Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Four Days in the Castro

A couple weekends ago, I believe I set a personal record. I went to the same theater four days in a row without a film festival or retrospective running at the theater. The theater was the Castro.

The films were:

Picnic at Hanging Rock with John Jarratt; directed by Peter Weir; (1975)
The Passenger starring Jack Nicholson & Maria Schneider; directed by Michelangelo Antonioni; (1975)
Bullitt starring Steve McQueen and Robert Vaughn; directed by Peter Yates; (1968)
Freebie and the Bean starring James Caan & Alan Arkin; directed by Richard Rush; (1974)
Heavy Metal; animated; (1981)
Trick or Treat starring Marc Price; directed by Charles Martin Smith; (1986)
The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter & Edward G. Robinson; directed by Cecil B. DeMille; (1956)

Heavy Metal and Trick or Treat were part of a Midnites for Maniacs quintuple bill which also featured This is Spinal Tap and The Monster Squad.


I was vaguely aware of Picnic at Hanging Rock mostly by name and reference to the famous Australian landmark. I was expecting upscale Ozploitation and instead I got Australian Gothic. That's not a complaint because director Peter Weir's film is fascinating to look at with its 1970's aesthetics and languid pace. It was the exact opposite of what I was expecting. The plot involved some boarding school girls who go missing at Hanging Rock. Even though one of the girls is found, she is unable to explain their disappearance. I won't detail the script too much because the film is about the mood surrounding the repressed sexuality enforced by the alcoholic headmistress. Is Picnic at Hanging Rock the classic it is made out to be? It wasn't quite to my liking but I have to admit it never lost my interest and Rachel Roberts was outstanding as the headmistress.

If I was misinformed about Picnic at Hanging Rock, I was completely ignorant of The Passenger, an Antonioni film from the 1970s. Looking very much of its time, the film features Jack Nicholson as a British-born, American-raised reporter who fakes his own death in Africa to exchange places with a naturally-deceased stranger at his hotel. It turns out that the stranger is an arms dealer and Nicholson gets in over his head. If the film was made now, you'd get an action thriller with lots of explosions. In 1975, Antonioni was able to make a very different film. Antonioni and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli lovingly film the sand dunes of Africa, the grungy "hotel" in a backwater, Third World town and Barcelona as I've never seen it on film. Without a doubt, the centerpiece is the final silent sequence where the camera pans out of a hotel window, swivels around and returns to the room where a man has just been murdered. I'm not sure if that scene could even be made today. First, it would be done in CG and then some idiot would layer on a pretentious soundtrack to let us know what to think.

Putting aside Antonioni and Tovoli's mastery of the camera lens, Antonioni story is more existential than thriller. It's hard for me to remember that Jack Nicholson was once a serious actor. When did he jump the shark? Batman? The Shining? A Few Good Men? I don't know but in The Passenger, he's not Jack as I have come to regard him but a capable actor who has subtlety in his repertoire. Coming into the film cold and seeing Nicholson's performance made The Passenger a revelation to me. It validates Antonioni and Nicholson's reputations but to a certain extent, validates the reputation of 1970's cinema which is much acclaimed by serious film critics but not much appreciated by me.


There is not much new to be said about Bullitt. I've seen it several times on television. There is the car chase and Steve McQueen is way cool. McQueen/Bullitt (do we even know his first name?) is cooler than 99.9% of the actors/characters to ever be on the silver screen. He makes eating a white bread sandwich with a glass of milk look cool. The more I see the film, the more I appreciate Robert Vaughn's slimy politician. Bullitt couldn't be the legend if he didn't have Vaughn's Chalmers to play off of. Even Norman Fell delivers a performance notable for how much he conveys with silence and a look. Also, the two killers who die in the crash convey more without a word of dialog than any hitman in movie history. Those two actors, the white haired John Aprea and Bill Hickman (who looks vaguely like Karl Malden) were incredible - professional, detached, stone cold killers. They'd kick Jules and Vincent's asses without breaking a sweat.

Freebie and the Bean was a rambunctious film featuring James Caan and Alan Arkin as wild cops tracking down hitmen sent to town (in this case San Francisco as well). Wacky comedies and over-the-top chase scenes may have been all the rage in the 70s but Freebie and the Bean felt like a mean-spirited It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with racial overtones thrown in for good measure. Valerie Harper plays Arkin's wife with Puerto Rican accent so thick you'd think she be wearing fruit on her head and dancing the samba. The most amazing part is that she is able to deliver a humorous performance while talking like an outcast from West Side Story. Even more impressive is a scene where Arkin and Harper express their love while discussing her douche bag and Arkin continually saying she is not as stupid as he thought. Harper deserved a better career than what she had. Caan & Arkin quickly bored me and the car chases became tedious. There was a transvestite killer that added some surprise at the end. It was interesting to see the Financial District of SF in 1974 but otherwise, Freebie and the Bean left me unenthused.


On April 30, Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is hosting a special Maniacs event at the Red Vic. I have previously discussed the Red Vic's financial troubles. Ficks put the odds of the Red Vic survival at the unusually precise figure of 11%. One in nine? That's not much of an encouragement to go to the event. Why contribute money to a dying cause? Another issue is that they scheduled the fundraiser opposite the most prestigious film festival in the City. I still urge you to support the Red Vic but I'll be at the SFIFF.

Heavy Metal is a film I remember from my adolescence and it proves that the forces of nostalgia can be quite strong. I believe I have seen the film twice in the past 25 years and each time I see it, it appeals to me less. Juvenile, sexist, silly and borderline pornographic, the film was obviously designed to target 13 year old boys (or men who think like 13 year olds) which was when it hooked me. Set in the future where all young women are beautiful, nymphomaniacs and have 38DD breast implants, watching Heavy Metal gets old pretty fast. I'm not sure how much of that is the film and how much is the cynical outlook of a fortysomething year old.

There were only two vignettes that kept my interest - Harry Canyon, a noirish tale about a hardscrabble cabbie who hooks up with a beautiful woman with killers on her tail and Taarna, a story about a beautiful female warrior (dressed like a S&M dominatrix) and her loyal pterodactyl who single-handedly battle the forces of evil. Even those two stories were mediocre at best. The only thing that really saves Heavy Metal is a soundtrack that kicks ass and takes name, as we used to say back in the day.

After taking a few hours to finish my income tax returns and go to the gym, I returned to see Trick or Treat. When I read the synopsis, I recognized director Charles Martin Smith's name. He was memorable as the tax accountant on Kevin Costner's team in The Untouchables. The name Marc Price (wasn't there an NBA player by that name?) didn't ring any bells but as soon as I started watching Trick or Treat, I immediately recognized him as Skippy Handleman from Family Ties. Another embarrassing pleasure of my youth revealed. During my high school years, I was a big fan of Family Ties. I identified with Skippy, I aspired to be Alex and I lusted after Mallory. I even remember one of my favorite scenes even though it's been 20 years since I've seen the show. Alex was dating Tracy Pollan's character. He would eventually break up with her on the show but marry her in real life. Alex was out of his environment because the two of them were so different. Spying a poster of the Beatles in her dorm room, he asks if they are her brothers. I don't know why that stuck with me for over 20 years.

Back to Trick or Treat, Skippy is sporting a mullet and he's an unpopular kid at school who calls himself Ragman. I can't remember why. He's into heavy metal music and idolizes Sammi Curr, a heavy metal musician who went to the same high school as he attends. A DJ (Gene Simmons) gives him a pre-release version of Sammi's final album. Sammi has just died (suicide?) and Ragman is depressed about it. Unfortunately, the album is backward masked. For those too young to remember, allegedly several albums in the 1980's had hidden messages that were audible if you played the record or tape in reverse. Some of these hidden messages were satanic and, allegedly, drove teenagers to murder and/or suicide. The gist of Trick or Treat is that Sammi has backmasked his final album and like he's Freddy Kruger's cousin, his spirit can run the record in reverse and conjure him back to life to wreak vengeance and havoc on unsuspecting teens. Ragman has discovered the secret and is the only one who can save his school's prom from becoming another Carrie.

The film was fairly silly but it was fun to see Skippy Handleman with a 1980's mullet. At times, Price portrayed Ragman as if he were channeling Skippy. Tony Fields (a Solid Gold dancer) was suitably over-the-top as Sammi. Doug Savant has a nice role as the school bully. Ozzy Osbourne makes a cameo. Beyond that, it was pure 80s fluff which isn't a bad thing. In fact, Ficks has built a decade long film exhibition series around celebrating 80s fluff. Would someone not familiar with the 80s enjoy it? I think so but it definitely helps to have grown up in the period in which the film was set. I went to high school with guys like Ragman and no, I'm not referring to myself.


Finally, on a Sunday evening, I settled in for the four hour version of The Ten Commandments. The film has looked out of place for decades but I was intrigued by the chance to see it on the big screen and in one sitting. Everything that was ridiculous about the film on television is amplified on the Castro's huge screen. Charlton Heston's diction and ridiculous beards, Anne Baxter's vulgar arousal, Yul Brynner's dialog, Edward G. Robinson's miscasting and the patently staged look of the crowd scenes. It's pure Cecil B. DeMille and despite everything I could criticize, I loved it.

They don't make movies like The Ten Commandments anymore but that's probably because they don't make movie stars like Heston and Brynner anymore. A line Brynner has to say sums up the film. When speaking to a reluctant Anne Baxter who will be his future but alway reluctant wife (didn't the Egyptian pharaohs marry their sisters?), Brynner utters this all-time classic, "You will be mine, like my dog, or my horse, or my falcon, except that I shall love you more - and trust you less." Give Brynner credit, he plays it straight and comes within a hair (pun intended) of pulling off that line.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Spirit of Ed Wood is Alive and Well

The Viz theater screened Sakura Sakura during the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival. Sakura is the Japanese word for cherry blossom.

Sakura Sakura starring Masaya Katô and Naomi Grace; directed by Tôru Ichikawa; Japanese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website

Sakura Sakura is, hands down, the worst film I've ever seen the Viz. I wasn't big on Battle League Horumô but at least it seemed like it was made by professionals. Sakura Sakura is startling for its ineptitude in every facet. Sakura Sakura is a biopic of Jokichi Takamine. Who is Takamine? I'll get to that later. Set in the 1890s and 1900s, Sakura Sakura is laughable for its quality. The costumes, wardrobes, haircuts, speech patterns and locations look modern day rather than 100 years old. Partly set in the United States, some Japanese and European actors were cast in the roles of Americans. When Takamine (Katô) meets his future mother-in-law, a Southern belle, at the New Orleans World Fair, I clearly recognized her as a Japanese woman. The actress was credited as "Caiya" and I think she was half-Japanese.

Anyway, this may have been forgiven if the plot was interesting enough. Takamine invented crystallized adrenaline and Takadiastase, an enzyme which aids digestion. Takamine lived for extended periods in the US and married an American woman in the early 1900s. All this should have made for an amazing movie but instead, we get a bloated and nonsensical plot. Takamine careens from one project to the next (each time failing) before hitting upon Takadiastase. How he achieved such a discovery working in primitive conditions (and wearing ugly vest that looked like was from the 1980s) is beyond me. His American wife (Naomi Grace) looks half-Asian like her on-screen mother. Towards the end of the film, her Japanese sounds more natural than her English. That may be because Naomi Grace is a popular jazz singer in Japan. I hope she sings better than she acts because her performance was stiff and laughable. I shouldn't criticize Grace too much because the dialog she was given was stiff and laughable.

I can't really articulate how horrible this film was. The closest film I can remember that was on this level was a SF IndieFest film from nearly a decade ago called Bettie Page: Dark Angel - another fascinating topic rendered sleeping inducing by a weak plot and unskilled director. I'd rate this film a 9 as in Plan 9 from Outer Space. New People should be deeply embarrassed to have screen this film. Here's the scary part, if you look up director Tôru Ichikawa's credits on IMDB, it appears he released a sequel to Sakura Sakura earlier this month. The film is called Takamine and has Katô and Grace reprise their roles as Mr. & Mrs. Takamine.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Forgotten André de Toth Film and Busy Times Ahead

I saw Two Girls on the Street at the PFA in Janaury. The main reason I went was because André de Toth directed the film.

Two Girls on the Street; Hungarian with subtitles; (1939)

I remember being disappointed when the film was over. Expectation ran high for a de Toth film in his native language. I can't remember anything about the film three months later. Usually, at worst, I only remember a scene or two. Sometimes reading the PFA notes on the film jog my memory. Not with Two Girls on the Street and I can't find a more detailed plot summary on the internet. I'll have to leave it at that.


With the exception of some Claire Denis films which are part of a PFA series, I'm fully caught up now. The first quarter was packed with more films than usual for me. Noir City, Cinequest and SFIAAFF really put me through the ringer.

During Q1, I saw 117½ films or programs. That compares to 94 films in Q1-2010. 70½ filmsin the first quarter of this year were from the three festivals mentioed in the previous paragraph.

The cost is a little tricky because I donated to SFIAAFF in 2010 and most of my donation was tax deductible. I received a T-shirt, book and two DVDs in addition to my festival pass. I'll estimate the total admission costs at an even grand. That puts the average cost a $8.51 per screening.


The film festival schedule for the second quarter is coming into focus. The San Francisco International Film Festival will be held from April 21 to May 5. After some initial hesitation, I bought a 10 film Cinevoucher. I'm seeing films at the Castro, Viz, PFA & Kabuki Cinemas.

From May 13 to 26, the Roxie screens I Wake Up Dreaming — 2011 : The Legendary and the Lost!, their annual spring noir festival. Although I don't see his name in the on-line program description, I assume Elliot Lavine is programming the series as before. The progam includes films from Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Joseph Lerner, Anthony Mann & Robert Aldrich.

The YBCA has a program from May 19 to 26 called Three-Way: A Trilogy of Vintage Erotica. The series includes Camille 2000 from legendary director Radley Metzger. The YBCA ends their overview with "Stay tuned for 'Three-Way Redux: A Trilogy of Contemporary Erotica.'"

Another Hole in the Head Film Festival plays at the Roxie from June 2 to 16. This year, they dispensed with the screenings at the Viz.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Chabrol & Hitchcock

In January & February, the PFA had a Claude Chabrol retrospective. The series was called "Suspicion: The Films of Claude Chabrol and Alfred Hitchcock" but only about 30% of the films were directed by Hitchcock.

Chabrol was a founding member of the French New Wave cinema but is more associated with suspense genre films which he excelled; using some of the same techniques as Hitchcock.

I saw four Chabrol films.

Le Beau Serge starring Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy & Bernadette Lafont; French with subtitles; (1958)
Les Bonnes Femmes starring Bernadette Lafont, Stéphane Audran, Lucile Saint-Simon & Clotilde Joano; French with subtitles; (1960)
À Double Tour starring Madeleine Robinson, Antonella Lualdi, Jean-Paul Belmondo & Jacques Dacqmine; French with subtitles; (1960)
The Swindle starring Huppert, Michel Serrault & François Cluzet; French with subtitles; (1998)


My favorite was Les Bonnes Femmes which was listed with its French title in the PFA program. With my limited French, I interpreted the title to be The Good Women or The Good Girls. That was unintentionally funny the English subtitle on the film print interpreted the title as The Good Time Girls whose connotation is closer to the plot.

The film follows four women who work as saleswomen in an appliance store. They are young, attractive women in Paris. It must have been shocking as within the first few minutes, one of the girls (Bernadette Lafont, the sexiest of the four in my opinion) engages with two drunked and gauche middle aged Germans as the door closes on the camera. Rape or ménage à trois? I don't know but I don't think it makes much difference as it seems to be a common occurence in this woman's life.

The other girls have more socially acceptable secrets. One girl moonlights as a singer in a vaudeville type show. Another is engaged to a pompous scion of a (relatively) wealthy family. She must continuously pretend to be more bourgeois than she actually is. The fourth woman is a romantic and when a suspicious looking man wearing sunglasses and riding a motorcycle begins to stalk her, the audience wonders if this will be her true love...or a psychotic murderer?

Using some New Wave editing techniques, Chabrol's film is structured like a social commentary masquerading as a comedy. The film ends on a shocking note which goes completely against the tone of the film. In lesser skilled hands, the ending would be a gimmick and dissatisfying. Chabrol is skilled enough to leave audience in disbelief (at least me).

Filmed in black & white, Chabrol does great job capturing Paris in 1960 - the same era as Godard's Breathless. He also perfectly the boredom of the young women - bored with their job, only slightly less bored with their evening social engagements, bored with their lives in general. Les Bonnes Femmes was a failure at the box office but in hindsight, a seminal film for the French New Wave movement. It holds up as well as Breathless or The 400 Blows.


Chabrol's 50th film as a director was The Swindle. Starring Isabelle Huppert as a con (wo)man who partners with the older Michel Serrault to seduce, drug and steal from businessmen. They always leave some cash so the guy won't know if he just got drunk and spent more than he remembered as opposed to taking all the money and leaving no doubt that he was a victim.

Huppert's Betty is getting a little bored with the scams and wants something bigger. Serrault's Victor doesn't want to take the risk. Unbeknownst to Victor, Betty sets up a bigger scam involving money belonging to an organized crime outfit. She needs Victor's help to pull it off but Victor has grown suspicious of Betty.

Some director could take that plot to a very dark place but Chabrol employs a lighter touch and uses humor to advance the plot. He uses it masterfully as he had for nearly 50 years at that point. Chabrol died in September 2010. Under Chabrol's direction, The Swindle is a suspense film with comedic elements or maybe a comedy with suspenseful moments. I was impressed by the film as it is difficult to merge those two genres. Huppert and Serrault shine as the scammers trying to scam each other.

Monday, April 11, 2011

One Uptight Nurse and Two Shady Lawyers

Last week, I visited my father who has retired to Las Vegas. We saw three general relese films. If anyone has a recommendation for a rep-house theater in Las Vegas, I'd be appreciative. I was surprised to see Barney's Version and Potiche screening at Regal theaters. My guess is there are about 300 screens in Las Vegas and perhaps 40 films screening at any given time. In other words, everything is a multiplex and they all show the same 6 to 10 films.

The three films we saw were:

Little Fockers starring Ben Stiller & Robert De Niro; with Owen Wilson, Blythe Danner, Teri Polo, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Jessica Alba, Laura Dern & Harvey Keitel; (2010) - Official Website
The Lincoln Lawyer starring Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Phillippe & Marisa Tomei; with William H. Macy, Michaela Conlin, Josh Lucas, Frances Fisher, John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, Bryan Cranston and Michael Paré; (2011) - Official Website
Win Win starring Paul Giamatti & Amy Ryan; with Jeffrey Tambor, Bobby Cannavale & Burt Young; directed by Thomas McCarthy; (2011) - Official Website


Little Fockers was more my father's choice than mine. It was playing at second run movie theater with a $1.50 admission price. Several years ago, my parents & I saw Meet the Parents. We all enjoyed it but my parents came to be big fans of Ben Stiller who they were unfamiliar with before. They went on to watch There's Something About Mary, The Royal Tenenbaums, Along Came Polly, Meet the Parents and other Stiller films. I like There's Something About Mary and The Royal Tenenbaums. The other films seem derivative of the character Still played in Mary. My favorite Ben Stiller films include Reality Bites, Flirting with Disaster and Keeping the Faith.

Little Fockers wasn't quite as bad as movie reviewers have written. It is getting stale but Stiller, De Niro and Owen Wilson play their roles like its the first time.


When I visited my father in January, I read Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer and discovered a film adaptation was being made. The film came out in March to generally positive reviews.

I have to agree the film was pretty good. The film followed the plot of the novel for the most part. They eliminated a few scenes and characters without much negative impact. At the end, they really turned the novel on its head. In the book, Mickey Haller's character is used as unwitting bait and a cop shoots the killer. In the film, Haller shoots the killer in self-defense.

More importantly, in the novel, the events profoundly effect Haller and he ends the novel in self-contemplation. In the film, Haller seems to be himself within a day of the shooting. I guess ending the film with McConaughey in a depression or in deep self-reflection doesn't set up the sequel or franchise. However, the novel's ending was more powerful and established the groundwork for a less cynical Mickey Haller in future installments.

Regardless, the film and novel are terrific thrillers/courtroom dramas.


I was a little surprised that a small film like Win Win would play Las Vegas. Some of the Regal multiplexes have a "Cinearts" screen(s). I guess that is either marketing to people like me or warning to people not like me that a certain kind of film will be screening. The only films that looked worthwhile were Win Win and Potiche. I chose Win Win because I hadn't seen any negative reviews as I had for Potiche.

In the same way Ben Stiller plays the lovable but clumsy and awkward loser, Paul Giamatti has made a career playing a less lovable, slightly shady loser. He played that role to great acclaim in Sideways. His character in Win Win is more socially well adjusted than Sideways but as a lawyer, Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) engages in unethical behavior with a senior citizen showing signs of dementia. When his grandson shows up, things get complicated. When his drug rehabbed daughter shows up, all hell break loose but not in a slapstick manner. Win Win is a gentle and adult comedy about a decent and good man having financial troubles which induce him to do something against his better judgment. Then he copes as well as he can as the situation spirals out of control.

A dark comedy would have had a different ending so at its heart, Win Win is a heartwarming comedy. For most of the film, Giamatti is engaged in deceptive behavior. That the audience (at least my father & I) empathizes with him is testimonial to Giamatti's skills as an actor.

Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor & Bobby Cannavale turn in nice comedic performances. Melanie Lynskey (Up In the Air) has a juicy role as the drug addicted mother trying to scam her father and unwittingly destroying her son. She does quite well in the role. Alex Shaffer as the grandson doesn't get to do much but act in a laid-back, slacker manner although he is a highly dedicated high school wrestler. That's fine because Shaffer's character is really only there for the adults to react to or project their dreams and fears onto.

Win Win is small gem of a film and I look foward to director Thomas McCarthy's next film.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Trouble for the Roxie, Red Vic and Castro

In the past month or so, there have been several articles in various publications detailing problems with the Roxie, Red Vic and Castro theaters.

The Red Vic has been in financial straits for some time. I think I became aware of it last year. They've held a number of fundraising events. The next one will be a Midnites for Maniacs auction and secret screening on April 30 at 7:30 PM.

The latest article on the Red Vic's struggles appeared in the March 23 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. KQED reported on the theater's troubles in December. I also remember listening to a KQED broadcast (Forum with Michael Krasny?) which included discussion about the Red Vic's trouble. That was around the time it was announced the Landmark Clay would be closing. Speaking of which, I haven't heard anything about the San Francisco Film Society's plans to buy or lease the Clay for year-around programming. However many months ago that was, the Clay is still in daily operation.

The Red Vic has begun selling patron memberships. According to their Myspace blog,

Support the Red Vic! Please consider becoming a Patron. We, of course, appreciate donations at any level. We ask that you consider donating at one of the support levels listed below:

$100 - Twelve Free Passes and a Patron Card
$250 - A 3-Month Pass and a Patron Card
$500 - A 6-Month Pass and a Patron Card
$1,000 - A 1-Year Pass and a Patron Card
$5,000 – Private screening and golden (bottomless) popcorn bowl
$10,000 - Let's talk!

Please do not mail cash. Make checks out to Red Vic Movie House and mail along with your name & return address to: Red Vic Movie House, 1727 Haight St., S.F., CA 94117. Thank you!

Or, we have set up a Pay Pal account for donations:

The Red Vic is a collective. I'm not sure what that means in terms of legal ownership or structure but they are definitely not a non-profit organization so donations are not tax deductible. However, the Red Vic has partnered with the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation which owns the Vogue Theater. Again from their Myspace blog,

For tax deductible donations, you can make a check out to our fiscal sponsor, the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, and note in the memo line: For the Red Vic Movie House.

Mail to:
Red Vic Movie House
1727 Haight St.
San Francisco, CA 94117


The prolonged nature of the Red Vic's trouble reminds me of the Roxie's trouble a few years ago. The were constantly hanging on by the skin of their teeth. I recall Nicholas Cage donated a sizable amount in appreciation for the Roxie screening and releasing Red Rock West (1993) which revived his career. Within a few years, the Roxie was back in trouble. I can't remember the changes in ownership. They were owned for awhile by the now defunct New College of California. I think someone else owned them before they reorganized under their current non-profit structure.

The Roxie seems to be doing much better financially. What bothers me about the Roxie is the state of their Mission District neighborhood. Apparently after years of peace, a gang war has erupted in the Mission over the past year. In March, I read that five men were shot at 11 PM on Monday night in the 3000 block of 16th Street. El Tin Tan's "front door was riddled by bullets, and gunfire shattered the glass front door of the Pancho Villa Taqueria next door."

That sent a chill down my spine. I walk past the El Tin Tan bar from 16th Street BART whenever I go to the Roxie. I've dined at Pancho Villa Taqueria. Not only that but I like to go to the Roxie on Monday nights because they offer reduced price admission. If I catch a 9 PM show, I would be walking on the 3000 block of 16th Street at around 11 PM on my way back to BART. That incident was a little too close for comfort.

Earlier this week, the Misison Local published an article called The Mission’s 10 Most Dangerous Blocks. The 2nd most dangerous block was 16th Street between Mission and Valencia. That's the block where El Tin Tan, Pancho Villa Taqueria and the previously mentioned shooting occurred or in onther words, the block I have to walk through to get to the Roxie. The most dangerous block is Mission between 16th and 17th which is where the 16th Street BART station exit and entrance is. Basically, I have to traverse the two most dangerous blocks in the Mission to go to the Roxie.

I'll have my opportunity to take a walk on the wild side because SF Indiefest has announced the dates of its 2011 Hole in the Head Film Festival. It'll be June 2 to 16 at the Roxie Theater. All things considered, I'd rather be on 2nd Street in San Jose.


Also in March, the San Francisco Examiner ran an article reporting the reduced schedule at the Castro Theater.

The article referred to the fact that the Castro was only running films five days per week in April (Mondays & Tuesdays will be dark). I've noticed the Castro always has 3 to 5 days per month which it doesn't screen films. I thought it was to perform maintenance, cleaning and/or for private events. The Castro is closed 8 days in April which is more than one quarter of the time. That does seem ominous.

“It’s not a financial move, it’s a management move in terms of making sure we have the best product available for people to see,” Nasser said, adding that he’s not sure when the Castro will go back to seven days per week. “It will vary from month to month.”

Nasser is Don Nasser, owner and operator of the Castro. “It’s not a financial move, it’s a management move...” What does that mean? Mr. Nasser seems to have worked in management consulting prior to operating the Castro Theater because he has the doublespeak down to pat.

I think the Castro is in the least precarious position of the three theaters. Without the Castro, San Francisco film festivals would not havea a venue for their opening and closing night films if not their entire festival (Noir City & Silent Film Festival).

Saturday, April 9, 2011

2011 San Francisco International Asian American Fiim Festival (Part 3)

One final enrtry on the 2011 San Francisco International Asian American Fiim Festival (SFIAAFF)...


Raavanan is a retelling of the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic. The film is notable for being filmed simultaneously with two casts in both Hindi & Tamil. SFIAAFF screened the Tamil version. Here's where it gets interesting. The Tamil version's three lead actors were Vikram as Veera (Ravana in the Ramayana), Aishwarya Rai as Ragini (Sita in the Ramayana) and Prithviraj as Dev Prakash (Rama in the Ramayana). The Hindi version, Raavan, stars Abhishek Bachchan as Beera Munda (Ravana in the Ramayana), Aishwarya Rai as Ragini Sharma (Sita in the Ramayana) and Vikram as Dev Pratap Sharma (Rama in the Ramayana). So Aishwarya Rai plays the same role in both versions but Vikram plays the two lead roles in the two versions. I wonder how he mentally kept the roles and performances separate.

Vikram's performance is the best thing about Raavanan. His Veera is charismatic, dangerous, über-masculine and sexy. Vikram almost pushes the performance too far with the facial gesticulations and manic laughs but the epic story, lush outdoor cinematography and a driving soundtrack balance out Vikram's flamboyant moments.

I've never been that impresed with Aishwarya Rai's acting abilities and Raavanan doesn't change my opinion. Prithviraj didn't show much either as Ragini's husband. The movie changed the ending so it's not entirely consistent with the Ramayana; the ending while solid was a little disappointing to me. I'll reveal one spoiler, there isn't a epic or hellacious battle between Veera and Dev Prakash (Ravana and Rama in the Ramayana).


The Piano in a Factory combines pathos, comedy and musical numbers to great effect. The setting is a deteriorating steel plant. Chen, previously employed at the plant, now scrapes by with a band (he plays the accordian). Chen's financial trouble means his daughter cannot attend music school and his ex-wife wants full custody of the girl. Chen paints a keyboard on some wood but after failing to steal a piano, decides to use the steel plant to build a steel piano.

That's the backdrop which director Zhang Meng has to insert numerous musical numbers including a spirited flamenco or some Spanish type of dance. There is a lot of social commentary going on in Piano including displaced workers in China's decreasingly industrial economy and the role of women in modern society but Zhang's light touch draws genuine humor from the situations. Qin Hai-lu as Chen's girlfriend and singer in his band stands out from the otherwise solid cast.

The Piano in the Factory

The Break-Up Club is a faux documentary partially within a faux documentary. The premise is inspired. Set it Hong Kong, Joe (Jaycee Chan, Jackie's son) and Flora (Fiona Sit) are a young couple. Joe is a slacker and Flora is more ambitious. They have their ups and downs. After breaking up, Joe finds a website called www.breakupclub.asia (which is the homepage for the movie) at an internet cafe. The website promises to reunite couples but a couple has to be broken up to accomplish this. In other words, Joe can enter Joe and Flora for reunion but he needs to enter another couples (whom he knows) for break-up. At the same time, Joe sees a television commercial for a new documentary about couples breaking up. Barbara Wong, director of The Break-Up Club, plays Barbara Wong, the director of the documentary.

Joe shows up at an audition with the pitch of www.breakupclub.asia. However, he can't access the website from the audition site. The only place he can access the site is from a specific computer at the internet cafe. Barbara likes the idea and gives him a camera to document what happens.

Joe still has the problem of entering the unlucky couple's names into the website. His best friend Sunny, Patrick Tang looking like Wayne from Wayne's World, offers himself up. He and his girlfriend have hit a rough patch and will likely break up anyway. Joe bites on the offer and voilà! Joe & Flora reconcile while Sunny and his girlfriend break up.

Unfortunately, Sunny has second thoughts on the subject. Now he needs a couple to break up so he can use the website. He enters his own cousin's name, on his wedding day no less. Tough break for the wedding couple.

All is well, Joe & Flora are together and Sunny and his girlfriend are together. Before long, Joe & Flora begin to argue. Joe's lack of ambition rubs Flora the wrong way, especially after she is assigned to be an Japanese artist's personal assistant in preparation for a big art exhibition. The two hit it off and eventually he offer Flora the chance to travel to Spain as his girlfriend. Joe begins to suspect what is going on but is unable to stop it even after a dramatic confrontation which results in a broken and his melodramatic dash to the airport to see Flora once more before she goes to Europe.

That should be the end of the film but Wong adds a cute twist. The audience discovers that the footage they been watching since about the mid-point of the film has been surreptitiously filmed. Sunny made a backroom deal with Barbara to film Joe without Joe's knowledge. Here's the best part. After the credits roll for a few seconds, we see Sunny & his girlfriend. It's implied that Sunny entered Joe & Flora into breakupclub.asia to 1) get footage of the breakup and 2) get back together with his girlfriend.

Wong is too cute by a half with all these movies within a movie and hidden motivations. The film feels gimmicky but The Break-Up Club delivers quite a few laughs and even high drama as Joe's relationship disintegrates. The website and mockumentary cheapen the dramatic aspects of the film but it's still quite powerful. Wong needed them as she is saying as much about modern "look at me" culture as she is documenting the life and death of a relationship.

At least Wong had Joe destroy the computer which could access www.breakupclub.asia thereby ending the cycle of anonymous malice. That is set up as the turning point for the rest of Joe's life.


Almost Perfect had a big name cast including Kelly Hu, Edison Chen and Roger Rees. The film focuses on Vanessa (Hu), the least maladjusted of the Lee family which includes her promiscuous sister, alcoholic brother, philandering father and passive-agressive mother. Into this maw comes Dwayne (Ivan Shaw), a friend of Vanessa's brother, who has the courage or foolhardiness to attempt a serious relationship with Vanessa, the long time, secret object of his desires.

The film is a romantic comedy with the obligatory dosage of melodrama. What set the film apart is the level of neuroses exhibited by the Lees or exhibited by the actors who play the Lees. Tina Chen, as Vanessa's mother, excels as a woman whose resentment towards her husband creates a seething and toxic wife/mother. For reasons left unstated in the film and the Q&A with director/writer Bertha Bay-Sa Pan, Roger Rees played Vanessa's father despite his character having the Chinese sounding name Kai Lee. Perhaps a mixed family is nothing worth commenting on. Rees has the most fulsome role in the film and seems to be channeling Lord John Mabury to great comic effect.

It's a bit of a left-handed compliment to praise the supporting actors in a romantic comedy. Kelly Hu is 43 years old and looks great but she didn't quite get the role right. Vanessa seemed to vacillate between strenght and weakness. Perhaps my knowledge of Hu's age (she is the same age as me) detracted from my appreciation of her performance. Ivan Shaw was ok; I'm not sure what his character saw in Vanessa other than some remnant of a teenage fantasy.

There were a lot of laughs in Almost Perfect but Tina Lee & Roger Rees provided most of them.


Abraxas is the story of a punk rocker turned Buddhist monk. One of the few Japanese feature length films in the festival, Abraxas made its mark among the festival entries. Jonen, the former punk rocker, is in a state of depression at the start of the film. Encouraged by his temple's head monk, Jonen reconnects with his punk rock roots. He surprises everyone in town when he decides that reunion concert with his ex-bandmates is the perfect elixir for what ails him. His wife and the head monk are gently disapproving but when the town's busybody organizes a boycott, Jonen's friends and family give him their full support. A friend's suicide complicates matter but ultimately Jonen rocks the temple.

Abraxas is a heartwarming comedy told in the way that only Japanese filmmakers make films. It reminded me of a number of Japanese films from recent years including Linda, Linda, Linda, Detroit Metal City and The Chef of the South Polar.


In the previous post, I forgot to write disapprovingly of Living in Seduced Circumstances. Directed by Ian Gamazon, who made the much better Cavite, Living in Seduced Circumstances becomes very tedious and annoying. The most annoying aspect of the film is actress Quynn Ton's sing-song, grating voice. Ton, who also the produced the film, is a very pregnant woman avenging an unstated transgressing upon Mr. Thanh (Long Nguyen). The film consists of one torture scene after another with Ton (I'm not sure her character was ever identified by name) calling out "Mr. Thanh!" and speaking to him with mock affection as if he were a baby or puppy dog.

Unlike Cavite which was ultra-realistic and ratcheted up the tension levels as the movie progresed, Seduced Circumstances was highly stylized and felt like a bad nightmare in more ways than one. I didn't like Living in Seduced Circumstances even though it was selected for both Cinequest and SFIAAFF.


Two Taiwanese films warrant mention. The Fourth Portrait and When Love Comes tell coming of age stories about a young boy reunited with his prostitute mother (and her killer boyfriend) and a 16 year old girl who gets pregnant. Bi, Don't Be Afraid, a Vietnamese film which also screened at Cinequest, covers similar territory as a six year boy observes the fractured relationship between his grandfather, parents and aunt.

All three of these films skillfully tell stories of youth slightly stained by dubious (if not criminal) behavior by adults. I thoroughly enjoyed all three films.


There were a number of short films I enjoyed which, in the interest of time, I'll reduce to a list - Raju, Chubby Can Kill, Room #11, Lychee Thieves, My Name is Mohammed, Withholding, Inhalation, A Loud Quiet and Bicycle. Bicycle, a Japanese film, was possibly my favorite. It captures the heartwarming spirit of a certain type of Japanese film which I mentioned when writing about Abraxas.

The credits said Dirty Bitch was inspired by Clare Denis' Nénette et Boni gets an honorable mention. The film was striking but disjointed. However, it was compelling enough to get me to the PFA a week after the festival ended to see Nénette et Boni as part of their Claire Denis retrospective.


I wrote that the 2011 Cinequest was the best film festival I've been to in terms of programming. Coming on the heels of Cinequest and the San Francisco Chronicle article, I was leery of the 2011 SFIAAFF.

When all was said and done, I think SFIAAFF topped Cinequest. I have to give the staff at SFIAAFF a huge compliment on the quality of the programming at the festival. Since I'm a glass-half-empty type of guy, I will complain that the volunteers could use a little more training. They were always friendly but too frequently not very helpful. This has been the case for several years.

I also want to thank Shelly Kim of the CAAM staff who handled a number of inquiries from me over the past year regarding tax deductible amounts, incorrect addresses and late tickets. She solved all my problems in a professional and timely manner.

Friday, April 8, 2011

2011 San Francisco International Asian American Fiim Festival (Part 2)

Going into the 2011 San Francisco International Asian American Fiim Festival, I wasn't sure what to expect. Long time festival director Chi-Hui Yang had stepped down and seemed to have been replaced by Masashi Niwano and Christine Kwon who have the titles of Festival & Exhibitions Director and Managing Director, respectively. Assistant Festival Director Vicci Ho seems to have departed since last year so the festival leadership was brand new. The lineup of films didn't particularly impress me.

Then I read in the San Francisco Chronicle about Niwano's vision for the festival. "Three years from now we want music to be very influential, a big part of the festival," Niwano said.

He went on to say "There are two ways to look at a film festival. One is to look at it as a film purist, with the very best in cinema. The other side of that might be an event like South by Southwest. More live events, more engagement, more community, and for me it's how to merge the two together."

I'm a film purist, I like my film festivals to be focused on films not merged with music events. So that article didn't bode well for me. I recall a Dana Carvey character on Saturday Night Live. I think the character was Grumpy Old Man. Anyway, I feel like that character with respect to the music the "young folks" listen to nowadays. It's just noise to me; it has little appeal to me and I'm not particularly intersted in being exposed to it in a film festival setting.

So it was with quite a bit of trepidation that I entered the film festival. Coming off my highly impressed Cinequest experience, I was worried about SFIAAFF. I'm glad to report that SFIAAFF equaled and perhaps bested Cinequest. There were very few films at SFIAAFF which I didn't enjoy.


Let's get the bad out of the way up front. Niwano programmed an Asian horror film trio. The films were the highly touted Nang Nak (1999, Thailand), Histeria (2009, Malaysia) and Affliction (2008, Philippines). I watched Histeria which involved some high school girls forced to stay at their boarding school over a holiday break as punishment for some their tomfoolery. The film is infamous for Malaysia first lesbian kiss which was edited out of the version that was screened. Otherwise, I would rate it as a run-of-the-mill slasher film although in this case, the slasher is some evil spirit.

Nang Nak was 100 minutes long but seemed interminable. It dealt with a man who returns from war to his wife in a small village. It's not really his wife but rather the ghost of his wife. His wife died during childbirth but her love was strong that she returned in spirit form to car for her husband. Based on a Thai folklore, the story was as much a love story as a horror film. It fell short on both counts as far as I'm concerned. The film couldn't hold my attention although part of that may be cultural. These Thai horror films often incorporate some folk legend that's a common touchstone in Thailand but seems foreign to me.

After Histeria & Nang Nak, I passed on Affliction. Desptire seeing several films at Hole in the Head, I am not a horror film aficionado and this foray into Southeast Asian horror cinema reconfirms it. I don't really "blame" Niwano or SFIAAFF for not enjoying these film. I took a flyer with some horror films on the chance that selectively programmed horror films may appeal to me and they didn't it. I'd much prefer SFIAAFF keep doing some of these types of genre, mini-programs even if I don't enjoy them. I remember a few years ago, SFIAAFF programmed a number of 1970s era, kung fu films which I absolutely when nuts for.

I'll throw out a suggestion for next year's festival. I want to see some 1970s era, Japanese Pinky Violence films on the big screen. At the top of my list would be Zero Woman - Red Handcuffs and Lady Yakuza - Red Peony Gambler.


Whereas I didn't have big expectations for Histeria & Nang Nak, I was looking forward to Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words which consisted mostly of an actress (Doan Ly) reading Wong's letters. A few years ago, I saw Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows at the 2008 SFIAAFF. I wrote "I greatly enjoyed...Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows." I can't say the same about Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words.

In Her Own Words may have suffered in comparion because I saw Frosted Yellow Willows first. However, more important was the fact that the production standards were much higher on Frosted Yellow Willows. It was a straight documentary with actress Nancy Kwan narrating. In Her Own Words had some traditional documentary techniques but a lot of reenactments with Doan Ly reading Wong's letter to the camera in period appropriate clothing. The filmmakers largely tried to use Wong's own words to move the story along. Ly had a vaguely affected tone to her speech and it never felt like Wong was speaking. It felt like an actress was trying mightily to infuse Wong's word with more importance and gravitas then needed.

If pressed, I'd have to advise people to watch Frosted Yellow Willows if they are interested in Wong's life. If you have seen Frosted Yellow Willows, I recommend you skip In Her Own Words.


I don't think have a favorite film at this year's festival. There are about a dozen films I was equally impressed with. I think that is a strong testimonial for the quality of the programming this year.

Two documentaries which impressed me are The House of Suh and Open Season. I thought Open Season was the better made film but they were both fascinating.

The House of Suh follows the Suhs, a Korean immigrant family. Andrew is the son & Catherine is his older sister. While children, their father dies of cancer and a few years later, the mother was murdered a few years later and a few years after that, Catherine's fiancée was murdered. Soon afterwards in 1993, 19 year old Andrew was arrested for the murder of Catherine's fiancée. Andrew would implicate his sister in the crime which would lead to questions about their mother's murder.

Clearly, there are lot dynamics at work in this family and Catherine comes off as a sort of Lady Macbeth. It's a little unfair because Andrew cooperated with the filmmakers and was interviewed from prison whereas Catherine did not cooperate. Catherine was a fugitive and live under at least one alias. The evidence definitely points to her being the mastermind of her fiancée's murder. My only quibble was with the storytelling. At 90 minutes, the story dragged at times. It could have been edited to make it tighter.

There was an interesting sequence where the The House of Suh showed footage from Bad to the Bone, a 1997 television film based on the Suhs. The interesting (racial) part is that the Suhs had been transformed into the Wells family with Kristi Swanson playing Francesca Wells who was based on Catherine. So much of the family dysfunction was based on their immigration from Korea and Korean customs that I wonder how Bad to the Bone explained the circumstances and motivation for the murder. It was a nice sideshow but didn't really add much to The House of Suh. It seemed like a few of the scenes were just filler to pump the runtime to 90 minutes but they weren't nearly as interesting as the Kristi Swanson digression.

While surfing the internet, I ran across this website. Be forewarned that these prison penpal situations can be scams by convicts. I rolled my eyes at how he describes the events which led to his incarceration. I will say that Andrew Suh was quite sympathetic in the film. He is articulate and earnest in his interviews. I felt sympathy towards him...until I recalled that he shot a man in the back of the head twice...but then I recalled that he was under the impression that the man killed his mother & threatened his sister. I don't know how I feel anymore which is a hallmark of a good documentary.

"Born in Seoul, South Korea, I was raised in Chicago, Illinois, and I attended Providence College in Rhode Island; until a series of tragic events would vault me into this foreign and brutal life, behind these cold and unforgiving bars. Akin to a Greek Tragedy, the facts of my life unfold like a badly scripted soap opera and I pray for a fairy-tale conclusion."


Equally ambiguous was Open Season which told the story of a 2004 sextuple murder in Wisconsin for which Hmong immigrant Chai Vang was convicted. Chai Vang claims he was subjected to racial epithets and shot at before he quickly returned fire, shooting eight Caucasians total. The survivors say Vang shot first.

Like the Suh case, nothing is cut and dried. Four the shooting victims were shot in the back and multiple times. Vang claimed he was fired on first and one of the survivors testified he fired a shot but his bullet was never found. Additionally, the rifle of the man Vang claims fired first was never forensically tested to determine if it had been fired at the time of the incident.

While most of the audience was in accordance with the charges of racism, I found Vang to be less sympathetic. He had a documented history of domestic violence. While I readily acknowledge that racism was quite likely played a role in the incident, the fact that Vang was able to fire about 20 rounds without being struck by return fire is suspicious. On the other hand, Vang served in the California National Guard and attained a sharpshooter badge. That implies he had the training to fire quickly and under stress.

Much of the film focused on the Wisconsin and Minnesota Hmong community's reaction to the incident which was initially to throw Vang under the bus and later to embrace his case as a battle against racism. My opinion is that Vang was confronted with racist comments by men with rifles. He felt threatened and responded. Did he have to respond with gunfire? The crucial point for me is that he shot several people multiple times in the back. Apparently the jury agreed because he is currently serving six consecutive life terms plus seventy years. I wonder why those sentences aren't concurrent.

The true story was engaging but directors Mark Tang & Lu Lippold briskly move the film along; bringing it in at taut 57 minutes.


SFIAAFF had a two film series of Gurinder Chadha movies. Chadha, married to former SFIAAFF director Paul Mayeda Berges, is the director of Bride and Prejudice among others.

SFIAAFF screened Bend It Like Beckham. I didn't really want to go but my friend wanted to watch the film again so we went. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Keira Knightley looked so young.

The other Chadha film was her latest - It's a Wonderful Afterlife. With a title reference to the Frank Capra classic and a scene paying homage to Carrie, It's a Wonderful Afterlife was a delightful comedy. The premise is quite dark. A mother (Shabana Azmy) kills the families of potential grooms who have rejected her daughter (Goldy Notay) for arranged marriage. The spirits of the dead haunt her and won't leave until their killer is dead. Stubbornly, the women won't atone for her sins until her daughter is married. The spirits go about helping her with the task. Meanwhile, the police are closing in on the murderer and their prime suspect is the daughter who had a connection and motive to kill the victims.

That description belies the hilarity which ensues. Azmy, Notay and Sally Hawkins as the Englishwoman who is more Indian than Azmy & Notay anchor the film. The film was outstanding and I can't recommend it enough.


The Taqwacores is an adaptation of a Michael Muhammad Knight novel by the same name. The novel described a fictitious Islamic Punk Rock scene. Arguably, the book inspired real-life Islamic Punk Rock bands which are the subject of a documentary called Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam (2009).

The Taqwacores was a film that didn't really interest me but I had the festival pass. The festival had closed in SF, my pass wasn't good for the SJ opening and the only other option were the films at the PFA.

The film captures the anger and camaraderie of a group of young Muslims in Syracuse. Dominic Rains shines as the mohawked Jehangir who serves as the de facto rabbi of the house; the other roommates come to him with their issues. Bobby Naderi plays Yusef, the newest housemate who is straight-laced, observant of Muslim religious customs and unsure about what to think of his new living arrangement. Throughout the film, Jehangir and Yusef argue point/counterpoint as to what it means to Muslim. Along the way, the two good-natured men develop a friendship primarily as a result of the uptight Yusef loosening up a little.

The other roommates have their foibles and idiosyncrasies which add to the humor and drama. The most interesting is Noureen DeWulf as Rabeya, the sole female tennant who wears a full burka but espouses ideas that run counter to conservative attire. Without giving away the ending, other than to say it's like the Woodstock for Islamopunks, Rabeya plays a shocking and critical role in the tragedy which follows.

The Taqwacores was an exciting, funny & exhilirating film. It fully deserved the Special Jury Prize in my opinion.


Surrogate Valentine stars Bay Area musician Goh Nakamura playing a Bay Area musician named Goh Nakamura. He's tricked into giving guitar lessons to Danny (Chadd Stoops), a vapid and superficial actor who is looking for a serious role to give him some acting cred. Unbeknownst to Goh, the film that Danny is cast in is based on Goh's life. The most regretful part of Goh's life is his failure or more accurately, inability to have a romantic relationship with high school classmate Rachel (Lynn Chen).

A lot of the film is spent on the road as Goh is on tour and Danny tags along. When Rachel has relationship troubles, she comes to San Francisco to visit Goh. Will this be the chance he's been waiting for? I don't know because the film leaves the ending ambiguous although I have an opinion as to what Rachel chose. I won't share it so as not to spoil the film or embarrass myself.

I characterize the film as a bittersweet comedy. Three things buoyed the film - Goh Nakamura laid back performance (which matches his music), Chadd Stoops mugging it up (he does a great Christopher Walken impression) and Chen's subtle portrayal which hinted at a woman with some self-esteem issues.

Although I said in the last post that I'm not too interested in music, I truly enjoyed Nakamura's title song; more for the clever lyrics than the melody. I particular liked this lyric.

You can be the magnet
and I’ll be the iron
you’re drawing me closer
like a sailor to the sirens


It seems like for the past two days, I've spent every spare minute writing about the 2011 SFIAAFF. There are still about a half dozen films that I want to discuss so I'll carry them over to part three.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

2011 San Francisco International Asian American Fiim Festival (Part 1)

The 2011 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) ran from March 10 to 20. The main venues were the Sundance Kabuki, Viz Cinema, the Landmark Clay, the Castro, PFA and Camera 12 Cinemas. I saw films at each venue except the Viz. The festival screened in San Francisco from March 10 to 17 and San Jose from March 18 to 20. It ran in Berkeley from March 11 to 19.

Last year, I donated money to the Center for Asian American Media which is the parent organization of SFIAAFF. My donation entitled me to a festival pass which was good for admission to all screenings this year except the Opening Night film, San Jose Opening Night film and the San Francisco Closing Night film. The Opening Night film was West is West which I saw at the Mostly British. The Closing Night film was Surrogate Valentine which I was able to catch in San Jose. The San Jose Opening Night film was Upaj a documentary about Indian classical dancing. That was the only screening so I missed Upaj.

With my pass in hand (which I discovered was very rare particularly when compared to Cinequest and other film festivals), I was able to see 31½ programs. ½ because I caught the second half of a short film program.

I watched the following feature length films.

One Kine Day with Jolene Blalock; (2010) - Official Website
The House of Suh; documentary; English and Korean with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Histeria; Malay with subtitles; (2009)
It's a Wonderful Afterlife starring Shabana Azmi, Goldy Notay, Sendhil Ramamurthy & Sally Hawkins; directed by Gurinder Chadha; (2010) - Official Website
Saigon Electric; Vietnamese with subtitles; Official Website
Resident Aliens; documentary; (2011)
Nang Nak; Thai with subtitles; (1999)
Almost Perfect starring Kelly Hu, Ivan Shaw, Roger Rees & Edison Chen; directed by Bertha Bay-Sa Pan; (2011) - Official Facebook
Bend It Like Beckham starring Parminder K. Nagra, Keira Knightley & Jonathan Rhys-Meyers; directed by Gurinder Chadha; (2002) - Official Website
Clash; starring Thanh Van Ngo & Johny Tri Nguyen; Vietnamese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Raavanan; starring Chiyaan Vikram, Aishwarya Rai & Prithviraj; Tamil with subtitles; (2010)
Abraxas; Japanese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Dooman River; Korean and Mandarin with subtitles; Official Website
Open Season; documentary; (2011) - Official Facebook
Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words; documentary with reenactments; (2010)
Dance Town; directed by Jeon Kyu-Hwan; Korean with subtitles; (2010)
Living in Seduced Circumstances; directed by Ian Gamazaon; Vietnamese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Passion; documentary; Mongolian with subtitles; (2010)
The Taqwacores; (2010) - Official Website
Piano in a Factory; directed by Zhang Meng; Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
Made in India; documentary; English and Hindi with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
When Love Comes; Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
The Fourth Portrait; directed by Chung Mong-Hong; Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
Surrogate Valentine starring Goh Nakamura; Chadd Stoops & Lynn Chen; directed by Dave Boyle; (2011) - Official Website
Bi, Don't Be Afraid!; Vietnamese with subtitles; (2010)
Break Up Club starring Jaycee Chan & Fiona Sit; directed by Barbara Wong; Cantonese with subtitles; Official Website

A few of the films were preceded by short films.

Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded; directed by Elaine Kim; documentary; 30 minutes; (2010) - Official Facebook
Fumiko Hayashida: The Woman Behind the Symbol directed by Lucy Ostrander; documentary; 15 minutes (2010) - Official Website

Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded preceded Anna May Wong and Fumiko Hayashida preceded Resident Aliens.

The 2011 SFIAAFF had a full line-up of short film progam; most of which I was able to catch.

Life, Interrupted
Room #11; Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
Pink Chaddis; documentary; English & Hindi with subtitles; (2010)
My Name is Mohammed; Arabic with subtitles; (2009)
Made in China; documentary; Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
Lychee Thieves; (2010)

Chicken Proof
Chubby Can Kill; Cantonese with subtitles; (2010)
Junko's Shamisen; Japanese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Masala Mama; Tamil & Hokkien with subtitles; (2010)
Gophers in Space; animated; (2009)
Hang in There; animated; (2009)
To Wander in Pandemonium; English & Korean with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
The Godmother; (2010) - Official Website
Amazonia; animated; (2010) - Official Website

3rd I South Asian Int'l Shorts
Kunjo; Rjasthani & Punjabi with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
You Can't Curry Love; (2010) - Official Website
Grant St. Shaving Co.; English & Hindi with subtitles; (2010)
Raju; (2011)
Victor Ramirez, Assesino; (2010)

Silent Rituals and Hovering Proxies
Inhalation; Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
Solitary Moon; (2010)
Nature On Its Course; animated; (2009) - Official Website
Linger; Mandarin with subtitles; (2009) - Official Blog
Hovering Proxies; (2010) - Official Website
A Loud Quiet; Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
Bicycle; Japanese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Rare Fish; Indonesian with subtitles; (2009)
Triangle; English & Korean with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website

Play/House Shorts
Firecracker; (2010)
Andy; Korean with subtitles; (2010)
Once Upon a Rooftop; documentary; Cantonse with subtitles; (2010)
Withholding; (2010) - Official Website
Top Spin; documentary; (2010)

Tainted Love
The Bus Pass; (2010)
To Get a Date; documentary; (2010)
Boys & Girls; (2010)
Dirty Bitch; Mandarin with subtitles; (2009)
Yulia; animated; (2009) - Official Website
A Lover's Fragment; Korean with subtitles; (2010)

Tainted Love was the short program that I only saw half the programs. I walked in while A Lover's Fragment was playing and walked out in the middle of Yulia. I completely missed four short films in the program.

The short film I regret missing in hindsight was part of Living Life Large. It was a 16 minute Japanese film called Grandpa's Wet Dream. I think the synopsis says it all.

Shigeo Tokuda, a 76-year-old hard-working family man, pursues a new passion in order to create a lasting legacy: starring in adult films. Tokuda grapples with his double-life in this humorous and genuine portrait.


Despite watching over 60% of the programs offered by SFIAAFF, I missed nearly half the festival award winners.

2011 Comcast Narrative Competition
Best Film - The Imperialists Are Still Alive!
Special Jury Prize - The Taqwacores

2011 Documentary Competition
Best Film - Made in India

Visual Achievement Award - Summer Pasture

Award for Achievement in Citizen Journalism - Open Season

2011 Verizon Audience Awards
Best Narrative Feature - Surrogate Valentine
Best Documentary Feature - One Voice

2011 Loni Ding Award in Social Issue Documentary - Once Upon a Rooftop


Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded generated some controversy. Quentin Lee, director of The People I Slept With (which played at the 2010 SFIAAFF) and a memeber of the 2011 Narrative Competition Jury, objected to the use of footage from People I've Slept With in Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded. He claims director Elaine Kim did not get his permission to use the footage. Kim who attended the screening of Dragon which I attended said she removed the clip from the film out of consideration for Lee. She felt she was entitled to use it as part of the fair use doctrine.

In response, Lee, Lela Lee, Justin Lin, Karin Anna Cheung, Koji Steven Sakai and Stanley Yung (who are associated with Better Luck Tomorrow, First Day of School and The People I've Slept With) wrote an editorial to the San Francisco Chronicle objecting to her use of their footage in her film. The editorial was posted on March 19 which was the penultimate day of the festival. Editorial Page Editor John Diaz wrote a response which supported Kim in the March 20 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.


I don't recall how I learned this tidbit but actress Lynn Chen (Saving Face, The People I've Slept With and Surrogate Valentine) has a blog called The Actor's Diet. I've frequently appreciated her performances which seem to always be in supporting roles. I'd like to see her in a lead role.

Anyway, Chen seemingly photographs every bit food she eats and posts the photos to The Actor's Diet. Having read several entries now, I discovered that she used to have an eating disorder so the blog, and most likely the photos, are therapeutic. She is as compulsive about documenting her food intake as I am about documenting my film viewing.


This post has exhausted me. I need to split in two. Next time, I will write a little about the films that made an impression on me at the 2011 SFIAAFF.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tsunami & Earthquake Relief For Japan Vol.2

When I wrote about Viz Cinema's screening of Hula Girls, I forgot to mention how well attended the event was. They held three screenings that day and I went to the final one. Given that the capacity of the theater is 143, I'd say 80 to 100 people were in the audience at my screening. I should have opined that if Viz drew that many on a regular basis, they would not have had to reduce operations. I also thought it would be a good idea to repeat the fundraiser for both philanthropic and marketing reasons.

Great minds think alike because Viz has announced Tsunami & Earthquake Relief For Japan Vol.2 to be held on Sunday, April 17 (one screening at 3:30 PM). This time, they are screening a wonderful film called The Taste of Tea (2003). I most likely saw the film at SF Indiefest in 2004. I remember the film vividly and greatly enjoyed it.

NEW PEOPLE is holding a second fundraising film event. This time the chosen film is The Taste of Tea, an opening film for the 2003 Cannes Film Festival that is based in a little town surrounded by the natural beauty of Tochigi, Japan, which is also an area vastly damaged by the recent earthquake and is striving to recover as we speak. A huge thanks to the supporters who attended the Hula Girls film event that raised $5,024 towards the relief efforts for Japan!

If you missed Hula Girls, want to see (or rewatch) The Taste of Tea or want to help the earthquake & tsunami victims in Japan, the Viz is hosting an event just for you.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

2011 Cinequest

On a bit of an impulse, I purchaed a Film Lover Pass to the 2011 Cinequest Film Festival in downtown San Jose. Cinequest ran from March 1 to 10.

There are a number of features about Cinequest which are unique and most of them beneficial. The Film Lover Passs is self-explanatory. It allows the wearer access to all "regular" film screenings which basically excludes Opening and Closing Night films. However, it does not give the Film Lover preferential seating or early seating. The Film Lover Pass holder stands in line with other ticket holders. That's typically not the case at festivals I've gone to but Cinequest sells a higher level Marericks Pass and highest level VIP All Access Pass.

The part that feels like gouging to me is that Cinequest also sells an Express Line Pass which does not entitle the holder admission to any film but only access to the express admission line or early seating. In other words, Express Line Pass holders would need a Film Lover Pass (or higher) or individual ticket to gain admission. The cost of the Film Lover Pass is $145 and the cost of the Express Line Pass is $100.

Another unique aspect of Cinequest is that on the final day of the festival, they have Award-Winning Film Screenings or encore screenings. These screenings are open to Pass holders although they sell Rush Tickets to non-Pass Holders. I would think that reduces attendance although it may not given the number of people I saw walking around downtown San Jose with Cinequest passes around their necks. It's very impressive the way dowtown San Jose is plastered with Cinequest advertisements including the pedestrians. There are also street pole banners and most of the downtwon businesses have a Cinequest sign in their window. Cinequest's main venues are the California Theater, Camera 12 and San Jose Rep.

I also notice that Cinequest has a lot more changes to their published schedules than other festivals. On weekends, I believe they were screening on four screens at the Camera 12 and one each at the SJ Rep and California. Some of the films I wanted to see were pulled from the festival and new ones added. The venues also changed which was probably in response to ticket sales. Not to worry, Cinequest has widescreen LCD monitors set up at various locations to display the "real time" screening schedule. The monitors also display real-time tweets with the Cinequest hashtags.

As for San Jose, I was amazed at how easy parking was downtown. I took a day off from work and went on a workday afternoon. I was able to get unmetered street parking within three blocks of the theater. I drove to Cinequest on eight days and paid a grand total of 75 cents for parking.

Parking isn't the only thing that is easy in downtown San Jose. One night, I got out of a Camera 12 screening around 11:30 PM. It was raining so I crossed 2nd St. to walk under the covered walkway of the state Board of Equalization building. It was deserted on the streets. As I was walking, a young woman popped out of the doorway or vestibule. She startled me but I kept walking. As I walked away, I thought she was wearing a very short skirt for a cold & rainy night but that's not unusual. There are many dance clubs and lounges in downtown SJ and I saw many women dressed similarly throughout the run of the festival. Still, I thought it odd that the woman was by herself and waiting in that doorway.

Two nights later, my suspicions were confirmed. Once again, I got out of a Camera 12 screening around 11:30 PM. It was drizzling so I retraced my previous path. Sure enough, the woman was there again. I recognized her because she was wearing the same outfit! I should stop walking on that side of the street. I wonder if she recognized me. I was wearing the same jacket. Regardless, I kept walking but heard a car splash water behind me so I turned around and that woman was bent over at the waist speaking to the driver. It's ironic that across the street from the BOE building is the US District Courthouse with a guardhouse at the parking entrance. I think the guardhouse is manned 24 hours per day. I could make a joke about receiving similar treatment from courthouses, the California BOE and streetwalkers but it's too easy.

San Jose, I'm not saying you're like Vallejo but you may want to patrol that block of 2nd Street more often at night.


I saw 20 films at this year's Cinequest. I would have seen at least two more but in the late evening of March 9, I had a flat tire while driving back home from Cinequest. I didn't have a chance to get the tire repaired on the 10th and I felt uncomfortable driving to San Jose and back without a spare. Otherwise, I would have driven down there after work on the 10th and I was toying with the idea of taking a half day off that day to see a couple more screenings that afternoon.

2011 Cinequest was perhaps the "best" film festival I've ever been to. "Best" being defined as consistently enjoyable and compelling films. Of the 20 films I watched, I would recommend 18 of them.

The Little Room; French with subtitles; (2010)
Copacabana starring Isabelle Huppert; French with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Here's the Kicker; with Dan Lauria; (2011) - Official Website
A Little Help starring Jenna Fischer & Chris O'Donnell; with Lesley Ann Warren & Rob Leibman; (2010) - Official Website
Make a Movie Like Spike; directed and starring Jamil Walker Smith; (2011) - Official Facebook
Marrow starring Frances Hearn; (2011) - Official Website
War Games and the Man Who Stopped Them; documentary; Polish with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
America starring Lymari Nadal; with Yancey Arias, Tony Plana & Edward James Olmos; English & Spanish with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Samuel Bleak; directed by and starring Dustin Schuetter; (2011) - Official Website
Second-Story Man starring Christopher Domig & Danny Hoskins; (2010) - Official Website
Piran-Pirano; Slovenian with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Desert Rain starring Daniel Van Hart & Alexandria Morrow; (2011) - Official Website
Midnight Son starring Zak Kilberg & Maya Parish; (2011) - Official Website
The Blind starring Jonas Ball & Josette Barchilon; directed by Nathan Silver; (2009) - Official Website
Trouble Maker starring Pranidhi Varshney; (2010) - Official Website
A Kiss and a Promise starring Mark Rossi, Natasha Gregson Wagner & Sean Power; directed by Phillip Guzman; (2010) - Official Website
22nd of May; Dutch & French with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Bad Behaviour with John Jarrett; (2010) - Official Website
Medal of Honor starring Victor Rebenjuic; Romanian with subtitles; (2009) - Official Facebook
The Glass Slipper; directed by Jarrod Whaley; (2011)

All of the above films were feature length. A few had short films preceding them.

The Twin Girls of Sunset Street; stop-motion animation; (2010) - Offical Website
Daisy Cutter; animation; (2010) - Official Website
3 Hours; Arabic with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website

I recall another short film which preceded America. I cannot recall the title or find it on Cinequest's website. It was documentary set in Colombia and involved some young people who formed a non-violent organization. I would usually use the word "paramilitary" but that is a loaded phrase in Colombia. It was Spanish language with subtitles.


My favorite film of the festival was a quirky, uncharacterizable film called The Blind. Shot in 12 days on a microbudget with a cast and crew of unknowns, the film reminded me a little of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). The crew did include one notable member - cinematographer Rain Li (not to be confused with an actress of the same name) has also served in the same capacity on Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park and Neil Jordan's Ondine. Li's work in The Blind has a flat, monochromatic feel which perfectly from the story which could be described with the same adjective.

The film chronicles the relationship of Marcus and Kate. Marcus is an self-employed architect. Kate is his live-in girlfriend or more accurately, his stand-in wife. Both of them speak in measured, unemotional tones as they go about their lives which is anything but normal by cinematic standards although if you believe director Nathan Silver, sadly commonplace in the real world.

Let me recap the plot - Marcus and Kate move to a new town and house, Marcus rents an apartment and writes note to Kate that it would be best if she moved out, Kate moves out and Marcus is not discernibly better or worse off, Kate & Marcus reconcile, Kate moves back in, Marcus writes a note that it would be best if she moves out, Kate moves into a house across the street, Marcus rapes Kate, Marcus proposes marriage, Kate accepts, the end.

The interesting part of The Blind is that actors plays their roles with as much emotion as the previous paragraph. This creates a detached and absurd feel to the film which is all the better to deconstruct this dysfunctional relationship. The repetitive nature of the film reminded me of Jeanne Diehlman. In The Blind, the repetition gives the impression that the characters are unable or unwilling to recognize their destructive behavior much less change it. Silver describes the tale as a suburban horror film. Indeed it would be horrific if there are two people actually like Marcus and Kate...I suspect there is. Jonas Ball & Josette Barchilon as Marcus and Kate are outstanding but Jacob Reynolds steals the show as Raymond, Marcus's incessantly talkative and unbelievably irritating assistant.


Another film I enjoyed was Troublemaker about a troubled, young, Indian-American woman. Seeing her friends advance to graduate school while she can't pay the rent and gets fired from her job in a Mexican restaurant, Rekha (Pranidhi Varshney) embarks on a journey to find her father. Abandoned by him since youth, Rekha doesn't know his exact whereabouts but follows some clues which point her to Seattle. She ends up hitching a ride with he ex-boyfriend who still harbors feelings (even he dosn't know it himself). As they say, she is looking for her father but really searching for herself.

Part road movie, part romance, part coming of age, part comedy, Troublemaker is carried along by the Varsheny's performance and director Geeta Malik's script which could done away with a few cliches (such as the inevitable coupling of Rehka and her ex). Still the script was a cut above most.


The Glass Slipper was filmed in Palo Alto by local director Jarrod Whaley. The synopsis in the program guide looked interesting enough but I had planned on seeing another film at that time. However, I ran into Jason Wiener a few days earlier and he told me that he was a producer of the film. Not only was he a producer but his "production company," Puppymeat Productions, had an above-the-title credit. Puppymeat is Jason's nom de guerre on Twitter. After telling me how much he contributed to receive the Puppymeat credit, I was a little concerned about the quality of the film. I don't know the entire budget for the film but Jason's contribution seemed to be to small to merit an above the title credit in a reputable production.

I read some favorable reviews so I decided to go to The Glass Slipper. Let me also say that throughout the festival, I saw Ira Emsig around. I frequently see him at film festivals although typically Indiefest productions. A few minutes into the film, I'll be damned if Ira Emsig doesn't show up on the screen in a speaking part! I think he had two extended scenes with dialog where he played a bookie looking to collect on the main character's gambling debts. Ira wasn't bad either.

The film was pretty good; even more so given the obviously small budget. The film follows Felicity Maxwell (Kelly Lou Dennis), a recent arrival to the Bay Area. She has a job as a live-in maid/nanny to a woman in Palo Alto. The woman (Maria Fagan) is divorced and still quite bitter towards her ex. She has a daughter (K. Paige Burns) who is fairly well adjusted; particularly when compared to her mother and Ermir, (Vahe Katros) her father.

Katros's performance is absolutely amazing. He seemingly never stops talking and sleaze oozes out of every pore of his body but somehow evokes the tiniest bit of empathy. He's failed venture capitalist cum huckster. He's constantly on the make but living in a sleazy motel (in Palo Alto?) queers the deal each time. Eventually he turns his attention to the younger, church-going and slighly naive Felicity. When Felicity rejects his advances, he makes a scene at his ex-wife's house and hints that he & Felicity have been intimate. This infuriates his ex-wife who sends Felicity packing without anywhere to go. The film ends on that bleak note.

The plot is fairly threadbare but Whaley coaxes these incredible performances from Katros and Dennis and to a lesser extent, Fagan who plays her character like a harpy. At its core, the film is about Ermir and how he pulls everyone around him into this emotional sinkhole. The beauty is that he does it in such a passive agressive manner that you don't realize it until it's too late. I thought Denise and Felicity were the same character separated by 10 years of marriage to Ermir.


A Kiss and a Promise was a Canadian film about three dysfunctional people who live at a bed & breakfast. David & Samantha Beck (Nick Rossi and Natasha Gregson Wagner) play the couple who owns the B&B in a small town in Ontario. Sean Power plays Charlie their permanent and non-paying guest. For reasons which are vague, David feels a responsibility towards Charlie and lets him stay there for free much to the consternation of Samantha. Charlie doesn't do much to ingratiate himself as he is an alcoholic and long ago published author.

The dynamics of that situation are enough to build a drama but A Kiss and a Promise ratchets up the conflict to 11. David and Samantha have some issues in the bedroom. David likes to choke Samantha during sex and frankly, Samantha seems to enjoy it. However, David cannot (or will not) climax with Samantha. Instead, during the height of arousal, David goes across the hallway to Charlie's room for satisfaction. Samantha is understandably peaved by this and it feeds into her resentment of Charlie's presence.

The tension doesn't end there. Unbeknownst to both Samantha and Charlie, David is also a serial rapist and murderer. Most of the film focuses on the police investigation which closes in one David. The subplot involves Charlie and his newfound ability to pay the rent...at quite a high cost to his body and dignity.

A film about kinky sex and a serial killer living a double life sounds like a sure fire winner but this film easily could have veered towards any number of self indulgences by the director. However, Philip Guzman keeps the story focused with an appropriate number surprises. The film was "inspired" by a true story; whatever that means. All three lead actors give strong performances. Natasha Gregson Wagner is Natalie Woods' daughter and Robert Wagner's stepdaughter.


I think I'll end the synopses there. The enjoyed the other films but they were a step below the aforementioned. Copacabana merits a mention. It would have been first rate if they toned down Isabelle Huppert's character. She ends the film by dancing in a samba corps (complete with her own headdress) at her daughter's wedding.

The two films I disliked were War Games and the Man Who Stopped Them and Samuel Bleak. War Games took a fascinating subject and put me to sleep. Somehow, the makers of War Games ruined the true story of a Polish colonel who smuggled classified Warwaw Pact documents to the US and thus potentially avoiding WWIII. The film was poorly made, scattershot and the director inserted himself into the storyline.

Samuel Bleak was not nearly as bad. It was predictable to a fault and much of the plot didn't really make sense. It looked and felt low budget so I doubt many people will even have the opportunity to see the film. What is notable about Samuel Bleak is the invective Jason Wiener piled upon it. The normally cinematically forgiving Jason wrote "[Going to Samuel Bleak was the] worst last minute decision of my life. It's a veritable crap-ucopia of cliched drivel that's as emotionally empty as it is manipulative...Awful, awful, awful!!! I have seen so many movies at Cinequest (this year and others) where the writer, director, and actors put in tons of effort to make sure the emotional reactions are true. Writer/director/actor Dustin Schuetter takes a giant crap over the very thought of putting in such work."

Unaware of his posts on matter, I asked Jason which films stood out for him at Cinequest and he launched into a criticism of Samuel Bleak. Although I agreed that the film was not very good, my reaction was not nearly as intense as Jason's. Jason's reaction was so unusual that he felt the need to post an explanation of his original reaction.

After reading all that and seeing Samuel Bleak, I'm still not sure what makes the film singularly horrible enough to warrant his tongue lashing.

Speaking of tongue lashings and intense reactions, I have to get ready for an appointment on 2nd Street in San Jose.