Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hong Kong Cinema

The San Francisco Film Society has moved into their new venue at New People/Viz. SFFS has also kicked off their fall season with a new series called Hong Kong Cinema. They screened seven HK films in three days (September 23 to 25).

HK Cinema is the newest addition to the SFFS Fall Schedule. It augments established fall series such as Taiwan Film Days , (October 14 to 16) French Cinema Now (October 27 to November 2) and New Italian Cinema (November 13 to 20).

French, Italian, Hong Kong & Taiwan? Can't we get a Japanese series going at the Japanese owned and themed theater in the heart of San Francisco's Japantown?

I caught four films during the HK series.

Mr. and Mrs. Incredible starring Louis Koo & Sandra Ng; Cantonese with subtitles; (2011)
Punished starring Anthony Wong & Ritchie Jen; Cantonese & Mandarin with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart starring Louis Koo, Yuanyuan Gao and Daniel Wu; directed by Johnnie To; Cantonese & Mandarin with subtitles; (2011)
City Under Siege starring Qi Shu & Aaron Kwok; directed by Benny Chan; Cantonese with subtitles; (2011) - Official Facebook

Johnnie To produced Punished and shares directing credits with Ka-Fai Wai on IMDB for Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.


I didn't like Mr. and Mrs. Incredible. The premise was that two Chinese superheroes meet and fall in love. They move to a small village and live quiet lives while hiding their superpowers. A martial arts tournament is held in their small town which results in them having to come out of retirement.

That premise seems ripe with possibilities but Mr. and Mrs. Incredible mainly went for slapstick comedy. The didn't have much in the way of wire action or general action scenes. There was some CGI, jokes about getting old and a lot of gaudily dressed Chinese kung fu masters bickering with each other. I wasn't too impressed with Mr. and Mrs. Incredible so I won't spend much time on it.


Punished is a revenge flick. It reminded me of any number of Korean films where revenge seems to be a genre. It was not as graphic as the Korean films (although programmer Rod Armstrong said the film skipped the Chinese film ratings process). The film was predictable but had a few things going for it. First, Anthony Wong plays a real piece of work. He plays Mr. Wong, a shady businessman who drives away his family, tries to bully some villagers so he can get their land cheap and carries a grudge.

Wong's college-age daughter, Daisy (Janice Man), is in her rebellious phase as she snorts coke, hangs out with the wrong crowd and torments her stepmother. Daisy is kidnapped and eventually found murdered. This results in Wong dispatching his bodyguard/driver/security chief (Richie Ren) on a bloody revenge spree.

Punished isn't bad and has a few heart-poiunding scenes. Considered as a whole, it comes up short compared to other Chinese action films. The gold standard for gritty Chinese action films is The Beast Stalker (2008).

The villains in Punished were one-dimensional. Daisy was an interesting character. Her behavior was such that I thought she may have been involved in her own kidnapping but her early death limited her role.

That leaves Anthony Wong running roughshod over everyone and Richie Ren dutifully avenging Daisy's murder. There were also some visually stunning scenes set at Salar de Uyuni, a Bolivian salt flats.

I can't say I disliked Punished but it feels like a near miss to me. If Johnnie To had directed (as opposed to produced), the film may have closer achieved its potential.


For the most part, I liked City Under Siege. An immoral circus troupe come into contact with gas cannisters left by the Japanese in WWII. The gas gives whoever is exposed to it superhuman strength, aggressiveness and transforms their bodies. The performers decided to use their new powers to rob banks and commit mayhem. Sunny (Aaron Kwok), the good natured clown is only partially affected by the gas. He teams up with Qi Shu (Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, Blood Brothers, Confession of Pain, Three Times & The Transporter) as a television news reporter and Wu Jing & Zhang Jin Chu as a romantic pair of government agents who are trained to fight superhuman opponents.

City Under Siege was directed by Benny Chan who also made Shaolin which I was lukewarm about. Chan shows an aptitude for action scenes. City Under Siege delivers many entertaining fight sequences. Kwok shows some comedic skills Colin Chou as the leader of the circus gang shows some range as a psychotic killer with a desire for normalcy.

Although something of a lightweight film, City Under Siege achieved what it intended to achieve...namely numerous action scenes, Qi Shu looking radiant, a dash of comedy and more action scenes.

Why did I expect more of Mr. and Mrs. Incredible than City Under Siege? I'm not sure.


Johnnie To directs a romantic comedy! That sounds like a joke; like Quentin Tarantino directing a children's movie. However, as SFFS head programmer Rachel Rosen stated while announcing the film, To has directed romantic comedies before. I'm too lazy to look them up on IMDB but it doesn't surprise me. To's action films usually have a bittersweet romance as a subplot.

To discards all his typical tropes for Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. He does cast Suet Lam in a supporting role. They heavyset Lam is usually cast as a heavy (literally and figuratively) gangster with a sense of humor and soft spot in his hearts. I guess To is casting against type when he casts Lam as the nervous #2 of the company where suave Daniel Wu is the CEO and Yuanyuan Gao is the ernest staffer who is the object of his affection and jealousy. For her part, Gao vacillates between her boss and the sensitive but recovering alcoholic architect she has befriended (Louis Koo).

As Gao allows both relationships to develop, the men get anxious and frustrated. I won't give away the finale but Wu and Koo mutually escalate their mating rituals in an attempt to marry Gao. The film portrays one character better than the other but Gao's character was ambivalent towards the two which leads to some uncertainty in my mind.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is a sweet comedy. At times, it was a little too cloying. Gao's inability to make a decision (the decision was obvious to me) began to irritate me a little. Most of all, I was surprised at how comfortable To appeared in the romance/comedy genre. There wasn't a gun or gangster to be seen. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is my pick of the series.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On the Brink?

As we enter the last days of September, I note Gary Meyer is still at the Balboa Theater. By the way, the Balboa has at least two URLs - and

When we last heard from Gary on the topic (doesn't that sound like an intro for a serial installment?), he wrote "I hope that the theater can stay open and I have extended my operation through September." As September closes, I know I'm curious as to whether the Balboa can stay open. I note that their website is advertising the opening of George Clooney's latest film - The Ides of March on October 7 and and Programming the Nation on October 28. The last time I was at the theater, I noticed a poster advertising the opening of Ben Stiller's next film, Tower Heist on November 4. It appears Meyer is programming for at least another month.

So as a small number of Bay Area film goers anxiously await the fate of the Balboa, I thank Meyer for his dedication and loyalty to the Balboa and its patrons. My favorite theater of all time was when he was programming rep house/art house at the Balboa a few years ago.


Also interesting is that J. Moses Ceasar posted several back issues of newsletters after I wrote about it. My opinion after reading the latest newsletters is that things are not looking good for the New Parkway. He has broken off negotiations with the owners of the Parkway property. He seems to have given up on leasing a space as each space he has explored has issues.

I wasn't sure how to react to this paragraph in the August 16 newsletter.

Looking for an Angel—Keeping the religious theme going, in lieu of finding a landlord who’s willing to put some money into his or her building, I think that one of our best bets is to find a Parkway angel out there who’s got $2 million in a bank account—I know that this clearly doesn’t apply to most people on this distribution list—and would like to help get the Parkway back on its feet. We need this angel to buy a building (and we’ve found a good one) in the $1.5M range, pump another half million into it, and then we’ll arrange for the rest of the improvements and pay a fair rent for the next twenty or so years. Oakland gets its beloved theater back and the angel makes more money in rent than what he/she is getting from the bank, and we’ll even throw in a lifetime of free movies. Is there someone out there who can help salvage the Parkway? Anyone? Anyone?

Good luck trying to find someone willing to invest $2,000,000 in a single screen movie theater in Oakland. Also, he seems to indicate that the New Parkway would sign a "twenty or so year" lease. That is unusually long lease duration for commercial or retail real estate nowadays. To be frank, as much I love going to the movies, I would not invest in a single-screen theater anywhere much less Oakland.

Ceasar devoted part of one newsletter to debunking what he considers myths about the dangers of living in Oakland. As Mark Twain said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." However true or not, Oakland suffers from an image problem - crime is out of control, laying off police officers, dysfunctional city government, school district under state receivership, etc. It's not the kind of community reputation that makes an investor confident.

Still, you have to admire Ceasar's boldness. If he can't find a suitable facility to lease then he thinks about buying one!


It appears the futures of the Balboa and Parkway are uncertain so I wish Messrs. Meyer and Ceasar the best of luck in the current efforts.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Eastern Monks & Detectives, Southern Ladies and Maids

Before I dutifully chronicle the films I've watched, I want to report that I gobbled up The Help by Katheryn Stockett in three days. The film followed the novel quite closely. There were a few differences but I think I enjoyed the novel and the film equally.

In the novel, Skeeter was described as unattractive - 5'11", skinny legs and arms & a beak nose. She was called Skeeter because she looked like a mosquito which created a pun when the black maids would address her as "Miss Skeeter." I didn't pick up on that in the film but reading it over and over reinforced it. I find actress Emma Stone, who portrayed Skeeter, to be quite attractive so it never dawned on me that her character was considered unattractive. The film had numerous flashbacks to Skeeter as a child and I thought her character was a late bloomer.

Miss Hilly came off worse in the book. Hilly was more snooty in the film but downright evil in the film. The character was gaining weight due to stress but Bryce Dallas Howard (the actress who played Hilly) is slender. Hilly's husband was running for office in the novel; I don't recall that from the book.

I recall a scene towards the end of the film where Skeeter or her mother says something about her mother's cancer going into remission. That was the first mention I recall of cancer in the film. I thought it was a plot point which was cut from the film. I did go to the bathroom during the film so I may have missed it but Skeeter's mother's illness plays a prominent role in the novel.

Skeeter's maid, Constantine, was part white in the novel and her daughter was sent away to Chicago because she was "high yellow." It is strongly implied the father was white and for awhile, I thought Skeeter's father would be identified as the father. In the film, my recollection is that Constatine's daughter used the front door of Skeeter's house and that was why Constatine was fired. In the novel, Constatine's daughter passes herself off as white at the DAR meeting which upsets Skeeter's mother and precipitates the firing.

I could continue to list the differences but they aren't important enough to affect the story or plot. The casting was quite effective because I imagined the actresses in their roles as I read the novel (with the exception of Cicely Tyson as Constatine who was described as 6'1" tall).


I saw two big budget, Chinese action films.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame starring Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau & Tony Leung Ka Fai; directed by Hark Tsui; Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
Shaolin starring Andy Lau & Nicholas Tse; with Bingbing Fan & Jackie Chan; directed by Benny Chan; Mandarin with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website

Detective Dee featured the fight choreography of Sammo Hung.

I saw Shaolin at the 4 Star but it is screening Wednesday and Thursday at the Viz. I saw Detective Dee at the Landmark Embarcadero where it is still playing.

I can imagine the pitch line for Detective Dee - let's do Sherlock Holmes in Chinese! I wasn't a big fan of the 2009 Robert Downey film but it was entertaining enough - long on special effects, short on character development and plot. It was kind of neat seeing Big Ben as it was being built and Downey can be likable enough given the role. At times, I thought Sherlock Holmes was channeling Tony Stark but Downey plays the wiseacre well.

Detective Dee seems to go for the same formula except with Andy Lau in the title role. Lau acquitted himself as well as the role allowed. At two hours, I thought the film a little self-indulgent. Regardless of the length, the film relied too heavily on special effects and ponderously long action sequences.

The plot, in a nutshell, features cases of spontaneous combustion involving people building a huge Buddha which reminded more of how I imagine the Colossus of Rhodes looked. China's greatest investigator, Detective Dee, is released from prison by the queen (whom he rebelled against years earlier) to solve the crime. I'll give you one clue: fire least, that's what the subtitled translation said.

Andy Lau and Bingbing Li have a love-hate relationship which is kind of cute and they choreographed a scene of the two of them which was sexy, exciting and humorous. That scene (which is in the trailers) is my favorite from the film. Chao Deng shows up as a blonde or albino rival investigator. I'm not sure why the character looked the way he did. Detective Dee is based on Dí Rénjié, a real-life government official who died in 700 AD. I'm not sure if the Deng character was based on a real person. Chao Deng turns in one of the better performances of the film as Dee's rival and grudging ally.

Detective Dee is about as much fun as Sherlock Holmes with its giant Buddha statue, spontaneous combustion and high energy action sequences. I'm not sure if Spaniards were in China the 600s but they were in the film.


Andy Lau got to show more range in Shaolin. In this film, Lau plays an arrogant general who is betrayed by his colonel and forced to seek sanctuary in a Shaolin monastery which he had previously violated by killing someone the monks had given sanctuary to and then vandalizing their sign.

Lau shows the audience arrogant to abject and gets to interact with Nicholas Tse (the Colonel) and Jackie Chan (the cook at the monastery). Marginally more interesting than Detective Dee, Shaolin still seemed interminable at 2 hours, 11 minutes. Chan performs his screen magic in one scene where he uses cooking utensils to defeats his foes. Chan's frenetic style of on-screen fighting is more to my taste than anything else in Shaolin.

Taking itself seriously than Detective Dee, Shaolin lacks some of the exuberance and joy which go into great Chinese action films. Nicholas Tse as the villain certainly goes over the top in convincing us how evil he is. Tse is quite a popular working actor now. I've seen four of his films in recent month - The Stool Pigeon, Bodyguards and Assassins and the fabulous The Beast Stalker.

Yu Hai is memorable as the abbot of the monastery and comes full circle as he had a role in The Shaolin Temple (starring Jet Li) which Shaolin is nominally a remake of. About the only thing which is the same in the two films is that the temple is destroyed.

Now that I think about it, a giant Buddha statue plays a major role in the climax of Shaolin also.


Seeing these two films leads me to believe the Chinese are making big budget films in the style of Hollywood action films. I hope they can do better.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Taxi Driver & Blast of Silence

The Castroscreened an interesting double bill earlier this month.

Taxi Driver starring Robert De Niro; with Albert Brooks, Cybil Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle and Jodie Foster; directed by Martin Scorsese; (1976)
Blast of Silence starring, directed and screenplay by Allen Baron; (1961)


There is not much to say about Taxi Driver. I think it is the third time I've seen it all the way through although the first time in a movie theater. I've seen portions of the film countless times. I can't add much to the chorus regarding this film. I hold it in high regard and that evening's screening confirmed my memories. There were a few things that I had forgotten. If you have never seen Taxi Driver, I'd skip to the next section as I freely discuss the ending and key plot points.

The relationship between Albert Brooks and Cybil Shepherd is more comical than romantic. There may be some mutual attraction but they are hiding it behind banter and silly behavior. It's not clear to me why Shepherd's character succumbs to Travis Bickle's hard sell request for a date.

Robert De Niro turned in a performance as Bickle which only gets better over time. Compared to his performances Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino, De Niro's Bickle really is a case of still waters running deep. If you haven't seen the film, it's not obvious what De Niro is going to do. His actions and behavior hint at someone with serious issues but not someone who will go on a killing spree. Insomnia, taking a woman to a porn film on their first date (you always wait until the second date!) and consorting with underage hookers are disturbing but not outright frightening. De Niro & Scorsese don't go over the top with Bickle unlike many films since then. As a result, when Bickle emerges with a Mohawk, it comes as a shock and is disorienting. Bickle intended to murder a presidential candidate but was foiled by security so he goes with plan B which is rescuing the 12 year old hooker.

Keitel is more slimy than frightening as the pimp and the scene where he is dancing with Jodie Foster is really creepy but sheds great insight into the dynamics of their relationship.

Bickle seems to have issues with black pimps throughout the film. He gives them hard looks throughout the film. Keitel's character was originally black but changed to accommodate Keitel and avoid put racial overtones into Bickle's actions.

Scorsese shows up in a memorable scene. I recalled his performance as a cuckolded husband stewing in Bickle's taxi but he is more menacing and troubled than my recollection.

My memory of the film is that it ends with Bickle dying after the rampage with an overhead shot. However, the film indicates that he survived the shootout, was hailed a hero and has another encounter with Betsy (Shepherd). It has been long debated whether that scene represents Bickle's dying thoughts or should be taken as literal. Given that Bickle was identified with a gun near a US senator and presidential candidate (who wins the nomination) as well the short period of time between the shootout and the time setting for his meeting Betsy, I think it was a dream sequence or a representation of Bickle's fantasy before the shootout.


Blast of Silence is a low budget film (more than a little noirish) about a Cleveland hitman in New York for a job. Frank Bono (Allen Baron) grew up in New York and has staked out a target for assassination. He has procured his weapon from a fat, sleazy and vaguely effeminate middle man (Larry Tucker in the best performance). Frank just has to lay low over Christmas, pull off the job and skip town. Rather than remaining holed up, Frank goes out and trouble follows him.

First, he is reunited with a childhood friend and his sister (who Frank is sweet on). They insist that he come over for a Xmas party. By the way, at the party, I'm positive I saw an actor who later appeared in Jacques Tati's Play Time (1967) - in the restaurant scene. I can't figure out the actor's name from IMDB. Anyway, being in close proximity to a woman he yearns for has awakened feelings of loneliness in Frank which dulls his killing instincts.

More problematic is that Frank's fat gun dealer figures out why Frank needs the gun and asks for more money or else he'll tip of the target, a mid-level mafioso. This spooks Frank and he tries to call off the job but his client refuses and threatens Frank. I wont' give away the ending but I will say I predicted it.

Two scenes stood out in my memory. One is an ax murder and the other takes place during a hurricane. Both scenes are powerful and elevate Blast of Silence beyond its meager budget. On that count, part of the film captures New York in the Mad Men era. I recognized the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza. There was an extended scene where Frank wanders around the city which looked like pure filler for the 77 minute film. The opening scene where a train emerges from a tunnel is also visually memorable.

At its rotten core, Blast of Silence is a bleak and unforgiving film. Frank is morally bankrupt and he is just beginning to realize that there won't be any happy endings for him. To punctuate the film, there is narration by an unseen Waldo Salt whose voice sounds like a raspy and cynical version of Jack Webb. Salt, a blacklisted screenwriter, would go on to write the screenplays for Serpico, Midnight Cowboy and The Day of the Locust.

I'm surprised that Blast of Silence hasn't screened at Noir City. Blast of Silence reminded me of two films I've seen this year - On the Bowery, a 1957 psuedo-documentary about men living in the Bowery section of Manhattan and Dementia, a 1955 no-dialog film which I saw at I Wake Up Dreaming about a woman encountering some shady characters in the big city.

There is nothing original in recommending Taxi Driver but I'm also bullish on Blast of Silence which I consider an unearthed gem, albeit unpolished. Discovering films like Blast of Silence is why I love going to the movies.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Man Who Fell To Earth

I stopped by the Landmark Lumiere last week to see The Man Who Fell To Earth.

The Man Who Fell To Earth starring David Bowie & Candy Clark; with Rip Torn & Buck Henry; directed by Nicolas Roeg; (1976)

Nicolas Roeg is a well known director despite a modest output. I saw his latest feature, Puffball (2007), at the 2008 Dead Channels.

Dead Channels was the festival former Indiefest programmer Bruce Fletcher tried for two year after he left Indiefest. I heard Bruce Fletcher was programming the Idaho Film Festival. Idaho? On the festival's website, Executive Director Lyle Banks states "In 2009 Bruce Fletcher and I made the decision to move the Film Festival to March to offer the festival a greater ability to attract films that are otherwise unavailable during other times of the year...It is necessary to announce the suspension of the film festival until our executive and leadership teams are reconstituted. Our plan is to have a team in place and ready to produce the festival for March 2012, and possibly a smaller showing in Boise in 2011." I notice Bruce's name is not among the staff listing. I also recall he was programming the Vortex Room too.

How did I get on this subject? I remember...Nicolas Roeg. Looking at his credits, I see that I'm unfamiliar with his films (at least when he is the director). There is Puffball which I was less than enthusiastic about (although I can remember it clearly 3 years later) and The Man Who Fell To Earth which I'm familiar with because I'm a modest fan of David Bowie's work. It makes me wonder how I'm familiar with Roeg's name.

The Man Who Fell To Earth pretty much says it all. David Bowie plays the alien who has come to earth in search of water to ship back to his drought-stricken home world. He uses his planet's superior technology to take out patents and create a powerful and successful tech company. His goal is to use the company to finance regular shipments of water and ultimately himself back to his planet. While on earth, he encounters various humans. There is Candy Clark as Mary Lou who becomes his girlfriend, Buck Adams as Farnsworth - his patent lawyer and eventually president of his tech firm and Rip Torn as Dr. Bryce, a bored and unethical college professor who comes to work for the firm. Bowie's character goes by the name Thomas Newton (from England).

The film follows Netwon's efforts and I noted a few things. First, television and alcohol are the ruin of Newton. Earth's television signals emanate into outer space and presumably that is how Newton came to choose Earth. Newton likes to watch TV with a dozen sets going at once. Although initially abstinent, close interaction with Mary Lou leads Newton to indulge in sex and alcohol to a destructive degree. I also noticed that Newton seems to hold Japanese culture in highest esteem.

Eventually, Newton's success and eccentricities (and perhaps Bryce's perfidy) attract the attention of a quasi-governmental agency which holds Newton captive and performs experiments on him. By this time, the effects of the alcohol and TV as well as extended absence from his family and home, have rendered Newton dysfunctional.

The plot definitely seems secondary to Roeg's innovative flare for visuals. A few scenes are inspirational. In one scene, Newton transforms from human to his natural state and Roeg frames the transformation with montage of water and human/bipedal forms in something closer to performance art than film. Towards the end of the film, in a scene I read was original censored out of the US release, Newton handles a large handgun before having sex with Mary Lou. The audience thinks he will shoot her but it turns out to be loaded with blanks and the scene moves to the surreal as darkness is punctuated by the flashes of the gun being discharged and their naked bodies writhing. Both scenes were enhanced with the musical soundtrack.

Speaking of naked bodies, I sometimes forget how provocative the 70s were. Rip Torn does the full monty despite having a middle-aged spread. In some well-simulated sex scenes, the audience discovers that Mr. Torn is circumcised. Far from gratuitous (although there were two comely actresses in the scenes), Torn's sexcapades were actually important to the development of Bryce's character.

At nearly 2 hours, 20 minutes, The Man Who Fell To Earth could have benefited from some edits. I scratched my head for certain characters. Bernie Casey shows up as a government agent, goes for a nude swim in his pool and then gets it on with his white wife. Farnsworth is gay for no particular reason and his death is comically absurd. The Man Who Fell To Earth has some personality and flavor which seemed de rigueur of films in the 70s and painfully absent from films today.

I can't give a blanket recommendation of the film or say I fully enjoyed The Man Who Fell To Earth but I'm glad I saw it and there is a lot to appreciate in the film. Roeg's skills as a director, the editing, the soundtrack and the performance of the main cast are all exemplary. Bowie's appearance can be startling which anyone who has seen Ziggy Stardust knows. At other times, the plot and film seem to take on affectations. Also, some of the special effects probably looked cheesy 35 years ago much less today. On the whole, I'm glad I saw The Man Who Fell To Earth and hold it up as an example of a certain type of film which is, unfortunately, no longer made. I'm also eager to see some of Roeg's other films.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth

Monday, September 19, 2011

Books Read and Movies Seen - The Hedgehog, the Aliens, the Maniac, the Beachball, the Corsican and The Help

Before I was a cinephile, I was a bibliophile. I still read more than my friends but it is impossible to read as much I used to since I'm a slave to the rep house schedule. There is a common perception that books are "better" than films. Books stimulate the imagination while films force feed mental pablum to the masses. I can't argue that stereotype given much of what comes out of Hollywood. If nothing else, I hope the reader of this blog will appreciate my attempts to sample a wide range of "serious" cinema...although I may have to go through a pile of horse manure to find the pony.

When I read fiction, I frequently don't fill in the details. For example, faces become blurred when I read fiction. I don't imagine the faces of the characters. I imagine the characters in an abstract and noncorporeal sense. I certainly don't imagine soundtracks to enhance the story. So when I see a well-made film, it gives detail where there would have been none if I had read the story. Beyond that, the best films are made by creative types who can enhance the story in clever and ingenious ways. In short, a well made film can trump my imagination; I'm not sure if that is high praise for certain filmmakers or an embarrassing revelation of my infertile mind.


I have a friend who used to be an English teacher. When we were in high school, I read much more than her so it was a bit of surprise that she became an English teacher. After college, she overtook my reading pace. She has subsequently moved on to be a guidance counselor but she still seems to read voraciously as she sends me books to read periodically. I have my own reading list so the books pile up.

One of the books she gave me was The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I read it about 18 months ago and greatly enjoyed it. It was with great anticipation that I awaited the film adaption. Originally written in French, the novel was made into a French language film in 2009. I watched the film earlier this month at the Landmark Bridge.

The Hedgehog starring Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic & Togo Igawa; directed by Mona Achache; French with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website

The plot centers around Renée Michel (Balasko), the concierge at a luxury apartment building in Paris. I'm only familiar with concierges in upscale hotels who get tickets for the guests at sporting and entertainment events. Mme. Michel is more of a building superintendent - she cleans the commons areas, puts the trash cans on the street, signs for packages and lives in the ground floor apartment. Mme. Michel plays the part of a concierge quite well - soap operas always on the television, curt, efficient and vaguely ignorant. However, she is concealing a secret. Mme. Michel is an autodidact, quite intelligent and possessing an enviable library of classic literature and philosophy which she hides from the tenants.

The novel delved into class issues and the personal reasons for Mme. Michel's behavior but the movie glossed over much of it. Mme. Michel's youth and late husband were discussed at length in the novel while they were barely mentioned at all in the film.

Whereas the film gave short shrift Mme. Michel's character development, it enhanced the character of Paloma Josse. Paloma is the 12 year old daughter of one of the families in the building. Precocious and morbid, Paloma has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. She is tired of the hypocrisy and meaninglessness of life. This might be dismissed as teenage angst but Paloma also possesses a keen mind and impressive artistic skills (I don't recall this from the novel).

Despite living in the same building and have similar interests in literature and philosophy, Paloma and Mme. Michel's lives barely intersect until Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese diplomat moves in. Ozu immediately senses that Mme. Michel is much more than she appears. He quickly grows bored with the other tenants and begins friendships with Mme. Michel and Mlle. Josse, the only two interesting tenants. Ozu, with the help of Paloma, begin the slow process of drawing Mme. Michel out of her shell. I won't give away the ending.

In the book, Ozu claimed to be a distant relative of director Yasujirō Ozu but in the film, he denies any relationship. One of the pivotal points in the book and film is when Mme. Michel brings a DVD (or was it VHS) of one of her favorite films, Ozu's The Munekata Sisters (1950). There has been a spate of Ozu screenings in the Bay Area over the past two years. I'm hoping some programmer teams up The Hedgehog with The Munekata Sisters.

Despite enjoying the book more than the film, I still was entertained by the film and recommend it.


By chance, I learned that the novel Starship Troopers is on the official reading lists of the US Marine Corps and US Navy. I didn't now the service branches had official reading lists and I certainly didn't think the source material for a universally panned 1997 film would make the lists. It turns out Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein won the prestigious Hugo Award in 1960. Curious about a novel could be so respected but the film adaptation so reviled, I read Starship Troopers.

The novel has long passages about the state of society in the future. The main change from present is that to be a citizen in the future, one must volunteer in the military for two years. Civilians have all the rights as citizens except only citizens can vote and hold elected office. The book goes deeper into the main character's indoctrination into the mobile infantry. Heinlein uses the novel to promote individual sacrifice for the greater good of society. This is somewhat lost in the film.

I had had Starship Troopers on my To Read list for awhile but when I saw it was being screened at Midnites for Maniacs I obtained a copy. It was a quick read. I've seen parts of Starship Troopers on television for many years but still couldn't piece together the plot.

Starship Troopers starring Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer & Denise Richards; with Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown & Neil Patrick Harris; directed by Paul Verhoeven; (1997)

Starship Troopers roughly follows the plots from the novel. A few scenes are added that weren't in the book, a few scenes from the book were deleted from the film, a few characters were merged, etc. All this could have been dealt with satisfactorily. However, the criticism of the film is probably directed at the satirical tone the film took. Host Jesse Hawthorne Ficks stressed before the film that it was a satire. I'm not sure how anyone could miss that point after watching it. Perhaps some reviewers were looking for something closer to the novel.

The novel was intended for young adults but was earnest; as if Ayn Rand had tried her hand at science fiction. Now that I think about it, she did. The result is Anthem which was the basis for Rush's 2112. When I was a teenager, I was a huge Rush fan. I have found that statement ("I was a huge Rush fan") to be provocative and people make assumptions about me based on it. So I put it out there and let the reader believe what he or she will - in my youth, I listened to Rush and read Ayn Rand.

Starship Troopers wasn't a great film but I'm not as negative about it as others. Perhaps fans of the book resented Verhoven's treatment. Being the director of RoboCop, Basic Instinct and Showgirls probably hurt the reputation of his subsequent films. I note that Ficks has screened RoboCop before so Verhoven is becoming a staple of the Maniac's canon.

I preferred the book to the movie. The book was serious but aimed at young adults. The film was satirical and aimed at young adults. There was no co-ed shower scene in the book. However, the film had great supporting actors; particularly Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside. Not coincidentally, Brown & Ironside were closest to what I imagined for their characters while reading the book. Dina Meyer turned in the best performance (the gender of her role was switched from the book) of the three leads.

I can't recommend Starship Troopers (the film) but I have to admit there was some guilty pleasure at time (perhaps the shower scene has some merit).


The Midnites for Maniacs' triple feature that night was Aliens, Starship Troopers and Dark Star. I passed on Aliens but stuck around for Dark Star.

Dark Star starring Dan O'Bannon; directed by John Carpenter; (1974)

Dark Star was Carpenter's directorial debut. Ficks mentioned the movie was Carpenter's film school thesis. He also mentioned that many people who attended the screening during the original run were under the influence of recreational narcotics. I believe it.

Let me start by saying that Ficks needs to do a better job starting the films on time. Starship Troopers started around 30 minutes late. He then made up some time but the 11:59 screening of Dark Star started around 12:20. So you can guess what happened - I fell asleep about 45 minutes in. The last scene I remember is Pinback (O'Bannon) escaping the elevator shaft by climbing through the floor plate of the cab of the elevator.

Did I fall asleep because of the late hour or because the film was bad? Yes.

The main special effect was an alien which was a beach ball with a clawed hands as feet. The synthesized music and sound effects were annoying. Finally, the aforementioned elevator shaft scene went on and on.

While awake, I didn't enjoy what I watched. Carpenter borrowed generously from 2001: A Space Odyssey and inserted a lot more humor than in the films he would later become famous for. I read they were considering a remake of Dark Star. The best I can say is that I would consider seeing the remake.


The evening's theme for Midnites for Maniacs was Colonizing 'R Us. The three films had a number of connections. When James Cameron was writing the screenplay for Aliens, he was inspired by Starship Troopers (the novel) when imagining the space marines. The space beach ball was the partial inspiration for the alien in Alien, the predecessor film of Aliens. O'Bannon was credited with the screenplay for Alien. So the beach ball in Dark Star begat Alien which begat Aliens which begat Alien vs. Predator and so forth and so on.

The most famous marine from Aliens was Pvt. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein). Her character was so popular that Gene Rodenberry and the creators of Star Trek The Next Generation based a character on her. Lt. Tasha Yar was originally named Macha Hernandez and Marina Sirtis was cast in the role. Denise Crosby and Sirtis switched parts before production and Macha Hernandez became Tasha Yar. Sirtis (who is of Greek descent, I believe) could pass for Latina but not Crosby.

I also have to give kudos to Ficks who has really stepped up his stage presence. I'm not sure how much is rehearsed and how much is extemporaneous but Ficks is very composed and articulate on stage. He has his tag line down to a tee - "I'm Jesse Hawthorne Ficks. Thank you for coming." It's a very simple exit line but he hits it with the solemnity of a Shakespearean actor.


I just completed Kevin Brownlow's Napoléon: Abel Gance's Classic Film about his love affair with the film, the making of the film, his relationship with director Abel Gance and his lifelong efforts to reconstruct the film. At times, Bronwnlow is prone to quote from multiple critics and trade publication on the reviews for various versions Napoléon. That's about the only criticism I can muster. Of course, I read the book because Napoléon will be screening at the Paramount Theater in Oakland on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1, 2012.

The making of Napoléon was epic and Brownlow's efforts to reconstruct the film were no less impressive. Alternately fighting with and cooperating with such legendary figures as Abel Gance, Francis Ford Coppola and Henri Langlois, Brownlow used all methods at his disposal in his search for scraps of the original film. He's like Ahab except his white whale is the definitive version of Napoléon. Published in 1983, Brownlow has restored an additional 35 minutes since then which is the version that will be screened in Oakland next year. Brownlow's praise of the film and description of audience reactions has set a high standard that I hope can be achieved at the Paramount. I'm particularly looking forward to the triptych finale and the snowball fight.


As I was going through the stack of books I've accumulated from my friend, I noticed one was The Help by Katheryn Stockett. I'll start that book tomorrow. I'm curious as to the differences between the novel and film by the same name. The film was a comedy which was part of my criticism. I'll be eager to see if the novel strikes the same tone.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Terrance Malick and Buster Keaton

I caught two double features in the past month or so featuring the films of noted auteurs.

At the Castro, they screened two Terrance Malick films.

Badlands starring Martin Sheen & Sissy Spacek; with Warren Oates; directed by Terrance Malick; (1973)
Days of Heaven starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard & Linda Manz; directed by Terrance Malick; (1978)

Badlands is screening at the PFA on October 8.

At the Stanford, they screened a five part series of Buster Keaton films every other Friday with Dennis James on the organ. I attended the final Friday of the series. The films were:

Three Ages starring Buster Keaton & Wallace Beery; directed by Keaton; silent with intertitles; (1923)
Steamboat Bill Jr. starring Buster Keaton; directed by Charles Reisner; silent with intertitles; (1928)

The crowd at the Stanford was the largest I'd ever seen there. I arrived 45 minutes before showtime and the line wrapped around the corner. I grabbed a bite to eat and 30 minutes later, the line was still around the corner. They had been letting in a steady stream of people for at least 45 minutes prior to the screening.

Whenever I go to the Stanford Theater, I grab a slice of pizza at Pizza My Heart - one of my favorite pizza joints. I wish they had a location in the City or in northern San Mateo County.


Badlands and Days of Heaven were Terrance Malick's first two feature films. They are similar in tone and style. Of the two, I slightly preferred Badlands but was impressed with both.

Martin Sheen and an impossibly young looking Sissy Spacek play Kit and Holly, two young lovers on the run in Badlands. Based on the Starkweather-Fugate murders, Malick infuses the murderers with an elegiac quality combined with a bittersweet nostalgia for the Midwest United States in the 1950s which happens to be the time and place Malick grew up. The last time I used the word elegiac was in describing Monte Hellman's Cockfighter. The two films are quite different in appearance but evoked a similar emotion - a vague sadness combined with empathy for characters I didn't particularly like.

Badlands was improved immeasurably by using Carl Orff's "Gassenhauer" (also known as "Musica Poetica") as its coda and leitmotiff. The xylophone piece was memorable without being obtrusive. Martin Sheen's Kit is an interesting character. Kit begins the film as a garbage man who is two unfocused to even finish his shift. He happens upon Holly. Spacek was 23 when the film was made but played a high schooler. With her freckled face and skinny legs, she looked even younger to me. Holly's father (Warren Oates), forbids the relationship but Kit solves the problem by killing him and then torching the house.

While on the lam, Kit's confidence grows in lockstep with his notoriety; not to mention with each successful murder and escape. However, Holly begins to regret her decisions. The dissension eventually leads to their capture which present the centerpiece scene of the film. Now a celebrity, Kit holds court in front of some soliders or nationaal guardsmen as he is shackled and awaits transport at a military airport in Wyoming. Part press conference, part stand up routine, Kit trades quips and gives out souvenirs to the soldiers. While taxiing down the runway, Kit seems more interested in his legend than impending prison sentence (which turns out to be death by execution).

While ostensibly a film about callous and callow youth, Malick also criticizes the cult of personality. All the while, he does this at a measured pace and with detachment which is at odds with the churning emotions and impatience of his youthful characters. This dichotomy is what gives the film its lyrical and transcendent feel.


Whereas Badlands felt like a Greek tragedy, there is distastefulness at the heart of Days of Heaven. Richard Gere plays Bill, a Chicago steelworker who accidentally kills his foreman during an argument. Bill, his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his kid sister Linda (Linda Manz) flee the city by train. The three of them end up in Texas where they land jobs as seasonal farm workers on Sam Shepard's farm. Shepard's character is never given a name.

To avoid gossip, Bill & Abby pretend to be brother and sister rather than a couple. Shepard's character is a wealthy farmer who has little to do with the workers except Abby who he takes a shining to. As his interest in her grows, Bill encourages it as the preparation for a scam. The farmer takes things to a new level when he asks Abby to marry her and Bill goes along with it so as not to spoil their plans. Once, they're married, Abby begins to develop feelings for her husband which threatens the scam.

For his part, the farmer is beginning to suspect that his wife and her brother have an unusually close relationship. In an inspired scene, the farmer goes after Bill with a gun during a locust swarm and controlled grass burn which has gotten out of control. Bill kills in self-defense but is hunted by the police and the farm foreman.

There a few indelible scenes in Days of Heaven. The beginning scenes at the steelmill look like something out of Dante's Inferno. In the middle of the film, Malick shoots long, sweeping, panoramic views of the wheatfields and prarie land. As I mentioned, the scene near the end with the locusts and smoke blotting out the sun was biblical; like one of plagues prophesied by Moses. Malick certainly filmed some beatiful scenes.

The whole part where Bill is pimping out his girlfriend was contemptible and I could not empathize with Bill after that. As portrayed by Shepard and directed by Malick, the farmer was empty vessel. Diagnosed with a fatal disease, the farmer's relationship with Abby seems to start like a bucket list fling and becomes a lonely man's final attempt at happiness. If the farmer was lonely, it was only because he didn't have much personality. He was too trusting and ignored his own suspicions. Only when confronted with irrefutable proof does the farmer lose his temper and grab his gun...and it results in his death. That scene was indicative of the film - a character I didn't like killing a character I didn't care about.

Lukewarm towards the characters themselves, I found the performances to be uniformly adequate. Much has been made about Gere, Adams and Shepard's performances but I thought them capable with a few inspired moments. Linda (Manz also narrated portions of the film) was an interesting character but Manz's thick New York accent made it difficult to understand much of what she said. Robert J. Wilke as the no-nonsense foreman delivered the standout performance of the film.

Days of Heaven relied on imagery, elliptical storytelling and a "less is more" approach to get more out of a thin plot than was written on the page. I guess that's a left-handed compliment of Malick and Days of Heaven. I cannot say I was left unsatisfied by the film and was impressed by many scenes.


Dennis James introduced both films at the start. Three Ages was the first film. It was a satire of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916). Three Ages was structured as three stories with the same cast. James said Keaton had contingency plans to release each story as its own film if Three Ages did poorly at the box office. Three Ages was the first feature Keaton wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. It was successful enough to launch a series of films which Keaton had complete creative and financial control. Perhaps deliberately, Steamboat Bill Jr. was the last film made by Keaton's production company.

Three Ages was set in prehistoric times, during the ancient Roman empire and in "modern times" or the Roaring Twenties. In each setting Keaton competed for the affection of Margaret Leahy but only to lose out to Wallace Beery who was larger, stronger and richer and favored by Leahy's screen parents (Lillian Lawrence & Joe Roberts). Three Ages suffers in comparison to other, more famous silent films by Keaton (Sherlock Jr., The General & Steamboat Bill Jr.). The continuous rotation of the three stories gives each segment a skit comedy feel. The material is not quite as strong either. It's as if Keaton had to third his creative output for each segment of the film. Still, there were a log of gags in Three Ages and even a subpar Keaton film is relatively good.

Steamboat Bill Jr. earns it reputation as one of Keaton's best. Keaton appears to attempt to break out of his self-created stereotype or at least modify it slightly. The screen persona of Keaton is the little guy who is pushed around but has enough resourcefulness and pluck to come out ahead. Always present was his porkpie hat. There is a scene in Steamboat Bill where Keaton is trying on several hats and quickly discards his traditional porkpie.

Keaton plays the titular role in Steamboat Bill Jr. - a recent college graduate who visits his father (Ernest Torrence), a Mississippi River steamboat captain who is locked in brutal competition with a rival steamboat company with more financial resources. As it turns out, the owner of the rival company is the father of a college co-ed (Marion Byron) that Bill Jr. is sweet on. This causes all kinds of trouble and hijinks as the two kids conspire to see each other while their fathers are locked in competition. Although set on the Mississippi River, the film was shot in Sacramento and the Sacramento River. I recall the 1920 version of Huckleberry Finn also substituted the Sacramento River (or was it the American River?) for the Mississippi.

Steamboat Bill Jr. is best remembered for one of Keaton's most famous stunts. In the film, a tornado or hurricane blows through town and detaches the exterior facade of a two story building. Keaton stands with his back to the building when the wall falls onto him. He is saved because the top window is open and he stands exactly where the open window falls. A few inches in either directions and he would have been killed. I've read and heard differing stories as to how dangerous the stunt really was for Keaton. Regardless, on screen, the stunt is spectacular.

Steamboat Bill Jr. is memorable for its gags and the interaction between Torrence and Keaton as a father and son pair who couldn't be different.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Near the Intersection of Grant & Crawford

The title does not refer to streets in San Francisco but rather the two Hollywood legends, Archibald Alexander Leach and Lucille Fay LeSueur; better known by their stage names, Cary Grant and Joan Crawford. They never appeared together on screen. However, they appeared within a week of each other at the Castro Theater

The Castro had a week long Cary Grant series starting on August 31. I saw:

Philadelphia Story starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn & Jimmy Stewart; directed by George Cukor; (1940)
Holiday starring Cary Grant & Katharine Hepburn; directed by George Cukor; (1938)
His Girl Friday starring Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell; with Ralph Bellamy; directed by Howard Hawks; (1940)
Only Angels Have Wings starring Cary Grant & Jean Arthur; with Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell & Noah Beery Jr.; directed by Howard Hawks; (1939)
Notorious starring Cary Grant & Ingrid Bergman; with Claude Rains; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; (1946)
Suspicion starring Cary Grant & Joan Fontaine; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; (1941)

North by Northwest, Charade & Monkey Business are among the films I passed on because I had seen them previously. North by Northwest is one of my favorite films but I ended up seeing something else that night (a topic for another entry).

Two days after the Cary Grant series ended, the Castro ran a Joan Crawford double feature.

Humoresque starring Joan Crawford & John Garfield; with Oscar Levant; (1946)
Daisy Kenyon starring Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews & Henry Fonda; directed by Otto Preminger; (1947)

The primary reason I keep this blog is to chronicle the films I watch in theaters. I should have consulted the blog because I saw Humoresque in 2009 at the PFA. Although I didn't write about it then, it was immediately recognizable to me as a film I had previously scene. The boy who play John Garfield's character at the beginning of the film was familiar to me but I couldn't place the name. I looked him up afterwards; it was Robert Blake.


I don't really need to recap the Cary Grant films. They are all classics except perhaps Only Angels Have Wings. A few of my observations.

Philadelphia Story & Holiday were released at the tail end of the Great Depression but before WWII. There is some debate as to when the Great Depression ended but I always use Pearl Harbor Day as the cutoff. My general 20th century US timeline for history and movies are:

1918 WWI
1919 Spanish Influenza Epidemic
1920 to 1929 Roaring 20s/End of the Silent Era
1929 to 1941 Great Depression
1941 to 1945 WWII
1946 to 1952 Post WWII/HUAC-Red Scare/Korean War/Film Noir
1952 to 1960 Eisenhower Administration
1960 to 1966 Mad Men era, Kennedy/Camelot
1967 to 1973 Hippies/Counterculture/Vietnam/Social Unrest
1974 to 1980 Nixon/Watergate/1970s excess/cinema I don't typically understand or appreciate
1981 and onwards - I can remember this period so i don't need crib notes to put a film in its historical context

Getting back to Cary Grant, Philadelphia Story & Holiday were set among the ultra wealthy in the Northeast US. I wonder how many people in the audience could relate to the characters. I guess it's not much different from today with reality shows like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills but I have always thought that making movies about the fabulously wealthy and beautiful during the Great Depression was a in poor taste. The counter argument is that the nation needed films like that to escape their real-life troubles.

Philadelphia Story seemed to imply Katharine Hepburn's character had some psychological issues which left her frigid (I believe that was the term used at the time). In other words, the character had issues with men that left her unable to be fully satisfied with the most intimate aspects of her marriage. I can see how a woman married to guy looking like Cary Grant could have that trouble. I hadn't picked up on that although its been years since I saw Philadelphia Story.

In Holiday, Lew Ayres turned in a nice performance as Hepburn's sympathetic but constantly sloshed brother.

His Girl Friday is full of self-references. When asked to describe his ex-wife's (Rosalind Russell) fiancé, Cary Grant says "He looks like that fellow in the movies - Ralph Bellamy." Ralph Bellamy is playing the role in the film. At another point Grant says "Listen the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat." Archie Leach is Grant's real name. Grant and Russell were fully conversant in the rapid fire patois of the period. I'm not sure if people really spoke that way or it was just in the movies.

Suspicion had a horrible ending which made the film terribly disappointing. It was changed from the source material (a novel titled Before the Fact). I thought it was the hand of the Hays Code but it was the direct result of the studio (RKO) being protective of Grant's debonair image. Suspicion really left a sour taste in my mouth but it did produce an iconic image of a (presumably) malevolent Grant carrying a glass of milk to his wife (Fontaine). The audience is led to believe the milk is poisoned. The pure and creamy white milk directly contrasting with the poison and evil within; nicely done Mr. Hitchcock.

I was unfamiliar with Only Angels Have Wings prior to seeing it. I immediately recognized Sig Ruman who 14 years later would give a memorable performance as Sergeant Schulz in Stalag 17. Only Angels Have Wings is about a freight airline operating in Brazil. They have to fly through a narrow pass in the mountains because their planes cannot climb high enough to go over the top. The weather, the antiquated planes and even birds, cause many injuries and fatalities among the pilots. As a result, they develop hardened emotions and fatalistic attitudes. Cary Grant is the manager and chief pilot of the airline. He's a tough nut but seems to have a lot of ex-girlfriends including Rita Hayworth. The plot is ok but a few devices look silly 75 years later. In addition to Sig Ruman as the jovial owner of airline and Thomas Mitchell as Grant's fellow pilot and best friend, Jean Arthur shows up as a woman in love with Grant while Hayworth shows up married to another man.

Notorious was my favorite film of the series. Claude Rains delivers Oscar nominated performance as Bergman's Nazi husband. Bergman plays the part of a confused and conflicted woman well; not altogether different than Ilsa in Casablanca. Grant dispenses with his persona to play a callous spy handler. Notorious was daring for its sexually provocative plot. Ilsa basically sleeps with and marries Rains' character to infiltrate the Nazi spy ring. Less than five years later, Bergman caused a scandal by having a public affair with director Roberto Rossellini and comparisons were drawn to the character she played in Notorious.


I should have given Humoresque some commentary back in 2009. I appear to have been more taken by No Man of Her Own and A Letter to Three Wives; both of which I vividly recall with fond memories. I don't recall my initial impression of Humoresque. The most lasting impression is of John Garfield. While he was only 33 years old at the time of filming, it was a hard 33. Garfield wouldn't live out his 30s; dying at age 39 in 1952. Allegedly, the stress of being blacklisted (he was called before HUAC and refused to "name names") contributed to his death. However, six years before his death in Humoresque, Garfield was looking worn out.

Ironically, Garfield was in the midst of the most productive period of his film career. Humoresque opened on Christmas day 1946. Earlier in the year, Garfield starred opposite Lana Turner in the noir classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice. In 1947, Garfield costarred in Gentleman's Agreement, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture. Garfield also made Body and Soul in 1947, for which he received an Oscar nomination. That film, which played at the 2007 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, was a hard hitting exposé of the corrupt boxing rackets and an ambitious fighter (Garfield).

In Humoresque, Garfield plays Paul Boray, a concert violinist from a working class family. Unable to get a break, he is introduced to Helen Wright (Crawford) a wealthy matron of the art. Despite her being married, a dozen years older than him and an alcoholic, Boray & Wright begin a tempestuous romance. As Boray's musical career improves, his relationship with Wright falters.

The best part of Humoresque is the talented Oscar Levant. A skilled pianist and composer, Levant plays Sid Jeffers, Boray's piano accompanist whose wry and alcohol induced comments serve as a Greek chorus for the audience. My favorite is after watching Boray & Wright frolic at the beach, Jeffers asks Mrs. Wright, "Does your husband interfere with your marriage?"

The second best part of the film is the music. I have read that Levant performed on the piano for all the pieces whereas a violinist were just off screen for Garfield's pieces. There are several extended musical pieces including "Flight of the Bumble Bee" and portions of Bizet's "Carmen." The musical performances were top notch and drew applause from the Castro audience.

The film falls into the category of a mid-century, sophisticated drama. To me, that is shorthand for a film made in the 1940s and 1950s, typically set in New York, where wealthy people and artists live and party in tastefully decorated apartments and penthouses. Usually everyone drinks to excess although they are never sloppy drunks. Most of the dialog sounds like it was quipped at the Algonquin Round Table. Although the characters are so witty, the dialog barely conceals deep-seated resentment and hostility between the characters. That pretty much sums up Humoresque. The film looks like a dinosaur in 2011 but its always nice to see Joan Crawford being Joan Crawford.

In Humoresque and Daisy Kenyon, Crawford hadn't quite reached überbitch status. Although she throws in some catty comments, it's very clear that Helen Wright and Daisy Kenyon have insecurities which they cope with by verbal sparring. The title character in Daisy Kenyon is a interior designer who is in a long-term relationship with a wealthy lawyer (Dana Andrews). Although dissatisfied with the relationship, Daisy doesn't move off the ball until Henry Fonda shows up. He plays a former yacht designer, current NCO in the US Army and a widower who quickly falls for Daisy despite the presence of Daisy's married lover.

A love triangle develops and ultimately leads to Kenyon marrying Peter Lapham (Fonda), O'Mara (Andrews) leaving his wife and cuckolding Lapham. That's quite a bit of wife swapping for 1947. O'Mara's wife (Ruth Warrick) is a particularly pathetic woman who resorts to beating their daughter. None of the three leads had much in the way of self-respect and the ending left was a bit outlandish.

Unlike Helen Wright in Humoresque, Daisy Kenyon puts up little defense and is essentially at the mercy of the men in her life. It didn't feel like a Joan Crawford role. Barbara Stanwyck or Ida Lupino are two obvious casting choices I would have chosen before Crawford. Daisy breaks down and weeps on a few occasions and never shows the inner strength or bravado one associates with a Joan Crawford role.

A few weeks ago, I watched Mildred Pierce which was the film Crawford made immediately before Humoresque. Neither Humoresque or Daisy Kenyon were as satisfying as Mildred Pierce but they were still worthwhile films of the era. One definitely needs to be a fan of the Golden Age to enjoy Humoresque or Daisy Kenyon. Otherwise, the absurdity of the situations become distracting.

So Cary Grant and Joan Crawford's screen personae haven't aged that well but Grant's alter ego was so mischievous and exuberant while Joan Crawford played a bitch. The Castro series hewed closely to Grant's image while presently something fundamentally different for Crawford's films.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Half Dozen From Almodovar

Last month, the Castro showed six films by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. The films were touring the country in advance of his upcoming release, The Skin I Live In which is opening October 14 in the US. The poster outside the Castro listed eight Almodovar films but the Castro screened a double bill three nights in a row. I can't recall the two films which didn't screen.

Bad Education; Spanish with subtitles; (2004) - Official Website
Law of Desire starring Carmen Maura & Antonio Banderas; Spanish with subtitles; (1987)
Talk To Her; Spanish with subtitles; (2002) Official Website
All About My Mother starring Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes & Penélope Cruz; Spanish with subtitles; (1999)
The Flower of My Secret starring Marisa Paredes; Spanish with subtitles; (1995)
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown starring Carmen Maura & Antonio Banderas; Spanish with subtitles; (1988)

All films were directed by Almodovar.

I didn't plan on seeing all six but after Bad Education and Law of Desire, I was hooked and kept coming back each night; I wasn't disappointed. About 10 years ago, the Roxie had an Almodovar series. I wanted Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom and few more which I can't recall. I think I saw Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but if so, I couldn't recall it. Anyway, I was mild about Pedro going into the series. After three days, I was converted to an Almodovar acolyte. I'd wish he would tone down the trannies and drag queens but even with those flourishes, there is much to admire in Almodovar's films.


My favorite film of the series was Talk To Her which is about a male nurse who is hired to provide private care to a comatose patient. It turns out the nurse, Benigno (Javier Cámara) had been stalking the patient prior to her accident. Benigno is a milquetoast type but is obviously devoted to his patient; his personal attention to her borders on sensuous. Ultimately, the patient becomes pregnant and Benigno is imprisoned.

Prior to his incarceration, Benigno had made friends with Marco, a journalist who held vigil over his comatose girlfriend (a female toreador) only to find she was planning on breaking it off with him prior to her injuries in the bullring. Most of the film unfolds in flashback as Marco investigates Benigno and his circumstances.

I previously said Almodovar relies on drag queen "flourishes" to buoy his films (mainly comedies). Talk To Her is close to drama although Almodovar indulges himself with interpretive dances choreographed by Pina Bausch and a silent film segment where a shrinking man disappears inside a woman's vagina. By that point, it is clear that Benigno has issues. Not gay but decidedly effeminate, Benigno seems more afraid of women than anything else. His opportunity to care for and caress the comatose object of his desire is more than he could hope for if she had remained healthy. His desire for her comes off as creepy and pathetic although oddly benign (hence his character's name). This delicate balanced performance by Javier Camara combined with the surreal & whimsical components create an amazing film which resulted in me being simultaneously repulsed and sympathetic towards Benigno. The secondary story about Marco and his bullfighter was less interesting for me but served as a counterpoint to Nurse Benigno with the woman in the traditionally male job.

Talk To Her has a quiet and understated feel which contrasts from Almodovar's more raucous comedies. The difference was well appreciated by me.


Bad Education had the look and feel of a queer Brian De Palma film from the 1970s. Set in 1980, Enrique, a film director, is visited by Ignacio, his classmate and first love from boarding school. Ignacio drops off a screenplay called The Visit for Enrique to read. Bad Education switches to a film-within-a-film as Enrique reads The Visit. The Visit is about a drag queen named Zahara (real name Ignacio) who plans to roll a drunk for his wallet when "she" discovers the man is "her boyhood" lover Enrique. Zahara next visits her old school and confronts Father Manolo who sexually abused Ignacio. Zahara threatens to publish a story (called The Visit) about a priest who is infatuated with a boy named Enrique. The priest finds Enrique and Ignacio together and threatens to expel Enrique. Ignacio gives himself to the priest in exchange for not expelling Enrique; the priest agrees but later reneges on his promise.

All this reminds Enrique of his own youth so he agrees to film the screenplay. Ignacio (calling himself Ángel) insists on playing the role of Zahara but feels uncomfortable because the Ignacio/Ángel before him is completely different than the boy he loved. After some investigating, Enrique discovers that Ignacio has been dead for several years and the person impersonating Ignacio is likely his younger brother Juan. These plot twists are part and parcel of typical Almodovar film.

The second half of the film tells the story of Juan, the real Father Manolo (now using the alias Berenguer) and the circumstances of Ignacio's death. Telling more of the plot only serves to show how Almodovar is toying with his audience. The story within a film within a film is not much different from the film. It's obvious that Almodovar is having a great time. At one point, Berenguer and Juan go to a movie theater showing a film noir series and the older man states their lives are like something out of a movie.

I viewed the film as a comedy and melodrama but is there something serious under the surface? There is a lot of role playing and hidden identities. He also shows us, in relatively tragic terms, the consequences of desire and sex. Not exactly existential questions but highly enjoyable in the hands of a master like Almodovar. If Bad Education reminded me of De Palma, then by extension, Bad Education reminded me of Hitchcock but it's Hitchcock without the censors and with a queer twist. Strangely, I began to forget about the gender of the lovers which is probably what Almodovar wanted.

Bad Education was like a roller coaster ride at the carnival - a lot of laughing, many unexpected twists & turns and afterwards, a desire to ride it again. If Almodovar didn't show the emotional maturity he showed in Talk To Her, he certainly displayed a mastery in his vocation which I admired and thoroughly enjoyed.


All About My Mother was another intricately plotted comedy interlaced with moments of extreme tragedy. Manuela (Cecilia Roth) returns to Barcelona after her teenage son is killed in a car accident. While in Barcelona, Manuela comes into contact with a witty & outgoing transexual prostitute (Antonia San Juan), a nun (Penélope Cruz) who is impregnated and infected by HIV from Manuela's ex-husband (who also is a trannie whore) and Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), an actress greatly admired by Manuela's late son and was indirectly & unknowingly the cause of his fatal accident.

For my taste, Almodovar pushes the limit of contrived coincidences and trannies in All About My Mother. I enjoyed the film but at times, it was just a little too much. Nonetheless, the pain from the various tragedies keep the film from going to far off the reservation. A few of the character could have been trimmed out but then it wouldn't have been an Almodovar film.


The other three films (Law of Desire, The Flower of My Secret & Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) were, chronologically, Almodovar's earliest films from the series. If the six films are any indication, Almodovar has reached a new level as a director since 1995. Almodovar seem to have a deft touch at comedy since his earliest works but in his later films, he has been able to mix drama and conflict into this films to a greater degree.

Law of Desire, The Flower of My Secret & Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown were comedies with varying degrees of drama. Bad Education, Talk To Her and All About My Mother were dramas with liberal servings of comedy.

I enjoyed Law of Desire, The Flower of My Secret & Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but compared to the other three films in the series, they fell short. That's a bit unfair since they made me laugh and didn't obviously aspire to be too much more than comedies. The Flower of My Secret is clearly a turning point if these six films are indicative of Almodovar's career. He scales back some of the absurdity and allows his actors to give more subtle performances. It's also clear that Almodovar has an affinity for actresses as most of his plum roles are written for women (or trannies). Cecilia Roth, Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes & Penélope Cruz were featured in this series and Almodovar had a long & fruitful run featuring Victoria Abril in his films.

This series left me wanting to see more films from Almodovar. The Skin I Live In will definitely be on "To See" list when it open next month.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Two Kidnappings, Human Trafficking, Mad Max Wannabes, Murderous Fathers, Evil Nazis and Damn Dirty Apes

I've seen so many films this summer which I haven't chronicled.

I saw seven, general or limited release films in August.

Rapt starring Yvan Attal; directed by Lucas Belvaux; French with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
The Whistleblower starring Rachel Weisz; with Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn & Monica Bellucci; directed by Larysa Kondracki; English and some Ukrainian, Russian & Bosnian dialogue with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Point Blank starring Gilles Lellouche; directed by Fred Cavayé; French with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Captain America: The First Avenger starring Chris Evans & Hugo Weaving; with Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones & Stanley Tucci; (2011) - Official Website
Bellflower starring Evan Glodell & Jessie Wiseman; directed by Evan Glodell; (2011) - Official Website
Motherland starring Françoise Yip; directed by Doris Yeung; (2009) - Official Website
Rise of the Planet of the Apes starring James Franco & Andy Serkis; with Freida Pinto & John Lithgow; (2011) - Official Website

I went all over the Bay Area seeing these films.

Rapt - Camera 3 Cinemas; San Jose
The Whistleblower - Landmark Bridge; San Francisco
Point Blank - Landmark Embarcadero; San Francisco
Captain America - Landmark Shattuck; Berkeley
Bellflower - Landmark California; Berkeley
Motherland - 4 Star; San Francisco
Rise of the Planet of the Apes - Presidio; San Francisco

The screenings at the California and Presidio are the first time I've been to those theaters.


Motherland needs little summarizing. It was a plodding film with wooden performances. The film was replete with San Francisco connections. Former San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival Assistant Programmer Taro Goto had a producer's credit. Screenwriter and director Doris Yeung lived in the Bay Area before and the story was based on her mother's murder. Real events and the film portray Yeung's father as responsible for the murder of his ex-wife. By the end of the film, the lackluster performances and unimaginative plot left me apathetic. Françoise Yip as Doris Yeung's alter ego seemed unfocused in her role. Occasionally, Kenneth Tsang (with 152 acting credits on IMDB) as her father showed some beneath the surface malevolence but otherwise his role was thinly developed. I'm sorry that Ms. Yeung's mother was murdered but this movie wasn't very good. I notice this is Ms. Yeung's first directorial credit. I wonder what a more experienced director could have done with the material.


A step above Motherland was Captain America: The First Avenger. A retelling of the classic Marvel comic, Captain America suffers from lack of imagination as well. Recapping the plot since I was unfamiliar with or had forgotten the origins of Captain America, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a 98 lb. weakling who is constantly trying to enlist in the armed forces during WWII. Classified 4F, Rogers resorts to using aliases to enlist. At the World's Fair in New York (historically inaccurate), Rogers meets Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist who has defected to the US. While in Germany, he was researching methods to create the perfect soldier. Dr. Erskine has nearly perfected the biochemical solution which is effectively and an instant super-steroid but is more concerned about the psychological effects. Erskine handpicks Rogers because as a weakling, Rogers will have compassion once he is transformed.

Inexplicably, after the transformation, Rogers is rejected by Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) for combat duty and instead assigned to play the role of Captain American at USO shows to sell war bonds. A USO tour through Italy, puts Rogers in proximity to Bucky's (his best friend) unit. However, the unit has been captured so Captain America enlists the help of engineer Howard Stark (likely Iron Man's Tony Stark's father or grandfather) and beautiful but dangerous Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) to equip him and put him behind enemy lines so he can save Bucky and his unit. Once there, Captain America encounters one of Dr. Erskine's previous patients, Red Skull, who operates the Nazi's semi-autonomous terrorism unit.

After that, the film was paint by numbers. I liked the rainbow coalition of soldiers in Bucky's unit (another historical inaccuracy). Stanley Tucci, one of my favorite actors, turned in the nicest performance even while speaking with a German accent. Steve Rogers' humility was largely lost once he became Captain America which I would have like to have seen explored at greater length. Captain America was boxed in because the film had to end with a setup for next year's The Avengers so certain aspects of Rogers may have been thrown overboard.

In comparison to Iron Man, Captain America came off as uninspired and listless. It was nice to see the WWII era depicted with steampunk flourishes; Red Skull flies an airplane that looks a lot like the Stealth Bomber. Otherwise, the film barely interested me for its 2+ hours.


At the other end of the spectrum was Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This could easily has been a cheesy film but for what it lacked in content and imagination it made up for with enthusiasm and gusto. The premise is that Alzheimer's medical researcher is testing cures on chimps. Franco has a personal reason for his research - his father (John Lithgow) is suffering from Alzhemier's disease. The research is promising until a chimp freaks out and puts an end to the project. At that point, Franco's Dr. Rodman slips down an unethical slope. He takes home one of the baby chimps and raises it like a son. This chimp, Caesar (Andy Serkis via CGI), has extraordinary mental capacity which was passed on from his mother who was pregnant while given the Alzheimer's medication. Caesar is taught sign language and eventually understands English although he can't speak. This is the first psuedo serious moment of the film. Caesar is self-aware. He understands he is not human (even though he is more capable than Lithgow's character). He also understands that he frightens humans and is looked upon as a dangerous monster. Finally, an encounter with a leashed dog leads him to question whether or not he is closer to family pet or family member.

Caesar eventually attacks a neighbor while protecting Lithgow. He is placed in a primate shelter which leads to the second psuedo serious moment. While in the shelter, Caesar realizes he is quite different from the other chimps, gorillas and orangutans there. Like a prison film, Caesar is attacked by the alpha male but by using his superior intelligence, Caesar is able to form a bond with the resident gorilla; thus establishing the chimp leader/gorilla soldier societal model used in previous Planet of the Apes films. It's also in prision/primate shelter where Caesar loses his "humanity" and turns rejects Rodman. Instead, Caesar envisions himself as the leader of the apes and wants to gain independence for his "people."

That sets up the finale where Caesar leads a prison break and goes on to free the primates at the zoo and the test chimps at the labs where Rodman works. The primates and human police have their showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Of course, if you think about this for too long, it is all very silly. However, for two hours, Rise of the Planet of the Apes entertained me and even made me think. The most compelling character in the film is Caesar which probably says something about the plot and James Franco. I was actively rooting for the apes in the film because all the humans were so flawed...Rodman included. I felt more empathy for Caesar than any of the humans. Combined with the special effects and filling in the backstory of Planet of the Apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the energetic summer film Captain America wished it could have been.


The Whistleblower is based on the true story of human trafficking during the Bosnia conflict. Not only were the main clients of the forced prostitutes United Nation workers and contractors but UN personnel were involved in the trafficking directly or indirectly by tipping off the traffickers. The eponymous character is former Nebraska cop Kathryn Bolkovac played by a nearly unrecognizable Rachel Weisz. David Strathairn & Vanessa Redgrave have small supporting roles as UN officials who try to help Bolkovac expose the UN's involvement. Monica Bellucci is featured prominently in the credits but only shows up in two scenes.

The heavy lifting is performed by Roxana Condurache as Raya, one of the exploited women and some of the actors portraying their abusers and captors. I can't recall the characters names so I can't call the actors out. A woman walked out of the theater during one particular violent torture scene.

Weisz gives a subdued performance which probably matches the real-life Bolkovac's demeanor. The film doesn't seem any more powerful than a newspaper article. For example, at the beginning of the film, Bolkovac was trying to get a transfer from the Nebraska State Patrol job she had to a location where her ex-husband and daughter were moving (I can't recall the state). The fact that a woman didn't get custody of her daughter is unusual but is never explained. Initially determined to move closer to her daughter, Bolkovac oddly takes a job in Eastern Europe. Presumably, the high pay would be enough to relocate closer to her daughter without the need for an immediate job. As Bolkovac investigates the trafficking syndicate, her daughter is completely dropped from the script. In the epilogue, it is mentioned that Bolkovac has moved to the Netherlands to be with her boyfriend (whom she met while working at the UN). No mention is made of her daughter.

The backstory of Bolkovac's failing to gain custody of her daughter as well as the source of her dogged determination in investigating the crimes in Bosnia are left a mystery. The result is that the film sheds no light (fictitious or real) on Bolkovac's character. She is simply goes about her business despite familial pressures, UN retaliation, indifference from Bosnian authorities and physical attacks on her staff and the prostitutes. The film lacked the setup needed to understand the lead character. However, the film propels itself based on the strength and drama of the abuse and to a lesser extent, the UN coverup. The Whistleblower is a great story made into a mediocre film.


Rapt is one of my favorite films of 2011. It's the story of Stanislas Graff (Yvan Attal), the CEO of a large French conglomerate. He is a rockstar CEO who hobnobs with prime ministers and is well known through his press coverage. One day, he is kidnapped for ransom. However, the real troubles are only just beginning for Monsieur Graff. First off, M. Graff is not as wealthy as one would think. He has a gambling problem. Not only that but he keeps expensive mistresses. This is all reported, to his wife's embarrassment, by the police and media as they investigate his abduction. Also bad luck for Graff is that his captors are not very financially savvy. They have conflated his personal wealth with his company's holdings. Unfortunately for Graff, his company's Board of Directors are unwilling to use corporate assets to pay the ransom; they do have a fiduciary responsibility after all.

Graff is kept captive in brutal and terrifying fashion as the kidnappers try, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to collect their ransom demands. He is eventually released after promising to pay future ransom demands. Graff's problems are only beginning. His company has done fine without him and the Board finds his gambling and womanizing to be an embarrassing distraction. His wife is resentful of the secrets he has kept from her and the humiliation of reading about them in the tabloids. Finally, Graff is having troubles adjusting to his regained freedom as well as his newly descended station amongst his co-workers and family. In fact, it is only his dog who seems to give him any comfort. Just when Graff hits rock bottom, he receives a note in the mail with the word "Calypso" which is the code word his kidnappers have told him is the signal for him to gather his cash to pay the ransom.

Yvan Attal is magnificent as Graff. What a wonderful role it must have been as he goes from being on top of the world to being a disheveled captive to being a nervous and angry man coping with his new life. Anne Consigny as Graff's wife does well in her role but Rapt is a vehicle for Attal to shine brightest.


Point Blank is also a French film about a kidnapping but in this case the victim is a pregnant woman and instead of ransom, the kidnappers want a male nurse to sneak a drug courier out of the hospital. Not nearly as thought provoking as Rapt, Point Blank is like an adrenaline rush as Gilles Lellouche as the nurse and Roschdy Zem as the drug dealer form a team to escape killers, free Lellouche's pregnant wife and expose corrupt cops.

In the US remake (if one is made), Point Blank will be ruined by cartoonish car chases and explosions. The French version strikes the right balance between action and character development. However, what is does best is show some dirty cops who are meanest but realistic bastards I've encountered on film in a long time. One female cop tries to push the pregnant woman out a second story window. Point Blank never goes off the reservation so it is just realistic enough to appreciate the grittiness and corruption along with the heart pounding action scenes.


Bellflower is a difficult film to categorize. The basic premise is that two guys (aka losers) in LA are building their dream car which is inspired by the film Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, the 1981 film with Mel Gibson. You may recall that film as the one where Mad Max encounters a bunch guys who look like they belong at the Folsom St. Leather Fair. I recall Lord Humungus (I wonder what is large) who is quoted in the prologue of Bellflower. His henchman was guy in assless chaps with a foxtail covering his crack who exhibited "brotherly love" when a young colleague was killed. Putting aside the homoerotic overtones of Mad Max 2, Bellflower focuses on automotive excesses of the former.

Woodrow (Evan Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) don't seem to have any means of supporting themselves but they somehow come up with the scratch to buy accessories for their car, Medusa. Not surprisingly, they aren't too popular with the ladies but even a blind chipmunk gets a nut once in awhile. Woodrow meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman) at a bar. Not a stone cold fox but still out of Woodrow's league (in my opinion), Woodrow falls for Milly and surprisingly, vice versa. Their romance burns white hot.

Then the logic drops out of Bellflower. There are not one but two scratch-your-head plot twists in Bellflower that left me disappointed. The ending of the film is open to interpretation. I didn't choose to read much into it in terms of social commentary. It might say something about modern day masculinity and maturity among twentysomething males. Or it might just be hallucinations. Regardless, the journey was more enjoyable than the destination.

Bellflower isn't a great film but it showed some creativity, interesting cinematography and the performances by Jessie Wiseman and Rebekah Brandes as Milly's best friend were memorable. I enjoyed the film enough to recommend it. It is currently playing at the Roxie.