Sunday, August 28, 2011

People Who Never Get Old For The Wrong Reasons, New New People, Same Old Same Old, The Searchers, The Bowery Boys and King Kong

The passing of former San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat has put me in a contemplative mood. Only eight years older than me, I cringe when I see someone close in age pass away. Less than a month before, I read about a gathering at Tosca Cafe to honor Leggat. I read the article and thought it was a celebration of his accomplishments at SFFS tinged with the knowledge that his cancer was incurable. In hindsight, it appears as though Leggat presided over his own sounds like something out of a movie.

According to the SFFS press release, "In lieu of flowers, donations in Leggat's memory may be made to the San Francisco Film Society."


Leggat's most immediate legacy at SFFS is the partnership with New People Cinema. SFFS will exhibit films at New People Cinema (aka Viz Cinema). The first five films to be exhibited are the latest from Jean-Luc Godard, an Argentinian film about a woman competing in jigsaw puzzle competitions, Aurora - a Romainian film which screened at this year's International, The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan and Shaolin which is scheduled to open three weeks earlier at the 4 Star. I can't fault the line-up except I wish it would retain some of the Japanese films which is New People's line of business. Doesn't it seem strange to exhibit international films at a building dedicated to J-Pop culture? I hope they can carve out a few days per month for Japanese films. This weekend, there is a J-Pop Summit at New People. Part of the festivities include Japanese film screenings. I wonder if they'll be able to do that next year.

Actually, as long as I'm complaining, the configuration of the Viz Cinema is not conducive to large crowds. The box office and theater are in the basement and queuing up may cause problems. At the SFIFF, they had people queue up on sidewalk outside the building with the box office/will call table in the street level atrium. I doubt that will be the everyday practice.

The SFFS programming kicks off on Friday, September 2 at New People with Godard's Film Socialisme.


In this week's newsletter from the Balboa Theater, Gary Meyer writes "As I continue discussions with interested parties for taking over the Balboa I am heartened by the passion and loyalty many people have expressed for the theater. There are wonderful dreamers who think it would be fun but have no idea what is involved in running this kind of business. I love their enthusiasm but soon they become overwhelmed by all the aspects of staying afloat. I hope that the theater can stay open and I have extended my operation through September."

Previously, Meyer stated "The good news is that I think I have found an enthusiastic group of experienced theater lovers to carry on with our current staff remaining." I didn't read that sentence carefully. "Experienced theater lovers" doesn't necessarily mean the group has experience running a theater. It could mean they have experience loving theaters presumably movie theaters. Meyer's latest report sounds downbeat. It's not enough to have enthusiasm according to Meyer. Running a theater is a grind that can wear you out. I won't disagree as I've never worked at a movie theater. It is heartening that Meyer is extending his stay by a month and that he won't turn over operation to someone(s) who he believes will fail. It would be depressing to have someone come in and run the Balboa into ground or close up shop six months or a year from now.


In similar news, I've been following off and on, the plight of the New Parkway Theater in Oakland. The Parkway shut down as part of the implosion of Catherine and Kyle Fischer's Speakeasy fiasco. I don't recall all the details. I believe the Cerrito Speakeasy theater soaked up all the money which left the Parkway Speakeasy impoverished; kind of a "rob Peter to pay Paul" situation.

Anyway, a group of investors led by J. Moses Ceaser, who is on the staff at Third I, has tried to reopen the Parkway. He has encountered many setbacks which you can read in their newsletters. In essence, Ceasar has chronicled his negotiations in the newsletter. That seems like an unorthodox and detrimental negotiating tactic but it makes for interesting reading. I used to check the website once a month to read three or four newsletters. As his various lease negotiations have stalled, Ceasar has published the newsletters less frequently. It's been 12 weeks and counting since his last newsletter.

The point is not to criticize Ceasar's public negotiations but to point out that re-opening a movie theater (or transferring ownership) appears to be a complex transaction as exampled by Meyer and Ceasar. I also infer that once a movie theater ceases operation, it is extremely difficult to restart which explains why Meyer is so picky about who he turns the reins over to.


Now that I've opined on someone I didn't know very well and a business I know close to nothing about, I'll share my pearls of wisdom on The Searchers.

The Searchers was part of the Max Steiner series at the Castro. Generally considered John Wayne and John Ford's best film (collaboratively and individually), The Searchers is indeed impressive.

Foremost, Wayne's Ethan Edwards has a dubious character. Not roguish and certainly not heroic, it is implied that Edwards had an intimate relationship with his brother's wife, that he was a mercenary and made quite clear he has a hatred and prejudice against Indians (now politely referred to Native Americans). The hatred is rooted in the death of his mother who was killed by Indians years earlier.

Edwards arrives at his brother's ranch in Texas after a long absence. He is warmly greeted by his brother, his wife and their three children. Shortly thereafter, a posse of Texas Rangers arrive to report some cattle stolen from a neighboring ranch. Ethan resentfully joins the posse which turns out to be a ruse by Comanches. While the Rangers are chasing the cattle, Comanche raiders attack the Edwards ranch leaving Ethan's brother, sister-in-law and nephew dead. His two nieces have been kidnapped by the Comanches. Ethan, the Rangers, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Ethan's adopted nephew and Ethan's elder niece's fiancé set out to retrieve the girls.

The rest of the film relates to the multi-year search for the two girls. The elder girl is found raped and murdered. One by one, the search party is reduced in numbers until only Ethan and Martin are left. Ethan's motivations are intense but unstated. I wondered if his younger niece is actually his secret daughter. Regardless, Ethan's promises to kill the girl once he discovers she has become a Comanche warrior's wife. The thought of his niece having relations with a Comanche is more than Ethan can bear...better dead than red. It's not just the sex part though. Ethan hates Indians and having lived amongst the Comanches for more than half her life, Debbie (Natalie Wood as a teenager and her sister Lana as a young girl) is more Indian than white; at least that is what Ethan is worried about.

Martin's motivation is less clear. He is being aggressively courted by a rancher's daughter (Vera Miles). He could easily drop out and get married. Ethan's latent hostility towards him would seem to be enough but Martin is extremely loyal to the Edwards family and fond of Debbie. Martin is also half-Cherokee and it instills an inferiority complex on his which he must disprove particularly as it relates to his uncle.

The grandeur of the The Searchers is that it plumbs the depths of Edward's soul and Ford makes optimum use of the Monument Valley landscape. I can't recall Wayne portraying such a conflicted character in any other film. Edwards is full of hatred and vengeance and it propels him for years as he searches for his nieces - the search to find his nieces destroys Edwards piece by piece. I'm certain the ending of The Searchers was dictated by the need to conform to the Production Code but I've gotten used to ignoring the ending of movies from the Code Era.


I wanted to mention quickly that Angels with Dirty Faces was interesting. James Cagney played a gangster and Pat O'Brien played a priest so Angels could have been predictable. What set it apart was the presence of The Bowery Boys (credited as the Dead End Kids). I recall Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, et al. from a series of B pictures from the 1950s. They looked like middle-aged men. In Angels with Dirty Faces, they actually look young enough to be juvenile delinquents. Gorcey was 21 and Hall 19 when Angels with Dirty Faces was released. Although they got a few laughs, the Kids had some serious moments.

Angels with Dirty Faces is also remembered for the closing scene. Cagney has been sentenced to death. Before he is led off to the gas chamber (or maybe the electric chair), O'Brien asks him to pretend to be a coward before his death so as to be a deterrent for the Dead Kids; the ultimate Scared Straight. Cagney turns him down flat but from off screen, you hear him begging and pleading for his life. It's left ambiguous to whether he was really scared or whether he decided to the do the right thing before he died.


The remaining film from the series was the original King Kong. There's not much to add to words written about this classic. My observations were: the stop motion animation for King Kong is still impressive but the head model of King Kong looks silly, I had forgotten about the T-Rex and Pterodactyl fight scenes, Fay Wray is sexier than I remember and the scenes with the natives are comically racist now.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My Baby, She Wrote Me a Letter

The title refers to one of my favorite songs: The Letter. I prefer the original Box Tops version over the Joe Cocker cover although Cocker's is longer and has a more muscular hook.

For me, the highlight of the recent Max Steiner series at the Castro was The Letter. Last weekend, I read in the San Francisco Chronicle that the 1940 Bette Davis version was a remake of a superior 1929 least according to Mick LaSalle. The 1929 talkie starred Jeanne Eagels who was a heroin addict in real life and died in 1929. I'm sure that being hooked on smack influenced the performance which LaSalle praises. After seeing the 1940 remake, I'm very intested in seeing the Eagels' version.

LaSalle's first sentence implies a disdain of the 1940 version by labeling the film a melodrama. Melodrama is a loaded phrase which I have used to pejoratively describe films or certain aspects of films. I cannot deny that The Letter is melodramatic. However, sometimes the melodrama is so skillfully manipulative that you can't help but appreciate it. This happened quite often in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Bette Davis (as well as Joan Crawford) was frequently the woman doing the manipulating.

The Letter is all that but at some it point it transcended melodrama and achieved something greater. From my 2011 perspective, The Letter also encapsulated all the latent racism towards Asians in a mélange of camp and outright hostility. Never subtle, The Letter is brassy and audacious; kind of like Bette Davis. Released in November 1940, less than 13 months before Pearl Harbor, The Letter is breathtaking in its rampant bigotry which was likely a sentiment shared by many as hostilities grew between Japan and the US.

I was not so much offended by the content as I always watch old films with a complete tolerance for any offensive material. Rather, I was highly impressed by director William Wyler's casual depiction of racism and the way he weaved it into the plot. Having not read the source material, it is quite possible that W. Somerset Maugham wrote the racism in his play. Regardless, the content and the skill by which Wyler presented it was a revelation and highly enjoyable since I was detached from it. It was like looking for Easter eggs.

The plot of The Letter is exceedingly simple. Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) shoots Geoff Hammond. She chases him out the front door and shoots him repeatedly until her revolver is empty. Crosbie claims attempted rape and self-defense. Although a formality, Leslie is put on trial for murder. Her acquittal seems assured until a letter from Crosbie to the deceased turns up. The letter indicates that on the night of his demise, Hammond was invited to the Crosbie residence because Mr. Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) is away. Not only that, the letter also indicates that Leslie and Hammond were having an extramarital affair. This directly contradicts Leslie's explanations to her husband and attorney, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson).

Against his better judgment, Joyce agrees to purchase the letter from Hammond's widow. With this crucial piece of evidence suppressed, Leslie is acquitted. Later, after Mr. Crosbie is confronted with the content of letter and the cost of purchasing it, Leslie admits the entire sordid affair as well as being a murderer.

I've left out that The Letter takes place in Singapore. The Crosbies, Geoff Hammond and Howard Joyce are Caucasian. Hammond's widow is Eurasian. Joyce's unctuous assistant, who serves as the broker of the letter, is Asian.

First, let me praise Davis' performance. Only 32 when the film was released, Davis portrays an older woman who wears eyeglasses and does needlepoint when her vanity allows. It gives Leslie and Davis a decidedly dowdy appearance. There is a scene in the women's prison where Davis' performance and the cinematography of Tony Gaudio come together magnificently. Leslie goes from denying the letter to admitting to the letter/affair to convincing Joyce to buy the letter which could get him disbarred.

Davis' performance is only one arrow in director Wyler's quiver. Throughout the film, Asians are depicted as deceitful and inferior. My favorite scene is when Joyce gets into his large sedan and drives away. His assistant, Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung), also arrives in the parking lot to drive away but he momentarily disappears. When he reemerges, he is driving a small, sputtering jalopy which had been eclipsed by the larger (presumably Caucasian owned) automobiles.

However, the film hints that Singapore (and by extension all of Asia) is one giant miasma of dubious and unethical behavior...dubious and unethical behavior by Western standards but common amongst the yellow hordes. The tropical heat got to Leslie & Joyce causing them to cuckold her husband and tamper with evidence, respectively. What could they do? Hammond was under the spell of his half-Celestial wife and Joyce was being subtly manipulated by his Chinese assistant into buying the letter; all the while bathed in horizontal shadows.

The most amazing character is Hammond's widow played by Danish-American Gale Sondergaard. She looks like a cross between a dragon lady and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. She stares inscrutably, says little (in fact she doesn't speak a word of English throughout the film) and dresses like a character from a Chinese opera. She is more Asian than any full blooded Asian in the film. Another key scene in the film is when Leslie meets the widow to exchange cash for the letter. Davis wears a ridiculous lace shroud looking like either a saint or a leper. Sondergaard wears something more appropriate for a Chinese New Year's Day parade. The scene is ridiculous and funny and compelling and tense, et al.

Paraphrasing Jules from Pulp Fiction, in the end, the locals go Middle Kingdon on Leslie's ass which I doubt was in Maugham's play. Along the way, The Letter had Bette Davis tearing it up in full Jezebel mode while matching up against a bunch of cunning and diabolical Asians. For me, The Letter was delicious retrograde entertainment.

Bette Davis in The Letter

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Do They Have in Common?

I recently saw the following six films at the Castro Theater. Before the series, I couldn't have identified the common denominator between the films. The answer is Max Steiner who composed the original score for those films as well as Gone With the Wind and The Big Sleep. The Steiner films were part of the Castro ongoing "Legendary Composer" series.

Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford, Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth & Eve Arden; directed by Michael Curtiz; (1945)
The Letter starring Bette Davis & James Stephenson; directed by William Wyler; (1940)
White Heat starring James Cagney, Edmond O'Brien & Virginia Mayo; directed by Raoul Walsh; (1949)
Angels with Dirty Faces starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan & the Bowery Boys; directed by Michael Curtiz; (1938)
King Kong starring Fay Wray & Bruce Cabot; (1933)
The Searchers starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles and Natalie Wood; directed by John Ford; (1956)

I can't remember the last time a classic film series entertained me more. I had seen King Kong and The Searchers on television before. Parts of Angels with Dirty Faces also looked familiar. Any familiarity I had with the films did not dampen my enthusiastic response.


Mildred Pierce was one of the most celebrated films of its era. It garnered six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Crawford for Best Actress and Arden & Blythe for Best Supporting Actress. Crawford won the Best Actress award which was deeply satisfying to her. Unceremoniously dropped by MGM in 1943, Crawford signed on with Warner Brothers where she competed with Bette Davis for parts. Davis was the first choice for Mildred Pierce but turned down the role. With the supporting roles cast, director Michael Curtiz forced Crawford to shoot screen tests for the role which was certainly not the way Hollywood stars were treated back in the day. Of course, Crawford's career was thought to be washed up so she was treated like a has-been bitch, but Crawford proved they were only half right. Mildred Pierce relaunched Crawford's career and put her back on top at the box office.

I've seen Mildred Pierce characterized as film noir. That's a bit of a stretch for me; tearjerker and melodrama are two labels I'd attach to Mildred Pierce. Mildred Pierce is the story of a conniving woman who lies, sleeps and betrays her way into getting what she wants. Amazingly, Crawford doesn't play that woman; Ann Blythe does. Crawford plays Mildred, the mother of Veda (Blythe). Pierce's character flaws are more selfless. Mildred is desperate for her daughter's affection and approval. Mildred being a successful restaurateur is too declasse for Veda to tolerate so Mildred marries a playboy (Zachary Scott) from a prominent family which has lost their wealth. Scott proceeds to empty Mildred's bank account and bed her daughter.

Crawford loses some of her appeal by playing the sacrificing mother. That's more than made up for by Ann Blythe. She looks like she could appear in an Andy Hardy film but her performance out bitches the Queen Bee at the best. By the time Crawford got to her bitchy stage, she looked like a middle aged, drag queen desperately trying to hang on. As Veda, Blythe looks like a sweet and well-scrubbed teenager but she's rotten to the core and we all know it by the end. Mildred Pierce should have made Ann Blythe a star.

Eve Arden provides some laughs in a smaller role as Mildred's wise-cracking assistant at the restaurant. The three main supporting actors play characters which give men a bad name. Bruce Bennett as Pierce's ex-husband is the least contemptible. Morose and taciturn, Mr. Pierce did his wife a favor by divorcing her although his strengths shine through by the end of the film. Jack Carson plays the lecherous and opportunistic financier who has long longed for Mildred and whom Mildred attempts to frame for murder. Finally, Zachary Scott is delightfully slimy as the amoral, gold digging 2nd husband of Mildred who can't help or attempt to change his distasteful nature.

I can't imagine how the story of Mildred Pierce could be adapted for modern day circumstances. Even the recent HBO mini-series was set in the 1930s. Mildred Pierce is a product of its era; the same era of Joan Crawford. The ending of the film differs from the novel which is again a product of the Hays Code era. Despite the 65 year span between the release of film and today, I was able to put aside my modern sensibilities and enjoy Mildred Pierce unequivocally.


Let me start by saying that Jimmy Cagney looks too old for his part as a crime gang leader in White Heat. A few weeks shy of fifty years old when he filmed the part, Cagney looks ridiculous paired up with the delicious Virginia Mayo as his wife. That's about all the criticism I can level at White Heat.

In White Heat, Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a cold blooded gang leader who rules his gang through fear. His gang pulls off a train robbery in LA and Jarrett has the ultimate alibi. He cops to a lesser crime committed in Chicago at the same time. One of Jarrett's underworld allies pulled the job so Jarrett could plea to a lesser charge to alibi him with the train robbery in which two or three people were killed.

The downside is Jarrett has to do a two year stretch prison for the crime he confessed to. Jarrett could do the time standing on his head and he has his trusted mother to keep an eye on the stolen loot. Still, Jarrett has problems he hasn't even considered yet. The Feds put an Treasury agent undercover in Jarrett's cell. Going by the alias Vic Pardo (Edmond O'Brien), T-man Hank Fallon is anxious to put away Jarrett for the murder of a fellow agent. Adding to Jarrett's troubles is his roundheeled wife (Mayo) who takes up with Jarrett ambitious lieutenant, Big Ed (Steve Cochran). The two of them conspire to bump off Jarrett and his mother but are only half successful. If that's not enough, Jarrett has debilitating headaches and insanity runs in his family.

When Jarrett hears about his mother's death, he goes berserk in the prison mess hall (all-time classic scene). This results in him being taken to the prison infirmary which is an easier location to escape from. Having developed a rapport with Pardo, Jarrett takes him along when he escapes. Jarrett also takes along the prisoner who tried to kill him by dropping an engine block on his head. In another memorable scene, Jarrett asks the man (who is locked in the trunk of their car) if he can breathe. He replies it's kind of stuffy in the trunk to which Jarrett replies by emptying his revolver into the trunk ("I'll give you a little air").

After bumping off Bid Ed (whom Mayo has betrayed), Jarrett plans a payroll heist at a oil refinery. By now, Pardo is Jarrett's most trusted associate. When he discovers that Pardo is an undercover cop, it drives Jarrett over the edge which leads to the explosive climax.

The plot is standard caper fare but the performances by Cagney and Mayo are outstanding. Cagney has some decidedly oedipal feelings which seem to impair his relationship with his wife. Of course, Mayo's crass and vulgar Verna is a woman that should be handled at arms length. The two combined form one of the more dysfunctional cinematic couples from the period.

White Heat has this big, oversized performance from Cagney which gives the film an epic feel even though it is ultimately about a two-bit, psychotic, Mama's boy gangster. Lather on a tanker truck disguised as a Trojan horse and some other heist elements and White Heat reminded me of French New Wave film or an inspiration for Martin Scorsese.


The Letter & The Searchers deserve some space so I'll postpone my thoughts on them until next time.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Help

I stopped by the Balboa earlier this week to see The Help.

The Help starring Emma Stone & Viola Davis; (2011) - Official Website

The best piece of trivia which I've heard in a long time is that director Tate Taylor kept a calendar tracking the actresses' menstrual cycles. The implication being that if put you a dozen actresses together, you get a real bitchapalooza. There were long stretches where no men appeared on screen during The Help; husbands and fathers weren't integral to the plot. In fact, they were conspicuous by their absence.

The plot has Skeeter (Stone), a recent Ole Miss graduate, returning to her home town of Jackson, Mississippi. I didn't catch it until the end but her mother's (Allison Janney) illness is the primary reason for her return. Skeeter gets a job at the local newspaper writing a "helpful household hints" column to gain the experience she is told she is lacking. Her would-be publisher (Mary Steenburgen) see potential in Skeeter but she needs experience which is lacking in a newly minted college graduate.

Set in 1963, The Help takes place during the height of the civil rights era. Many of the historic events of the period are incorporated into the plot; more as time markers than plot devices. Medgar Evers' assassination, MLK's March on Washington and JFK's assassination are all mentioned during the film. Given the hindsight of history, you would think these monumental events would inspire the characters. However, The Help is a comedy that deals with weighty matters such as racism and indirectly, feminism but it deals with these events in personal terms as conveyed by the female characters' evolving relationships.

Skeeter decides that to gain further experience she will interview the black maids who work in white households. The maids care for their employer's children, prepare their employer's meals and are privy to their employer's secrets but they are subjected to racist and degrading behavior. The line between employer and employee is never breached much less the very real divide separating black and white in 1963 Mississippi. The Help glosses over the virulent racism of the time and place but it is a comedy after all

The maids are understandably tight-lipped when Skeeter tries to interview some of them. Skeeter's childhood friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the catalyst which convinces the maids that their employers' dirty laundry needs to be aired. In Hilly Holbrook, we have a supreme bitch that could give Joan Crawford a run for her money. Not content with lording over the hired help, she has started a petition requiring household's employing "colored" servants to build a "separate but equal" bathroom. Here's the best part; she frames her petition as a public health initiative because "they have different diseases." By the end of the film, Hilly has gone so low as to frame a maid for a crime she didn't commit.

Hilly is deliciously bitchy but the character throws the film off balance. I guess she personifies the racism which is ever present but Howard's splashy performance combined with the seeming lack of impact the civil rights movement had on the characters puts The Help in some strange alternate universe. Some of the black maids get pretty uppity for 1963 Mississippi with little consequence shown on screen. The enormity of institutionalized racism gets reduced to a bitchy white woman making trouble for anyone that gets in her way.

At certain points of the film, I thought the film was also commenting on the limited opportunities afforded to women of any color in 1963. Skeeter's friends think she is strange because she has a college degree, a job at the newspaper and isn't married. Perhaps harpy Hilly is the way she is because she didn't have anything else to occupy her mind. If she had encountered people of different backgrounds at a job or through travels, she wouldn't put so much emphasis on what food was served at her bridge club meetings.

The final criticism I have for this film is the character is Skeeter. Supposedly an ugly duckling, I though Skeeter/Emma Stone was most attractive. Her appearance, intelligence and lack of racism was highly attractive but I guess in the dying days of Jim Crow, Southern femininity had different standards of excellence.

All these issues I have with the film do not offset what is a largely enjoyable film. The film veers into melodrama and manipulates the audience's emotion in obvious ways but I couldn't help but root for Skeeter and two of the maids, Aibileen (Davis) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer). I also sympathized with Jessica Chastain who plays an outsider who is shunned by the female white society in Jackson for strictly personal reasons by Hilly. That Hilly is a one-woman wrecking crew but she gets her comeuppance with a pie whose contents are best kept secret.

Combined with highly entertaining The Easy A, Emma Stone is establishing herself as the sexiest and funniest comedic actor out there today. I am a big Emma Stone fan.

I've already mentioned the talented Allison Janney and Mary Steenburgen in supporting roles. Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson also do well in their roles as Hilly's mother and Skeeter's former family maid, respectively. The only actor to make an impact is the diminutive Leslie Jordan as Skeeter's editor. I recall Jordan well from his appearances (opposite Betty White) on Boston Legal which was one of my favorite television series.

The Help is not exactly a primer for the civil rights movement because it is a light comedy dealing weighty issues. I was content to just laugh at outrageous behavior and hiss at the villain, so The Help was the right film for me.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Pressburger:Ballet :: Macdonald:YouTube

I saw the YouTube/National Geographic documentary Life in a Day at the Balboa last week.

Life in a Day; documentary; directed by Kevin Macdonald; (2011) - Official Website

Life in a Day basically asked people around the world to capture a moment of their day and post it to YouTube. The specific day was July 24, 2010. More than 80,000 videos and 4,500 hours of footage was posted. Macdonald and Editor Joe Walker edited the footage into a 90 minute film.

The experience reminded me of eating potato chips. It tasted good at the time, it left me feeling empty afterwards and a week later I can't remember anything specific. That's not entirely true. I remember the Korean bicyclist who was trying to bike in a every country in the world. I remember the Japanese widower with a young son in a cluttered house. I remember some toe-tapping music played to the beat of some African woman pounding grain with a hooked shape mallet. There was a some people in a German crowd who were stampeded or past out from the pressure of the human mass.

The mishmash of clips seemed to be a sort of video time capsule for July 24, 2010. Did July 24 deserve a time capsule? I don't know. Were these clips representative?. Certainly nothing I saw on the screen reminded me of what I was doing last summer.

Although interesting to watch; the entire experience left me shrugging my shoulders.


Kevin Macdonald is the grandson of Emeric Pressburger (who with his production partner Michael Powell was), one of the most successful film directors in England in the post-WWII era. I previously enjoyed the duo's Black Narcissus with Deborah Kerr.

The weekend before Life in a Day, the Balboa screened a six film series called From Britain With Love. Although not part of the official series, the Balboa screened The Red Shoes in conjunction.

The Red Shoes; directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger; based on a Hans Christian Andersen story; (1948)

The Red Shoes is set in the world of ballet. A young woman is torn between her love for her husband (a composer) and her need to dance the part that is a perfect role for her.

The Red Shoes was included in the program because its cinematographer was Jack Cardiff and on the From Britain With Love films was the documentary, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. The cinematography during the ballet performances was spectacular. In fact, it overshadowed the rest of the film. Austrian born Anton Walbrook as the hard-driving ballet company director was memorable. His accented English added something to his character. The main character, Vicki the prima ballerina, was portrayed by Moira Shearer, a Scottish dancer with red hair to match her shoes. I'm not an afficionado of ballet so I can't comment on Shearer's dance performance but her acting was serviceable.

All in all, The Red Shoes was a nice film. It was very British. I can't put my finger on it but it reminds me of a film you'd see on PBS which has a very specific connotation from my youth.

Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

Monday, August 15, 2011

Documentaries About Two Very Different Women

I saw two documentaries recently. The topics of the films were two women born about the same time, lived in Los Angeles at the same time and were charged with very serious crimes. Both films played at the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Crime After Crime; directed by Yoav Potash; documentary; (2011) - Official Website
Tabloid; directed by Errol Morris; documentary; (2010) - Official Website

I saw Crime After Crime at the Roxie and Tabloid at the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.


Crime After Crime was directed by Yoav Potash who I last saw in Food Stamped (2010) at the 2011 San Francisco Independent Film Festival. Potash directed and starred in the documentary with his wife as they attempted to live one week on the equivalent food budget of people on food stamps. The seriousness of the subject was lightened by Shira Potash's breezy manner and Yoav's begrudging tolerance for his wife's project.

In Crime After Crime, Potash directs a completely different kind of documentary. Crime After Crime recounts the story of Deborah Peagler who was incarcerated for Murder One or Murder in the First Degree. Peagler's plight is infuriating and disheartening. Peagler was the victim of domestic abuse from her husband Oliver. Not content with beating his wife, he forced her into prostitution and molested their daughter. All these mitigating factors were not allowed to be presented at trial as a matter of California statutes.

After the police released Oliver despite his possessing assault weapons and threatening to kill Peagler and her family, Peagler's mother contacted some neighborhood Crips gang members. Peagler was African American and lived in South Central Los Angeles. The elder Peagler convinced gang members that Oliver was bad news for everyone and a wife beater/child molester to boot. She convinced Deborah Peagler to lure Oliver to a park at night where two Crips would beat the crap out of him. Instead, they strangled him to death. Peagler received a modest life insurance policy as a result of Oliver's death. The prosecution would use this as proof that the crime was a murder for profit scheme. Peagler accepted 25 years to life in exchange for the DA not seeking the death penalty.

In 2002, at which point Peagler had been imprisoned for 19 years, California passed a law allowing for evidence of battered spouse syndrome to be retroactively presented to the courts. The courts are compelled to take the evidence into consideration of sentencing and proper punishment. Peagler was assigned pro bono attorneys who figured if spousal abuse evidence was presented at trial, Peagler was at most guilty of manslaughter and subject to a maximum term of 6 years.

Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa were land use and permitting attorneys who had no idea what they signed up for when they took Peagler's case. They uncovered prosecutorial misconduct, an apathetic court system, an ambitious District Attorney and penal system designed to keep convicted murderers in prison. I can't say this was a complete surprise to me but the unwillingness of the parole board, courts and LA County DA office was infuriating indeed. I won't give away all the details but the film takes the viewer on a long & wild ride as Safran & Costa try to free Deborah Peagler.


Joyce McKinney grew up in South Carolina but was crowned Miss Wyoming in the 1970s. She moved to Salt Lake City where she met Kirk Anderson. This is where Errol Morris' Tabloid begins. The photogenic McKinney instantly fell for Anderson despite his size (one commentator in the film estimated he weighed 300 pounds). Anderson refused to participate in the film and photos of him are scarce throughout the documentary.

McKinney says that Anderson disappeared one day and she did what any red blooded, American girl would do. She set out to find him. Really? Why didn't she call the cops? A lot of obvious questions are never asked or answered in Tabloid. The blonde haired, light skinned McKinney moved to Los Angeles (around the time Peagler was meeting her husband in a different part of the city). Using monies of an undisclosed origin, she hired a pilot and bodyguard to fly to England with her and her friend Keith May. McKinney had discovered Anderson was performing his Mormon mission in England.

The pilot, who was quite readily recalled his attraction for McKinney even 40 years later, and the bodyguard dropped out of the scheme quickly. McKinney & May followed through. I'll summarize the events from McKinney and Anderson's testimony.

McKinney says she freed Anderson from a cult, drove to a cottage outside of London where she attempted to deprogram Anderson. Her main form of therapy was sexual as she attempted to become intimate with Anderson but his impotence was a barrier. Fortunately, McKinney had read that in cases where men had their sexuality repressed, it helped to bind the men so that would feel helpless and thus not feel as though they are reciprocating the sexual activity. McKinney bound Anderson and they had blissful sex for several days.

Anderson says that McKinney and May kidnapped him at gunpoint and drove to the cottage. He was bound in the spreadeagle position and subsequently raped by McKinney for several days.

Regardless of which version you believe, McKinney & May were arrested for kidnapping in what became known in the British tabloids as the "Mormon Sex in Chains Case." For a period in the late 1970s, McKinney was a the biggest tabloid figure in England.

Again, I won't give away more details because there are a lot of twists and turns in the case. McKinney gives an extended interview throughout the film and I thought she came across as decidedly loony and self-deluded.


Both films were extremely entertaining and highly recommended by me.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

2011 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

I saw three programs at the 2011 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I had tickets to four programs but missed Bobby Fischer Against the World because I was invited to a San Francisco Giants game.

Eichmann's End: Love, Betrayal, Death; documentary with reenactments; German, Spanish and Hebrew with subtitles; (2010)
The Juggler starring Kirk Douglas & Milly Vitale; directed by Edward Dmytryk; (1953)
Jews in Toons; one episode each from The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park

I saw all films at the Castro Theater.


Eichmann's End was absolutely horrible. You would think the capture of Adolph Eichmann is a story you couldn't mess up. I was unaware that Eichmann's son was dating a concentration camp survivor's daughter in Argentina and that the teenage girl helped to positively identify Eichmann who was living under an alias. I was unaware that certain agents of the West German government conspired with Israeli operatives to capture (kidnap?) Eichmann and try him Israel for fear that former Nazis in the German Dept of Justice would conspire to lightly punish Eichmann. This is the story Eichmann's End is trying to document. However, quick edits, clumsy reenactments and clumsy talking head interviews made following the story an effort which I ultimately gave up on. Eichmann's End is a poorly made documentary which could (and should) have benefited from a better direction and editing.

The Juggler stars Kirk Douglas as a German Jew Holocaust survivor recently expatriated (along with thousands of others) to Israel in the early 1950s. Suffering severe psychological problems from his time in a Nazi concentration camp, Hans Müller (Douglas) escapes from the refugee camp he has been placed in (which looks suspiciously like a POW camp from some WWII movie). Outside the camp, Müller attacks a police officer and flees to the Israeli countryside. He falls in with Josh (Joey Walsh), a teenage boy. Frankly, their relationship is kind of creepy. First, Müller is using the boy as cover and as a guide to help him elude the police. Second, it just seems strange that a 40something year old man would roam the countryside with a 13 year old boy he just met.

Eventually, Müller & Josh wind up in a minefield. Josh is injured and receives medical treatment in a kibbutz where they encounter Milly Vitale who certainly knew how to fill out a pair of hiking shorts. Apparently not yet liking girls, Josh continues to be fascinated by Müller and the art of juggling. Müller wants Ya'El (Vitale) to lead him out of the kibbutz which leads them dangerously close to the Jordanian (or was it Syrian?) border. Drawn largely by Ya'El (who is sending obvious signs of attraction), but somewhat by Josh, Müller changes his mind and returns to the kittutz.

All throughout the film, the tough but fair-minded Israeli police inspector is closing in on Müller who has taken a liking to life on the kibbutz. After folk dancing and "bonding" with Ya'El, Müller agrees to perform for the kids in the kibbutz hospital despite his better judgment to flee. Bad choice as the police arrive while Müller, dressed as a clown, is performing. He barricades himself but Ya'El talks him into surrendering where undoubtedly he will receive compassionate psychological treatment from the Israeli penal system and eventually be released so he can reunite with the carbine packing Jewish mama.

The Juggler is a bit silly by today's standards but the film is more interesting as the collaboration between director Edward Dmytryk who "named names" during the HUAC hearings and Douglas who, seven years late, insisted blacklisted Dalton Trumbo receive screenwriting credits for Spartacus. Dmytryk's testimony helped to put Trumbo on the blakclist.

Beyond that interesting intersection of 1950s cinema and politics, The Juggler was part of a general pro-Israeli attitude coming out of Hollywood in the 1950s which was best captured in Exodus (screenplay by Trumbo).

I can't say The Juggler is a great or even good film. I can think of a dozen other Kirk Douglas films I'd recommend before The Juggler. I can't recall Douglas playing a Jew in another film. Festival Director Peter Stein (or whoever introduced the film) said Douglas stated this film kicked of a religious reawakening in him. Douglas didn't so much begin practicing his faith again (eventually he would) but he was more at ease with his Jewish background and youth than before.


Jews in Toons consisted of the three television episode (without commercials) and followed by remarks from Mike Reiss, a longtime writer from The Simpsons. The program drew a healthy crowd at the Castro - younger and more numerous than Eichmann and The Juggler. Let me digress by saying, the SFJFF draws the most mature crowd of the festivals I have attended the past several years. There are a lot of middle aged and older Jewish ladies in the audience.

Reiss' remarks quickly segued into a stand-up routine with periodic clips from episodes of The Simpsons. I left while he was still talking as I wanted to get home early that evening.

The Simpsons' entry in Jews in Toons was titled "Like Father, Like Clown. Twenty years ago, I read that the Krusty the Clown character was loosely based on David Letterman. I recalled that tidbit when Letterman admitted he had sex with several female members of his staff. As I have watched The Simpsons for the past 20+ years, I look for Letterman in Krusty. To be honest, I'm not sure.

However, I have noticed that Krusty is Jewish. Krusty (real name Herschel Krustofski) will occasionally mutter Yiddish when under stress. I also had the benefit of seeing "Like Father, Like Clown several times on television. In that episode Krusty reunites with his father, the Rabbi Hyman Krustofski (voiced by Jackie Mason). Parodying The Jazz Singer, the Rabbi wanted his son to follow in his footsteps but young Herschel had clowning in his blood from an early age. When he discovers Herschel clowning against his direct orders, the Rabbi disowns his son.

Twenty five years later, Krusty is depressed and feels ennui. Bart and Lisa try to convince Rabbi Krustofski to reconcile with his son and hi-jinks ensue. This episode won an Emmy or maybe Jackie Mason won the Emmy. Regardless, this episode was the least anti-Semitic of the three in Jews in Toons. In the hyperbolized world of animated television comedies, the more anti-Semitic, the more hilarious. "Like Father, Like Clown was also made in 1991 which is so long ago and perhaps television boundaries had not been pushed so far as to allow the more outrageous antics which followed.

When You Wish Upon A Weinstein is a 2003 episode of Family Guy. Made in 2000 during the show's original run on Fox, the episode was not aired until 2003 when the show was on the Cartoon Network. The broadcast history tells a the story. Nine years after "Like Father, Like Clown, Fox (which also airs The Simpsons) was concerned that the show's anti-Semitic humor was offensive. It took another three years and a different network to run the episode.

Was the episode anti-Semitic? I didn't think so and non-practicing goys with blogs are the best arbiters of what is and what is not anti-Semitic. Max Weinstein's car breaks down and he asks to use the Griffin's phone. Back in 2000, everyone didn't have cell phones? Anyway, the Griffins are having some financial problems due to Peter's stupidity. Peter's benighted prejudice leads him to latch on to Weinstein as his financial advisor because Jews are good with money. It didn't really required a high-powered Jew lawyer to get Peter's money back but in grand Family Guy tradition, Peter is convinced that the salvation to all his financial problems is to have a Jewish financial advisor. When Weinstein departs, Peter decides his son Chris will convert to Judaism and the Griffin family fortunes will be guaranteed.

However, the Rabbi (was that Ben Stein's voice?) refuses Chris' conversion because he hasn't performed the requisite tasks. So Peter takes Chris to Vegas for a quickie Bar Mitzvah. WASPy Lois (isn't her mother Jewish?) frantically drives to Vegas to interrupt the ceremony in a parody of The Graduate.

Most of the anti-Semitism in this episode comes from Peter's ignorance which is the source of much of the humor and offensiveness of Family Guy. I had not seen this episode before so it was extra treat.

The final part of Jews in Toons was a notorious episode of South Park called The Passion Of The Jew. In this 2004 episode, Cartman is giving Kyle a hard time about being a Jew which is nothing unusual for the series. However, Cartman's usual anti-Semiticism is amped up with knowledge gained from repeated viewings of The Passion of the Christ.

Cartman dares Kyle to see the film so he can learn the truth. Surprisingly, Kyle empathizes with the Christian viewpoint and begins to urge his synagogue's congregants to apologize for the Crucifixion. Meanwhile, Stan and Kenny also see the film. Their reaction is equally intense; they hated it and decide to go to Malibu to get a ticket refund personally from Mel Gibson. The Mel Gibson they encounter is a raving lunatic with masochistic tendencies. I wonder why Mel Gibson didn't sue. Of course, Tom Cruise didn't sue over another episode which openly questioned his sexuality.

Cartman begins a Passion fan club which quickly takes on the trappings and accouterments of the Third Reich. Cartman begins to speak in German and talks of "the cleansing." It's all over the top and silly, depending on one's taste or distaste. The audience at the Castro ate it up.

There was one moment that I found fascinating. Kyle's congregation marches down to the movie theater to protest The Passion. While there, they encounter Cartman's mob. There is exchange that goes like this:

Rabbi - "This film is anti-Semitic. It's made one of our young Jewish boys want to apologize for the Crucifixion."
Adult in Cartman's Mob - "Well maybe you should."

This was followed by a pause on screen and a moment of dead silence in the Castro theater. The pause was pure genius. It appeared to be there for comic effect but instead it brought an awkward moment that made me wonder if the suggestion wasn't valid.

Of the three shows, I watch South Park the least so I wasn't some of the humor wasn't lost due to my relative lack of familiarity . I noticed Kenny didn't die for example. The humor in South Park has never quite been to my liking but I'm glad I finally saw The Passion Of The Jew.

Jews in Toons was my favorite program of the three I saw the 2011 SFJFF.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Monte Hellman at the Roxie

The Roxie screened cult director Monte Hellman's latest film in July. They programmed a retrospective along with it. The Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael played the same films (with the exception of Cockfighter) that week. Hellman was in town to Q&A after some of the screening although I didn't go to any where Hellman was also in attendance.

The adjective "cult director" is frequently associated with Hellman. His most famous film, Two-Lane Blacktop was a flop at the box office but cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorites. For a period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hellman was at the vanguard of film directors whose style and aestheticism came to symoblize the best of American cinema of the period. That is to say, Hellman is firmly linked to his era if for not other reason his output has been meager in the subsequent decades.

I saw five Hellman films at the Roxie.

Ride in the Whirlwind starring Jack Nicholson & Millie Perkins; with Harry Dean Stanton; (1965)
The Shooting starring Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates & Millie Perkins; (1968)
Two-Lane Blacktop starring Warren Oates, James Taylor, Laurie Bird & Dennis Wilson; (1971)
Cockfighter starring Warren Oates, Richard B. Shull & Harry Dean Stanton; with Ed Begley Jr., Laurie Bird & Troy Donahue; (1974)
Road to Nowhere starring Shannyn Sossamon & Tygh Runyan; (2010) - Official Website


I wasn't too impressed with Hellman's latest venture. The premise of Road to Nowhere is that a director is making a film about a political scandal where the central character disappeared. The non-actress cast as the missing woman may or may not indeed be the missing person. The director begins a relationship with her and his technical advisor becomes obsessed with the possibility of her actually being the missing woman. There was some interesting film-within-a-film moments and the director had a penchant for watching classic films including The Lady Eve with Henry Fonda & Barbara Stanwyck and Bergman's The Seventh Seal. However, the plot was confusing and muddled and the climax was underwhelming. Perhaps the same can be said of the other films in this series but for some reason, I allow more leeway with films from the 1970s.

My favorite film of the series was Cockfighter where Warren Oates plays Frank Mansfield, a "cockfighting trainer" or in other words, he fights and gambles on gamecocks or roosters. To guard against his own hubris, Mansfield has self-imposed a vow of silence until he wins a cockfighting championship. I can't even recall if there is voice over narration with Oates.

It doesn't matter because Cockfighter immerses the audience in the world of cockfighting including the actual matches (there are some graphic scenes which leads me to believe the cockfights were real), the cockfighting circuit, the trainers and gamblers and the rivalries. At the center is Mansfield is completely obsessed with the support to the point he won't marry his long-time, on-again/off-again lover who gives him an ultimatum - gamecocks or her. Given his singular pursuit, the film has a gritty and existential tone which suited me well - an elegy written in chicken blood.

Two-Lane Blacktop is Hellman's most well known film. It's similar to Cockfighter in that it introduces the audience to a lifestyle or subculture that they not likely familiar with. Also, the principal characters (Oates, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys) are completely immersed in their underground and illicit pursuits. Two-Lane Blacktop focuses on street racing with Taylor as the unnamed driver, Wilson as his unnamed mechanic and Oates, billed as GTO after the car he drives throughout the film.

Two-Lane Blacktop is more palatable than Cockfighter because of its content and because Oates is allowed to speak at length. Interestingly, Taylor and Wilson have few lines throughout the film. Oates, on the other hand, is continually talking about himself although the specifics continually change. By the end of the film, he has put himself in the role of the Driver & Mechanic who have been his rivals throughout the film. Part road film and part love triangle or even quadrangle, Two-Lane Blacktop has a more elegant tone but equally elegiac quality as Cockfighter. Hellman goes so far to end the film with the image one the screen looking as though it is a 35mm print being burned in the projector.

By the way, Ride in the Whirlwind, The Shooting, Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter were Hellman's complete feature film output for a nine year period beginning in 1965.

Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting were shot back-to-back in Utah. Jack Nicholson appeared in both and has screenwriting credits in The Shooting which I preferred of the two. Both film are referred to as "acid Westerns" and were evocative of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. In Ride in the Whirlwind, the main character are fleeing a lynch mob. In The Shooting, the characters are chasing an unseen prey. The interactions amongst the characters were more interesting in The Shooting but ultimately both film employed minimalist techniques and adhered to the bleak existentialism which Hellman perfected in Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter.


Largely satisfied with the four films Hellman released between 1965 and 1974, I wondered why Road to Nowhere fell flat for me. Did Hellman's skills or discerning eye as a director waste away in the 37 years since Cockfighter? I doubt it. Apart from the times and mood changing since the Nixon administration, I think Hellman's milieu has to be more down market. Scruffy looking characters from the Old West, drag racers and cockfighters are how Hellman made his name.

Trapped not only by his reputation but by the quality of those four films, Hellman appears out of place in the hills of modern day Los Angeles, on location during a film shoot or filming an attractive couple cuddling while watching classic films on a flat screen TV. Monte Hellman doesn't make "inside baseball" films, does he? Maybe without the Hellman imprimatur, Road to Nowhere could have been judged more objectively and even enjoyed. From what I've seen, I like my Hellman films with more grit and less glamour.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

TV Noir

From July 18 to 20, the Roxie presented TV Noir. The films were introduced by Johnny Legend. Legend is a compatriot of Elliot Lavine and mentioned the three day series was a preview of a longer series he and Lavine were planning for September. Legend has quite a pedigree that probably merits a documentary about him. Legend has been an rockabilly singer, actor, pro wrestling promoter, porn producer and now television archivist.

Each night, they screened a double feature which were generically named Program 1 and 2. I was able to catch both programs on July 18 and 19. I skipped July 20 to see The Last Waltz at the Red Vic which I have recounted. Each program consisted of television shows from the 1950s and early 1960s. Many of them screened with the original commercials.

I can't recall all the programs but a few highlights were:

Johnny screened the premiere episode of Medic, a show which ran from 1954 to 1956 and starred Richard Boone as a doctor. In this episode, Boone's patient was a pregnant woman (Beverly Garland) who is diagnosed with late stage cancer (leukemia I believe). Boone must keep the woman alive long enough for her to deliver her child. Dispensing with the melodrama, the episode tells the story with cold and sober delivery. Boone's voiceover narration recites the facts - "patient admitted on March 20 in her 28th week of pregnancy; white blood cell count is 35,000." Boone's character keeps a detached professionalism when dealing with the woman and her husband (Lee Marvin). Any doubt about the doctor's passion is put to rest during the 5 to 10 minute finale. Set in the operating room, the doctor struggles to save the woman. When she dies, he delivers the baby who appears stillborn. Boone won't give up as he tries every method to save the child before ultimately being successful. If that episode was any indication, Medic was a very intense 30 minutes drama.

In a 1960 episode of The Dupont Show, Harpo Marx appears as Benson, a deaf mute who witnesses a murder. Spotted by the killers but unable to communicate what he has witnessed (he's also illiterate), Benson has to hide as the killers come looking for him. At age 72, this was billed as Marx's final performance although I can find later credits for him on IMDB.

Treasury Men in Action ran from 1950 to 1955 on ABC. The title says it all and the 1955 episode with Charles Bronson was just as subtle. Bronson plays a wife beating, gun toting, heroin smuggling, jail breaking, clipped syllable speaking tough guy. Similar to Medic, I liked the way the show stripped away everything but the facts to give a detached view of the story; although according to the prologue, the T-Man story was taken from actual case files.

Bronson had a supporting role in a Dan Duryea episode of Suspicion, an anthology series produced by Alfred Hitchcock which ran from 1957 to 1959. How many times did Dan Duryea play the brains of an outfit that planned a heist? In this one, Duryea is planning a bank job. Duryea infuses his character with a lot of depth and the ambiguous nature of who fired the fatal shot at the end elevated this episode above the crowd of anthology series from the period.

In an 1950 episode of Suspense (1949-1954), a struggling actor (Leslie Nielsen with dark hair!) overhears a conversation to kill a bigshot Hollywood agent (George Reeves) and has to overcome numerous obstacles in his attempt to save the day. Shot live (with a few goofs visible), the episode had that early television look and spirit. As Johnny Legend mentioned, in the early days, Suspense wasn't called a television show but rather a teleplay. Shooting live probably gave the actors and crew an adrenaline rush but give the visible mistakes, its not surprising that television evolved to filmed or tape-delayed programming. Saturday Night Live, one of the few current series I watch on television, is a notable exception.


I don't know how a one or two week series of TV Noir will work out. There were several segments that left me less than impressed & I dozed off a few times. I find myself dozing off more during films. If a film isn't keeping my attention, I tend to drift off to sleep. It's become my new litmus test as to whether a film met the base criteria of being worthwhile.

Even the best segments were 30 minutes or less so it was impossible to flesh out the plots and characters. Whereas a good film feels like having a nice meal, the best TV Noir segments felt lilke I just had a tasty appetizer and left me wanting more.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Fate of Old Theaters and Young Magicians

I stopped by the Balboa last week to show my support. Two audience members were chatting before the show and I disagreed with their statements.

One said that the Balboa was closing at the end of the summer. He qualified the statement with a "probably" or a "most likely." I'm not sure I agree with that. I also overheard two of the staff talking with each other. One was asking the other how long she had worked at the Balboa. I couldn't hear her answer but his response was something like "you're an old-timer." The woman looked about 20 years old to me. He went on to say that his impression was that half the staff was new and half were "old-timers." The girl responded that was "only until recently." Presumably Gary Meyer's leaving or the lead up to his announcement precipitated some changes.

Anyway, getting back to the likelihood of the Balboa closing, I wonder how likely that is. It is certainly possible but given the closure of the Red Vic, I wonder if it is likely. I've noticed the Balboa Theater's newsletters have been publicizing films shown by "their good friends at the Vogue" for several months. I thought it odd that the Balboa would mention another theater in their newsletter as they were in dire need of business.

After Meyer announced is upcoming departure, I read that the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation (who operate and own the Vogue) were interested in the Balboa. Undoubtedly, they have been in discussions for months. Unlike the Red Vic, the Balboa is housed in this old and large building constructed for movie exhibition. I'm not sure how attractive it would be to other business. I'm not sure if the City would grant permits for other use. The building the Red Vic was in is owned by members of the Red Vic collective & the theater was behind on its rent so there is a certain sense that the owners of the Red Vic had exhausted all avenues as well as themselves.

Gary Meyer only subleases the space the Balboa is in. In some circles, if a theater is having a hard time economically, it must be because the lease is too damn high (to paraphrase Jimmy McMillan). Something tells me that if the Balboa tries to go out of business, there will be a "grassroots" uprising against the idea.


The man who mentioned the upcoming closure of the Balboa was speaking to another man. The second man had read the article about the reasons Meyer is leaving and opined that "less than 10% of theaters can handle digital" so the deadline to convert would have to be postponed. I found this statement to be ludicrous. Every screen at the largest metroplexes nearest me have been converted to digital - the Century Daly City, the AMC 1000, the AMC Metreon, the Century San Francisco Center, etc. I later found supporting data to show more than 50% of the screens in the US have been converted as of earlier this year.

What does this all mean? I don't know. The Balboa won't be allowed to fail and without $200,000 for a new digital projection system, they will be "reduced" to showing 35 mm rep house prints? That would suit me fine but I doubt that will happen or if it does, it won't last for long.


I did go to the Balboa to see a movie. The film was:

Make Believe; directed by J. Clay Tweel; documentary; (2010) - Official Website

Make Believe is a documentary which follows six teenagers as they compete for the title of Teen World Champion at the World Magic Seminar in Las
Vegas. The six teenagers include

Hiroki Hara, a quiet Japanese boy from a remote village in Japan

Bill Koch, a roly poly 19 year old from Chicago who is a skilled musician as well

Derek McKee, a 14 year old from Colorado who may take his preparations lightly

Krystyn Lambert, a blonde high school senior from Malibu whose pedigree and wholesome good looks make her odds on favorite

Siphiwe Fangase & Nkumbuzo Nkonyana, two South African boys with enthusiasm and pleasant demeanors

The film follows these six contestants as they prepare for competition and then provides backstage looks at them during the competition. Some of the contestants were more interesting than other. Siphiwe Fangase & Nkumbuzo Nkonyana lived in shanties Cry, the Beloved Country which made their upbeat dispositions even more surprising. However, the two most compelling contestants were Hara & Lambert.

Lambert has the attractive looks of a stereotypical California girl, appeared to be an driven over-achiever (she was her high school class president; two years running I believe) and was the anointed one. She had been performing since a young age, appeared on television specials and the prestigious Magic Castle and was mentored (managed?) by Gay Blackstone, a pioneering female magician. Leading up to the competition, it felt more like a confirmation of Lambert's supremacy. However, Lambert seemed tightly wound and Blackstone was a piece of work, telling Lambert how she was dismissed by her peers for being a woman. As Blackstone recounts the story to Lambert, she was told she got a gig because she had tits. Blackstone bellows "Damn right I have tits!" Lambert is left with a queasy smile. Blackstone comes off like some Hollywood agent stereotype - cynical, crass, sexist and more than willing to compromise Lambert's integrity (if not for a buck then under the banner of life lessons). I was left wondering who the real Krystyn Lambert is and frankly, I didn't really like the Krystyn Lambert that was being cultivated by Blackstone who implied Lambert need to sexualize or objectify herself to raise her profile. I thought Lambert looked younger than her 17 or 18 years so at times, Lambert's dress and appearance left me uncomfortable.

In one telling scene, Blackstone rushes to congratulate Hara after his performance. Lambert exits from backstage to see the two chatting. She attempts to join the conversation but Blackstone seems to ignore her and Lambert is too shy or upset to interrupt them. Eventually, Lambert returns backstage without saying a word.

The polar opposite of Lambert was Hiroki Hara. Hara grew up in a small town that can't even receive a cell phone signal. He learned magic through slowing videotapes of magic acts and books. Hara dreams of going to the Magic Castle...where Lambert is a member, teaches and performs. It becomes clear to this casual observer that Hara had the most skills and that fact is confirmed by the commentary of many magicians interviewed during the film.

During the competition, Hara nails his acts while Lambert drops a ball and ruining her illusion & later has trouble with one of her props. It was very amateurish looking. Although I didn't feel schadenfreude, I definitely breathed a sigh of relief. I figured Lambert was a shoo-in and since the preliminary voting was performed by the judges, I thought Lambert wouldn't make the finals. Instead, the judges amazingly gave her a pass to the finals where the audience would choose the winner by vote. I was near apoplectic. Who is the Las Vegas audience going to choose - blonde, nubile, Causcasian woman or shy, quiet, skinny Asian guy?

Spoiler Alert!

The audience chose Hara for first place, Koch for second place and two Japanese brothers who weren't featured much in the film took third place. Fangase & Nkonyana won the spirit award or congeniality prize. I felt a tear well up in my eye when Hara won. I think the results couldn't have been better if they had been scripted.

Six months after the competition, Hara had gone on an international tour and was booked at the Magic Castle. He seemed as though he would make magic his career. Lambert was matriculating at UCLA, taught classes at the Magic Castle, seemed much more at ease with herself and appeared as though magic would be a hobby (not even life-long). Both Hara & Lambert seemed better off with the results. Bill Koch is a talented musician (he could play Scott Joplin's Ragtime from memory on the piano) who returned to university on a music scholarship. Derek McKee seemed like a strange boy in need of some more lessons in life. Upon seeing Hara performance, McKee quipped, "When I grow up, I want to be Asian." Beyond his hero worship of Hara, that sentence reveals a myriad of insights into the psyche of Master McKee. The South Africans, frankly, looked as though they would have a tough road ahead of them and that that week in Vegas would be the highlight of their lives.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Final Film I Watched at the Red Vic

I miscounted the number of punches left on my Red Vic discount card. I thought I had one punch left but I had two. As I mentioned, I wanted to see The Last Waltz with my final punch but the screening was sold out. The Last Waltz was the penultimate film screened at the Red Vic. After it, the Red Vic closed on Thursday, July 21 and then screened Harold and Maude for three consecutive days before permanently shutting down. I've seen Harold and Maude a few times (never on the big screen) and I wouldn't have minded seeing it again but the Roxie was having Monte Hellman series at that time.

My final film at the Red Vic ended up being the 9:20 screening of What's Up Doc? on Wednesday, July 13.

What's Up Doc? starring Barbra Streisand, Ryan O'Neal & Madeline Kahn; directed by Peter Bogdanovich; (1972)

Filmed in San Francisco, the screwball comedy involves four identical valises owned by four very different people who converge at a hotel for various reasons. One bag is owned by Barbra Streisand, a homeless waif doing a Bugs Bunny impersonation throughout the film. The second bag (which is full of rocks) is owned by Ryan O'Neal, a uptight musicologist up for a grant award for his research into ancient man's use of rocks as musical instruments. The third bag, containing jewels, is by a wealthy dowager. The fourth bag contains unspecified government secret.

You can imagine the zany misadventures everyone gets into. The hotel dick (played by a pre-Boss Hogg Sorrell Booke) is after the jewels. A mysterious counter-espionage type is after the secrets. Barbra Streisand is after Ryan O'Neal even though he has an irritating fiancée (Madeline Kahn).

There is little point in recounting the plot further; all that needs to be said is hilarious hijinks ensues. Sometimes that is short-hand for stupidity follows but Peter Bogdanovich pulls it off skillfully. I thoroughly enjoyed the film. O'Neal plays straight man throughout the film to great effect. Streisand acquits herself satisfactorily but is overshadowed by Kahn and others. Supporting actors Kenneth Mars plays a Slav with a smile-inducing, scene-stealing accent and Austin Pendleton's character must have been Michael Myer's inspiration for Austin Powers.

In 1972, Streisand was nearing the peak of popularity and was an honest-to-goodness sex symbol. I always found that a little strange given her vaguely androgynous looks. She wears a cap through parts of the film which gives her the appearance of a 12 year old boy. However when she is scampering around in a bath towel or singing As Time Goes By while laying on top of a piano, her sex appeal come through. Like most comediennes or at least how audiences view most comediennes, Streisand cannot simultaneously be sexy and funny.

Bogdanovich drops a number of references to Golden Age films and caps the film with an elaborate car chase through San Francisco. What's Up Doc? adds to Hollywood's rich tradition of outstanding car chases in San Francisco. Bullitt, Freebie and the Bean, 48 Hours, The Rock, Basic Instinct and Jade are a few that I remember.

I'm disappointed the Red Vic has closed but with What's Up Doc?, I ended on a high note. I wish the members of the collective the best of luck in the future and thank you for the good times I had there.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Super 8

I stopped by the Empire Cinema on West Portal for the first time quite awhile. The last film I can remember seeing there is Downfall, the 2004 German film about the last days in Hitler's bunker. The Empire is a Cinemark/CinéArts theater.

I wanted to see Super 8 on the last day it screened at the Empire.

Super 8 starring Joel Courtney & Elle Fanning; directed by J.J. Abrams; (2011) - Official Website

Super 8 is the fourth general release film I've seen this summer. The others were Bridesmaids, The Hangover Part 2 and Midnight in Paris.

I'm not going to recount the plot since that is easily found on the internet. I liked Super 8 quite a bit. A few highlights:

1) There is a tremendous train crash that must last two or three minutes.

2) The film was like a cross between Stand By Me and E.T.. I thought the film would have been better without the alien subplot. Just throw a MacGuffin in there as to why the US Air Force is imposing martial law. A cheesy, drive-in resolution to the Air Force presence would have been more in keeping with the 1970s setting and the super cheap, Super 8 film within a film. Even better, just ratchet it down. Why even have a space alien? Keep that insane train crash, create some rumor as to the cause and have the kids investigate with camera in tow. The alien and associated CGI threw Super 8 off kilter. Super 8 is basically a coming of age story with a space alien layered on.

3) The Knack's My Sharona!

4) The film within the film is shown in the closing credits. With the Super 8 cameras and the teenage cast, it reminded me of the teenage shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark which I saw at the 2008 SF Indiefest.

5) Steven Spielberg has a producer credit on Super 8 and Super 8 looks and feels like Spielberg film from the 1980s.

6) Tipped off by multiple sources, I listened for the sound of a film projector during the quiet moments of the film. Not all the quiet moments but on several at the beginning, you can her the rattle of a film projector. That sound is part of the sound effects for the film as most screenings including the one I attended were projected digitally.

7) Elle Fanning is incredibly talented for an 11 or 12 year old actress which was her age during the filming.