Saturday, February 25, 2012

San Francisco, Austin and Mostly Britain

Last month, I wrote that Gary Meyer "seemed re-energized and doesn't seem eager to step away" from the Balboa Theater. I was wrong. A few weeks ago, Meyer announced (via email) that he was stepping down from his position at the Balboa. He announced that Adam Bergeron and Jaimi Holke will take over operation of the Balboa as well as the Vogue. The two theaters will henceforth be operated jointly as Cinema SF. Long-time Balboa general manager Roger Paul will serve in that same capacity for both theaters. Meyer will serve as a programming consultant to Bergeron and Holker.

Regarding Bergeron and Holke, Meyer wrote "A few months ago I was approached by an enthusiastic San Francisco couple who loved the Balboa and wanted to know if I would be interested in selling or taking on a partner. After spending time with them it was clear that they had the passion required."

I wonder if Bergeron and Holke are one of the parties Meyer was referring to several months ago when he wrote in a weekly newsletter, "As I continue discussions with interested parties for taking over the Balboa I am heartened by the passion and loyalty many people have expressed for the theater. There are wonderful dreamers who think it would be fun but have no idea what is involved in running this kind of business. I love their enthusiasm but soon they become overwhelmed by all the aspects of staying afloat."

It seems that Meyer has engineered a split of the responsibility for the Balboa lease from the responsibility for the theater operations. Not only that but he found a new operator for the Vogue which I thought was doing relatively well. Both theaters have new websites - Balboa and Vogue.

I'm criticized for being pessimistic but I wish Mr. Bergeron & Ms. Holke the best of luck in their new venture. Their first announced change is that the Balboa now accepts credit cards. I have previously thank Gary Meyer for his work at the Balboa and do so again. One year, I have to go out to Telluride during Labor Day Weekend to see what his widely praised film festival is all about.


The Vogue hosted the Mostly British Film Festival from February 2 to 9. The festival had four screenings at the Smith Rafael Film Center during that week also. Two rump sessions were held on February 18 and 25 at the Balboa to screen the remaining Up series installments (more on that below).

I saw 14 films at the Vogue and an additional 4 films at the Balboa.

Perfect Sense starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green; (2010) - Official Site
Neds starring Connor McCarron; directed by Peter Mullan; (2010)
Gumshoe starring Albert Finney; directed by Stephen Frears; (1971)
Stormy Monday starring Melanie Griffith, Tommy Lee Jones, Sting & Sean Bean; directed by Mike Figgis; (1988)
Seven Up!; documentary; directed by Paul Almond; (1964)
7 Plus Seven; documentary; directed by Michael Apted; (1970)
21 Up; documentary; directed by Michael Apted; (1977)
33 Postcards starring Guy Pearce; (2011)
South Solitary starring Miranda Otto; directed by Shirley Barrett; (2010)
Performance starring James Fox & Mick Jagger; with Anita Pallenberg & Michele Breton; directed by Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg; (1970)
Chalet Girl starring Felicity Jones, Tamsin Egerton & Ed Westwick; with Bill Nighy & Brooke Shields; directed by Phil Traill; (2011) - Official Blog
Albatross starring Jessica Brown-Findlay; with Felicity Jones, Sebastian Koch & Julia Ormond; directed by Niall MacCormick; (2011)
Sensation starring Domhnall Gleeson & Luanne Gordon; directed by Tom Hall; (2010)
A Lonely Place to Die starring Melissa George; directed by Julian Gilbey; (2011)
London Boulevard starring Colin Farrell; with Keira Knightley, David Thewlis, Anna Friel & Ray Winstone; directed by William Monahan; (2010) - Official Website
28 Up; documentary; directed by Michael Apted; (1984)
35 Up; documentary; directed by Michael Apted; (1991)
42 Up; documentary; directed by Michael Apted; (1998)
49 Up; documentary; directed by Michael Apted; (2005)


Last year, Mostly British coincided with the first week of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival (SF Indiefest) and I chose Mostly British. This year I wasn't faced with that choice. The 2012 Mostly British Film Festival largely avoided the Indiefest. The last night of the Mostly British was the Opening Night for Indiefest. I shunned both fests to see The Killing of a Chinese Bookie at the YBCA.

My favorite "film" was the Up series which isn't surprising since it is possibly the most celebrated documentary series ever created. Much imitated in different countries, Up follows the lives of 14 children who were 7 years old in 1964. Chosen to represent a cross section of socio-economic backgrounds in the UK, the 14 boys and girls have been interviewed every seven years. The genesis of the series is taken from a Jesuit school motto, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man." The filmmakers use much of the original footage to show how the subjects have changed and (more surprising to me) foreshadowed their own futures.

The Up series is greatly helped by the continuity provided by Award winning director Michael Apted. The director of films such as Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist and the underrated Thunderheart, Apted returns septennially to the Up series. Initially a researcher who helped select the 14 children in 1964, Apted has directed each installment since 7 Plus Seven. For some reason, that installment was not called 14 Up.

A few of the participants dropped out of the series but 10 of the subjects have appeared in all seven installments through 49 Up. One subject appeared in 6 out of the 7 films while another appeared in 5. So 12 out of the 14 appeared in 49 Up. This allows for a fascinating comparison between these middle-aged people and not just their 7 year old selves but themselves at various seven year incremented stages of their lives. As I mentioned, the most amazing part is when the seem to prescience their own futures. Apted has been criticized for adding to this effect by skillful and selective editing but overall, it's impossible to change the past which is recorded on film for these people.

Each installment has an element of suspense. You wonder what has become of these people in the intervening seven years. You wonder if your predictions for their futures will be validated. I was surprised and saddened as often as not by the arcs of their lives. In short, there was great drama in the documentaries. Seeing the 7 installments in four weeks allowed me to recall the previous episodes which enhanced the viewing experience.

Apted is busy at work with 56 Up which is scheduled to be released this year. "Released" may not be the correct term since the Up installments are televised on the BBC and PBS. Actually, there was little gained by screening these films on the big screen. They were projected from a DVD that you could play at home. However, having never seen any of the installments in their entirety, I benefited from having the entire series available in such a compressed time period.

I find I frequently fast forward through portions of a DVD or easily become distracted. One benefit of film screenings is that I am forced to watch the film in one sitting. That can be a curse as well as a blessing, depending on the film. For the Up films, it was definitely the latter.

I highly recommend viewing the Up. The first two installments are shorter and weaker than the others but I think that's because the children were under (unseen) pressure from their parents to appear. By age 21, more of their personalities emerge. Apted skillfully shows that clues to their adult personalities were present at 7 and 14 but these first two films act more as background or source material for the future installments. Starting with 21 Up, the films are self-contained and full of drama.


Screening the entire Up series is not very innovative but the rest of the festival was quite strong. I credit festival programmer Ruthe Stein for putting together a strong lineup which mixed some revival screenings with new films. Excluding the Up films, Stein screened five films from before 1988 out of the 27 unique feature programs.

Given my proclivities, it's not surprising I enjoyed these older films. Of the five films before 1988, I saw four. I missed The Great White Silence which was my favorite film at last year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

I was impressed with Gumshoe, a 1971 hybrid starring Albert Finney. Gumshoe was the directorial debut of Stephen Frears who would go on to make My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons and High Fidelity.

Gumshoe starts off as a comedy as perennial loser Eddie Ginley lives a sort of pathetic fantasy life. A bingo caller cum stand up comic at night, Ginley aspires to be the titular, hard boiled detective by day. He goes so far as putting an ad in the newspaper (lifted straight from The Maltese Falcon) offering his detective services. Although set in a hardscrabble, Liverpool neighborhood of the 1970s, Ginley dresses and talks life a bad Humphrey Bogart imitation.

Unexpectedly, Ginley gets an inquiry regarding his ad. He meets with a suspicious character who gives him some money and a gun. That leads to a femme fatale, South African heroin smugglers and ultimately back to Ginley's brother and his wife (who was engaged to Ginley before marrying his brother). Frears subtly changes the tone of the film as it progresses. What start off as a comedy ends up in a very dark place with Ginley having transformed himself from hapless loser to a hardass, cynical survivor. The parallels to The Maltese Falcon are many. I was expecting something closer to Play It Again, Sam and instead a more serious film which pleasantly surprised me. A moderate fan of Finney's works, I was glad that he was at the top of his game for Gumshoe


Another interesting revival was Performance which was Nicholas Roeg's directorial debut effort (Roeg co-directed with Donald Cammell). Although several audience members walked out of the screening, I found the film more than interesting enough to stay. Mod & surreal, Performance follows an London East End gangster (James Fox) who runs afoul of his superiors (who all appear to be gay). Fleeing for his life, Fox takes refuge in the rented basement flat of Turner (Mick Jagger). Turner, a recluse, is ensconced with two attractive women (Anita Pallenberg & Michele Breton) and an impressive amount of hallucinogenics. While hiding at the house of the flamboyant Turner, Chas (Fox) begins exhibit homosexual tendencies which explains a lot about his association with his mob bosses and their reaction to his departure. Towards the end of the film there is a great sex scene in which the gender of the four housemates blur together.

Performance also features what may be the first music video as Jagger sings "Memo from Turner" which kicks off the blurring of identity and sexuality for Chas.

I can't say Performance is a masterpiece but it is an interesting film and foreshadows Roeg's later The Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie. Roeg seems to have a knack of getting the best performance out of proto-androgynous British rock stars. Jagger appears to be playing himself and then he slicks back his hair and belts out "Memo from Turner" and you begin to wonder what Jagger is really like. Jagger more than holds his own in his scenes with James Fox who has a formidable screen presence.


Albatross features a remarkable performance by Jessica Brown-Findlay (Downton Abbey) as a wild child who is a catalyst for change for a hapless family who own a B&B on the Isle of Man. As Emelia, Brown-Findlay is like a hurricane - her destructive, teenage energy is too much for the family to bear. Emelia quickly seduces the father (Sebastian Koch), a novelist forever trying to regain the glory of his first novel. Later Emelia becomes friends with the daughter (Felicity Jones) and the consternation of the mother (Juila Ormond), her wild ways rub off on the Oxford bound teenager. Nominally, a buddy film with Brown-Findlay and Jones as polar opposites, Albatross is Brown-Findlay's star making vehicle from the beginning. She exudes all the beauty and ugliness of youthful vigor. Brown-Findlay's is the main reason to see Albatross.

Similarly, South Solitary features an outstanding performance by Aussie actress Miranda Otto. Set on an isolated lighthouse island near Australia in the 1920s, Otto plays Meredith, the spinster daughter and assistant of the new lighthouse head keeper (played ably by Otto's father Barry Otto). An insecure woman, Meredith makes an unwise choice by taking up with the assistant lighthouse keeper (Rohan Nichol) whose bitchy wife (Essie Davis) and bratty kids live on the island. Before long, their affair is discovered and the family use it as blackmail to force a transfer to a better location.

Meredith's father unexpectedly dies but the island isolation and a storm keep her on the island with the only other inhabitant, Jack Fleet (Marton Csokas) the shell-shocked 2nd assistant lighthouse keeper. As they ride out the storm in the lighthouse, the taciturn Fleet and nervously garrulous Meredith have to endure each other's company in close quarters.

I thought South Solitary was a bittersweet romantic comedy buoyed by Miranda Otto's versatile performance.

Sensation starring Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan's son) was also worthwhile. A comedy about a young man who inherits a sheep ranch. Unwilling to continue the ranch after his father's death, Donal (Domhnall Gleeson) quickly sells the herd and sets about living the rest of his life...but not before losing his virginity via the services of a on-line "escort" (Luanne Gordon). Inexperienced with women and possessing a certain youthful earnestness, Donal quickly becomes enmeshed in the woman's problems. The solution to their problems is to open an escort agency with Donal using his inheritance as seed money for the operation.

Like Gumshoe, Sensation subtly evolves from a comedy to a fairly serious film as Donal learns some lessons about life and love courtesy of his prostitute/partner/girlfriend. Nice performances by Gleeson and Gordon.


London Boulevard was stylish if not much else. Although set in present day, it had a retro-1960s, modern-noir feel (mostly as a result of a soundtrack featuring The Yardbirds). Colin Farrell acquits himself well enough as an excon hired to be bodyguard for a reclusive actress (Keira Knightley). David Thewlis as the pot smoking majordomo and Eddie Marsan as a crooked cop shine in smaller roles. London Boulevard is most notable for Ray Winstone's ferocious turn as the mob boss looking to recruit Farrell into his gang.

Neds about a Scottish juvenile delinquent was powerful. It could easily have been set in the Compton or East LA.

Stormy Monday was oddly disappointing. Although Tommy Lee Jones & Melanie Griffith received top billing, I was most impressed with Sting's performance as a tough blues club owner resisting the encroachment of a thuggish Yank businessman (Jones).

Chalet Girl was a lightweight comedy. Although Felicity Jones was the star, the beautiful Tamsin Egerton stole the show.

33 Postcards has received some critical praise but it didn't quite get it done for me. Guy Pearce gives a understated performance which is offset by Zhu Lin's frequently cloying performance. 33 Postcards is the story of an Australian prison inmate (Pearce) who financially supports a Chinese orphan girl (Lin). When the girl's choir is invited to perform in Australia, the girl grabs her opportunity to meet her benefactor...who has been lying about being a park ranger. A little too sentimental for my tastes, 33 Postcards had its moments.


The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the New Mission Theater in the 2500 block of Mission Street in San Francisco is being renovated by the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas of Austin fame. The Alamo Drafthouse and Mission Local Blogs gives more details. The current proposal is to subdivide the New Mission Theater (built in 1910) into five screens with a total capacity of 900.

I don't know what to write. I think an Alamo would be a welcome addition to the local cinema scene. I wonder if SF can handle an additional 900 seats of rep/art house screening venues. I suspect that a local rep house such as the Roxie or Castro would be hurt if a Drafthouse opens. I say if because San Francisco is notorious for putting up roadblocks for new projects. In this case, the New Mission Theater is a designated San Francisco Landmark (#245) which will slow the process down.

The Chronicle article summed it up in the last paragraph of it article. "The next step is to complete an environmental review that is expected to be made public in August or September... After that, the project still needs approval from the Planning Commission and other review committees. So far...there is no estimated cost for the entire project."

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