Saturday, November 14, 2009

Previewing the Rest of 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The PFA has two series that interest me.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

The line-up is:

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

West of Zanzibar appeals to me the most.

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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