Monday, May 31, 2010

I Still Wake Up Dreaming

The Roxie recently concluded their two week noir series, I Still Wake Up Dreaming. Of the 28 films screened, I watched 25. The three I missed were: 99 River Street, Jealousy and Power of the Whistler. 99 River Street, a Phil Karlson film, has been screened extensively the past few years. I caught it at the 2007 Noir City. I recall enjoying Evelyn Keyes' performance. It also screened at a Karlson retrospective at the PFA last year. I missed Jealousy due to a dinner engagement. I skipped Power of the Whistler to watch The Red Machine at the Red Vic.


I Still Wake Up Dreaming
Mysterious Intruder starring Richard Dix; directed by William Castle; (1946)
High Tide starring Don Castle; (1947)
Shield for Murder starring and directed by Edmond O’Brien; (1954)
Nightmare starring Edward G. Robinson; (1956)
The Mark of the Whistler starring Richard Dix and Janis Carter; directed by William Castle; (1944)
The Lady Confessesstarring Hugh Beaumont; (1945)
Treasure of Monte Cristo; (1949)
The Invisible Wall starring Don Castle; (1947)
The Red House starring Edward G. Robinson; (1947)
Sideshow; (1950)
Voice of the Whistler starring Richard Dix; directed by William Castle; (1945)
Lighthouse starring Don Castle; (1947)
Secret of the Whistler starring Richard Dix; (1946)
Roses are Red starring Don Castle; (1947)
Johnny Cool starring Henry Silva and Elizabeth Montgomery; directed by William Asher; (1963)
Cop Hater starring Robert Loggia; (1958)
The Fearmakers starring Dana Andrews; directed by Jacques Tourneur; (1958)
Stolen Identity; (1953)
Dark Waters starring Merle Oberon and Franchot Tome; directed by Andre De Toth; (1944)
The Lady and the Monster starring Erich von Stroheim; (1944)
Secrets of Monte Carlo; (1951)
The Glass Alibi; directed by W. Lee Wilder; (1946)
The Thirteenth Hour starring Richard Dix; (1947)
Below the Deadline; (1946)
Behind Locked Doors; directed by Budd Boetticher; (1948)


Like last year’s festival, several of the 16 mm prints were in poor condition. In particular, the dialogue in High Tide was rendered indecipherable by the poor sound quality.

The Roxie has announced encore screenings of several of the films in a four day program called I Still Wake Up Dreaming: Noir Redux from June 4 to 7. Two of the films I missed are screening - 99 River Street and Jealousy.

Johnny Cool screens June 4.

Nightmare and The Fearmakers are presented on June 5.

The best double feature of the redux is 99 River Street and Cop Hater on June 6

Three 16 mm films with improved sound quality will be screened on June 7 - High Tide, Jealousy and The Lady Confesses.


The most surprising aspect of the series was that I thoroughly enjoyed The Whistler films. I don’t recall enjoying The Whistler (1944) at last year’s Columbia Noir series. The Mark of the Whistler, Voice of the Whistler and Secret of the Whistler were three of my favorites from this year’s festival.

In addition to the three aforementioned Whistler films, I particularly enjoyed Cop Hater, Lighthouse, The Glass Alibi and Shield for Murder.

A grab bag of synopses and thoughts:

Shield for Murder star Edmond O’Brien as a dirty cop who kills a bag man and steals his money. The interesting part of this film is that everyone knows O’Brien’s character is dirty and probably committed the crime – the other cops in the squad, the precinct captain, the newspaper reporter on the crime beat and the gangster whose money he stole. However, it’s only the gangsters who are willing to do something about it…that is until O’Brien’s partner (a young man who idolizes him because he helped pull him out of the streets as a boy) is forced to confront the issue. Claude Akins is particularly memorable in the role of a nasty gangster.

Nightmare was filmed in New Orleans and has a nightmare sequence that seems to have inspired Alfred Hitchcock and Bruce Lee.

The Mark of the Whistler is about a drifter (Richard Dix) who sees a notice in the newspaper about unclaimed bank accounts. By coincident, one of the account holders has the same name as him. Dix plans meticulously to fraudulently claim the money. He forgets to plan for the possibility that the man he is impersonating has enemies.

The Invisible Wall was interesting to me for its exterior shots of Las Vegas in 1947. Otherwise, its plot has an unusually high number of plot twists that keep the audience interested.

The Red House was full of moody atmosphere helped immeasurably by a musical score by Miklos Rosza and Bert Glennon. It dragged on a little too long and Edward G. Robinson started to wear thin but it did have the luscious Julie London.

Voice of the Whistler has a great setup. A wealthy industrialist (Dix) is dying. Alone and lonely, he falls in with the denizens of a poor Chicago neighborhood. Given only months to live, he asks the nurse at the local clinic to marry him. It’s strictly a business proposition. He knows that she grew up impoverished and yearns for the security of wealth. She also has a boyfriend whom she has been engaged to for four years. The proposition is that she marries him, keeps him company for his remaining time and inherits his fortune upon his death. Nothing goes as planned though – the man’s health improves, the boyfriend shows up at the lighthouse they are convalescing at and a murder is planned.

Lighthouse was the second half of the lighthouse noir double feature. In this film, Don Castle plays a lighthouse assistant and lothario. He goes into town to romance various women. When the woman he been stringing along pays a surprise visit at the lighthouse, a love triangle is formed. Spurned by Castle, the woman (June Lang) decides to marry the lighthouse keeper and move into the living quarters on the lighthouse island. Her husband is unaware of her previous relationship with his assistant. Castle who was a “love ‘em and leave ‘em” type before becomes obsessed with his boss’ wife when they begin to live in such close quarters.

Secret of the Whistler is similar to Voice of the Whistler. Dix plays an artist who was selling caricatures in the park before marrying a wealthy woman. The woman is deathly ill but that doesn’t stop Dix from hosting cocktail parties at his art studio/apartment. Dix meets a gold digging model whom he wants to marry. He is patient enough to wait for his wife demise until she makes a miraculous recovery…and discovers his affair.

Johnny Cool stars Henry Silva in a convoluted revenge tale. Johnny Cool (Silva), a Sicilian, is sent to America by the original Johnny Cool, an exiled mobster living in Rome. Silva goes around killing mobsters and corrupt politicians but he also picks up a girlfriend, a bored divorcee (nice performance by Elizabeth Montgomery who is better known as Samantha on the television series Bewitched). Things are going well for Silva and Montgomery until she feels some guilt about her involvement in his crimes. Sammy Davis Jr. has a small role and sings on the soundtrack.

Cop Hater was the grittiest film in the festival. Based on the first 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain, the film stars Robert Loggia as the detective tasked with finding a cop killer. The late Jerry Orbach has a small role as the leader of a street gang called the Grovers. I know they were the Grovers because they conveniently had T-shirts with “Grovers” written on the back like a jersey. This film was so low budget that I think Loggia only wore one shirt during the entire film. Shirley Ballard stands out as the tranny-ish but still slutty-looking wife of Loggia’s partner.

The Lady and the Monster was the worst film of the festival in my opinion. I was quite certain I saw this film on Elvira’s Movie Macabre show in the 1980’s but a brief conversation with programmer Elliot Lavine convinced me I was thinking about a remake called Donovan’s Brain with Lew Ayres. Levine called this film his all-time favorite which makes me wonder about his taste in films. A brain is kept alive in a laboratory and, through means I cannot recall, exerts a malevolent influence on the two doctors (one of whom is Erich von Stroheim!) who removed it from its body.

Secrets of Monte Carlo was an above average B film about a fireworks importer who gets tricked into muling fake stolen gems out of Monte Carlo. After that is cleared up, he tags along with the insurance investigator and his beautiful sister to Hong Kong. Once there, they tangle with the gang that stole the real gems. The film was a predictable potboiler but was historically interesting for its casual racism towards the Chinese exemplified by the dialogue and performance of Philip Ahn as the “inscrutable Chinaman.”

The Glass Alibi which was paired with Secrets of Monte Carlo also exceeded expectations. Once again, a man (this time a ne’er do well author/reporter) marries a wealthy but ill woman with the certitude of her impending demise and his subsequent inheritance. So certain is he that he will soon be a widower, he doesn’t even break it off with his not-so-secret paramour (stunningly beautiful Anne Gwynne). When Gwynne’s jealous mobster boyfriend breaks out of jail, the timetable for the wife’s death has to be accelerated.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

From Rome to Manila

I never caught a Midnight Mass screening with Peaches Christ. "She" hosted a midnight series at the Bridge for many years. Famous for their elaborate stage shows which preceded the films, the Midnight Mass series was well-attended and highly praised. Between the raucous crowds and late nights, I never got around to a Midnight Mass. I would have liked to have seen the Elvira and Tura Satana appearances. (I've never seen Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!).

Last year, Peaches announced she would semi-retire from the Midnight circuit. Since then, Joshua Grannell (Peaches' alter-ego) has written and directed a horror film which premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The film, All About Evil, packed the Castro Theater. The film was shot in San Francisco and set at the Victoria Theater. I read somewhere that All About Evil will screen at the Victoria later this year.

In addition, Peaches returns to the Bridge for a Midnight Mass on July 2 and 3 with a screening of Prince's Purple Rain (1984). That film brings back memories from high school - I knew a girl named Nikki; I guess you could say she was a sex fiend; I met her in a hotel lobby...

Anyway, that is a long lead up to say that the Bridge is continuing its midnight series but not with Peaches Chist (July 2 & 3 notwithstanding). On May 28 & 29, the Bridge is screening Gone With the Pope which caught my attention.

Gone With the Pope is a never-before-seen exploitation film starring writer/director Duke Mitchell (Massacre Mafia Style) as Paul, a gangster with an unholy scheme: to kidnap the pope and charge "a dollar from every Catholic in the world" as the ransom. Shot in 1975 as Kiss the Ring, Gone With the Pope was unfinished at the time of Duke Mitchell's death in 1981. Sage Stallone and Bob Murawski of Grindhouse Releasing rediscovered Gone With the Pope in 1995 and vowed to save it from obscurity. Academy Award-nominated film editor Murawski (The Hurt Locker) spent 15 years completing Gone With the Pope from the surviving film elements.


The YBCA will screening noted Filipino director Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay (2009) on June 12 and 13. I have seen Mendoza's Serbis and Slingshot in the past year or two and am interested enough to view Kinatay. Those two films showed the gritty and seamy side of the Philippines and Mendoza seems to have ratcheted it up for Kinatay.

Brillante Mendoza is the most sophisticated, fearless Filipino filmmaker working today. Kinatay, for which he won the Best Director award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, is a harrowing journey into the heart of darkness (take heed: sensitive viewers should go nowhere near this film). It traces a 24-hour odyssey in the life of a trainee policeman, from his wedding to an endless night out with corrupt colleagues and a junkie prostitute. With a nerve-shredding pace and gritty, verite-style photography, Kinatay is an unforgettable denunciation of societal and political corruption in Manila.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

What to See in May and Beyond

The Roxie series titled I Still Wake Up Dreaming: Noir Is Dead!/Long Live Noir! runs from May 14 to 27. I've purchased a series pass so I'll be spending a lot of time in the Mission the next two weeks.

On the last day of the Noir series, the Red Vic is screening The Red Machine. I recall this film from the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival. It interested me but I was not able to see it at the time. I may skip the Roxie that evening. Gandhi at the Bat, a short film about a ficitonal incident where the Mahatma pinch hit for the 1933 NY Yankees.

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.

On May 29, the PFA is screening The Valiant Ones.

A righteous husband-and-wife swordfighting duo are called to protect China from the machinations of Japanese pirates and corrupt officials in King Hu’s masterly work, noted for its forest fight scene set to the moves of a Go match. “A muscleman is not enough; we need a schemer,” one character muses, illuminating the film’s intricate web of betrayals and plots. The only nobility to be had is in the swords of the valiant ones, those doomed to protect the shores of an empire rotting from the inside. Pai Ying and Hsu Feng are elegance incarnate as the married couple, a suave, sword-wielding Bogart/Bacall act catching arrows out of midair, foiling assassins, or coolly demonstrating their fighting techniques on an assortment of Ming dynasty stooges. Hong Kong action mainstays of the eighties and nineties Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung appear in minor roles, Biao as a young student and Hung (even then) throwing his considerable weight around as the main Japanese pirate.


In wide release, I would like to see Kick-Ass and Iron Man 2.

In limited release, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, La Mission, OSS 117 - Lost in Rio and Harry Brown interest me.


On June 4, PFA kicks off their 3 month Kurosawa series.

That same night, the Paramount Theater in Oakland is screening Georgy Girl (1966), featuring the late Lynn Redgrave's starmaking performance.

PFA kicks off a long weekend of Mexican Classic Sci-Fi films from June 24 to 27.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs July 15 to 18 at the Castro.

Hole in the Head run from July 8 to 22. Will the Thrill and Monica the Tiki Goddess of Thrillville will be presenting a double feature on closing night - Mil Mascaras vs. The Aztec Mummy and its follow-up Academy of Doom.

Friday, May 14, 2010

How the Irish Saved Civilization, Cherry Bomb and Birdemic

I recently caught two films at the Roxie.

The Secret of Kells; animated; (2009) - Official Website
The Runaways starring Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart; (2010) - Official Website


I didn't enjoy The Secret of Kells. One of the main reasons I wanted to see it was that it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. I found the story confusing. I often think that animated films focus too much on fantastical animation at the expense of the plot or character development. In this case, the story focused on Brandon, an Irish boy whose uncle is the Abbot of Kells, the village where they live. Set in the 9th century, the Abbot's sole purpose seems to be constructing a wall to keep Viking marauders. A monk from the island of Iona arrives in Kells with his cat and the Book of Kells. What is the Book of Kells? It's never made clear in the film but it is a Latin version (with illustrations) of the Four Gospels of the Bible.

Brandom becomes captivated by Brother Aidan and his book. He ventures into the forest (where his uncle has forbade him to go) in search of berries to create green ink to continue the illustrations. He meets a wolf who turns into a girl and there is some dragon whose eye is the lens to understanding the Book of Kells. To be honest I lost interest after a few minutes in the forest full of kaleidoscopic images. Eventually the Vikings come and sack the village. Aidan, Brandon and the book escape.

What does a lupine shape shifter have to do with Viking raids on Ireland or Irish monks transcribing books in the Middle Ages? Nothing as far as I can see. I thought the film would have been infinitely better without the fantasy elements.


The Runaways is a biopic of the pioneering all girl rock & roll band of the same name. The film focuses on Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). Rather than a fully formed story, the film amalgamates various scenes to create a superficial but enjoyable analysis of the rise and the fall of The Runaways.

Jett is the driving force behind the band although what drives her "Love of Rock 'n Roll" is never explained. Curie is chosen by Jett and band manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) based on her appearance. Curie, the daughter of an alcoholic father and selfish mother, is transformed as the film progresses. Naive and largely chaste when the film begins, she is a drug addict and bi-sexual by the time she breaks off from The Runaways. As for Fowley, who is referred to as a scumbag and Svengali, I'm not sure what the problem is. He has sex but not with the underage band members. He teaches them to project their sexuality into their performances which Curie quickly masters. He abdicates much of his managerial responsibilities to Jett who seems only too willing to accept that role. When he does exert his authority, it's to bully Curie into performing at the record stuiod which seems appropriate since the other band members and audience can't understand (or sympathize) why she can no longer perform.

The film features a great 1970's era soundtrack and Stewart is dead on as Joan Jett. The film depicts a lesbian relationship between Jett & Curie which given Curie's pre-Runaway, wide-eyed, barely menstruating depiction may explain a lot about her subsequent drug use and the demise of The Runaways.

A few of my favorite scenes.

Before forming The Runaways, Jett takes some guitar lessons. She is expecting electric guitar lessons. The teacher is an aging but sexist looking Beatnik who thinks its not appropriate for women to play electric guitar. Instead, he tries to teach her "On Top of Old Smoky."

At the end of the film, promoting her debut album with the Blackhearts, Jett is dressed in jacket/T-shirt combo that looks like something Ellen Degeneres would wear on her talkshow.


A couple weekends ago, the Roxie screened Birdemic at 11 PM on Friday & Saturday nights. It was in the middle of the San Francisco International Film Festival so I missed it. I guess it must have been a hit because they are scheduling encore screenings on May 28 and 29. The film is touring extensively around the country over the next two months.

What is Birdemic all about? According to the official website, aplatoon of eagles & vultures attack the residents of a small town. Many people died. It's not known what caused the flying menace to attack. Two people managed to fight back, but will they survive Birdemic?

Is Birdemic any good? According to Wikipedia, Birdemic has been noted for its vastly poor quality, with reviewers calling out its wooden acting, bad dialogue, nonsensical plot and, in particular, its special effects, consisting entirely of poorly rendered CGI eagles and vultures that, in addition to performing physically awkward aerial maneuvers (non-animated bird sprites in the background will simply rotate 360° in mid-air), spit acid and explode upon impact with the ground.

Am I going to attend Birdemic? I don't know. It sounds like a midnight movie classic-in-the-making but I find I don't like films that are too cheesey.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

2010 San Francisco International Film Festival

After some internal debate, I decided to take the plunge with this year's San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). My PFA membership gave me discounted ticket prices so I went hog wild and attended 21 screenings. The festival ran April 22 to May 6.


Nymph directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang; Thai with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Moscow; Korean with subtitles; (2009)
Littlerock; Japanese & English with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Empire of Silver starring Aaron Kwok; with Jennifer Tilly; Mandarin with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Cracks starring Eva Green; directed by Jordan Scott; (2009) - Official Website
Wake in Fright (aka Outback) starring Gard Bond and Donald Pleasence; (1971)
Domaine starring Béatrice Dalle; French with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Vengeance starring Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong & Simon Yam; directed by Johnny To; Cantonese, English & French with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Winter's Bone directed by Debra Granik; (2009) - Official Website
Air Doll starring Bae Doo-na; directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda; Japanese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
The Music Room directed by Satyajit Ray; Bengali with subtitles; (1958)
Julia starring Tilda Swinton; (2008) - Official Website
Senso starring Aida Valli & Farley Granger; directed by Luchino Visconti; Italian and German with subtitles; (1954)
I Am Love starring Tilda Swinton; Italian & Russian with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Bodyguards and Assassins starring Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Tony Leung Ka-fai and Simon Yam; Mandarin with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Last Train Home; documentary; directed by Lixin Fan; Mandarin with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
14-18: The Noise and the Fury; documentary; (2009) - Official Website
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Stephin Merritt, et al.; (1916)
Northless; Spanish with subtitles; (2009)
Waiting for "Superman"; documentary; directed by Davis Guggenheim; (2010) - Official Website
Garbo the Spy; documentary; English and Spanish with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website


A few tidbits before I highlight some of the films.

Cracks director Jordan Scott is the daughter of director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner).

Air Doll's Bae Doo-na starred in one of my favorite film's of the past few years - Linda Linda Linda (2005). She is Korean (she played the Korean exchange student in Linda) but her Japanese must be improving as her character speaks Japanese throughout Air Doll.

Air Doll's director is the Hirokazu Kore-eda whose Still Walking I enjoyed last year.

Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields provided the live music for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. He was accompanied by "Castro organist David Hegarty and frequent Merritt collaborator and author Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemany Snicket)." It seemed like one or two women were also in the ensemble but I couldn't find a credit for them.

Julia was programmed by film critic Roger Ebert who received the Mel Novikoff Award. Ebert who has been stricken with cancer and has had a significant portion of his jaw removed. Ebert now speaks with the aid of a voice synthesizer (think Stephen Hawking). Ebert and his wife Chaz were on the Castro Theater stage as directors Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff), Errol Morris (The Fog of War), Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) and Terry Zwigoff ( Crumb) paid tribute.

The Golden Gate Award Winner in the category of Investigative Documentary Feature was Last Train Home.

The Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature went to Winter’s Bone.

Waiting for "Superman" was a late addition to the festival lineup so it doesn't appear in the printed program. The film's director Davis Guggenheim also directed An Inconvenient Truth.


My favorite film of the festival was Julia. Tilda Swinton gives a marvelous performance as Julia, a slutty alcoholic who latches onto a mentally unstable woman's plan to kidnap her son (who is in the custody of the boy's paternal grandfather). The woman wants to spirit the boy to Mexico (her homeland) but Julia double crosses the woman by keeping the boy and demanding a ranson. Poorly conceived and executed, Julia's plan quickly goes awry and she and the boy end up in Tijuana. Julia runs her mouth and drinks too much...again After unwittingly sleeping with one of the conspirators, the boy is snatched from Julia and the Mexican kidnappers demand a ranson and they mean business. The film is a showcase for Swinton who plays Julia as a woman who can't find bottom.


The documentary Last Train Home also kept me enthralled. Every spring, major cities in China convulse with the New Year exodus. Over 130 million peasants-turned-factory workers jam train stations in a desperate attempt to go home for this, their only holiday.

I expected an epic documentary on par with Manufactured Landscapes about the largest human migration in the history of the planet. Instead, I found a smaller film that showed a family being torn apart by distance and absence. Parents Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin leave their small farming village soon after their daughter Zhang Qin is born. They venture thousands of kilometers away to obtain a job in clothing factory sewing blue jeans. I would call it a sweat shop. Such is the economics of China that the Zhang forske everything for these jobs which are so much more lucrative than farming in a small village. The Zhang consider themselve self-sacrificing. They are choosing to separate themselves from their children so that they can send money home so that their children can go to university. Their eldest (Qin) is not so appreciative. Her earliest memories are of being raised by her grandparents and her limited interactions with her parents consists of a constant barrage of criticisms. Qin is getting sick of living in a small village and she's a rebellious teenager. Against her parents' wishes she quits high school and goes to work in the same province as her parents. Eventually, she has a violent confrontation with her father and becomes estranged from her parents. The film leaves unanswered the ultimate fate of the Zhang or even if they have since reconciled.

The backdrops for this family drama are two horrific journeys home for New Years. The journeys are horrific for the overcrowding and, in one case, extended train delay. I couldn't help but think that the Zhang family's problem is not that dissimilar to problems in the US related to absentee parents and juvenile delinquency.


Another documentary I enjoyed tremendously was Waiting for "Superman".

Waiting For "Superman" is a provocative and cogent examination of the crisis of public education in the United States told through multiple interlocking stories—from a handful of students and their families whose futures hang in the balance to the educators and reformers trying to find real and lasting solutions within a broken system.

Waiting For "Superman" is certainly "provocative and cogent" in my opinion. Director Davis Guggenheim takes square aim an teachers unions and the practice of granting tenure to public school teachers. It's been about a week since I saw the film & I can't recall what worked in terms of teaching children. I distinctly recall what doesn't work. Bad teachers are about 1/3 as effective as good teachers and if one could get rid of a small percent of the lowest performing teachers, one could achieve tremendous gains in education or at least test scores. However, teachers unions won't all bad teachers to be fired on the basis of student performance nor will it allo good teacher to be rewarded on that same basis.

In full disclosure, I've long thought teachers unions are antiethical to the best interests of educating children. Waiting For "Superman" shares this view which may be why I enjoyed it so much. It certainly doesn't hew to the political left's embrace of teachers unions. Guggenheim's paternal instinct doesn't allow him to send his child to public school. Would anyone send their children to a public school if they could afford to send them to a better private school?

The film follows multiple threads. It documents what is wrong with the public educational system and what is right or improving (Washington, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee gets a flattering portrait). Guggenheim follows a handful public school students as they search holy grail which in this case is winning a lottery to get into a high performing school. The climax of the film is an extended sequence cutting back & forth between lotteries are each student awaits the magic number. Sadly, all the profiled students were not chosen except (ironically) the Woodside girl from seemingly the most affluent family. I'm not hinting that the fix was in but rather that the child whose future was brightest got the biggest boost by being admitted to a high performing public school. The way the parents pinned all their hopes on the school lottery was depressing in itself. Then to lose the lottery felt like you were watching a child's entire life being decided before your eyes.

A large contingent from Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City was in the audience. I was most interested in the discussion until a man stood up and delivered a self-serving lecture before being chastised into asking his question. Have I ever mentioned that film festival audiences rarely ask a question. Usually they pontificate.


Northless was a film that Festival Programmer Rod Armstrong characterized as particularly timely given the (I believe he used the word) oppressive law recently passed in Arizona. Nothing like a film programmer interjecting his politics into the introduction. Putting aside one's thought about illegal immigration, Northless was less about the act and more about its impact on those left behind.

The film follows Andrés, a Mexican from the southern part of the country, as he repeatedly attempts to cross into the US from the Baja California area I believe. Not much time is spent on his attempts as the focus of the film is Andrés interactions with Ela and Cata. Ela is 40something woman who owns a small general store where Andrés gets a job and a cot to sleep on. Cata, a younger woman in her 20s, works for Ela as well. Ela quickly takes a liking to Andrés while Cata takes longer to warm up. Andrés learns that both Ela and Cata are married and their husbands crossed the border plans of joining them later. Years have passed and both women have given up hope of being reunited with their husbands; they've both been abandoned.

As such, the women view the border less as the gateway to opportunity but a trap that swallows up decent and hardworking men including Andrés if he ever succeeds. Now this sounds like a serious film but director Rigoberto Perezcano uses a light touch and gentle humor to coax out a personal story about a doomed love triangle because Andrés' real desire is to get to the US.


Moscow is another personal film about the ephemeral nature of friendship set against the cruel world of class warfare and labor strife. Labor activist Jin-hee and corporate office worker Ye-won were best friends in Jr. High but Jin-hee's family's financial trouble forced a separation. Ye-won went on to university to study acting but has given up those dreams for a corporte job. Jin-hee became an activist who was in the middle of a hunger strike when the stress of the situation becomes too much. She finds Ye-won and they rekindle their friendship. All is well at first but as Jin-hee overstays her welcome at Ye-won's studio apartment, tensions arise. In particular, Jin-hee becomes more extroverted and obsessed with the landing the lead role in a production of Chekov's Three Sisters hence the title of the film. The two women have their denouement on a blizzard swept mountain side.

The characters weren't fully developed and I thought the entire labor activism thread could have been dropped but the movie certainly hit a bittersweet note.


Air Doll's eponymous character (Bae Doo-na) comes to life every morning when her owner leaves for work. The air doll is a sex doll and the owner is a self-deluded loser. The Air Doll comes to life and takes to the streets every morning. First in a sexy maid uniform but eventually she gets a job and buys her clothes. Bae Doo-na's never gets fleshed out (pun intended) but that's the plot device. The living incarnation of the air doll is a commentary on women in Japanese society and later she observes that there is a certain lonliness and inability to meaningfully interact between people. The disassociation the air doll feels is really not that different from the rest of society. However, a small cut can literally deflate her and eventually her owner buys a new and improved sex doll.

The film was rather bleak for its whimsical gimmick. Bae Doo-na is frequently topless or nude which was surprising for a well known actress. The film doesn't quite satisfy; not that it was intended to. It left me as empty as a deflated air doll which was likely the intention.


Littlerock is a small independent film with elements of Mumblecorp. The story invovles two Japanese siblings. Their grandfather left the US for Japan on the eve or WWII. The brother and sister are making a journey through California culminating in a trip to Manzanar. Along the way, their car breaks down in the town of Littlerock near Palmdale. They get involved with some locals, the dimmest of the bunch develops a crush the sister, Atsuko. Atsuko decides to stay in town while her brother heads up to San Francisco for a few days. The reason is that Atsuko has become attracted to one of the other locals. As she stays around town, she begins to observe and do things that she never thought about in Japan - drug dealing, racism, sex, etc.


Vengeance is a big budget Johnny To film that lets French 1960s rocker Johnny Hallyday use his weathered face to great effect. Hallyday plays a French assassin cum resturanteur who comes to Macao to fetch his critically wounded daughter. His daughter, her Chinese husband and their kids have been shot with only her surviving. Nearly comatose, she asks her father to take vengeance. He happens upon a hit team in his hotel and elists their help in finding the killers. They quickly determine it was a professional job. I won't continue with the plot because there are twist and turns and watching Hallyay, Simon Yam, et al. adhere to their perverted code of honor is most enjoyable. I will criticize the film in comparison to the films I saw PFA a couple years ago. Vengeance was not quite up to the level of Mad Detective or Triad Election.


Bodyguards and Assassins was a Chinese action film that boasted an all-star cast. The premise is a visit by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen to Hong Kong. The Empress Dowager has ordered Sun assassinated. Sun's main ally in HK has hired bodyguards and body double to run the gauntlet. While Sun has been secreted away, his body double is making his way along the street of HK in a pith helmet and palaquin while the bodyguards do their best to protect him. The plot was ridiculous and the setup took forever. They had to introduce each character and give them some backstory - the 7 foot former Shaolin monk reduced to selling Stinky Tofu on the street, the dirty cop whose ex-wife has kept his existence secret from their daughter, the teenage daughter of an acrobat or opera singer that must avenge his death, the rickshaw puller in love with a women with a club foot, etc. So much setup for a 30 minute guantlet run.


Domaine was a film light on plot more than compensated by the fabulous Béatrice Dalle. Undeniably sexy despite a middle aged spread, a Lauren Hutton gap between her front teeth and a passing resemblance to Sandra Bernhard, Dalle struts around the film in constant decline from happy drunk to sloppy drunk to ugly drunk...her nephew strangely at her side. For the first third of the film the nature of their relationship is left ambiguous. Eventually we realize the Dalle is an alcoholic that is drinking herself to death while her nephew is uncomfortable with his sexuality. They are locked in a co-dependency but as he matures physically and emotionally, the bonds between the two slowly and painfully dissolve.


Wake in Fright was billed as an Ozploitation or Australian exploitation film. As such I was expecting a certain kind of film. However, Wake in Fright was much different than what I was expecting.

Schoolteacher John Grant is stuck in a two building town in the Australian Outback (Tiboonda I think was the name). He is off to Sydney to meet his girlfriend for summer vacation. He takes the train to Bundanyabba (the 'Yabba), a larger town in the Outback where he can catch a flight to Sydney. Within half a day of his arrival he is hungover and broke; having lost all his money on a coinflip. Stuck without any money but always a boor around to buy him a beer, Grant falls in with a some real characters lead by a disgraced veterinarian (Donald Pleasence). At this point, the film turns into Deliverance in the Outback. They drink nonstop, they brawl with each other, they shoot kangaroos, they slit the throats of the wounded roos, they cut the testicles off the dead roos, etc. In one drunken episode, Pleasence and Grant have sex. I can't tell if it was consensual within the context both men being drunk or if Pleasence forced himself on Grant. It doesn't really matter. By that point in the film, we have witnessed Grant descent into the most execrable of circumstances and his burgeoning self-loathing. Even Grant's attempt to escape his environment fail and he resorts to suicide. Predictably he even fails at that.

Wake in Fright was less about exploiting stereotypes of backward Aussies than the downfall of a man at the cost of his self-respect and pride. Of course, if you were a Outback denizen or kangaroo lover, you probably took a different view.


20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was a silent film which did not age well. Extended underwater scenes must have been spectacular in 1916 look patently absurd now. The plot was difficult to follow due to unnecessary scenes and plotlines. Captain Nemo and her daughter essentially wore blackface and traded on Indian and Wild (Wo)Man of Borneo stereotypes.

With that said, Stephin Merritt's live score did nothing to help matters. He provided a kitschy (but ultimately cloying) refrain at the beginning of each reel which were conveniently marked with title cards stating "Part 1," "Part 2," etc. Beyond that, he and his co-conspirators seemed to play the film as high camp with falsetto voices for the women, muffled voices for the men and music that poked fun at the film. In a nutshell, he hammed it up as opposed to respecting the film. To be honest, I found the film less than compelling so I can't fully criticize Merritt's approach but I was completely unaware of who Stephin Merritt was going into the screening. I certainly am not a fan of his after the screening. Woe to those whose first silent film screening was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.


In addition to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, there were a number of films that fell short of my expectations.

Nymph was billed as thriller/horror/suspense film from noted Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang. I found it slow moving and unnecessarily contemplative. In fact, I fell asleep.

14-18: The Noise and the Fury was a faux documentary. The narrator's character was fictitious but the film used actual newsreel footage and photos from WWI. I had no trouble with this setup but the narrative was disjointed, the archive footage was colorized for no seemingly apparent reason and the narration tried too hard to achieve gravitas.

Senso was a restored Luchino Visconti film which was high melodrama depicting 1860's Italy. Having seen Il Gattopardo (1963), I'm beginning to wonder about Visconti. Farley Granger was speaking Italian and German; I'm not sure if he spoke either language or memorized his lines phonetically. I think the latter.

Granger's performance was just part of a larger "problem." I found the film cumbersome and could not empathize with Alida Valli's character. I was never fully convinced that her desire and obsession for Farley Granger would lead her character to do what she did. It was obvious that Granger was scamming her but she was oblivious. In real life, I've seen similar situations but I don't have much sympathy. Venturing into sexist stereotypes, I know there are women who would willingly ignore a man's significant faults in order to be with him; i.e. desperate women. Valli's Livia didn't strike me as desperate and certainly Granger's womanizing ways and pointed indifference would be enough to dissuade her from continuing the affair. However, in Visconti's film, Livia follows this path to the bitter end.

I Am Love is a bit like Senso. Tilda Swinton is the matriarch of a wealthy Italian family. She doesn't seem dissatisfied but yet she embarks on a passionate affair with a friend of her son. Of course, the affair destroys her family but by that point in the film, I was left wondering when the film would be over. The love scenes were well photographed; I particularly liked the quick cuts to close-ups of the insects.

The Music Room also put me to sleep. The first portion of the film had a number of musical performances that acted like a lullaby. However, the uptempo finale was very rousing. I'd like to see The Music Room again but not after a large meal.

Empire of Silver and Garbo the Spy were middling efforts that aren't noteworthy. Perhaps, the wolfpack scene in Empire of Silver is noteworthy for its ridiculousness.


Cracks was the debut effort of director Jordan Scott. It's a period piece set in the 1930s at a remote, all-female English boarding school. The alluring if not unhinged Miss "G" (Eva Green) is an instructor at the school. She has created a diving team which really serves as her cult following. With the help of team captain Di Radfield (Juno Temple), Miss G revels in exerting her influence on the girls.

Then Fiamma Coronna, a wealthy Spanish girl (Maria Valverde), enrolls and is housed in the diving team's dorm. Fiamma upends Miss G's applecart. Miss G loves to recount tales of her global adventures but Fiamma recognizes them as fiction because she has read the same novels. This leads to a triangle between Miss G, Fiamma & Di. It's more of a struggle for control and survival than a love triangle although at the end Miss G does takes advantage of a drunken Fiamma.

The film is entertaining even if the motivation of the characters are obscure. I'm not sure what drives Miss G to do what she does. She is an alumni of the school and seemingly comes from an impoverished background. This seems to have instilled a tremendous drive to impose her will combined with a lack of self-esteem which borders on psychosis. Eva Green tears it up on screen with chic 1930's clothing, self-mutterings, raccoon eye shadow and a crisp English accent. Slightly ess flamboyant is June Temple as Di Radfield. Bitchy, insecure, yearning for Miss G's approval and Queen B among the diving team, Di is very threatened by Fiamma.

That leaves Maria Valverde with the least thankful role. Her Fiamma is an outsider who alternately does not want to be there but her acts of kindness can never fully gain admission to the clique. Self-confident at times but frightened that her father's infidelity and true reason for her presence at the school will be exposed. Valverde creates a certain melancholy aura around Fiamma without making the character morose.

Cracks was admirable first effort.


Winter's Bone provided the biggest surprise. I backed into Winter's Bone because I wanted to see a film before Air Doll. The timing and some extra Cinevoucher credits are wholly responsible for me choosing to see Winter's Bone.

17 year old Ree Doll (Jennifer Lawrence in a great performance) is the de facto head of her family. Her father is a meth cook frequently in jail or absent. Her mother is mentally ill and noncommunicative. Ree assumes a maternal role for her two younger siblings. One day, the sheriff knocks on the door looking for Ree's father. Ree hasn't seen him to which the sheriff informs her that the old man has pledged the house to post his bond. If he doesn't show up in court in a couple of days, the bondsman will take possession of the house and evict Ree and her family.

This sets Ree on journey to find her father. At every turn, she is warned to not press the matter but Ree can't back down. She needs her father to show up in court to avoid being evicted. Slowly, the audience realizes why Ree's father is absent and why the sheriff came looking for him. Ree's father was a police informant and was killed because of it. Ree's family, friends and acquaintances are all mixed up in the meth business. They don't trust the snitch's daughter and they afford to have the young woman poking around their affairs.

Ree doesn't grow much as a character during the film as you would expect of a teenager confronting these issues. Indeed, she's the only adult in her family when the film starts. However, she shows an endless amount of courage as she encounters some frightening characters and physical violence. That's the hook for the film. How does this girl keep moving forward considering all the obstacles put in her way?

I hope Winter's Bone gets a general theatrical release because it was one of my favorites from the festival.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Bizarre Japanese House

Last month, I saw House at the Castro.

House directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi; Japanese with subtitles; (1977) - Official Website

I'm not sure if I can remember the full plot. Six high school girls go to the country to visit the aunt of one of them. The girls' names are Gorgeous, Fantasy, Kung Fu, Professor, Melody and Sweet (or Mac as in Big Mac). I think they are staying Gorgeous' aunt's house. I believe the house serves as the organ for the aunt to maintain her youth. She needs a steady stream of virgins to visit her so that the house can literally devour them. Their youth and innocence get transferred to the aunt.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, the real purpose of the film is to be self-aware of various cliches and horror movie tropes. I can't really describe the hyper-stylized film beyond that. The painted backdrops are cheap and meant to look cheap. There's some equally cheesey looking animation throughout the film. The girls play it straight for the most part which adds to the campiness.

Even the most dour of movie goers could find something to smile about in the film. The official website describes the film as an episode of Scooby Doo as directed by Dario Argento. That summarizes it nicely.

Dennis Nyback Triple Play and FOFF's Bricks in the Wall

Dennis Nyback came to town in April. He screened five programs in five days. I was able to catch three of the screenings.

I watched two programs at the Red Vic.

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

I Know Why You’re Afraid is 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.

I caught a third program at the YBCA.

So, You Wanna Fight! - Film archivist and raconteur Dennis Nyback returns to YBCA for his annual screening of weird and wonderful delights from the past. Today he'll present boxing films of the 20th Century from the teens to the fifties. Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Max Baer, "Jersey" Joe Walcott, Tex Avery, many others, plus the ferocious fightin' eight-year-old girl, Pam Sproul. Don't get too close to the screen or you might be splattered with blood.

Of the three, I enjoyed I Know Why You’re Afraid which closed with a fantastic 14 minute short film called Caught in a Rip-Off featuring a pitch perfect synthesizer soundtrack and Sam Peckinpah inspired slow-motion action scenes.

I sensed that Nyback was expecting more audience interaction than what occurred after the screenings I attended. I actually felt bad enough for him to ask a few questions since everyone else was reticent after Terrorism Light and Dark.

My favorite moment came after So, You Wanna Fight!. Nyback introduced the show by saying he had been asked in the past to create a boxing related program. Nyback said boxing never appealed to him so he would regularly throw out or give away boxing related films that were donated to his archive. For reasons which escape me, Nyback decided to program So, You Wanna Fight! when the YBCA asked him. After the program, a man in the audience asked Nyback if he had changed his mind about boxing after creating the program. Nyback replied that his opinion had not changed and he felt boxing was barbaric and should be banned. The questioner expressed his disappointment that Nyback could not appreciate finer points of the sweet science.

Caught In A Rip-Off (1974)

A/V Geeks | MySpace Video

Nyback also screened two programs at Oddball Film and Video which I did not attend. In fact, I've never been to Oddball. I'll have to get out there sometime.


I notice that the Film on Film Foundation's next event is at Oddball on May 15. The progam is titled Bricks in the Wall: Humans and Their Built Environment.

In this program we explore how we construct our urban milieu... and how it constructs us. It is said necessity is the mother of invention and the converse is just as true. We are shaped by and made dependent on the environment we build around us. First Lewis Mumford sets the tone with his as-relevant-as-ever views on urbanism. Then we examine methods of construction from the ultra-primitive to the super-modern. After a personal and poetic detour into lyrical city-history by future Oscar-winner István Szabó, we conclude with a couple of films delving (somewhat ham-fistedly) into the psychological fallout of our urban obsession.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The State of Commercial Real Estate in San Francisco, the Case of the Missing Propeller, the Cupcake Factory and The British Are Coming

As I have been out and about in San Francisco over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a few things...none of which are cinema related.


There is a lot of vacant commercial/office property in San Francisco. Union Square and the Financial District seem particularly distressed. It seems like every one of the vacant properties has a sign listing Kazuko Morgan of Cushman Wakefield as the leasing agent. Kazuko Morgan must be the Michael Jordan of commercial real estate agents and/or Cushman Wakefield must have hundreds of thousands of vacant square feet in San Francisco.


Matson Shipping had/has an office in the building at the corner of Mission and Spear. I know it’s Matson Shipping because they had model ships with their name in the lobby and a Golden Propeller outside the building. I moved here in 1992 and the Golden Propeller was already a landmark, On the afternoon of May 7, there was a tall, wooden fence around the Golden Propeller and I could hear workmen inside. On the afternoon of May 8, the Golden Propeller was gone and the lobby windows where the model ships were previously displayed were covered over with construction paper.


I repeatedly rode the 38 Geary Muni bus from the Kabuki Cinemas to Powell Street during the recently concluded San Francisco International Film Festival. The bus stop I exited at was on the 200 block of O’Farrell. At 211 O’Farrell (near the corner of Powell and O’Farrell) is Cako Bakery. The window display consists of row after row of appealing looking cupcakes. I wonder whether a cupcake purveyor can survive in such a high rent location. I stopped in last Friday and tried a Strawberries and Cream Cupcake ($3). Not bad but nothing to write home about (although apparently it’s something to blog about). Actually, I read a few months ago about how cupcakes were making a comeback. Red velvet cakes/cupcakes are also popular.


Also last Friday, I went to American Conservatory Theater to see Round and Round the Garden, a play by Alan Ayckbourn. Written and set in the 1970’s, this sex farce hit all the right notes for me. I laughed heartily throughout the performance. Round and Round the Garden is part of a trilogy called The Norman Conquests (the lead character is named Norman). The Shotgun Players in Berkeley are performing the entire trilogy from August 6 to September 5.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Noir: Classic and Neo

I caught two noir films recently. The first was a classic by Stanley Kubrick called The Killing. It was part of a Stanley Kubrick series at the Castro.

The Killing starring Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr.; directed by Stanley Kubrick; (1956)

The Killing is an exceptional noir film. The plot consists of the planning and execution of an intricate robbery followed by the inevitable unraveling. Particular kudos go to Marie Windsor as the two-timing gold-digger and Elisha Cook Jr. as her pathetically cuckolded husband. Timothy Carey also shines in a small role as a sniper who has to resort to racist taunts to ditch a too-chatty security guard.

I had never seen this film before so it was quite a joy to see Hayden lead his gang on a race-track caper. It was quite a motley bunch including a dirty cop, an alcoholic money man, an Eastern European wrestler/chess grandmaster, milquetoast Elisha Cook and the wild-eyed Timothy Carey. After pulling off the robbery, everything goes catawampus as it always does in noir films. I won’t divulge too many details but Cook’s and Windsor’s loose lips and an annoying, yippy dog at the airport lead to the downfall.


The other film I saw was the Australian neo-noir The Square.

The Square; directed by Nash Edgerton; (2008) - Official Website

I saw this film at the Landmark Lumiere although it also recently played at the Balboa and Cinequest. It opens at the Roxie on May 14.

I believe all the screenings of the The Square weer/are preceded by a 10 minute short film also directed by Nash Edgerton called Spider (2007).

The Square centers around Raymond, a government administrator in charge of the development of the eponymous town square. Within the first few minutes of the film, we observe him having sex in a car with Carla (both of whom are married to other people) and soliciting a kickback from a contractor in exchange for a construction contract. He’s just getting warmed up. Carla observes her ne’er-do-well husband behaving strangely. She soon finds a bagful of cash. Carla and Ray hatch a plan to burn down Carla’s house so her husband thinks the money has burned up. Instead, Carla will take the money before the fire while Ray hires an arsonist to carry out the job.

Things look ducky until Carla’s mother-in-law makes a last minute visit and ends up napping in the house while the arsonist torches it. When the arsonist discovers he has unwittingly committed murder, he demands more money from Ray. Meanwhile, Ray is receiving extortion notes demanding money or else. Also, Carla’s husband begins to suspect the money didn’t go up in smoke. If that’s not enough, Ray “accidentally” kills a couple people.

The effect is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You know this can’t end well for Ray or Carla but you can’t avert your gaze from the upcoming carnage. The Square is one of my favorite films so far this year.

Spider was pretty good too...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Remembering Playland at the Beach

I made it out to the Balboa to see Remembering Playland at the Beach.

Remembering Playland at the Beach; documentary; (2010) - Official Website

The barebones documentary is a treat for anyone with an interest in San Francisco history. I moved out here long after Playland closed but am aware of what it was. At the far western end of San Francisco, they had an amusement park for over 50 years. You used to be able to take a cable car and later a streetcar out there. Playland was home to Laughing (aka Laffing) Sal, a number of arcade games and amusement rides. Some of the attractions are preserved at several locations - Playland Not-at-the-Beach in El Cerrito, the Musée Mécanique at Pier 45 (Laffing Sal and some arcade games) and the Zeum Child Museum at Yerba Gardens (historic carousel).

The film is a loving tribute to bygone days. When I first heard there used to be an amusement park where the condos and Safeway currently stand at Ocean Beach, my first thought is that it’s awfully foggy and chilly out there for an amusement park. The proximity to the beach and Golden Gate Park must have been the main advantages. I’m sure that the weather contributed to the declining attendance at the park. The filmmakers posit that poor management was the root cause of the park’s decline and eventual demise. Walt Disney hired away Playland’s owner’s son and heir apparent to help design Disneyland. One interviewee stated that while in high school, a teacher led discussion digressed to Playland and the comment from another student was that “It wasn’t cool to go there anymore.” The film deals less with the demise of the park than loving memorials to Playland from former patrons and employees with particular emphasis placed on the various rides such as the Shoot-the-Chutes, the Big Dipper Roller Coaster and the Diving Bell.

Clearly a labor of love, Remembering Playland at the Beach is a film perfectly paired with the Balboa. Located 10 blocks from the former site of Playland, the Balboa conjures the same memories as the film – old time San Francisco when Sutro Baths, the Cliff House, Playland and the Balboa reigned in the Outer Richmond District. The lobby of the Balboa is festooned with photos and other memorabilia from Playland which was as entertaining the film.

The film was just over an hour but was augmented by film clips that were shot or inspired by Playland including clips from The Lineup (1958) which screened at last year’s Best of Columbia Noir at the Roxie and The Lady from Shanghai (1947) starring Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Harimaya Bridge

I ventured to the UA Stonestown Cinema for the first time in several years recently. I believe the last film I saw at Stonestown was The Aristocrats (2005). On April 23, I went on to see The Harimaya Bridge. The screening was well attended. The film was partially shot in San Francisco and much of the cast and crew were locals. A flyer announced that the filmmakers would take questions after the screening but I skipped out.

The Harimaya Bridge starring Ben Guillory, Saki Takaoka, Misa Shimizu and Danny Glover; (2009) - Official Website

The film was a serviceable melodrama. The plot revolved around Daniel Holder (Guillory), a man coping with the death of his son who was an art teacher in Japan at the time of his death. This poses a specific problem for Holder whose father was killed by the Japanese as a POW in WWII. This fuels a hatred for all things Japanese and causes a rift between father and son. Actually, Holder's "hatred" is portrayed more like disdain and cross-cultural ignorance. Who doesn't know to take your shoes off in a Japanese home?

Holder travels to Japan to retrieve his son's paintings and perhaps arrange an posthumous exhibition. With the help of a selfless and infinitely patient government worker (Shimizu), Holder retraces his son's life in Japan only to discover he has a granddaughter.

I enjoyed the film well enough. The exterior shots in Japan captures the dichotomy between beauty of Japanese architecture and drab utilitarian nature of its housing and commercial districts. I thought the film fell short in its depiction of Holder as one step above a barbarian and simplistic portrayal of the Japanese as largely without fault. There was a scene where Kubo (Takaoka), Holder's daughter-in-law, tells him that her daughter is Japanese. I guffawed at that one. The girl is most certainly not Japanese by citizenship and I have little doubt an insular society like the Japanese would reject and ostracize a half-black, half-Japanese girl.

With that said, the film entertained me with solid performances and its "stranger in a strange land" scenes. Misono, in an over-the-top role as a ditzy secretary in Shimizu's office, caught my attention. Toshiyuki Kitami as Kubo's father made the most of his limited screen time as the unyielding father who is as disappointed in her daughter's marriage as Holder. The pacing of the film felt like a Japanese family drama film but the director is Aaron Woolfolk who is Oakland born and raised. Several of Mami Kobayashi's paintings (which stood in for Holder's son's artwork in the film) were visually appealing.

Another ticky-tack plot problem was the age of Daniel Holder. He says his father was killed in WWII. Holder recounted a trip to SF MOMA with his father when he was 10. Assuming the man died in 1945, Daniel Holder would have to be around 75 years old in the film. Ben Guillory is 61 and looks younger. Shimizu's character says her uncle died in WWII. Shimuzu is 40 years old so her uncle died 25 years before she was born.

Danny Glover co-produced the film and founded an theater company with Guillory. Glover has a few scenes in the film as Guillory's younger brother.

The film only screened one week at the Stonestown. According to the official website, the film will screen on May 20 at the Rialto Cinema Elmwood in Berkeley.