Tuesday, May 31, 2011

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

I stopped by the Castro Theater earlier this month to see 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea starring James Mason & Kirk Douglas; with Peter Lukas & Peter Lorre; directed by Richard Fleischer; (1954)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the first science fiction film made by Disney. I had not seen this film previously. I knew it is a classic film and children of all ages love it. I've seen the giant squid scenes a few times.

I'll dispense with the plot since it's such a well known story. I was struck by the intensity of James Mason's portrayal as Nemo. As portrayed by Mason, Nemo has more of a Messiah complex than out to avenge the death of his family. I went in thinking that Kirk Douglas would be Nemo's primary adversary. In fact, Douglas and Peter Lorre provide the comic relief. Douglas sings and dances and mugs it up with a seal named Esmerelda. The forces of good are concentrated on Peter Lukas' character Professor Aronnax. Aronnax is blinded by the treasure trove of charts and scientific experiments resulting from Nemo's underwater travels. Eventually, he sees Nemo for what he is.

A piece of trivia - the penal colony that the Nautilus visits in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is Rura Penthe. It's a completely fictitious place. Rura Penthe was reused in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country as the Klingon penal colony where Kirk & Bones are sentenced and meet up with Iman. Rura Penthe is also the Siberian penal colony in Tolstoy's War and Peace.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea wasn't a bad film. 57 years later, the steampunk sets of the Nautilus are fun to look at. I thought the film would be better served if they toned down Douglas' performance. This was a Disney film so they needed something to keep the kids interested. The more universal theme of creating utopia is given the short shrift as the film focuses on the science fiction aspects of the story and Douglas' clowning.

It's also interesting that there were no female characters of note in this version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I guess Disney's target audience were boys too young to appreciate the fairer sex.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Women Behaving Badly

I saw a few films where the general theme was women behaving badly; sometimes men were behaving badly as well.

A Labor of Love; documentary; directed by Robert Flaxman & Daniel Goldman; (1976) - Official Website
The Wild Pussycat; (1969)
Bridesmaids starring Kristen Wiig; (2011) - Official Website
It starring Clara Bow; silent with intertitles; (1927)


A Labor of Love and The Wild Pussycat were part of the YBCA's Vintage Erotica series. The film I was most interested in seeing was Camille 2000 directed by Radley Metzger. However, the Roxie's I Wake Up Dreaming series conflicted with the first screening and I didn't feel well so I passed on the second screening.

A Labor of Love was a "making of" documentary. The subject was The Last Affair which is billed as the only hardcore porn film ever filmed in Chicago. I'm not sure how that claim was verified. I'm not sure why The Last Affair deserved a documentary on its making. Quoting Roger Ebert from 1976, "The Last Affair is an appallingly bad movie - so completely bankrupt in ideas, in characterization, in simple common sense that it's little wonder its makers bought a theater to get it shown." Based on the little I saw in A Labor of Love, I have to concur with Mr. Ebert.

What is interesting is that the documentary is more interesting than the source material. For the record, The Last Affair was repurposed before its release so the sex scenes were edited out. That may or may not have improved the film. The premise of The Last Affair as stated in A Labor of Love is that there is a brothel catering to women stocked with all kinds of men...the rare and elusive brothel catering to heterosexual women, right up there with the unicorn and the last honest man. That's all one needs to know about The Last Affair.

A Labor of Love interviews the director and actors working on The Last Affair. They don't quite seem to realize they are making porn dressed up as pretentious schlock. A Labor of Love is most enjoyable when it captures the spirt of the 70s. The actors all speak about empowerment, women's rights and all the other 1970s buzzwords. Director Robert Flaxman took questions after the screening. He said all the actors talked a good game of swinging and free love but when it came time to actually film the porn, they realized they were in over their head (no pun intended).

The most fascinating subject was actress Debbie Dan who reminded me of every 1970s stereotype I recalled. She looked and spoke like an amalgamation of actresses from the era. She talked about women's liberation and how she wasn't uptight about sex but it seemed to be an act. Dan was a trooper though. Even though she had her period that day, she showed up with douche bag in hand to film her sex scene.

A Labor of Love is a fascinating and valuable time capsule of the sexual revolution circa 1976. It's well worth a viewing. I wouldn't call it erotica by any stretch.


The Wild Pussycat was a Greek soft-core porno flick from the swinging 60s; the dialogue was dubbed. Before the film, YBCA film curator Joel Shepard said The Wild Pussycat was the only film in YBCA history to receive a standing ovation when they screened it a few years ago. The film was better attended than any YBCA screening I've been to.

The plot involved a young woman who is avenging her sister's death. Vera and Mike (or was it Nick?) are a couple but Mike certainly abuses the relationship. She pimps Vera out, has rough sex with her in front of the landlord to avoid paying rent and ties her up and makes her watch him having sex with another woman. Eventually, he kicks Vera out of the apartment and she commits suicide. Unfortunately for Mike, Vera left a diary which details her degradations. More unfortunatrely, Vera has beautiful sister who is out for vengeance. Vera's sister Nadia (Gizela Dalli) is protagonist of the film.

Nadia lures Mike to her boudoir with the promise of sex but instead drugs him and chains him up in a secret, soundproof room behind the bedroom mirror. From that vantage point, Mike will suffer excruciatingly as Nadia beds a number of men and women. Mike can only look upon the frolicking through the mirror with his right hand conveniently out of camera range.

Eventually, the sexual sadism becomes too much for Mike to handle he goes insane. If the filmmakers played this film straight, it would have been a all-time classic. However, it was played tongue-in-cheek (and other other orifices) which gives it a campy feel. Still not a bad film but not quite worthy of a standing ovation. The audience was roaring with laughter at times but kept their seats as the credits rolled.


I saw Bridesmaids at the Balboa. The film has done well at the box office and is well reviewed. Tagged as "The Hangover for chicks," I thought the film deserved to stand on its own merits. From the commeercials, I was expectng more raunchy humor but most of the film deals with Annie (Kristen Wiig) who is asked to be the maid-of-honor at her childhood best friend's wedding. Annie has some serious issues she is dealing with. Mainly, her bakery has gone bankrupt robbing her of her self-confidence as well as the work she loves to do. Annie is stuck in a job she doesn't like, living with odd duck English roommates and perpetually broke. At this point, she has to deal with Lilian's (Maya Rudolph) wedding which would be stressful enough except Helen, another bridesmaid, seems intent on upstaging Annie at every turn and displacing her as Lilian's best friend. Throw in the other bridesmaids, a sexually frustrated mother of three, a sexually inexperience housewife and the groom's wacky sister and you the recipe for The Hangover minus the Y chromosone.

Bridesmaids reels it back though. Whenever the film has a oppotunity amp it up, it steps back gives Annie an emotional (but funny) setback to deal with. Bridesmaids is more Wiig's vehicle to showcase the insecurities and ultimate triumph of Annie than a rauchy ensemble film with the gender roles reversed. Annie even has a sensitive love interest whom she runs away from after their first intimate encounter. Along the way, there are plenty of laughs. Counting up Annie's misadventures, she takes bridesmaid to restaurant where they get food poisoning, she makes a spectacle of herself at the bridal shower, she is removed from an airline flight by a US Air Marshall and she violates several motor vehicle laws to the consternation of her love interest (a highway cop).

Bridesmaids is also notable for being Jill Clayburgh's final film. She played Annie's mother.


Many years ago, I went to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont. I'm not sure if they screened films at the time. Regardless, I did not see a film on my previous visits. For a few years, I wanted to revisit Niles Essanay because they screen silent films there every week. However, it is all the way over in Fremont which is about a 50 minute drive for me (assuming no traffic).

On the Saturday night during Memorial Day Weekend, with nothing else tempting me in the City, I trekked to Fremont. I was thinking the rain and holiday would keep the crowds down. According to the staff, the crowd was a little larger than usual that night.

The Essanay Studios were down the street from the current museum and theater. The theater was a functioning nickelodeon at the time Essanay Studios was active. The announcer speculated that Charlie Chaplin and Bronco Billy Anderson may have watched films in the same space we were occupying.

The feature film that night was It starring Clara Bow. The two short films preceding it were:

The New York Hat starring Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore; with Mae Marsh and Dorothy & Lilian Gish; directed by D.W. Griffith; silent with intertitles; (1912)
The Danger Girl starring Gloria Swanson; silent with intertitles; (1916)

I had a bit of a headache that night. My health seems to be on the wane as of late. I seem to have gone from one serious illness to a number of smaller ailments that manifest themselves as malaise. Anyway, that's the leadup to saying, I dozed off during The Danger Girl.

I was awake for both reels of The New York Hat which was a cautionary tale of the damage gossip can do in a small town. It didn't really impress me but it was one literally one out of hundred of short films Pickford made before she became America's sweetheart.

After an intermission which reinvigorated me with a tour of the projection booth and a short discussion with Jason Wiener regarding a Slate article on the film projectionists union, I was ready to go for It.

What is It? The concept was developed by Elinor Glyn through a series in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1926. Prior to the film, Glyn made of list of those who have It - Clara Bow (how coincidental), Rudolph Valentino, John Gilbert, the doorman at the Ambassador Hotel and Rex the Wonder Horse. Distinct from sex appeal, It is loosely defined by Glyn and others. I guess you may not be able to describe It but you'll recognize It when you see It.

After the film, Bow was known as the It Girl. Prior to the film, her moniker was the Brooklyn Bonfire. Bow was also one half of the inspiration of Betty Boop. Singer Helen Kane was the other half.

When I selected the title for this post, I was not just referring to porn actresses and dysfunctional bridesmaids. I was also considering Clara Bow whose peronsal life was much criticized as well as Betty Lou, her headstrong character in It.

It is the story of a department store shopgirl who is secretly in love in the wealthy and debonair Cyrus Waltham, Jr. (Antonio Moreno) who owns the store. Waltham doesn't give her a second look but his best friend Monty Montgomery (William Austin) thinks she has It after reading Glyn's article.

Bettly Lou is far from a shrinkig violet. When Monty asks Betty Lou out, she uses the opportunity to go to the same restaurant where she knows Waltham will be that night. While there in a makeshift evening gown, Betty Lou catches Waltham's eye despite his dining with his fiancée and her mother. However Waltham doesn't recognize her as the girl from his department store.

Once Waltham discovers her identity, he is drawn to her high spirits. They spend a day at an amusement park (which I believe was filmed Playland at the Beach) and things are proceeding well for Betty Lou. Betty has a roommate, a single mother when being a single mother was something to be ashamed of. When child protective services or whatever they were called in 1927 show up to take the child away, Betty claims the child as her own and cites her job and clothes (gifts from Waltham and Monty) as proof of her ability to financially care for the child. An enterprising newspaper reporter (Gary Cooper, uncredited) hears the story and prints it in his newspaper.

When Waltham reads the article, he is mortified and realizes that headstrong and forward are one thing but bastard child is another thing all together. Waltham breaks it off with Betty Lou but when she learns his reasons, she plots revenege which takes place during a hilarious act set on Waltham's yacht.

It was a delightful comedy and I certainly recongize that Bow had It. She combined sex appeal and comedic talents like nothing I've seen since Colleen Moore in Her Wild Oats. Bow played Betty Lou with a little more sex appeal than Moore's Mary Lou.

I don't know how often I'll be going to Fremont to watch films but it was great to finally catch a film at Niles Essanay.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

I Wake Up Dreaming 2011

The Roxie recently concluded I Wake Up Dreaming: The Legendary and the Lost - their biannual two week noir festival programmed by Elliot Lavine. Lavine has captured current zeitgeist of Bay Area film programming. Having won the 2010 San Francisco Film Critics Marlon Riggs Award, Lavine was much praised for rediscovery of The Woman Chaser. I Wake Up Dreaming 2011 received a fair amount of press including articles in the Chronicle, SF Weekly and the Bay Guardian. The way some of the audience members fawned over Lavine made me a little uncomfortable. By and large, Lavine programmed a strong and consistent series.

Of the 28 films programmed, I had previously seen five but I dutifully caught the other 23.

Dementia; (1955)
Phantom Lady starring Franchot Tone; with Elisha Cook, Jr.; directed by Robert Siodmak; (1944)
Ministry of Fear starring Ray Milland; directed by Fritz Lang; (1944)
Street of Chance starring Burgess Meredith; (1942)
C-Man starring Dean Jagger & John Carrdine; directed by Joseph Lerner; (1949)
Guilty Bystander starring Zachary Scott; directed by Joseph Lerner; (1950)
Once a Thief starring June Havoc & Cesar Romero; directed by W. Lee Wilder; (1950)
The Great Flamarion starring Eric von Stroheim; directed by Anthony Mann; (1945)
Whsipering City; (1947)
Ruthless starring Zachary Scott; with Sydney Greenstreet; directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; (1948)
Customs Agent; (1950)
Smooth as Silk; (1947)
Cafe Hostess starring Ann Dvorak & Preston Foster; (1940)
Dangerous Blondes starring Evelyn Keyes & Allyn Joslyn; (1943)
I Love Trouble starring Franchot Tone, Janet Blair & Janis Carter; (1948)
Ride the Pink Horse starring & directed by Robert Montgomery; (1947)
The Web starring Edmond O'Brien & Vincent Price; directed by Michael Gordon; (1947)
The Violent Years starring Jean Moorhead; screenplay by Ed Wood; (1956)
Dance Hall Racket starring & screenplay by Lenny Bruce; (1953)
Chain Gang; (1950)
Cell 2455, Death Row starring William Campbell; (1955)
World for Ransom starring Dan Duryea; directed by Robert Aldrich; (1954)
The 49th Man starring John Ireland; (1953)

Cell 2455, Death Row was preceded by a short film called Justice and Caryl Chessman.


My favorite film of the series was probably the most anticipated one - Ruthless. Describted as a B level Citizen Kane or the Citizen Kane of film noir, Ruthless served an extra helping of melodrama but that didn't ruin my appetite for the film. Zachary Scott plays Horace Vendig, a man with relentless ambition. Born of middling circumstances, Vendig uses and betrays a series of friends and paramours on his rise to the wealthiest echelons of society. The film features a strong performance by Scott but his supporting cast shines. Diana Lynn as his first love, Sydney Greenstreet as his arch business rival and Lucille Bremer as Greenstreet's wife who betray him for Vendig are particularly noteworthy. The only shortcoming for me is the lack of explanation regarding Vendig's psyche. There are extended scenes of Vendig as a boy and the events that shaped him but nothing quite seems traumatic enough to explain his later behavior. Still, the expository scenes added quite a bit of perspective to Vendig's character.


I was also quite taken with Dangerous Blondes. Straying far from noir, Dangerous Blondes was closer to The Thin Man with Allyn Josyln and Evelyn Keyes playing the married couple. Much of the film is a comedy as husband and wife detective team try to solve a series of murders. On that front, the film didn't stand out from a number of similar films of the era. However, Keyes was an absolute delight - funny, sexy and sassy. Joslyn mostly played straight man to Keyes although his character did have a wandering eye and as well enjoyed the limelight. The two of them formed an effective comedy team and I wish the characters had been given a series.


Street of Chance was based on a Cornell Woolrich novel but the film adaptation is more notable for the solid performance by Burgess Meredith. The plot is a contrived as Meredith plays an amnesiac who regains his memories of his previous life and completely forgets the life he's been leading the past year or so. Unfortunately, he has gotten involved with some shady characters and a murder in his second life. The film never explains the amnesia and conveniently drops any mention of it in the last third of film.


Ride the Pink Horse was interesting for it depiction of the relatinship between Caucasians and Mexicans including a remarkable performance by Wanda Hendrix as Mexican woman who help Robert Montgomery elude his enemies. The ending scene where both Montgomery and Hendrix resume their lives (and attitudes) despite in the intense and intiminate bond they shared while in danger is quite a damning statement about race relations.

There were a number of film that didn't quite make the grade but were remarkable for B films with has beens and never weres.

The Great Flamarion featured a typically intense von Stroheim performance where he plays a sharpshooter who kills his assistant's husband on stage in "an accident." Of course, he was the chump as the woman was only using him to get rid of her husband.

I liked Once a Thief for the amazing performance by Cesar Romero as a ladies man who cons June Havoc.

Guilty Bystander also featured Zachary Scott as an alcoholic ex-cop searching for his kidnapped son.

Smooth as Silk was also enjoyable for the lead performance of Kent Taylor as a defense attorney who frames his ex-girlfriend for murder. Virginia Grey as the ex delivered an equally impressive performance.

The Web was also a nice vehicle for Edmond O'Brien to play the chump and Vincent Price as the evil mastermind who manipulate O'Brien into killing for him and making it look like self defense.

C-Man, Customs Agent and Chain Gang were similar but enjoyable films about men going under cover to expose corruption.

Phantom Lady has a great scene where Elisha Cook is a bebop, hophead drummer who takes his sexual frustrations out on the snare drums.


What didn't I like? Strangely, Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear was a little disappointing. It felt like a Hitchcock film. I didn't feel well during the screening so I wasn't concentrating. It deserves a second look if I ever get the chance.

The production values or at least the prints of Whispering City, World for Ransom and Cafe Hostess made it hard to understand the dialog and follow the plot.

The The Violent Years and Dance Hall Racket were just badly made films. The plot for each film was rambling and full of filler even though the films were approximately 65 minutes. The Violent Years was scripted by Ed Wood; no need to say anymore. Jean Moorhead had a lot screen presence and sex appeal though. Of course, she was the Playboy Playmate of the Month for the October 1955.

Dance Hall Racket was scripted by Lenny Bruce and he seemed to write it with the goal of giving every burlesque performer he knew a part including his wife and mother. There were lots of scenes that were one-shot jokes that weren't funny and didn't advance the story.


That leaves Dementia, an hour long film without any dialogue about a woman's nightmare which include getting pimped out and the most ominous fried chicken eating scene ever filmed. The film was quite good. Lavine said there is a version with Ed McMahon narrating the film. Thank god they didn't show that. The film was unnarrated as well as sans dialogue. For the most part, this device works although by the end, I was becoming aware of the self-imposed limitations of this choice. It gave the film a lyrical quality but eventually, I thought the lack of dialogue became a distraction. I also thought the star, Adrienne Barrett was miscast. Her role is credited as "The Gamine" but I thought she looked a little too world-weary to be the gamine. I guess dreams like that will age you.

Dementia reminded me of a film I can't place. I'm glad I saw it because I enjoyed but I don't hold in such high esteem as others.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Guerillas in Our Midst

Over the past few months, I've seen people filming action sequences (or pickup shots) in public places around San Francisco. I assume they have no permits since the cameras are small, handheld digital ones and there is no lighting or crew. Traditionally called guerilla filmmaking, this new breed is like everything else in the digital age - smaller and more compact. What I have seen are usually two people - cameraman and actor. Strangely, I encounter them mostly at BART. Maybe they've always been there and I haven't noticed. I doubt it though, I usually observant of such things.

I saw a man film the BART train as it pulled out of the station. I hope he wasn't a terrorist although I'm not sure what can be learned from that. Another time, I saw a guy inside the train filming out the window as the train was exiting the station. These may have been tourists or experimental filmmakers.

I was parked on the roof level of the Daly City BART garage and returned late on a foggy night a few weeks ago. As I walked to my car, I saw a several people standing in front of some cars with their headlights on. I thought they were attacking someone but as I approached I heard someone giving directions and saw the camera. The effect must have been dramatic with the headlights cutting through the fog and the overhead lighting provided by parking garage lights.

Finally, yesterday I exited Powell Street Station. As I crossed Cyril Magnin Lane, I noticed the woman crossing from the opposite direction was walking with her arm extended as if to indicate stay away from me. I wondered what that was about as she passed me going in the opposite direction. Then I saw a man following behind her with a digital camera. I am certain my face was captured in the scene so maybe I'll be appearing in an indie film soon.

Later during the same trip, I was walking down Cyril Magnin on the opposite side of the street from Parc 55 Hotel. I swear there were half a dozen paparazzi staked out there. They were focused on Parc 55 and saying things like "Who is that guy?" and "Where did she go?"

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Kung Fu Fighting, Hippies, The Last Generation of Soviets and Faye Dunaway

In a one week period earlier in May, I went to four independent movie theaters - the Red Vic, Balboa, 4 Star and Castro.

The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen starring Donnie Yen and Shu Qi; directed by Andrew Lau; Cantonese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Hair starring Treat Williams & John Savage; directed by Miloš Forman; (1979)
My Perestroika; directed by Robin Hessman; documentary; Russian with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Puzzle Of A Downfall Child starring Faye Dunaway; directed by Jerry Schatzberg; (1970)
Eyes Of Laura Mars starring Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones; directed by Irvin Kershner; (1978)
Deaf Mute Heroine starring Helen Ma; Mandarin with subtitles; (1971)
Pursuit starring Chow Yun-Fat; Cantonese with subtitles; (1980)


Let me get all the seven degrees facts out of the way. The Legend of the Fist, Deaf Mute Heroine and Pursuit are part of the 4 Star's Asian Movie Madness series which runs every Thursday through July. The co-star of Pursuit was Deborah Dik who is Nicholas Tse's mother. Nicholas Tse was the star of The Stool Pigeon, my favorite film of the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival. Nicholas Tse is married to actress Cecilia Cheung who was previously involved with Edison Chen and subsequently involved in his sex photo scandal. I most recently saw Edison Chen in Almost Perfect at the 2011 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. The first film that I can recall Chen from is Initial D which was co-directed by Andrew Lau who also directed The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. If that isn't enough for you, Chen's co-star in Initial D was Shawn Yue who starred in Love in a Puff which I saw at the 2011 SFIFF. I can't stop myself from pointing out the coincidences...the theme song to Eyes Of Laura Mars was "Prisoner" by Barbra Streisand which I distinctly recognized from a scene in Pursuit. The coincidence is all the amazing because I saw Eyes Of Laura Mars one night before Pursuit.

In most of the cases, I had discount passes to the theater that I wanted to use up before they (the pass or the theater) expired. I saw Hair at the Red Vic, My Perestroika at the Balboa and Puzzle Of A Downfall Child & Eyes Of Laura Mars at the Castro.

There is a lot of history behind The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. Donnie Yen starred in a Hong Kong television series called Fist of Fury in 1995. Yen played Chen Zhen, the same character as he does in The Legend of the Fist. If Fist of Fury sounds familiar, it's because it was also the title of a 1972 Bruce Lee film. Bruce Lee played Chen Zhen also. A stuntman on Lee's Fist of Fury was Jackie Chan who would go on to make a film called New Fist of Fury (1976). Chan's film is set in the same time period and locales but is not Chen Zhen. In 1994, Jet Li made film called Fist of Legend where he took his turn as Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen is a fictitious character but probably based on composite of a real people. As portrayed by Yen, Chen Zhen is WWI veteran who lives in Shanghai during the 1930s. He is a hell of a kung fu fighter but he keeps a low profile as the manager of a nightclub and casino owned by gangster Anthony Wong. The main attraction at the nightclub is the beautiful singer Kiki (Shu Qi from The Transporter and Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times). However it is the 1930's in China which means the Japanese are causing problems. Has anyone noticed a lot of Chinese films recently which are set in the 1930s with the Japanese as villains? In this film, Colonel Chikaraishi Takeshi (Kohata Ryu) of the Imperial Japanese Army is the villain. Fans of Yen's television series know that Chen Zhen killed Chikaraishi's evil father in the television series. Ryu played the evil Japanese Army officer in City of Life and Death which impressed me at last year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.

Donnie Yen, 1930s, Chinese kung fu master, evil Japanese army officers...sounds like Ip Man. There were a lot of similarities. The lovely Shu Qi elevated Legend of the Fist somewhat (for her beauty not necessarily her acting) but ultimately the film was fluff. There is a time and place for fluff but I like my action films more gritty. Full disclosure - I'm very smitten with Shu Qi.


A week after seeing Legend of the Fist, I returned to 4 Star to catch a double feature of Deaf Mute Heroine and Pursuit.

Deaf Mute Heroine looks like a standard HK chop socky film from the 1970s. One Armed Swordsman, Blind Swordsman and now a Deaf Mute Swordswoman - so they doubled the handicaps and changed the gender but the film is still the same. In this particular instance, the heroine's motivation was not completely pristine as she seemed most interested in some stolen jewels. That is until she shacks up with a poor laborer. Then the fearsome warrioress puts down her sword and reflective bracelets (so she can see people coming up behind her) and embarks on journey of domestic bliss. Of course, we all know that can't last.

Helen Ma, as the eponymous heroine, acquits herself admirably in a film which is a small notch above the rest. Ma had such expressive eyes which I guess is only natural for a deaf mute character. The fight choreographers threw a couple good fight sequences and the "villain" is also a woman (Shirley Huang).

Called by many a classic, I'm more stingy in my praise. I thought it was above average but the fight sequences became tiresome after awhile.


Although Chow Yun-Fat is billed as the star of Pursuit, it's really a vehicle for Deborah Dik. The film was trying to balance humor with suspense but it didn't do a very good job. Dik is a off key lounge singer who is pimped by her manager to the snaggle-toothed club owner with secret S&M peccadilloes. Escaping his advances, Dik witnesses a murder committed by a sunglass wearing hitman (Chow Yun-Fat). The rest of the film has Chow (or his henchmen) pursuing Dik with her always escaping through luck or timely bouts of resourcefulness.

The problem with Pursuit is not its premise but rather its execution. The humor is too silly and the violence too extreme. I was whipsawed by the film as it veered from one to the other and back.


Hair was not a film that was on my list of films I had to see. I went because I have a Red Vic Discount Card that I'm worried will be worthless if they go out of business. The film was mildly entertaining. The hippie era has never fascinated me so seeing a musical about it is not an integral part of my film viewing list.

I can't fault the film's three principals (Beverly D'Angelo, Treat Williams and John Savage) but the film felt flat to me. I got a kick out of seeing Treat Williams with long hair. I can't criticize her performance but I couldn't get over the fact that just 4 years after Hair, D'Angelo was playing opposite Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's Vacation.

The songs were not quite a toe-tapping as I expected. The finale where Williams goes off to war in place of Savage was particularly well done.


My Perestroika is a documentary about half a dozen people who were adolescents when the Soviet Union dissolved. They are unique because their childhoods were traditionally Soviet but they had to adjust in early adulthood to very different political and economic systems from their youths. There are a married couple who are school teachers, a musician, an entrepreneur and a woman who services coin-operated pool tables in bars and pubs. Though they all went to the same school as children, they have very different memories and opinions. These difference make for an interesting film. Director Robin Hessman can't quite tie all the strands together to find commonality but the individuals and their contrasts are sufficient to carry the film along.

My Perestroika will open at the Camera Cinemas in San Jose on June 3.


Eyes Of Laura Mars was a pretty good thriller featuring Faye Dunaway as Laura Mars, fashion photographer who specializes in stylized photos with an erotic and violent twist to them. The photos in the film were taken by actual photographer Helmut Newton.

Unfortunately, Mars has visions where she sees her colleagues brutally murdered. Tommy Lee Jones plays the copy who is investigating the murders but also warms up to Mars. I won't give away the ending. I will say that Mars' visions are never explained except through some implied psychic connection between Mars and the killer.

Rene Auberjonois gives a strong performance as Mars' homosexual business manager.

Puzzle Of A Downfall Child is a fragmented psychological portrait of a fashion model (Dunaway) who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. Recounting her life in flashback, we see that Dunaway's character had several less-than-positive life experiences including an exploitive relationship with an older man as a schoolgirl which shaped her future dealings with men.

41 years old, the film plays like coffee table psychobabble but it has a few things going for it - Dunaway's youthful beauty, Dunaway's considerable acting skills and a disjointed narrative which is open to multiple interpretations. I can't say I liked Puzzle Of A Downfall Child but I can't say I disliked it either.


The Asian Movie Madness double feature scheduled for May 26 has been cancelled. Originally Ong Bak and Golden Sand Sword were scheduled. That's too bad as I was looking forward to both films.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

2011 San Francisco International Film Festival

I only saw 11 films at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. That compares to 21 which I saw in 2010. I saw two films at the Viz, two films at the PFA, two at the Castro and the remainder at the Kabuki.

After a busy first quarter, I didn't have the energy to go for broke with SFIFF. The crowds and likelihood that the films would be released were enough to dissuade me. I watched 11 films on 8 different days. The festival ran 15 days so I only attended it on half of the days. That's a very leisurely pace for me. Among the non-cinematic memorable moments, I saw two men get into a racially charged yelling match in front of the Kabuki and an elderly lady fall ass over teakettle in the PFA theater during the film. The lady was actually sitting directly next to me. I thought she left at the intermission but several minutes into the second act, I heard her tumble a few rows behind me. I thought an ambulance would be needed as it took an extremely long time for her to regain her feet but eventually she hobbled out. Frequently, I see the staff at PFA lead people to their seats with flashlights after the film has started. I'm not sure why this was not the case this time.

I can report on one unofficial announcement which drew gasps of excitement from the audience. Prior to the screening of The Stool Pigeon, programmer Sean Uyehara stated there is a good chance that the San Francisco Film Society would add a Hong Kong film series to their fall offering of programming which includes French, Italian, Taiwanese, animated and local films.

I read a statistic which surprised me. It was glommed from the SFIFF wrap report. The report did not give an exact audience count at the festival but a blurb at the bottom stated "Held each spring for 15 days, the International is an extraordinary showcase of cinematic discovery and innovation in the country's most beautiful city, featuring 15 juried awards, 200 films and live events with upwards of 100 participating filmmakers and diverse audiences of 75,000+ people."

I thought the number would have been larger because I recall Cinequest stating that over 90,000 people attended their festival this year. I though SFIFF was more well attended than Cinequest. It just adds to my growing appreciation of Cinequest. Comparing the two festivals, I give the edge to Cinequest in just about every category. I just wish it wasn't held in San Jose.

By the way, Cinequest has already announced that the 2012 festival will be held from February 28 to March 11. I hope it doesn't overlap with the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival which will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2012.

Prior to the screening of Fassbinder's World on a Wire at the PFA, curator Susan Oxtoby announced that PFA was planning a program of Fassbinder films during the 2011-12 academic year. She went on to say that Fassbinder was one of her favorite directors.

The 11 films I watched were:

The Stool Pigeon starring Nick Cheung and Nicholas Tse; directed by Dante Lam; Cantonese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Living on Love Alone starring Anaïs Demoustier & Pio Marmai; directed by Isabelle Czajka; French with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Love in a Puff starring Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue; directed by Pang Ho-cheung; Cantonese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
The Dish and The Spoon starring Greta Gerwig; directed by Alison Bagnall; (2011)
Sound of Noise; Swedish with subtitles; (2010) - Official Facebook
World on a Wire; directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; German with subtitles; (1973)
Hospitalité; directed by Koji Fukada; Japanese with subtitles; (2010)
La Dolce Vita starring Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg & Anouk Aimée; directed by Federico Fellini; Italian with subtitles; (1960)
13 Assassins; directed by Takashi Miike; Japanese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
The High Life; directed by Zhao Dayong; Mandarin & Cantonese with subtitles; (2010)
Outrage starring & directed by Beat Takeshi; Japanese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website


Perhaps because I saw so "few" films, the festival didn't live up to expectations. That's grading on the curve though. I expect the oldest film festival in North America to deliver consistently great films. Thinking about my subjectivity objectively, I enjoyed 9 or 10 of the 11 films I watched.

My festival favorite was the Hong Kong crime/suspense film, The Stool Pigeon. The major participants were director Dante Lam, Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung who made the wildly entertaining The Beast Stalker which I saw in 2009. The Stool Pigeon was slightly less entertaining but still a taut suspense film which kept me engaged throughout. Nick Cheung plays the cop and Nicholas Tse plays the criminal in The Stool Pigeon (their professions were reversed in The Beast Stalker). Whereas I would characterize The Beast Stalker as an action film, I consider The Stool Pigeon to be closer to Infernal Affairs - some action elements but mainly a suspense/thriller film.

The Stool Pigeon focuses on Don Lee (Cheung), a cop who uses confidential informants to break up crime gangs...frequently with dire consequences for the CIs. In his latest investigation, he latches on to Ghost (Tse) a wheel man who is getting out of prison. Ghost's sister is forced into prostitution to pay off their father's debt to loan sharks. Lee offers to pay off the debt if Ghost will infiltrate the gang of Barbarian, a vicious robber planning a jewel heist.

There are plenty of action scenes and some romantic tension between Ghost and Barbarian's girlfriend (Guey Lun-mei) but most of the psychological heavy lifting is performed by Don Lee who has seen his most recent CI nearly killed and now insane, living on the streets like a bum. In addition, Don Lee caught syphilis which he transmitted to his wife. Distraught, she attempted suicide. She survived but now has amnesia. She works at a dance studio where Don Lee attends just so he can glimpse his wife. That part was superfluous and could have been cut been the point is Don Lee is under tremendous pressure from his CIs, his supervisor, his wife's family but most of all his own conscience.

Start with some chase and fight scenes, throw in a dash of romance and a large help of internal conflict and you get The Stool Pigeon which I though was well worthwhile.


The copy for Living on Love Alone made reference to Godard's Pierrot le Fou but while watching it, I was reminded more of Breathless. Anaïs Demoustier plays Julie, a young woman who is confused about her life. She can't get excited about the jobs she takes which involve babysitting her supervisor's children on her day off or selling door-to-door magazine subscriptions. She does, however, show an aptitude to one night stands with older men.

Then she meets Ben. He is more age appropriate for her but the source of his livelihood is dubious. Julie finds a handgun in his kitchen but that doesn't dissuade her from continuing the relationship. In fact, it may even excite her although her detached demeanor gives little insight. The ending is telegraphed but its the journey that excites. Demoustier gives an amazing performance (which reminded me a little of Jean Seberg in Breathless) that is alternately cynical and naïve. Still waters run deep with Julie and her seeming passivity must be tamping down her aggressiveness. At least, that's the impression I had while the film and it was ultimately confirmed in the end (as well as a telling scene with her mother and brother).


The Stool Pigeon and Living on Love Alone were the two films I would unequivocally recommend. La Dolce Vita is also on that list but I can't add anything to the voluminous commentary on that classic film.

There were a number of films that I enjoyed that were a notch below those.

Love in a Puff was a fun romantic comedy that had two twists - it was set during the time Hong Kong enacted public smoking bans so smokers had to huddle in hidden and remote spots in order to smoke and they formed social units based around their smoking circle. Two of them, Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and Cherie (Miriam Yeung) embark on a romance which has much to overcome. First Cherie is older than Jimmy which is probably more an issue in China than here. Second, Cherie is asthmatic so she has even more reason to quit smoking than most. Jimmy, on the other hand, is on the rebound as her girlfriend has taken up with the French manager at their company. Their romance has its ups and downs and the film takes some interesting side trips than are not directly related to Jimmy & Cherie. The effect is an enjoyable lightweight comedy that was a big hit in HK. In fact, the programmer who introduced the film mentioned they are shooting the sequel.

The Swedish film Sound of Noise is a pastiche of various genres - romance, policier and avante-garde. The plot, such as it is, centers around "six guerilla percussionists whose public performances are terrorizing the city." The cop who is assigned the case is tone deaf. Not only that but his family lineage includes several noted symphony directors. Silly and surreal, Sound of Noise probably has something serious to say about television pundits, banks, high society activities such as the symphony and modern life but I wasn't looking for those messages. I "suspended disbelief" and went along for wacky and hilarious ride.

Hospitalité also likely had a serious message about hypocrisy and the pitfalls of adhering to social politeness but it was overwhelmed by preposterous plot that I can't quite identify. I've seen a few films where a stranger plants himself in the middle of a family and causes pandemonium. That is the plot for Hospitalité. The family has several secrets and shortcomings which the stranger exploits but overall his brief and notable stay leaves the family better off than before he arrived. The film had its moments but overall, I wasn't too impressed. Nice performances all around so it must have been the story or the moral that left me luke warm.

The High Life was a Chinese film about the underclass in China. We're not just talking about gangsters but con men and naive girls from the country who learn life's lesson the hard way and then some. The second half of the film shifts to a jail or low security where the guard forces his charges to read his poetry as part of their rehabilitation program. That he is susceptible to flattery is obvious in his self-serving penal techniques. However, he falls under the charm of a young female prisoner whose transfer to another facility distracts him from his duties.

The High Life was director Zhao Dayong first non-documentary feature film. In hindsight, the film felt more like documentary as if he let the story follow whatever path it would follow. However, The High Life was narrative fiction and the plot could have used some help. Programmer Rod Armstrong mentioned that Zhao would be available for Q&A after the film and alluded to the sharp turn the story takes midway but I wasn't able to stay for the Q&A.

13 Assassins and Outrage were two well made genre films (samurai and yakuza, respectively) from Japan. Directed by the prolific Takashi Miike, 13 Assassins was actually a remake of a 1963 film. The story involves a ridiculously evil lord whose atrocities go too far and motivate a group of samurais to plan his assassination...and what a plan it is! An entire town is turned into a giant trap as the brave and noble 13 take on hundreds of foes in the extended climax.

Outrage is one of those films where everyone double crosses and kills everyone else. Johnny To has made a few similar films set in the world of Hong Kong Triads. I recall seeing a similar film set in NYC and involving the Mafia. Actor, director, television talk show host, standup comedian Takeshi Kitano (aka Beat Takeshi) stars and directed Outrage. There were some nice violent, Tarantino-esque flourishes including a memorable scene at a dentist's office. The film seemed to drag on as one gangster after another was killed. I will say that Kitano has a face that looks made for Yakuza films - weathered, emotionless (except occassional eruptions of rage) and great eyes that can express emotion or glaze over to become inscrutable.

World on a Wire was a German television miniseries directed by Fassbinder. I'm not sure if Fassbinder pioneered the sci-fi techniques which would later be used in countless film. Regardless, in 2011, the 1973 production looks quaint, clichéd and extremely dated. At nearly 3.5 hours, the film also seemed self-important. Fassbinder visually style and adept handling of what can only described as melodrama were impressive enough to partially salvage the experience for me.

World on a Wire is getting at least a one-week run at the Roxie starting July 29.


That only leaves The Dish and The Spoon which is long on indie film street cred. The film itself came up short for me. The much touted performance of star Greta Gerwig left me wondering if I missed something. Actually, I did miss something because the film put me to sleep. I find that falling asleep during a film is actually quite an accurate indicator for my likes and dislikes. I fell asleep during The Dish and The Spoon, then I had dinner and watched Sound of Noise. I stayed awake every minute of Sound of Noise (on a full stomach).

I assmume The Dish and The Spoon with its reference to the nursery rhyme was intended as an adult fairy tale. The two main actors (Gerwig and Olly Alexander) play act at being a couple by switching gender roles and dressing in Colonial Era costumes. The films moves along disjointedly which some describe as quirky. However, I could never quite believe Gerwig's performance. She has a tremendous transformation though. At the beginning of the film, she looked like a teenager. By the end, she looked like a woman approaching 30. I'm not sure if that was intentional or not.

Getting back to her performance, her anger, frustration and despair was not believable to me. It looked like she was acting and her skills couldn't quite muster the inner rage and pain needed for those scenes. Her co-star Alexander also looked young but didn't age as the film progressed. He was definitely the second banana because his backstory was developed so he remained a mystery. Who is he, what is he doing in Delaware with his English accent, why was he past out in a lighthouse?

These two young people don't share physical intimacy but develop a strong bond as they pretend to be a couple. Ultimately Gerwig's character decides to return to her philandering husband (after she confronts his lover). By this point in the film, I was apathetic. I was awake but I can't recall the ending. Summarizing my criticisms of the film - Gerwig's performance wasn't as great as billed, Alexander's character could have used more development, the plot was a series of scenes which didn't tell much of a story but was supposed to sketch out Gerwig's character's journey but I could never empathize with Gerwig's character.

I will admit that the night I saw The Dish and The Spoon and The Sound of Noise at the Kabuki, SFIFF screened Toby Dammit (directed by Fellini and starring Terence Stamp) at the Castro. The screening was not announced until after the festival started and by that time I had purchased the tickets to The Dish and The Spoon and The Sound of Noise. I had a serious case of buyer's remorse which may have clouded my judgment of The Dish and The Spoon. I doubt it because I have no regrets about seeing The Sound of Noise.