Monday, October 5, 2009

Me, Myself and I

Last night, something happened to me at the movies which has never happened before - I was the only person in the theater. The theater sat 86 but only one seat was used. I recall instances where I was one of two people in the audience or I was the only one but someone came in late or left early. Never before have I been the sole audience member for the entire film.

Which film suffered this ignominy? White on Rice (Official Website). It was completely undeserved since the film was quite amusing. The film did screen at 9:15 PM on a Sunday evening but still it was odd that no one else showed up. The film screened at the Camera 3 Cinema in downtown San Jose. I was expecting some San Jose State students to show up.

It was an anomaly that even I was in the audience. I wanted to see the film when it was showing in San Francisco but my procrastination cost me again. When I saw that it was playing in San Jose, I waffled as to whether I should drive down there. It's about a 90 mile round trip. Also, the film was only screening at 1 PM and 9:15 PM. Around 8 PM, I was still ambivalent about driving down there but I didn't have anything better to do and the film received a good review in the Chronicle. If not for my procrastination and a weak television schedule, I wouldn't have been in the audience either. I wonder how many films screen to empty auditoriums.

On Saturday night, some of the cast and crew were in attendance. I can only hope that the turnout was better.


White on Rice

White on Rice (2009) screened at this year's SFIAAFF. The quirky comedy revolves around Jimmy, a 40 year Japanese man. Divorced, aimless with a less than a McJob and living with his sister's family (sleeping in bunk beds with his 10 year old nephew), Jimmy doesn't have much going for him. He is a disaster with women but now he has heart set on his niece (by marriage not blood).

I won't bore you with the rest of the plot because this is a film filled with silly vignettes about our man-child protagonist. Let's see - Jimmy "borrows" his brother-in-law's car but locks himself out (he solves the problems with a large rock), he makes a mess while cooking which results in his brother-in-law slipping and impaling himself with a kitchen knife and it's implied he gives his niece a wedding gift of matching bra and thong panties. The cast embraces the material with gusto - Hiroshi Watanabe as the sweet but bumbling Jimmy, Nae as his long put-upon sister, Mio Takada as the grouchy brother-in-law, Lynn Chen (from Saving Face) as the trenchant niece and Justin Kwong as the quiet, unsupervised prodigy.

There was no particular reason why the characters are Japanese - Watanabe, Nae and Takada converse in Japanese with each other. Maybe the man-child character smacks of some Asian male stereotype. Many of the scenes elicited a guffaw from the entire audience.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

2009 Mill Valley Film Festival Preview

The Mill Valley Film Festival runs from October 8 to 18. I haven't decided if I am going to go. It's a bit inconvenient for me to drive up to Marin County. There are several films that I would like to see.

Red Cliff (2009) - Acclaimed action director John Woo delivers a jaw-dropping epic based upon a legendary historical battle at the end of the Han Dynasty. In his quest to control all China, ruthless Prime Minister Cao Cao declares war on two neighboring kingdoms, whose only hope for survival lies in their ability to ally as a single force. Cao Cao pursues these renegade leaders and their cadre of loyal men to a showdown at Red Cliff, stronghold of the tranquil Southlands. The severely outnumbered allies must rely upon deft strategic planning to survive, employing ingenious battle tactics that make the Trojan horse look like child's play. Full of arresting combat sequences and Woo's famously fluid fight choreography, as well as penetrating performances by mega-watt stars Tony Leung, Chiu Wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro, Red Cliff is an unforgettable big screen experience.

Dark and Stormy Night (2009) - Who is murdering the houseguests of the Cavinder Estate? What secrets lie hidden in the passageways of the dark old house? Did someone lose a gorilla? Mysteries abound in this hilarious homage to 1930s "dark house" horror flicks. Written and directed by cult movie maestro Larry Blamire (The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, MVFF 2001, The Lost Skeleton Returns Again, MVFF 2008), the film follows the overnight exploits of a group of oddballs attempting to stay alive after a reading of the cursed Cavinder Will. Characters include a pair of fast-talking reporters, a whacked-out psychic, the loyal butler ("Jeens"), an antsy ingénue and one poorly cloaked phantom. Recalling the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks and the frantic antics of the Marx Brothers, this giddy love letter to the movies of yesteryear—captured in gorgeous black-and-white—will leave you grinning well past the witching hour.

Hellsinki (2009) - Elegantly produced and featuring exceptional performances by Finland's top film talent, Hellsinki tracks the rise and fall of three enterprising young criminals in Helsinki's vice-laden Rööperi neighborhood of the 1960s and 70s. Tom, an ambitious thug from the neighborhood, figures there's no future in rolling drunks and selling illegal booze on the street. Convincing his pals, wily Krisu and oafish Kari, to join him, Tom launches his hostile takeover of the city's black market alcohol trade. Now successful, each faces greater threats from within: the painful legacy of absent fathers, the children they themselves have abandoned and a yearning for normal domestic life. As a younger, more ruthless generation of criminals appears on the scene, and with all the old-school honor codes broken, what remains of "the life"? With a healthy dose of black Nordic humor, Hellsinki is a must-see for fans of stylish and psychologically rich gangster films. North American Premiere. The titled is apparently intentionally misspelled. The Finnish title is Rööperi.

Happy Tears (2009) - Dad may have Alzheimer's, but he's not the only one whose mind and life seem to be slipping out of reach. Sisterly opposites Jayne (Parker Posey) and Laura (Demi Moore) return to their childhood home in Pittsburgh to somehow and reluctantly manage their widowed, increasingly weird and terminally ill father. Mitchell Lichtenstein's second feature (follow-up to 2007's horror spoof Teeth) explores after its own fashion, but with equal frankness, themes broached in Tamara Jenkins' The Savages (MVFF 2007): Just what do we owe the imperfect ones to whom we are family? Musing all the while, with raucously sardonic but ultimately affirming humor, on the legacies of fathers living and gone, Happy Tears takes supreme advantage of a powerhouse cast—not least the excellent Rip Torn, who as the sisters' deteriorating dad mingles wry raunch with a gently stirring frailty; and Ellen Barkin in a brave, not to say bizarre turn as a frighteningly feral, slyly endearing crack-head gold-digger.

Jim Thorpe, The World's Greatest Athlete (2009) - He may not have been as fast as a speeding bullet or able to leap tall buildings, but Jim Thorpe came real close. Considered the finest athlete of the 20th century, he was a US Olympic multiple gold medal winner as well as a star of professional football and baseball. But Jim Thorpe was also an American Indian. At the peak of his fame, Jim was still legally considered a "ward of the state" and not a citizen. Tom Weidlinger's superb documentary—using old recordings, re-enactments, newsreels and animated photos—brings Thorpe's career alive with a warmth for its subject that shines as bright as Jim's crooked smile. In this life story, too, is a tale of American racism and how one man overcame prejudice through sheer strength of personality. Weidlinger's film re-acquaints us with Jim Thorpe, and lets us fall in love with the story and the man.

The Red Machine (2009) - Washington, DC, 1935: At the height of the Great Depression, hotheaded Eddie Doyle (Donal Thoms-Cappello), an ace safecracker, is just doing what he does best: stealing. Now facing prison, Eddie finds he's got an option after all. Enter Lt. F. Ellis Coburn (Lee Perkins), a cool-as-ice Navy man with a problem only Eddie can solve. The Japanese Foreign Office has changed its encryption codes, and the government isn't too happy. A prominent Japanese diplomat holds the key to his country's secrets in the form of a mysterious red machine. As Eddie and Coburn work together to pull off the heist of a lifetime, they find more to the job than they bargained for as things get personal. Full of crackling dialogue, eye-catching visuals and unpredictable twists, co-directors Stephanie Argy's (Gandhi at the Bat, MVFF 2006)and Alec Boehm's The Red Machine is a charming throwback to the great espionage capers of the 1930s.

Tenderloin (2009) - Anyone who has walked the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin District has seen the seedy side of the city. It's a place that isn't on a first name basis with hope. When Ben takes a job as manager of a residential hotel there, he can't deny he's hit bottom. An Iraqi war veteran trying to keep his repressed anger under control, Ben just wants to hide. The last thing he expects to find is a home. But before he knows it, he's drawn into the lives of those around him, finding friendship in the faces of strangers. As he moves forward and tries to reconnect with his estranged young son, Ben learns that, wherever you live, choices are hard. Trying is one thing, believing another. Gritty and authentic, Marin director Michael Anderson's Tenderloin brims with eccentric characters that give a heartfelt and familiar face to a lonely and desperate world.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Julien Duvivier: Poetic Craftsman of Cinema

Last night, PFA kicked off a Julien Duvivier retrospective.

Jean Renoir once proclaimed, “If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of (Julien) Duvivier above the entrance...This great technician, this rigorist, was a poet.” The French director and screenwriter Julien Duvivier (1896–1967), whose astonishingly varied career spanned both Europe and Hollywood, was also championed by Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, and Graham Greene. This retrospective offers a rare chance to discover the work of this influential filmmaker.

Working in a darkly poetic realist style—Greene wrote admiringly that “his mood is violent, and belongs to the underside of the stone” — Duvivier made popular melodramas, thrillers, religious epics, comedies, wartime propaganda, musicals, and literary adaptations of novels by Émile Zola, Leo Tolstoy, and Georges Simenon. This exhibition features rarities and revelations, as well as masterpieces starring the great actor Jean Gabin, including La belle équipe (1936), Pépé le Moko (1937), and Deadlier Than the Male (1956). Also featured is Duvivier’s favorite among his films, Poil de Carotte (1932), a heartbreaking chronicle of childhood.

Among the films that caught my attention were:

Pépé le Moko (1937) - Duvivier’s most influential film stars Jean Gabin as a suave Parisian jewel thief who eludes capture by taking refuge in the Casbah—the mysterious, labyrinthine quarter of Algiers that embodies the exotic, and erotic, Arabian nights of our colonialist imagination. For Pépé, the Casbah with all its attractions is also a bitter prison; a gorgeous French tourist (Mireille Balin) lures him to his doom, not with her jewels, or even her sex, but because she reeks of Paris, his love. A classic of romantic fatalism, Pépé le Moko is also a fascinating picture of colonialism as a system of traps and betrayals. Graham Greene rhapsodized, “I cannot remember (a picture) which has succeeded so admirably in raising the thriller to a poetic level,” and French film critic André Bazin observed, “With Gabin...death is, after all, at the end of the adventure, implacably awaiting its appointment. The fate of Gabin is precisely to be duped by life.”

La bandera (1935) - Recently restored by the Archives Françaises du Film, Duvivier’s sensuous and brooding Foreign Legion melodrama was a commercial success and made Jean Gabin a star, helping to forge his romantic image, solidified in Pépé le Moko, as the doomed existential antihero haunted by a criminal past and driven toward death. Filmed in Spain and Morocco on the eve of civil war—the original theatrical release was dedicated to “Colonel Franco” — La bandera is an Orientalist fantasy infused with the stylistic qualities of reportage, most notably in the tense chase sequence through the mean streets of Barcelona, about which Alistair Cooke observed, “It looks like an exquisite newsreel taken away and baked brown to give you the feel of the air.”

Deadlier Than Male (1956) - Noir, très noir...Lest we forget that film noir has roots, on screen as in language, in the French, this gem offers the quintessential femme fatale, hooking the quintessential unsuspecting guy who quickly becomes suspecting, and dangerous. “Duvivier’s darkest study of moral depravity, this is a harrowing drama of a successful restaurateur (Jean Gabin) who takes in and marries a young, angel-faced orphan (Danièle Delorme), only to discover she is the conniving daughter of his vengeful ex-wife. The film marked the definitive screen gentrification of Gabin, now in his fifties and destined to play middle-class patriarchs and gentlemen gangsters. Robert Gys’s studio reconstruction of the Halles food market is a masterpiece of production design.” (Lenny Borger)

The Great Waltz (1938) - Duvivier made his Hollywood debut with this opulent MGM musical about the romantic early years of composer Johann Strauss, written by the émigrés Gottfried Reinhardt and Samuel Hoffenstein and gorgeously photographed by the Oscar-winning Joseph Ruttenberg. Attempting to capture the lilting rhythms and charms of Strauss’s waltzes and operas (set here to lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and performed by the Viennese-born soprano diva Miliza Korjus), Duvivier moved from lavish set piece to lavish set piece, in the café, the garden, the palace, and the opera house - leading one critic to call the film “a symphony in soft focus” - before Josef von Sternberg stepped in to direct the wonderfully kitschy final sequence, the carriage ride through the Vienna Woods during which Strauss was inspired by birdsong to write The Blue Danube. Called by its admirers “The Great Schmaltz,” The Great Waltz is said to have been a favorite of Stalin’s.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Taking Inventory as of October 1

Rialto's Best of British Noir at the Castro
The Third Man starring Joseph Cotten & Orson Welles; directed by Carol Reed; written by Graham Greene; (1949)
Brighton Rock starring Richard Attenborough; written by Graham Greene; (1947)
It Always Rains on Sunday directed Robert Hamer; (1947)
Peeping Tom directed Michael Powell; (1960)
The Fallen Idol directed Carol Reed; (1948)

A bit trivial but I saw It Always Rains on Sunday on Sunday, September 13. It rained that day in San Francisco which is rare for that time of year.


Tea and Larceny: British Crime Films at PFA
The Snorkel starring Peter van Eyck; (1958)
So Evil My Love starring Ray Milland; (1948)
Noose starring Carole Landis; (1948)
The Long Haul starring Victor Mature & Diana Dors; (1957)
No Orchids for Miss Blandish; (1958)

Even though prior to No Orchids for Miss Blandish, Steve Seid said it was the final film in the Tea & Larceny series, The Krays is schedule for Halloween. It's kind of rump session for the series since the film was made in 1990 and only depicts the gangsters from the postwar period. Indeed, Diana Dors' father was a known associate of the Brothers Kray.

The Snorkel was based on a stroy by Antonio Margheriti, an Italian director and writer (1930-2002). In Inglourious Basterds, Eli Roth's character, Sgt. Donowitz (the Bear Jew), used the alias Antonio Margheriti during the scene at the movie theater in the end.


Best of Columbia Noir at the Roxie
Blind Spot; (1947)
Johnny O'Clock starring Dick Powell, Lee J. Cobb & Evelyn Keyes; (1947)
The Whistler directed by William Castle; (1944)
The Soul of a Monster starring George Macready; (1944)
Convicted starring Glenn Ford, Broderick Crawford & Dorothy Malone; (1950)
Knock On Any Door starring Humphrey Bogart, John Derek & George Macready; directed by Nicholas Ray; (1949)
Pushover starring Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak & E.G. Marshall; (1954)
Drive a Crooked Road starring Mickey Rooney; written by Blake Edwards; (1954)
My Name is Julia Ross starring Nina Foch & George Macready; (1945)
So Dark the Night; (1946)
Human Desire starring Glenn Ford, Broderick Crawford & Gloria Grahame; directed by Fritz Lang; (1954)
The Sniper starring Adolphe Menjou, Arthur Franz & Marie Windsor; directed by Edward Dmytryk; (1952)
The Lineup starring Eli Wallach; directed by Don Siegel; (1958)
Between Midnight and Dawn starring dmond O’Brien; (1950)
The Killer That Stalked New York starring Evelyn Keyes; (1950)
Screaming Mimi starring Anita Ekberg & Gypsy Rose Lee; (1958)
Murder By Contract starring Vince Edwards; (1958)


Amongst all the noir, I was able to catch two outstanding Japanese films. Modern Japanese films (at least the one that receive critical acclaim in the US) seem to focus on two themes - family and death. Actually, those themes have been at the forefront of Japanese cinema since at least Ozu.

Still Walking; Japanese with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website
Departures; Japanese with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website

Still Walking's Japanese title is Aruitemo Aruitemo.

Departures' Japanese title is Okuribito. Departures won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Of the two, I preferred Still Walking by a skosh. It dealt with a family that lives with the specter of the oldest son's drowning. The son died 12 years earlier but the parents and surviving children can't or won't let him go. In particular, the parents have elevated their deceased son to saintly heights at emotional expense of their #2 son.

Like many Japanese films, Still Walking takes a quiet and understated approach to the family conflicts. There are no fireworks but rather condemnations and recriminations spoken privately and in hushed tones (or left unspoken). The father & son are barely on speaking terms but are more alike than they realize. The overall effect is one of gentling nudging the viewer along as the plot works itself towards its conclusion.

I missed Departures during its ~2 month run at the Landmark Theaters due to procrastination. I was lucky that Departures screened at the PFA on September 27. The screening was not a PFA sponsored event. Rather, it was part of the Tracing the Study of Japanese Buddhism conference which was hosted by the Center for Japanese Studies which is under the aegis of Institute of East Asian Studies at Cal. The cost as free but the suggested donation was $5 to $10. I guess I'm not as cheap as I like to portray because I had just gone to the ATM as I didn't know in advance that it was free admission. I only had $20 bills and I actually asked for change so that I could donate $10.

Departures had more drama as in melodrama. It deals with Kobayashi, a cellist that loses his job at the orchestra. He finds works (initially distasteful) as a undertaker's subcontractor. Specifically, he ritually prepares the corpse for cremation. This involves cleaning the body and dressing it in burial robes and accessories. By repeating this process and seeing the effect it has on the families of the departed, Kobayashi finds his true calling, infuses his cello playing with a previously missing passion and achieves inner peace. That's good because the rest of society looks down upon his profession. His wife leaves him because of it and his childhood friend refuses to be seen in public with him. Despite this, Kobayashi chooses the job over all else. One demon he can't shake is the pain and resentment directed at his father who abandoned he and his mother when he was a child.


I also watched The Baader Meinhof Complex (German with subtitles; 2008). It was very entertaining - suspenseful, funny, tragic and the adjectives could keep going. Slightly familiar with the Red Army Faction in West Germany, I was not aware of the specific events in the rise and fall of the first generation of the RAF. Johanna Wokalek as Gudrun Ensslin delivers a tremendous performance - frightening, pathetic and sexy. I could wonder if the real Gudrun Ensslin was as charismatic as Wokalek's portrayal. The only nit I could pick is that the motivation of these people was difficult to ascertain. Ensslin and Baader seemed to verge on sociopathic. Meinhof's actions were even more puzzling. The mother of twin girls and respected (albeit left-leaning) journalist, Meinhof seemed become a terrorist and go underground because she was bored, goaded by Ensslin and perhaps to spite her husband.


I was able to see one William Klein film at the PFA.

Muhamamd Ali, the Greatest; documentary; (1974)

It would be difficult to make an uninteresting documentary about Muhammad Ali so I wasn't overly impressed but Klein did a good job of highlighting Ali's dichotomies. I heard the phrase "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" but that wasn't the entire mantra. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, rumble young man rumble, aaaahhhhh!!" Also, it was recited in unison with his assistant trainer Drew Bundini Brown. They yelled it at the top of their lungs and the effect was to make Ali look like a teenager in need of Ritalin. Also, I learned that Ali had originally been given a draft deferment because he couldn't spell. I found that surprising for a man who was principled enough to refuse induction into the Army and convert to Islam. Not versed in Ali's life, apparently Ali was an uneducated man who was backed by a Memphis syndicate at the beginning of his career. It was clear how he broke free although he eventually aligned himself with Don King. It only adds to Ali's amazing life story as depicted in the film - upset win of champion Sonny Liston, the "phantom" punch in the rematch, his conversion to Islam, being stripped of his title and regaining the title from George Foreman in Zaire. That doesn't even include the Thrilla in Manila fight with Joe Frazier which took place after the film was released.

Muhamamd Ali, the Greatest was a solid documentary although I prefer When We Were King. There was a great scene in the Klein film where Mobutu staged an audience with Ali & Foreman (separately) while a phalanx of news photographers snapped photos. Also, I found a scene with Foreman after he lost the fight (with a mouse under his eye) to show a lot of class. Foreman spoke with reporters and children and was quite humble. Big Bad George didn't sneak out of the country, make excuses or react with a surly disposition; instead he took the loss with more dignity than most could have summoned.


Tonight, I watched Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) at the YBCA. The film's most striking feature was the use of vibrant colors. Set in a ballet academy, the red painted walls would make the most wanton bordello madam blush. Argento shines light off the walls to give a disquieting red glow to the proceedings. The plot was forgettable; some of the performances was painfully stitled and the film looked dated; I can't believe this is one of the the all-time great horror films. Perhaps it was trailblazing - what was new and unique in 1977 is cliche in 2009. Frankly, as I was watching the film, I kept wondering if I had seen it on an episode of Elvira's Movie Macabre in the 80's.

Earlier in the month, I saw Bigger Than Life (1956) with James Mason & Walter Matthau and directed by Nicholas Ray. This film was also dated but interesting in a kitschy sort of way. Mason's mousy schoolteacher overdoses on cortisone and the result is a psychotic episode where he thunders "God was wrong!" as he prepares to sacrifice his son...literal sacrifice as in the Old Testament of the Bible. Generally thought to be an indictment of conformist American society in the 1950s and the miracles of modern science; I thought it was an allegory for postwar US foreign policy. Bulked up on nuclear weaponry, the formerly isolationist US engages in muscular and interventionist foreign policy like our protagonist behaves under the influence of cortisone. Cortisone?