Thursday, January 19, 2012

King of Devil's Island

I remember when the Landmark Clay announced it was closing and the San Francisco Film Society entered into negotiations with Landmark and the owner of the building. The SFFS Executive Director at the time (the late Graham Leggat) mentioned in an interview or perhaps KQED panel discussion that SFFS was in a different position than Landmark Theaters. Being a non-profit, SFFS could count on alternate sources of revenue which Landmark cannot. At the time, it sounded to me like Leggat was essentially saying that even if SFFS lost money while operating the Clay, it would be ok because SFFS doesn't have a profit motive and could subsidize the operation of the Clay through charitable donations, government grants and tax write-offs. I remembered thinking it sounded as if they needed gimmickry to keep the single screen theater open.

Whatever happened to the planned closing of the Clay? Regardless, that formula of non-profit operation of single screen and/or small movie theaters has essentially been used or replicated at the Vogue, the Roxie and most recently, the Balboa. That reminds me of something else. When Gary Meyer announced he was stepping away from the Balboa, he mentioned his desire to spend more time working on the Telluride Film Festival which he described as his "paying gig." Since the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation announced it is taking over the Balboa, Meyer has seemed re-energized and doesn't seem eager to step away anymore.

The reason I bring any of this up is that whenever I go to the New People/Viz Theater for "regular programming," the audience is just as sparse as when it was operated by New People and programmed with primarily Japanese films. I define "regular programming" as the programming not associated with the SFFS fall festivals (Hong Kong Cinema, Taiwan Film Days, etc.). I keep thinking back to Leggat's comments (albeit he was speaking of the Clay) that SFFS's non-profit status gave it advantages in operating a single screen theater. I think his claim will be put to the test.


My last venture to New People was to see King of Devil's Island.

King of Devil's Island starring Stellan Skarsgård, Benjamin Helstad & Trond Nilssen; directed by Marius Holst; Norwegian with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website

King of Devil's Island is a mediocre film elevated by strong performances and nice outdoor locations. It's essentially a prison film or more specifically a juvenile delinquency prison film. As such, there must be a child molester. Every film about a boy's reformatory has to have a pedophile, typically a guard. Based on true events and set in the early 1900s, King of Devil's Island is set on Bastoy Island, kind of an Norwegian Alcatraz for boys.

The ever reliable Stellan Skarsgård plays the warden - a no nonsense disciplinarian whose probity is compromised when he diverts funds to be used for the upkeep of the facility and its charges. The warden uses it to make life more comfortable for his new and younger bride who is terribly bored on the island and at other times, alarmed by the behavior and treatment of the boys.

The protagonist of the film is a boy-sailor named Erling (Benjamin Helstad). The boys are assigned prison numbers and Erling is referred to as "C-19" for the rest of the film. Sent to Bastoy for killing someone, Erling seems more of a loner and rebel than sociopath. He quickly deals with attempted bullying and begins to test the boundaries of his confinement. This puts him into conflict with the warden and his proxy, Olav or C-1 who is the trustee for his dormitory. Assigned with showing C-19 the ropes, C-1 fails miserably as the stubborn Erling is determined to escape the island.

Over the course of the film C-1 and C-19 form a friendship. As is de rigueur, they bond over shared, forced punishment. If I recall, it was chopping down trees in freezing cold weather. As the film progresses, C-1 loses respect for the warden as he is blackmailed into covering up the acts of his pedophile guard (nice performance by Kristoffer Joner who bears a resemblance to Tom Skerritt). This leads to the final confrontation between the boys and their overseers which plays out a little like Lord of the Flies.

Helstad is quite convincing as Erling but Trond Nilssen's turn as C-1 is the lynchpin of the film. His scenes with Helstad, Skarsgård and Joner show his character's evolution which is more powerful than C-19's restless frustrations. Magnus Langlete as C-5 also shines as the victim of the pedophile.

There were recurring scenes of a whale at sea which was a story C-1 and C-19 were writing together and also served as a metaphor for Erling. I thought it was a little contrived and the CGI images of the whale looked second rate. Otherwise, King of Devil's Island is serviceable JD film elevated by a strong cast.

No comments: