Monday, April 26, 2010

Too Many to Remember and One I Won't Forget

Recently, I watched two films that I had previously viewed. I had forgotten that I watched them which isn't surprising given how many films I watch.

I saw:

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (aka Sunrise) with Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien; directed by F.W. Murnau; silent with intertitles; (1927)
The Warlords starring Jet Li, Andy Lau & Takeshi Kaneshiro; Mandarin with subtiles; (2007) - Official Website


The plot to Sunrise started off a little like the middle of An American Tragedy making me wonder if I was confusing the two films. Then Murnau inserted a montage scene as a trolley took an incredible trip from a lake through an industrial area and finally into the heart of a city. I recalled that scene clearly from my previous screening. In addition, I vividly recalled the scenes shot at the World Fair or Expo with the magnificent sets.

I didn't write much about the film the first time I saw it. The massive and stylishly exaggerated sets combined with extensive use of German Expressionism gives the films a unique and still provocative look. Murnau also filmed some extended tracking shots that also caught my eye. Murnau largely eschewed intertitles as well. The total effect is to create a film that is still impressive 83 years after it was released.

Volumes have been written about the film and I can't add anything meaningful to the discussion. I will only say that I was glad that I watched the film a second time at the Castro. The first time I saw it, the film was accompanied by a live musician(s). Unfortunately, I did not record who it was. This time, the film was screened with a musical soundtrack.


I saw The Warlords at the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival. Again, I did not write much about the film. Rather, I digressed by speculating about the circumstances of Takeshi Kaneshiro being from Taiwan.

If I had researched the film a little more, I would have recalled that I didn't enjoy it that much the first time. As I was watching the film, my thought turned from "this reminds me of a disappointing Jet Li film I saw awhile ago" to "this is that Jet Li film" to "I hope this film is better than I remembered it." Unfortunately, it was not. The film was epic in its battle scenes but less so in developing the characters and their motivations. Many Chinese historical epic films fall into this trap. Maybe it's not limited to Chinese epics. Like Red Cliffs, Curse of the Golden Flower and several other films lacked character development and were not quite stylish enough to succeed. That may certainly be a cultural gap meaning what is considered stylish by Western audience may not be by Chinese audiences and vice versa. However, films like Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon lead me to believer there is some common ground.


I was able watch The Hurt Locker the day before it ended its marathon engagement at the Landmark Theaters in SF (at least six months I believe). What can I add to a film which won the Academy Award for Best Picture? It was quite deserving in my opinion.

How can one not make a thrilling film about guys that disarm bombs for a living? Was the film factually accurate? Probably not but I was able to suspend disbelief without much trouble. The interplay between actors Jeremy Renner & Anthony Mackie was particularly effective but the scenes where Renner is in that demolition suit disarming IEDs are riveting beyond description.

The Hurt Locker directed by Kathryn Bigelow; (2009) - Official Website


With The Hurt Locker, I've seen seven of the ten nominees for the 2010 Best Picture Award. The three I missed are Avatar, The Blind Side and An Education. Of the seven, two are head and shoulders above the rest in my enjoyment: The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds. A notch below are Precious and A Serious Man.

Friday, April 9, 2010

That Evening Sun

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, one becomes self-satisfied in many ways. In my case, I assumed that all the art house films that were worth their salt passed through the area - either in limited distribution or at a film festival. Recently, I was in Las Vegas visiting my father. As I perused the movie section of the Las Vegas Review Journal, I came across a film listing that I was unfamiliar with. The film was That Evening Sun. I looked it up on-line and saw that it had played at numerous film festivals. I looked through the laurels on its official website and could not find that it had played at a film festival in San Francisco. The film won a Special Jury Award at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.

The reviews looked promising so my father & I headed out to the other side of town to the Regal Cinema at Village Square (where we had seen Mother earlier in the week). It was a weekday matinee and there were 9 people in the audience which is comparable to some of the screenings I've been to in the Bay Area.

The film was a nice find. I'm glad I read the movie listings so closely. The plot revolves around Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook), an 80 year old farmer that has relegated to a retirement home. He "escapes" from the old folks home with the intention of living out his years on his farm. When he arrives, he is greeted by a 16 year old girl sunbathing in is yard. Upon questioning, he discovers that his son has leased out the farm to a family with an option to buy the homestead lock, stock & barrel. Not only that but his son leased the farm to Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon) and his family - poor white trash in Meecham's opinion and he doesn't do much to hide his opinion.

I don't know what I would do in this situation but Meecham decides to stay on the farm. With the Choat family esconced in the main house, Meecham takes up residence in a ramshackle cabin whose previous tenant was probably a sharecropper or even a slave based on appearances. Meecham makes clear it is his intention to evict the Choat's from the property. It's unclear how he intends to do it. For the rest of the film both Meecham and Choat escalate matters in their struggle to force the other to leave.

Meecham's assessment of Choat is fairly accurate - frequently drunk, lazy, hasn't had a job in 10 years, mean tempered, prone to violent outbursts, etc. On the other side of the ledger, Meecham is cantankerous, stubborn, estranged from his son, guilty over his wife's death, holds a grudge, etc.

Holbrook plays his character as you would expect. This "grumpy old man" has been played with variations many times before. Instead, it is Choat and his family that get the more complex characterizations. Choat is a shiftless bum but he knows it and wants to be more than what he is now. To engender some sympathy, a backstory is inserted whereby Choat receives disability payments for a logging accident 10 years ago. He still walks with a limp which Meecham describes as walking like poor, white trash. Meecham's presence and constant hectoring pushes Choat back down into a dark hole while his wife and daughter can only stand by and endure.

Choat's wife (Carrie Preston) was probably the best thing that ever happened to him but you get the feeling that Meecham or no Meecham, Choat is a loser because his daddy was a loser and all he has ever known was failure. Meecham is too damn stubborn to give him a chance much less a helping hand. Choat's wife and daughter (Mia Wasikowska) have this telling exchange towards the end of the film.

Ludie Choat (wife): Don't feel bad. He's [Choat] not angry at you. He's angry at him [Meecham].
Pam Choat: No he's not. He's angry at himself and I'm tired of him taking it out on us.

What is ostensibly a story about an old man trying to find some dignity at the end of his life is really a two pronged story. The other story is about a man that can't find dignity throughout his life.

I don't want to give away the ending but it seems like everyone lost at the end although Choat may have found the seed of hope in his final actions with Meecham while Meecham likely lost all hope and dignity.

If you get a chance to see it, I recommend That Evening Sun. The list of upcoming screenings on the film's website does not list any screenings in the Bay Area except on April 14 (one night only) at the Cameo Cinema in St. Helena.

That Evening Sun starring Hal Holbrook, Ray McKinnon, Carrie Preston & Mia Wasikowska with Walt Goggins, Barry Corbin and Dixie Carter in supporting roles; (2009) - Official Website

(left to right) Carrie Preston, Mia Wasikowska & Hal Holbrook in That Evening Sun

Thursday, April 8, 2010


I saw the Korean film Mother directed by Joon-ho Bong. Bong previously directed The Host (which I did not see) and the Shaking Tokyo segment of Tokyo!.

Mother; Korean with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website

The story involves an odd young man. Don't call him "retard" or he'll react his mother has taught him to do. He confesses to murdering a school girl although he seems quite confused during the police interrogation. To be fair, the man is confused most of the time he is on screen so he's acts no differently after being arrested. His (overly?) protective mother rushes into action. She knows her son could not have committed the murder so she launches her own investigation to find the real killer.

Bong directs a whodunit with nice twists and turns. The film relies on coincidences and other plot devices that are too contrived by a bit (many Korean films I've seen do this) but overall the effect is a serviceable twist on the detective story.

Hye-ja Kim as the nameless Mother elevates the story. This film could not have been made in the US; at least not for wide release. The mother-son relationship in this film is dysfunctional without being over-the-top. To start with the son (a man in his 20's) still sleeps in the same bed with his mother. Stumbling drunk into bed one night, he collapses and instrinctively reaches for his mother's breast. Transferred sexual frustration or age-inappropriate maternal needs? I don't know but the mother doesn't protest too much as if it is a regular occurrence. In another scene, the man urinates against a wall while waiting for a bus. The mother comes to the bus stop to give him a bowl of "medicine." She holds the bowl up to his lips while he uses his hands to control the urine flow. The mother gazes at his penis for an uncomfortable length of time. I don't think it was sexual. It was more like she wanted to make sure everything was ok down there. I guess public urination isn't a concern for her. She also shows an unusual interest in the urine puddle.

I haven't even unleashed the biggest transgression. She attempted a murder-suicide with her son when he was 5 years old by poisoning the two of them. She used a cheap, diluted brand of insecticide so the attempt failed. Is that what made him the son the way he is?

The Mother reveals quite a bit of abhorrent behavior - voyeurism, teenage prostitution, slimy lawyers, beatings, etc. After an introductory side story (mainly to establish the characters but also to explain a golf ball), the film focuses on Kim as the Mother and her warped journey to prove her son's innocence. The tagline sums it up nicely - "She'll stop at nothing."

The film is certainly worth seeing but undoubtedly, much of the buzz around it is because it is directed by the director of The Host.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Playland at the Beach and The Lady From Shanghai

In March, the Balboa Theater had a one night screening of Playland at the Beach. That screening was the world premiere. The screening sold out so the Balboa added some more screening at noon on Saturday and Sunday. Those screenings old out so they kept adding more screening.

I missed all the screenings due to SFIAAFF or travel. I figured I missed the film and would have to see on KQED or somewhere else on TV. I was pleasantly surprised to see the Balboa has programmed Playland at the Beach for a week starting April 23. Unfortunately, that week coincides with the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival. I still not be able to watch the film at the Balboa but it deserves a mention in a blog about a cinephile in San Francisco.

Here is the synopsis from the film's official website.

San Francisco’s now-extinct Playland at the Beach, an amusement park located next to Ocean Beach, was established in the 1880s as a collection of amusement rides and concessions all separately owned by various concessionaires. In 1923, The Whitney's opened their first concession, soon followed by additional concessions. They eventually purchased the 10-acres of land on which Playland sat, and the land adjacent to Playland, including the Cliff House. After George Whitney's death in 1958, and years of decline, the land was purchased in 1971, and Playland was dismantled in 1972 for condominium development.

More than three decades later, Tom Wyrsch has resurrected the city’s lost treasure in his new documentary, the first and only documentary ever made about Playland at the Beach. For those who enjoyed Playland as a child, Laffing Sal, the Fun House, the Carousel, the Big Dipper, the Diving Bell, Dark Mystery, Limbo, and Fun-tier Town will bring back fond childhood memories. For those who have only heard stories about Playland, the documentary will help bring it to life.

With 12 interviews, almost 20 minutes of archival footage, 187 photographs and original music. (60 minutes)

I moved to San Francisco 20 years after Playland closed down. They used have a lot of the arcade games (including Laffing Sal) at the Cliff House. They were still functioning too. Later they moved it to Fisherman's Wharf. I've visited both sites although it been 4 or 5 years since I was last there. For more information, visit the Musée Méchanique website. I'm not sure if this is the official website or if this one is.


As I recall, the end of The Lady From Shanghai (1947) starring and directed by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth (married to Welles at the time) was filmed at Playland. As if it were planned, the Castro Theater is screening The Lady From Shanghai on April 21. Film director Peter Bogdanovich will be introduce the film. The screening is in conjunction with the TCM Classic Film Festival. Admission is free; download your free ticket at this website.

When I read that the Great Star was reopening, I thought that it was the theater in which Orson Welles hides among the crowd during a performance of Chinese opera. According to IMDB, the scenes were shot at the Mandarin Theater. The Mandarin was located at 1021 Grant Avenue which is literally around the corner from the Great Star.

Another item about The Lady From Shanghai is that Chinese director Kar Wai Wong (Chungking Express, Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love) is filming a remake.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Up in the Air and Crazy Heart

I saw Up in the Air and Crazy Heart with my father recently.

Up in the Air brings to six the number of films nominated in the 2010 Academy Award Best Picture category. The other five were District 9, Inglourious Basterds, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, A Serious Man and Up.

Up in the Air starring George Clooney; directed by Jason Reitman; (2009) - Official Website
Crazy Heart starring Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal; (2009) - Official Website


Up in the Air is a character study of an isolated man, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney). Bingham is a termination specialist; I can't remember what his title was in the film. He flies around the country laying off workers for client firms. I question whether that premise is valid. Bingham fires these people without a representative of the company the workers are employed by present. That seems unrealistic to me but maybe it really happens. Bingham has a sidejob as a motivational speaker. His best selling book is What's in Your Parachute where he advises people to discard everything but the barest of essentials in their lives. He practices what he preaches. He lives in a spartan apartment, is not married, has no children, estranged from his family, no girlfriend, etc. He spends 320 days a year flying around the country. He has an odd mixture of detachment and professional compassion while he dismisses employee after employee. His sole goal in life seems to be to attain 10 million miles flown with American Airlines. He keeps that goal guarded.

Two women enter his life which makes him question his own choices. Anna Kendrick plays a young college graduate hired on by Bingham's firm. Her great idea is to save time and money by having the terminators do their thing over the internet. Instead of meeting face-to-face, the termination will happen via webcam and real-time interaction over the internet. That will save on travel and lodging expenses. Of course, it'll also derail Bingham's solipsistic and nomadic existence. After pointing out the shortcomings with Kendrick's plan, Bingham is saddled with her as she flies around the country with him as he shows her how he handles the face-to-face firings with at least the veneer of compassion.

The other woman is Vera Farmiga, a fellow frequent flier who starts a fling with Bingham as their travel schedules allow. I don't use the romance because it's not quite a romance but it is much more than a series of sexual couplings.

The two women will profoundly affect Bingham's life over the course of the film. I won't delve further into the plot since it was widely reviewed and praised. Clooney gives a solid performances. All his performances are solid but he seems to play the suave, detached man with aplomb and weariness. He's got it down pat.

Farmiga & Kendrick were nominated for Best Supporting Actress. I wasn't quite as impressed; nice performances but not superlative. The whole film can be described as solid - solid performances, solid plot, solid direction, etc. I recall the opening sequence with the aerial shots of landscapes and cityscapes as most memorable in an artistic sense.


The sound on the print of Crazy Heart seemed damaged or maybe it was the theater speakers. There was always noticeable static even during the silence which was very distracting.

I found the film to be a bit tedious. The C&W version of The Wrestler is an appropriate description. Mickey Rourke played the role with more abandon but Bridges brings a certain late middle-age weariness that you would expect from a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-living, honky tonk-playing singer. He's nearly drank and/or smoked himself to death but he's still on the road playing bowling alleys and small bars in small New Mexico towns. Apparently Bad Blake (Bridges) was once a C&W star; now he's a down & out slob. In one small town, the bar owner asks if his niece (Gyllenhaal) can interview him for the town newspaper. She interviews him but I wish her character would have asked "Why am I attracted to a broken down has-been that is 25 years older than me?"

Gyllenhaal and Bridges embark on this May-December romance but his drinking gets the better of him and puts the kibosh on the relationship. The specifics are not important. The key plot point is that the end of the relationship is Bad Blake's lowpoint and he goes through a quick and painless alcohol rehab (at least that is what was depicted on screen). 16 months later, he is sober and raking in big bucks as a songwriter for C&W superstar Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell in an odd casting choice). Gyllenhaal meets up with him backstage at a Sweet conference. Bad Blake (now going by his Christian name of Otis) hands over a huge royalty check to Gyllenhaal to be given to her son when he is 18. Gyllenhaal flashes her engagement ring. Bridges accepts their relationship has no chance although he still tries to put his hand on her ass which she deftly outmaneuvers. End of story.

The long & the short of it is watching Jeff Bridges start off low, sink to rock bottom and find salvation without a bottle of whiskey. Bridges handles the role with an ease that makes one forget he is acting. He plays Blake as a barely functioning alcoholic. The difference between drunk Blake and sober Blake is subtle which probably won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. If there was a night & day aspect to Blake when sober, it would have been overacting.

Still, I couldn't figure out what Gyllenhaal's character saw in Blake especially when she was doting on her young son. She made a comment "I worry about him. He doesn't have any men in his life." I guess that is reason enough to get involved with a drunken old man. She admires his songwriting skills too. Never confuse the art with the artist. I believe one of the female characters said that to Woody Allen in The Front. Gyllenhaal's character could have saved herself a lot of heartache and possible child endangerment charges if she had heeded that advice.

Robert Duvall shows up as a Houston bar owner where Bad Blake performs regularly. The role was a little sparse. Duvall makes the most of a scene where he has to introduce his new Mexican bartender (Jose or Jesus, he can't remember which). Bridges and Duvall also show some flycasting skills.

I wasn't too impressed with Crazy Heart; better than most films but I could never really empathize with or for the characters.


Trivial coincident - the character George Clooney plays in Up in the Air is Ryan Bingham. An actor and musician named Ryan Bingham plays the bowling alley band leader in Crazy Heart.

Zach Galifianakis from The Hangover has a small (and more subdued) role in Up in the Air.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Red Riding Trilogy

I caught all three parts of the Red Riding Trilogy over an 8 hour period one Sunday in March. I watched them in chronological order.

Red Riding 1974 directed by Julian Jarrold; (2009) - Official Website
Red Riding 1980 directed by James Marsh; (2009) - Official Website
Red Riding 1983 directed by Anand Tucker; (2009) - Official Website

I think the full titles were Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1983, etc.

Anyway, the films tell the story of the Yorkshire Ripper. The films are historical fiction as they combine the Ripper murders (adult women) with a series child abduction/murders. The murders serve as a backdrop for the police and newspaper investigations which turn up deep-rooted police corruption.

The first film follows a young reporter who gets too close to exposing a wealthy real-estate develop (Sean Bean). The next film deals with a special investigative unit which gets too close to the police corruption. The final film deals with a police officer involved in the corruption as he seeks redemption and a lawyer who closes in on the real killer while appealing his client's conviction for the murders.

All the films are relentlessly bleak. The police are as much the villain in the films as the murderers. Anyone who opposes the police is eventually killed. Even the so-called good guys are womanizers, cheating husbands, failures in life, gay hustlers and murderers.

The three films were a bit of a slog. The English accents made it difficult for me to understand all the dialog. The films were heavy on period authenticity and Yorkshire/Leeds sure looks like a grey and gloomy place. Like the murders, the films felt like an ordeal to be endured. That's not to say they were without merit but you feel like you need to take a shower after watching all three. The films are not epic either; they are quite personal so you feel up close & personal with many of the characters. It feels as if the slime oozees off them and onto you. You also have reservations about humanity if only half of what was shown was historically accurate. The film makes you wallow in the same fetid pool of degradation and depravity that the murderers and police thrive in. To that extent, the films were successful.

I'm not sure I can recommend the films but I will say they affected me in a visceral manner and the subject matter as much as the runtime left me exhausted.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

2010 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) ran from March 11 to 21. I was able to watch 7 films.

Independencia directed by Raya Martin; Tagalog with subtitles; (2009)
The Forbidden Door; Indonesian with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
The Housemaid; Korean with subtitles; (1960)
Dear Doctor; Japanese with subtitles; (2009)
Prince of Tears; Mandarin with subtitles; (2009) - Official Webiste
The People I've Slept With starring Karin Anna Cheung & James Shigeta; (2009) - Official Website
City of Life and Death; Mandarin & Japanese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website

I had a ticket to an 8th film, Aoki, but felt tired that night so I went to sleep early instead of going to the film. Aoki is a documentary about sansei Richard Aoki, a founding member of the Black Panther Party.


The most epic and powerful film of the ones I saw was City of Life and Death whose Mandarin title is Nanjing! Nanjing!. The film was directed by Lu Chuan who also helm Kekexili: Mountain Patrol which screened at the 2006 SFIAAFF. The film told the story of 1937-38 Rape of Nanking by the Japanese Army. I've read a few accounts of the Nanking Massacre (although not Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking) and this movie basically told the story with a few (presumably fictitious) characters. Certainly the intimate interactions and private conversations between the characters were not recorded for posterity.

Among the more harrowing historical accounts that were depicted were the mass, summary executions of Chinese soldiers and militia and the assembly-line "comfort stations" where Chinese women were forced to service Japanese soldiers. One practice that I read about that was not depicted was the use of Chinese as human targets for bayonet practice. The Japanese would tie Chinese to a pole and bayonet them to show which thrusts were most incapacitating. I also recall that they would throw infants in the air and bayonet them before they hit the ground to work on quick thrusts and hand/eye coordination.

Although a Chinese movie, I thought several of the stand-out performances were by the Japanese actors. Hideo Nakaizumi as the inexperiences Japanese soldier who witnesses and participates in atrocities that would make the most hardened combat veteran retch serves as the de facto protagonist and guide for the audience. We follow him through combat, his first clumsy, sexual encounter with a Japanese prostitute (nice performance by Yuko Miyamoto, I believe), mercy killings and eventual suicide. Ryu Kohata as a more sociopathic Japanese soldier who alternately exhibited a detachment and cruel enjoyment of the suffering he was causing also stood out.

Another historically accurate storyline is when the Japanese asked for 100 Chinese women to "experience Japanese hospitality," the authorities in the Safety Zone (which was a girl's school) asked for volunteers to satisfy the Japanese request. Several of the women in the Safety Zone had been prostitutes or women of "questionable virtue." They volunteered for this distastefuly and most likely fatal service. The most disturbing scenes were in the "comfort station" or whorehouse. First of all, the soldiers had to pay more for sex with a Japanese women (there were a few brought in from Japan for the express purpose) than with Chinese women. However, the lack of privacy for the most intimate of acts was dehumanizing to watch. A sheet hung from the wall or curtain separated each bed. To enter or exit the room, soldier walked by the foot of the bed where they could see everything the couple was doing. In fact, a darkly humorous moment occurred when when Kadokawa (Nakaizumi) sat stunned by the decline in his favorite prostitute (the one he fell in love with and lost his virginity to). A fellow soldier asks, in the politest manner, whether Kadokawa has finished. Realizing that the woman cannot even remember him, Kadokawa mutters that he is finished (with sex or with his conscience?) and the other soldier proceeds to mount the women without bothering to wait for Kadokawa to leave the seat next to the bed.

Actually, Miyamoto progresses from the hooker with a heart of gold to a whore who can't keep track of her johns but can still appreciate an act of kindness to a morose, nearly catatonic, piece of meat with her legs spread. Eventually, she gets thrown out like the trash as they put a bunch of dead prostitutes into a wheelbarrow (all nude) and cart them away. It was like they were hauling away department store mannequins.

The Chinese actress that played Mrs. Tang's sister also stood out. Tang & her sister were from a well-to-do background. As the Japanese invaded Nanking, they played mahjong. Eventually, the safety of the Safety Zone and brutality of the Japanese occupation were made painfully clear to the sisters. Mrs. Tang's (Lan Qin) husband and child were killed by the Japanese. Her sister volunteered to be a comfort woman. After surviving that ordeal, she is shot by Ida. When asked why, Ida replies that life isn't worth living after suffering the ordeal she went through. He was probably right; just watching the film was traumatic. I felt numb afterwards.

Lu Chuan direction of the film was heavy-handed at times. The film could have benefitted by having a little more subtlety but there was much subtlety in the real events so it's hard to criticize the director or the film much. Appartently some Chinese think Kadokawa's character was too sympathetic and on the other side, there are still Nanking Massacre deniers who state the events have been exaggerated. In the end, I invested (emotionally) in the film and willingly went along with whatever emotions Lu manipulated.


Another film I enjoyed was Dear Doctor, a Japanese film directed by Miwa Nishikawa. Japanese filmmakers seem adept at mining bittersweet humor from death - Departures and to a much lesser extent, Still Walking. Dear Doctor is the story about a small village full of elderly people and the doctor (Tsurube Shôfukutei) who cares for them. Actually, in reality, he is not a doctor. He is the son of a doctor and former pharmaceuticals salesman. He poses as a doctor for reasons that are a little murky. He is ably assisted by a real nurse (Kimiko Yo) and traveling drug salesman (Teruyuki Kagawa from Tokyo Sonata who are both complicit in his fraud. "Doctor" Ino is loved and revered in the village because of his reassuring manner and he has a keen eye for the wants and needs of his patients...traits that are also present in gifted con men. Undoubtedly, Ino would have made a great doctor if he had gone to medical school. As it stands, he makes a great doctor in a small town treating high-blood pressure and gently guiding the elderly to their final demise.

His charade begins to unravel with the arrival of a young, newly graduated doctor (Eita) there for his internship and the onset of cancer for one of the residents (Kaoru Yachigusa). The film is filled with humorous bits but at its core, it is a drama dealing with weighty issues. The relationship with Shôfukutei & Eita is multifaceted. Eita is a bit suspicious of the doctor's skills but is in awe of his bedside manner and the positive impact he has on his patients. Shôfukutei needs to continue his fraud (he is getting paid a large salary by the prefecture) but has a genuine desire to care for his patients. Eventually, Eita bonds with the older man even going so far to tell him that he wants to return full-time after his internships are over. Predictably, this upsets Shôfukutei as this would only increase the chances of being discovered but he deftly handles the young doctor's pronouncement.

More complicated is the relationship between Shôfukutei and his cancer patient (Yachigusa). Having cared for her late husband during his prolonged illness, she does not want to be a burden for her children. As her symptoms become more severe, she cannot ignore them anymore. She makes a pact with Shôfukutei which will become is downfall. Shôfukutei is not to inform anyone of her illness (including her daughter, a Tokyo doctor) and she will agree to treatment in her house. He doctors the medical tests to diagnose her problems as an ulcer. Then he starts reading up on cancer and its treatments. It's unclear to me if he actually treats her for an ulcer or cancer but both doctor and patient are aware that it is cancer even if it is never spoken between the two.

The moment of truth arrives when the Tokyo doctor comes to see him. She is in town to visit her mother. She is concerned her mother may have cancer but Shôfukutei's falsified test results and patient but confident manner convince the woman that an ulcer is the correct diagnosis. She leaves her mother to his care and won't be back until next year when she can get extended time off for a visit. Shôfukutei realizes that continue his fraud would result in the death of the woman so he skips town in mid-consultation. On the way out of town (on a moped), he runs into drug salesman and tells him to give the real test results to the Tokyo doctor who is waiting in his office.

The plot has a bunch of twists & turns (which I've probably ruined with his entry). The story is told in flashback as two police officers are trying to track him down after events previously described. Ultimately, the film is a showcase of Shôfukutei to use subtle facial expressions and glances to convery the depth of the character - scheming, caring, frightened, confident, etc. Shôfukutei gives a tremendous performance; he was nominated for a Japanese Academy Award in the Best Actor category.


For the Out of the Vaults selection, SFIAAFF dug up The Housemaid, a 1960 South Korean psychological thriller involving an errant husband and his relations with the eponymous character. The film (in black & white) was badly damaged for a reel or two but it didn't diminish from the enjoyment of the film.

An uptight piano teacher (Kim Jin Kyu) works at a textile factory giving music lessons to the female workers. He supplements his income by giving private lessons at his house. After a long set-up, the film settles down to the main plot. The piano teacher and his hard-working and pregnant seamstress wife decide they need a maid. Based on the recommendation of one of the factory workers (who is attracted to the teacher), they hire Lee Eun-shim, an attractive if not strange woman from the countryside. I knew it was a great film when Lee kills a rat with her bare hands and holds it up by the tail to show Kim. He admonishes her to use rat poison in the future.

One night when the wife and kids are away, Kim is able to resist the advances of his attractive student. He slaps her across the face and sends her on her way. Outside the window, the maid has been watching and is turned on. She throws himself at him (forces herself on him by standing on his feet). They have one night together which he immediately regrets but he'll regret it more than he can imagine by the end of the film. The maid becomes pregnant and the man is forced to admit his infidelity to his wife. The wife is upset but surprisingly rational. She convinces the maid to force a miscarriage and eventually an abortion. That's when the balance of power shifts.

While recuperating from her abortion, the maid becomes unhinged. She grieves for her child, she resents the choice she was made and she lusts after the husband. Threatening to reveal the husband's infidelity and parentage of the fetus, she gains control of the household. She eventually requires the husband to sleep in her room.

I won't spoil the ending but rat poison, a staircase and a revolver figure prominently. Lee Eun-shim gives a flashy performance as the other woman who won't go away.


The fourth film I enjoyed (although not as much as the other three) was The People I've Slept With, a sex farce starring Karin Anna Cheung. The story deals with a rather promiscuous woman who finds herself pregnant. She narrows down the potential fathers to four, later five, candidates. One running gag in the film is that she takes photos of all her sex partners. She creates cards with photos of the men (and women?) on one side and vital stats on the other - nickname, length, girth, etc. She surreptitiously gets DNA samples from the potential fathers for a paternity test. She falls in love with one of the men who turns out to be a politician and engaged to be married (he is best of the bunch).

I won't recount the plot because it episodic in nature. Most of the humor comes from flashbacks to the sexual encounters or her attempts to get DNA samples. There were several funny moments but this was a lightweight comedy. Despite some questions from the audience that seemed to interpret the film as a manifesto for Asian sexuality or empowerment, this was a sex farce. That's not a pejorative but compared to the Rape of Nanking or seeing a Hitchcockian thriller from 1960 South Korea, the film is a cut below. Lest I be accused of elitism, I recommend The People I've Slept With; its a fun film which made me laugh. In its current format, it'll probably be rated R if it gets a wider release.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

I Still Wake Up Dreaming: Noir Is Dead!/Long Live Noir!

The Roxie Theater (which is currently closed for renovations) is going back to black for the third time in approximately a year. From May 14 to May 27, the Roxie has programmed I Still Wake Up Dreaming: Noir Is Dead!/Long Live Noir!

The Roxie has released the film schedule for the festival.

Friday, May 14
Mysterious Intruder starring Richard Dix; (1946)
High Tide; (1947)

Saturday, May 15
99 River Street starring John Payne & Evelyn Keyes; directed by Phil Karlson; (1953)
Shield for Murder starring and directed by Edmond O’Brien; (1954)

Sunday, May 16
Nightmare starring Kevin McCarthy and Edward G. Robinson; (1956)
The Mark of the Whistler starring Richard Dix and Janis Carter; directed by William Castle; (1944)

Monday, May 17
Jealousy; (1945)
The Lady Confesses starring Hugh Beaumont; (1945)

Tuesday, May 18
Treasure of Monte Cristo; (1949)
The Invisible Wall; (1947)

Wednesday, May 19
The Red House starring Edward G. Robinson; (1947)
Sideshow; (1950)

Thursday, May 20
Voice of the Whistler starring Richard Dix; directed by William Castle; (1945)
Lighthouse; (1947)

Friday, May 21
Secret of the Whistler starring Richard Dix; (1946)
Roses Are Red with Charles McGraw; (1947)

Saturday, May 22
Johnny Cool starring Henry Silva & Elizabeth Montgomery; directed by William Asher (Montgomery's husband); (1963)
Cop Hater starring Robert Loggia; (1958)

Sunday, May 23
The Fearmakers starring Dana Andrews; directed by Jacques Tourneur; (1958)
Stolen Identity; (1953)

Monday, May 24
Dark Waters starring Merle Oberon & Franchot Tone; directed by Andre De Toth; (1944)
The Lady and the Monster starring Erich von Stroheim; (1944)

Tuesday, May 25
Secrets of Monte Carlo; (1951)
The Glass Alibi; (1946)

Wednesday, May 26
The Thirteenth Hour starring Richard Dix; (1947)
Below the Deadline; (1946)

Thursday, May 27
Power of the Whistler starring Richard Dix and Janis Carter; (1945)
Behind Locked Doors; (1948)


Aside from the fact that I wasn't too impressed with The Whistler from last year's Best of Columbia Noir, the lineup looks interesting enough. I know I've seen 99 River Street before. The plot synopses for Behind Locked Doors and Jealousy seem familiar but I can't say if I've seen them or not.

With any luck, like last year, the Castro will counterprogram some interesting films opposite the festival (particularly the nights that a Whistler film is screening).

Friday, April 2, 2010

Theater Reopenings, Restored Classics, Hijoshi Zukan and Dennis Nyback

A few weeks ago, I read an article that the Great Star Theater would be reopening. I recalled that at last year's Hole in the Head, there were some live performances scheduled at the Great Star but they were cancelled at the last minute because the Great Star "didn't get their permits in time."

The people re-opening the Great Star are George Kaskanlian Jr. and his business partner Ken Montero. Kaskanlian is described as "a real estate refurbisher" in the San Francisco Chronicle article I read. I know him as the programmer from the Hole in the Head festival for the past several years. Now it makes sense why Hole in the Head was programming events at the Great Star.

I wish Kaskanlian and Montero success with reopening the Great Star. I would certainly be interested in seeing the inside of that theater. According to the article, they should be screening films at the Great Star by June with periodic live events (such as Chinese opera).

Here is a link to the article about the reopening.


Speaking of Hole in the Head, Indiefest has announced the dates for the 2010 festival. The festival will be held July 8 to 22. Unfortunately, this overlaps with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival being held July 15 to 18. The highlight of that festival is the screening of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) which has been nearly restored to the original version. Recent discoveries of long-lost negatives allowed for the missing scenes to be restored (with the exception of a few frames).


Staying on the subject of silent films, the Castro Theater is screening F.W. Murnau's Sunrise on Sunday, April 11. The film will have three sceenings that day at 1:30, 4:00 and 7:30 but only the 7:30 show will have live accompaniment (Warren Lubich).


The 4 Star has the exclusive engagement of Hijoshi Zukan starting on April 23. It's a bit surprising that Frank was able to get it before Viz Cinema. The Japanese film is described as "a 6-part...omnibus film by six different directors called Hijoshi Zukan. Each segment features a unique female protagonist in an unexpected situation."

Hijoshi Zukan (Part 2: Sakigake!! Micchan)

Linked is Kevin Ouellette's blog entry on Nippon Cinema which summarizes the six parts ("7 if you count his own introduction").


The Red Vic has a number of films which I missed the first time they screened in the Bay Area. Among the films I want to see in April and May are: Police, Adjective, Terribly Happy, The Red Machine (2009 Mill Valley Film Festival) and Avatar (screened in 2-D).

In addition, the Red Vic is hosting Dennis Nyback on April 14 & 15 for two programs called

Terrorism Light and Dark - a revealing program of cartoons, short films and propaganda clips displaying America’s schizophrenic view of terrorism before 9/11 which includes, among others, the Cold War US Government film, What You Need to Know About Biological Warfare and Buster Keaton’s Cops.

Know Why You’re Afraid - Nyback’s program of educational films that should never have been shown to impressionable children! Included are the darkly hilarious bus safety film, Death Zones (1975), an excerpt from the drivers ed shocker, Mechanized Death (1961) and many more macabre films that does much to explain our culture’s paranoia.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

2010 Tiburon International Film Festival

I was able to see four programs at the recently concluded Tiburon International Film Festival. The festival ran March 18 to 26 The four features I saw were:

Welcome to North Korea!; documentary; Czech & Korean with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
The Most Secret Place on Earth – The CIA’s Covert War in Laos; documentary; (2008)
Frog; Japanese with subtitles; (2009)
The Red Baron starring Joseph Fiennes, Lena Headey, Matthias Schweighöfer & Til Schweiger; (2008) - Official Website

I saw two short films.

The Last Bogatyr; Russian with subtitles; 17 minutes; (2009)
Voice on the Line; 7 minutes; (2010)

The Last Bogatyr preceded Welcome to North Korea! and Voice on the Line preceded The Most Secret Place on Earth – The CIA’s Covert War in Laos.


The first film I watched, Welcome to North Korea!, was the most satisfying. It followed a group of Czech tourists as they go on a sightseeing tour of North Korea. Why would anyone want to sightsee in North Korea? In this case, the Czechs have recent experience in living under totalitarian regimes so there is a certain simpatico with the North Koreans. For me, it was interesting to note how the older members of the tour group recognized the propaganda and subtle intimidation techniques while the younger people were harshly criticial of what they saw. For such a repressive regime (and I truly believe it is), it is interesting that they allowed the tourists into the country much less that they allowed them film they travels around the country. Shepherded around the country by a pair of diffident tour guides, the group observes how the wide roads are devoid of vehicles except their own tour bus or how the authorities have blocked off one side of the street to locals (the opposite that they are invited to explore). The tour groups eats quite well for a country in the grips of famine. One of the younger tourists decries as obscene the banquets his tour group enjoys while the local populace starves to death.

Overall, the film was a fascinating glimpse into a country that definitely seem self-conflicted. Based on his (controlled) observations, one of the older Czechs declares that North Korea is a few years away from loosening its restrictions and opening its border to more foreigners. The tourists and the film audience only saw what the North Korean government allowed us to see but even what they allowed was surprising in its glimpses of unvarnished peculiarities which hinted at repression and suffering.


The Most Secret Place on Earth – The CIA’s Covert War in Laos was a documentary about CIA operations in Laos during the Vietnam War (think Air America). Linking covert CIA operations with drug smuggling and massive bombing sorties as the CIA tried to disrupt the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran through Laos. I did not find the documentary too informative although the interviews with some of the participants provided colorful stories and background information.


Frog was a Japanese film about a father & son. The father sells o-konomiyaki (an omelette/pancake like edible) from a pushcart on the street. The son works at a car repair garage. Beyond that, I'm not sure what was going on. The plot was rather elliptical and I dozed off at a crucial moment. The old man used to be a gangster but it's not revealed why he got out of the racket. He continually warns his son, "like father, like son." The son loses his job for always being late to work. His last job task is to return a car to the owner. He finds an expensive cigarette lighter in the car. Intially he pockets it but at the last minute he returns it to the owner...who happens to be a gangster or Yakuza boss. The old man takes a liking to the younger man based on his honesty in returning the lighter.

After that, things get a little fuzzy. The father gets beaten to death by some young punks he literally bumps into. They beat him to death and take all his money which includes his son's severance pay. Why was the father carrying that much money around? I don't know. The father's death affects the son deeply and he starts gravitating towards the gangsters ("like father, like son"). I think carries out a hit and is expected to help the #2 gangster eliminate the boss but he backs out at the last minute. By that time, I had dozed off and lost track of the plot.

The film was low-budget (and it showed) and the plot meandered all over so I was disappointed in the film.


The final film I saw was The Red Baron. I knew I was in for a rough time when most of the Germans in the film spoke English with a British accent. The main complaint I have about the film is that it didn't really provide insight into the man (Manfred von RRichthofen) who created this persona of the Red Baron. He came from a wealthy family and he viewed aerial dogfights as some kind of noble endeavor akin to hunting crossed with fencing. It was him (his plane was an extension of his own body) against some opponent who deserved respect and honor. So much respect and honor that, in the film, the Red Baron and three squadrom-mates pay their respect to a fallen British pilot by buzzing his funeral and dropping a funeral wreath from the cockpit.

As the film progresses, the Baron's exploits become legendary and the Kaiser wants to use him for propaganda purposes. The Baron is also wounded in combat so he is in the tender care of a beautiful nurse who resents his cavalier attitude towards the horrors of war. Between what he sees at the hospital and the trips to visit the front-line troops, the Baron sees the hellish conditions the troops live and frequently die under. He refuses to be a propaganda puppet and the Kaiser orders him back into the skies on increasingly more dangerous missions until he is shot down and killed.

My synopsis is about as deep as the film delved into the psyche of the Baron. Having seen the corpses of pilots he shot down, he still seems unconcerned with matters of life and death as he takes souvenirs from each confirmed kills. He continues to dress in a foppish manner (were those buffalo skin overcoats?) while death is all around. What of the nurse? She was fictitious but one moment she is disgusted by his attitude and the next she is sleeping with him. What drove this man to be the greatest fighter pilot in history? I still can't tell you. What clicked inside him such that he could no longer ignore the tribulations of the ground troops? I don't know? How did he reconcile his action of killing in the sky with his broader loathing of war in general? No idea.

Matthias Schweighöfer played the Red Baron, Joseph Fiennes played a rival English pilot who survives an dogfight with the Baron and has an extended conversation with him after their planes crash land, Lena Headey plays the beautiful nurse & Til Schweiger (Inglorious Basterds) plays the Baron's fellow squadron pilot, best friend and sounding board.


The crowds were very sparse at the festival. There were about 30 people at The Red Baron which was the most attended film of the four. Welcome to North Korea! and Frog had less than 10 attendees each. I noticed that parking was fairly easy in downtown Tiburon and there were several vacancies on the Tiburon Ark Row.

The Most Secret Place on Earth – The CIA’s Covert War in Laos screened in the dining hall of the Corinthian Yacht Club. The other films screened at the Tiburon Playhouse.

One of the films I wanted to see but didn't fit my schedule was Mrs. Menendez. The titular subject of the documentary is Tammi Menendez, wife of convicted murderer Erik Menendez. Erik & his brother Lyle are serving life sentences for the infamous double murder of their parents. Mrs. Menendez provides an insight into the day-to-day life of Tammi and her relationship to a convicted murderer.

Anyway, the reason I mention it is that as I was flipping channels on Monday evening (8 days after it screened in Tiburon), I watched some of the documentary on A&E.

It is similar to last year when I saw The Brothers Warner very soon on PBS after watching it at the Tiburon International Film Festival.