Friday, October 29, 2010

2010 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival

I saw three films at the 2010 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival - all of them at the Castro Theater.

Pope Joan starring Johanna Wokalek and John Goodman; directed by Sönke Wortmann; (2009)
The Robber; directed by Benjamin Heisenberg; German with subtitles; (2010)
The Silence; directed by Baran bo Odar; German with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website

This was the first year that festival founder Ingrid Eggers was not programming the festival. As I recall, she officially retired due to age limits for the employees at the Goethe-Institut. I've also heard she was forced out due to a power struggle. That seems awfully byzantine but who knows. Ms. Eggers founded another festival called German Gems which screened a number of films earlier this year at the Castro Theater. I cannot recall the exact reasons but I was busy watching other films when her festival ran.

This is also the first year which Berlin and Beyond was held in October. It previously ran in January. There were a number of reasons given for the switch and they may be valid but for me the change was unwelcomed as it puts Berlin and Beyond in the October film schedule which is the busiest time of the year. This year, I passed on SF DocFest so I could see some Berlin and Beyond (among other) films.

The new festival director at Berlin and Beyond is Sophoan Sorn who is of Cambodian descent and immigrated to the US at a young age. He founded the San Joaquin International Film Festival.

I found the three films to be middling affairs.

The centerpiece film was the ponderous Pope Joan which lasted nearly 2.5 hours. Oddly filmed in English, the film is set in the French/German border area and Rome of the 9th century. That started the film off on a strange note. The protagonist is born of an English father so there is some reason to have her speak English but strangely, John Goodman is cast as the Pope who is Italian but also speaks with an affected British accent that is distracting. The film suffers from lack of editing and weak performances. This could have been a decent 90 minute film but predictable and one-dimensional characters pop up again and again and the actors cannot add anything to the poorly developed characters. Based on a novel by Donna Woolfolk, the film surely must suffer in comparison to the novel as well as the famous legend upon which is based.

Equally unsatisfying was The Robber. An hour shorter than Pope Joan and with German dialog, the The Robber tells the story of a paroled convict who does two things well - runs and robs banks. The audience is never really given any insight about why this man is so solitary in his pursuits. Tellingly, the best scene in the film involves the man's heart monitor. He wears it as he trains and downloads the data to his computer. You see him maintaining a level pulse rate which spikes (presumably when he robs the bank) and then returning to normal.

The man's parole officer has the man down pat. He tells him that he needs to make friends and talk to people or else he'll slide back to his old criminal habits when something goes wrong. The PO will find out who accurate his prediction is. As for me, I had no idea what drove the man to rob banks as he was earning prize money for winning marathon races and having a relationship with a childhood friend (even living at her flat). I was passionately apathetic about the robber's plight.


The best film of the bunch was The Silence which at 2 hours was also in need of some editing. The story was familiar to me. There was a Clint Eastwood film a few years back that covered some of the same ground and several films before that. Pia, an 11 year old girl is raped and murdered in 1984; the crime is never solved. That crime emotionally devastates the girl's mother, the lead police detective and the accomplice of the perpetrator. 23 years later, a 13 year old girl is missing from the area and her bike is found in the exact same place in the wheat field where Pia's bike turned up. This sets in motion a reunion of sorts between the three previously mentioned characters as well as the 1984 killer/rapist, the parents of the missing girl and another police detective mourning the loss of his wife.

The plot has potential but I thought there were too many character and too much back story which resulted in a lot confusion and the 2 hour length. I think I would benefit from a second viewing but I wasn't engaged enough to really want to see it again.

The best scene was when the killer shows his accomplice what appears to be a snuff film or child porn. The girl looks into the camera with a forlorn look that really cut through me. I wish I knew the name of the dark-haired actress who played the girl.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Social Network

Having a soon-to-expire discount card for the Balboa Theater, I ventured there to see The Social Network.

The Social Network starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake; (2010) - Official Website

I don't have a Facebook account and The Social Network is not a film that interested me. Seeing the film was serendipitous because I enjoyed it quite a bit. In particular, I thought Justin Timberlake's performance as Napster founder Sean Parker was inspired. I've long appreciated Timberlake's appearances on Saturday Night Live so I had an inkling of what he could do on screen but his portrayal of Parker raised the bar to a new level.

More difficult was Jesse Eisenberg's turn as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg whom he portrays as perpetually trying to be an asshole. I don't know anything about Zuckerberg or the factual events regarding the founding of Facebook but the screen version of Zuckerberg is hard to like or draw sympathy or empathy. I'm sure that's the way the character was written but it would have been nice to give Eisenberg some range in his role of Zuckerberg. I was left wondering how he got a girlfriend in the first place (his break up from her serves one of the key as the motivating factor in starting Facebook) or why anyone was friends with him.

The film was number one at the box office for a week or two and hundreds of reviews have been written about it. I don't need to recount the plot or give a critique. I enjoyed the film and will leave it at that.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

All About Evil and the Peaches Christ Experience

I caught All About Evil at the Victoria Theater on the first day of a four day run.

All About Evil starring Natasha Lyonne and Thomas Dekker; with Cassandra Peterson and Mink Stole; directed by Joshua Grannell; (2010) - Official Website

All About Evil premiered at the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theater. As I much I love the Castro Theater, it was a shame that the film premiered there because All About Evil was filmed and set at the Victoria Theater.

Director and screenwriter Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ) to the film on the road after its premiere on the Tour de Fierce. It's played in a dozen cities since SFIFF with a stage show before each screening. It was extra special that the film was screening where it was filmed. Several of the characters in the film (different actors) were working the front of the house prior to the show. When the show started, they danced and sang on stage. This didn't make a lot of sense before the screening but afterwards, I realized they were performing songs which paralleled the film. Then Peaches came out and sang a song or two and told a few stories. The pre-film show was billed as "The Peaches Christ Experience in 4-D!" The best song was "Shh! Means Shut the Fuck Up Bitch!"

Then it was on to the film. Deborah Tennis (pronounced Deh-bore-rah Ten-niece) owns the Victoria Theater, a movie house previously and lovingly owned by her late father. As a young girl, Deb had a mishap on stage involving her urine and a faulty electrical connection. By the way, I think some of the seats in the Victoria were wired because when an electrocution occurred during the stage show, several people screamed extra loud. Back to the film, the electrical mishap has left Tennis (Natasha Lyonne) with a white shock of hair into her adulthood. Making ends meet as a librarian, Tennis spends her nights working the ticket booth and concession stand at the Victoria which has become a grindhouse. Attendance is down and things aren't looking good. Deb's evil stepmother arrives with a document she demands Deb sign. She wants to sell the Victoria to land developers and pocket the cash. After some insults about her father, Deb stabs her stepmother in a moment of rage. The murder is caught on the security camera and that tape is mistakenly projected onto the screen. The sparse audience loves the film which they think is a PSA before the film. The audience loves the realism of the short film.

Tapping into her creative energy (not to mention her inner rage), Deb goes about torturing and killing people on film and showing the encounters before feature films as "A Deborah Tennis Production." The audience and city go nuts for the films which have names such as The Maiming of the Shrew and I Know Why the Caged Woman Screams. Deb recruits her deranged projectionist, a pair of psychotic twins just released from an insane asylum and a sociopathic junkie to costar in her films and work at the Victoria.

Deb's #1 fan is Steven (Thomas Dekker), a high school student with a big thing for horror films and a smaller thing for older women like Deb and who can blame him since his mother is Cassandra Peterson (Elvira Mistress of the Dark whose poster adorns Steven's bedroom wall). Steven, whose popularity rises when his longstanding friendship with Deb becomes known, begins to suspect that the Tennis Production films are more vérité than cinéma. You can guess what happens.

Featuring black humor, Natasha Lyonne impersonating everyone from Bette Davis to Katharine Hepburn to Mae West and frequent cameos by Peaches, All About Evil is a lot of fun. The film is more campy than black comedy (I would have preferred the opposite) but what can you expect from a drag queen in San Francisco directing his first feature film?

After the film, some of the cast took questions from the audience. If I recall correctly, Peaches said she was already at work on another film. I'd pay to see his next film based on All About Evil. Also, Peaches announced that she will perform a Christmas show at her home base of the Bridge Theater in December.

Over the closing credits, they had posters for fictitious Deborah Tennis Productions. I really enjoyed the titles and posters - The Slasher in the Rye, The Satanic Nurses, The Diary of Anne Frankenstein, MacDeath, Gore and Peace, etc.

Actually, last year or perhaps earlier this year, I saw a Gore and Peace poster at the Victoria. I thought that was a great name for a horror film. It turns out that was going to be Deborah Tennis' first feature length film where she poisons the audience on film à la Jonestown. The poster was up at the Victoria Theater for filming of All About Evil. I went to the Victoria Theater website to see the showtimes for Gore and Peace but of course, there were no showtimes. In a sense, I was punked by Peaches during the filming of All About Evil.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Taiwan Film Days

I caught two films San Francisco Film Society's Taiwan Film Days at Viz Cinema from October 22 to 24.

Monga; directed by Doze Niu; Min Nan (Taiwanese) and Mandarin with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Tears; directed by Wen-Tang Cheng; Min Nan (Taiwanese) with subtitles; (2009)


Monga which means canoe in Min Nan was a showy gangster movie about five teenagers who come together to form a gang. The leader is Dragon who is the son of the local mob boss, the brains behind the outfit is Monk, the fighter is Monkey and the coward is A-Po. The fifth member is a new kid a school called Mosquito. The five of them form a tight-knit group who assert their collective will at school and in the neighborhoods. As they get older, Dragon's father essentially sends them to a gangster training camp which consists of learning mental discipline and fighting skills with knives, swords and fists (but not guns).

Change is coming though. A mainlander (Chinese from the PRC) has aligned himself with a Taiwanese gangster recently released from prison. Director Doze Niu plays Grey Wolf (the mainlander) who preaches co-prosperity but secretly wants to take over the street action in Taipei. To accomplish this, he induces Monk to betray his gang. Monk is ambitious and harbors resentment towards Boss Geta (Dragon's father). Balancing him out is Mosquito who never knew his father and has made Boss Geta his father figure.

The film boils down to a story of betrayal and youth growing up to harsh realities. Another nice touch is the film was set in the 1980s so Dragon has a mullet that makes him look a little like Jose Canseco from the late 1980s. Monkey and A-Po have New Wave bangs which reminded me of the band A Flock of Seagulls.

Clocking in at nearly 2.5 hours, the film could have been edited down to beneficial effect. Also, I was expecting more of a gritty gangster film and Monga was rather stylized. Striving for epic dimensions, the film felt like a special 2 hour episode of Miami Vice set in Taipei. Ethan Juan and Mark Chao are effective as Monk and Mosquito, respectively. Han-Tien Chen as Mosquito's initial nemesis Dog Boy and Ju-Lung Ma as Boss Geta stood out among the supporting cast.

I can't fully recommend the film because of its excessive run time but I was entertained for most of the film.


More gritty than Monga is Tears - a tale of partial redemption for a crooked cop who isn't so bad when you get to know him. Guo (Chen-Nan Tsai) is a fifty-something cop who shows the younger cops a thing or two about water boarding. He lives in what is basically a SRO with his dog. Divorced, mostly estranged from his children and he claims to have not shed a tear in 10 years. His only semi-emotional interaction is with a betelnut beauty named Wen (Enno Cheng).

Guo catches a case involving a girl who overdosed on extra pure heroin. His dogged pursuit of that case leads to unexpected connections with Wen and brutal consequences. I won't say much more except the connections were highly contrived but the portrayal of Guo is told in a detached manner that gives the story a weary & cynical feel to match Guo's outlook. Guo's ultimate fate didn't elicit much of an emotional response from me. It was more of a dispassionate coda to the story which tried to be elegiac.

Maybe I'm getting soft in my old age but Tears rates a lukewarm recommendation from me as well. Chen-Nan Tsai's performance is worth the cost of admission or rental. Jian-wei Huang's performance as Guo's junior partner who isn't as sensitive as he appears also stood out.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ozu & Hara

The Viz Cinema recently completed a weeklong series called Ozu and His Muse: Setsuko Hara. The series consisted of four films directed by Yasujirō Ozu and featuring Setsuko Hara.

Early Summer; Japanese with subtitles; (1951)
Late Autumn; Japanese with subtitles; (1960)
Late Spring; Japanese with subtitles; (1949)
Tokyo Twilight; Japanese with subtitles; (1957)

Chishû Ryû also appeared in all four film while Haruko Sugimura appeared in three.


Early Summer, Late Autumn and Late Spring are variation on the "unmarried daughter" theme. They are really telling the same story with some difference.

In Early Summer, Setsuko Hara is the unmarried daughter who lives with her extended family. Her family want her to marry a slightly older man who is financially successful but she chooses a childhood friend who is a widower. In Late Spring, Hara lives with her widower father who exerts increasing but subtle pressure on his daughter to marry. In Late Autumn, Hara is the widow with a 24 year old daughter. Three male family friends conspire (somewhat independently of Hara) to marry off the daughter.

In Tokyo Twilight, Hara begins the film as a married woman and mother who separates from her husband and comes to live with her father and younger sister. Their mother has abandoned them many years before. Hara's younger sister (Ineko Arima) has issues related to growing up without a mother. She acts out by getting pregnant and distancing herself from her family. The film is less about a young woman being cajoled into marriage and more about the lasting psychological effects of divorce and a broken family.

Like many Ozu films, I find the plot is secondary. That's why Ozu keeps returning to the same themes - family, family conflict, aging, growing apart, parent-child relationships, etc. The difference between three of the four films is quite subtle because of the similar plots and the use of the same principle cast. Slight differences in the attitudes of Hara's characters in Early Summer and Late Spring. Late Autumn and Tokyo Twilight are almost like alternate timelines - what if Hara's character had gotten married and face a similar problem with her daughter or what if Hara's character grew up in a broken household?

I can't really add much to the chorus of praise which Ozu has received over the years. I enjoyed all four films and with each new Ozu film I see, I become more enamored with his unique style of storytelling. Ozu is so strict with his formula in his postwar films that it become predictable - the cloth weave background of the opening credits, the exterior shots which serve a segue to the next scene, the Kamakura train station sign, the tatami shot, even Hara's Western wardrobe seems to remain unchanged throughout.

Ozu did change the relationships between the actors' characters. In some films Chishû Ryû is Hara's father, in one he is her brother; Haruko Sugimura plays her aunt as well as prospective mother-in-law. Hara's character strangely stayed 28 years old for three of the films.


I hope Viz screens some more Ozu films. They have screened 8 of them in the past four months. Later this month and into early November, Viz is screening four films by Kenji Mizoguchi. That series is called Mizoguchi and His Muse: Kinuyo Tanaka.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

2010 Mill Valley Film Festival

The 2010 Mill Valley Film Festival ran from October 7 to 17.

I saw six films at the festival. I had a ticket to a seventh film but missed it due to the mother of all traffic jams. I took me three hours to get from Golden Gate Park to the Golden Gate Bridge.

2010 Mill Valley Film Festival
Love Crime starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier; directed by Alain Corneau; French with subtitles; (2010)
Red Hill; (2010) - Official Website
Cast Me If You Can; directed by Atsushi Ogata; Japanese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Kung Fu Chefs starring Sammo Hung; Cantonese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
The Queen of Hearts starring and directed by Valérie Donzelli; with Jérémie Elkalîm; French with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
A Somewhat Gentle Man starring Stellan Skarsgård; Norwegian with subtitles; (2010)

The film I missed was The Reverse, a 2009 Polish black comedy about "a meek publishing clerk in Stalinist-era Warsaw [who] believes her fortunes have changed when a handsome stranger emerges-literally from the shadows."

I saw three films at the Sequoia Theater in Mill Valley, two films at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael and one at the Century Cinema in Corte Madera. I was unaware that the Century Cinema even existed. It's a cavernous theater which seats 800.

I don't get up to Marin County very often. I was able to grab a bite to eat at Pearl's Phat Burgers in Mill Valley and Sol Food in San Rafael. Sol Food is highly touted Puerto Rican restaurant which had a line out the door everytime I drove past it. I was able to get a seat at their "Small Place," a takeout joint with limited seating a block away from their "Big Place." I had a decent Cubano sandwich. I wanted to try their Niño Pobre (Po' Boy) Sandwich but my appetite wasn't up to the challenge. The Phat Cheeseburger was very good at Pearl's and was served with some of the most garlic infused garlic fries I ever had.

I read in Wednesday's Chronicle that Pearl's is opening a location on Market Street near 6th Street. That's neighborhood has a different vibe from E. Blithedale Avenue in Mill Valley but the opening is part of the Mid-Market Revitalization Plan and with the help of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.


I enjoyed three films at the festival.

A Somewhat Gentle Man was my favorite. The Finnish film Hellsinki was my favorite film last year. The year before that, the Swedish film Let the Right One In played at MVFF although I saw it Bruce Fletcher's Dead Channels. Maybe Scandinavian films are closely aligned with my tastes.

The film is a dark comedy about an ex-con who is trying to live his life on the outside but keeps getting nudged towards his old lifestyle by his old gang. Stellan Skarsgård who I am most familiar with as the math professor in Good Will Hunting plays Ulrik, the likable and easy going ex-convict.

The running gag throughout the film is that every woman he meets want to have sex with - his battle-axe landlady (who also happens to be his boss' ex-wife), his slutty looking ex-wife and eventually the secretary at the garage he works at. Ulrik also has a grown son whom he is estranged from. He has told his girlfriend that his father is dead so when Ulrik arrives unannounced, he tells her that Ulrik is his uncle who has been away traveling.

The film let Ulrik move from situation to comedic situation while slowly ratcheting up the stress in his life. Ulrik's landlady softens towards his as their carnal encounters become more frequent. For his part, Ulrik would rather watch TV or eat dinner but his landlady won't accommodate him. The secretary at work takes a liking to Ulrik after he beats up her abusive ex-husband. Ulrik is also looking forward to becoming a grandfather as his son's girlfriend is pregnant.

An ex-con's life is difficult and as his life falls apart, he is drawn back to a life of crime. He is tasked with murdering the man who testified against him. I won't give away the ending but will say that the movie felt like a comedy throughout. It's hard to imagine Ulrik as a murderer but he shows a few flashes of his old self.


Love Crime is French drama which starts off like The Devil Wears Prada. Christine, an older female executive (Kristin Scott Thomas) mentors Isabelle, a young up-and-comer (Ludivine Sagnier). The relationship is complex. Initially Christine dominates the relationship but after being betrayed and with some encouragement from her assistant (Guillaume Marquet who makes the most of a small role), Isabelle decides to go on the offensive. The film sets up to be a cross between Working Girl and The Devil Wears Prada but a murder throws the film off kilter.

I thought the murder and subsequent investigation was too much and changed the tenor of perfectly enjoyable movie. The film made obvious the intentions of the murderer so the suspense was limited. The murder was so far out of character as to seem implausible.

Despite that, I still enjoyed and recommended the film. The performance of Thomas, Sagnier and Marquet were outstanding & the first half of the film was compelling drama. Even the second half kept my attention although I correctly predicted the outcome (as most of the audience likely did).


The third film I enjoyed was a low budget comedy from Japan called Cast Me If You Can. Starring Tôru Masuoka as Hiroshi, an actor who makes his living in supporting roles on television and film. Constantly being mistaken for someone else, Hiroshi lives under the twin shadows of his anonymity and his father who is a famous playwright. Hiroshi has a goal of starring in a Japanese remake of a unnamed Woody Allen film. The role is taken from him due to a scandal where he is mistaken as the lover of the wife a Diet member. The one good thing that comes into his life is perpetually upbeat Aya (Hiromi Nagasaku). Also an actor but not as accomplished, Aya correctly recognizes Hiroshi from his roles. Aya has ambition but strangely seems attracted to the modestly accomplished and somewhat unfriendly Hiroshi.

The plot is really just a vehicle for the misadventures of Hiroshi & Aya in the professional and personal matters. The two actors give spirited comedic performances and the film as a whole is sweet-natured comedy that I enjoyed.


The Queen of Hearts, a similar low-budget comedy from director/screenwriter/star Valérie Donzelli missed the mark slightly but merits a paragraph. Donzelli plays Adèle, a young woman rebounding from a harsh breakup. As she pulls her life back together, she interacts with three men (all played by Donzelli's husband Jérémie Elkaïm). One is a student at an art college, the other is the husband of her employer and the final one is her love at first sight although she may want to take a closer look. The film is kind of goofy; Adèle doesn't know how to use a cell phone and her cousin has some eye problem which requires her to wear bandages over her eye when she sleeps). A cute soundtrack and playful nature nearly save the day. My attention drifted towards the end and I dozed for a few minutes.


Red Hill and Kung Fu Chefs round out the film lineup. I was expecting a gritty Australian action drama in Red Hill but it seemed more like a cut-rate Hollywood action film. Kung Fu Chefs - the title says it all. It could have spoofed martial arts and gastronomy but the humor was largely flat and the action scenes ho-hum. I'd skip both if I had it to do over again.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dressed To Kill

When I was a teenager, one of the most talked about films among the guys was Dressed to Kill.

Dressed to Kill starring Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen; directed by Brian De Palma; (1980)

In the early 1980s, teenage boys in my clique talked about the infamous opening scene featuring Angie Dickinson taking a shower (cleaning her nipples and clitoris with gusto). That scene required editing to get the film an R rating. As it turned out the nude body in that scene belonged to Victoria Lynn Johnson (August 1976 Penthouse Pet of the Month).

So it was some nostalgia that I headed to the Castro Theater after work one day earlier this month. Having seen De Palma's Obsession at the Roxie in August, I was also curious to see how Dressed to Kill would look 30 years after its release. I used to be quite a fan of his work. Body Double (1984) with Melanie Griffith and Craig Wasson is one of my favorite films. The Untouchables (1987), Scarface (1983) and Carrie (1976) are eminently enjoyable films which I have watched several times. For some reason, Dressed to Kill doesn't get played on television much.

The first thing I noticed upon rewatching the film is that Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller is great in it. I didn't recall the comedic elements of the film but Dickinson plays the role as if it were a farce. She has this look of lust and frustration on her face during the shower scene which sets up the film. Later, she bumbles around the art museum looking for her anonymous lover. Once she meets up with him in a taxi cab, they engage in public sex which ends with her climax and that drew a laugh from the audience (including me). Hands down, the best scene comes next.

After an afternoon delight, Miller is brimming with sexual contentment. She dresses to leave and wants to leave a love note for her nameless paramour. She drafts a few versions of her note to get the tone just right. She searches for another piece of paper in the man's desk and discovers a notice from the Department of Public Health informing the recipient that he has tested positive for a venereal disease. The rapid change in her facial expression deserves to be one of the all-time classic comedy scenes. If the film had ended there, it would have made a great comedy short film. Of course, it doesn't end there. After leaving the man's apartment, Kate Miller is slashed to death by an ominous looking woman with a straight razor.

The second half of the film drags a little from my 2010 perspective. The only witness to the crime is Liz Blake, a prostitute played by De Palma stalwart Nancy Allen. Dennis Franz plays a police detective who puts Allen through the ringer. He basically gives Blake 48 hours to find the killer or he'll arrest her for the crime. Blake gets some unexpected help from Kate Miller's teenage son (Keith Gordon who must have served as the inspiration for Daniel Radcliffe's appearance as Harry Potter). The younger Miller happens to be science geek which comes in handy when Blake needs surreptitious photographic evidence and rescuing from the iconic woman in sunglasses.

I will say that a few scenes where Blake is menaced by the woman ratchets up the suspense to unusually tense levels. I'm specifically thinking about the scene in Michael Caine's office and in the bathroom at the end. Actually, Caine's role is fairly small and his performance fairly bland. I've learned that Caine does not appear in all the scenes where the woman in sunglasses is on screen. It was actually actress Susanna Clemm (who played the role of the policewoman who restrains Master Miller outside the doctor's office) who appears in most scenes as the woman. Still, Michael Caine is Michael Caine and he has screen charisma to burn. Just him talking with his Cockney accent draws your attention.

In 2010, the film looks 30 years old. Maybe I'm laughing at Dickinson performance which is only pitch-perfect high-camp when viewed through the prism of 30 years but I doubt it. The suspense part is adequate. The whole transsexual gender identity issue seem kind of silly now. All in all, Dressed to Kill falls in the same category as The Untouchables, Scarface and Carrie - fun, well-made (if not self-indulgent at times) and watchable. That's better than most films. The gratuitous nudity in the opening scene still stands the test of time. Here's looking at you, Victoria Lynn Johnson.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire

I watched The Girl Who Played with Fire at the 4-Star in September.

The Girl Who Played with Fire starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist; directed by Daniel Alfredson; Swedish with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website

The Girl Who Played with Fire is the middle entry of The Millennium Trilogy. The films are based on a popular series of novels by the late Stieg Larsson. The first film was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo which I saw in July. The final film is The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest which opens in the Bay Area on Friday, October 29.

The Girl Who Played with Fire follows the further adventures of cyberpunk, bisexual, all-around badass Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). I enjoyed The Girl Who Played with Fire slightly more than The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. In this film, Salander is framed for the murder of her odious guardian and rapist Nils Bjurman (Peter Anderssson).

I won't give too much of the plot away except to say that Salander reconnects with her know, the guy she nearly killed as a girl. Her father has some surprises of his own including a step-brother Salander never met and after their memorable encounter, wishes she never had met. That character, Ronald Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz), will be making a return in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest.

The Girl Who Played with Fire is nearly an hour shorter than The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and is not bogged down by a 40 year old murder case or introducing the main characters. Also, it's personal for Salander this time. Last time, it was Blomkvist's ass on the line and Salander was saving it. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, Salander is framed for murder, beat up, shot and buried alive but at least Blomkvist arrives in time to scare away her attacker. Salander is definitely the dominant character in The Millennium Trilogy and as such her exploits and sufferings make the film more riveting.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Brighter Summer Day

On a Thursday night in September, I watched Edward Yang's four hour masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day at the YBCA.

A Brighter Summer Day starring Chen Chang; directed by Edward Yang; Mandarin with subtitles; (1991)

Fifteen year old lead actor Chen Chang made his debut in A Brighter Summer Day. He would go on to supporting roles in films by acclaimed directors such as Kar Wai Wong's 2046 (2004), Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and John Woo's Red Cliff (2008).

A Brighter Summer Day reportedly has more than 100 speaking parts and I believe it because there were so many characters and subplots. Set in 1961 Taiwan, the main storyline involves Xiao Si'r (Chen Chang credited as Zhen Zhang). Si'r is a teenage boy who is having disciplinary problems at school. He runs with a street gang and is sweet on a girl named Ming (Lisa Yang). Si'r becomes friends with an Army General's son and the three of them form a love triangle. This is the essence of the main subplot but Edward Yang is juggling several subplots in this film; the least of which is to show how Taiwan was suffocating its own people through corruption, political repression, social upheaval and the spectre of the past.

Any synopsis of the plot cannot do it justice because Yang layers the film with story upon story and image upon image. A shocking murder (based on a true story) puts an exclamation point at the end of the film but most of the time spent exploring how the youth (and their parents) of 1961 Taiwan spent their days and coped with the turmoil around them.

Is the film a masterpiece? It felt like a masterpiece but so much was going on in the film, multiple viewings are necessary to grasp everything. At four hours in length, it takes supreme commitment to dedicate the time to repeated viewings. I'd invest another four hours to the film. Perhaps someone will program a New Classic Taiwan Days Film Festival featuring the works of Yang (who is no deceased) along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang.

Speaking of which, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge (Flight of the Red Balloon) (2008) is screening at SF MOMA on December 30. The French language film stars Juliette Binoche.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Obi-Wan and the Scorpion in Japanese Prisons

I saw two very different prison films in September. Both featured Japanese captors but other than that, there wasn't much in common.

The Bridge on the River Kwai starring William Holden, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa; directed by David Lean; (1957)
Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion starring Meiko Kaji; Japanese with subtitles; directed by Shunya Itō; (1972)


The Bridge on the River Kwai was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won seven including Best Picture. I can't add much to the record regarding this film. I enjoyed Guinness' performance as the implacable British POW commander with an impossibly stiff upper lip. There was a memorable scene between Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa as the camp commandant which was masterfully staged. In the scene, Guinness's Colonel Nicholson realizes that he has beaten Hayakawa's Colonel Saito in a contest of wills and gradually assumes the dominant position during their conversation.

I have learned that the iconic "Colonel Bogey March" was well known to Brits who lived during WWII. During the war, the British sang a ditty set to the tune of "Colonel Bogey March."

Hitler has only got one ball,
Göring has two but very small,
Himmler is somewhat sim'lar,
But poor Goebbels has no balls at all.


Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion is less well known to Western audiences but is one of the seminal films in the "Women in Prison" subgenre of Japanese Pinky Violence films. For the uninitiated, here is a primer for Pinky Violence.

Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion was screened as part of week long J-Pop Summit at New People. The film was preceded by a TokyoScope talk by Patrick Macias. During his presentation, Macias screened clips from the following films.

Female Slave Ship; (1960)
Lady Yakuza - Red Peony Gambler; (1968)
Playgirl; (1969)
Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter; (1971)
Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom; (1973)
Female Yakuza Tale: Inquisition & Torture; (1973)
Zero Woman- Red Handcuffs; (1974)
Rica The Mixed-Blood Girl; (1972)
Sukeban Deka - The Movie; (1987)
Wives of the Yakuza; (1986)
Lady's Documentary; (1990)
Majisuka Gakuen; (2010)
Hard Revenge Milly; (2008)

I list the films because I think I see the makings of Pinky Violence Film Festival...

I should acknowledge that there was a happy hour before Macias' talk which featured free food and drink provided by Haamonii Shōchū and a restaurant whose name I unfortunately cannot remember. I do recall the curry they served over rice was delicious.

Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion is a revenge story akin to I Spit on Your Grave which coincidentally was remade recently. In Scorpion, Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji) is a naive woman who is manipulated by her police detective boyfriend...manipulated into being raped by Yakuza gangsters. She tries to gain some frontier justice by killing her cop boyfriend but he survives and she is sent to a female prison that would break Linda Blair in two days. In the prison, she acquires the nickname Scorpion because she can strike from anywhere and her stinger hurts like hell. Among my favorites among her victims are the fellow prisoner she burns with hot soup while tied up on the floor of her prison cell (she yanks with her teeth a blanket the woman in standing on while holding the soup kettle), the undercover female guard sent into her cell as a mole who is converted into a Scorpion-crazed lesbian in a matter of minutes,

Director Shunya Itō has a flair for the artistic though. When Matsushima is raped, it is filmed from below through a sheet of glass. In another scene, a blood stain grows outward in a circular pattern to form the Japanese flag. After escaping from prison, the Scorpion dresses in a stylish black trench coat and floppy hat which serve as a sartorial counterpoise against her muderous intentions.

Make no mistake, Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion is as exploitative and grindhouse as any film I've seen. However, Itō adds enough flourishes to raise the film up a notch. Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion richly deserves its status among the great films of not just the Pinky Violence genre but exploitation films in general. The Scorpion would kick Foxy Brown's ass everyday of the week and twice on Sundays.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Scott Pilgrim, Hester Prynne, Johannes Krauser II and Antoine Doinel

I've recently watched a number of films which featured teenagers or targeted to teenage audiences.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World starring Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead; directed by Edgar Wright; (2010) - Official Website
Detroit Metal City starring Ken'ichi Matsuyama and Rosa Katô; Japanese with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website
Easy A starring Emma Stone; with Thomas Haden Church, Lisa Kudrow, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson and Malcolm McDowell; directed by Will Gluck; (2010) - Official Website
The 400 Blows starring Jean-Pierre Léaud; directed by François Truffaut; French with subtitles; (1959)


Scott Pilgrim vs. The World has been well reviewed so I won't say too much about it. Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead were both very good in their roles but the supporting actors raised the level of the film. Standouts include Alison Pill as the dyspeptic drummer and ex-girlfriend of Michael Cera's Scott Pilgrim, Brandon Routh as Winstead's ex-boyfriend who gains his evil powers from his vegan diet, Jason Schwartzman the evilest and most powerful of Winstead's exes and Ellen Wong as Knives Chau, Pilgrim's Chinese girlfriend who has an axe to grind with Winstead.

The film was funny; I was probably too old to catch all the references although I did appreciate Pilgrim using Pacman trivia as a pickup line. Knives gets off the best line when she say to Pilgrim, "I'm too cool for you anyway."

I enjoyed Easy A much more than Scott Pilgrim. Scott Pilgrim was too cartoonish for me to really enjoy it. Easy A is implausible as well with star Emma Stone's Olive being too independent for a high school girl. Still, the film captured the spirit of being a teenager which apparently hasn't changed much since I was in high school. Best line - Aly Michalka as Olive's best friend telling her to show some "lady balls." For added cinephilia, the film makes numerous references to the 1926 version of The Scarlet Letter starring Lilian Gish and John Hughes films of the 1980's although the most prominent reenactment is of the John Cusack's raised boombox scene in Cameron Crowe's Say Anything (1989).

Emma Stone, who I was unfamliar with before watching Easy A (I didn't see Zombieland and don't recall her from Superbad), turned in a starmaking comedic performance as the headstrong Olive. Amanda Bynes as the uptight, judgmental, devout Christian also caught my attention. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive's understanding parents make the most of their limited screen time.


I first saw previews of Detroit Metal City in July at the Viz Cinema portion of Another Hole in the Head. It took 3 months for the film to arrive but I can't say the wait was worth it. Detroit Metal City is one of those films where the best parts are in the trailers.

The story centers on Soichi Negishi (Ken'ichi Matsuyama), a singer who wants to write and sing "serious" pop songs. His personal motto is "No Music, No Dream." Towards that goal, he sings his songs and plays acoustic guitar on a street corner. The problem is that his songs are banal and people think he is creepy with his perma-smile and "dickhead haircut."

Negishi pays the bills with his sideband - DMC (Detroit Metal City), a death metal band. Negishi puts on face paint, wears a wig, gets into a KISS inspired costume and growls out his songs under the stage name Johannes Krauser II. His bandmates are bassist Alexander Jagi and drummer Camus. As Jagi says later in the film, if they weren't in DMC, Jagi would be a DJ in a karaoke bar and Camus would be in prison for some sexual perversion. Leading the group is their record label boss, a perpetually shrieking, foul-mouthed harpy with a penchant for short skirts, large dogs and violence.

Negishi is embarrassed by the music DMC plays and his involvement with the band although he certainly has a stage presence as Johannes Krauser II. He has a crisis of conscience when his former college classmate and secret admiree Yuri Aikawa bumps into him at the record store. She hates DMC and Negishi hides his alter ego from her. Unfortunately for Negishi, DMC is rising on the record charts so he is pressed by his boss to tour Japan on a sort of Death Metal Challenge Tour where DMC goes up against the hardest rocking bands in Japan which includes a rapper and a post-modern grrrl punk band. DMC dispatches them with ease but the greatest death rocker in the world, Jack II Dark (Gene Simmons) is coming to Japan to challenge DMC.

The pressure becomes too much for Negishi so he hangs up his platform shoes and goes back to the small farming town he came from. To his horror, he discovers that his younger brother who worshipped him when he left for Tokyo a few years prior now is an obnoxious brat and a huge Johannes Krauser fan to boot. Negishi dons the Krauser costume again to teach his younger brother some manners and lessons in life. This is where he has his epiphany - death metal can be used for the good of mankind. Krauser rushes back to Tokyo and arrives just in time for DMC's faceoff against Jack II Dark.

The range that Ken'ichi Matsuyama shows in the film is amazing. When one also considers his character in the Death Note films, the actor's abilities become obviously apparent. Matsuyama shows some talent for comedy. Everyone else in the film delivered unmemorable performances. Despite Matsuyama's lack of support, Detroit Metal City has some funny moments. My complaint is that I saw those funny moments in the trailers.


I've heard of François Truffaut's The 400 Blows for as long as I can remember. I had never seen it before. I didn't realize that Truffaut revisited the main character of Antoine Doinel in three additional feature films - Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979). In all the films, Doniel is portrayed by Jean-Pierre Léaud.

In The 400 Blows, Doniel is a 12 year old boy who is having behavioral problems at school. As the film unfolds, we see that Doniel's mother is selfish and distant. Eventually, we learn that she is having an affair which his father (technically step-father) suspect. The tension between the couple spills into their relationship with the boy. After being truant from school, nearly burning the apartment down, stealing a typewriter and running away from home, Doniel is sent to a juvenile reform school. This gives rise to the most amazing scene. In semi-documentary style, Truffaut has an offscreen psychiatrist ask Doniel a series of questions which reveal much about his life and actions. We discover Doniel's mother wasn't married when she became pregnant with Doniel. As the scene plays out, we begin to understand the woman's resentment towards her son and the near inevitability of Doniel's misbehavior.

The final scene is also iconic as Doniel runs away from the juvenile facility. He runs until he reaches the sea or English Channel. The film ends with a freeze shot of his face. I interpreted the look on his face as one of sadness but other make much of the water erasing his footprints. The film definitely ended on a melancholy note. The character of Doniel in The 400 Blows was partly based on Truffaut's own youth.

The 400 Blows was very engaging. I'm now interested in seeing the other films in the series.


I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World at the 4-Star, Detroit Metal City at Viz Cinema, Easy A at the Metreon and The 400 Blows at the Red Vic.