Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Jennifer Jones, Fish Tank and Shanty Tramp

The Stanford Theater is screening a Jennifer Jones Tribute double feature January 8 to 10. The Stanford is screening two of her biggest hits - Love is a Many Splendored Thing co-starring William Holden (1955) and Good Morning, Miss Dove (1955).

I don't know if this is part of a longer tribute or if the Jones series is limited to this weekend. Jennifer Jones passed away last month


The Vogue Theater in San Francisco is offering a free screening of Fish Tank (2009). The screening is co-sponsored by the Mostly British Film Festival. The film was 2009 Jury Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival.

A woman’s desire is the subject of this taboo-breaking film about a 15-year old girl who becomes attracted to her mother’s young boyfriend played by Hunger’s Michael Fassbender. The disruption in everyone’s life is vividly captured by director Andrea Arnold, an Oscar winner for her short film Wasp. Her debut feature Red Road was another Cannes Jury Prize winner.

The screening is Saturday, January 16 at 11 AM.


Thrillville is screening Shanty Tramp (1967) at the 4 Star on Thursday, January 21. That's the night before Noir City opens.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sherlock Holmes and Russian Ark

The first film I saw in 2010 was Sherlock Holmes (2009). The film stars Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Rachel McAdams. It was directed by Guy Ritchie. Given the popularity of the film, there is little point in sharing too many thoughts about the film except to say I was mildly entertained. There was certainly a chemistry between Downey & Law. In fact, this film's depiction of the relationship between Holmes and Watson had strong overtones of homosexuality. There was a scene where Holmes extends his spyglass (how's that for phallic imagery?) using Watson's chest to steady it for some reason. Holmes also does his best to break up Watson's pending wedding engagement.

Ritchie's film is set in a steampunk, action movie milieu. By no means am I a Holmes scholar but I don't recall Holmes fighting in a pit in a retro-revisionist UFC type competition. I could quibble but I'm not wedded to the image of Holmes in deerstalker cap and calabash pipe à la Basil Rathbone. A plot that was more coherent and less incredulous would have helped matters. Downey has shown, for a few decades, a fair amount of screen charisma and that is true in Sherlock Holmes. Jude Law was also well cast as Watson. McAdams was weaker as the femme fatale but still adequate.


I hope my second film of 2010 will be Russian Ark at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A few years back, Gary Meyer of the Balboa was the guest lecturer of a Jazz in Noir class. I chatted with him during a break about how much I enjoy tracking shots such as A Touch of Evil or the opening of Citizen Kane. He mentioned a Russian film where the entire film was a one continuous tracking shot set in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. I never looked up the name of the film.

I was looking at the Film on Film calendar and noticed Russian Ark at MOMA. When I read the synopsis, I realized this was the film that Meyer was referring to. The 2002 film was directed by Alexander Sokurov who also made The Sun (2005), a biopic about Emperor Hirohito, which I saw at the 2006 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.

Considered Sokurov's finest film, Russian Ark tells a three-hundred-year Russian history within the confines of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Renowned for being shot in one continuous, fluid take, the film also employed two thousand actors, thirty-three rooms in the museum, and three full orchestras.

Sokurov's The Sun was the third in a loose tetralogy of Hitler, Lenin, Hirohito and the fictional Faust. The other two films in the series were Moloch (1999) and Taurus (2001). Faust is scheduled for release later this year. Although it is lazy and obvious programming, I hope someone screens those four films as a series as I would like to see Moloch and Taurus.

Russian Ark screens at 7 PM on Thursday, January 7.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Capra, Ozu, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Val Lewton, Jacques Tati and Post 1950's Musicals

January and February are shaping up nicely with a lot of film screenings that interest me.

I previously mentioned the two series at the Mechanics' Institute and the 10 days of Noir City. The San Francisco Independent Film Festival (Indiefest) is running from February 4 to 17.

I could fit those screenings in with relatively ease if not from the programs at PFA. They have several series that interest in January & February. Foremost is a series of Frank Capra's early films.

Over the years, interest in Frank Capra’s work, and his critical reputation, have ebbed and flowed, usually due to changing sociopolitical currents in the United States and their effect on public perception of his work. What is now known as “Capraesque” filmmaking is generally, and reductively, regarded as a form of sentimental populism, but Capra’s work in fact encompasses a far wider range of emotion, social criticism, and genre experimentation than is usually recognized. Because of our current economic collapse, with its many disturbing echoes of the Great Depression, Capra (1897–1991) seems timely all over again, as the first film in this series, American Madness (1932, about a run on a bank), demonstrates with startling immediacy.

Much of Capra’s early work—the films the Sicilian immigrant made before the Capraesque label was applied in his heyday during the New Deal—has largely been inaccessible to most filmgoers, preventing a deeper understanding of his legacy. Many of the films he directed between 1927, when he came to Columbia Pictures, and 1934, when he made his Oscar-winning and career-changing It Happened One Night, have not been available on home video. Now Sony Pictures, which owns the twenty-five films Capra made for Columbia, has painstakingly worked with both vault material and foreign prints preserved by collectors to reassemble and restore his rich and diverse early period. This series showcases many of these little-known gems, showing Capra’s explorations of various genres before he found his familiar niche. The programs also include rare short films Capra directed in the San Francisco Bay Area; two short comedies he cowrote as a Hollywood gag man; and his first feature as director, The Strong Man (1926), starring Harry Langdon.

Among the 15 films PFA is screening, the following catch my attention.

The Way of the Strong; silent with intertitles; (1928) - So grotesque it verges on the operatic, The Way of the Strong, written by William Counselman and Peter Milne, was described by Columbia as the story of “the world’s ugliest man, who can bear anything except the sight of his own face in a mirror.” Mitchell Lewis plays “Handsome” Williams, a hulking gangster whose misshapen face is crisscrossed with scars. The beauty underlying his brutish exterior is shown by his tenderness toward Nora (Alice Day), a blind violinist who works in his cafe and falls in love with him, thinking he is truly handsome. But when she realizes for the first time how he looks, she recoils. The Way of the Strong includes one of many suicide attempts in Capra films, but this is one of only two that succeed (the other is in The Bitter Tea of General Yen), and it is a particularly startling ending for a supposedly “optimistic” director.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen starring Barbara Stanwick; (1933) - I have long wanted to see this film. Subtle eroticism and splendid exoticism: an atypical Capra classic, set in China in the midst of civil war. Barbara Stanwyck plays a prim New England missionary who falls in the thrall of a ruthless but noble Chinese bandit (Swedish actor Nils Asther in a painstaking makeup job), who kidnaps her and keeps her in his summer palace. Controversial in its day for its depiction of interracial romance, Bitter Tea remained one of Capra’s “pet” films—what he called “Art with a capital A.” And it is indeed reminiscent of the films of Josef von Sternberg, with its exalted visuals and glowing lighting by Joseph Walker creating a ninety-minute “dissolve” between dream and reality. It is the dream of a woman trying to see herself through General Yen’s idealistic vision of women as “beautiful fruit trees,” the reality being far more sexual than that. Stanwyck embodies the troubling contradiction by distancing herself from it in a cool performance.

Submarine; silent with intertitles; (1928) - Jack Cohn persuaded his partners at Columbia to go head-to-head with the major studios in 1928 by making an A picture, Submarine, an adventure story suggested by two actual disasters involving Navy submarines. The biggest moneymaker in the young company’s history, it was also a critical success, establishing Capra as a versatile and important director. “Frank R. Capra’s direction is especially clever,” wrote Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times, “for not only has he attended to the action of the story, but he has also obtained from his players infinitely better characterization than one is apt to see on the screen, especially in a melodrama.” Submarine also was Columbia’s, and Capra’s, first tentative venture into sound (although here we screen a restored silent version). Capra was convinced that sound was “an enormous step forward. I wasn’t at home in silent films; I thought it was very strange to stop and put a title on the screen and then come back to the action...I don’t think I could have gone very far in silent pictures—at least not so far as I did go with sound.”

I am a sucker for submarine films. Some of my favorites include Run Silent, Run Deep, The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide and The Enemy Below. I didn't even mention Das Boot because I haven't seen it all the way through. Submarine reminds me that there is a rare submarine film (directed by John Ford no less) that I have read about. The film is called Men Without Women (1930). The film is not related the Ernest Hemingway novel by the same name.


Another highlight is the PFA screening of a two film series called Masters of Asian Cinema. Screening on February 19 and 20, the features are:

That Night Wife directed by Yasujiro Ozu; silent with intertitles; (1930) - A crime melodrama based on a Western-style magazine story and inspired by Fritz Lang and American thrillers. Ozu tests the conventions as he employs them, “drawing on thriller iconography for its own sake” and thereby distancing himself from the genre, as David Bordwell has noted. The film is set in a twelve-hour period. A commercial artist of meager means is driven to robbery in order to provide medicine for his critically ill daughter. As the film opens he is being pursued by the police. After a series of diversions, he hails a gypsy cab that delivers him to his door—but the night is young. Much of the delight of this film is in the play of visuals and the use of space, from the taxicab with its mirrors to the family’s cluttered apartment, where most of the action takes place.

A City of Sadness directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien; starring Tony Leung; Chinese & Japanese with subtitles; (1989) - Hou Hsiao-hsien’s cinema draws comparisons to Yasujiro Ozu’s with its ability to turn the ordinary—homes and hallways, a family dining together—into the extraordinary, repeating shots so that a lived-in space becomes as familiar as the characters within it. Hou’s 1989 epic A City of Sadness has been called not only his crowning film, but “one of the supreme masterworks of contemporary cinema” (Jonathan Rosenbaum). Following the Lin family from 1945 to 1949, a momentous historical period encompassing Taiwan’s independence from Japan and its secession from the mainland, the film courted controversy (and became a box-office hit) by addressing the then-taboo subject of the “February 28th Incident,” when the Nationalist government met a popular uprising with a brutal crackdown. Hou’s particular genius lies in reflecting such large-scale social and political events in minute, highly personal moments: children being born, conversations among friends and family, goodbyes and hellos exchanged on the same hilly streets as times, and governments, change.


PFA is also screening a Val Lewton series. I Walked with a Zombie has screened three times in the past year. One at the Stanford Theater in July. Again at the PFA's Into the Vortex series (also in July). And now on January 30 as part of the Lewton series. The film isn't really that good either.

If you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want! We’re great ones for dark patches.” —V al Lewton

Rarely do we praise the producer. But in Val Lewton’s case the praise should be profuse for a cluster of creepy cheapies he produced in the early forties, notable for heavily shadowed psychic landscapes, arousing unease through an excess of archaic suggestion. Originally a scriptwriter, Lewton went from anonymous labors at MGM to the head of the horror unit at RKO in 1942. Once the esteemed studio that had produced classics like King Kong and Citizen Kane, by the time of Lewton’s involvement RKO had opted for “entertainment not genius.” Little did they know that their enfant terror would transform formulaic ideas and impoverished means into a well-crafted surplus of psychological enthrallment. Beginning with Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, Lewton overwhelmed a poverty-stricken mandate—to make seventy-five-minute features for $150,000, using titles supplied by the studio—by assembling a remarkable coven of collaborators who could conjure his eerie vision: directors Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise; writers Ardel Wray and DeWitt Bodeen; and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Where most low-budget Bs felt obliged to actually illustrate the lurking horror, RKO K.O.s such as The Leopard Man, Isle of the Dead, and The Body Snatcher left instead inky insinuations that beckoned primeval folklore, reptilian instinct, and emotional monstrosities. This series sheds some much-deserved light on producer Val Lewton—he’s been in the shadows too long.

Based on Cat People and Zombie, I'm a little cautious about expecting too much but I guess Lewton's films were better than the schlock that was being served up at the time.

Youth Runs Wild (1944) - “Orgy of youth!” screams one of the headlines blazoned across the opening of Youth Runs Wild, but the film that follows is more fretful than orgiastic in its treatment of teens and their troubles. This rare Lewton venture into straight social realism, cowritten by novelist John Fante, portrays an America where “normal” family life has been dangerously destabilized by World War II. When parents are either irresponsible or absent, building bombs on the graveyard shift or drinking the nights away, kids are left to find their own paths to adulthood; a few wrong turns lead quickly to melodrama. Studio interference steered the film toward overt propaganda, and ultimately caused Lewton to disown the production. Still, apart from the usual kitsch attractions of a JD exploitation flick, Youth Runs Wild offers an intriguing view of the war at home.

The Leopard Man directed by Jacques Tourneur; (1943) - Adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel, The Leopard Man is a strange hybrid of serial-killer thriller and Southwestern fairy tale. Something deadly prowls the desert arroyos and shadowed sidewalks of a New Mexico town. Is it the panther escaped from a courtyard nightclub, or has some other primal horror been unleashed? An episodic structure that passes from one victim to the next is tied together by Lewton’s pointedly oblique use of imagery and sound: bestial roars issuing from a passing train, a strolling dancer’s castanets persistently rattling like nerves, a drooping branch or a discarded cigarette signaling doom. As critic Manny Farber wrote, the film gives “the creepy impression that human beings and ‘things’ are interchangeable...and that both are pawns of a bizarre and terrible destiny.”

The Ghost Ship (1943) - This beautifully crafted thriller emerges from relative obscurity (it was withheld for years as the subject of a specious plagiarism suit) as one of Lewton’s most impressive productions. Mysterious deaths on board the ship Altair lead a young and trusting junior officer (Russell Wade) into the dank waters of doubt and despair; he is forced to reassess his captain (Richard Dix), with whom he had closely identified, as a neurotic despot cruelly enacting his own malignant fears. A Hitchcockian theme of transference of guilt is skillfully developed in Lewton’s haunting, atmospheric language: the image of an enormous iron hook, wildly swaying in a nighttime storm, is the stuff of nightmares. Mark Robson’s direction in this film (far less so in The Seventh Victim or Bedlam) reflects his apprenticeship with Welles in fluid tracking shots, silhouettes, low angles on foggy set-ups that are perhaps more heavy handed than the delicate, almost transcendental Lewton–Tourneur vision.


The Kids Are Alright: Post-Fifties Musicals and the Rise of Youth Culture looks to be a fun series. Among the films that I want to see are:

Paint Your Wagon starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg; (1969) - It all begins here, in the grubby Sierra foothills of Gold Rush–era California. “No Name City” is a ramshackle roost for greedy men, chanting “gold, Gold, GOLD!” But as unruly and manic as this mining town might be, it isn’t lawless, just ungoverned, a haven for free spirits like Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin, reprising the irascible coot of Cat Ballou) who melodiously declares he was “born under a wand’rin’ star.” His star, though, is hitched to Elizabeth (a nicely ripening Jean Seberg) and Pardner (lanky looker Clint Eastwood) in a bashfully bawdy sixties ménage, amidst a musical menagerie by Lerner and Loewe. The songs are as big as a prospector’s dreams: “They Call the Wind Maria,” “Gold Fever,” “The Best Things,” “A Million Miles Away Behind the Door,” the last a paean to home ownership. A boisterous bonanza of a musical, Paint Your Wagon was updated from a more prudish fifties original, adding its liberated frontier threesome in a long summer of love.

The Music Man starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones; (1962) - River City, Iowa: an American idyll in 1912. But there’s “trouble in River City,” and it rhymes with hormones. Said secretions are from both the city’s youth and itinerant salesman Professor Harold Hill (the sublimely suited Robert Preston), who’s got his eye on Marian (Shirley Jones), the town’s liberal librarian. A huckster selling musical instruments, Hill has got to drum up the disasters of youthful desire, then perfectly pitch the remedy, a marching band of countless trombones and brassy uniforms. The Music Man is brimming with memorable music, including the pre-rap rollick “Rock Island,” the alarming “Trouble,” that tongue-twisting tune “Gary, Indiana,” the lithe love song “Till There Was You,” and, of course, the blustering band number, “Seventy-Six Trombones.” Meredith Willson’s bit of Americana laps up the folksy wisdom and popular tunes of the period, high-stepping from start to finish, but there is trouble simmering below the surface. Is it a loss of innocence? Or a shift in the marketplace? The Professor can only offer a temporary band-aid.

Bye Bye Birdie starring Janet Leigh, Ann-Margret & Dick Van Dyke; (1963) - In March 1958, Elvis Presley was drafted. Two years later, writers Charles Strouse and Lee Adams drafted fifteen songs charting the delirium that descends upon Sweet Apple, Ohio, when Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) arrives for his parting kiss before entering the army. Conrad, as you might guess, is a jelly-rolled rocker, an “honestly sincere” parody of the King himself. The bobbysoxer chosen to share that last kiss is Kim, a fifteen-year-old blossom played by Ann-Margret in full bloom. Bye Bye Birdie wants it both ways: focusing on lil’ Kim pursued by teen bopper Bobby Rydell, the musical also gives adulthood equal time with the riveting Rosie (Janet Leigh) and her beau Albert (Dick Van Dyke). The youngsters get that paean to lip-lock “One Last Kiss” and a hymn to hormones, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” while the parents get the death of attitude in “Put On a Happy Face” and a declaration of alienation in “Kids.” This boisterous “bye bye” was also a big hello for Ann-Margret.


The final program tht interests me is a Jacques Tati retrospective. I'm not familiar with Tati. I may have heard his name but when I read the synopses, I can't recall seeing any of his films. His works are praised by many including Hell on Frisco Bay.

“Comedy is the summit of logic.”—Jacques Tati

He is best remembered as Monsieur Hulot: with his jutting pipe and storklike walk, addressing the world at an acute angle, Jacques Tati’s signature character is almost as iconic as Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Born Jacques Tatischeff, Tati (1907–1982) got his start in the 1930s music hall with humorous sketches miming various sports, and his talent for physical comedy, embodied in the immortal Hulot, is one of his great contributions to film history. Even greater, though, is his exacting work behind the camera. Tati has been described as the cinema’s foremost antimodern modernist; his precisely arranged images and inventive soundtracks underline the alienation and oddity of everyday twentieth-century life. Satire aside, the films—presented here in new prints—are full of the pleasures of observation, of watching and listening. As Jonathan Rosenbaum said of Playtime, Tati “turns the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing.”

Several of the films in the series are also screening at the YBCA in January as well.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

2009 Year End Lists

Everyone creates Top 10 lists at the end of the year so I'll make a list(s). All lists are in random order.


Top Ten Films Released in 2009 That I Wish I Saw

Two Lovers starring Joaquin Phoenix & Gwyneth Paltrow - This remake of Luchino Visconti's Le Notti Bianche (which was based on a Dostoevsky story), is a love triangle between Phoenix, Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw. Phoenix has announced his retirement from acting (so he can concentrate on being a rapper) so this film is being advertised as Phoenix's last film.

The Hurt Locker directed by Kathryn Bigelow - A tense psychological thriller/war film about a bomb disposal unit in modern-day Iraq. The films shows the exhiliration and abject fear these soldiers have for their jobs.

Bright Star directed by Jane Campion - Poet John Keats' ill-fated romance with Fanny Brawne is lovingly told in this early 19th century love story.

The Damned United starring Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent & Colm Meaney - Portrait of a flawed genius masquerading as a sport film and set in the 1970's to boot.

Skin starring Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill & Alice Krige - Set in South Africa during apartheid, the film exmaines the true story of Sandra Laing (Okonedo), a "white" woman who has dark skin and nappy hair. Her independent nautre and appearance allows her to experience both sides of apartheid and gain unique insights.

Precious starring Gabourey Sidibe - Gritty examination of a sexually abused teenager who must perservere in impossible circumstances. Her resilience ultimately gives hope for her future.

The Messenger starring Ben Foster & Woody Harrelson - The story of two soldiers (Foster & Harrelson) who are tasked with informing families that their loved one has died in combat. The film examines the encounters as well as the emotional toll it takes on the two soldiers.

Up in the Air directed by Jason Reitman; starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga & Anna Kendrick - Highly touted comedy about a corporate man (Clooeny) that jets around the country firing people from their jobs. Increasingly melancholy as the film progrsses, Clooney's character must confront his own loneliness, flirt with a fellow frequent flier (Farmiga) and deal with his protege (Kendrick).

Sin Nombre; Spanish with subtitles - Part romance & part (poor man's) road movie, the film follows two youths in Mexico trying to get to and eventually cross the border, illegally, into Texas for a better life. The film touches on the street gangs in Mexico as well as the dangers faced by illegal immigrants well before they reach the US border.

In the Loop starring Tom Hollander & James Gandolfini - Absurdist comedy about the political and diplomatic machinations leading up to the Iraq War. Multiple British & American characters populate this ensemble piece.

Film That Would Be in Top 10 But I Excluded Because It Was Released on December 30
The White Ribbon; German with subtitles - Grim tale set in pre-WWI Germany. Filmed in black & white, the story revolves around a small town where mysterious events and retribution explode into mistrust & violence.


Ten More Films Released in 2009 That I Wish I Saw But Not As Much as the Previous 10

Watchmen starring Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup & Jackie Earle Haley - Enjoyed the graphic novel; want to compare against the film.

Sunshine Cleaning starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt - Comedy about two sister that run a crime-scene cleaning company.

The Girlfriend Experience starring Sasha Grey; directed by Steven Soderbergh - Tale of a high-end prostitute as she deals with her clients, her boyfriend and the demands of her job; set against the backdrop of the Great Recession.

(500) Days of Summer starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Zooey Deschanel - Love story told in non-linear fashion from beginning to end with the versatile Gordon-Levitt.

Sugar; English & Spanish with subtitles - Story of a Dominican baseball phenom who tries to adapt to his new surroundings in US and ultimately outside baseball.

Tetro directed by Francis Ford Coppola; starring Vincent Gallo - Black & white film set in Buenos Aires explores familial bonds between two brothers and their domineering father

Big Fan directed by Robert D. Siegel; starring Patton Oswalt - Siegel, screenwriter for The Wrestler, makes his directorial debut in this comedy about a loser obsessed with the New York Giants (you can hear real-life SF Giants counterparts if you tune into KNBR).

Coco Before Chanel starring Audrey Tautou; French with subtitles - Biopic about the amazing life of Coco Chanel before she became an icon.

Paranormal Activity - Indiefest entry with a micro-budget that was released with slight revisions as opposed being remade and "crapified."

Zombieland starring Woody Harrelson - Effective as both zombie movie satire and zombie movie, the film is several notches above the average horror movie.


My Ten Favorite Films Released in the US in 2009 And That I Watched in 2009

Tokyo Sonata directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa; Japanese with subtitles - Interesting comedy that touches on the plight on unemployment in contemporary Japan.

Still Walking directed by Hirokazu Koreeda; Japanese with subtitles - Drama dealing with a family still coping with the eldest son's death years earlier.

The Baader Meinhof Complex; German with subtitles - Stylish retelling of the Red Army Faction operating out of Germany in the 1970's.

Inglourious Basterds starring Brad Pitt; directed by Quentin Tarantino - Tarantino's best work benefits greatly from Christoph Waltz's performance as the Nazi "Jew Hunter."

The Hangover - Raunchy comedy at its best.

Departures directed by Yôjirô Takita; Japanese with subtitles - Heartwarming story about a distasteful job - ritual undertaking. The film deals with both the emotional and societal impacts of this uniquely Japanese custom.

A Serious Man directed by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen - Quirky comedy and exploration of Jewish life in the US during the 1960's.

Tyson; documentary; directed by James Toback - Powerful documentary with only former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson providing commentary.

East Virtue starring Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas & Colin Firth - A lightweight but highly entertaining film about the role of women and vagaries of the British upper class in the 1920's. Thomas and Firth give nice performances as the inlaws of a free spirited American racecar driver (Biel).


My 15 Favorite Films That I Watched in 2009 in a Theater

Why 15? Because I couldn't make up my mind about the Top 10.

The Baader Meinhof Complex; German with subtitles; (2009) - Beautifully shot period piece about 1970's radicals in Germany. The film captures the idealism, frustration, self-delusion and ultimately ruinous effects of the era. Viewed at Landmark Embarcadero.

Inglourious Basterds starring Brad Pitt; directed by Quentin Tarantino; (2009) - Tarantino's alternate history of WWII with all the flourishes we have come to expect from QT. Strong performances by Chistophe Waltz, Mélanie Laurent and Diane Krüger. The extended opening scene where the Jew Hunter interviews M. LaPadite about the whereabouts of a family of Jews is my favorite of the year. - Viewed at a Century Theater in Las Vegas.

United Red Army directed by Kôji Wakamatsu; Japanese with subtitles; (2008) - Similar to Baader Meinhof as it cover Japanese activists/terrorist in the 1970's but more powerful due the specific circumstances. A group of idealist begin to kill each other when they do not sufficiently live up to their Communist dogma. Viewed at YBCA.

No Greater Love directed by Masaki Kobayashi; Japanese with subtitles; (1959) - Powerful first installment of the Human Condition trilogy. The film chronicles the journey of an idealistic (if not socialist) lablor expert as he is sent to Manchuria during the war to implement his theories at a Chinese labor camp. His theories and ideals are tested by the harsh conditions of his new existence. Viewed at PFA.

The Beast Stalker starring Nicholas Tse; Cantonese with subtitles; (2008) - Outstanding action film due to the psychological complexities of the monstrous killer (Nick Cheung) who commits his crimes to pay for the care of his invalid wife. Viewed at 4-Star.

Ms. 45 directed by Abel Ferrara; (1981) - Cult classic that mixes in a fair amount of dark humor while telling the story of raped woman's descent into psychosis. Viewed at the Castro.

The Horseman directed by Steven Kastrissios; filmed in Australia; (2008) - Ridiculously harsh film about a man tracking down the pornographers that led to his daughter's drug overdose. Its most infamous scene involves pliers and a man's nipple. Viewed at the Roxie.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; French with subtitles; (1975) - Single mother turns to prostitution to pay the bills. However, the monotony of her life leads to a shocking ending. Viewed at YBCA.

Deadlier Than the Male starring Jean Gabin; directed by Julien Duvivier; French with subtitles; (1956) - Effective noir about a successful restaurant that gets ensnared by scheme hatched by his drug addicted ex-wife and her daughter. Danièle Delorme stands out as the femme fatale. Viewed at PFA.

And The Spring Comes; Mandarin with subtitles; (2007) - Relentlessly bleak story about a Chinese would-be opera singer and the lies she tells and difficulties she encounters. Viewed at the 4-Star.

Hellsinki (Rööperi); Finnish with subtitles; (2009) - A stylish movie about bootleggers and their rise & fall. Finnish Goodfellas. Best line of the year - "I fell in love with you the first time we fucked." Viewed at CineArts in Mill Valley.

Anatomy of a Murder starring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and George C. Scott; directed by Otto Preminger; (1959) - Exceedingly entertaining classic about courtroom theatrics. Stewart and Scott square off as opposing lawyers in a murder case. Viewed at PFA.

North by Northwest starring Cary Grant; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; (1959) - Hitchcock's classic thriller featuring Archibald Leach in full Cary Grant mode. Hitchcock masterfully juxtaposes tension and humor. Viewed at the Castro.

S+M Hunter; pinku eiga; Japanese with subtitles; (1986) - Great use of humor, music and Catholic iconography to tell the story of a man (dressed like a Catholic priest) who must rescue a gay man from clutches of an evil gang of lesbians. The climax involves the toughest lesbian dressed in Nazi regalia squaring off against the S+M Hunter. Viewed at the Roxie.

Zero Bridge; directed by Tariq Tapa; Kashmiri/Urdu with English subtitles; (2008) - Powerful story about two youths in Kashmir trying to escape their circumstances. The boy is on the road to become a petty criminal and the girl to a life of servitude in an arranged marriage. Heartbreaking ending. Viewed at the Castro.


My 10 Favorite Festivals or Programs That I Watched in 2009

Josef von Sternberg Retrospective at the PFA - Favorites included Underworld (1927), The Devil is a Woman (1935) and An American Tragedy (1931). I had already seen many of von Sternberg's collaborations with Marlene Dietrich and this retrospective was running at the same time as Indiefest so I skipped many of the films in the program including The Blue Angel, Shanghai Express, The Scarlet Empress and Blonde Venus. The Devil is a Woman is a Dietrich film and was my favorite of the films I saw during the series. Although von Sternberg made silent film that were significant, he showed his true skill once talkies came into being. Or was it because that was around the time he started making films with Dietrich? The Blue Angel, Blonde Venus and The Devil is a Woman all make use of Dietrich as a chanteuse.

The Human Condition Trilogy at the PFA - Shown on a rainy Sunday in February, the three films screened over 11.5 hours (including intermissions and breaks between films). The three films (Japanese with subtitles) were No Greater Love (1959), The Road to Eternity (1959) and A Soldier’s Prayer (1961). All three films were directed by Masaki Kobayashi and starred Tatsuya Nakadai. The film shine an unyielding spotlight on the Japanese atrocities in China, the inhumane conditions the soldiers endured and ultimately an indictment on Communism.

Otto Preminger Retrospective at the PFA - The Preminger series was chock full of entertaining films. At the top of the list was Anatomy of a Murder but Bonjour Tristesse, Carmen Jones and Advise and Consent proved highly entertaining.

Nagisa Oshima Retrospective at the PFA - Although none of Oshima films made my top 15 list, many of them were a notch below. I debated putting any of the film in this series on that list but I saw my two favorite films by this Japanese director (Boy and The Ceremony) in 2008 as part of the Madame Kawakita series. In the Realm of the Senses was his most provocative film in the series depicting sex and a castration in graphic details. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is later work by Oshima (1983) and stars David Bowie and Tom Conti as well as Japanese actor/comic Beat Takeshi. The film deals with Allied prisoners in a Japanese POW camp. The treatment of the prisoners provides dramas but it becomes heightened when the camp commandant (a vaguely androgynous Ryuichi Sakamoto) displays decidedly homoerotic behavior towards David Bowie (looking much less androgynous than usual for the period). This film also features a memorable title soundtrack (played at times with what sounds to be a xylophone).

2009 Hole in the Head Festival at the Roxie - One of the best Hole in the Heads since I've been attending. Top entries included The Horseman, Black Devil Doll, Pig Hunt, Run! Bitch Run!, Crows: Episode Zero and Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf. Among the lowlights are a man's nipple being removed with pliers, a militant black puppet that rapes/murders a houseful of women, a machete to the rectum, a man forced to gouge out his own eyes and not one but two Takashi Miike films.

Julien Duvivier Retrospective at the PFA - An outstanding series from a director was only nominally aware of. My favorites were Deadlier Than the Male, Poil de Carotte was an overwrought but effective drama about a neglected red-headed boy who desperately seeks love from his family. Au bonheur des dames was a silent gloriously filmed in the fabulous Galeries Lafayette Department store.

2009 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival at the Roxie & Castro - Zero Bridge was one of my favorite films of the year. The Bollywood spectacular (My Heart Goes Hooray!) featured Rani Mukherjee as a cricket playing phenom who must pretend to be a man (complete with fake beard and turban) to play on the national team. Problems arise when the team captain falls in love with her. Iron Eaters was a moving documentary about exploited workers at a shipbreaking facility on the Bay of Bengal. Although I didn't think so much of it at the time, two months later, Full Moon, a 1960 melodrama directed by Mohammed Sadiq still lingers in my mind. The story involves a man that is in love with a woman. Muslim customs and the face veil lead to confusion as the woman marries the man's best friend. Friendship is put to the ultimate test as the husband knows his best friend is in love with his wife but the man doesn't know his best friend is married to the woman he loves.

2009 Noir City at the Castro - There is always strong line-up at Noir City and this year did not disappoint. Ace in the Hole was a Billy Wilder gem. It starred Kirk Douglas as a slimy news reporter that covering an accident involving a cave-in. Douglas actually hinders efforts to save the trapped man so he milk the story for a gig at a big city newspaper. In Shakedown, shady newsphotographer Howard Duff schemes his way to the top without consideration for such professional ethics such as conspiracy to commit murder and romancing the decedant's widow. Desperate was an early Anthony Mann work. The plot involves a truck driver that gets mixed up with a gangster, Raymond Burr in a particularly nasty role. Scandal Sheet with the always watchable and gravelly voiced Broderick Crawford also sticks in my memory. Crawford plays a newspaper editor that kills his ex-wife. He didn't count on his ace reporter (John Derek) tracking down the leads in the case. Crawford must walk a fine line between protecting his freedom and reaping the benefits of increased newspaper sales which Derek's stories are producing.

2009 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival at the Castro, PFA & Kabuki - I saw a number of strong films at SFIAAFF - Kanchivaram: A Communist Confession: a Tamil language tearjerker about a man that steal silk to make his daughter a wedding sari; Diamond Head: a 1963 Charlton Heston vehicle set in Hawaii that touched on racism and the Hapa culture in Hawaii; The Chaser: an ultraviolent Korean thriller about an ex-cop turned pimp chasing down the psycho killing his whores; Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi: a big budget Bollywood musical featuring Shah Rukh Khan as a man trying to win his wife's love by disguising himself as another man; a Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata) retrospective and my favorite, All Around Us: an examination of a decade in a Japanese married couple's life set against the husband's courtroom sketches of some of the most notorious cases & the wife's incresingly unstable emotional state.

2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro - The festival didn't hit the high notes like it did in 2008 but there were several strong entries. The Gaucho starring Douglas Fairbanks showed everyone the prototypical movie star at the height of his fame. Lilian Gish starred in The Wind which looked like grueling shoot since it was shot on location in the Mojave desert and sand was blowing constantly. Lady of the Pavements was a Lupe Velez feature that was a variation on Pygmalion that gave an opportunity for Velez to sing, showcase her comedic talents and pull our heartstrings.


I guess I should list the bottom 10 as well. It was difficult to find 10 that I disliked enough to call them out. The retrospectives at the PFA are programmed so presumably someone thinks the films are worthwhile although some PFA films made their way onto the list. Festival programmers have a myriad of reasons to include film in their program. Increasingly, I'm convinced that factors other than the quality of the film play a part. I guess I was naive to think otherwise.

10 Films I Saw in 2009 and Hope They are Never Screened Again

Skidoo (1968)- Otto Preminger's LSD fueled farce/musical. I fell asleep twice but wish I had slept all the way through. Viewed at the PFA.

The Great Waltz (1938) - Julien Duvivier's first American film was a biopic of composer Johann Strauss. To his defense, Victor Fleming and Josef von Sternberg directed portons of the film but were uncredited. The film is schmaltzy until the finale where Strauss composes The Blue Danube to the beat of a horse's step and an irksome driver. The finale drove the film from predictable and trite to irritating and wince inducing. Viewed at the PFA.

Blood River (2009) - The worst film at this year's Hole in the Head. Poorly acted film about a married couple whose car breaks down in the desert. A menacing stranger in a duster and some surreal moments round out this pretentious film. Viewed at the Roxie.

Dark and Stormy Night (2009) - Screwball comedy and homage to 1930's "Big House" films. You know - Agatha Christie type films where people are locked in a house and die one by one. A bunch of other genre staples are included - fast-talking newspaperman, plucky newspaperwoman, cowardly cabdriver, etc. In fact, the film seems like they threw everything against the wall and most of it stuck. Viewed at Charles B. Smith Center in San Rafael as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

The Founding of a Republic (2009) - Big budget Chinese film about Chairman Mao, Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Civil War. The film was superficial by not exploring what drove these two men. It seemed like the filmmakers wanted to get as many Chinese stars in cameo roles as possible. Favorite scene - two US Marine Corps guards comment on how "hot" Madame Chiang is. Viewed at the 4-Star as part of the Chinese American Film Festival.

Visions of Eight (1973) - Big budget documentary about the 1972 Munich Olympics directed by 8 well respected directors. The directors were given free reign and the result were several segments that tried to hard to capture the moment or attain artistic achievement. At lest half the segments should have been edited out. Viewed at the PFA as part of their Beyond ESPN: An Offbeat Look at the Sports Film series.

Violated Angels (1967) - Pinku eiga (soft core porn) film directed by Kôji Wakamatsu. Nominally the story about a serial killer terrorizing a nursing dormitory. The film veers off with scenes of lesbian sex and I believe most of what is depicted are the pyschotic visions of the killer. Even the sight of nude Japanese women wasn't enough to keep my interest. It was an attempted art house film masquerading as soft core porn. Viewed at the PFA as part of their Kôji Wakamatsu/Pinku Eiga series.

Battle League Horumô (2009) - Quirky but ultimately unsatisfying Japanese film featuring Gogo Ibari from Kill Bill Volume 1. These four colleges in Kyoto have an intra-collegiate league where they compete by leading these horumô. A horumô is a prune faced sprite that are invisible to everyone except the students. To command the horumô, the students have to make these awkward gestures. To nurse the horumô, the students have to feed them raisins. It was all boring and not very funny. It felt like the screenwriter(s) said "Wouldn't it be cute...?" It wasn't very cute although I guess film is based on a manga. Viewed at Viz Cinema or New People.

Possession (1981) - Another WTF film (in the bad sense). Sam Neill & Isabelle Adjani play a married couple. Set in Berlin, the film has that cold, stark feel emanating from the architecture but the film quickly establishes its art house bona fides with weird dialog and weird characters. It veers off the track when it shows some weird plasmatic entity that spits out a duplicate Sam Neill. Completely inaccessible film that made me wish I had walked out. Viewed at the Castro as part of their Women on the Verge series.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2009) - A boring, scattershot documentary that is nominally based on a book about how midwesterners vote against their self-interest due to skillful and pervasive political propaganda. Instead, the film followed a bunch of people who I didn't care about & living strange lives I can't imagine. One family donated something like $250,000 or so to their church or maybe they loaned it to a church but the money went missing. Who the hell does that? To cap it off, the church was going to build an amusement park or the church was going to be on the grounds of an amusement park. Viewed at the Roxie as part of DocFest.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

French Kisses: Nouvelle Vague and Reel Criminals: The Heist

In January, the Mechanics' Institute is screening a series call French Kisses: Nouvelle Vague as part of their CinemaLit program. Nouvelle Vague mean New Wave.

The series looks promising.

Friday, January 8
Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) 93 min.
Directed by Claude Chabrol; Starring Bernadette Lafonte, Stephane Audran
Four vibrant Parisian shop-girls harbor secret and not-too-secret dreams.

Friday, January 15
Paris Vu Par...(Six in Paris) (1965) 92 min.
Directed by Jean Rouch, Jean Douchet, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Daniel Pollet; Starring Stephane Audran, Jean-Pierre Andreani
An eclectic anthology of short films by leading directors, each set in a different Paris neighborhood.

Friday, January 22
Lola (1962) 90 min.
Special guest: Anita Monga, artistic director of the Silent Film Festival
Directed by Jacques Demy; Starring Anouk Aimee, Marc Michel
This lovely, lyrical romantic tale, full of homages to America and American movies, centers on a caberet dancer in Nantes.

Friday, January 29
The Bride Wore Black (1968) 107 min.
Directed by Francois Truffaut; Starring Jeanne Moreau, Michel Bouquet
A widow pursues revenge against her husband's murderers in this Hitchcock homage featuring a scene by Bernard Herrmann.

All the films start at 6 PM and are followed by "a salon style discussion."


Anita Monga's presence on January 22 reminds me that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has announced that its 2010 festival will be July 15—18, 2010. They have added a fourth day to the festival. The festival usually runs Friday to Sunday but this year will run Thursday to Sunday.

I was not able to attend the festival's winter event on December 12. I would have liked to have seen West of Zanzibar (1928) starring Lon Chaney and directed by Tod Browning. The rain and a program at PFA kept me away. I ended up watching The Man with the Golden Arm instead.


The Mechanics' Institute's February CinemaLit series is called Reel Criminals: The Heist. The series also appeals to me. The Asphalt Jungle is screening in January at Noir City on January 24.

I recall seeing parts of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three on television. The original was R rated so I probably watched edited versions on television.

I can't recall the last time I saw The Great Train Robbery; it must have been as a child on television. I recall enjoying it.

I've never been a big fan of A Fish Called Wanda.

Friday, February 5
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) 112 min.
Directed by John Huston; Starring Sterling Hayden, James Whitmore
From assembling the gang through pulling the job, this hard-boiled flick laid the foundation for an entire genre.

Friday, February 12
The Great Train Robbery (1979) 111 min.
Directed by Michael Crichton; Starring Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland
A wily, witty threesome schemes to steal a gold shipment from a moving train in mid-Victorian England.

Friday, February 19
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) 104 min.
Directed by Joseph Sargent; Starring Robert Shaw, Walter Matthau
A ruthless gang hijacks a subway train in gritty '70s New York, and the tension just keeps building.

Friday, February 26
A Fish Called Wanda (1988) 108 min.
Directed by Charles Crichton; Starring John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis
Dishonor among thieves propels this London-set caper comedy co-starring Kevin Kline and Michael Palin.


Noir City runs from January 22 to January 31 at the Castro Theater. By my count, I've seen 6 of the films in recent years on the big screen. I've also seen 4 of them on television years ago. So I've seen 10 of the 24 films they are screening. I may have to miss the matinee screening on January 23 due to other commitments.

Despite these impediments, I'll likely purchase a festival pass.

2010 Noir City Festival Poster

Friday, January 1, 2010

The 39 Steps and North by Northwest

The Castro had a Alfred Hitchcock series in December. Actually, the Stanford Theater also had a Hitchcock series in September but I didn't see any.

I was able to catch a double feature at the Castro which consisted of The 39 Steps (1935) starring Robert Donat and North by Northwest (1959) starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason.

I had not previously seen The 39 Steps. It was one of Hitchcock's English films. I haven't seen many of his earlier works; as in before he came to Hollywood. The 39 Steps caught my attention because it has been adapted for the stage and the touring company received good reviews. The stage version is playing at the Curran Theater until January 3.

As for the film, it was enjoyable. Hitchcock focused more on humor and romance than suspense. The best scenes occur when Donat and Madeleine Carroll are handcuffed together and forced to pose as husband and wife although they're not fooling the innkeepers who think they are furtive lovers. The plot revolves around Richard Hannay (Donat). He goes to a music hall one night. Shots are fired and he exits with a mysterious woman who claims spies are trying to smuggle state secrets out of the country. Hannay is skeptical until the woman turns up dead in his apartment the next morning. Hannay sets off to Scotland to find a man with the tip of his pinkie finger missing (no he isn't a Yakuza). The specifics of the rest of the film aren't important except to say Hannay and later to be joined by Pamela (Carroll) try to stay one step ahead of the bad guys while simultaneously trying to figure out how the spies will smuggle out the secrets.

North by Northwest is considered by many to be Hitchcock's best film. I don't know if I've ever seen the film in one sitting. I know I've never seen it on the big screen. I was greatly entertained. Cary Grant was at the top of his game showing admirable savoir faire for an ad executive (think Mad Men) ensnared by a case of mistaken identity and confronted with spies intent on killing him. Grant eludes the spies and police and still has time to romance Eva Marie Saint while always ready with a quip. Martin Landau as the henchman was quite menacing. I've never noticed this before but James Mason makes a statement ("You're just jealous") to Landau that gives the impression the two are gay lovers.

For those who may not be familiar with the film, there is a scene with a crop duster airplane that ranks as one of the best in cinematic history. The climax takes place on Mt. Rushmore and is equally memorable.


That may be all the films I viewed in 2009. I feel like I'm missing one from December but I don't have my list in front of me. I did not get to 365 films this year. I think the count was in the 340's and the average cost was ~$6.85/film.