison officer for the film was the future Pope Benedict XVI. The screening takes place on December 6 at the PFA.


The Castro Theater announced a late addition to its November schedule. On Friday, November 20 (11:59 PM), they are screening Black Dynamite in conjunction with Oakland Underground Film Festival.

Black Dynamite is destined for cult film status. This action-packed comedy is meticulously and lovingly rooted in the great traditions of American Blaxploitation and Kung Fu films. A fresh and outrageous remix of films like Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972), and The Mack (1974), Black Dynamite is wrapped in a delicious and funky original soundtrack.

Directed by Scott Sanders, Black Dynamite is “...a neck-snapping orgy of martial-arts mayhem..." (Film Threat) and "...sustains the comedy while taking a nice big sucker punch at the underlying politics of our time." (Sundance Film Festival) Don’t miss your chance to see this soon-to-be classic film that “…leaves its predecessors in the dust, largely thanks to its filmmakers’ genre expertise, zany plot/sharp comedy writing, and of course, the physical prowess and deadpan hilarity of its co-writer/star Michael Jai White, who is one bad, righteous mothaf*cka.” (Marlow Stern)

Co-starring Tommy Davidson, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Arsenio Hall, Byron Minns, Kym Whitley, and Richard Edson.

Comparing the film to Shaft, Super Fly and The Mack seriously raises the expectations or should I say Blaxpectations? The film also screens at 11:59 PM on Saturday, November 21 at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland.


The Castro is screening Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) on Wednesday, November 18. Having missed every opportunity to see this film on the big screen, I'll try my best to catch this screening.

Welles' finely honed follow-up to Citizen Kane is an opulent, elegiac melodrama about a prominent family and their fall from fortune amidst social change in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis. Though heavily altered by the studio, this strikingly powerful and poignant film still possesses the magic of Welles' vision. With Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Agnes Moorehead, Tim Holt and Anne Baxter.

From November 20 to 22, the Castro is screening a restored print of Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950).

In December, the Castro screens two extended series - A Tribute to Samuel Goldwyn. from December 2 to 10 and Hitch For the Holidays: 13 Masterpieces by Alfred Hitchcock from December 16 to 23.

The Sam Goldwyn series has a few films that look interesting - Bulldog Drummond (1929), William Wyler's These Three (1936) and an Eddie Cantor double feature: Kid Millions (1934) & Strike Me Pink (1936).


The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is holding its Winter Event on Saturday, December 12 at the Castro.

The line-up is:

Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness; filmed in present-day Thailand; (1927)
J’accuse; (1919)
Sherlock Jr. starring & directed by Buster Keaton; (1924)
The Goat starring & directed by Buster Keaton; (1921) - preceding Sherlock Jr.
West of Zanzibar directed by Tod Browning, starring Lon Chaney and Lionel Barrymore; (1928)

West of Zanzibar appeals to me the most.

Like The Unknown, West of Zanzibar is an inspired partnership between director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney. Chaney has never been more affecting than in this fever-pitched nightmare of betrayal and revenge. Moving from the vaudeville stage to the jungles of the Congo, West of Zanzibar tells its story of darkness and redemption with great skill and beauty, investing each of its desperate characters with depth and humanity.


The Roxie is screening the film that gave birth to Italian Neo-Realism or at least introduced the genre to US audiences. I am referring to The Bicycle Thief. In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the US premiere, the Roxie is presenting a new 35 mm print.

I saw the film 6 or 7 years ago (at the Castro I believe) and was suitably impressed but I may try to see it again. Unfortunately, it plays from December 25 to December 31. The Roxie is open on Christmas Day? I may not be able to see the film unless it is held over.


Three well received films from last month's Mill Valley Film Festival have gained a limited release. I have interest in seeing all three at some point.

Precious - the 2009 MVFF Opening Night Film - An illiterate high school student, pregnant by her father for the second time and subject to relentless abuse at home, she's always, "looking up...for a piano to fall." Only the beauty of her resilience tempers the unsettling nature of her harsh existence as her fantasies and aspirations come alive in vibrant vignettes. But life at school is chaos: threatened with expulsion, she transfers to an alternative school where, under the tutelage of Ms. Rain (beautifully rendered by Paula Patton), she finds the strength within herself to determine her own destiny and "tell her story." Director Lee Daniels proves himself a bold voice in contemporary cinema, tackling tough material with uplifting consciousness and insight. And with its riveting cast—newcomer Sidibe's extraordinary performance complemented with passionate commitment by Patton, Mo'Nique as her mother and a glammed-down Mariah Carey-Precious promises to be one of this year's defining films.

Skin - If Anthony Fabian's gripping and extraordinary feature debut were fiction, nobody would believe it. But it really happened to Sandra Laing, a dark-skinned girl born to white Afrikaner parents in South Africa during the apartheid era. With the fragile support of her family and a "white" birth certificate, Sandra faces a strictly segregated racist society that sees her as black—expelling her from her all-white school and glaring at her when she ignores the "whites only" signs. A Supreme Court expert explains, to the gasps of spectators, that "polygenic inheritance," or "throwback," is plausible since most Afrikaners have black blood in them. But this still leaves her trapped between her increasingly conflicted and disturbed father (Sam Neill) and the official color barrier, as Sandra—in an intense, deeply moving performance by Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda; The Secret Life of Bees)—literally experiences the double consciousness of a tragically divided nation.

The Maid - Spanish with English subtitles; In the 23 years Raquel has been the maid for Pilar and her upper-class Chilean family, she's developed some odd habits and even odder attachments. Fiercely territorial, she resents the introduction of new help and, even when exhausted from overwork, still finds a way to lock the new maid out of the house. A class comedy, a chamber play and a story of personal growth, this wonderful grand jury prize-winner at Sundance is as wry as it is surprising. A look at the Upstairs, Downstairs dynamic, the soft jabs at liberal guilt and conservative disinterest are a hoot, but funnier still are the childish antics Raquel employs to get her way. When a free-spirited girl from the country comes to help Raquel after a fall, her creative problem-solving and open-heartedness change Raquel's attitude and make it clear: She's given so much to the family and kept so little for herself.