Monday, January 31, 2011

Noir City 9 Recap

The 2010 Noir City Film Festival closed on January 30. I saw 19 of the 24 films that were screened. Of the five I missed, I had seen three of them previously and the fourth film (Gaslight), I had seen on television. The film I hadn't seen or even heard of before was Strangers in the Night (1944).

2011 Noir City Films
High Wall starring Robert Taylor and Audrey Totter; (1947)
Stranger on the Third Floor with Peter Lorre; (1940)
They Won't Believe Me starring Robert Young and Susan Hayward; (1947)
Don't Bother to Knock starring Richard Widmark, Marilyn Monroe & Anne Bancroft; (1952)
A Double Life starring Ronald Coleman; directed by George Cukor; (1947)
Among the Living starring Albert Dekker & Susan Hayward; (1941)
The Lady Gambles starring Barbara Stanwyck; (1949)
Sorry, Wrong Number starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster; directed by Anatole Litvak; (1948)
Crack-Up starring Pat O'Brien; (1947)
The Woman on the Beach starring Robert Ryan, Joan Bennett & Charles Bickford; directed by Jean Renoir; (1947)
Beware My Lovely starring Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan; (1952)
The Two Mrs. Carrolls starring Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck; (1947)
Crashout starring William Bendix; (1955)
Loophole starring Barry Sullivan & Charles McGraw; (1954)
Blind Alley starring Chester Morris & Ralph Bellamy; (1939)
Secret Beyond the Door starring Michael Redgrave and Joan Bennett; directed by Fritz Lang; (1948)
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry starring George Sanders and Geraldine Fitzgerald; directed by Robert Siodmak; (1945)
Angel Face starring Robert Mitchum & Jean Simmons; directed by Otto Preminger; (1952)
The Hunted starring Preston Foster & Belita; (1948)


There were a number of short films before some of the features. Serena Bramble made another short film. You may recall, she edited Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir which screened at last year's Noir City. This year, they screened her short film San Francisco is the Scene of a Perfect Crime. Eddie Muller has a credit at the end as producer, I believe.


I'll also add that the 2011 Miss Noir City, Angela Rocconi (aka Leslie Bone Rock Girl on 107.7 FM The Bone) was the most polished spokemodel Noir City has had since I have started attending. She was a very accomplished public speaker and knew how to play up her feminine charms for the crowd.

A few more items before I talk about the films. There were fewer on-stage interviews than in prior years. Stranger on the Third Floor co-starred Margaret Tallichet who was married to director William Wyler. Tallichet's daughter (Judy Wyler Sheldon), who is a San Franciso resident and was present at last year's Silent Film Festival, introduced the film.

Alan Rode (pronounced row-dee) who is on the Board of the Film Noir Foundation and runs the Palm Spring Film Noir Festival introduced a few films during the matinee performances.

The crowds were healthy but I thought slightly down from last year.


On to the films...I thought the line-up was a little weak this year although it improved greatly over the last three days of the festival. The theme was "Who's Crazy Now?" and featured villains and victims who suffered from mental instability or at least neuroses which ruined their lives or the lives of others.

The standouts were They Won't Believe Me, The Lady Gambles, Sorry, Wrong Number, Loophole and Angel Face. Still interesting but a half-step behind were The Woman on the Beach, Crashout and Secret Beyond the Door.

The rest of the films had their moments but I was decidedly mild towards them. In fact, I dozed off on a number of films this year, even during matinees. Perhaps, I've seen too many films or too many noirs in particular.

My favorite was The Lady Gambles which featured a bravura performance by Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who discovers she has a gambling problem on her first trip to Las Vegas. Her marriage and life are ruined as she sinks ever deeper to satisfy her gambling addiction. My favorite part is when various men hold the dice to her mouth and ask her to "kiss them for good luck." The blatanly Freudian and so effective. I'm beginning to look for clues in these Golden Age films where the filmmakers try to push the production code. In this case, Stanwyck's character's sexual repression is given release in her wanton gambling.

Ironically, The Lady Gambles was the only "film" screened from a DVD. Czar of Noir Eddie Muller put to a vote whether or not a print of The Lady Gambles should be restored with Film Noir Foundation funds. The vote was unanimously in favor.

A close runner-up was Angel Face which featured a damaged Jean Simmons who hates her stepmother and eventually resorts to murder to rid herself of her. Robert Mitchum plays the chump with more style than anyone else. However, Simmons is absolutely feral as she manipulates Mitchum, Mitchum's girlfriend, her father and everyone else. The frightening part is that she doesn't even really know what she wants but she is willing to kill for it. Again, I detected a hint of the forbidden. I think Simmons' character and her father were having an incestuous relationship based on their conversation during a chess match. Regardless, Simmons strikes pose after pose as she murders or tries to murder. That look alone is classic.

They Won't Believe Me is more memorable for the amorality of the lead character played by Robert Young. Having not one but two extramarital affairs and benefitting from not one but two deaths of women who loved him, Young is positively sociopathic as he fulfills his sex addiction.

Loophole was notable for Charles McGraw chewing up the scenery as the single minded insurance investigator hassling Barry Sullivan, an innocent bank teller accused of stealing $49,900 from his employer. With hints of Les Misérable, Loophole is a thinly veiled criticism of the methods and practices of HUAC. McGraw gets knocked unconscious and doesn't rough anyone up but he is at his most intimidating as man with the single minded pursuit of breaking down Barry Sullivan will so he will slip up and reveal where the money is.

Finally, Sorry, Wrong Number is a classic noir about a bedridden woman who overhears a phone conversation of what turns out to be her own murder. Once again Stanwyck delivers a great performance - ambitious and bitchy college co-ed, domineering wife to Burt Lancaster and frightened invalid. Although Lancaster is solid in his role, his main purpose is to provide a foil for Stanwyck to play off of.

The Woman on the Beach (directed by Jean Renoir) and Secret Beyond the Door (directed by Fritz Lang) was heavy on symbolism and I could benefit from repeat screening of both films. Woman on the Beach was anchored by a tremendous supporting performance by Charles Bickford as a blind (or is he?) artist. Secret Beyond the Door allowed Joan Bennett to show her acting chops by taking a walk on the wild side of her psyche. Death fascinates her and that's a good thing because her new husband (Michael Redgrave) likes to recreate murder scenes...and he is building a recreation of her bedroom.

Crashout is about a bunch of tough guys who break out of prison. William Bendix is the toughest of the tough and leads the bunch to their ultimate doom but not before wreaks havoc on as many people as possible. The film is one-dimensional but depicts hyperstylized sense of masculine malevolence.

Stranger on the Third Floor was notable for early performances by Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook, Jr. It also featured a dream sequence that was better suited to a German Expressionist film but would eventually become cliche.

Of the three Belita films I've seen in the past 18 months, The Hunted is the best. Belita has this noticeable scar on the left side of her face. I wish they would have incorporated it into the plot.

Blind Alley reminded me of a second-rate Hitchcock film but was reasonably interesting. Stars Chester Morris and Ralph Bellamy played their parts satisfactorily enough to keep me awake until the last few minutes.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

2011 German Gems

I made it to the Castro Theater on the Saturday night of German Gems to watch two films.

The Architect starring Josef Bierbichler & Hilde van Mieghem; German with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website
She Deserved It starring Veronika Ferres; directed by Thomas Stiller; German with subtitles; (2008)


Josef Bierbichler (The White Ribbon) stars as Georg Winter, the eponymous architect. He seems grumpy and alcoholic as the film opens. His life seems quite comfortable - well paid architect, nice looking wife, two kids in college, etc. When he receives word that his mother has died, he becomes morose at the thought of returning to the small town he grew up in. His spirits are worsened when his wife and children accompany him.

As they arrive in town, the tension is thick. Georg has unresolved issues towards his late mother and some of the townsfolk. In addition, his wife is the nagging sort, his son is unfocused in his studies and his daughter seems lost in the world. Petty arguments and recriminations amongst the family become the norm until a bombshell is dropped. Georg father a child to one of the townfolk while married to Eva. After that, the family literally goes their separate ways.

It seems that sexual tension was foremost in the director's mind. Everyone seemed to has latent issues...even hinting at incest between Georg and Reh, his daughter and Reh and her brother. A scene that struck me as amazing was set in the bathroom. George, Eva (his wife) and Reh run naked in the German snow. Upon returning to the house, the three of them congregate in the bathroom. Reh takes a shower with an open shower curtain, Eva is nude while drying off with the towel, Georg is shaving and the son comes into urinate. They continue their conversation as if it were quite normal. Maybe my American prudishness is showing but for me, that scenes encapsulates the family and their dysfunction.

Actually, there was another seen which was bizarrely fascinating. Jan, the brother expresses his overall frustration to his sister. She asks if he was to "kick her heels." I thought the line was mis-translated or perhaps a literal translation for some German slang. I was wrong, it was meant literally. That is weird enough but the director framed the shot as if the brother was having sex with his sister from behind, the rhythmic pounding suggesting coitus...until the camera panned down to their feet.

Despite the incestuous overtones and fetishes, I found the film engaging and wondered if such a film is considered odd by German standards. I suspect it would have little chance of any release in the US. There were nice performances by Josef Bierbichler (Georg) and Hilde van Mieghem (Eva).


Prior to She Deserved It, Festival Founder Ingrid Eggers announced that the director Thomas Stiller was not able to attend the screening. However, they had a family counselor in attendance who would speak to audience afterwards. This elicited a few laughs (including myself) but Eggers was dead serious; both in the presence of a therapist and the need of therapy by the audience.

The film, which was a TV movie in Germany, was a heavy-handed but effective tragedy based on a true story. Three teenagers (two girls and one boy) lured a female classmate to a secluded area and beat her to death because she was flirting with one of the girl's boyfriend. That's more than enough to build a film around. There are a number of subplots involving the ringleader, Linda (Liv Lisa Fries). Stiller let (or encouraged) Fries to play the role with an over-the-top fury that it is distracting. Her behavior is explained through the plot but Fries performance tried too hard for its own good. At one point, she and her band of delinquents take a walker away from an onld woman and taunt her. The scene played out very amateurishly.

More bizarre was the acquiescence of her conspirators - her best friend and her boyfriend. It was never explained why they would go along with such an act or even associate with such a dislikeable person such as Linda.

Linda, on the other hand, was a complex character. The dual victim of incest and a bullying and disbelieving mother, Linda finds some solace and tenderness in caring for her mentally retarded brother. Despite all her histrionics, Fries was able to evoke empathy from me towards Linda. Another aspect that Stiller and Fries did right was put Linda in a short haircut which made me think she was a teenage boy when I first saw her. This androgynous look matched up with Linda's rebellious behavior and provided a contrast for later in the film when she is in prison and lets her hair grow out. The vulnerability Fries displays in those scenes almost make up for overreaching performance at other times.

The four actors who played Linda's and Suzanne's (the victim) parents were outstanding in their roles. I believe the four actors were Martin Feifel, Veronica Ferres, Oliver Mommsen and Jule Ronstedt. Ferres and Ronstedt were particularly effective as the mothers of Linda and Suzanne, respectively. Linda's mother is domineering before the murder and defensive afterwards. Suzanne's mother didn't register with me prior to the murder but depression afterwards was deeply moving. The signature moment for me was when she brusquely nudged a puppy dog aside to get something out of the refrigerator. Later she and Linda have a very moving confrontation which exposes Linda's insecurities and the older woman's compassion.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

One Fourth of 2011 is Already Booked Up

The film festival season kicks off tomorrow evening with the opening night of German Gems at the Castro Theater. German Gems is the festival which Ingrid Eggers founded after leaving Berlin and Beyond. This is the second annual German Gems. I missed last year's screenings. The festival runs through January 16 at the Castro and presents encore screenings on January 22 at Point Arena.

The films that interest me based on the program guide are The Architect, She Deserved It on January 15 and Mountain Blood on Janaury 16.


Noir City will be at the Castro from January 21 to 30. In total, they'll screen 24 films. The films I'm looking forward to are Don't Bother to Knock (1952) with Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark, Jean Renoir's The Woman on the Beach (1947) and Otto Preminger's Angel Face (1952) with Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum.


The Mostly British Film Festival runs February 3 to 10 at the Vogue Theater. The festival is long on old school classics such Get Carter (1971), The Ipcress File (1965), Black Narcissus (1947), Gallipoli (1981) and East is East (1999).

Among the films which caught my attention are West is West (2010) which is the opening night film and sequel to East is East, Beneath Hill 60 (2010) and Down Terrace (2009).


Overlapping Mostly British is the San Francisco Independent Film Festival or SF IndieFest at the Roxie.

The most outrageous titles are Nude Nuns With Big Guns and Machete Maidens Unleashed! which is a documentary about Filipino exploitation films from the director of Not Quite Hollywood (which I saw at 2010's Mostly British Film Festival).


On February 12 at the Castro Theater, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present their Winter Event.

The all-day program consists of trio of Chaplin's early short films, L’Argent (1928), an adaptation of the Émile Zola novel and King Vidor's La Bohème (1926) starring Lilian Gish and John Gilbert.


From March 1 to 13, Cinequest screens in San Jose. From March 10 to 20, the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival runs at various locations. If the past is indicative, the festival will screen in San Francisco, San Jose and Berkeley.


On top of all these festivals, the PFA has a series that greatly interests me. It called Suspicion: The Films of Claude Chabrol and Alfred Hitchcock and runs from January 13 to February 25.

A founding member of the French New Wave, Claude Chabrol began, like his contemporaries Truffaut, Godard, and Rohmer, as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema; unlike his more rigorously intellectual colleagues, however, he embraced genre filmmaking, specifically suspense films (“I love murder,” he said). Chabrol’s career as a critic peaked with the 1957 publication (with Rohmer) of a pioneering study of Alfred Hitchcock; he turned to filmmaking a year later, beginning a cinematic career that could arguably be described as a continuing study—and continuation—of Hitchcock.

Like Hitchcock, Chabrol is the consummate craftsman; his films flow with the ease and assurance of someone who understands the power of cinema to manipulate emotion, while simultaneously embracing—and winking at—such power. “I am a farceur,” he once admitted. “You have to avoid taking yourself too seriously.” Unlike Hitchcock, though, Chabrol hits harder, with a steely condemnation of bourgeois values and a weighty moral resonance in his tales of infidelity, suspense, and murder. In a use of genre similar to his other great influence, Fritz Lang, “the stories he chooses become the frameworks for clear-eyed subtle explorations of guilt, innocence, and accountability,” wrote Stephen Holden in the New York Times.

Chabrol passed away in September, aged eighty, having made over sixty films. We present a generous sampling of his work, in conjunction with some of Hitchcock’s finest; two “masters of suspense,” together at last.

The series consists of 20 films. Many of them overlap with Noir City or IndieFest.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Irish Bangers, One-Eyed Fat Men and Nocturnal Tumescence

I wasn't able to get away from work during Christmas so I spent the first week of 2011 on vacation at my father's place in Las Vegas. He seemed particularly eager to see a few films...or maybe he was just more compliant with my desires.

The first three films I saw in 2011 were:

The Fighter starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo; directed by David O. Russell; (2010) - Official Website
True Grit starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon; directed by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen; (2010) - Official Website
Morning Glory starring Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton; (2010) - Official Website


There is not much need to recap The Fighter or True Grit. Both films will likely be nominated for multiple Academy Awards.

Melissa Leo & Christian Bale deliver outstanding performances in The Fighter. Amy Adams and Mark Wahlberg are solid; Wahlberg always delivers a solid performance. Looking at her credits, I realize I've only seen one Amy Adams film - Psycho Beach Party (2000) in which she received 11th billing. As I recall, I mild about Psycho Beach Party which was a comedy.

Watching The Fighter, I was impressed with an actor who played Micky Ward's (Wahlberg) mentor and trainer who had a day job as a cop. He had a small role but he made the most of it. He looked like an Irish American cop that would spend time in boxing gym mentoring troubled youth. He wasn't a big, beefy guy who lay a beatdown on you but a small, middle-aged, roly-poly type that used earnest talk and a big heart to get through to you. As I watched the credits, I saw that the actor's name is Mickey O'Keefe. But wait, Mickey O'Keefe was also the name of the character. It turns out that Mickey O'Keefe played himself in the film and he served the same role for the real Micky Ward.

Character actor Jack McGee (Rescue Me & Crash) also deliverd a strong performance as Micky Ward's father. Of course, much has been written about the 24 actresses who play Micky Ward's sisters and I have to agree that their presence added to the film.

I enjoyed True Grit quite a bit but I have to admit that I was a fan of the original. Furthermore, I'm not a John Wayne hater. I don't think he was skilled actor but within his limited range, he delivered effective performances. What I liked about the original True Grit was that it was outside of Wayne's usual reperatory.

The 2010 version of True Grit had strong performances all around and stuck closer to the original novel by Charles Portis. The plot between the two films were largely the same but the Coen brothers used more Portis' dialogue which I have seen classifed as "hillbilly Shakespeare." It didn't distract me and I quickly grew to appreciate it. However, I caught portions of Portis' original dialogue in the 1969 version of True Grit.

If the question is which version I prefer, I'd be hard pressed to make a choice. A side-by-side comparison of the actors in their roles shows how close it is. My preferred performance is underlined.

Rooster Cogburn - John Wayne (1969) or Jeff Bridges (2010)
La Boeuf - Glen Campbell (1969) or Matt Damon (2010)
Mattie Ross - Kim Darby (1969) or Hailee Steinfeld (2010)
Ned Pepper - Robert Duvall (1969) or Barry Pepper (2010)

The 1969 version had more memorable actors in supporting roles including Dennis Hopper and the scene-stealing Strother Martin.


Morning Glory is a film that never interested me enough to get to the theater to see it. It played at the Balboa for a few weeks but I passed on it.

I may have mentioned this before but Las Vegas still has a dollar theater. The Regency Tropicana Cinemas shows second run films. The general admission price is $1.50 and on Tuesdays, they lower it to $1.00. I wonder how a theater can survive with those prices in 2011. Even more incredible, the theater closed for business and reopened with this pricing structure.

Anyway, Morning Glory was playing there. I recall the Balboa's Gary Meyer lamenting the box office fate of Morning Glory as he announced he was contemplating changes in policy at the Balboa to increase attendance.

On more than one occasion, I've heard Meyer state the discount card price of $6.50 per admission was the cheapest in San Francisco. The Balboa has subsequently raised the price of the discount card so it averages out to $7.50 per admission. After enjoying Morning Glory, I felt a tinge of guilt as I thought I saw this film solely based on Meyer's recommendation. However, $1.50 beats $6.50 any day of the week so I can at least claim it was in my economic interest to see the film in Las Vegas.

The other piece of information I learned from Meyer's post was that he is not a fan of the title Morning Glory. Isn't that a flower? Meyer tipped us off that Roger Michell, the director of Morning Glory insisted on the title because it was British slang for nocturnal penile tumescence. Michell's next project is tentativley titled The Red Cotton Pony.

Now that I've spent five paragraphs setting up the film, I'll dispense with the plot summary. Rachel McAdams was adorable as the perky, hyper and plucky producer of a network morning news show. I wish she would have dialed down a tad but there's not much to complain. Harrison Ford nails his role as a grumpy "serious" newsman forced to do fluff (or at least work with fluff) in the mornings. The only complaint I have is that he delivered all his lines in a strange, soft, monotonic growl which became tedious. Diane Keaton rounds out the cast with a loopy performance as the put-upon and insecure co-host of the morning news show.

One of the criticisms I have read about Morning Glory was that it was too superficial. It didn't address any serious issue like previous news comedies such as Network or Broadcast News. The main point of contention in Morning Glory is "news vs. entertainment." As McAdams says to Ford in the film, "We already fought that battle and your side [news] lost." One look at your television schedule should confirm the truth in McAdams' statement.

Morning Glory is a lightweight comedy and a good one at that...and there is nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

2010 By the Numbers & A Reprieve for the Viz

When I count up all the films I see in a year, I feel like a shopaholic confronted with his or her credit card bill.

I saw 382 "films" on a theater screen in 2010. For these purposes, a film is not just a feature length film but also includes programs (typically from film festivals) which consist of mutlitple short films. If it was categorized as a single program in a festival guide, it counts as one film entry on my list. Conversely, I saw several programs which consisted of a short film and a feature length film. For my counting purposes, those are counted a single film entry.


The top 10 venues in which I saw films in 2010 were:

1) Roxie Theater (97 films) - primarily the result of four film festival - San Francisco Indiefest, I Still Wake Up Dreaming, Another Hole in the Head and Not Necessarily Noir. The number includes both the Big Roxie and Little Roxie.

2) Pacific Film Archive (71 films) - more than half of my visits were for the Kurosawa series, Italian Neorealism series and the Asian American Film Festival.

3) Castro Theater (62 films) - I saw 30 films between Noir City 8 and the 2010 Silent Film Festival.

4) Viz Cinema (41 films) - I saw 18 films from various Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa series and 9 films at Another Hole in the Head.

5) Landmark Theaters (17 films) - nine films at the Lumiere, four at the Embarcadero, three at the Opera Plaza, one at the Bridge and zero at the Clay.

6) 4 Star (16 films) - I saw seven films as part of the Chinese American Film Festival. Interestingly, I did not watch any films at the Presidio or Marina, the other theaters affiliated with Lee Neighborhood Theaters.

7) Sundance Kabuki Cinemas (15 films) - All 15 films were part of the 2010 SF International Film Festival.

8) Red Vic (10 films)

9) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Stanford Theater (9 films each)

In 11th place was the Balboa Theater (6 films). I also watched seven films at various theaters in the Las Vegas area where my father has retired.


On 250 days in 2010, I saw at least one film.

My maximum was four films during a single day. I did that four times in 2010. On Sunday, February 14 (which was the day before Presidents Day), I saw a Frank Capra film at the PFA and then went to see three films at the Roxie as part of IndieFest.

During the Silent Film Festival, I saw four films at the Castro Theater on Saturday, July 17 and another four on Sunday, July 18. A week later on July 25, I saw two films at the Castro as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and two films at the Viz as part of Another Hole in the Head.

On 21 days, I saw three films. On 78 days, I saw two films. On 147 days, I saw one film.


In 2010, I spent $2,777.77 for admission to the 382 films. That averages out to $7.27 per film. I paid for three films which I was not able to attend due to traffic, last minute work obligations and illness, respectively. That would have lowered the average to $7.21.

That compares to $2,390.76 to see 348 films in 2009 which averages to $6.87 per film. I'm not sure why the average increased by over 5% in 2010. I saw more films at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2010. That doesn't explain it all though. I also bought a festival pass to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2010 which I had not done in the past. I saw more films and lowered the average cost in 2010 vs 2009 but the average cost of the SF Silent Film Festival was over $12 per film so that raised the total average price.


After writing that Viz Cinema is closing, I read that "VIZ Cinema won't cease its operation. Just programming policy will be changed." That is from a tweet sent by Viz Cinema and directed to Brian Darr who writes Hell On Frisco Bay.

That sounds a little ominous. "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." Until confronted with evidence to the contrary, I'll take this as great news. I hope the programming policy will continue to accept the discount tickets I have at home.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Carl Theodore Dreyer

PFA had a program featuring the works of celebrated Danish director Carl Theodore Dreyer. The retrospective ran from November 5 to December 12. The centerpiece was The Passion of Joan of Arc at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. All the other films in the series screened at the PFA in Berkeley.

I ended up only seeing three films in the Dreyer series. I wanted to see more films from the series but the Chinese American Film Festival and Third I conflicted with several of the screening.

Day of Wrath; directed by Dreyer; Danish with subtitles; (1943)
Two People; directed by Dreyer; Swedish with subtitles; (1944/45)
The Passion of Joan of Arc starring Maria Falconetti; directed by Dreyer; silent with intertitles; with live accompaniment; (1928)

Two People was preceded by a 12 minute short film called They Caught the Ferry (1948). They Caught the Ferry was directed by Dreyer and was in Danish with subtitles. It was about a young couple on motorcycle who race through the countryside at speeds which ultimately too fast for their safety.


The first thing I notice when reading the synopsis of Day of Wrath is that its release date (1943) falls within the period that Denmark was occupied by the Nazis. A little bit of research reveals the Danes had a relatively cooperative relationship with the Nazis until 1943 when acts of sabotage increased and Germany dissolved the Danish government. At that point, many Danish Jews and naval officers took refuge in neutral Sweden. Coincdentally, that's where Dreyer's Two People was filmed in 1944. There is probably an interesting story to his career during WWII.


Day of Wrath covers familiar territory. An older widower marries a younger woman. The man's adult son arrives at their house for a visit. His wife and son proceed to become "acquainted." I've seen that plot adapted to Westerns, noirs and now a literal witchhunt film. There are a few twists to the plot such as the husband being witchhunter who spared his wife's mother at trial to bolster his chances to gain her hand in marriage. Day of Wrath balances the melodramatic aspects of the film with the political. The atmosphere of fear, repression and mass anxiety was as relevant in 1623 Denmark as 1943 Denmark. Instead being accused of being a witch, one was accussed of harboring Jews or collaborating with the enemy.

I enjoyed Day of Wrath. It was a little overwrought at times. I couldn't help but think that Dreyer had more masterfully covered some of this same material in The Passion of Joan of Arc.


Two People was an interesting experiment although a failed one. Dreyer had the idea of making a film using only two actors. In this case, the two people are a husband and wife; there is also an affair, a missing glove, poison, etc. The film feels like a Agathie Christy story on stage due to the limited sets (one set location, I believe). More importantly, Dreyer could not get the two actors he wanted for the roles. According to the PFA notes, Two People ran for five days before it was withdrawn from theaters, and Dreyer refused to let it be screened during his lifetime; it remains one of the director’s rarest works. Other sources use the term "disown" when referring to Dreyer and Two People.

I think the key was in the casting or lack thereof. Actors Georg Rydeberg and Wanda Rothgarth couldn't keep me interested in the story for the modest runtime of 74 minutes. In short order, I became apathetic to the mystery being presented. Although the wooden performances didn't help, I believe the plot was enough to support even 74 minutes on screen. Perhaps that's why Dreyer disowned the film and it is so rarely screened.


With this entry I have completed documenting all the films I've seen in 2010.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Days of Glory: Revisiting Italian Neorealism

From early October to mid-December, the PFA presented Days of Glory: Revisiting Italian Neorealism.

Born out of the ruins of World War II, the neorealist movement’s first rallying cry came from screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, who called for a new kind of Italian film, one with no need for plots (which attempted to impose “order” on an already lived-in reality) or professional actors. Instead, it would take to the streets and hills to document the true lives, sorrows, and pleasures of the Italian people. Filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Alberto Lattuada, Giuseppe de Santis, and others would soon act on his words, that “the cinema...should accept, unconditionally, what is contemporary. Today, today, today.”

The 19 films series was tempting for me. The only Italian Neorealist film that I was aware of seeing was Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1948) which was part of the program. The series also included Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy (1953). I saw that film as part of a Ingrid Bergman series last year.

Excluding the two films I had already watched, I saw 15 of 17 "new" films in the program. The two films I missed Sunday in August and Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema.

Days of Glory: Revisiting Italian Neorealism

Teresa Venerdi with Anna Magnani; directed by Vittorio De Sica; Italian with subtitles; (1941)
Paisan; directed by Roberto Rossellini; Italian with subtitles; (1946)
Shoeshine; directed by Vittorio De Sica; Italian with subtitles; (1946)
Days of Glory; documentary; directed by Luchino Visconti (one segment); Italian with subtitles; (1945)
Under the Sun of Rome with Francesco Goslisano; directed by Renato Castellani; Italian with subtitles; (1947)
Bellissima starring Anna Magnani; directed by Luchino Visconti; Italian with subtitles; (1953)
Miracle in Milan starring Francesco Goslisano; directed by Vittorio De Sica; Italian with subtitles; (1951)
The Chronicle of Poor Lovers with Marcello Mastroianni; directed by Carlo Lizzani; Italian with subtitles; (1954)
Ossessione; directed by Luchino Visconti; Italian with subtitles; (1943)
Without Pity; directed by Alberto Lattuada; Italian with subtitles; (1948)
The Overcoat starring Renato Rascel; directed by Alberto Lattuada; Italian with subtitles; (1952)
Bitter Rice starring Vittorio Gassman; directed by Giuseppe De Santis; Italian with subtitles; (1949)
Il Grido; directed by Michelangelo Antonioni; Italian with subtitles; (1957)
Accattone; directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini; Italian with subtitles; (1961)
Bandits of Orgosolo; directed by Vittorio De Seta; Italian with subtitles; (1961)


The series encompassed a wide range of films spanning 20 years. I considered Italian Neorealism to have commenced with the end of WWII and to have ended as the Marshall Plan lifted the country and economy from ruins. By the mid-1950s, Italy was considered a prime destination for the rich and famous to play. In my mind, Italian Neorealism is wedded to the poverty and despair of the post WWII environment. The films in the series were made before the war and into the early 1960s. There were comedies, adapted James M. Cain potboilers and whimsical tales interspersed with the "true lives, sorrows, and pleasures of the Italian people."

My favorite films from the series were Bandits of Orgosolo, Accattone, Il Grido and The Overcoat.

Bandits of Orgosolo which was the final film in the series may have been my favorite. Set in the remote Sicilian countryside, Bandits of Orgosolo tells the story of a shepherd, Michele (Michele Cossu). Cossu was not professional actors. Some bandits (who stole pigs) take refuge in his camp. Michele confronts them but being outnumbered and not wanting to make trouble with them, he has little choice but to let them stay. When the Carabinieri show up, the bandits engage them in a gunfight and Michelle runs away to avoid trouble.

Later, Michelle discovers he is a wanted man as the Carabinieri suspect him of being associated with the bandits. Through an intermediary, he hires a lawyer to defend himself. In the meantime, Michelle and his kid brother move the flock to a more remote region to avoid detection by the Carabinieri. Unfamiliar with their surrounding, the brothers allow the sheep to drink from poisoned water sources which eventually kill the sheep. With his livelihood destroyed, Michelle returns to his town to discover that the lawyer was unsuccessful and he is still a wanted man. Not only that but the lawyer wants payment for his effort. Seeing no other solution, Michelle ventures back into the wildernesss to rob another shepherd of his flock.

Ultimately, the cycle repeats as Michelle becomes like the bandits he initially deplored; that's the message of the film. It's almost as if Michelle's fate was unavoidable. Director Vittorio De Seta (not de Sica) uses a lean and detached approach to Michelle which gives the film a documentary feel. This allows for an unbiased narrative that makes Michelle's plight seem more poignant.


The Overcoat was based on the oft-adapted Nikolai Gogol short story. Alberto Lattuada's 1952 version is an absurdist comedy about Carmine de Carmine, a government bureaucrat whose threadbare overcoat is the bane of his existence one cold winter. The plot follows Gogol's story closely so only the briefest of summaries is needed. De Carmine (played by Bruno Kirby look alike Renato Rascel) buys a new luxurious overcoat which raises his profile amongst his friends and the mayor of his town. When de Carmine's overcoat is stolen, his self-confidence is also stolen. Thus begins his descent into madness and ultimately death for de Carmine.

The beauty of this version of The Overcoat is Rascel performance as de Carmine. Compared to Chaplin's Little Tramp, Rascel's de Carmine brings laughs and empathy. At times you are laughing at him and at other times, you are crying for him. The story is classic but Rascel's performance elevates the film to something special.


Accattone explores the world of pimps and whores. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini cast Franco Citti in his first role. Citti would collaborate with Pasolini many times in his career as well as play Calo in The Godfather.

In Accattone, Citti is a pimp whose downfall begins when his prostitute is arrested and he attempts to lure another young woman "into the life." Foreseeing his own death, Accattone journeys on his self-fulfilling prophecy. The pimp is never quite likeable or despicable and Pasolini plays it down the middle. Pasonlini shows the grinding poverty of Accattone's existence but never lapses into judgment. Accattone's gritty and grimy realism combined with its sordid lead character (and Citti's performance) put it firmly in the neorealist camp. A musical score by Bach and some moments of lyricism as Accattone dreams of his own death elevate the film to what some have called "second neorealism."


I could write about all the films but I'm already a month behind...and that is just from the end of the two and a half month series.

Teresa Venerdi, Days of Glory and Miracle in Milan were among my least favorites of the series.

Overall, the series was impressive and I'm glad I was able to see so many films from the retrospective.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer (The Novel and the Upcoming Film)

While watching a film recently, I saw a preview of The Lincoln Lawyer starring Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei and Ryan Phillippe. The previews looked ok but I thought it was a movie that could be hit or miss. It appeared to be a film where a criminal lawyer gets involved with a case that turns deadly. He's called the "Lincoln Lawyer" because instead of an office, he does all his business out of a back seat of Lincoln Town Car. He's always driving (or being driven) around Los Angeles to go to court or meet with clients and prosecutors.

The next day, I was at the library and was perusing the shelves. I was just killing time, not looking for any title in particular. I saw The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly. Remembering the film trailer, I grabbed the paperback (technically a trade paperback) and started reading. Before I knew it, I had read the first eight chapters. I checked the book out. The next evening, I read the final 39 chapters or 327 pages over a five hour period.

The Lincoln Lawyer is less about a murder or the lawyer being menaced and more about how a cynical lawyer copes with his conscience and maneuvers within the criminal justice system. The novel includes a lot of "inside baseball" scenes from the legal world. I found the novel fascinating; it was an outstanding courtroom thriller. I thought the threats against the lawyer detracted from the story.

As I was reading Connnelly's website, I realized he is the author of the Hieronymus Bosch mystery novel series. I've never read a Harry Bosch novel but the works are famous enough that I've heard of them like Kinsey Millhone or Easy Rawlins. Connelly tied the The Lincoln Lawyer to the Hieronymus Bosch universe. The protagonist, Mickey Haller, is the step-brother of Harry Bosch and in later novels, they make joint appearances.

Now that I have fallen in love with the book, I can't wait for Hollywood to screw up the film. In addition to the aforementioned "big three", John Leguizamo, Josh Lucas, William H. Macy, Bryan Cranston, Frances Fisher and Michael Peña have supporting roles. The cast looks top notch except McConaughey whom I don't recall enjoying in a film since Lone Star (1996). The Lincoln Lawyer will sink or swim depending on McConaughey portrayal of the character. I hope he's up to the task.

The Lincoln Lawyer is scheduled to be released on March 18.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Flight of the Red Balloon

I saw a film at the Phyllis Wattis Theater in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The MOMA is currently having an exhibit called How Wine Became Modern. Part of the exhibit included a two-part film program called Red and White; as in red and white wine.

The first part of Red and White featured two Albert Lamorisse films - Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon) 1957, 34 minutes and Crin Blanc (White Mane), 1953, 40 minutes. I missed the films that evening. I was able to watch the second part of the program.

Le voyage du ballon rouge (Flight of the Red Balloon) starring Juliette Binoche; directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien; French and Mandarin with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website

I don't go to MOMA as often as I should. I will sometime stop in during my lunch hour. The last exhibit I saw was Calder to Warhol. The last film I watched at MOMA was Russian Ark in January. It was fitting that I bookend 2010 with film trips to MOMA. The film programming at MOMA is, generally, not my cup of tea.

However, the opportunity to see the most recent feature-length film by Hou Hsiao-hsien was enticing. The crowd was sparse although that may have been due to the calendar. The week between Christmas and New Years is a strange time in San Francisco. The commute traffic is non-existent and the Financial District looks like a ghost town. This true for many large cities. I always wonder what these "missing" people. Are there small towns across the USA with horrendous crowds of visiting expatriates from metropolitan areas? Maybe the streets in the suburbs are clogged with people who stay home from work and the City.

Getting back to the film, Le voyage du ballon rouge is Hou's homage to Lamorisse's Le ballon rouge. I recall seeing, at least parts of, Le ballon rouge as a child but cannot remember it well. I wish I could have stopped by to see it at the MOMA screening to provide some background for Le voyage du ballon rouge.

Le voyage du ballon rouge follows the harried life of Juliette Binoche who is running a theater company that performs with puppets. She also is having trouble with one of her tenants at the apartment building she owns and is also trying to get her oldest daughter to return to Paris from Brussells. To help her, she hires Song, a Chinese film student studying in Paris, to be her son's nanny. Although Binoche and a number of characters appear, the story revolves around Song and the boy, Simon...and a curious red balloon that shows up everywhere they go although they barely acknowledge it. Song makes reference to Le ballon rouge so I wonder how the boy in that film compares to Simon.

Anyway the film seems to have two axes - the serene life of Song, Simon and the balloon as they stroll through Paris and the busy, slightly irritated life of Suzanne (Binoche) that Song & Suzanne (but not the balloon) are drawn into. The scene that clearly defines the duality is when a blind piano tuner stops by. Song is busy in the kitchen, Simon is reading or playing a game on the living room floor and the tuner is striking notes softly. Then Binoche arrives with her angry tenant in tow. They argue loudly at the door before Binoche slams the door on him. Then she has an argument with her daughter over the phone.

The film has a "slice of life" quality. It's as if the audience is catching a normal period in the lives of the people invovled. I began to believe the balloon is a figment of Simon's imagination or a prop in the amateur movie that Song is making featuring Simon and the balloon as opposed to some inexplicable but sentient being. Eventually, it doesn't matter. The balloon is a plot device that carries extra importance because the director is Hou Hsiao-hsien and the film is paying tribute to Le ballon rouge. The story could have been told without the balloon. It added a visual cue that could be interpreted a few ways.

Ignoring the references to the Lamorisse film, I enjoyed Le voyage du ballon rouge on its own merits and was impressed by how Hou's Taiwanese New Wave aesthetic translated to a contemporary Paris. You can't go wrong praising a Hou Hsiao-hsien film so I'll echo the chorus but withhold full praise. I didn't think this was one of Hou's strongeest films. Chronicling a bourgeois French family doesn't seem as dramatic as the effect of Kuomintang attrocities on a Taiwanese family.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Sir Arne's Treasure

I went to the San Francisco Film Society's screening of Sir Arne's Treasure at the Castro Theater.

Sir Arne's Treasure; directed by Mauritz Stiller; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by The Mountain Goats; (1919)

Sir Arne's Treasure was part of a silent film series which SFFS has sponsored for the past few years. They present silent films with commissioned, live scores by contemporary musicians. I saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Stephin Merritt and The Lost World with Dengue Fever. The results have been modest. I thought the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea performance was horrible and Dengue Fever's score for Lost World was interesting but not appropriate for the film.

John Darnielle who has performed solo as The Mountain Goats was the lead vocalist that night. He performed with Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster. I can't say the music was remarkable but it was the most befitting of the films I've seen in the series.

In this case, I was a little disappointed in the film. The story involves three Scottish mercenaries in Sweden. They escape from prison and nearly starve to death in the tundra. Driven mad by hunger & isolation, the commit barbarous act including robbery & murder. The sea gods seem to be displeased because the harbor is iced in thus stopping their escape by sea. It's not until the Scotsmen receive their punishment that the sea ice breaks apart.

The plot was melodramatic; too much so for my taste. However, the film was impressive for 1919. It appears that many of the exterior scenes were actually filmed in wintertime Sweden. There are some impressive visual feats such as a horse falling through cracked ice on a lake, a conflagration at a castle and a large but solemn funeral procession over an iced inlet.

Judged within its historical context, Sir Arne's Treasure was a groundbreaking epic. However, at 91 years of age, its difficult for me to view this film as anything but a time capsule of filmmaking.

Direct Mauritz Stiller would go on to make a Czech silent film called Erotikon (1929) which I saw at the 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. That was a much different film about a couple illicit affair and its aftermath.


The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has announced the program for its Winter Event on February 12 at the Castro Theater.

The program begins with It’s Mutual: Charlie Chaplin Shorts, three of Chaplin's early two-reelers - The Pawn Shop (1916), The Rink (1916) and The Adventurer (1917). That is followed by L’Argent (1928), an adaptation of the Émile Zola novel. The final film of the day is King Vidor's La Bohème (1926) starring Lilian Gish and John Gilbert.

Live accompaniment will be provided by Donald Sosin and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (and perhaps a third accompanist for La Bohème).

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Modus Operandi and Boxing Gym

The Roxie Theater has been programming some interesting stuff since new ownership took over. They still screen some second run films like The Social Network but they also have steady offering of the artiest of art house films such as Hadewijch and some old foreign films.

I caught two films there in December.

Modus Operandi with Danny Trejo; directed by Frankie Latina; (2010) - Official Website
Boxing Gym; docuemntary; directed Frederick Wiseman; (2010) - Official Website


I had targetted one of the two 11 PM screenings of Modus Operandi since I first saw it on the Roxie calendar. The synopsis was too much to pass up. It would either be glorious or incomprehensible...or both.

Two briefcases are stolen from a Presidential candidate, setting off a deadly series of double-crosses and betrayls in Frankie Latina's totally awesome, totally authentic blast of exploitation. Lovingly filmed in Milwaukee, Wisconcin [sic] and Tokyo, Japan on Super 8 over the course of four years, Modus Operandi has all you could ask for in a movie: murder, beautiful ladies, stylish cinematography, suave spies and Danny Trejo. “Latina is paying tribute to the ’70s here, but in a bizarre, formalist way: One scene might play like a retro spy spoof, the next like a British gangster flick, another like an experimental Warhol piece, and yet another like Italian neorealism ... It’s never boring, as Latina throws enough random nudity and hilariously odd scenic juxtapositions at the audience to keep them amused..” - LA Weekly

I can't even begin to describe the film because I still don't understand it. There was a lot of gratuitous nudity (a surprisingly large amount was male) and violence and smidgen of Danny Trejo dressed like Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island. Who knew that the CIA Director conducted business from Superfly's apartment?

The plot involved two stolen briefcases. One of them contained VHS tapes of snuff films involving a candidate for the US Presidency. I can't remember what the other one's not important. A bunch people go around killing each other for the briefcases or information regarding the briefcases. I couldn't keep track of the sides and each character was so poorly developed or killed so quickly that the characters were only distinguishable by their costumes - there was a cowboy, a sexy black woman, a Japanese dominatrix/torturer, etc.

Anyway, the film was just didn't hold my attention. I think director Frankie Latina was trying too hard spoof other movies and turn the plot twist dial to 11 that he forgot to write a plot for the film. If this film took four years to make, I wish he would have stopped at two.


I had no desire to see Boxing Gym by acclaimed documentary director Frederick Wiseman. I previously watched (at the Roxie), Wiseman's previous film, La danse - Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris. At over two and a half hours, I found La danse in need of editing and was not fan of Wiseman's laissez-faire attitude towards crafting a narrative. I was going to skip Boxing Gym because I figured it would be more of the same.

Then PG&E intervened. I arrived home one night to find there was a power outage. I decided to try potluck at the nearest movie theater which is one I don't frequent much because parking is a hassle and it's a Century Theater with a bunch of films I don't want to see. Alas, that theater was affected by the outage as well. So I drove to a BART station with no particular destination in mind. I realized that my first opportunity to grab a bite to eat and watch a film was at 16th Street Station and the Roxie. So it came to pass that I had a falafel and watched Boxing Gym.

Boxing Gym is set at Lord's Gym in Austin. The gym was founded by former professional boxer Richard Lord who reminded me of boxing trainer Freddy Roach. In Boxing Gym, Wiseman once again eschews a cogent narrative and lets Lord and his boxers guide the film. Boxers may not be the right term because many of the peole at his gym appear to be there for exercise. One mother explicitly forbids sparring for her son due to his epilepsy and Lord immediately agrees.

The audience is treated to numerous scenes of people (a suprising number of females with infants in car seats) shadow boxing, hitting the speed bag, striking a punching mitt or swinging a sledgehammer against a tire. Through this repition, we see that everyone trains the same way and "everyone" is a pretty diverse set of people - young men, older men, women, Hispanics, whites, boys and teenagers, a few professionals, etc. Based on the film synopsis, this melting pot environment is what interested Wiseman.

At 90 minutes, Boxing Gym hasn't much time to veer off and explore various subplots. That was plus for me. Unlike La danse where I lost interest for long stretches of time, Boxing Gym kept me engaged. It still lacked the payoff punch but the overall effect of the film on me was to stimulate a slight interest in Lord's Gym, its members and Richard Lord.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Final Two at the Viz?

Warned by Brian Darr's tweets that Viz Cinema was closing at the end of January, I took an afternoon off from work to catch a double feature.

Ping Pong starring Yosuke Kubozuka and Arata; Japanese with subtitles; (2002) - Official Website
The Lower Depths starring Toshirô Mifune and Isuzu Yamada; directed by Akira Kurosawa; (1957)


I saw Ping Pong on the Viz program guide for December but it didn't really interest me. It's hard to take a film about table tennis seriously. At the 2008 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, I saw Ping Pong Playa which I enjoyed. I didn't really feel like taking time off from work (the only screening of Ping Pong was at 1:30 PM on a Wednesday) to see a film about table tennis.

The Viz is closing, I have admission passes that may not be worth anything soon, work was slow and I wanted to see The Lower Depths which screened after Ping Pong. All that combined was enough to get me over there and I'm glad I did.

Ping Pong exceeded my expectations. There were certainly silly scenes but in general, the film played it straight. At the heart of the film are four, high school, table tennis players whose demeanors and motivations are very. Peco is a braggart and plays for personal glory. His friend Smile is introverted and initially doesn't give his full effort to ping pong for fear of demoralizing the opponent he could otherwise beat. Kong is a Chinese ringer who is brought to Japan because he did not make the Chinese National Team. Dragon is intense, shaved head (and eyebrows) competitor who lives for the competition.

The four of them have their own triumphs and failures but the main focus is on the relationship between Peco & Smile. As Peco's fortunes fall, he quits ping pong and that gives Smile the freedom to be the best player he can be. This must sound terriby silly when applied to ping pong but the film is able to pull it off with aplomb.

The film was engaging and achieved more than it probably should have. It was based on a popular manga so there was lots of source material to draw from. Shidô Nakamura as the intense Dragon stood out. Arata (Smile) recently appeared in Hirokazu Koreeda's Air Doll.


The Lower Depths is one of the few Kurosawa films I had not seen. Based on a Maxim Gorky play, The Lower Depths is a bleak examination of the humanity at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. The film starts with two women dumping garbage into a pit. Their garbage pit is actually a shanty town for whores, thieves, drunks and gamblers with a slumlord and his shrewish wife (Isuzu Yamada). Toshirô Mifune plays the de facto leader of the group - a thief who is cuckolding his landlord. However, he has eyes for his lover's younger sister and this sets about the tragedy which ensues.

Another key character in the plot is Kahie (Bokuzen Hidari) an old drifter who spends the winter with the group. His stories and genial manner may be masking something more because at the end, he disappears at a key juncture.

Like many Russian works, The Lower Depths meanders with several subplots. Most of the film takes place in the hovel where the tennants live which amounts to bunks with a curtain for privacy. All the characters are self-deluded and claim to be or used to be more than they are now. The grinding poverty and self-deceit is difficult for me to stomach. One woman dies of tuberculosis but not after complaining to Kahie about her selfish husband. Her quiet complaints reminded me a little my own mother and struck an emotional chord with me.

Eventually, the relentlessly bleak nature of the character's lives becomes numbing and grotesque. The film is powerful but in an accretive way that left me exhausted when I left. I thought the film was one of Kurosawa's middling efforts. It seemed to be a bit of a vanity project for Kurosawa coming during the peak period of his commercial success. The Lower Depth did not seem like a Kurosawa film which is strange for one of the preeminent auteurs in cinema history.


By my count, I have now seen all the films directed by Kurosawa except Dreams (1990) and the little seen Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946) which Kurosawa disowned and is nearly always excluded from his canon. All the Kurosawa films I've seen have been on the movie screen except Dersu Uzala (1975).

Monday, January 3, 2011

Hell On Frisco Bay Delivers Bad News, Introduces Me To Socialism and Promotes a DVD Screening of Eisenstein

I don't read other people's blogs too much. I am an incorrigible list keeper. This blog is really a forum for me to write some subjective judgments to complement the list of films I watch. However, I find other blogs useful for my cinematic quests.

Frequently, I read Jason Wiener's blog during a film festival. He sees so many films at each festival that I can use his film capsules as guideposts for films I want to watch at the same festival. Whereas Jason strives to see as many films as possible at the festivals, I just want to see enough to make my festival pass cost-effective and preferably to see as few clunkers as possible.

I also read Brian Darr's blog which is less about the films he sees and more about the film festival circuit and rep house programs in the Bay Area. Frequently, his blog will inform me of a program I was not aware of or remind me of a screening that I had forgotten about. Unfortunately, he updates his blog infrequently. Looking at 2010, he only posted 20 times after a January flurry of guest "Best of 2009" posts. There isn't too much new information on his blog per se.

I notice he has a Twitter feed on the sidebar of his blog. I don't have a Twitter account but I can follow the link on his blog to an archive of his Tweets. Every few days, I'll scan his tweets. Frequently, he is having a conversation with someone(s) and I'm only seeing half the conversation. That makes it easy to mentally filter out what I'm interested in; which are screenings that look interesting.

So it was with great sadness that I read in his Tweets that Viz Cinema is closing by February. First, I really enjoy the programming there and will miss it. Second, I have a number discount passes that I won't be able to use. I wonder if they will give refunds.

In his latest blog post, Darr wrote "Thus, it was with sadness but no surprise that I reacted to news from a ticketseller that the venue would be ceasing daily operations early next year [2011]." As I read that, I noted his use of the term "daily operations" as though the cinema may remain open for various special events. It seems strange they would close for 10 days of "maintenance" in January to reopen for the final week and a half of January. Why perform maintenance on a facility that is closing?

I'm not into reading tea leaves. I'll miss Viz. I think it is possible I have seen more films at Viz than anyone else. I'll have to go back and count the screenings I've seen there. I seem to recall writing on this blog that I was not optimistic that a Japanese-only film theater could survive in present day San Francisco but I can't find that post (if it ever existed).

I will say that in hindsight, Viz's demise was guaranteed when they switched programming to show more classics of Japanese cinema - Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, various 50 to 60 year old samurai films. These are the films I like but it was not in step with the J-Pop culture that is being promoted throughout the building. Viz Cinema occupies the basement of a three or four story building dedicated to J-Pop CDs, DVDs, clothes and other merchandise. Screening Sanshō the Bailiff (1954) won't bring in their target demographics who seem to be into Sailor Moon, Lolita dresses and Suicide Girls.

So as Viz started expanding their programming to bring in the PFA/festival crowds, they were moving away from their original mission which was to promote J-Pop through new movies. Being a single screen theater and programming films which appealed to a limited and largely older audience is not a recipe for success for a movie theater in 2010.

C'est la vie, Viz Cinema. I'll miss you and tried my best to support you.


On the day I read the bitter news about Viz, I also read this tweet from Darr.

RT @flavorpill_sf Sergei Einsenstein's 1925 classic "The Battleship Potemkin" screens tonight at New Valencia Hall

It contained a TinyURL link to Flavor Pill, an on-line bulletin board for local events.

As I read that Tweet, I recalled missing a screening of The Battleship Potemkin a year or two ago. I was excited to see the film.

As you read Darr's Tweet or the Flavor Pill page, there is no mention of the sponsoring organization. It seemed strange to me that New Valencia Hall was not on Valencia Street or in the Mission District but rather on Larkin Street near the Tenderloin. The name is "New Valencia" so maybe they relocated to Larkin but decided to keep the Valencia name. I googled "New Valencia Hall" but didn't find much.

Feeling adventurous, I decided to slum it in the Tenderloin on a rainy Tuesday night. When I arrived at 625 Larkin, the building looked more like an apartment building. There was a locked gated entrance and you had to enter a code to get buzzed up. They had a directory of tennants with their codes but I didn't see anything that looked like it was associated with a film screening. I buzzed a few numbers until someone answered. I identified myself as being there for the screening of The Battleship Potemkin and I was buzzed up to the second floor.

As I entered the room I was directed to, my eyes locked in on a large CRT television on a wheeled, multi-shelved, platform which reminded me of my high school A/V club. Immediately I became concerned that they were screening a DVD of The Battleship Potemkin; I could not see a film projector in the room.

As I considered whether or not leave, my eyes wandered to the bookcase against the near wall which had nothing but socialist and communist titles. In an instant, I recalled reading in the early 1990s about a bookstore in the Mission which claimed to have largest selection of Communist published works in the world. I wondered if this was the remmants of that bookstore.

While pondering what I had stumbled upon, a very friendly lady approached me. After introducing ourselves, she seemed very curious as to how I heard about the screening. I dropped the dime on Brian Darr immediately but she was not familiar with him so she questioned me a little more. I could not recall Flavor Pill so I told her that Darr linked to a social networking site that aggregated various local events. This seemed to satisfy her.

She then informed me that the Freedom Socialist Party was sponsoring the screening and that they were Lesbian Socialists. At this point, I was really in over my head. It took everything I had to keep a straight face. It was one of these only-in-San-Francisco moments. Politically, I consider myself a moderate; maybe slightly to the right on fiscal and tax issues. By San Francisco standards, I'm extremely conservative and I dreaded discussing politics with a representative from the Freedom Socialist Party.

I quickly stated that I was neither lesbian nor socialist but rather a cinephile and had long anticipated seeing Eisenstein's work. She mentioned having screened Que Viva Mexico previously. I mentioned the Mexican Revolutionary films which had screened at PFA earlier in the year. She responded by mentioning John Reed's account of the Mexican Revolution and Ten Days that Shook the World, Reed's account of the 1917 October Revolution. I replied that I had not read the books but had seen Reds with Warren Beatty which covered that period of Reed's life. This tidbit did not seem to interest or impress her.

I hoped this would end the conversation but instead she directed me to a table with Freedom Socialist Party literature and kindly informed me that they were having a special sales discount if I subscribed to their newsletter. I took the brochure and said I would take the matter under advisement. I was also invited to join their regular Tuesday night study group which is currently reading Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution Vol. 1.

She then asked me a number of questions about my profession and workplace which made me even more uncomfortable. It felt like she was probing me for some Socialist shibboleth which would put her at ease or satisfy her curiosity about me.

By then I had been shepherded to the far side of the room, away from the doorway. I was invited to help myself to the food ($6 donation suggested) or to a beverage ($1 donation suggested) and that any donation to help defray the cost of the screening would be appreciated. I donated $5 for the film and $1 for a Diet Coke. At this point, I felt I had run the guantlet and cowardly paid $5 for a DVD screening I didn't particularly want to see so I may as well watch the film or more accurately, disc. I settled into my seat to await the DVD.

At that point, another friendly lady approached me. After introducing ourselves, she asked how I heard about the screening. Later, a third woman asked how I heard about the screening. All these inquiries and the fact that their name was not listed on the front door tennant roster or Flavor Pill announcement made we wonder why they were so curious and secretive.

Thankfully, the screening started. A gentleman who was identified as a retired SFSU professor gave a short lecture on the film. He seemed quite knowledgeable on the film and spoke at the length about the Odessa Steps Massacre sequence in the film. In the film, Cossacks fire down upon a crowd supporting the mutinous sailors aboard the Potemkin. The length of the steps and number of crowd extras make scene of epic scale; like something out of a D.W. Griffith film. There was no massacre on the Odessa Steps but the memorable scene has led many to believe the massacre actually occurred. A case of fiction being more believable than fact.

'Powerhouse Mechanic Working on a Steam Pump', Lewis Hine, 1920.
As for the DVD screening; a larger television would have helped. However, once I accepted the fact it was a DVD screening, the television was sufficient. The discussion afterwards focused more on the historical context of the era when the film was made (Stalin was consolidating his power). I remained silent but mentally noted that certain scenes reminded me of the Victory at Sea documentaries of the US Navy during WWII. There were a number of scenes showing machines in motion or men next to machines in motion which when combined the classical musical score reminded me of Victory at Sea. It also reminded me of some WPA photos of men working with huge machinery.

Anyway, the net effect of the evening was that I saw a great film. I won't go into it much since it was only DVD. I also felt like I been targetted for Socialist inculcation or that I'm now on government watch list. As for the lesbians socialist, they aren't a bad bunch if they would just not press too much and not ask so many personal questions. As a precaution, Brian Darr's tweets about "film" screenings will need to be independently verified in the future.


Another thing I've noticed, Hell on Frisco Bay which is the name of Darr's blog is also the name of a 1955 film starring Alan Ladd and Edward G. Robinson. If you want to see a poster for Hell on Frisco Bay, look at the wall behind the concessions counter at the Balboa Theater.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

2011 Noir City Kickoff

On December 15, Noir City had a kickoff event at the Castro Theater for their 2011 Festival. Noir City 9 will be held at the Castro from January 21 to 30.

Looking over the program, I am excited to see films which I've not previously seen. I only see three films that I've definitely watched before. I saw The Dark Mirror (1946) at the Stanford Theater in September. I saw My Name is Julia Ross at the Roxie in September 2009 as part of their Best of Columbia Noir series (programmed by Elliot Lavine).

I've seen the 1944 classic Gaslight (with Ingrid Bergman) on television before. I don't believe I've seen it on the big screen.

I've already purchased my Noir City Passport.


The Czar of Noir and Noir City founder Eddie Muller, got on microphone onstage at the Castro. He got the festivities started with The Bloody Olive (1996), a twelve minute, Dutch language noir about a love triangle with more plot twists than you can shake a stick at.

Then he introduced Miss Noir City 2011 who graces the Noir City 9 posters. I don't recall her name but her day job is Leslie The Bone Rock Girl at 107.7 FM The Bone.

Noir City 9 Poster


Then Eddie screened two great films which weren't quite noir but entertainng nonetheless.

Remember the Night starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck; written by Preston Sturges; (1940)
Mr. Soft Touch starring Glenn Ford and Evelyn Keyes; (1949)

I think Muller called them Christmas Noir but that's a bit of stretch. Mr. Soft Touch had some noir elements but it felt like a Pat O'Brien/Boy's Town film. Remember the Night reminded me of every other Preston Sturges film where the scamp sees the error in his/her ways and confesses his sins.

Remember the Night was the first on-screen pairing of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck who would go on to make the seminal noir Double Indemnity in 1945. It was also the last Sturges screenplay which he would not also direct.

In Remember the Night, Stanwyck plays Lee Leander, a sassy shoplifter who gets pinched for stealing a diamond bracelet in NYC. Her case is assigned to Assistant District Attorney John Sargeant who specializes in prosecuting women. At trial, Leander's attorney (scene stealing performance by Willard Robertson) spins a fantastic yarn about how Stanwyck was hypnotized by the diamonds and a victim rampant commercialism. Seeing that the jury is sympathizing with Leander, Sargeants asks for a continuance so he can ostensibly consult with a hypnotist to verify the defense's claims. Also, since is close to Christmas, Sargeant asks the trial resume in two weeks time after the New Years. The judge grants the continuance.

Sargeant is about to start his Christmas vacation but realizes sad it is to spend Xmas in jail so he posts Leander's bail. The bondsman misinterprets Sargeant's charity and drops Leander at Sargeant's apartment. With no where to stay, Leander is left with few options. Over dinner with Sargeant, the two discover they are both from Indiana and Sargeant offers to drive Leander back to Indiana so she can visit her relatives.

After some madcap misadventures involving dairy cows, a gun toting farmer, a hanging justice of the peace and cold reception by Leander's mother, Sargeant invites Leander to spend Xmas with his family which consists of his mother, his aunt and his cousin.

Predictably, they fall in love and after some guilt induced by Sargeant's mother, Leander agrees to return to New York, break it off with Sargeant, plead guilty and accept her punishment. However, Sargeant has decided to sabotage his case by antagonizing the jury and painting Leander in the most sympathetic light.

The film ends as only a Hays Code film can end. The judge accepts Leander's guilty plea, Sargeant proposes to Leander and Leander refuses the proposal, countering with a promise that if he still wants to marry her after she gets out of prison, she'll marry him then.

The film is buoyed by Stanwyck's and, to a lesser extent, MacMurray's performances. I've seen Stanwyck plays this wise-cracking, tough girl with a soft heart before. She played a similar character opposite Gary Cooper in 1941's Balls of Fire (directed by Howard Hawks). It was like watching a master at work as Stanwyck smart-talked her way in New York City but showed vulnerability in Indiana or how her frustration at unrequited love manifested itself. Like a comedy team, MacMurray played the straight man for Stanwyck to play against. It was a key performance but less flashy than Stanwyck.


Whereas Remember the Night was a romantic comedy with few noir elements, Mr. Soft Touch hewed closer to what most would consider noir.

Glenn Ford plays Joe Mirakowski or something like that (aka Joe Miracle), a recently discharged GI who returns to San Francisco. He discovers his nightclub has been taken over by the Mob and his partner is dead. He knocks over the club and steals $100,000. The cops and more dangerously, the Mob is looking for him after the robbery. He needs to hide out for a day and a half to catch a ship bound for Japan.

He pretends to be a wife-beater(!) so he can be assigned to the Borden Street Settlement House under the supervision of Miss Jenny Jones (Evelyn Keyes), a neighborhood social worker.

While at the halfway house, Miracle falls in love with Jones and starts to admire her work. Unfortunately, an enterprising and amoral reporter (John Ireland) discovers that Miracle is at the settlement house and tips off the Mob. The Mob burns down the building and take the money from Miracle.

By now, Miracle has had his come-to-Jesus change of heart. He returns to his former nightclub, robs it again, dresses as and hires some men to also dress as Santa Claus and finally donates the stolen cash at a fundraiser to rebuild the settlement house. The Mob guessed as much and shoot him in the street. His final words (of the film at least) are to ask Jones to literally pull him out of the gutter which is what he has figuratively been trying to do all his life.

The film featured a solid performance by Ford who I think is hit or miss in these tough guy roles. Evelyn Keyes didn't have much to do as Jones except be played for a sucker and fall in love with Miracle. John Ireland nailed his character, a slimy Walter Winchell type. Percy Kilbride (best known for playing Pa Kettle in the Ma & Pa Kettle series) provided some laughs as a garrulous tennant in the house.

It was nice to see some exterior shots of San Francisco from 60 years ago. Apparently, in 1949 the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza was in a commercial district in San Francisco. Other than that glaring inaccuracy, the film didn't make much of the San Francisco cityscape. There were a few car chase scenes on the Embarcadero and Russian Hill, I think.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Dude is Back, the King is Talking and the Swan is Sinking

With the lack of film festivals and inter-semester hiatus of the PFA, I had some time in December to see more general release films.

Tron: Legacy starring Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde and Bruce Boxleitner; 3D; (2010) - Official Website
Black Swan starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey; directed by Darren Aronofsky; (2010) - Official Website
The King's Speech starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce; directed by Tom Hooper; (2010) - Official Website


I wasn't a big fan of Tron (1982) so there wasn't a lot of reason for me to see the sequel 28 years later. I had to do a little bit of internet research to recall how Tron ended.

So it was with a sense of resignation that I went to the Castro Theater on a rainy Sunday afternoon to see Tron: Legacy. The timing of the screening fit my schedule and the close proximity the Muni Metro station was within the tolerance band I had set for getting wet (I had left home without an umbrella). I think the main attraction was to see this new fangled 3D technology. I don't recall ever having seen a 3D film in the movie theaters before. I recall watching The Ivory Ape or something like that on television in 3D in the early 80's. We went down to a 7-Eleven or somwhere to get the glasses. So much has been written about the new 3D process that I decided I wanted to see it for myself.

With that rousing preface, you can imagine my reaction to Tron: Legacy. There were a lot of holes in the plot but I guess that could be overlooked given that kick ass CGI is what the film is about. The CGI was impressive but I didn't see much benefit to the film being in 3D.

I think the film can be summed up with two anecdotes. The best 3D effect was not during the film but prior to the film when the 3D animator had a promo clip. Second, the most memorable scene was not in cyberspace or whatever that is called but rather when Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) discover's his video arcade. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) had a video stocked with the best games and apparently someone has been paying the property taxes and electricity bills while Kevin is marooned in the ether. Sam enters the arcade, throws the master switch and Journey's Separate Ways starts booming out over the sound system. It was the perfect combination of music and old-school video games to evoke the spirit of the early 80s; the lyrics were semi-appropriate to the separation between father and son.

What was wrong with the film? Well, there were times when Bridges seemed to be channeling The Dude from The Big Lebowski and I could never quite stop snickering at the sight of him as some cyber-Zen Master. Hedlund and Olivia Wilde as the warrior programmed to protect him as well as to be Kevin Flynn's apprentice (concubine?) were flat in their roles. There was only one performance that stood out. Beau Garrett (a female despite the name) plays a "Siren" who prepares other programs for their gladiatorial contests. She tricks Sam into luring his father out of the and conniving - not exactly a revolutionary portrayal but effective. The film would have benefitted if it had more Beau Garrett...and power ballads from the 1980s.


I met a friend at the Metreon after work one day to see Black Swan. This film has been well received and reviewed. It's director Darren Aronofsky's follow up to The Wrestler. The first time I encountered Aronofsky was with Pi (1996) which, for my money, is still the best Kabbalah based mathematical thriller of all-time. I believe Pi was first film I saw at the Embarcadero Cinemas.

Since Pi, Aronofsky directed Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, which I haven't seen. Then he made The Wrestler which I semi-enjoyed. Given the positive reviews of the film, I was eagerly anticipating the film. As long as I'm reminiscing, the first time I saw Natalie Portman was in Beautiful Girls, a 1996 ensemble piece with Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Mira Sorvino, Annabeth Gish, Lauren Holly, Martha Plimpton, Michael Rapaport and Rosie O'Donnell. Portman played a precocious teenager who serves as Timothy Hutton's sounding board and platonic soul mate.

Black Swan is a psychological thriller about Nina, a ballerina who is cast in the lead role of Swan Lake. Emotionally stunted due to a domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) whom she still lives with, Nina doesn't seem to have what it takes to be a prima ballerina. She is too fragile to survive the glare of the spotlight. The ballet company's choreographer and the other ballerinas sense her weakness and exploit it. Then again, Nina is more than just lacking in self-confidence. She has had a history of pschological problems. It's not paranoia if they are really out to get you.

Against the backdrop of a ballet company, we watch Nina struggle to capture the essence of the Black Swan which is the evil half of the lead role. She is constanly criticized by the choreographer (Vincent Cassel) whom she secretly desires. She is threatened and drawn to free-spirited Lily, a new ballerina in the company. Of course, she returns to the apratment she shares with her mother every night for a toxic stew of guilt and manipulation.

As the rehearsals progress, the suspense builds as the audience wonders if Nina will be able to find the passion to dance the Black Swan as well as keep her sanity until opening night. Nina begins to hallucinate that paintings are talking to her, that she is killing people and most memorably that she has sex with Lily who morphs to herself. It is in these scenes where Aronofsky's flourishes have been criticized as excessive. There is some truth to these criticisms but Black Swan is not about subtlety; it's about vulgarity and like ballet, it has to have flamboyant movements to communicate its intentions.

Like Portman's disturbing visage on the movie posters, Black Swan is film that uses bold imagery to convey Nina's descent into madness.
Natalie Portman in Black Swan

Black Swan is more to my tastes than a film uses less distinctive storytelling techniques. As such, I enjoyed the film tremendously. Of particular interest (and not without prurient overtones) is the relationship between Nina and Lily for which both actresses have been nominated for Golden Globe Awards. The two women look like sisters but couldn't be more different. The relationship has undertones of sexual desire (or perhaps sexual repression), obsession, self-loathing and envy. Aronofsky, Portman and Kunis develop the multifacted relationship throughout the film. I'm still not sure where Nina's delusions end and Lily's duplicity begins.

Also of note is Vincent Cassel's performance as the company director. I did not recognize Cassel initially having seen him a few months ago in Mesrine. Cassel's character is committed to only one thing - his artistic vision and there is nothing he won't do to achieve it. That mainly involves manipulating Nina's emotions to achieve the frisson needed to play the Black Swan.


Finally, on the last day of 2010, they dismissed the office early so I was able to catch the 3:45 screening of The King's Speech at the Landmark Embarcadero. There was a surprisingly large audience in the theater for the screening.

The King's Speech tells of the speech impediment of George VI on England (Colin Firth). George VI (father of the current British monarch) had a stammer which seemed most pronounced during public oration. Being part of the royal family, George VI (or the Duke of York when the film starts) was called upon to make many speeches which could be an ordeal for him and his audience.

After seeing many speech therapists, the Dutchess of York (Helena Bonham Carter) happened upon Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) whose quaint office and informal manner appealed to her. She convinced her husband (known as Bertie to his family) to take therapy with Logue. They had a frosty relationship resulting from Lionel's familiarity towards Bertie as well as the Duke's frustrations, fears and ill temper.

After Bertie's father (the King) dies, his older brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) inherited the throne. Edward VIII was the king who abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson. Bertie was next in line so he became king and this added pressure to make his speeches more regal.

The climactic scene in the film is George VI's radio address to the nation and colonies announcing war with Germany. With the stakes so high, George was called upon to make the most important speech in his life. As the movie depicts the scene, George and Lionel are alone in a makeshift radio studio during the speech. George struggling through the words while Lionel uses hand movements to encourage him like a orchestra conductor.

The King's Speech has been nominated for a Golden Globe in the Best Picture - Drama category. I wasn't quite as impressed as that. I thought the film predictable although the performances were quite good all around. Helena Bonham Carter shows the pluck and vinegar that I recall reading about Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother or Queen Mum). In one memorable scene, Winston Churchill (nice vocal imitation by Timothy Spall) asks Elizabeth what hold Mrs. Simpson has over Edward VIII. Elizabeth deadpans that Mrs. Simpson learned certain skills in Shanghai.

The film can be summarized as an uptight guy trying to live up the expectations of his family and country being helped by a failed actor who eventually becomes his friend. The scenes between Rush & Firth form the backbone of the film and its amazing how Firth can impart a sense of humor on the grumpy Bertie. The scenes with Rush & Firth are largely comedic in nature and serve to heighten the drama in the scenes involving George VI and members of his government and church (particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury).

For Anglophiles, English monarchists and fans of outstanding actors such as Firth, Bonham Carter, Rush, Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi, et al., The King's Speech is thoroughly enjoyable.