Monday, March 30, 2009

Grind House Six

I have already mentioned Midnites for Maniac's April 19th "Fighting the 1980's" quadruple feature at the Castro. It's worth repeating though.

2:00 PM Vigilante (1983) - Gangs Vs. Robert Forster
4:00 PM Raw Force (1982) - Krazy Kung-Fu Cannibals!
6:00 PM Escape From New York (1981) - John Carpenter
8:00 PM Lady Terminator (1988) - Explicit Nudity & Explosions


Quoting Jesse Hawthorne Ficks,

We kick off...with Robert Forster (Alligator) delivering yet another genuinely incredible performance as a troubled blue-collar schmo pushed to the brink of human endurance. When he finally lashes out, no lowlife is spared from his four-wheeled, double-barreled, white-knuckled wrath. Warning: Don’t come cryin’ to me after you've been traumatized by this little "roughie". If you can’t enjoy watching a 4-year-old kid take a point blank shotgun blast, that’s your problem. Preceded by some ruthless trailers including Savage Streets, Ms. 45 and Death Wish 3! Widescreen 35mm print. 90min.

This [Raw Force] jungle, nazi, kung-fu, zombie-fest has more blow-torches a'blazin, teeth a'flyin, bullets a'zingin and cages full-o'-virgins , that you'll have to blink every 3 seconds just to keep your eyes from catching on fire! The infamous Cameron Mitchell semi-stars in this Filipino & American co-production that would have brought the world to its knees if... anyone had ever seen it. [Preceded] by a bunch of films you won't believe were ever made! Original 35mm print. 86min.

The year is 1997 A.D. Cold-blooded criminal Snake Pliskin has 24 hours to enter the lawless, bloodthirsty prison island known as "Manhattan" & rescue the nation’s president (Donald Pleasance) from the clutches of a crazed gang leader played by the late, great Isaac Hayes! Simply, one of the best 1980s sci-fi film. Preceded by some of your favorite John Caprenter trailers! This Widescreen film is an EXTREMELY RARE print [of Escape From New York] that actually has color left (opposed to the only other print that has been making the rep-house circuit recently). Don't miss this! 99min.

This [Lady Terminator] late-80s Filipino/Indonesian Terminator knock-off has the magical ability to forego all logic in it's relentless drive for maximum entertainment. Starting with a man stealing a snake from a sex-witch’s vagina, the she-devil threatens to exact revenge on his great-great granddaughter. Cut-to 100 years later, a female scuba-diving anthropologist is violated by the same naughty snake, causing her to go on a kill-crazy rampage culminating in her favorite non-firearm method of execution... a hearty chomp from her carnivorous vagina! Be ready for the walls of the Castro Theatre to fall during this utterly unknown spectacle. Preceded by more robust robot trailers including Robotrix, I Come in Peace, Cyborg and Eve of Destruction. 35mm print. 82min. You will never forget this day. I promise!


This program is co-presented by the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. However, the day before the Castro date (April 18), Alamo Drafthouse is presenting Cinemapocalypse at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA).

The program consists of a double feature.

Mister Scarface directed by Fernando Di Leo

Casual brutality alternates with vulgar comedy in one of the most entertaining Italian crime movies ever made. Jack Palance plays a bad, bad man who runs a neighborhood crime syndicate in Rome. But when a series of small outrages escalates to an all-out war he proves no match for a couple of slacker kids with a dune buggy and an over-the-hill consigliere. Pulp art at its very best. (1976, 85 min, 35mm)

Chained Heat directed by Paul Nicolas

The best women-in-prison movie in the history of the world. Spend an hour and a half locked in a squalid cage with a few dozen sweaty bad girls. This is pure women-in-prison exploitation with all the catfights, steamy shower scenes and deviant sexuality you can handle. Linda Blair plays the new fish on the cellblock, and the film also stars the ubiquitous '80s Amazon Sybil Danning and Cleopatra Jones star Tamara Dobson as warring inmates. (1983, 95 min, 35mm)

I saw Chained Heat as a teenage boy on Cinemax or HBO. It made quite an impression on me although I can't recall the film now. All those women in prison movies get conflated in my memories - Caged Heat, Chained Heat, Red Heat, Prison Heat, etc.

Chained Heat


Eve of Destruction with Gregory Hines as an Army colonel hunting down a rogue, sexy female cyborg. I remember the trailer where Hines has a pistol aimed towards the camera as a subway train bears down behind him. The other scene I recall is the cyborg (Eve) bites off a man's penis (he's expecting fellatio). What is it with these sexploitation films? If a woman has a pulse (and sometimes not even that), a misogynist and/or rapist will put his penis in her mouth. I guess that's not that far-fetched but word of advice for the male readers - if there is one thing I've learned from the movies, it's that if you have just assaulted/raped/insulted/cheated a woman, you should keep your penis away from her mouth and/or sharp objects.


Year-to-date March 30, I've seen 99 films at an average cost of $7.96 per program. I'm not meeting my goal of $6 per film but I've skipped out on one half of some double features because I've seen the film already.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Thankfully Sweet Charity Had a Bitter Ending

I was able to catch some films excluding the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and Tiburon International Film Festival screenings.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 directed by Kevin Rafferty; documentary; (2008)
Cabaret starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York and Joel Grey; directed by Bob Fosse; (1972)
Sweet Charity starring Shirley MacLaine; directed by Bob Fosse; screenplay by Federico Fellini; (1969)
Runaway Train starring Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay; directed by Andrei Konchalovsky; screenplay by Akira Kurosawa; (1985)
Waltz with Bashir directed by Ari Folman; animated; mostly Hebrew with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website

I watched Cabaret, Sweet Charity and Runaway Train at the Castro. I caught Waltz with Bashir at the 4-Star. I saw Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 at the Landmark Lumiere (gave me an opportunity to ride the cable cars).


Sweet Charity which is based on Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957) is quite possibly the best musical I've ever seen. What made the film transcendent was the unhappy ending and MacLaine's standout performance. She brilliantly conveyed humor and sadness in equal portions. Two recognizable tunes added to the fun - "Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now." There was an extended dance sequence called "Rich Man's Frug" that was a showstopper. Finally, Ricardo Montalban made the most of his small part as the Italian movie star.

After having a good time for most of the film, Fosse and MacLaine masterfully tugged my heart strings. The scene at the end where MacLaine realizes that her wedding has fallen through brought a tear to my eye. I could have done without the Flower Power ending but I won't quibble because I read that Fosse was pressured into tacking on a happy ending.

I saw Irma la Douce (1963) a few years ago at the Castro and enjoyed that musical very much. There is something about a young Shirley MacLaine that is tremendously appealing to me. She is not beautiful by Hollywood standards and her comedy is not as wacky as Lucille Ball for example but she combines the two into a vibrant screen presence. What put her over the top in my book was when she displayed her vulnerability in Sweet Charity.

Tragedy (or at least melodrama) can be extra powerful in a musical because the emotions are so incongruous with the song and dance. Fosse understood this very well as shown in Cabaret and All That Jazz. Having never seen Sweet Charity before, I was caught flat-footed at the ending. I didn't I could be emotionally manipulated by a film anymore. It's good to know that some remnant of the original reason I fell in love with movies is still present.

Here's to you Miss MacLaine. You may believe in aliens and reincarnation but to me you'll always be Charity Hope Valentine.

Shirley MacLaine in 'Sweet Charity'

The 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival is screening Nights of Cabiria on May 3 at the Castro and May 5 at the PFA.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tiburon International Film Festival

I was able to catch two films at the Tiburon International Film Festival. Both films screened at the Tiburon Playhouse.

On March 21, I saw The Brothers Warner (2008) - Official Website. The documentary was directed by Harry Warner's granddaughter, Cass Warner Sperling, who was in attendance. I was familiar with Harry & Jack Warner but was unaware that there were two other brothers involved with the studio. Originally, each brother had a specific role. Harry was the studio boss and focused on strategy, Abe handled the finances, Sam was in charge technology and baby brother Jack handled day-to-day operations. Sam was instrumental in producing the first talkie (The Jazz Singer - 1927) and died shortly thereafter.

Warner Brothers Studios continued to flourish through the 1930's and 40's by carving out a niche by producing socially relevant movies such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang which (according to Sperling) resulted in reform related to the treatment of prisoners.

The film consisted mostly of old photos, home movies, film clips and talking head interviews of WB stars such as Angie Dickinson, Dennis Hopper and George Segal. The juiciest part of the story was the rivalry between oldest brother Harry and youngest brother Jack. Eventually, Jack engineered the takeover of WB and ousted his two brothers.

I found the film to be fascinating but I love old movies and the Golden Era of Hollywood. KRON movie critic Jan Wahl interviewed Sperling after the film. Wahl & Sperling mentioned something about trying to get the documentary shown in public schools. That took me aback as this film, although entertaining, doesn't qualify as essential history.

On March 22, TIFF screened the aforementioned The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson. Unfortunately, the film was projected from video. I was hoping for a 35mm print. The film was dated especially Jolson's performance. Jolson was supposed to be a young man in the film but he was 41 years old when the film was made. The film was mostly silent although the DVD had a score and voice over for the songs. The intertitles were retained for the dialogue. Only a few minutes of the original film had sound. I was aware of this going in but the film failed to impress me. As a historical artifact, the film was worth seeing but having seen silent films from the era, I can only imagine its success was rooted in its technological innovation.

I learned from The Brothers Warner that the Warners were from an immigrant Polish Jewish family (I can't recall their original surname). I've always thought The Jazz Singer was a bold choice for the first talkie - the plot revolves around a Jewish cantor and his son. Much of the film takes place in a synagogue. Antisemitism was more prevalent (or at least public) during the era so marketing a film about Jews was a curious choice. I now wonder if the choice was related to the Warner Brother's faith and commitment to social consciousness.

One of the interviewees had a great quote in The Brothers Warner; it may have been Tab Hunter. The quote (and I'm paraphrasing) was "Hollywood was a strange place during the Golden Era. The films were produced by Jews, censored by Catholics and marketed to Protestants."


The crowds at the two films were sparse. The theater capacity was probably around 70 or so. There was ~30 or so at The Brothers Warner and less than that at The Jazz Singer.

I was thinking about taking the ferry but the r/t fare was $19.50! The price was moot because the last scheduled ferry left was before the films ended.


I rarely get over to Marin County and it really is a different world. Everywhere else I go in San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, the crowds are fairly ethnically diverse but the crowd in Tiburon uniformly white. Over the course of the two days I was in downtown Tiburon, I only saw six minorities. There was the Hispanic parking lot attendant, the Latina that bussed my table at the cafe where I had coffee, the black man that served me popcorn at the theater and a family of Asians that parked behind the theater. As I was cutting across the lot, the man's face lit up when he saw me. I thought I knew him from somewhere and was scrambling to place his name and face. Instead, he made a beeline for me to ask directions to a local hotel. I couldn't help him but I guess he was glad to see a similar looking face.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Roxie Mondays, Castro Tuesdays, Paramount Fridays and FoFF Sundays

I previously mentioned that the Roxie is having a Monday special - $5 admission for all shows on Mondays. The Castro is following suit. Starting on April 14, the Castro is instituting a $5 admission policy on Tuesdays.


The Film on Film Foundation has announced their next screening. It's April 5 at 8:30 PM at the PFA. It's Accident (1967) directed by Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter with a screenwriting credit.

Accident stars [Dirk] Bogarde and [Stanley] Baker as at-one-time-close Oxford dons in the midst of excruciating and calamitously competitive mid-life crises, Jacqueline Sassard as the incredibly beautiful student with whom they both fall in love, to the detriment of their respective spouses, and the young Michael York as her fiance, in one of his first screen roles.


On April 3, the Paramount Theater in Oakland screens An American in Paris (1951). I've had a crush on Leslie Caron since I saw her in Gigi 25 years ago. That's the film where Maurice Chevalier sings "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" and "I Remember it Well" with Hermione Gingold.

In An American in Paris, Gene Kelly plays an American ex-G.I. in Paris who just wants to paint (though he’s obviously the best hoofer in Europe). Caught between two women (Nina Fochs and Leslie Caron), he finds that sometimes all an artist can do is just... dance! The combination of George Gershwin’s music, Gene Kelly’s dancing, and Vincente Minnelli's direction is irresistible! This Technicolor song-and-dance extravaganza swept the Academy Awards for 1951, with Oscars for best picture and the major technical categories: screenplay, score, cinematography, art direction, set design, and even a special Oscar for the choreography of its epic 18-minute closing ballet.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

April Showers Bring May Noirs

The Roxie has announced a film program in May called I Wake Up Dreaming: The Haunted World of the B Film Noir. Double features run from May 15 to 28.

From 1990 until 2003, San Francisco’s Roxie Theater enjoyed a reputation as being the foremost venue in the entire Bay Area for the absolute best in quality, esoteric film noir. The guiding hand behind the film noir programming at the Roxie was Elliot Lavine, who left the theater in early 2003 to pursue other interests, among them teaching courses in film studies at Stanford and San Francisco State University. He has also completed work on a fascinating new book called “TV Noir: I Wake Up Dreaming.” To help celebrate the appearance of his soon to be published book, Lavine has been invited to curate this film noir series at the Roxie. The focus of this series is the shadowy and gritty world of the B noir. These are not the glitzy and glamorous classics most filmgoers are familiar with. Rather, they are the doomed and forgotten, rough and ready step-children of Hollywood’s lower depths; poverty row gems that, in many ways, capture the true, brutal essence of noir far better than many of their upper-crust cousins.

28 films are screening over 14 days at the Big Roxie. I have to check my records but I am only aware of having seen two of the films.


Friday, May 15

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1940)
An innocent young dupe gives a ride to a vicious criminal and unleashes a nightmare of violence and depravity! One of the most blatantly nasty B films of all time, with a singularly fierce central performance from its legendary dark star, Lawrence Tierney.

The Guilty (1947)
Twin sisters—one good, the other bad—dangerously hold a man’s fate in their hands. But which one is which? This rare poverty row gem is one of the eeriest and most disturbing of the many fine films adapted from the obsessively demented Cornell Woolrich’s provocative pulp fiction.

Saturday, May 16

Raw Deal (1948)
A desperate man breaks out of prison and begins a relentless and bloody pursuit of those who framed him. Beautifully photographed by John Alton, arguably the premier noir cinematographer of the 1940s and 50s. A classic noir on every level. Starring Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, Raymond Burr, John Ireland.
Directed by Anthony Mann.

Railroaded! (1947)
A tightly wound, high impact tale of criminal brutality: after a ruthless gangster pins a cop’s murder on an innocent young punk, he sets his sights on the kid’s sister. Erotically charged and loaded with the kind of violence only found at the depths of Hollywood’s poverty row. Starring John Ireland, Sheila Ryan, Hugh Beaumont. Directed by Anthony Mann.

Sunday, May 17

Canon City (1948)
A brutally realistic prison escape film with brilliant cinematography by John Alton. Based on actual events and filmed on location, this fast-paced and thrilling epic is as ruthlessly hard-boiled as anything produced in its time. A rarely seen classic that should not be missed under any circumstances!

Framed (1947)
A down-on-his-luck drifter falls into the clutches of a scheming woman who has constructed an elaborate frame designed to net her and her bank robber boyfriend a cool quarter million in cash. All they need to do is put the drifter in the frame. Excellent unsung B noir! Starring Glenn Ford, Janis Carter, Barry Sullivan.

Monday, May 18

The Specter of the Rose (1946)
A fascinating foray into the darkly demented world of dancers, in which at least one of whom might (or might not) be a psychotic murderer! Very strange, this is a noir of an entirely different stripe; all on a B budget! Excellent cinematography by Lee Garmes. Written and directed by Ben Hecht.

The Madonna's Secret (1946)
The masterful John Alton provides some astonishing camerawork for this strangely hypnotic noir mystery about a famous painter who can’t seem to get the image of his dead fiancée out of his mind. When his models, one by one, start turning up dead, he becomes Prime Suspect #1.

Tuesday, May 19

The Story of Molly X (1949)
The beautiful widow of a slain gangster takes over control of his mob. Thrown into the state pen, she is given the opportunity to unravel the tragic circumstances that have led her to this strange and sordid life. In many ways this terrific noir film was years ahead of its time. Starring June Havoc, Charles McGraw, John Russell, Dorothy Hart.

The Port of Forty Thieves (1944)
A cunning femme fatale with a penchant for murder has devised a foolproof scheme that could net her a fabulous fortune! Or has she? A sublimely perverse and very rarely seen poverty row noir with a mind-boggling myriad of twists and turns!

Wednesday, May 20

The Last Crooked Mile (1946)
Even though she’ll always be best remembered as the demonic Vera in “Detour,” Ann Savage turns in a great performance as a slinky cabaret singer in this energetic B noir about the frantic chase for $300,000 in stolen loot, culminating in a wild scene at a sleazy carnival.

Violence (1947)
From the director of the cult fave “Decoy” comes this swiftly paced poverty row noir about a pseudo-patriotic scam organization—in reality an odious Fascist hate group—trying to recruit disillusioned war vets into its fold! A girl reporter and an undercover agent try to bust it up!

Thursday, May 21

Private Hell 36 (1954)
From the director of the mind-blowing “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” comes this sharply drawn crime drama about a pair of cops who abscond with a cache of stolen loot. In typical noir fashion, the gravity of their deed drives them to the edge of panic! Starring Ida Lupino, Steve Cochran, Howard Duff, Dorothy Malone, Dean Jagger. Directed by Don Siegel.

No Man’s Woman (1955)
The mighty Marie Windsor stars in this quirky B classic as a conniving femme fatale who everyone else in the movie would love to see dead. When she finally turns up that way, the line of suspects winds around the block. Cheap, tawdry and very, very noir!

Friday, May 22

New York Confidential (1955)
Organized crime gets the film noir treatment in this sensational expose of the murderous racketeers who once held a mighty metropolis in its evil iron-clad grip! B noir seldom got as heady as this rarely seen exciting opus! Starring Broderick Crawford, Richard Conte, Anne Bancroft, Marilyn Maxwell, J. Carroll Naish.

The Hoodlum (1951)
Lawrence Tierney returns as the eponymous title character of this unheralded poverty row noir about an unrepentant sociopath, bent on bringing doom and destruction to everyone in his path! Rarely have an actor and his role meshed so perfectly. Also starring Allene Roberts, Marjorie Riordan, Edward Tierney (the star’s real-life brother).

Saturday, May 23

The Burglar (1957)
From the psychologically dark imagination of pulp paperback novelist David Goodis comes this peculiarly twisted tale of love between thieves. Resembling nothing less than the French New Wave films it would soon inspire, this is a film that once seen is never forgotten! Starring Dan Duryea, Jayne Mansfield, Martha Vickers, Mickey O’Shaughnessy.

Witness to Murder (1954)
A woman awakens in the middle of the night and witnesses a grisly murder through her bedroom window. Somehow the only person who believes her is the killer himself! A tension-filled noir thriller photographed by John Alton with an eye for incredible detail. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Garry Merrill, George Sanders.

Sunday, May 24

Repeat Performance (1947)
On New Year’s Eve a woman murders her husband then suddenly wishes she hadn’t. Inexplicably, she’s given her wish and now finds she has the entire year to live over again. But will anything change? This provocative and scintillating noir gem will linger in your dreams. Starring Joan Leslie, Louis Hayward, Richard Basehart, Virginia Field.

Hollow Triumph aka: The Scar (1948)
After a carefully planned heist goes haywire, a gangster goes on the lam. When he encounters a prominent psychologist who is his exact double, an insidious plan is hatched. A top-notch B noir, sizzling with unexpected plot twists and the sumptuous cinematography of John Alton! Starring Paul Henreid, Joan Bennett, Edward Franz.

Monday, May 25

Women In The Night (l948)
One of the rarest of 40s B noirs, this lurid exploitation shocker tells the grim story of women captured by the Nazis and forced to serve as “hostesses” at the Shanghai Officer’s Club! Photographed by the celebrated Eugene Shufftan, the film has a look not often associated with obscurity. Starring Tara Birell, Virginia Christine, Philip Ahn, Iris Flores.

Under Age (1941)
An astonishingly frank B oddity about young wayward girls who are lured into the dangerous world of prostitution by sinister pimps and racketeers! The Hollywood censors were clearly asleep at the wheel when this steamy little noir slipped into unsuspecting neighborhood theaters! Directed by Edward Dmytryk.

Tuesday, May 26

Suspense (1946)
One of the classiest of all poverty row films, a nightclub noir about a deadly romantic quadrangle that threatens to destroy the lives of everyone involved. A thoroughly unusual and visually rich thriller that is all but forgotten today. Starring Barry Sullivan, Belita, Albert Dekker, Bonita Granville, Eugene Pallette.

The Pretender (1947)
This remarkably timely noir oddity about a financier who has been plundering the assets of a wealthy client mixes equal measures of suspense with “Twilight Zone”-style elements of the supernatural. One of the first Hollywood films to feature a theramin-dominated score. Brilliantly shot by John Alton!

Wednesday, May 27

Allotment Wives (1945)
Former Hollywood superstar Kay Francis made a final stop at poverty row to star in (and produce) this sadly neglected B noir! She plays a socialite who secretly heads a nasty gang of women who prey on returning WWII servicemen. Violence, blackmail and murder highlight this sordid tale of shame!

Wife Wanted (1946)
Kay Francis returns to poverty row as a faded former movie star who unwittingly becomes involved with nefarious conmen who operate a sleazy “lonely hearts” racket! Things go from bad to worse when murder steps in! Co-starring in this unusual noir melodrama are Paul Cavanaugh, Robert Shayne, Veda Ann Borg. Directed by Phil Karlson.

Thursday, May 28

City of Fear (1959)
Upon escaping from prison, a desperate criminal mistakes a container of radioactive material for heroin! Will the cops be able to bring him down before an entire city becomes infected with radioactive poisoning!?! A seldom seen noir thriller from the director of the incredible “Murder By Contract.”

Shack Out On 101 (1955)
At a lonely seaside beanery north of San Diego, assorted oddballs mingle with atomic spies! Time his not diminished the utter strangeness of this bizarre cold war psychodrama. The absolute zenith in cult trash noir, the stellar cast of stalwart superstars includes Keenan Wynn, Lee Marvin, Terry Moore, Frank Lovejoy and Whit Bissell.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

2009 SFIAAFF Final Thoughts

This year's Asian American Film Festival was a mixed bag for me.

Much was made of the seven film Kiyoshi Kurosawa retrospective. Tokyo Sonata is his latest film and screened at the festival. I saw four Kurosawa films - Eyes of the Spider, Serpent's Path, The Revenge: A Visit From Fate and The Revenge: The Scar That Never Fades. These films date back to 1997 and 1998 so it's certainly likely that Kurosawa has grown as a filmmaker. I'm still planning on seeing Tokyo Sonata. I found the 4 films to be fairly unsatisfying. They were standard revenge films with certain flourishes that hinted at Kurosawa's ability but I thought he was limiting himself by repeatedly focusing on the revenge plot. The plot device has its limitations. Shō Aikawa starred in all four films and he delivered strong performances although he played similar characters in all four films - a greatly wronged man keeping a tight lid on his rage. I've seen Aikawa in Zebraman and Takashi Miike's Gozu. He delivers consistently in off-beat, quirky, dark comedy roles.

You know you are in for trouble when festival director Chi-hui Yang introduces a film by saying it's "challenging." Such was the case when Yang introduced The Secret Lives of Urban Space, a short film program consisting of six insufferable entries including a 20 minute, fixed, long shot of an apartment building, a 7 minute film which consists solely of a woman doing a handstand and a 12 minute montage of kids moving furniture and then sleeping. The films were too experimental for my taste. I would not have chosen the program but a friend wanted to see it. The only interesting film was about a Filipina who found out that her husband had previosly proposed to her sister.

Heather Keung in Upside Down-Downside Up

My favorite film of the festival was All Around Us, a Japanese film directed by Ryosuke Hashiguchi. A critique of Japanese society that mixes dark humor with some heartbreaking scenes. Lead actors Tae Kimura and Lily Franky deliver strong performances as the depressed wife and her imperturbable husband, respectively. Strong performances by the supporting cast add to the force of the message - there is shrewish mother, a boorish brother and his bimbo wife, a group of hardened newsmen. The film is set over the 1990's decade and follows the lives of characters which stand in for the actual events unfolding in Japan - shocking crimes, a real estate bust and collective depression. I laughed, I cried and marveled at the paintings that Kimura's character paints to pull herself out of her depression.

As I mentioned, Diamond Head and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi were two of my favorites also. Two more films I recommend are Kanchivaram: A Communist Confession and The Love of Siam.

I wasn't going to see The Love of Siam but a friend urged me to go. The plot was about two teenage boys in Thailand who renew their friendship...and more. They explore their sexuality with each other although not explicitly. They have to also contend with family problems unrelated to their orientation and other typical teenage angst inducing events. The film was a coming of age comedy with a hook to reel in gay audiences. The film screened at the Castro & was close to being sold out. The comedy works quite well; the film was a hit in Thailand last year.

Kanchivaram: A Communist Confession is a non-Bollywood, non-musical Indian film. The film is a tear-jerker about a poor silk weaver that aspires for a better life. He makes promises to himself, his wife and his daughter that he is unable to keep due to his low station in life. Ultimately, he is reduced to stealing and filicide. Many but not all of his problems result from his embrace of that noble social institution known as communism.

I was told (or eavesdropped) by three people that they preferred Colma The Musical to H.P. Mendoza's latest musical, Fruit Fly. I agree with that sentiment. In addition to being another film that appeals to a limited audience (fruit fly is a term for straight women that associate with gay men), the tunes were not as catchy as Colma. Regardless, the screenings at the Castro and the PFA were sold out.

I also heard good word of mouth about The Chaser, a Korean film about an ex-cop pimp that is playing a violent cat and mouse game with a serial killer preying on the girls in is stable. Korean films that screen in the US seem to be ultra-violent and The Chaser fits that bill. It was a good film but not quite a suspenseful as I was hoping. I think the audience disagreed with this assessment because they went nuts for it. It certainly had some groan-inducing, wince-inducing, turn your head moments so I can't pan the film. Steve Seid, a curator with PFA, introduced the film and mentioned the film had been optioned by the same group that bought Infernal Affairs which was remade in the US as The Depated directed by Marin Scorcese.

Dirty Hand: The Art and Crimes of David Choe was a documentary about artist David Choe. Formerly a graffitist, porn magazine illustrator, lesbian erotica author, Japanese prison inmate and more, the filmmaker spent 7 or 8 years with Choe documenting his rise. That film also nearly sold out the Castro and won the Special Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2009 SFIAAFF. I didn't particular care of the art or the artist so my opinion of the film may be affected. Choe is certainly a polemicist worthy of a documentary chronicle is exploits so the film was not entirely unappealing but I can't fully recommend the film.

Two Chinese films The Equation of Love and Death and High Noon had their moments but I found them ultimately tedious and not quite fully developed feature films.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Break in the Festivities

Now that the 2009 SFIAAFF is over, my film festival season goes into hiatus. I may catch a few San Francisco International Film Festival screenings but I may not either.

There are a number of non-festival films I want to see.


At the Red Vic,

Two-Lane Blacktop playing March 25 & 26. One of the finest films to never enjoy wide commercial distribution, Two-Lane Blacktop is an American cult classic. James Taylor stars as a laconic lovesick hero in a souped-up ’55 Chevy, which takes on a new GTO in a road race across the Southwest. Warren Oates gives a near-flawless performance as the pathological liar driving the GTO. Fine performances also by Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird as the freewheeling road hippie and Harry Dean Stanton as the hitchhiker. This rarely screened film is not to be missed.

King Corn playing April 7. Almost everything Americans eat contains corn; high fructose corn syrup, corn-fed meat and corn-based processed foods are the staples of the modern diet. King Corn is a hip and entertaining documentary about the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation. Following in the Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), school of filmmaking, college friends Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis decide to see for themselves the path that corn takes from a farm in the midwest into the mainstream American diet. They start by buying one acre of land in Iowa, and learn that the government will subsidize them to grow corn. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, they manage to plant and grow a bumper crop. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises deeply troubling questions about the overabundance of subsidized corn.This incisive documentary will leave you distrustful of everything on your plate.

Waltz with Bashir playing April 15 & 16.


At the Castro,

Made in U.S.A. playing April 1 through 7. Jean-Luc Godard’s reference riddled farewell to his muse/ex-wife Anna Karina - never filmed more glamorously in dazzling Eastmancolor and Techniscope - was shot simultaneously with Two or Three Things I Know About Her and has been virtually unseen in this country due to rights issues.

Badlands playing April 15. [Terrence] Malick's remarkable debut stars Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as young lovers on a homicidal spree across the Dakota Badlands in the 1950s. A film full of strange and transfixing moments, it now stands as one of the key works of the 1970s. Warren Oates co-stars.

MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS "Fighting Back... in the 80's" Quadruple Feature on April 19. The lineup includes Vigilante, Raw Force, Escape from New York and Lady Terminator.

The Animation Madness of Max Fleischer on April 21 which includes Gulliver's Travels (1939), Betty Boop in Blunderland (1933), Superman's Mechanical Monsters (1941), and Popeye Meets Ali Baba & His Forty Thieves (1937).

A Woman Under the Influence playing on April 26 - part of the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival. This newly restored print of one of the most influential films by the patron saint of American indie filmmakers [John Cassavetes] features a career-defining performance by Gena Rowlands, in a penetrating portrait of a woman beset by mental illness.

Watchmen on April 30.


At the 4 Star,

The Beast Stalker - date TBA. One fateful traffic accident brings together the lives of a wanted criminal, a police sergeant, a public prosecutor and her daughter. Little girl Yee is killed by Fei (Nicholas Tse), a brave cop, when he was fighting with the bandits. Yee's twin sister, Ling, is taken hostage by the same group of criminals. Her mother (Zhang Jingchu) decides to save her daughter on her own in a dramatic action adventure about friendship, duty, love and hate.

Dogs of Chinatown on April 3. Utterly lonely Jack (Eric Jacobus) is about to end his life when he is interrupted by Mafia thugs kidnapping a beautiful Chinese girl (Huyen Thi). Jack saves the girl and finds out she is the mistress of a Triad boss. Impressed by Jack's actions, the Triad makes him one of their own and grooms him to be their top assassin. But as the hard-boiled killer rises to the top, he falls for Boss Wu's favorite mistress, Jin, putting both their lives at risk. As Jack battles his way through the Mafia and the Triad, he must decide if his loyalty is with the Boss who gave him a new life or the girl he loves.


At the PFA,

From Riches to Rags: Hollywood and the New Deal on April 1, 5, 15 and 19. Films include Our Daily Bread directed by King Vidor (1934), Wild Boys of the Road directed by William Wellman (1933), Gabriel over the White House (1933) and Wild River directed by Elia Kazan (1960).


At the Landmark Theaters,

Gomorrah - Director Matteo Garrone's epic, mesmerizing tour-de-force about Naples' infamous Camorra was a critical sensation at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prize. A sweeping drama with documentary-like realism, Gomorrah explores the mafia's vice-like hold on all aspects of life in the regions of Naples and Caserta (where the film was shot), as well as its creeping influence on international business and government. The film weaves together five stories of ordinary people forced to reckon with the heavy hand of the Camorra, where every decision, great or small, is a matter of life and death. Garrone's (The Embalmer) ambitious and powerful breakthrough film sheds light on a shadow organization that rules by fear and unsparing violence, tacitly fostered from above and abroad by greed, corruption and complicity. Based on Roberto Saviano's explosive international bestseller, which made him a target for mob threats.

Tokyo! - Three of the world's greatest filmmakers—Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Leos Carax (Lovers on the Bridge) and Bong Joon-Ho (The Host)—come together for an omnibus feature examining the nature of one unforgettable city as it is shaped by the disparate people who live, work (and even run amok!) inside an enormous, constantly evolving, densely populated Japanese megalopolis: the ravishing and inimitable Tokyo. Rhapsody, psycho-geography, urban valentine, freak show, mindwalk and many other things, Tokyo! is a fantasy in three movements that will make you see one of the world's greatest cities—if not any city—in unpredictable new ways. In the tradition of such films as New York Stories, Night on Earth and Paris Je T'Aime, Tokyo! addresses the timeless question of whether we shape cities or cities shape us—in the process revealing the rich humanity at the heart of modern urban life.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 - An extraordinary retelling of one of the most famous college football games in history, filmmaker Kevin Rafferty's (The Atomic Café) documentary combines rare footage of the wildly unpredictable 1968 game with unguarded, politically-charged recollections from the original players. The two squads, both of which entered the contest undefeated, included a Vietnam vet as well as members of both paramilitary and antiwar groups; at Harvard, the team also included actor Tommy Lee Jones (who reminisces about his roommate Al Gore), while Yale's star quarterback Brian Dowling became the inspiration for B.D., the jock character in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury comic strip. As Jones puts it, "ideas were flying around like bullets"—as becomes clear by the end of the film, this was a social experience that resonated well beyond one Saturday afternoon on the playing field.

Tokyo Sonata - opening March 27 although it's not yet on the Landmark webstie. Set in contemporary Tokyo, Tokyo Sonata is a story of an ordinary Japanese family of four. The father, Ryuhei Sasaki, like any other Japanese businessman, is faithfully devoted to his work. His wife, Megumi, left on her own to manage the house, struggles to retain a bond with her oldest son in college, Takashi, and the youngest, Kenji, a sensitive boy in elementary school. From the exterior the family is seemingly normal, save for the tiny schisms that exist within.


Although I will most likely miss the film (not to mention the entire festival), the Sonoma International Film Festival is running from April 1 to 5.

The film that catches my eye is The Peach Girl (1931) which screens on Saturday, April 4. The film star Lingyu Ruan (or Ruan Lingyu depending on whether you Westernize her name or not) who was one of the biggest Chinese movie stars of her era. I saw her in The Goddess a few years ago at the 4 Star. Her life was quite tragic. She committed suicide at age 24.

This film is alternately titled Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood

Lingyu Ruan


I finally made it down to the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto this weekend. Based on this Chronicle article, I went to see The Sin of Nora Moran (1933). Clocking in at 65 minutes, the film featured a time warping plot that would make Tarantino proud. There was this strange camera lens filter that would frequently scroll in from top right to bottom left. I was trying to match the use of the filter to the plot but couldn't make heads or tails. I'd like to see the film again but it ended its run tonight.

The Sin of Nora Moran which was pre-code, features one of the more well-known and striking posters of all-time. It must have been scandalous in 1933. I don't think the poster has anything to do with the film as Nora Moran was a brunette and the woman depicted in the poster is a strawberry blonde. Nor did Nora wear anything quite so revealing.

The Sin of Nora Moran


I noticed the Castro is advertising Milk Mondays. Staring April 13, the Castro is screening Milk for three consecutive Mondays. They are "milking" that film for everything it's worth. Good for them.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

2009 SFIAAFF Wraps

The 2009 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival is over for me. They still have programs on March 22 in San Jose but my last film was on March 21.

I ended up seeing 14 programs - 8 at the Castro, 1 at the Sundance Kabuki and 6 at PFA.

Always obsessed with my expenditures, I have to admit that I wasted a ticket for the first time in memory. I saw Fruit Fly at the Castro with my Castro Pass. I didn't plan out my film itinerary quite a meticulously as I usually do. I purchased a ticket for Fruit Fly at the PFA on March 20. I was considering watching the film a second time because I had tickets for the film screening immediately after it; I had to be in Berkeley anyway. On the afternoon of the film, I decided that I needed a workout more than a second screening of Fruit Fly. I think Fruit Fly was sold out so I probably could have sold my ticket (at face value) to someone in the Rush Line but that meant I'd have to get over to the PFA before the film started which would not leave enough time for my marathon workout sessions.


Eyes of the Spider starring Sho Aikawa; directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1998)
Serpent's Path starring Sho Aikawa; directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1998)
The Equation of Love and Death starring Zhou Xun; directed by Cao Baoping; Mandarin with subtitles; (2008)
The Love of Siam directed by Chookiat Sakveerakul; Thai with subtitles; (2007)
Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe directed by Harry Kim; documentary; (2008) - Official Site
Diamond Head starring Charlton Heston, Yvette Mimieux, George Chakiris, James Darren and France Nuyen; (1963)
Kanchivaram: A Communist Confession; Tamil with subtitles; (2007)
Fruit Fly directed by H.P. Mendoza; starring L.A. Renigen; (2009) - Official Website
Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi starring Shah Rukh Khan; Hindi with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website
The Revenge: A Visit From Fate starring Sho Aikawa; directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1997)
The Revenge: The Scar That Never Fades starring Sho Aikawa; directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1997)
High Noon; Cantonese with subtitles; (2008)
The Chaser; Korean with subtitles; (2008)
All Around Us; Japanese with subtitles; (2008)

2009 SFIAAFF Short Film Program - The Secret Lives of Urban Space
Upside Down-Downside Up; (2008)
Green Dolphin; (2008)
Suspended; (2009)
Nuevo Dragon City; (2008)
Shrivel; (2005)
Block B


Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi translates to "A Match Made by God." I may be turning into a Bollywood fan. Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi is a Bollywood musical starring Shah Rukh Khan (also spelled Shahrukh Khan). Khan starred in the only other Bollywood musical I have seen - Om Shanti Om. My knowledge of Indian cinema is limited but I gather that Khan is one of the biggest stars of Bollywood today.

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi was one of my favorites of the festival. The plot is contrived (like most musicals) but involves Taani (Anushka Sharma) a woman who cannot love because of the untimely deaths of her fiance and father. Khan plays Surinder, her husband. On his deathbed, Taani's father arranged a wedding between Taani and Surinder even though they had only met that day. In fact, Surinder was there to attend Taani's wedding which was cancelled due to a tragic bus accident that took the life of her fiance. Surinder is shy and has difficulties expressing his love for Taani which is instant and unyielding.

Suri & Taani sleep in separate bedrooms and live emotionally detached lives. Taani perfunctorily goes about her other wifely duties; always showing a hint of the playfulness and passion that have been largely extinguished from her life. Suri is unsatisfied with the relationship and concocts a plan to win his wife's heart. Taani's only recreation is taking dancing lessons. Suri disguises himself, takes on the persona of an outgoing lothario and plans to win her love that way. Suri transforms into Raj Kapoor with the help of his best friend (a hairdresser with a flamboyant sense of style).

Here is a photo of Khan as Surinder and Anushka Sharma as Taani.
Anushka Sharma and Shah Rukh Khan in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi

Here is photo of Khan as "Raj Kapoor."
Shah Rukh Khan in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi

Predictably, Taani doesn't recognize her own husband and once Raj Kapoor enters her life, Taani's heart starts to melt. Suri isn't willing to let well enough alone. He decides that he needs to express his love for Taani as Suri in more subtle ways than Raj. A love triangle develops between Suri, Raj and Taani. It's all silly including a strange scene involving Suri entering a sumo wrestling match but it's great fun. Khan is chewing up the scenery as Raj and then shows his range by playing the milquetoast Suri in the next scene. The music is a lot of fun too. There is a song called "Haule Haule" whose opening accordion/concertina melody is the coda for the film.

Although treading on stereotypes of Indian men (Suri is likely an engineer for Punjab Power), I have to admit that Suri is spot on for many engineers I've met in school and work.


Another gem was 1963's Diamond Head starring Charlton Heston. Set in 1959, this film was a surprisingly frank exploration of racism and presciently, mixed race self-identity issues. There was some yellow-face casting with George Chakiris (Greek heritage) playing a hapa-haole and James Darren (American Italian) as a full blooded Hawaiian.

Heston plays King Howland, a sugar cane/pineapple/cattle baron in Hawaii. He has an unusual relationship with his younger sister. Their parents have passed away so Heston is more of a father figure to Sloane Howland (Yvette Mimieux). King, a widower, is obsessed with propagating the Howland dynasty through Sloane but only with pure white blood. The King gets bent out of shape when Sloane becomes engaged to childhood friend Paul Kahana (Darren). He won't abide the Howland line being polluted by non-white blood.

That's very hypocritical because the King has a secret Chinese mistress (France Nuyen) and she's pregnant by him. He hides the relationship; not because he is married but because he doesn't want people to know he has a severe case of yellow fever. Did I mention King is running for the US Senate? Apparently a white man married to an Asian woman in 1959 Hawaii couldn't be elected to state office.

King doesn't seem to consider the option of remarrying a white woman and fathering his own Howlands. To his defense, he's shacked up with France Nuyen whose character is unbelievably patient and accepting of his not-so-latent racism (not mention prancing around in tight cheongsam). It's easy to understand why he doesn't want a wife when he has a subservient lotus blossom at his beck and (sexual) call.

King doesn't need to worry about Paul polluting the Howland descendants with his Hawaiian DNA. The King "accidentally" stabs Paul to death at his engagement party! That doesn't stop Sloane; she always preferred Paul's half-brother Dean (Chiakris) anyway. After a relatively short mourning period, Sloane gets drunk, sleeps with Dean and announces her engagement. She must have a thing for Asian guys. Actually, her sexual desires are conflicted as demonstrated in an alcohol induced dream sequence that transfigures Paul to Dean to King! Loving brother indeed...

Although highly melodramatic, Asian/Hapa self-esteem issues are front and center. Hapa Dean has a serious case of self-loathing. It's not clear if its his white half or Hawaiian half that he has issues with. Being a doctor is not enough to give him inner peace. Denying himself Sloane's carnal pleasures since a skinny-dipping incident in high school, Dean doesn't really find self-acceptance until he sleeps with a white woman, slaps her around and has her come back for more.

Everyone in this film was seriously flawed - King is a hypocritical, cold-blooded racist and possibly a murderer, Sloane has some misplaced oedipal desires, Paul is stupid and Dean is confused and has self-esteem issues. Of course, that makes for an entertaining movie - flawed characters and conflict is what drama is all about.

This film and the Patsy Mink documentary were programmed because 2009 is the 50th anniversary of Hawaii's (and Alaska's) statehood.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Happy Pi Day

March 14 is Pi Day so Happy Pi Day. That reminds me that The Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky made one of the first independent/art house films that I saw in a theater. In 1998, he directed a movie called Pi which started me on the cinematic path I am currently on. Actually, I think the official title was π. That was one of the first independent films that I saw in a theater (Landmark Embarcadero I believe). The film involves Kabbalah mysticism, the belief that the Torah's Hebrew text can be converted into numbers and that mathematical analysis of the text reveals secrets in the past as well as predicting the future. Sean Gullette plays a math genius with mental issues and a drug addiction. He gets involved with the number theory and it turns his life upside down. On Pi Day, I salute π, eXistenZ and another film about the making of a Russian snuff film whose title I can't recall or find on the internet.


I had an "only in San Francisco" moment before my first SFIAAFF screening. Eyes of the Spider and Serpent's Path were presented as one program. Each film was about 85 minutes, there was a 10 minute intermission, the venue was the Castro Theater and the program started at 10 PM. The program wouldn't end until after 1 AM - after BART service ends. So I drove to the Castro district on Friday the 13th. I was worried that parking would be hard to find in the area but I was able to park nearby on Diamond between 19th and 20th. That's an area I rarely venture to. The Castro Muni station which is my typical mode of transportation to the Castro Theater, is near the intersection of Market, 17th and Castro.

It was about 45 degrees that night and I was shivering wearing a windbreaker. As I was walking to the theater, there was a black woman yelling on the sidewalk. I couldn't tell who she was yelling at but she kept screaming that he was prejudiced against black women. I would have paid more attention but there was another man on the sidewalk distracting me. He was wearing a T-shirt; he must have forgotten to put on his coat...and his pants...and his underwear. Anyway, he was very congenial; he kept waving (hands and other body parts) to passerbyers. He kindly made some suggestions regarding my evening plans but of course I was going to the SFIAAFF.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Bigamist and The Wild Child

On Sunday, I trekked over to Berkeley to see The Bigamist (1953) as part of Film on Film Foundation's "Lupino Noir" double feature. The second half of the program was Outrage but I was tired and had an early meeting on Monday so I skipped it.

The first thing I noticed was that I have already seen this film. It screened almost 3 years ago as part of the Balboa Theater's Reel San Francisco series. The film starred Edmond O'Brien, Joan Fontaine and Ida Lupino (who also directed). Much of the film was filmed and set in San Francisco.

The title tells the story - O'Brien has two wives - one in SF (Fontaine) and the other in LA. The story attempts to cast O'Brien in sympathetic light although he committed adultery, fathered a child out of wedlock and eventually committed bigamy out of sympathy for Lupino's mousy but brassy character. It put some of the blame on Fontaine's character, not just a wife but a business partner. She's hard-charging in the boardroom and barren in the bedroom. Overall, the film was dated and I didn't feel much sympathy for O'Brien. If you knock a woman up, you divorce your wife, you get an abortion or you pay child support but you don't commit bigamy (even in 1953).

The emcee shared a story that could only happen in Hollywood. Lupino was married to The Bigamist's screenwriter, Collier Young. Lupino divorced Young in 1951. Prior to the filming of The Bigamist, Young and Joan Fontaine were married; so the lead actresses had a real-life relationship that bizarrely resembled the plot. It's amazing that the three could or would work together; especially with Lupino as the director.


On Wednesday, I saw The Wild Child or L'Enfant Sauvage. This 1970 French film (with English subtitles) was directed by and starred Francois Truffaut. Based on a true story from 1798, the plot involves a 12 year old boy that is discovered by some villagers. The boy is nude and has seemingly lived in the wild all his life. His story catches the attention of Parisian Dr. Itard (Truffaut). He arranges for the boy to live with him so he can conduct experiments on the boy's ability to integrate into society. Some think the boy is a savage that should be locked away but Itard thinks he can teach the boy social and language skills.

The rest of the film follows the ups and downs of teaching Victor (the name give to the boy) and how Itard and Victor (and their housekeeper) learn personal lessons on the meaning of humanity.

The film is slow-paced and looks like a flim from the 1970's but it's clearly a labor of love for Truffaut. His daughter says he played the lead role because he didn't want an actor between him and the film. Jean-Paul B as Victor delivers the payoff performance - he runs around naked in the woods for the first part of the film and throws temper tantrums for the second half of the film. A few scenes such as him looking balefully at the moon to convey his sense of isolation, his frolicking in the rain to show his comfort with the outdoors and his inability to steal a chicken to represent his partial integration into human society make the film a small and gentle masterpiece.


I saw The Wild Child at the Landmark Opera Plaza. I saw some postcards for Tokyo Sonata, a well-regarded Japanese film that has been making the festival circuit. It played at this year's Cinequest and will play at SFIAAFF. Although I didn't see an announcement, I suspect Tokyo Sonata will get a run at a Landmark Theater.


Through March 11, I'm averaging $7.66 per program or film. I've seen 77 films since January 1, 2009. January through March is the busy period for film festivals in San Francisco; at least it is for me. January is Noir City, February is IndieFest and March is the Asian American Festival. The most popular festival in SF is the International Film Festival in April. I usually skip the festival because the crowds are so large, I'm burnt out by April and many of the films get distributed after the festival or get picked up by other local festivals.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

You Don't Know Jack

Another film that caught my attention at the 2009 San Francisco Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) is You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story. Jack Soo is most famous for his role on the 1970's television series Barney Miller. He also had supporting roles in The Green Berets and The Flower Drum Song.

Jack Soo was not Chinese as his name would imply. Rather, he was born Goro Suzuki in Oakland. I suspect he changed his name to avoid anti-Japanese sentiment after WWII. Soo was interned at a Japanese American internment camp during WWII.

I can't say I'm a big fan of Jack Soo; I do know he was a popular nightclub entertainer in the 1950's. The Asian American experience or specifically Japanese American experience in the post-war years has long been of personal interest for me.

You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story was directed by sitting San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. He directed The Slanted Screen, a documentary about cinematic stereotypes of Asian males. The film played at SFIAAFF a few years ago. I enjoyed that film quite a bit so I would expect to be similarly entertained by Jack Soo. It seems peculiar that a Public Defender has time to direct (and produce) two feature length documentaries during his term in office (seven years) but that doesn't detract from my enjoyment of his films.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to see either of the screenings at the 2009 SFIAAFF (March 15 and March 18). Rush only tickets are available so that means they are selling well. I am optimistic that Jack Soo will get a limited theatrical run in the future.


One more film I forgot to mention is Departures. Departures, a Japanese film, won the Best Foreign Film at this year's Oscars. It may have played in town before but I wasn't aware of it if it has. It certainly did not have the same cache if it did.

Departures opens May 29 at the Sundance Kabuki.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Previewing the 2009 SFIAAFF and TIFF

Yesterday, I stopped by the Sundance Kabuki Theater to buy some tickets for 2009 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. I save the handling fee by purchasing in person.

Anyway, I saw the poster for Skills Like This.

As my readers will recall, Skills Like This was one of my favorites from this year's Indiefest. There is some satisfaction in knowing I saw the film before its general release and that my opinion of the film was shared by others.


The Tiburon International Film Festival runs from March 19 to 27. I've never been to this festival. Two films caught my eye.

The Brothers Warner (2008) - This is the inside story of the little known major player in the Warner Bros. studio legend, President Harry Warner; honest Abe; visionary Sam; and volatile Jack--the original Hollywood independent filmmakers.

The Brothers Warner screens on March 21 at 3:45 PM.

The Jazz Singer (1927) - The "first" talkie with Al Jolson and produced by Warner Brothers. Both The Brothers Warner and The Jazz Singer are part if TIFF's Tribute to Warner Brothers.

The Jazz Singer screens on March 22 at 3:30 PM.

All films at TIFF screen at Tiburon Playhouse Theater.


I've finalized my SFIAAFF schedule. I bought a Castro pass good for all films at the Castro Theater from March 13 to 15. I hope to catch:

Serpent's Path/Eyes of the Spider (Japan)
The Equation of Love and Death (China)
Diamond Head (USA)
Kanchivaram: A Communist Confession (India)
Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (India)

To make the Castro Pass cost effective, I have to see five films to break even and six to come out ahead. I may add one film on March 14 to better insure I get to 5 but the other films don't really appeal to me. I made a miscalculation. Fruit Fly and The Chaser are playing at the Castro but I bought tickets to them at PFA. I may catch one of those twice during the festival. I really am a slave to the almighty dollar.

I've also purchased individual tickets for:

The Secret Lives of Urban Space (short film compliation; Kabuki)
The Revenge: A Visit From Fate (Japan; PFA)
The Revenge: The Scar That Never Fades (Japan; PFA)
High Noon (Hong Kong; PFA)
Fruit Fly (USA; PFA)
All Around Us (Japan; PFA)
The Chaser (South Korea; PFA)

I've tentatively passed on the Patsy Mink documentary. The only screening I can attend is on March 21 in San Jose. I don't know if I want to travel all the way down there. I'd have to miss The Brothers Warner at TIFF if I go down there.


I also stumbled onto this MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS Quadruple Bill on April 19 at the Castro.

2:00 PM Vigilante (1983) - Gangs Vs. Robert Forster
4:00 PM Raw Force (1982) - Krazy Kung-Fu Cannibals!
6:00 PM Escape From New York (1981) - John Carpenter
8:00 PM Lady Terminator (1988) - Explicit Nudity & Explosions


Waltz With Bashir is still playing at the Landmark Theaters.

The Chronicle had an article on François Truffaut's The Wild Child (1970). It turns out that Truffaut's daughter has lived in the Bay Area for the past 25 years and is married to a former PFA director. The film was just re-released.

Both Waltz With Bashir and The Wild Child are playing at the Opera Plaza.

I believe Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 opens Friday at the Opera Plaza.


If I miss Waltz With Bashir this week, it opens on March 13 at the Four Star.

The Beast Stalker opens there on an unspecified date. This Chinese action/thriller stars Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Upcoming Films

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) is running from March 12 to 22. I've purchased some tickets but won't enumerate them.

One film I will highlight is Diamond Head (1963) starring Charlton Heston and James Darren. I'll quote from the program guide.

Charlton Heston plays King Howland, scion of a pineapple dynasty who oversees his Oahu plantation on a white horse and is courted as a senator for the new state, even though his racism is apparent to all. His political ambitions and anti-native bigotry, however, are disturbed by an engagement between his beloved younger sister (Yvette Mimieux) and her underachieving native boyfriend (James Darren), whose potential inheritance of the family name and fortune Howland can't stomach. But how can he forbid this alliance when he himself has a secret Chinese mistress (France Nuyen), now pregnant with his child? Howland's hereditary control over all he surveys is beginning to crumble with the dawning of a new era–and a new kind of man, embodied in Dean Kahana, the fiancé's mixed-blood brother (George Chakiris), who's become a doctor without any patronage from the King. Just the idea of hapa haole Kahana bothers Howland, and the good doctor's very presence soon ignites fireworks of racial and sexual taboos across Hawaii's spectacular tropical landscape.

That description is enough to hook me but France Nuyen was beautiful back in the day.

Another film I want to call out is the documentary Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority. Most people have probably never heard of Patsy Mink but I grew up in Hawaii and during that time, she was the my US Representative. I remember seeing Mink campaign posters.


Another (non-SFIAAFF) film that I'm looking forward to is Harvard Beats Yale 29-29. That's not a typo but the headline in the Harvard student newspaper after the historic 1968 football game (known as The Game). Actor Tommy Lee Jones played for Harvard and Yale QB Brian Dowling was the inspiration for the character BD in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Thoughts on The Birth of a Nation

I can't watch The Birth of a Nation without commenting more.

I have not previously seen this film. I believe it is out on DVD but I've not seen it. Prior to the screening, a professor from the UC Berkeley Department of African American Studies gave a 15 minute lecture that was very informative.

According to the lecture, the movie was virtually a promotional film for the KKK. The film depicted the first Klan or the Klan that existed during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. The start of the second Klan is typically cited as 1915 or the same year The Birth of a Nation was released. Griffith's father was a Confederate war veteran and Griffith grew up in Kentucky. Kentucky is usually considered a "Southern state" but did not join the Confederacy.

The Birth of a Nation was based on the novel The Clansmen by Thomas Dixon. The premise of the film is that whites are inherently superior to blacks. Conspicuously silent on the morality of the peculiar Southern institution of slavery and even casting Lincoln in a sympathetic light (he was despised by most Southerners of the era who framed the war as a question of states rights),
The Birth of a Nation is set during the Reconstruction era. Efforts to empower the recently freed slaves are portrayed as misguided or pearls before swine. With the help of their Northern overseers, the ex-slaves quickly disenfranchise their former masters; not to mention accost the Southern belles. Left with no other choices, the white men have no choice but to group together for protection, put on white robes and dispense swift justice.

The plot is patently racist but Griffith skillfully infused the film with his own cinematic ambitions. Having directed several hundred two-reelers by the time he began The Birth of a Nation, Griffith's goal was to create art on celluloid and make a buck. Although not necessarily a pioneer, Griffith combined several film techniques and the result was the first blockbuster. Griffith had a full orchestra perform before each screening (in essence creating the first soundtrack), he toned down the actors' facial gesticulations realizing that the actors' faces were several feet high on the movie screen, he employed quick cut editing to heighten excitement and he even employed symbolism.

At a time when most people paid 5 cents to watch a film at a nickelodeon, The Birth of a Nation charged $2. This princely sum did not keep away the masses. The Birth of a Nation was the highest grossing film until the late 1930's.

There were a few scenes that stood out.

There was a battle scene that was filmed from above. Smoking mortars and an omnipotent viewpoint give the scene more scale and grandiosity than otherwise would have been the case.

A scene involving new black state legislators acting in boorish ways in the legislative chambers - barefoot, eating fried chicken, etc.

The closing scene invoked biblical imagery to justify the segregation of the races. Satan (who looked like a heavy set man on an ox) was sowing dissent when whites and blacks are equal and interacting. On the other hand, Jesus looks on peacefully when black people learn their place.

There was another scene which occurred after the KKK has restored order. It's election day and black men stream out of their houses ready to vote and deny the vote to white men. As they exit their houses, they are confronted by several armed KKK members on horseback. The blacks, realizing their situation, timidly re-enter their houses; presumably without ever voting.

The question among cinematic historians is whether one can appreciate Griffith's directorial skills while overlooking the racist content. I was able to do so. I thought the film was surprisingly modern given that it was made 94 years ago. In addition, some of the more overtly racist scenes made me laugh at their absurdity. It's hard to seriously believe racist overtones when they are presented in such a old-fashioned, ham-handed way - to believe The Birth of a Nation, all blacks were eating watermelons, shucking and jiving and raping white women. If you can laugh at the racism, it must have lost some of its effective. If anything, the racism in The Birth of a Nation is more akin to satire when viewed from 2009.

I will say that during the Reconstruction period, most Southern blacks were uneducated. It was a crime to teach slaves to read and write. Portraying freed slaves of the era as ignorant is not inaccurate. Generations of slaves had lived in forced servitude, denied education and systematically oppressed physically and mentally. Is depicting that or its effects racist? I don't think so. I firmly that slaves must have known what they were being denied. Toiling in such close proximity to the masters, slaves must have understood what freedom meant and how dehumanizing their conditions were.

This basic humanity was lacking from The Birth of a Nation. Blacks and mulattos were portrayed as caricatures. The mulatto characters came off as the worst - mixing the white man's intelligence with innate black savagery and untrustworthiness. There was another memorable scene where US Congressman Austin Stoneman helps to install his mulatto protege, Silas Lynch, as the Lieutenant Governor of the state. Lynch passes several progressive laws to Stoneman's delight. One law allowed for inter-marriages and miscegenation. Stoneman is fine with the law until Lynch announces he wants to (forcibly) marry Stoneman's daughter (Lilian Gish). At that point, Stoneman changes his tune and tries to "save" his daughter.

There were many actors in blackface (allegedly including Erich von Stroheim). I wondered why he Griffith didn't cast blacks in all the roles but maybe there were enough black actors with self-respect such that he couldn't fill all the roles. I'm not sure if that is really the case; into the 1970's, black actors took demeaning roles for a paycheck.

I read that Griffith had a leitmotif for each of the major characters. Gish's coda was later used as the theme song on the Amos 'n' Andy radio show.

Griffith also experimented with color in the film. For a few scenes, the entire frame was tinted to various colors to match the mood or main scenic background. It was very crude by modern standards but surpassed what I thought possible in 1915.

Overall, I was very glad that I had the opportunity to see The Birth of a Nation in such a grand setting. On March 6, Cinequest is presenting Griffith's Intolerance (1916). As I mentioned before, I saw that film in December 2007. I thought the plot was rambling. I feel The Birth of a Nation is the superior film of the two.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Johnny Cash, the KKK, Scottish Nationalism, Australian Exploitation, LA Gangs and Indiefest

I've seen five movies in the past week.

At Noise Pop, I saw Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (2008). The venue was the Roxie. The documentary lacked focus but I enjoyed the soundtrack and learned that Cash plagiarized the lyrics to Folsom Prison Blue. Google "Crescent City Blues Gordon Jenkins" for more information.

On February 27 I went down to San Jose to see The Birth of a Nation at the California Theater. The 1915 silent film was directed by D.W. Griffith and starred Lillian Gish. The film featured live accompaniment by Dennis James on the Wurlitzer. The film was screened as part of the Cinequest Film Festival.

The next night I saw Not Quite Hollywood (2008) at the Vogue Theater. The documentary was part of the Mostly British Film Series. It's the first time I've been to the Vogue since it was taken over by the Neighborhood Theater Foundation. The theater was slated to be converted to condos but was saved by the Neighborhood Theater Foundation. The film was a documentary about "Ozploitation" films - 1970's and 80's vintage films that exploited Australian stereotypes and showcased naked women, raunchy humor, violence, blood and post-apocalyptic gangs of leathermen terrorizing travelers in the Outback

On March 2, I saw the matinee screening of Stone of Destiny (2008) at the Mostly British Film Series. The film was directed by Charles Martin Smith (The Untouchables) and starred Kate Mara (We Are Marshall) and Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty). The film was based on the true story of four Scottish college students that broke into Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve 1950. They stole the Stone of Destiny from under the throne used to coronate every British monarch since the 1700's. The students stole the stone in the name of Scottish nationalism.

On March 3, I took advantage of the Roxie's $5 Monday special and saw Crips and Bloods: Made in America. One of the producers of this 2008 documentary on the infamous Los Angeles street gangs was Baron Davis, the professional basketball player.


While they are still relatively fresh in my mind, I want to write a little about some of the Indiefest films. The audience award winners were announced.

Best Narrative Feature: Harrison Montgomery
Best Documentary Feature: Automorphosis
Best Narrative Short: Treevenge
Best Documentary Short: No Strings Attached
Best Animation: Descendants

In my last post, I only mentioned No Strings Attached. I saw Harrison Montgomery but was not as impressed with it as other audience members apparently were. I did not see the other films.

Actually, Harrison Montgomery was filmed locally so its audience award may have been a case of homers stuffing the ballot box. Harrison Montgomery is in-joke. Harrison Montgomery are the names of two major streets in San Francisco.

No Strings Attached was a very entertaining ~30 minute documentary about burlesque dancers. It was also filmed locally. The main subjects were the Scenic Sisters, two real-life sisters that are popular burlesque dancers based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Much of the film takes place at Tease-O-Rama, a burlesque convention held at Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco.

The film did a good job of portraying the subjects as human beings instead of pieces of meat. Indeed, the performances were tame by strip club standards and the focus was on the dance movements and costumes.

My favorite short was Burr as in Aaron Burr. The narrative was set in the contemporary American Southwest and involved an innovative solution to the age-old scourge of teenage bullying. The boy is pushed to his limit and considers shooting his tormentors à la Columbine. His best friend is the grandson of the last legal duel in the state so he leverages his grandfather's knowledge to set up a old-fashioned duel.

I was also entertained by Side Effect, a short horror film involving prescription medication and an urban legend involving a roasted turkey and an infant.

From the feature films, my favorite was I'll Come Running. Filmed in Austin and Denmark, the story involves the unlikely romance between a Danish tourist in a Texas and the Hispanic waitress (Melonie Diaz in a great performance) he crosses paths with. The film is a love story about people from different cultures and each half of the couple visits the other's home with increasingly absurd and ironic results. I don't want to give too much of the plot away because there is a plot twist that I didn't see coming. The key performance is delivered by Diaz who plays a strong woman who is confused by her emotions and behaves in contradictory ways.

Melonie Diaz

Skills Like This is an absurdest comedy about a writer who finds his greatest talents may be as a thief/robber. He develops a romantic relationship with the bank teller he robs. Writer and star Spencer Berger delivers an effective performance as sad sack Max, a failed writer with an enormous JewFro. The film also featured an outstanding soundtrack with alternative/folk music.

Spencer Berger

Another film in which the writer starred was Leaving Barstow. The film has Steven Culp in a supporting role but features Kevin Sheridan as a high school senior with a codependent mother. Weighed down by his mother's needs and his own ennui, Sheridan's character is on the precipice. If he stays true to his mother and stays in town, he'll probably end up in a dead-end job and an unfulfilling marriage. With the help of his best friend and buoyed by his first romantic relationship with a young waitress who works at the same restaurant as his mother, Sheridan hurtles towards a life altering decision. I like how the interracial relationship between Sheridan and Ryan Michelle Bathe was treated as something that required no commentary.


As I mentioned, I saw The Birth of a Nation in Downtown San Jose. The screening was extremely rare due to the racist plot in which the KKK are heroes. The NAACP still protests the film. Given the controversial nature of the film, it was quite a treat to see the film on the big screen with live accompaniment. The experience was made even more special by screening the film in the California Theater, an 1,100 seat theater opened in 1927 and renovated in 2004. The Spanish Colonial themed theater is beautiful. Sadly, the audience was small. I doubt there were more than 300 people in the audience. Given the crowds at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screenings, I was expecting a sell-out. Apparently, the film was not well publicized, people weren't willing to travel to San Jose or the nature of the film was enough to keep people away.


I also read that the San Francisco Chronicle is seeking a buyer or will close. I'm of the generation that still buys newspapers with the emphasis on the paper. Many people may think the closure of a paper is no great loss because they get their news on-line. However in San Francisco, the most popular on-line news portal (SF Gate) is run by the SF Chronicle. According to reports, the SF Gate can't exist without the newspaper because the Chronicle provides content for the SF Gate. I'm not a newspaper or on-line media expert so I won't say much except that local sources of news (held to journalist standards) are important for the health of a community. Whether the sources is newsprint or an internet is a matter of preference.