Monday, August 30, 2010

Viva la Revolución

2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. I used to live in El Paso which is right across the border from Ciudad Juárez or Juarez as it is more commonly called and spelled. Juarez has been making headlines recently as one of the most dangerous places in the world (outside of warzones). There have been some drug cartel related killings including some officials associated with the El Paso Police Department and US Consulate. In addition, there have been a string of murders dating back nearly 20 years involving female workers at the maquiladoras.

However, when I lived there, Juarez was better known as a place underage minors could get a drink amongst college strudents, GIs from Fort Bliss & Mexican nationals. Corrupt cops were still to be feared but mostly for the shakedown they would impose on arrested US citizens to avoid detention.

At the time, Texas public schools taught a smattering of Mexican history since they shared a 1,200 mile border. I learned a little of Zapata, Villa, Carrnza, etc. It was all very confusing since the Mexican Revolution seemed more like anarchy. The players kept switching sides. Recently, I've read a book called Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution by Frank McLynn. McLynn called the Mexican Revolution one of the four most significant revolutions of the 20th century. Presumably, the other three are the Russian, Chinese and Indian Revolutions. I find that a big of a stretch. I never associated the Mexican Revolution on par with the other three. However, the author makes the assertion the Mexican Revolution, by virtue of predating the other three as well engaging in violent excessiveness, influenced Lenin, Mao and Gandhi. Is that true? I don't know. I do recall Trotsky was exiled to Mexico City for several years.

John Reed, whose famous book Ten Days that Shook the World chronicled the Russian Revolution, spent time with Pancho Villa & his movement. Reed's life would later be brought to the silver screen in the movie Reds with Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson.

Anyway, upon reading that sentence about the "Big Four," I decided to learn more about La Revolución. As if by cue, the PFA produced a five film series called Viva la Revolución: Celebrating the Hundredth Anniversary of Mexico’s Revolution. By the way, Mexican Independence Day is celebrated September 16. It is called El Grito and celebrates Mexican independence from Spain. May 5 or Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexican independence from France or at least expulsion of the occupying forces. I'm not familiar with a holiday that commemorates the 1910 Mexican Revolution which is more accurately a civil war.


The four films in the series which I watched were:

Prisoner Number 13; directed by Fernando de Fuentes; Spanish with subtitles; (1933)
El Compadre Mendoza; directed by Fernando de Fuentes; Spanish with subtitles; (1933)
Let’s Go with Pancho Villa!; directed by Fernando de Fuentes; Spanish with subtitles; (1935)
La Soldadera starring Silvia Pinal; directed by José Bolaños; Spanish with subtitles; (1966)

I missed Reed: Insurgent Mexico (1971).


Fernando de Fuentes was a renowned Mexican film director. Considered a pioneer of Mexican cinema, de Fuentes directed Alla en el Rancho Grande which was a huge box office success and launched the comedia ranchera genre.

The series showed a trilogy of de Fuentes films known as Mexican Revolution Trilogy. I enjoyed the three films although Prisoner Number 13 had a cop-out ending which was probably imposed on de Fuentes since the film cast the military in a bad light. El Compadre Mendoza is tale of betrayal and surprisingly effective although it telegraphs the ending.

Let’s Go with Pancho Villa! was my favorite of the three films. It follows six friends who join Villa's army. One by one, they meet their demise as a result of the cruelties of war and Villa. The film has a remarkable scene which ranks among the most spellbinding I've ever seen. The last three friends are in a cantina for a drink. It's crowded so they sit at a table with some strangers. One of the strangers notes that there are now 13 people at the table and it is very unlucky. Another man says he knows how to cure the problem. He will cock the hammer of his pistol, throw it up in the air and when it fires upon hitting the ground, the bullet will hit coward among them. De Fuentes masterfully prolongs the scene to build the suspense.

La Soldadera has a back story. In 1930, Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned by Upton Sinclair to make a film about Mexican culture and politics. Beset with problems such as a poorly defined script and censorship, the film was eventually compiled and titled ¡Que Viva México!. Eisenstein shot 30 to 50 hours of footage before the government pulled the plug and denied Eisenstein access to the film stock so he could assemble it. Not until 1979 did Grigori Alexandrov compile the footage into a 90 minute film.

Eisenstein envisioned a six film series but never shot footage for the fifth entry Soldadera. José Bolaños while never acknowledging it, filmed the fifth part of Eisenstein's vision and titled it La Soldadera which means the female soldiers. McLynn's book makes reference to this practice. Women followed Mexican soldiers around the country and sometimes fought in combat; particularly after their spouse died.

La Soldadera was a grim film about the horrors of war as well as the sexism women faced in Mexico at the time. Actress Silvia Pinal does a nice job showing how an innocent girl can be transformed into a war weary veteran. The character loses her husband, gets pregnant, discovers her family's house & village burned to the ground but yet must still endure.


All in all, PFA's Viva la Revolución series was less edifying than I hoped. The films were not fully satisfying for me. Melodrama was in high supply. I'm not anti-melodrama per se but it's easy to cross the line with regards to my tastes. I think some cultures value melodrama to an extent which turns me off. These films laid it on a tad too thick for me. Still, many of the films had their moments - the aforementioned tossed gun in Let’s Go with Pancho Villa!, the lead-up to the betrayal in El Compadre Mendoza and the interminable wait for the firing squad in Prisoner Number 13.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Roxie Rising and Venice Films

I wasn't aware of this but the Roxie Theater is under new management or ownership. I recall the problems the Roxie had a few years ago when their owner, New College of California, ran into financial difficulties.

On April 14, the Roxie issued a press release. It read, in part, "The Roxie Theater, San Francisco’s oldest continually operating film house, announced today the appointment of Kate and Chris Statton as Co-Executive Directors of the nonprofit Roxie Theater."

On August 9, I went to the Roxie to see Summertime. Before the film, a woman stood up and stated she & her husband were the new "owners" of the Roxie and Summertime kicked off the first series she will program at the Roxie. It was a Venice themed program consisting of Summertime, L'Avventura, Swept Away and Death in Venice. She didn't introduce herself by name but I assume she was Kate Statton. I wish the Stattons good luck. The Roxie has had 5 or 6 owners in the past 15 years so some stability would be nice.


Summertime was a 1955 film directed by David Lean. It stars as Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn) as a middle-aged woman who takes her dream vacation to Venice. Once there, she discovers how lonely she is. Venice was made for lovers and Hudson feels like she is the only person in Venice who isn't paired off. In short order, she encounters Renato de Rossi (Rossano Brazzi), the handsome owner of an antique store. After some trepidation on Hudson's part, the two engage in a passionate love affair...until Hudson discover de Rossi is married.

I've never been a big Hepburn fan but I have to give her credit here. She plays the spinster quite well in Summertime. She played the spinster in quite a few movies - most notably in The Rainmaker and The African Queen but in Summertime, she is a little more subdued which makes the performance more powerful. In addition, Hepburn's Jane Hudson is less sexually repressed than her charcaters in The Rainmaker and The African Queen. That may be due to the setting - Summertime is set circa 1955 vs. the Old West or WWI era.

Hepburn and Brazzi perform their roles admirably but Lean is obviously in love with Venice as the film doubles as a virtual tourism promotional film. Venice has been a muse for many filmmakers and Lean was not immune to her charms but deftly balanced the viewers' attention between the Queen of the Adriatic and the First Lady of Cinema.


Death in Venice is based on a Thomas Mann novella. The story involves a Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a musical composer, who has had a nervous and physical breakdown. He convalesces in Venice. While there, he encounters a Polish family and becomes obsessed with Tadzio, the teenage son (Björn Andrésen). There's a lot of backstory and baggage in von Aschenbach's life but the gist of the story is desire to regain youth; expressed by his disturbing interest in the boy. By modern standards, his behavior would be interpreted as pedophilia. I'm not sure if that viewpoint would have been prevalent in the early 1970's when the film was released. The film was set in the late 1800s so von Aschenbach's behavior, although bizarre, was presented as less ominous.

Andrésen plays Tadzio as almost coquettish as he becomes aware of von Aschenbach's constant gaze. Like fleeting youth, von Aschenbach can never "capture" Tadzio. The wordless interplay between the man and boy is a metaphor for the cycle of life - youth, the pursuit of youth and death.

Von Aschenbach shadowing of Tadzio is set against the backdrop of a cholera epidemic which Venetians continuously deny it so as not to spook the tourists. I interpret that mean that death is stalking von Aschenbach while he is stalking Tadzio. The iconic sequence for me is when von Aschenbach visits the barber to "restore that which has been lost." He gets a haircut, a dye job and some white face powder. He comes out looking foolish and deathly. Later, von Aschenbach follows Tadzio to the beach which is deserted because news of the cholera epidemic has gotten out. Von Aschenbach lies dying in a beach chair while watching Tadzio frolics and later fights on the beach with another beautiful young man. Also, his hair dye begins to run down his extremely pale face. At the moment of his death, Tadzio reconciles with his friends and walks past von Aschenbach's slumped body without a glance.

Björn Andrésen (front) and Dirk Bogarde (back) in Death in Venice


Summertime starring Katharine Hepburn; directed by David Lean; (1955)
Death in Venice starring Dirk Bogarde; directed by Luchino Visconti; (1971)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Japanese Soldiers and Internees

I saw three films at Viz Cinemas in August.

The Burmese Harp directed by Kon Ichikawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)
442 – Live with Honor, Die with Dignity; documentary; directed by Junichi Suzuki; (2010) - Official Website
Toyo’s Camera; documentary; directed by Junichi Suzuki; (2008) - Official Website


The Burmese Harp won the 1957 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It should not be confused with the 1985 remake also directed by Ichikawa. The Burmese Harp established Ichikawa reputation as a master of Japanese cinema.

Diagram of Burmese Harp or SaungThe plot involves a company of Japanese soldiers in Burma during the final days of WWII. PFC Mizushima is the scout for the company. He has a natural skill at playing the Burmese harp or saung which is an unusual shaped instrument. Mizushima, dressed in local clothing, plays certain tunes on the harp depending on what he encounters while scouting as a warning to his company.

Eventually Mizushima is separated from his company and presumed dead. As the soldiers are interned and await repatriation, they repeatedly encounter a Buddhist monk who strongly resembles Mizushima. I won't give away the rest of the plot - partly out of laziness, partly because I could not do it justice.

This is a textbook film of what I would call "gentle, Japanese film making." "Gentle" and "Japanese" conjure a certain unique style of pacing and plot devices. The film has a number of scenes which stand out in my memory. The first is when the Japanese are in a village and realize they are being watched and surrounded by enemy soldiers. In fact, the war is over and the Allied soldiers are trying to make contact with the Japanese soldiers without starting a firefight. The Japanese soldiers sing to bolster their confidence and as a diversionary tactic. The Allies respond with a slower paced song to sooth the Japanese fears.

Another memorable scene occurs towards the end of the film when the Japanese soldiers stand behind the fence of the POW camp while the monk is on the other side of the fence playing his harp.

The overall effect of the film is humanizing the feared and hated Japanese soldier of WWII. As portrayed in The Burmese Harp, the soldiers are young men with gentle natures and strong sense of camaraderie. The monk makes a supreme sacrifice to honor the war dead which affected me emotionally.


Boys at Manzanar during WWII (Photo by Toyo MiyakaeToyo’s Camera was a documentary about Toyo Miyatake and his work at Manzanar Internment Camp. Miyatake was a commercial photographer in Los Angeles who relocated to the camp during WWII. He smuggled in a camera to document camp life. Later, he took photos under the auspices of the camp commander who was sympathetic. Miyatake was a skilled photographer who was friends with Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

The film didn't teach me too much new stuff about Manzanar or the Japanese American experiences during WWII. The photos were evocative and Miyatake's life was interesting. However, the documentary seemed to lose its focus as it delved into the No No Boys, 442nd and the subsequent Manzanar Pilgrimages. I think I would have enjoyed the film more if it had stayed more on Miyatake and his photos during the internment period. As it was, the film was engaging enough to merit a tepid recommendation; more for the subject matter than the film itself.


In some ways, it seems a if director Junichi Suzuki was already preoccupried with 442 – Live with Honor, Die with Dignity when he made Toyo’s Camera. 442 seemed to stir his soul while Toyo’s Camera evoked a sense of sadness. 442 – Live with Honor, Die with Dignity is a rousing and tear inducing film. More than once, I had to wipe some moisture from my eyes. For those unaware, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was the most decorated regiment in the history of the US Army. The unit was composed of Japanese American soldiers (many of whom had been at Manzanar and other internment camps) and operated in the European Theater. Time and again, the unit was given the most difficult assignment. It's implied that initially, the unit was considered expendable but later in the war, the unit was the most elite regiment in the Army & hence the only one that could accomplish the impossible missions given to it.

I was struck by how the Japanese American soldiers invoked traditions and attitudes that the Imperial Japanese Army also held. In both cases they resulted in horrendous casualties. Not to be an apologist for the Imperial Japanese Army, but in one case the men are held up as heroes and on the other, they are war criminals and fanatics. Indeed, I wondered if the 442nd "Go For Broke" attitude caused needless deaths. It's a moot point though. The film had a clip of Harry S. Truman congratulating the unit after war. HST said, words to the effect, "You have not only battled the enemy and won but you have battled prejudice." I think he could have added that they battled their own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. The boys of the 442 weren't "American enough" so they were going to prove it by killing as many Nazis as matter how many of them died in the process.

I was repeatedly moved by the stories of combat bravery and how the men of the 442 coped with the wounds (physical and emotional) after the war.

442 – Live with Honor, Die with Dignity is one of the best films I've seen in 2010.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Criminal Minds

The PFA recently concluded a 4 week, 8 film series called Criminal Minds.

Criminality has its allure. It’s like a felonious pheromone, offering pure exudations of unfettered will. No wonder then that the guilty exhilaration of watching “real-life” outlaws pursuing base purpose has kept movie audiences collared for decades; they present a kind of feral freedom, a life spent outside of social restraint. The crime film, with its usual subsets—mob movie, police procedural, gumshoe comedy, heist film, serial slasher, prison drama, courtroom conflict, etc—surfaced in the silent period and has never gone into hiding. But it’s the “true-crime” genre that remains most suspect, and which Criminal Minds hauls in for interrogation. Ripped from the headlines, these films look at real-life mobsters, lowlifes, and killers. Like a crime investigation, each work searches for clues to the origins of bad behavior, offering up its era’s own bruised psychology as evidence. In many cases, the social impact of crime, the lawlessness and disorder, is cross-examined as well. Legs Diamond, Caryl Chessman, Boxcar Bertha, Leopold and Loeb, Barbara Graham, Albert DeSalvo, Jack the Ripper, and Al Capone: Criminal Minds presents a line-up of our most wanted. - Steve Seid, PFA Video Curator

I caught 6 of the 8 films.

The Lodger starring Laird Cregar and Merle Oberon; (1944)
The Boston Strangler starring Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda and George Kennedy; directed by Richard Fleischer; (1968)
Compulsion starring Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman; with Orson Welles; directed by Richard Fleischer; (1959)
Boxcar Bertha starring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine; directed by Martin Scorcese; (1972)
The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond starring Ray Danton; directed by Budd Boetticher; (1960)
Al Capone starring Rod Steiger; (1959)


Criminal Minds was as a tremendously enjoyable series from my standpoint. I had not previously seen any of the films and I would recommend all of them, with the exception of The Lodger.

Al Capone might be my favorite of the bunch for the pugnacious performance of Rod Steiger. Steiger seems to have a penchant for playing Mafioso. Also in August, Steiger portrayed the lead in Francisco Rossi's Lucky Luciano. Steiger also played Sam Giancana, one of Capone's successors as Chicago mob boss, in the miniseries Sinatra. I haven't seen those other films but Steiger seems a natural to play "Scarface."

Al Capone is less of a psychological examination as some of the other films in the series. The plot unfolds almost like a documentary. There is a certain detachment from Capone's behavior. He goes from being a loutish bouncer to a hot-headed Mob boss with flashes of Machiavellian brillance. We never quite understand what motivates Capone to pursue his ambitions at such high personal costs. Feelings of inadequacy play a part but Steiger largely plays Capone as a simple-minded man with single-minded determination. Perhaps it is a one-trick pony but what beautiful pony. Steiger transforms himself physically into Capone with his bulldog face and stocky build. Steiger's mannerisms such as speaking with his mouth full of food, add to the illusion. The plot had enough factual accuracies to make me believe Steiger was Capone.


The Boston Strangler was at the other end of the spectrum. The film focused on the psychology of Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis). More accurately, the film crescendoed with the psychosis of DeSalvo laid bare. DeSalvo is not on-screen for much of the film. The film begins by documenting the murders, the police investigation and the public's growing hysteria. In the second half of the film, DeSalvo appears as slightly morose laborer. The audience follows DeSalvo as he commits his murders in a fugue. The climax features Henry Fonda, as the chief investigator, interviewing DeSalvo. Fonda's character uses each inconsistency in DeSalvo's recounting to coax out the truth from his repressed mind.

Director Richard Fleischer made extensive use of split screens. In many instances, it was the same scene shot from two different approaches; frequently one from the corpse's aspect. I thought the effect was overused.

George Kennedy as the cop and Henry Fonda as the learned lawyer pressed into service as head of the Strangler Bureau gave restrained performances which served them well when dealing with the flamboyant sexual deviants they interrogate as part of the investigation. George Voskovec steals his only scene as the psychic Peter Hurkos. Sally Kellerman has a small but memorable role as one of DeSalvo's victims.


Boxcar Bertha was an early Scorcese work which was infamous for the sex scene between David Carradine and Barbara Hershey. They later recreated the scene for Playboy magazine. The film was set in the American South during the Depression era. There seemed to be a lot of movies set in the South during the Great Deptression in the 1970's - The Sting, Bonnie & Clyde, Paper Moon, etc.

Boxcar Bertha does not look like future Scorcese films. There are no flamboyant Mafioso or beautiful obscenity. It's set in rural areas and it's a road picture. The star is female - Hershey looks strikingly different than I recall her from The Last Temptation of Christ or Beaches. Bertha looks like an ingénue commits murder and armed robbery.

Boxcar Bertha was a family affair. Carradine and Hershey were romantically involved at the time of the film. John Carradine, David's father, plays the antagonist of the film.

The film has a slightly comedic touch for much of the film but has a memorable ending. Carradine's character is literally crucified to the side of a train with railroad tie spikes. As the train pulls away, Hershey chases after it but cannot match the speed of the train. It was at that point in the film that I recalled that Hershey performed in another Scorcese film 15 years after Boxcar Bertha. I am referring to her role as Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ. Maybe I am attributing too much foreshadowing in Scorcese's career but at that point in the film, I had a Eureka! moment - Boxcar Bertha is basically the Mary Magdalene character in a different setting. Both were prostitutes at the feet of their devoted during crucifiction. Of course, that would put Carradine's Big Bill character in the Christ-like role. Big Bill was certainly devoted to his union with Christ-like fervor and was largely selfless in his actions. Obviously, the coupling of Bertha and Bill presage the depiction of Magdalene & Christ in The Last Temptation.

The film was entertaining and ultimately thought-provoking. Hershey excels in her role. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the film.


Compulsion was also a taut film. Disguised as a procedural, the film follows two young men, Straus and Steiner (Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell). The story is almost a point-for-point retelling of the Leopold and Loeb murders in the 1920s. I'm not sure why the producers changed the names. As an aside, I can recommend a fascinating recount of the Leopold and Loeb murders. Simon Baatz wrote For the Thrill of It whcih went it great detail about the murder, the families of Leopold and Loeb and the relationship between the two men. I was surprised at how many details Compulsion incorporated. The stolen typewriter, lost eyeglasses, Nietzsche's concept of supermen, etc.

One detail that was not mentioned was the sexual relationship between Leopold and Loeb which probably would have been too much for audiences in 1959. Baatz's book states that Leopold was sexually obsessed with Loeb. Although Loeb reciprocated, it was more perfunctory than passionate.

Another detail that I recall from the book which I thought was brilliant in its simplicity. When planning the murder of the kidnap victim, Leopold & Loeb originally intended to strangle the boy. The would loop a rope around the boy's neck and both would hold one end of the rope. If one of them lost their nerve, the rope would slip of the boy's neck. Even if one individual was applying the force, just the act of holding the rope would make the other complicit. In actuality, they killed the boy in a different manner which was partially responsible for their downfall.

Dillman and Stockwell were outstanding in their respective roles. Orson Welles gives an eye catching performances as the rumpled but skilled lawyer based on Clarence Darrow, who defended Leopold & Loeb. Welles' voice was perfectly modulated for the courtroom oratory. In my opinion, Welles' voice stands as one of the most effective in cinematic history. Burt Lancaster's voice was similarly well-suited for film.


I didn't really enjoy The Lodger. The Lodger was Laird Cregar's penultimate film. His final film was Hangover Square which played at the 2008 Noir City. I preferred that film to The Lodger.

Cregar's performance in The Lodger implies his character is Jack the Ripper. The film is a bit slow moving for me as director John Brahm lovingly layers on Victorian atmosphere and allows Cregar screen time to demonstate the psychological pathology of the character.

I can't fault the film except it dragged a little and it was Hangover Square in which a svelte Cregar played a similar character.


The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond was an entertaining if somewhat lightweight film. Star Ray Danton seems to be enjoying himself in the lead role. Legs Diamond was a real-life, 1920s, New York gangster. As portrayed by Danton, Diamond was a manipulative and cold-hearted schemer who moved up the food chain through double-crosses and abandoning everyone who cared for him. Hard to kill and cruelly detached, Danton's Diamond turns his crippled brother out to the street, drives his wife to alcoholism and throws his mistresses to the street and wolves when their usefulness has ended.

Karen Steele as Diamond's first and most poignant victim (as well as his wife) stands out. Dyan Cannon (credited as Diane Cannon) makes her screen debut in the film.


The two films in the series I missed were Cell 2455, Death Row (1955) and I Want to Live (1958). I saw I Want to Live at the Castro a year or two ago. It starred Susan Hayward as convicted murderer Barbara Graham. Hayward won an Oscar for her performance in the film. The scene where they prepare the gas chamber for Graham stands out in my memory.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bad Girls and Wild Women, Death Metal and Death Notes

Patrick Macias and TokyoScope return to the Viz Cinema on September 13 with an eye-popping program. In fact, it is being called "TokyoScope Talk Deluxe" - not just a talk but a happy hour and a feature length film screening.

Join host Patrick Macias (Editor, Otaku USA) for a unique look at sexy Stray Cats, Female Prisoners, Delinquent Bosses and other captivating and sexy bad girl roles from Japanese cinema. The evening will be complemented by a theatrical screening of the lurid prison film Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion.

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is a 1972 women's prison exploitation/pinky violence film directed by Shunya Itō and starring Meiko Kaji.

If the poster is not enough get you to the Viz on September 13, then maybe the synopsis for Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion will do the trick.

Raped by a gang of yakuza, sacrificed and betrayed by the corrupt cop that she innocently gave her virginity to, Nami Matsushima (played by the stunning Meiko Kaji) finds herself in a women’s prison, watched over by monstrous guards determined to crush her indomitable, vengeful will. Matsu, nicknamed Scorpion by her fellow inmates, seeks not only revenge on the men responsible for her fall from grace, but justice for her tormentors within the prison walls.

TokyoScope Volume 6: Bad Girls and Wild Women!


During the week Hole in the Head played at the Viz, they ran trailers for upcoming films at the Viz. The trailer that got the best audience response was Detroit Metal City. The film is playing at the Viz from September 18 to 27.

Based on the #1 death metal comedy manga series by Kiminori Wakasugi. Negishi (Kenichi Matsuyama) is a sweet and shy young man who dreams of becoming a trendy singer songwriter. But for some reason, he is forced into joining the devil worshiping death metal band “Detroit Metal City” (DMC). In full stage make-up and costume, he transforms into Johannes Krauser II (Sir Krauser) the vulgar-mouthed lead vocalist of the band. Against Negishi’s will, DMC rises to stardom. Now the legendary king of death metal Jack Il Dark (Gene Simmons) himself is challenging DMC to a duel. What is the fate of the innocent Negishi as he climbs to the top of the death metal world?.

Kenichi Matsuyama in Detroit Metal City


In 2008, the San Francisco Internation Asian American Film Festival screened Death Note. Asst. Festival Director Taro Goto wrote the summary that year.

Light Yagami is a brilliant law student who’s disillusioned with Japan’s justice system. One evening, he discovers a mysterious book—dropped by a God of Death—enabling him to kill anyone by writing a name into its pages. Incredulous at first, Light decides to use his newfound gift to execute criminals throughout the world and thereby strike fear into the hearts of evildoers. With crime rates dropping, the public anoints the invisible enforcer a messiah. Police efforts to find the serial killer prove futile, until they’re joined by a cryptic investigator, known only as “L,” who pits his cunning brain against Light’s in a spectacular cat-and-mouse game of one-upmanship.

Death Note is the first of a two-part feature, adapted from the wildly popular manga series of the same title that’s become a phenomenon in Japan and across Asia, even spawning an animated TV series as well as a spin-off movie featuring “L.” Director Shusuke Kaneko, a veteran of the Gamera series and other sci-fi action fare, abridges the byzantine plot of the original without sacrificing any of its mind-bending intricacies, and inserts enough unexpected twists to keep even the most avid fan on their toes. That the film avoids any profound discussion of the ethics of vigilantism is easy to forgive when you’re busy keeping up with a grip­ping battle of wits for the ages.

I recall enjoying the film. It was screened at the Castro to a crowded house. I assumed SFIAAFF would screen the second part in 2009. They did not. Nor did they screen it in 2010. For 2½ years, I've wondered how the story ends. The waiting can end on September 4 with the screening Death Note and Death Note II: The Last Name. In addition to the screening, New People is selling a 3 CD, Blue-ray package including both films plus 2 hours of behind-the-scenes footage and admission to screenings of Death Note and Death Note II: The Last Name. If you don't want the CDs, admission to the films is $10 each or $15 for both.


[1] Cronin, Sarah (2009-04-01). Electric Sheep Magazine

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

FCUK, Stretch Hummers and Leah Garchik Strikes Again

On Monday, I was walking down Powell St towards the BART station and noticed the FCUK store is closed. For the uninitiated or dyslexic, FCUK stands for French Connection United Kingdom. I never entered the store but enjoyed seeing the store sign. Sometimes, I would see advertising that made me chuckle. "San Francisco's first fcuk."

As I walk or ride around the City, I notice things. Some people who live on the second floor of their building on O'Farrell between Jones & Taylor may want to consider closing their curtains when engaged in certain tasks. I also notice vacant commercial real estate and there is a lot of it in San Francisco.

I've noticed the return of the stretch Hummer limousine. I used to see several stretch limos every Friday & Saturday night around the City. I haven't seen them too much in the past several years. Now, I've seen the Stretch Hummer on two recent weekends.

I'm not sure what any of this has to do with the economy. It certainly has nothing to do with the movies I watch.


As I mentioned, Leah Garchik seems to have sources on the local film festival circuit. She reported in Monday's edition of the San Francisco Chronicle that the San Francisco Film Society (they sponsor the San Francisco International Film Festival) have been in negotiations for several months to take over the Clay Theater. The Clay, currently operated by Landmark Theaters, is scheduled to close on August 29.

If negotiations are successful, I wonder how it would affect the SFFS screen at the Kabuki Cinema. I also remember an announcement about SFFS opening a theater in The Presidio as part of their redevelopment plan.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Acid Western Double Feature

On consecutive nights at the Red Vic, I saw El Topo and Dead Man.

El Topo starring and directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky; Spanish with subtitles; (1970)

Dead Man starring Johnny Depp and Lance Henriksen; with Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, Gabriel Byrne and Alfred Molina; directed by Jim Jarmusch; (1995)


El Topo is a cult film that was a progenitor of the term "Acid Western." According to Wikipedia, "'Acid Western' was coined by Jonathan Rosenbaum in a review of Jim Jarmusch's film, Dead Man."

Quoting from Wiki, Acid Western is a sub-genre of the Western film that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s that combined the metaphorical ambitions of top-shelf Westerns, like Shane and The Searchers, with the excesses of the Spaghetti Westerns and the outlook of the counter-culture. Acid Westerns subvert many of the conventions of earlier Westerns to "conjure up a crazed version of autodestructive white America at its most solipsistic, hankering after its own lost origins."[1]

I'm not sure if that describes El Topo. I thought The Mole conjured Buddhist imagery and Mexican Balkanization. The plot merits a cursory summary. El Topo begins the film as a gunfighter. He's not solitary since there is a naked boy riding on the horse with him. It's implied it is his son or at least, pedophilia is not implied. Why is the boy naked? I'm not sure. Maybe because he is innocent. El Topo abandons the boy with some monks who have been abused by some bandits. After dispatching the bandits and their leader, The Colonel (via castration), El Topo sets off into the desert with a woman he rescues from The Colonel. He is seeking to prove himself against the four great gunmen of the desert. After beating them through luck and deception, Topo is betrayed by the woman and left for dead.

The second half of the film deals with his recovery and relationship with a group of deformed people. In this part of the movie, Tope shaves his head and devotes himself to the freedom of his new friends. After freeing them from their subterranean prison, the freaks are gunned down by the townspeople. El Topo, in turn, guns down the townspeople and then self-immolates.

It's impossible not to see the similarities between El Topo and Buddhist monks in Vietnam in the prelude to the full-scale war in that country. Many monks committed self-immolation in the early 1960's to protest the government of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem.

I'm sure there is a message in the film. I found it interesting that the boy started naked, then wore a Catholic monk's robe and finally the black clothes his father wore as a gunfighter. There is a circle of life allegory going on. There is also a lot of Eastern philosophy being referenced. One of the gunfighter/masters looked like an Indian Yogi. El Topo resembles a Buddhist monk for the second half of the film.

El Topo wasn't my cup of tea but I'm glad I finally saw it. Maybe if I had a liberal arts background, I would enjoy films like El Topo. However, I have an engineering/science background.


Dead Man had a more coherent script. Johnny Depp is William Blake, an accountant from Cleveland who takes the train out to the town of Machine (state unknown). When he gets there, he finds that the job has been filled. Dejected, he wanders around town before meeting up with an ex-prostitute who now sells flowers. Their slumber is interrupted by her ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne). Byrne and the woman are shot dead and Blake flees town with a near fatal wound. Unfortunately for Blake, the man he shot dead is the son of the town's wealthiest citizen (Robert Mitchum in his last role). Mitchum dispatches three assassins to track down and kill Blake. For his part, Blake falls in with an Indian who says he is Nobody which henceforth becomes his appellation and loyal companion to Blake due to sharing the name of the English poet and painter who became a counterculture icon. The rest of the film is similar to a standard Western chase film like The Searchers. There are twists though. Blake's wound leads tThe Searcherso hallucinations and Nobody seem to have knowledge of Indian mysticism. One of the assassins is also a cannibal.

Throughout the film, Depp undergoes a transformation from a milquetoast tenderfoot to a proficient and cool-under-fire gunslinger. Gunslinger is not the right term as he is an unwilling participant in all of his encounters.

I enjoyed Dead Man more than El Topo but both were two metaphorical for my tastes.


[1] Rosenbaum, Jonathan (1996-06-26). "Acid Western: Dead Man". Chicago Reader.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

2010 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

One Sunday during the Hole in the Head Festival, I wandered over to the Castro Theater to catch a couple films at the SF Jewish Film Festival. The festival ran from July 24 to August 9 at multiple venues.

The festival had a mini program called Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film which consisted of four films - Bugsy (1991), King of the Roaring 20’s – The Story of Arnold Rothstein (1961), Lepke (1975) and Scarface (1932).

I watched Lepke starring Tony Curtis. Louis "Lepke" Buchalter was a Jewish gangster who founded Murder, Inc. a gang of hitman used by the Mafia. I'm moderately familiar with his story and Lepke does not do it justice. The plot was one step above incoherent. Perhaps the particulars of the man's life were faithfully recreated in the film but none of the man's inner demons were present in Curtis' performance. Surely a murderer like Lepke has something driving his sociopathy. Even if he didn't, I would expect a film to attribute his behavior to something for the sake of the plot. Instead, we are left with Lepke which seems more a like a cataloging of 1920s gangster. Lucky Luciano, check; Albert Anastasia, check; Dutch Schultz, check...

The other film I saw at SFJFF was Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story. The documentary profiled some of the prominent Jews in Major League Baseball including Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Al Rosen. I always thought Lou Gehrig was Jewish. I seem to recall a scene in The Pride of the Yankees where Gehrig (played by Gary Cooper) is subjected to some anti-semitism. I guess learning history from Hollywood movies is not always a good idea. Apparently, Gehrig was Lutheran. I'll have to watch the film again to see if my memory is wrong or the film distorts the truth.

Whereas Lepke was a cataloging of Jewish & Italian gangsters and I found it boring, Jews and Baseball was a cataloging of Jewish baseball players and I found it interesting. I guess a documentary can get away with that.

After the film, Al Rosen took a few questions from the audience. I only knew Al Rosen as the former general manager of the San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees during the Reggie Jackson/Billy Martin years. However, Rosen was a accomplished slugger for the Cleveland Indians in the 1950s. He was known and introduced as the Hebrew Hammer. Rosen told a few stories about his playing days, anti-semitism and relationship with Hank Greenberg who was the general manager of the Indians at the time Rosen played for them.

Rosen's Q&A was probably the best part of the afternoon for me. Rosen's nickname during his playing days was "The Hebrew Hammer." They don't make nicknames like that anymore...


Lepke starring Tony Curtis; with Milton Berle; (1975)
Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story; documentary; narrated by Dustin Hoffman; (2010) - Official Website

Friday, August 13, 2010

Clay(No)more Mine

I read in yesterday's Examiner that Landmark Theaters is closing the Clay on August 29.

I'm saddended but not surprised. The Clay is not a theater I go to often. The last film I saw there was Cannibal Holocaust in May 2009. It only has one screen so its screening options are limited. Unlike the majestic Castro, the Clay looks like a 100 year old theater. Also, it is not conveniently located on a BART or Muni Metro line. I would have taken a bus there but the programming has not been compelling. Since it is a Landmark Theater, I figured the film would show at one of the other Landmark Theaters. I notice Landmark flms premiere at the Embarcadero and after a few weeks, move to the Opera Plaza. The Lumiere gets more of the quirky films.

I wonder if preservationists will try to save the venue as they did with the Vogue and the 4-Star. As much as I like film going, I'm largely opposed to the efforts of groups like SFNTF. The venues have shown that they are not financially viable so the owners try to sell the venue and put it better use (from an economic standpoint). SFNTF intervenes or leads protests to stop the conversion of the theater to some other use.

In the old days, the argument was that single-screen theaters couldn't compete against multiplexes except in a city with the population density of San Francisco. Some theater chains couldn't make a go of a single screen theater so they tried to sell it and met organized opposition. In the case of the 4-Star, it was a labor of love by long-time owners Frank Lee Sr. & Jr. As for the Vogue, I have to say SFNTF put their money where their mouth was and purchased the theater and still operate it in partnership with Peerless Entertainment.

Nowadays, movie theaters, big and small, are fighting for survival against movies on demand. I didn't mention DVDs because I think DVDs have lost the battle and are dead men walking.

Will movie theaters survive? I don't know. Much is attributed to the "shared experience" but frankly, my fantasy would be to see films (projected in 35 mm if that was their original format) in an empty theater - no distractions, no one lighting up the house with their cell phone to check the time, no one whispering or talking, no one sitting near me with questionable hygienic practices, etc. Maybe I would let some people in who are sufficiently respectful of each other's movie experience...

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Once again, I took a night off from the Hole in the Head Festival to see the 50th anniversary re-release of Breathless. I've seen Godard's film before. I saw it at the Castro about 7 or 8 years ago and I've seen a VHS version before that. I'm beginning to think Breathless is one of those films a person should see every few years because one's opinion of it changes as time passes; at least mine has.

What I recalled about Breathless from previous screenings was how cool Michael (Jean-Paul Belmondo) was (très chic) and how enchanting Patricia (Jean Seberg) was with her pixie cut, New York Herald Tribune t-shirt, American accented French and youthfully detached demeanor.

Now that I'm d'un certain age, Michael and Patricia's charms are not quite so attractive. They're still radiant in their youth and possess an unmistakable panache but their behavior provokes a sense of repulsion. Perhaps it is a "youth is wasted on the young" mindset on my part. Rather than doomed lovers, they seem more like foolish kids who paint themselves into a corner.

The real star of the film is Paris (circa 1960). The city looks fabulous in black & white as filmed by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. It made me long for a time and place I can never visit. The film make me want to listen to Paris in the Spring Time by Ella Fitzgerald. Paris between WWII and the modernism of the 1960s must have been an incredible place.

Back to Belmondo and Seberg. Michael is less about being a nihilist or anti-hero and more about projecting bravado after making stupid choices. Intoxicated by his own image, Michael looks like a hollowed-out man trying desperately to survive and hold on to Seberg's Patricia. Patricia, for her part, borders on monstrous in this viewing. Her nonchalance is still rooted in the vagaries of youth but their consequences are so cruel that I wonder what appealed to me in her character.

Perhaps a younger man thinks "It can't happen to me" while an older man thinks "But for the grace of God..." It's like watching a beautiful child pull the wings off butterflies. Seberg toys with Belmondo's affections in a manner that made me wish Michael would have the strength to leave her. However, I knew where the story must end and it felt like watching a car accident in slow motion.

Steve Seid of the PFA mentioned before the screening of Bonjour Tristesse that Godard was inspired to cast Seberg in Breathless after watching her performance in the Preminger film. Patricia is not as conniving as Cecile. Patricia's callousness is derived from an unconscious state of apathy, selfishness and lack of empathy seem to be her primary motivators.

Maybe I'm just getting old. Seberg's appearance in the film is still captivating to me so at least I can still appreciate physical beauty. Seberg was a nouveau femme fatale - just as deadly but muting her sexuality and dooming men with her impassive indecision rather than her manipulations and deceits.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Charlie Chaplin at the Castro Redux

The Castro Theater has posted the schedule for their Charlie Chaplin retrospective. Actually, it's a touring program sponsored by Janus Films. The full Janus program consists of 17 titles but the Castro line-up only has 12.

Saturday Sept 18
The Circus (1928, 72 min.)
The Idle Class (1921, 32 min.)
A Day's Pleasure (1919, 19 min.)

Sunday Sept 19
City Lights (1931, 87 min.)
A Dog's Life (1918, 33 min.)
Sunnyside (1919, 30 min.)

Monday Sept. 20
Modern Times (1936, 87 min.)
Pay Day (1922, 22 min.)

Tuesday Sept 21
The Great Dictator (1940, 124 min.)
The Kid (1921, 54 min.)

Wednesday Sept 22
Limelight (1952, 137 min.)
Shoulder Arms (1918, 37 min.)


I'm not sure what is prompting this retrospective. They had a Chaplin retrospective less than 3 years ago at the Castro and PFA.

Charlie Chaplin Retrospective Theatrical Poster


The San Francisco Silent Film Festival announced their next two events.

Their Winter Event will be on Saturday, February 12, 2011. The 16th Annual Silent Film Festival will be held July 14 to 17, 2011. I notice the festival is four days again in 2011. I recall reading that this year's festival was expanded to four days (from three) to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the festival. Apparently the fourth day was considered a success.

Presumably both events will be held at the Castro Theater.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Angelo Rossito (standing on table) and Olga Baclanova (standing) in FreaksDuring the Hole in the Head festival, the Red Vic seemed to counter-program a film perfectly suited for horror and fantasy film fans. In July, the Red Vic screened Tod Browning's Freaks.

Set at a circus, the film has a noirish plot which involves the beautiful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a trapeze artist. She flirts with circus owner Hans, a dwarf. When she discovers he is wealthy, she conspires with her lover Hercules, the circus strongman. Cleopatra marries Hans with the intention of killing him and inheriting his money. However, her contempt and disgust at the deformities of the circus performers (including her own husband) make obvious her true intentions. Olga and Hercules eventually get their comeuppance.

The film is still shocking nearly 80 years after it was released. I can't recall another film with such an array of dwarfs, armless and legless people, Siamese twins and microcephaly sufferers. The image of 2'11" Angelo Rossito with a switchblade knife crawling through the mud in a driving rainstorm to castrate Hercules is still frightening.

Another disturbing scene involves Cleopatra and Hans' wedding reception. Rossito gets up on the dining table and starts chanting "Gobble, gobble. We accept her. One of us!" All the other freaks at the table join in the chant. That by itself is disturbing but then the drunk Cleopatra lashes out at the group. She's indignant at being grouped with the freaks. It was a bizarre and cruel scene, just like the film.

The film was too strange for audiences of the day so it was edited down. The missing footage is considered lost forever.

I learned on the internet that Hans was portrayed by Harry Earles. His true love and fellow dwarf was Frieda played by Daisy Earles...his sister! That's the most freakish part of the film - having real-life brother and sister play a romantic couple in a film.

Freaks directed by Tod Browning; (1932)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Myra Breckinridge, Leah Garchik and The Color of Upholstery

Raquel Welch in Myra BreckinridgeI was able to see, for the first time, Myra Breckinridge at the Castro in July. The camp classic was better than I expected. The film is routinely listed among the worst films ever made. I can certainly understand the controversy it provoked but I'm surprised that its stock hasn't risen in the 40 years since its release.

Any film can be improved by a 30 year old Raquel Welch parading around in her infamous stars and stripe costume. Viewed 40 years after it originally shocked audiences, I thought the camp in Myra Breckinridge still shined bright. Certainly, Welch acquits herself adequately as the post-operative transsexual whose goal is the "destruction of the American male in all its particulars." With flattering wardrobes and an understated approach, Welch puts some sex appeal & humor into Myra Breckinridge. Even Mae West's schtick is appropriate for her role and the film. Similarly, John Huston gives his old lecher character some panache. What's there to complain about? Well, Myra Breckinridge sodomizes a young man with a strap-on dildo. She also seduces Farrah Fawcett. Most of the humor is crude.

I felt the film was an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes. There is no accounting for taste though. John Carradine has a memorable cameo as the surgeon at the beginning of the film. Rex Reed plays Myron Breckinridge, Myra's pre-operative self or alter-ego depending on one's interpretation of the plot.

Myra Breckinridge starring Raquel Welch, John Huston & Mae West; (1970)


I've noticed that San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik often runs items in her column from various film festivals in the Bay Area. She must be a cinephile or have a source who is. It's strange to see events I have witnessed described in the newspaper.


Having seen so many films at Viz Cinema lately, I wonder why all the seats in the theater are a pale, mustard color except for a handful (perhaps one or two per row) which are orange/red and slightly different in texture.

Viz also moved the theater box office to the basement, directly in front of the screening room. I think that is a good idea. Before, tickets were purchased at the coffee bar on the ground floor which I thought was odd. Perhaps they should consider selling snacks more appropriate to a (Japanese?) movie theater in the basement too.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

2010 Hole in the Head Film Festival

I saw 26 programs at the seemingly interminable 2010 Hole in the Head Film Festival. The festival ran from July 8 to 29 at the Roxie and Viz. I missed 7 days due to the Silent Film Festival and the Kurosawa program at PFA but was still able to catch about 80% of the films.

I chatted with Jeff Ross at Indiefest in February and he mentioned he was trying to schedule Hole in the Head to not conflict with the Silent Film Festival or the SF Jewish Film Festival. He was unsuccessful on both counts. 32 films in 22 days makes for a leisurely paced festival. In years past, they had some matinee screenings on Saturdays and Sundays but this year they only screened at 5 PM, 7 PM and 9 PM each day with an 11 PM screening on Fridays & Saturdays. I could have caught all 32 films but it just became a bridge too far.

2010 Hole in the Head Film Festival – Feature Films
Alien vs Ninja; Japanese with subtitles; (2010)
American Grindhouse; documentary; (2010) - Official Website
Dr. “S” Battles the Sex Crazed Reefer Zombies; (2010) - Official Website
The Exterminator starring Robert Ginty; (1980)
Fell; (2010) - Official Website
Future X-Cops starring Andy Lau and Bingbing Fan; Cantonese with subtitles; (2010)
Grotesque; Japanese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Jimmy Tupper vs. The Goatman of Bowie; (2010) - Official Website
Metropolis 1984 Redux; directed by Giorgio Moroder; (1984) - Official Website
Mil Mascaras vs. The Aztec Mummy; (2007) - Official Website
Mutant Girl Squad; Japanese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Nightmares in Red, White and Blue; documentary; (2009) - Official Website
Phasma Ex Machina; (2010) - Official Website
Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre; various languages with subtitles; (2009)
Robogeisha; Japanese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Samurai Princess; Japanese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Satan Hates You; (2009) - Official Website
A Serbian Film; Serbian with subtitles; (2009)
Sexy Time Trip Ninjas; Japanese with subtitles; (1984)
Shadow; (2009) - Official Website
Silent Night, Zombie Night; (2009) - Official Website
Symbol; Japanese and Spanish with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives; (2010) - Official Website
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil starring Alan Tudyck; (2009) - Official Website
Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl; Japanese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
The Violent Kind; (2010)

Mil Mascaras vs. The Aztec Mummy was part of a double feature sponsored by Thrillville. Will "The Thrill" Viharo and Monica "The Tiki Goddess" Cortes made their debut at the Roxie. Sadly, it was the last Thrillville road show as Will is focusing on his writing career and "Forbidden Thrills" movie series at the Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge in Alameda.

The second half of Mil Mascaras double feature was Academy of Doom which I skipped out on. July was quite a grind in terms of seeing films and I was exhausted at that point. Will or someone sponsored free beer so they gave away Trumer Pils before the screening. I had a couple and it did not put me in the mood for another hour at the Roxie.

There weren't as many short films this year.

2010 Hole in the Head – Short Films
Riding the Groper Train “Mr. Pink Talks About the Groper Train Series”; Japanese with subtitles
Stranger (Perfect Machine)
Demiurge Emesis narrated by Danny Elfman
Belated Valentines Lover
Escape from Death Planet

According to the festival guide, Ice Cream Sunday was supposed to proceed Grotesque but it didn’t on the July 22 screening.

No short film was scheduled to accompany Ticked-Off Trannies but an animated video of He-Man Master of the Universe set to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” played before the film. It turned out to be my favorite short film of the festival.


In terms of films, I thought the festival line-up was weak. I'm not really a horror, science fiction or fantasy film fan but I can enjoy a "good" film in those genres.

I can only recommend two films from the festival.

My favorite was Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Tucker combined humor with the slasher film tropes to make an entertaining film. I should add that Alan Tudyck, one of my favorite actors portrayed Tucker who served as the de facto straight man in the titular duo. The plot involves a bunch of increasingly sociopathic college kids on vacation in the woods down south (think Deliverance). They encounter a pair of good-natured nay sensitive Southern Men (as Neil Young said). A series of misunderstandings lead to tragicomic events.

Instead of recounting the plot in detail, I'll add that Tucker and Dale vs. Evil reminded me of Scream without the self-awareness.

The other film which merits a resounding recommendation is the outrageously titled Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives. The film was an homage to 70's grindhouse films like I Spit on Your Grave except the heroine was a tranny. The titles summarizes the plot to a sufficient degree for these purposes. I will admit that for most of the film, I thought star Krystal Summers was the only "female" among the cast but I was disabused of that notion during the Q&A and subsequent web surfing.

A few scenes could have been edited down (particularly towards the end when the bad guy describes in annoyingly verbose dialogue exactly what torture will befall Bubbles based on the playing card she chooses). The faux 1970's grindhouse flourishes (scratches, missing reels, etc.) was also unnecessary. It's hard to criticize a film titled Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives that is performed with such gusto. Like Tucker and Dale, Trannies combines the avenging angel film with healthy dosage of gay humor. As William Belli who co-starred as Rachel Slurr said of the film, "It's a period film except known of us had our period."

According to their website, Ticked-Off Trannies is getting a limited theatrical relese in October.


A number of films were interesting or entertaining but I can only give them a half-hearted hurrah.

Most prominent among the "also rans" is A Serbian Film. The mundanely titled film depicts some of the most perverse acts captured in cinema - a man anally sodomizes his prepubescent son and another man seems to have sex with a new born child. The films is supposed to be an allegory for how the Serbian government has treated their citizens although I think that the political commentary was lost on most audience members (including me). The screening I went to had the most mid-movie walkouts of any films I attended at the festival.

Metropolis 1984 Redux was also worthwhile but after seeing the Alloy Orchestra scored, restored version of Metropolis, the 1984 redux could not compare. The soundtrack held up surprisingly well given its age. I thought nostalgia for my youth would give the edge to the Moroder version but the 80s soundtrack sounded like the 1980s whereas the Alloy Orchestra rendition sounded timeless. I will admit the Moroder soundtrack was quite good and enhanced the story.

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl was the best of a disappointing batch of Japanese films. The film had a bit too much gore for my taste. The gore doesn't bother me but it was repeated ad nauseam for most of the film. I fell asleep several times. VG vs. FG had an amusing subplot involving the various cliques at the high school where the action took place. Frankenstien Girl was part of the Lolita clique so it received the most screen time. The other two cliques involved the Cutters (self-mutilators) and the Afros (Japanese in black face who aspire to be African American - go Flo-Jo!) and provided an occasional smirk.

Actually, there was a Japanese film that was more intense than the typically CGI/splatter films. Grotesque was one of these films where a crazy guy kidnaps and tortures people. In this instance, the kidnapper is a deranged doctor and the victims are a pair of shy kids at the beginning of their romance. To the film's credit, the pair actually grow in terms of maturity and courage while the mad doctor is cutting off body parts. It became painful to watch but it was never boring. I guess that's what Saw is like but I've never seen those films. My understanding is that the kidnapper is never seen in those films but the creepy and earnest doctor's presence in Grotesque enhances the film.

Dr. “S” Battles the Sex Crazed Reefer Zombies, Jimmy Tupper vs. The Goatman of Bowie and Phasma Ex Machina were low budget American films involving zombies, monsters-in-the-woods and poltergeists, respectively. Jimmy Tupper was my favorite of the bunch. Most of the film was a character study of the dysfunctional Tupper as he camps out in the woods waiting to encounter the Goatman. Towards the end of the film, I hoped the film would dispense with the man-beasts and make Tupper's psyche the real monster but alas Goatmen made an appearance. I will say they masterfully ended the film with a cliffhanger to set up the sequel - Jimmy Tupper vs. The Goatmen of Bowie

Satan Hates You was such an amateurish morality tale that I think it had to be tongue-in-cheek. Complete with imps in dinner jackets egging on the self-destructive behavior of a self-loathing homosexual and promiscuous teenage girl, the film descends to didactic mawkishness. However, it has just enough "wink wink nudge nudge" to make me believe it was satirizing the Jack Chick comics the film so obviously resembles.

Speaking of Jack Chick, I work in the Financial District of San Francisco and I've noticed that someone is placing Jack Chick comics on boxes of the poles with the pedestrian crossing signs. I'm referring to the box with the button you press to activate the crossing signal. I see the minature comic books or "Chick tracts" on these boxes a few times per week.

The other films in the festival were unmemorable or even unwatchable.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

2010 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The 2010 San Francisco Silent Film Festival ran from July 15 to 18 at the Castro Theater.

I saw all 12 feature length programs and only missed two programs (excluding the two free Amazing Tales from the Archives).

2010 SF Silent Film Festival - Feature Films
The Iron Horse starring George O'Brien; directed by John Ford; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Dennis James; (1924)
A Spray of Plum Blossoms starring Ruan Lingyu; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Donald Sosin; (1931)
Rotaie; silent with Italian intertitles and reader; accompanied by Stephen Horne; (1928)
Metropolis directed by Fritz Lang; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Alloy Orchestra; (1927)
The Flying Ace; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Donald Sosin; (1926)
The Strong Man starring Harry Langdon; directed by Frank Capra; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Stephen Horne; (1926)
Diary of a Lost Girl starring Louise Brooks; directed by G.W. Pabst; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; (1929)
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages directed by Benjamin Christensen; silent with Swedish intertitles and reader (Stephen Salmons); accompanied by Matti Bye Ensemble; (1922)
The Shakedown directed by William Wyler; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Donald Sosin; (1929)
Man With a Movie Camera directed by Dziga Vertov; silent; accompanied by Alloy Orchestra; (1929)
The Woman Disputed starring Norma Talmadge & Gilbert Roland; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Stephen Horne; (1928)
L'Heureuse Mort; silent with French intertitles and reader; accompanied by Matti Bye Ensemble; (1924)

Before most of the features, they screened a George Méliès short.

George Méliès Short Films
A Crazy Composer (1905); with A Spray of Plum Blossoms
Panorama from Top of a Moving Train (1898); with Rotaie
The Inventor Crazybrains and his Wonderful Airship (1907); with The Flying Ace
An Impossible Balancing Feat (1898); with The Strong Man
The Spider and the Butterfly (1909); with Diary of a Lost Girl
The Infernal Cauldron (1903); with Häxan
The Prolific Magical Egg (1902); with The Shakedown
A Trip to the Moon (1902); with Man With a Movie Camera
The Eclipse, or the Courtship of the Sun and the Moon (1907); with The Woman Disputed
The Kingdom of Fairies (1903); with L’Heureuse Mort

The programs I missed were a program called The Big Business of Short, Funny Films which consisted of Fatty Arbuckle, Laurel & Hardy and Max Davidson shorts and Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Films during which the festival's accompanists performed and discussed their craft.


Before I speak about the films, a few notes about the festival itself.

The (SF)^2 Festival is becoming notorious for starting the films late. Metropolis started over an hour late and Häxan must have been close to an hour late. I'm not sure what causes the delays but the festival needs to do a better job. I don't think they budget enough time to clear the house and allow the musicians to do a sound check between films. Eddie Muller who interviewed the Argentinian duo responsible for finding the Metropolis footage made a joke of the tardiness. He said something to the extent, "If you have waited 83 years, what's another 75 minutes?" I stayed in the theater between screenings so I was able to read in relative comfort. However, if I had been standing in line outside the theater, I may not have been so amused.

In fact, when I entered the theater for Rotaie at around 5:30 PM, there were two women in line. I kindly informed them that they had already opened the theater for Rotaie. They replied that they were there for Metropolis which was scheduled to start at 8:15 PM. I don't think they opened the house for Metropolis until after 9 PM. Those poor women stood outside for approximately 3.5 hours.

Stephen Salmons and Melissa Chittick were honored for their founding of the festival. Salmons even reprised some of his emcee duties when he announced the winner of the raffle. I miss the admittedly silly banter between Salmons and announcer Ron Lynch. It served as a nice distraction during the time between the films.

In between films, workers (or maybe volunteers) sold panini sandwiches from Poesia Oesteria Italiana. I don't see paninis on their restaurant menu but the ones they sold in the theater were delicious. My favorite was the caprese whose main ingredients are tomatoes and mozzarella.


The centerpiece of the festival was undoubtedly the screening of the restored version of Metropolis. The version screened at the festival restores the film to its original cut (150 minutes). I saw a version (at the Castro) a few years ago which clocked in around 2 hours if I recall. I enjoyed that version quite a bit. The version they screened at the festival didn't reveal too much. Most of the cuts seem to be to transition scenes or shortening some of the action scenes. It was easy to recognize the restored portions because they were grainy 16 mm whereas the rest of the film was in amazingly crisp 35 mm. However, the Alloy Orchestra provided a muscular and rhythmic score which enhanced the film immeasurably. Their beating of drums literally resonated through the floor and up my legs.

I think this was the fourth time I've seen Metropolis and I'm always impressed. The wanton dancing by Brigitte Helm as the robot caught my attention this time. The overt references to Christian iconography and large set pieces always catch my attention.

The fully restored version of Metropolis which screened at the festival is screening at the Castro Theater from August 13 to 15.

A recurrent theme throughout the festival seemed to be the sexual exploitation of women or prostitution. In Rotaie, a poor couple on the verge of mutual suicide find a wallet full of money. They vacation at a posh resort where the boyfriend loses everything (and then some) at the roulette table. A wealthy womanizer offer to pay off his gambling debts in exchange for one night with this girlfriend.

In Diary of a Lost Girl, Louise Brooks becomes pregnant. After giving the baby up for adoption, she is sent to a school for wayward girls. She escapes and becomes a high-end prostitute. In The Disputed Woman, Norma Talmadge (playing a French woman) whores herself to a jilted Russian suitor in order to save the life of a spy and save her country.

Other thumbnails:

While in the men’s room between screenings, I go to the urinal and think the man next to me looks familiar. After a few seconds, I realize it’s Leonard Maltin. I didn’t say anything but it seems odd to see people that I associate with television in real-life. It’s almost as if I view them as fictional characters who reside inside my television and then to see them at a place I go to so frequently is disjointing.

Dziga Vertov’s Man with Movie Camera was a dizzying documentary about Soviet life in the 1920’s. The film is filled with quick cut edits, geometric patterns and exhilirating images. When I read the synopsis, I didn’t think I would enjoy it but decided to give it a shot. Once again, the Alloy Orchestra comes through. Their fevered and rambunctious score perfectly complemented the film. Vertov’s techniques were ahead-of-their-time as they looked like modern editing.

Louise Brooks, resplendent with her black bob, lived up to her reputation in Diary of a Lost Girl. In the film, she transforms from innocent, frightened, courageous and decadent while never losing her charm. Truly a movie star, Brooks moves through the film like no one else can. Also noteworthy were Fritz Rasp as the slimy assistant who seduces and impregnates Brooks’ Thymian and Andrews Engelmann and Valeska Gert as the couple who run the facility Brooks is banished to. Engelmann is a hulking presence while Gert’s character seems to become sexually aroused by the girls’ physical torment.

I previously saw a 1968 re-release of Häxan which was narrated by William S. Burroughs. Honestly, I enjoyed that version more. Voice-over narration is well suited for describing various books and diagrams which is the first part of the Häxan. The Matti Bye Ensemble’s score was well suited to the film but given the late start time and late hour, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to fully enjoy the film. The film seemed to drag for long stretches but I will same some of the scenes with the devil (portrayed by director Benjamin Christensen) were still disturbing.

I notice that acting styles in Chinese films are frequently more demonstrative than what Western audiences are accustomed to. A Spray of Plum Blossoms fits that mold. The villain (Wang Cilong) does some thumb-to-nose gesture (as opposed to twirling his mustache) that is absurd. Actually, his whole performance seems to be a caricature. The plot was forgetful but what I found interesting is the film was originally released with both Chinese & English intertitles reflecting the targetted audience of Shanghai films in the early 1930s.

The Strong Man and The Shakedown were entertaining comedies from Frank Capra and William Wyler, respectively. I didn't find anything particularly noteworthy about them. The Strong Man starred Harry Langdon, a screen comedian who was briefly considered an equal of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. The backstory about Capra and Landgon's falling-out seemed more interesting than The Strong Man.

The Flying Ace was notable for its all African American cast and that it was shot in Jacksonville, Florida which for period rivaled Hollywood in terms movie making. I found the comedy tedious and dozed off for a bit.

L'Heureuse Mort was a French comedy made by Russian expatriates. It seems like I've seen it before although I don't see how that is possible. The premise has been frequently re-used but there were scenes where the setting and landscape invoked deja vu. I found the film amusing although a strange pick for the closing night film. The plot involves a failed playwright who is presumed drowned at sea. His death prompts a cavalcade of praise and interest in his work. Wanting to capitalize on his posthumous notoriety, the man allows the charade of his demise to continue and assumes the identity of his brother who is conveniently located in Senegal...that is until he decides to return to France to pay his respects to his late brother.

That only leaves The Iron Horse to discuss. Certainly epic in nature, I was underwhelmed by the bloated film. Director John Ford probably could have edited 30 minutes out of the film to good effect. Rather than make pointless suggestions, I will say that the cattle drive is emblematic of the shortcomings of the film. Throughout the film, there are cutaway shots of this (modestly sized) herd of cattle being driven on the open range past various scenic landscapes. The sole and belated purpose of the herd seems to be to placate some Italians on the railway gang who refuse to support their Irish co-workers unless they are paid and fed. Fortunately, the cattle drive arrives just in time and the newly unified Irish-Italian horde descends on and massacres some Indians.

Chock full of racial stereotypes that don't seem as amusing and quaint as I remembered from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Fort Apache, The Iron Horse looked older than its 86 years in terms of what entertained movie audiences back in the day.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work directed by Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg; documentary; (2010) - Official Website


I’m behind in documenting the films I’ve seen – too busy seeing films to write about films.

In July, I saw Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. The documentary closed out the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival with Rivers in attendance. I learned from the documentary that Rivers has never turned down a paying gig or opportunity to promote herself. It’s not so much that she needs of the limelight but that she is in constant need of work. Her need is not financially motivated but psychological. She seems incomplete unless she works.

Upon closer inspection, perhaps Rivers is not that different from the stereotype of the comedian. At an age and stature where criticism should be of little concern, Rivers frets constantly about the reviews of her play or her turn on Celebrity Apprentice. I wonder how she survived the unraveling of her relationship with Johnny Carson. Rivers was the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show in the mid 1980s. This followed many years of appearances on Carson’s show and a close mentoring relationship between the two. However, when Rivers accepted a late night job at Fox Network, Carson severed the relationship and the two never spoke again.

I can’t say that I ever really gave Joan Rivers much thought. If I had, I would have subscribed to her stage persona as a crass Jewish woman. The film softened up Rivers’ image considerably which I guess is the point of the film.

Best line in the film – when Rivers’ daughter Melissa is voted off Celebrity Apprentice due to maneuvering by fellow contestant and professional poker player Annie Duke. In anger, Rivers refers to her as “Annie Douche.”

As an aside, I watched a poker tournament on television a few months ago. It was a series of heads-up matches. Duke was playing Jerry Yang. She had him on the ropes but he kept sucking out. I remember two hands where Duke had Yang all in but the hands had a lot of outs. I can’t remember if Yang was in front or behind going into the river. Yang either hit one on the river to the win the hand or Duke missed out on all of the 15 cards which would have beat Yang. Duke looked livid. I’d probably be stewing too but I’d like to think I would be more gracious but there was something particularly frightening to me about her scowl on that show.

Joan Rivers:  A Piece of Work