Friday, November 30, 2012

Life Is Short: Nikkatsu Studios at 100

The PFA had a series in September & October titled Life Is Short: Nikkatsu Studios at 100.  The series commemorated the 100th anniversary of the founding of Nikkatsu Studios, the oldest film studio in Japan.

Of the 14 films in the series, I watched 12.  The two I missed were Made to Order Cloth and Harp of Burma.  I was at the Hong Kong Cinema series the day Made to Order Cloth screened and I had seen Harp of Burma (under the the title The Burmese Harp) at the Viz in 2010.

Suzaki Paradise: Red Light District starring Michiyo Aratama & Tatsuya Mihashi; directed by Yuzo Kawashina; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)
A Colt Is My Passport starring Jo Shishido; directed by Takashi Nomura; Japanese with subtitles; (1967)
Capricious Young Man starring Chiezo Kataoka; directed by Mansaku Itami; Japanese with subtitles; (1936)
The Warped Ones starring Tamio Kawaji; directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara; Japanese with subtitles; (1960)
Season of the Sun Yoko Minamida & Hiroyuki Nagato; directed by Takumi Furukawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)
Hometown starring Yoshie Fujiwara; directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1930)
Singing Lovebirds starring Chiezo Kataoka & Takashi Shimura; directed by Masahiro Makino; Japanese with subtitles; (1939)
Rusty Knife starring Yujiro Ishihara & Akira Kobayashi; directed by Toshio Masuda; Japanese with subtitles; (1958)
Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate starring Frankie Sakai; directed by Yuzo Kawashima; Japanese with subtitles; (1957)
Gate of Flesh starring Satoko Kasai & Jo Shishido; directed by Seijun Suzuki; Japanese with subtitles; (1964)
The Young Rebel starring Ken Yamanouchi; directed by Seijun Suzuki; Japanese with subtitles; (1963)
Elegy to Violence starring Hideki Takahashi; directed by Seijun Suzuki; Japanese with subtitles; (1966)

This was a much anticipated series for me which largely paid off with a few exceptions.


My favorite films from the series were also the most violent ones - A Colt is My Passport, The Warped Ones, Season of the Sun, Gate of Flesh, and Elegy to Violence.

In A Colt is My Passport, Jo Shisido (the stalwart of the series), plays a hitman on the run from the mob.  He and his younger associate (Jerry Fujio) have been betrayed by the gang who hired them to kill a rival gangster so both gangs are after the two.  They take refuge in a dockside motel where the chambemaid (Chitose Kobayashi) shows interest in Shisido.  He's loyal to his partner (who is wounded).  Actually his loyalty goes beyond commendable to being suspicious.  You begin to wonder about the exact nature of the relationship between these two men.  A neat soundtrack and Sergio Leoneesque shootout give the film style in spades.

The Warped Ones reminded me a some of of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless from the same year but it's like Breathless on crystal meth.  Tamio Kawachi plays Akira like he is mentally deranged.  Hopped up on criminal thrills and bebop jazz, Akira starts a crime wave with his prostitute girlfriend and an ex-con he met in the joint.  Eventually they assault the man that turned them into the police and rape his girlfriend Yuki (Yuko Chishiro).  When Yuki turns up pregnant and her boyfriend grows distant, she appeals to Akira's honor which is a lost cause.  She confides in Fumiko (Noriko Matsumoto), Akira's now prostitute ex-girlfriend who agrees to seduce Yuki's boyfriend so they will more sexually equivalent.  I guess "blame the victim" was prevalent in Japanese attitudes towards victims of rape...although Akira did give up a little too easy for my cinematic tastes.  The film ends with the two couples at an abortion clinic which Akira finds hilarious.  Full of jump cuts and frenetic music, The Warped Ones must have been  unlike anything seen before in Japanese cinema.  If you liked Breathless (which I did), you owe it to yourself to seek out The Warped Ones.

Season of the Sun gave rise to the "Sun Tribe" or "Taiyo-zoku" subculture of Japanese youth who based much of "bored, angry and jaded" views on the novel Season of the Sun by Ishihara Shintaro on which this film is based.  Ironically, Ishihara was governor of Tokyo Prefecture (kind of like the City & County of San Francisco) until Halloween 2012 when he resigned to form a far right political party for the upcoming national elections.  Films expressing the Sun Tribe viewpoints on life & society appropriated its name for their genre.  Some film critics liken the Sun Tribe to the French New Wave and even refer to it as Japanese New Wave.

Season of the Sun is set among some wealthy young people who consist of people old enough to remember Japan's war years but who came of age in an American Occupied society.  Their national pride in tatters and influenced by Western customs, this generation struggled to find themselves.  In the film, they spend their time sailing and at the beach.  One young but nihilistic woman falls in with a poor boxer which leads to tragedy for both of them.  With its depiction of sex, rape, pregnancy, abortion amd violence, Season of the Sun was quite shocking in its time and even packed a punch in 2012.  Not as outrageous as A Colt is My Passport and The Warped Ones.

Gate of Flesh was the most outrageous of all.  Set in a post-war slum, a gang of prostitutes live...I don't know what it was.  A condemned building?  An abandoned port facility?  These are some tough whore who vow not to have sex with a man unless he pays for it.  The penalty if they discover one of their own has given it away is a whipping and possible a shaved head.  Into this estrogen rich atmosphere comes a wounded Jo Shishido to convalesce.  He's a violent thug with a bum leg who frequent state of undress leads the ladies to rethink the cardinal rule.  Maya (Yumiko Nogawa) succumbs to his Kowalskiesque magnetism and pays the price.  It's true love though; they agree to go on the lam together...until Shishido is double crossed and shot leaving Maya alone as the film ends.  Exploitive and bordering on pornographic at times, Gate of Flesh is something to behold.  In the hands of a lesser director, it would surely have devolved into something ridiculous.  However, Gate of Flesh was directed by Seijin Suzuki and it maintains its energy throughout.  Anything but subtle, the film has an in-your-face attitude towards sex and violence which has long been a hallmark of the best that Japanese cinemas has to offer.

Elegy to Violence was also a hoot.  Exploring militaristic and adolescent tendencies towards violence, Elegy focuses on Nambu, the most violent of all teenagers at his school.  The violence is only a outlet for unfulfilled sexual desire for Michiko, a Catholic girl!  I particularly like the way he would look at the crucifix before having carnal thoughts or committing acts of violence.  Eventually seeing the futility of violence, Nambu gets busy romancing Michiko but his violent past won't let him completely free.  Unexpectedly humorous, Elegy to Violence is another sterling effort by Suzuki.


Not quite as memorable but worthwhile were Rusty Knife and The Young Rebel (aka The Bastard) explore violence through lens of gangster codes and pre-war militarism.  Suzaki Paradise: Red Light District is a tragic romance about a couple who are undone by their own desires and proximity to the titular red light district.  Unlike the other seven films I have mentioned so far, Suzaki Paradise relied less on sex & violence and more on poverty and human flaws to advance its tale tragedy.

Singing Lovebirds was interesting in that it was pre-war but used Western style music to tell a story set in the 1800s or early 1900s.  Chiezo Kataoka shines as the daughter of the umbrella maker (Takashi Shimura) who longs for the samurai.  When was the last time you saw a Samurai musical?


I couldn't get into Capricious Young Man and Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate.  Hometown is Kenji Mizoguchi's first sound film and it shows.  With editing that butchered the thin plot, it was like watching an experimental film.  Actually, I recall similar efforts in US films of the era as filmmakers tried to find techniques that would work for talkies.  Hometown seems to bet its money on tenor Yushie Fujiwara, a half Scottish, half Japanese opera singer.  Hopelessly incomprehensible, I considered walking out but kept hoping it would get better.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


The day after the Hong Kong Cinema series ended, I received an email from the San Francisco Film Society informing me that Pang Ho-cheung's latest film would be screening at the AMC Metreon a week or two henceforth.  Pang Ho-cheung directed Love in a Puff and its sequel, Love in the Buff.  His latest film is Vulgaria.

Vulgaria starring Chapman To; directed by Pang Ho-cheung; Cantonese with subtitles; (2012)

Vulgaria is much different from the Love films and adds to my quasi-porn viewing trend.  Chapman To plays a film producer who is reduced to making porn.  Vulgaria documents the various indignities and mishaps which occur to him as he admirably attempts to get the movie through financing & production.  Among the more memorable scenes is a dinner with a gangster financier in which all manner of disgusting food is presented to him.  The only thing he likes is the cow vagina soup.  That scene ends with bestiality involving two mules (although they looked more like donkeys to me) and proof that the phrase "riding bareback" can have at least two meanings with respect to equines.

Not a connoisseur of HK Cat 3 films, I assume that Confession of a Concubine is a real film and Yum Yum Shaw is a real actress.  A working knowledge of HK porn would probably have made the movie that much funnier.

The beautiful Dada Chen plays Popping Candy, Yum Yum's body double on the porn shoot.  Her name refers to a fellatio technique involving, you guessed it, popping candy.  Miriam Leung (Cherie from the Love films) shows up as a government agent investigating charges of sexual harassment against To. To's real wife, actress Kristal Tin, plays his character's angry ex-wife.

Although there is almost no nudity as I can recall, Vulgaria certainly lives up to its name.  It's as raunchy as anything I can remember seeing while maintaining its humor.  Chapman To showed exceptional comic timing as the harried producer.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

2012 Hong Kong Cinema

The San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) kicked off their 2012 Fall Season with Hong Kong Cinema.  The series ran from September 21 to 23 at the Viz.

I saw six of the nine films in the HK series.

Love in the Buff starring Shawn Yue & Miriam Leung; directed by Pang Ho-cheung; Cantonese & Mandarin with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
Nightfall starring Simon Yam & Nick Cheung; directed by Roy Chow Hin-Yeung; Cantonese with subtitles; (2012) - Official Facebook
A Simple Life starring Andy Lau & Deanie Ip; directed by Ann Hui; Cantonese with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website
Love Me Not starring Kenneth Cheng & Afa Lee; directed by Gilitte Pik Chi Leung; Cantonese with subtitles; (2012)
The Longest Nite starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai; directed by Patrick Yau; Cantonese with subtitles; (1998)
Made in Hong Kong starring Sam Lee; directed by Fruit Chan; (1997)

The three films I missed were Johnnie To's Romancing in Thin Air, The Great Magician and Comrades, Almost a Love Story with Maggie Cheung.

Commemorating the 15th anniversary of the end of British rule in  Hong Kong (which the SFFS programmers made special effort to note as "the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region"), the series had three films from the transition era:  The Longest Nite, Made in Hong Kong & Comrades, Almost a Love Story.  The Longest Nite was an interesting choice because it was set and filmed in Macau which became a "Special Administrative Region" in 1999.


Love in the Buff is the sequel to Love in a Puff which I saw at the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival.  Reuniting the director (Pang Ho-cheung) and the two leads (Shawn Yue & Miriam Leung), Love in the Buff discards most of the Love in a Puff backstory.  Jimmy (Yue) and Cherie (Leung) were a HK couple who initially bonded together over their shared nicotine addiction.  In Buff, the two break-up early in the film and separately leave HK (and their smoking habit) for Beijing.  I'm still not sure what "the Buff" in the title referred to.

Whereas Puff  felt as if Jimmy & Cherie belonged together, Buff is more ambiguous.  The couple has already broken so we are left to wonder why second time would result in any other outcome.  Cherie, in particular, wonders the same.  Buff gives more screen time to Jimmy & Cherie's respective partners who are decent people.  Director Park Ho-cheung has his thumb on the scale.  Along the their partners may seem like they a better match, neither couple has the magnetism of Jimmy & Cherie which is largely the result of Yue & Leung's on-screen chemistry.  The audience is not-so-subtly manipulated into hoping for a reunion.

This is a tricky maneuver because Jimmy & Cherie are clearly flawed characters and they are cheating on their significant others which saps away much of the audience's empathy.  It's also clear that the two have an attraction that they won't find with anyone else.  They are like moths drawn to the same flame.  Rather than get bogged down in this aspect of the film, Ho-cheung goes full speed ahead with crass humor and no explanation which is doubly effective because it seem keeping the Jimmy & Cherie's characters.  Cherie, in particular, seem unable to control herself.  Knowing Jimmy is a longshot, she can't resist his text messages and illicit rendezvous.

After overcoming many comedic obstacles, you knew they had to get back together in the end.  Unlike US rom-coms, I thought "happily ever after" was an unlikely outcome.  I got the sense that they could keep making this series  as long as they could come up in with words which rhymed with "puff."  In other words, like some Sisyphean romance myth, Jimmy & Cherie will continue to come together and break apart.

My words shouldn't be misinterpreted as I didn't enjoy the film.  The combination of Yue and Leung on screen and Ho-cheung seems to catch lightning in a bottle.  Buff is a more complex film than Puff in part because we are familiar with the two lead characters.  Ho-cheung took the characters and put them in more complex situation which challenged the audience's preconceived notions.  There was a lot of commentary on modern Chinese culture which played as the backdrop for Jimmy & Cherie's specific actions which I have omitted from my review.  At its essence, Buff (and Puff) are about these two ambivalent characters who walk just this side of likable.  Here's hoping we see Love in a Huff, Love is No Guff or Love Off the Cuff.


A Simple Life is one of the most critically acclaimed films to come out of Hong Kong in the last few years.  Based on producer Roger Lee's relationship with his servant, A Simple Life tells the story of Ah Tao (Deannie Yip), faithful servant to Leung family for her entire adult.  The family has moved overseas but one son, Roger (Andy Lau) remains in the HK.  Ah Tao has cared for Roger since he was born and the two still share the family apartment.  Roger is a film producer whose job requires frequent travel.  A Simple Life has a few cameos and insides jokes at the HK film industry.  The key is the bond between these two.  Roger's was Ah Tao's favorite among his sibling and for reasons left unstated, Roger, a handsome and successful man, has never married and its seems his closest relationship is with Ah Tao.

Ah Tao has a stroke which requires her to be put an assisted living facility.  Despite initial reluctance, Ah Tao eventually settles in and makes friends with the other residents.  Roger visits as often as possible and his being friends with the owner of the facility (Anthony Wong) makes Ah Tao's life a little easier.  The film plays with the notion that Ah Tao will eventually leave the facility and live on her own or with Roger again but it never occurs.

Due to Roger's busy schedule or Ah Tao's tenuous health, Ah Tao spends the rest of the film in the facility.  It's not a prison so she is allowed out and her time with Roger have a extra significance for both of them.  This is strength of A Simple Life.  Rather than going for a cheap, feel-good story where Ah Tao recovers sufficiently to leave the facility and Roger cuts back his work schedule, director Ann Hui presents a more realistic scenario.  In particular, Roger is presented as a decent guy who loves his servant-cum-surrogate mother, but he has a job that's demanding.  On flip side, Ah Tao, always aware she is a servant and not family, would be horrified if Roger made a sacrifice for her.

Most of the film follows Ah Tao as she comes to grips with her situation, develops friendships with the staff and residents of the facility and looks forward to Roger's visits.  During the course of the film, we get a better sense of who Ah Tao is and how much she sacrificed for Roger's family.  Roger, not unaware of Ah Tao's sacrifice, must also cope with her absence and his desire to do more for her.

As Ah Tao's health ebbs away, the film takes a more somber tone until its inevitable conclusion.  A moving film which never overplays its emotional hand, A Simple Life had a profound effect on me.  Reminding me of my late mother, Ah Tao's plight struck a deep chord within me as I could/can easily imagine myself in Roger's position.


Love Me Not was a tremendously creative "film within a film" about a gay man and a lesbian woman.  Putting aside such restrictive ideas on sexual orientation, director Gilitte Pik Chi Leung explores the unconsummated love between the two which is made more nebulous as they pretend to be couple for the sake of their respective families to whom they are still closeted.  Just when the story reaches a conclusion, we realize we been watching a film within film with woman writing & directing a film depicting her relationship with the man...through her subjective lens.  The second half of Love Me Not explore the "real" couple as the reunite in the aftermath of the success of the film based on their time together.  Energetic and playful, Love Me Not is a delightful film.

Made in Hong Kong was one of the 15th anniversary selections.  Representing the uncertainty HKers felt towards their future, Made in Hong Kong captures this disorientation.  Autumn Moon (Sam Lee) is a high school dropout and low level mobster.  He teams up with mentally handicapped behemoth named named Sylvester (Wenbers Li Tung-Chuen) and a fatally ill teenager name Ping (Neiky Yim Hui-Chi) to form  a surrogate family since his father has abandoned him and his relationship with his mother goes from strained to worse.  We see the three of them around HK in vibrant montages full of music, color and non-standard film techniques.  Director Fruit Chan's energetic film eventually gives way to the hopeless and meaningless existence of these young people which must have resonated with young HKers uncertain of what Communist China had in store for their island.  Of all the films I have recently, I would most like to see Made in Hong Kong a second time.

The Longest Nite is a gritty thriller involving a gang war in Macau and a dirty cop who gets in over his head.  Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is the cop and Lau Ching-Wan is a hitman who bumps heads with him. More violent than most films of the genre, The Longest Nite does a nifty pas de deux.  Tony Leung's character starts out as the hunter and the hated but as the film progresses, he becomes the hunted and the audience almost roots for him.  In fact, some in the audience may root him but I wasn't quite won over.  Produced by Johnnie To, The Longest Nite approaches some of his best works.


The only film I did not like was Nightfall, a overly contrived policier about the murder of an opera singer (Michael Wong who overacted his scenes).  Simon Yam plays the police inspector and Nick Cheung (who was great in The Beast Stalker) is an ex-convict who is the prime suspect in the murder. The script was one of those stories where you see the crime but what you see is not what you think you are seeing.  The plot could have reworked to be more effective and I though Yam & Cheung were wasted in a below-average film.  There is an exciting fight sequence on an aerial tram cable car but one scene does not a film make.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

2012 Not Necessarily Noir

I mentioned that I had recommended Body Double and Something Wild to Elliot Lavine during one of his previous Roxie series.  I spoke with Lavine during the last month's Not Necessarily Noir 3 (NNN3) festival at the Roxie.  He was a bit cagey when I mentioned our conversation to him.  He said "I remember that conversation."  He didn't say "I took your programming advice" or even "I'm glad you recommended those films" but was noncommittal.  He acknowledged the conversation if not the "cause and effect."

NNN3 ran from October 19 to 31 at the Roxie.  I saw 14 of the 26 films screened.

Of the 12 films I missed, I had seen six of them on the big screen within the last few years.   A seventh film, From Dusk Till Dawn, has had heavy rotation on cable TV.  I've seen parts of From Dusk Till Dawn at least two dozen times.  The seven films I passed on due to familiarity were:  Reservoir Dogs (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1992), Cockfighter (dir. Monte Hellman, 1974), The Burglars (1971), Eyes of Laura Mars (dir. Irving Kershner, 1978), Sugar Hill (1974), From Dusk till Dawn (dir. Robert Rodriguez, 1996) and Near Dark (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1987).

The five films I passed on due to scheduling conflicts or fatigue were:  Day of the Wolves, Peur Sur la Ville, Manhunter, White of the Eye and Ganja & Hess.  I remember reading Red Dragon, the Thomas Harris novel Manhunter was based on.  I can still recall some of the plot including the serial killer's obsession with William Blake's paintings.  I particularly regret missing Day of the Wolves.

I noticed that Lavine was absent quite a bit.  He typically introduces the films but he was absent from many of the screenings I attended.  As Lavine noted, NNN3 had the misfortune of competing the San Francisco Giants playoff run which ended in a Word Series title.  On seven of the 13 days, NNN3 competed against Giants playoff games.  I definitely noticed that attendance was off compared to previous festivals.

I was in the Roxie watching Who'll Stop the Rain when the Giants clinched the Series.  I could hear the cheering on Valencia Street when the final out was recorded.  When the movie ended about an hour after that, the streets around the Roxie were crowded with revellers celebrating the win and police cars were escorting a makeshift victory parade.

The 14 films I saw were:

Hard Boiled starring Chow Yun-fat & Tony Leung Chiu Wai; directed by John Woo; Cantonese with subtitles; (1992)
To Live and Die in LA starring William Petersen & Willem Dafoe; directed by William Friedkin; (1985)
One False Move starring Bill Paxton, Cynda Williams & Billy Bob Thornton; directed by Carl Franklin; (1992)
Charley Varrick starring Walter Matthau & Joe Don Baker; direcited by Don Siegel; (1973)
Miami Blues starring Alec Baldwin, Fred Ward & Jennifer Jason Leigh; directed by George Armitage; (1990)
Darker Than Amber starring Rod Taylor; directed by Robert Clouse; (1970)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia starring Warren Oates; directed by Sam Peckinpah; (1974)
Body Double starring Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith & Gregg Henry; directed by Brian De Palma; (1984)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang starring Robert Downey Jr. & Val Kilmer; directed by Shane Black; (2005) - Official Website
Something Wild starring Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith & Ray Liotta; directed by Jonathan Demme; (1986)
Cisco Pike starring Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton & Gene Hackman; directed by Bill L. Norton; (1972)
Who'll Stop the Rain starring Nick Nolte & Tuesday Weld; directed by Karel Reisz; (1978)
Night of the Following Day starring Marlon Brando, Richard Boone & Rita Moreno; directed by Hubert Cornfield; (1968)
After Dark, My Sweet starring Jason Patric, Rachel Ward & Bruce Dern; directed by James Foley; (1990)

The print of Who'll Stop the Rain listed the film title as Dog Soldiers.

There were quite a few pleasant surprises in the series.  Prior to the series, I had seen Body Double, Something Wild, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and To Live & Die in LA.  After Dark, My Sweet looked familiar but while watching it I was not able to recall or predict the plot.

I'm going to save Body Double & Something Wild for their own posts.  There was a time in my life when those two films and Blade Runner formed the triumvirate of influential films in my life.  It's been at least 10 years since I saw any of those film in they entirety in one sitting.  I was very anxious about seeing Body Double & Something Wild after perhaps 15 to 20 years since seeing them.


To Live and Die in LA is one of those films I kind of remember from my teenage years.  I recall Wang Chung did the soundtrack and the title track had heavy airplay on MTV.  I remember an intense car chase scene.  I remember a line by John Tuturro - "And the check is in the mail, and I love you, and I promise not to come in your mouth..."

I was expecting Live & Die to be stylish but I was surprised at much I was drawn into the plot.  Willem Dafoe is a counterfeiter who is ruthless in murdering anyone who gets in his way including Secret Service Agent Richard Chance's (William Petersen) partner.  Change is an adrenalin junkie and cowboy cop who becomes obsessed with arresting Eric Masters (Dafoe).  As Chance resorts to criminal behavior (which results in the death of an undercover FBI agent), the line between cop & criminal is blurred.

Petersen comes on a little too strong but I guess the character requires an outsized performance.  Dafoe is very creepy as Masters.  John Pankow as Chance's tenderfoot partner shows quite a range of acting.  The ending was also shocking because it went against the typically Hollywood playbook.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang features Robert Downey Jr. at his snarkiest.  Clever and very funny, KKBB is comedy masquerading as a neo-noir.  Downey plays a small-time thief pretending to be a method actor who teams up a Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a homosexual private eye.  Filled with Hollywood references and strong comedic chemistry between Downey & Kilmer, KKBB is an under-appreciated film.


Hard Boiled is an HK action film with Chow Yun-fat as a cop and Tony Leung Chiu Wai as an undercover cop trying to bring down gangster Anthony Wong.  Featuring John Woo's trademark ballet of violence, Hard Boiled ends with extended finale which takes place in hospital.  For my tastes, the explosions and running battles were emphasized too.  I recall Woo's best films had more character development.  I'm thinking of A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Face/Off.  Hard Boiled isn't bad as much as it suffers in comparison to Woo's (and Chow Yun-fat's) best works.

Darker Than Amber was also disappointing.  I never got into the film which is a tale of murder involving a prostitution ring.  The highlight of the film is fight scene between Taylor and William Smith.  While I was watching the scene, I was surprised at how realistic it was.  It was step above the normal 1970s fight sequence.  I later learned that the fight scene is infamous because the two actor were really fighting - real blood & real missing teeth.  Lavine, who introduced the film, made sure to mention the print he was screening had the original fight which has been edited down in many prints.

Cisco Pike & Who'll Stop the Rain seemed like 1970s time capsules which was distracting.  It wasn't just the clothes but the post-Vietnam Was disillusionment that seemed foreign to me.

After Dark, My Sweet which is well regarded by many seemed bogged down in Patric's performance & the ending seemed to come out of nowhere.  It's one of those films where they take time and care to establish the characters and then at the end, they change the characters' motivations to resolve the plot.  Maybe I missed something.  It was the last film I saw in the series & I remember I was anxious to get home that night.

Night of the Following Day was a kidnap for ransom caper involving Marlon Brando, Richard Boone & Rita Moreno as the kidnappers of  a teenage heiress.  Richard Boone is a great villain.  I vividly recall his performances from two of John Wayne's later films - Big Jake and Wayne's final film, The Shootist.  Night of the Following Day didn't really distinguish itself.


Charley Varrick was a nice surprise..  Featuring the always reliable Walter Matthau as a small-time bank robber who has inadvertently rips off the Mob.  John Vernon (another reliably great villain) plays the mob banker and Joe Don Baker is the hitman out to retrieve the money and kill Varrick (Matthau).  Charley Varrick is a nice caper film.

One False Move was also a surprise.  I had never heard of the film (which was co-written by Billy Bob Thornton).  Billy Bob, Michael Beach & Cynda Williams play a trio who pull off a particularly violent drug robbery.  Billy Bob is coked up, Beach is calculatingly ruthless and Williams is kind of along for the ride.  The three drive from LA to the small Arkansas town that Billy Boy & Williams grew up in.  Bill Paxton plays the sheriff of that town & he and Williams share a secret.  Billy Bob, in his first screenplay, explores small town life and race relations.  What starts off as noir, ends in tale of redemption.  The film is very well made and explores the interactions within two trios - the criminal trio and the second trio consist of Paxton & two LA cops in Arkansas waiting for the first trio.  The trio of cops offer their commentary on small town life and urban view towards rural life.  Paxton is outstanding as Sheriff Hurricane Dixon but the rest of the cast is quite good as well.

Miami Blues was a film I had never heard of before the festival.  Part comedy, part noir, Miami Blues stars a young Alec Baldwin as a goofy psychopath who upon arriving in Miami hooks up with a naive prostitute (an unrecognizable Jennifer Jason Leigh).  Baldwin & Leigh immediately set up house but Detective Moseley (Fred Ward) comes around investigating the murder of a Hare Krishna which was committed by Baldwin.  Later that night, Frenger (Baldwin) assaults Moseley and takes his gun & badge.    Trying to go legit for Susie's (Leigh) sake, Frenger uses the badge & gun to break up robberies  by robbing the robber or shaking down the victim he saves.

Moseley eventually tracks them down and he & Frenger have a showdown after a darkly comedic interlude involving Frenger, a pawn shop owner and a machete.  Baldwin shines as the off-kilter killer.  He has a certain glow about him as if he is loving every minute of the shoot.  As a time marker, Miami Blues was released about a month after The Hunt for Red October.

Those three films (Charley Varrick, One False Move & Miami Blues) made NNN3 worthwile for me.  They were completely unknown to me and thoroughly enjoyable.  A fourth film also made the top of my list but I was aware of it before the series.  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is well known due to its title and director (Sam Peckinpah).  Peckinpah's low-budget follow-up to the commercially disappointing Pat Garrett and Billy the KidAlfredo Garcia is mostly a psychological profile of Bennie (Warren Oates), a American expat in Mexico making a living playing Guantanamera on his piano (I know that's Cuban not Mexican).  Alfredo Garcia is guy who impregnated El Jefe's daughter and he has put a bounty on his decapitated head.  The word goes out and two Americans (Robert Webber & Gig Young) start looking for Garcia.  They cross paths with Bennie who pretends he doesn't know Garcia.  In fact, he is a regular in the bar Bennie plays piano in.

Bennie finds out that Elita (Isela Vega), his prostitute girlfriend, knows where he is buried.  Garcia died in a car accident recently.  Eager to collect the bounty, Bennie and Elita set off to dig up the corpse, decapitate it and collect the money.  Bennie approaches this grisly task with a nonchalance which is interesting.  The trip will change his life forever as he has contend with biker rapists, robbers who steal the head and kill Elita, Garcia's family, the two Americans and eventually El Jefe.  Bennie undergoes a profound metamorphosis as result of his tribulations.  It's a nightmare road trip on acid as Bennie begins to talk with Garcia's rotting head (kept in a burlap bag).

Before, I said Cisco Pike & Who'll Stop the Rain were distracting because its time setting was so prevalent.  Alfredo Garcia looks like a 1970s film (Oates made a lot of films with Monte Hellman that looked similar), but the themes in Alfredo Garcia translate better to present day.

Monday, November 26, 2012

2012 Mill Valley Film Festival

I bought tickets to seven screenings at the 2012 Mill Valley Film Festival but only saw six.  I was double booked on the evening of October 4.  I skipped the screening of Starlet and went to the Berkeley Rep's production of Chinglish which I greatly enjoyed.

I've noticed a pattern recently. It seems like I been reading books (Girlvert by Oriana Small), attending events (Femina Potens ASKEW at YBCA) and watching films (Danland at DocFest) where porn or porn performers are the focus.  The titular character in Starlet, the film I skipped at MVFF, is "Jane, a newbie to the San Fernando Valley porn industry who spends most of her plentiful free time shiftlessly getting high and partying. It’s not until she meets Sadie, a taciturn, lonely old woman who just wants to be left in peace, that Jane’s life takes a deeper, unexpected turn."  I also recently rediscovered my love of the film Body Double (a future post on this blog), a Brian De Palma work set in the world of porn.  Don't know what the implies about me.

MVFF ran from October 4 to 14.  The six films I saw were:

Yoyo starring & directed by Pierre Étaix; French with subtitles; (1965)
Thursday Till Sunday starring Santi Ahumada; directed by Dominga Sotomayor; Spanish with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
Holy Motors starring Denis Lavant; directed by Leos Carax; French with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
The Slut starring & directed by Hagar Ben-Asher; Hebrew with subtitles; (2011)
Like Someone in Love starring Rin Takanashi & Tadashi Okuno; directed by Abbas Kiarostami; Japanese with subtitles; (2012)
Rent-a-Cat starring Mikako Ichikawa; directed by Naoko Ogigami; Japanese with subtitles; (2012)  - Official Website

I saw Yoyo, The Slut, Like Someone In Love and Rent-a-Cat at the Smith Rafael.  I saw Thursday Till Sunday at 142 Throckmorton Theater in Mill Valley & Holy Motors at Cinearts Sequoia.

I cannot recall the last time I was in San Rafael which did not involve a trip to the Smith Rafael Film Center.  While driving there, I always notice a line of people at Sol Food at Lincoln and 3rd Street.  Sol Food is a well reviewed, well regarded Puerto Rican restaurant.  I took a day off from work and made a day of it in San Rafael.  Over two meals, I had the Jamon, Queso y Huevo sandwich, the Cubano sandwich, the Maduros (fried sweet plantains), the Tostones con Mojo (fried green plantains) and a side order of pork ribs.  I would have gone back for a third meal but I had to drive back to SF to catch the 9:30 PM screening of Din Tao at Taiwan Film Days.  Perhaps my critical review of Din Tao was influenced by the knowledge that I had skipped a third meal at Sol Food for it.


Yoyo was one of a series of comedy films made by Pierre Étaix in the 1960s.  An assistant to Jacques Tati, Étaix borrowed from him as well as Chaplin, Keaton and other silent film comedians.  Long scenes with no dialogue punctuate Yoyo.  Yoyo lacks the poignancy and sadness of Tati, et al.  The result is that Yoyo is more clever than heartfelt.  A great comedy has to have a certain amount of sadness underlying it or it lacks the emotional heft to be meaningful

Although I was expecting more from Yoyo, I may see more works by Étaix.  The Smith Rafael is screening five of his films in December.  In addition to Yoyo, the series consists of Le Grand Amour, The Suitor, As Long As You're Healthy and Land of Milk and Honey.  "Clever" is better than nothing and I have to believe that someone with a reputation of Étaix had to earn it somehow.


Holy Motors starred Denis Levant (who was terrific in Claire Denis' Beau travail).  In Holy Motors, Levant plays Oscar, an actor who rides around in the back of white stretch limousine.  The passenger compartment is a mobile dressing room filled with costumes, props and make-up accessories.  All day and into the night, with Edith Scob as the chauffeur, the limo travels around Paris delivering Levant to various locations where he performs as a character in real-life situations.  He plays a white-haired businessman, a beggar woman, a dying old man,  a crazy homeless man, a man having simulated sex while wearing a black body suit studded with motion-capture balls, etc.  It ends with him playing a chimpanzee father returning home to his nuclear chimpanzee family.  Along the way, Eva Mendes & Kylie Minogue show up.

Holy Motors is a frustratingly surreal film.  I'm unsure what the message is.  In fact, I don't think there was one.  It was like some dadaist film experiment.  Leos Carax blurs the traditional narrative structure which film audiences have been conditioned to accept.  During the interludes between jobs, Levant & Scob share superficially trite conversations which I listened to carefully searching for clues to unlock the mystery.  Ultimately, I decided to abandon all hope and simply watched the film with a sense of acceptance wondering what character Oscar would next become.

There is a scene where Oscar dresses up like a crazy, homeless man and terrorizes people in a cemetery.  Eventually, he comes upon a fashion photo shoot (in the cemetery).  The photographer is intrigued by the strange and dishevelled man.  He sends his assistant to convince the man to be part of the shoot.  Oscar promptly bites her fingers off and slings the model (Mendes) over his shoulder.  He runs off to some subterranean crypt with her.  In a wordless scene, they share a mildly disturbing scene on a bench which ends Levant nude and fully erect I might add.  I can't blame the man as Mendes would likely have the same effect on me.

Carax and Levant teamed up to in Tokyo! (2008).  That film consisted of three unrelated short film, each directed by a different person.  Michael Gondry and Bong Joon-ho directed the other two segments.  Carax's segment was titled Merde and followed a dishevelled and crazy looking many who rises up from the sewers to wreak havocs on the citizens of Tokyo.  As IMDB confirms, it's the same character as in cemetery scene in Holy Motors.


I was ambivalent about Yoyo & Holy Motors, but the other four films were outstanding.

The provocatively named The Slut, was the brainchild of actor, director & screenwriter of Hagar Ben-Asher who played the eponymous character.  Tamar is a single mother of two daughters in a small rural community.  She sells fresh eggs for a living, but she believes in the barter system.  She trades sex for various services such a bicycle repair and physical labor.  She and the men in the town have come to an convenient understanding.  Far from being exploited, Tamar is able to satisfy her carnal needs in a mutually beneficial manner.  In a telling but understated scene, she punctures her bike tire on purpose so that she can engage in "bartering."

That's not to say her arrangement doesn't cause problems.  Her young daughters spy on her and seem to be developing unhealthy attitudes towards men and sexuality but overall they are fairly well adjusted.  It's not until Shai (Ishai Golan) returns to town that problems start.  A veterinarian and former resident of the town, Shai is back to treat an injured horse and clean out his late mother's house.  Acquainted with each other from their youths, Shai & Tamar quickly start a passionate relationship.

The relationship fulfills one of Tamar's desires which is a monogamous relationship to add stability to her daughters' lives.  As the females move into Shai's house to form a nuclear family, Tamar begins to feel ill at ease.  She senses the frustration in several men due to her monogamy but more troubling is the difficulties she is having adapting to it herself.  Eventually, she "barters" with the bicycle repair man and Shai discovers them.

Hurt by the betrayal, Shai engages in an act so shocking that I was left stunned during the screening.  Warning:  I will describe the act in this paragraph.  Tamar's elder daughter begins showing signs of puppy love towards Shai who is uncomfortable with it.  There is a scene where the two girls and Shai are watching TV on a couch.  The elder daughter lays her head on Shai's lap and falls asleep.  Conspicuously, Shai does not rest his hand/arm on her as would seem natural.  Aware of the elder daughter's feelings, Shai retaliates against Tamar by molesting the younger daughter which Tamar witnesses from outside their bedroom window.

This story plays out at a measured pace with little dialogue.  There is considerable latitude in assigning motivations to Tamar & Shai's action (in particular his choice for victim).  Even the ending ambiguous although I wonder how the two can stay together much less in that small town.  Provocative, shocking and ambiguous, The Slut is unlike anything I can recall seeing before.


Thursday Till Sunday was a comtemplative film about a couple's breakup from the viewpoint of their 10 year old daughter.  Set in Chile, Manuel and Ana set out on a road trip with Lucia (Santi Ahumada) and her younger brother.  Although they are civil towards each other, it is clear that there is tension between Manuel & Ana.  The younger brother is too young to understand what is going on but Lucia (and by extension the audience) can clearly pick up on the largely silent dissension between mother & father.    Both have ulterior motives.  What starts as a possible final reconciliation attempt becomes something else.  Manuel wants to visit his family's plot of land and show his son. Lucia wants to meet with the man by whom she is cuckolding Manuel.

Much of the film is set in the station wagon interior and we see the parents converse from Lucia's backseat point of view.  The confined settings leads to an intimacy with the characters.  There are no fireworks (even when Lucia realizes her mother is having an affair) but the accretive observations point a sad and damning portrait of the parents.  Not only does Lucia come realize her parents are likely getting divorced but she also realizes that they are flawed people and not the idealized parents she may have once imagined.

Paola Giannini as Ana is particularly effective.


On the day I did had my Sol Food Double Visit, I saw a pair of Japanese films.

Like Someone in Love is Japanese language with a Japanese cast and set in Japan but was directed by noted Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.  I'm not sure if he is in exile from his native country but his last two films have been made in Europe and now Japan.  I wonder if Kiarostami speaks Japanese and if he doesn't how did he direct the actors.

Like Thursday Till Sunday & The Slut, still waters run deep in Like Someone in Love.  The film starts in a très chic jazz bar/lounge with Akiko (Rin Takanashi) on the phone with her boyfriend.  It's clear she is lying about her whereabouts.  After she gets off the phone, an older man sits at Akiko's table and tells her that he has arranged an appointment for her.  It is established early on that Akiko is a prostitute earning money to pay her way through college, a cliché but the film has many surprises later.

The client Akiko meets is an elderly and widowed retired professor whose apartment is filled with books.  Akiko is exhausted by her day since it turns out her grandmother has been leaving voice messages on her phone all day.  The ominous part is that grandma is calling her work phone; i.e. the phone number she gives out to clients.  In a skillful piece of filmmaking, we hear Akiko retrieve the half dozen or so messages her grandmother has left.  We learn that she makes an unexpected trip to Tokyo to speak with Akiko, got number from the family of one of Akiko's childhood friend (and fellow prostitute) and finally sees a model on a flyer advertising escort services which looks suspiciously like Akiko.  Akiko decides to leave granny at the train station without contacting her.  As the taxi takes Akiko to the professor's house, we see forlorn looking old woman desperately scanning faces in a vain attempt to find her granddaughter.  Just listening to that woman's wavering voice is enough to make my eyes moist.

Once Akiko gets to Takashi's (Tadashi Okuno) place, she adroitly sidesteps the romantic dinner prepared for her, strips off her clothes and jumps into his bed.  She correctly surmises he is a gentleman and will not object.  The next morning, Takashi offers to drive Akiko back to Toyko.  We learn that his area of expertise is the same subject Akiko is studing (anthropology?).  Akiko begins share details of her life.  Her boyfriend is unaware of her profession, has a temper and is jealous.  Akiko is unsure about him but is not ready to end the relationship.

After being dropped off at the university (it's unclear if it is the same university he taught at), Takashi witnesses Akiko and her boyfriend (Ryo Kase) have an argument.  While waiting in the car for Akiko, the boyfriend approaches Takashi; curious about his identity.  He assume Takashi is Akiko's grandfather and Takashi, does not correct the mistaken assumption of his identity.  The boyfriend tells him he wants to marry Akiko but Takashi gives grandfatherly wisdom to the younger man which is humorous and decidedly self-serving given his actual relationship with the girl.

When Akiko returns to the car, she is disturbed to see her boyfriend and client having a conversation but decides to play along.  The boyfriend runs a garage and hearing Takashi's timing belt is off, insists that he bring the car in for immediate repair.  While at the garage, Takashi runs into a former student who is now a police detective.  This will eventually unravel the charade Takashi & Akiko have allowed to stand.  Eventually, the boyfriend discovers from the detective that Takashi is not Akiko's grandfather and what Akiko's profession is.  Taking refuge in Takashi's apartment, Takashi and Akiko listen to the boyfriend rage outside.

Like Someone in Love is full of hidden identities and mistaken identities.  Takashi has a nosy neighbor  who watches his comings and goings like sentry.  She assumed Akiko is Takashi's granddaughter and shares hilariously personal details.  It turns out she is/was in love with Takashi from their youth (apparently Takashi has lived there since a young professor).  When he got married, she accepted the situation although it's obvious she didn't put aside her feelings.  Little scenes like that abound in the film.

A simple story of a lonely old man paying for companionship with a pretty young woman spirals out to the two of having a little adventure together and allowing societal assumptions about them to stand uncorrected.  That people can be hurt by their actions is dealt with in humorous manner until the final climactic scene.  Like Someone in Love is a very satisfying film with a "less is more" style.  There was no "moral" to the film.  It just the story flow and like life, it was full of humor, heartbreak and moments of terror.


After seeing three Kiarostami-esque films, I ended MVFF on a different note.  Rent-a-cat is a comedy about Sayoko, a young woman who lives by herself...if you don't count the two dozen cats in the house. Sayoko's "job" is a rent-a-cat agency.  With a pullcart, she chants her come-on pitch, "Rent-a-neko, neko-neko."  Neko means cat in Japanese.  She finds more clients than one would think.  There is the old woman who doesn't want to get a new cat because she is afraid she'll die and the cat will be abandoned, the salaryman who is separated from his family and doesn't want a permanent cat because he could be reassigned to his hometown and his family doesn't like cats and an unfulfilled rental car clerk who I can't recall why she doesn't want to get a cat.

The film takes formulaically over three vignettes with a prologue.  Each segment starts with her using a bullhorn for her sing-song "Rent-a-neko" chant.  She is taunted by some schoolboys who make fun of the catlady but eventually finds a client.  After inspecting the client's home to ensure suitability, she offers the cat for a nominal fee which each client is shocked at.  She makes up a reason why she doesn't need to make money from her cat rental business (which is depicted on screen in a fantasy sequence).  She leaves the cat with the person and the cat affects a change for the better in the lives of the clients or the client's family.  There is strange neighbor woman (played by a male actor) who infuriates her and she prays at her grandmother's shrine while reciting al the things her grandmother taught her.

The plot is not important because this a delightful comedy with some serious issues such the emotional isolation of people in a society.  These issues are explored gently and the film never loses its fanciful whimsy or congeniality.  Mikako Ichikawa delivers a winning performance showing exceptional comedic skills and she captures some of the sadness which I thought Yoyo was lacking.  I doubt anyone will equate Rent-a-cat with Chaplin or Tati but it was a well-made little film which exceeded its seemingly modest expectations or at least, my modest expectations of it.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dangerous Liaisons

I saw the Chinese version of Dangerous Liaisons at the AMC Metreon earlier this month.  I don't know if I have mentioned it before but the AMC Metreon reserves one screen for Asian films (typically Chinese or Korean).  That's not necessarily true every week (such as last week) but most weeks there is an Asian film screening.

Dangerous Liaisons starring Cecilia Cheung, Dong-gun Jang & Ziyi Zhang; directed by Jin-ho Hur; Mandarin with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website

Dangerous Liaisons is based on the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.  Seemingly one of the most adapted works outside Shakespeare, the novel has been turned into a play as well as three film previous films which I have seen - Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Valmont (1989) and Cruel Intentions (1999)

This Dangerous Liaisons is set in 1930s Shanghai which is much more appropriate than a 1990s American high school (Cruel Intentions).  It hews closely to its namesake predecessor which is the version with John Malkovich.  Cecilia Cheung has the Glenn Close role, Ziyi Zhang has the Michelle Pfeiffer role and South Korean actor Dong-gun Jang as the Malkovich role.  There are actors who are clearly playing the roles played by Uma Thurman, Keanu Reeves (the actor even has facial expressions reminiscent of Keanu) and Swoosie Kurtz.

In the interest of time, I won't bother to recount the plot since the tale of deceit and seduction is so well known.  Although 1930s Shanghai was an interesting choice, I wonder if a Three Kingdoms era setting wouldn't have been better.  Much of the film takes place in a French-style château presumably within driving distance of Shanghai.  That seemed out of place.  The characters frequently spoke in English which also seemed odd.  My companion at the screening told me that in 1930s Shanghai, it was considered chic for wealthy Chinese to speak English and assume Western customs of dress and behavior.  Perhaps...but when Jang utters "Wowwww" in response to Cecilia Cheung's request to seduce the virgin, it seemed ridiculous.

Cecelia Cheung cuts loose with an, at times, unrestrained performance.  Dong-gun Jang is more even as the debaucher.  Ziyi Zhang didn't quite have the range to go from repressed to passionate to hearbreak.  The actress Rong Rong was effectively clueless and annoying in the Swoosie Kurtz role.

Even if the individual performances were less than extraordinary, the film was more than the sum of its parts.  Cheung gets to wear some nice costumes and has a nice chemistry with Jang.  Although Zhang might not have had quite the range necessary, she acquits herself adequately.

I'd like to watch the two versions of Dangerous Liaisons back-to-back to compare the plot and actors' performance.  One main difference is that Glenn Close's deceit is revealed and causes her nervous breakdown.  Cecilia Cheung seems to go mad because she loved the man she destroyed.  Another significant plot difference is that Michelle Pfeiffer's character died whereas Ziyi Zhang goes on to become a schoolteacher.  However, these differences are in the last 5 minutes of the film.  Up until then, I was surprised by how much the two films were in simpatico.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

2012 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival

The 2012 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival ran from November 8 to 21.  Although they screened at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, I saw 12 films, all at the Roxie or Little Roxie.  DocFest is run by Jeff Ross & the IndieFest crew (which has a recently redesigned website).

Another Hole in the Head, their "festival of horror, sci-fi, dark fantasy and exploitation cinema" is running from November 28 to December 9 at various venues (primarily the Roxie).  Jeff mentioned that he is moving DocFest to June 2013 which essentially flip flops DocFest with Another Hole in the Head which used to occur in June until this year's move to late November/early December.

Of the 12 programs I watched, 11 were feature films.

The Final Member; directed by Jonah Becker; English and Icelandic with subtitles; (2012)
Fight Life; directed by James Z. Feng; (2012) - Official Website
Downeast; directed by David Redmon & Ashley Sabin; (2012)
Eating Alabama; directed by Andrew Grace; (2012) - Official Website
The Institute; directed by Spencer McCall; (2012) - Official Website
The Standbys; directed by Stephanie Riggs; (2012) - Official Website
Broken Mike; directed by Michael Agostini; (2012)
Danland; directed by Alexandra Berger; (2012) - Official Website
Shooting for Home; directed by Greg Kappy; (2012)
The Challenge of Venice; directed by Michelle Barca & Nicola Pittarello; English and Italian with subtitles; (2012)
Cartoon College; directed Josh Melrod & Tara Wray; (2012) - Official Website

The 12th program I watched was a program called Women Warriors which consisted of three short films.

Natsanat; directed by Cheryl Halpern & Mitchell Stuart; English & Ehtiopian with subtitles; (2012)
Mother Art Tells Her Story; directed by Laura Silagi, Deborah Krall & Suzanne Siegel; (2012) - Official Website
The Gaskettes; directed by Jason House; (2012)

Eating Alabama was preceded by Murder Mouth.  The program listed Take Me to the Water: The Story of Pin Point as playing on the same program as Challenge of Venice but it did not screen.  No explanation was given.  Actually, Challenge of Venice was listed with a 90 minute runtime but was less than an hour so I used the extra time to go to the gym.

Murder Mouth; directed by Madeleine Parry; (2011)


As usual, the films were a mixed bag.  My favorite film was the short film Murder Mouth by Australian Madeleine Parry who looks like a dark-haired Little Orphan Annie.  She looks about 13 years old to me.  Regardless of her age, Ms. Parry begins to question the manner in which the meat she consumes is butchered.

She vows to only eat that which she has butchered herself.  She begins with broccoli because plants can sense stimulation according to the farmer she interviews.  In other words, cutting the stalk of broccoli cause the plant pain.  Parry has no problems cutting the stalk and eating the crucifer (without even washing it if the footage is to be believed).

Next, Parry visit her uncle, an avid fisherman.  She catches a sardine or some small fish and we watch her cut the head off without much trouble and later eat fried fish.  After that, Parry begins to get squeamish.  She visit her grandmother whose chicken soup is legendary.  The old woman praises the virtues of fresh chicken so grandmother and granddaughter go to a chicken ranch (not that kind of chicken ranch) to butcher their meal.  Instead of wringing the neck, Parry takes a hatchet to the bird.  Unfortunately, she doesn't quite get the job done and needs to take at least three whacks to put the bird out of its misery.  The camera focuses on Parry during the ordeal so we don't see what happens to the bird.  Later, Parry is still able to swallow Grandma's chicken soup although with some trepidation.

The pièce de résistance is a lamb that Parry has to take out mafia-style with a small rifle; i.e. one shot to the back of the head.  Here the camera doesn't flinch and we see Parry pull the trigger.  Seconds later the lamb convulses in a grotesque manner; literally death throes.  This is more than Parry can take.  We next see Parry serving her friends and family lamb chops which she is unable to touch.  After the meal, she shows her guests the video of the lamb's death and they shriek in terror.

Murder Mouth is a courageous (if not self-serving) experiment by Parry and made for a fascinating film.  I think if we all had to kill our own meat, we might think differently about our protein heavy diet.  Great film but remind me not to go to one of her dinner parties.


The Institute was my favorite feature length film which chronicled an alternate reality game set around the fictitious Jejune Institute.  Essentially a glorified scavenger hunt which went on for several years in the Bay Area, the Jejune Institute was faux New Age think tank/research institute with actual offices at 560 California in San Francisco.  Attracted by flyers pasted around town, people off the street would visit Jejune's elaborate orientation center and some would get sucked into which cast Jejune founder Octavio Coleman Esq. as the villain and missing teenager Eva Lucien as the linchpin of the conspiracy centered around Coleman.  With props littered around the City and Oakland, faked police tapes and a pirate radio station, the experiment in performance art was elaborate indeed.  

The Institute tries to have it both ways - playing it straight as if the Jejune Institute really existed while shifting in mid-film to the creators and producers of the game.  It's not fully satisfying but I had only a passing knowledge of the Jejune Institute so the mythos was welcomed.  I would like to have known more about the "gamers."  The intricacy and scope of the game were awe inspiring and made me wish I had participated.  Of course, the pitch sounded like a cult or multi-level marketing scam so I likely never would have visited 560 California.

“To the dark horses with the spirit to look up and see, a recondite family awaits."


Mike Agostini's Broken Mike was also outstanding.  Agostini was/is a stand-up comic who competed in the 2006 Seattle International Comedy Competition.  The competition consists of multiple rounds of stand-up comedy with judges ranking the participants with lower ranked comics not advancing.  It was unclear why Agostini was filming the event but as the first round (five performances) progresses, it becomes clear that Agostini will not make it to the second round.  

Agostini struggles to "find his voice" and as he adjusts his routines to match the various audience (despite its name, the Seattle International Comedy Competition takes place all over Washington state), he flounders.  Nominally a film about a comedy competition, Broken Mike becomes a voyeuristic look at one man's failure and descent.  Agostini is extremely open about the experience which must have been deeply disappointing.  You don't have to be a fan of stand-up comedy to appreciate Broken Mike.

In fact, I thought none comic routines were particularly funny.  The best bit was one about menstrual synchrony; i.e. the menstrual cycles of women who lived together became synchronized over time.  The comic (whose name I cannot recall) likened it to Bluetooth.


The Standbys was feel good documentary about the life of standbys, understudies and swings in Broadway musicals.  The films follows Ben Crawford, Aléna Watters & Merwin Foard.  During the filming, Crawford & Foard were standbys for Brian d'Arcy James (Shrek the Musical) and Nathan Lane (The Addams Family), respectively.  Watters was a swing for the Harlettes, Bette Midler's backup singers.  Standbys back up the lead actor and do not perform in the show unless the lead is out.  Swings back up several roles.  Watters could have been called on to perform any of the three Harlette roles when she was a swing.  Understudies have a smaller role in the performance but can step in for the lead when the lead is out.  Standbys and swings do not go on stage for most performances and as such, their contributions are easily overlooked and they can question their own worth.

The subject represent a nice cross section.  Foard, who is in his 50s and has been a standby for the longest.  In fact, he has essentially made a career of it.  Blessed with the right temperament for the job, Foard seems to have settled into permanent standby status for the stability it affords him and his family. I'm not sure how much he gets paid but his IBDB entry shows steady work (mostly as standby or understudy) dating back to the early 1980s.  The skills needed to be a good standby are unique in theater.  The standby needs to be constantly prepared to step into role on a moments notice and have thick enough skin to know most in the audience are disappointed that the star is not performing.

Crawford starts the film as James' standby in the title role of Shrek the Musical.  As time passes, James steps down and Crawford is contractually entitled to his choice of a) taking over the role on Broadway or b) getting the role in touring version of the musical.  Crawford chooses the Broadway role and we are introduced to Eric Petersen, Crawford's standby.  In a poignant twist, when it comes time to cast the role Shrek for the tour, Petersen beats out Crawford.  All the things Crawford had been saying about being ready for a starring role was repeated by Petersen so it was hard to feel resentment towards him.  Crawford was very gracious on camera.

Watters landed one of the Harlettes' role but when Midler took her show to Las Vegas, she hired back one of her previous Harlettes which bumped Watters out of the lineup.  Swallowing her pride, Watters accepted the swing role but was eventually let go due to budget cuts.  This painful experience inspired Watters to create a one-woman show which was a success and helped her land on-stage roles.

The Standbys is augmented with talking head interviews with well known stage and screen stars such as David Hyde Pierce, Zach Quinto and Bebe Neuwirth who recount their experience as standbys and understudies.  The Standbys was very entertaining and made me root for the three subjects.

By coincidence, I recently attended ACT's production of Elektra.  Olympia Dukakis' performance in the play has been heavily promoted but on the night I went, an understudy (Omozé Idehenre) played Dukakis' part.  I was disappointed just like some of the theater patrons interviewed in The Standbys.  Seeing what the standbys go through, I will endeavor to be more understanding the next time an understudy, standby or swing fills in.  Reading comments on Goldstar, I see that Dukakis has missed quite a few performance with no explanation.  On the night I went (November 7), there was no announcement or playbill insert regarding her absence.


Danland explores the always fascinating world of pornography.  Fascinating may be too strong a word but the insular nature of the business and outrageous behavior has always drawn my looking at a car accident.  The eponymous subject is Dan Leal (aka Porno Dan), an amateur porn impresario.  Confirming all the stereotypes about people in the porn industry, we watch as Dan, a man-child in his 30s with a self-acknowledged sex addiction and less mentioned alcohol problem, navigates through life.  The main relationship in the film is between Dan and a woman whose I can't remember.  She is not in the porn industry.  She is a law school student and brings her own issues to the relationship.  Dan seems to have a strained relationship with his mother whereas this woman had something in her past which led her to anorexia and bulimia and now seeming binge drinking.  That this woman could even be admitted to law school is sobering.  Lacking in attractive qualities, I wonder what Dan saw in the woman except perhaps she wasn't in porn.

Of course, Dan is no great catch either.  Hiding his loneliness and vulnerability behind his aging frat boy facade, Dan is pathetic.  College educated and purportedly a top salesman at a Fortune 500 company, Dan gave it all up to make amateur gangbang videos in his Beltway home and wash sex toys in his kitchen sink.

It was hard to feel empathy or sympathy for Dan as he lies to himself, those around him and the audience.  The film ends with Dan hurriedly marrying an ex-porn actress.  The wedding is so last-minute that the bride doesn't have a dress.  After the wedding, they rush off; leaving their guests at the quickie wedding chapel in a Las Vegas hotel.  What's the rush, Dan, his bride and another actress are making a threesome video on his wedding night.

The filmmaker barely conceals her antipathy towards her subject but her questions and editing leave no doubt about her attitude.  In one memorable scene, Dan begins having sex with a porn actress and enlist Danland's director Alexandra Berger to film the scene so we get a shot of Berger filming Leal having sex and there is a "what the hell am I doing her?" look on Berger's face which may as well have been a proxy for the audience.

No matter what your station in life, I recommend seeing Danland because it will make you feel better about your own life in comparison.  It's a dirty little film about a dirty little man in denial.  The porn industry and the internet revolution simply allow Dan to wallow in an ultimately self-destructive lifestyle.  Danland is pornographic in the sense that there is very little redeeming value in watching Dan's life but I couldn't turn away.


The Gaskettes was a fun little film about an all girl moped crew in Los Angeles.  They even have matching jackets.  I can't really say much about it except it was fun to watch these girls tool around LA. Although the film doesn't have an official website, the Gaskettes have a blog.

The Challenge of Venice covered the always fascinating topic of Venice, Italy.  Built on small island in a lagoon, the city is prone to frequent flooding and is in need of major infrastructure repair.  The largest construction project in Europe is currently MOSE Project (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico).  Rhyming with Jose (as in San Jose), MOSE consists of four mobile gates placed at the inlets into the lagoon.  When flooding is imminent, the gates can be raised to stop the flow of water into the lagoon.  Although the topic was fascinating, The Challenge of Venice had the look and feel of a cut rate History Channel doc, right down to the narrator with the RP dialect to add some gravitas to the film.  Glossing over the history, architecture and MOSE Project, I was left wanting more.  Given the abbreviated runtime, I wonder if we saw a version edited down to fit within a 90 minute television slot.


Everything else I was lukewarm to cold about.

Downeast was a compelling film about a guy trying to open up a lobster processing plant in Maine.  Co-mingling his personal funds with the company's funds, he seemed doomed from the start.  However, the didn't explain why the bank froze his bank account which ultimately led to the closure of his company.  There was something shady about everyone and their motivations in the film.

The Final Member is about a guy in Iceland who runs a Phallogical Museum.  He is missing one specimen - a human penis.  If that isn't odd enough, he comes into contact with a Texas man who wants to donate his penis (he named it Elmo) to the museum...before he dies.  This guy from Texas is certifiable.  In addition to his willingness to amputate Elmo, he get Elmo tattooed and sends photos of Elmo in various costumes to the director of the Phallogical Museum.  The film was so bizarre I lost interest; half-way convinced I was watching a hoax or fauxmentary.

I wanted to like Shooting for Home about a Florida basketball player's struggle in life and Eating Alabama about a couple who wanted to return to their grandparents' agrarian lifestyle, but my attention flagged for both films.  Similarly, despite enjoying MMA bouts, I couldn't keep my interest up for Fight Life.

Cartoon CollegeNatsanat and Mother Art Tells Her Story never captured my interest although I would like to learn more about the Ethiopian female rebels in 1970s and 80s whose stories are told in Natsanat which means freedom in Amharic.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Miami Connection

A few weeks ago, I saw Miami Connection at the Roxie.  There was a nice crowd on hand for a Monday night.  Miami Connection is a 1980s film which is being released by Alamo Drafthouse or more specifically their film distribution arm, Drafthouse Films.  The Roxie has brought the film back for four screenings from today through Sunday.

Miami Connection starring and directed by Y.K. Kim; co-directed by Woo-sang Park; (1986)

As an aside, I notice the Roxie programs a lot of films distributed by Drafthouse.  I wonder if that will continue if and when Drafthouse opens the New Mission Theater location (still scheduled for Q4-2012).

The first thing to know about Miami Connection is that it's one of those films that is so bad it is good; like Showgirls.  I doubt anyone thought much of it in 1986 but Drafthouse has discovered the film and is pushing it as an overlooked cult film.  In essence, Drafthouse seems to be trying to manufacture an audience looking for a cheesy cult film.  Unlike Showgirls which was immediately identified as horrible and excessive and immediately found an audience that worshipped horrible and excessive, Miami Connection was cheaply made and doesn't seem to have any delusions of grandeur.  Probably thought of as a joke by the handful of people who saw it upon its initial theater release in West Germany, it wasn't being hyped as the best worst film of the decade like Showgirls was.

Made by South Korean Tae Kwan Do Grandmaster Y.K. Kim, Miami Connection tells the story of Dragon Sound, a band in mid-1980s Miami.  The first thing that is goofy is that all the members of Dragon Sound (except the girl singer) live in the same house.  They all go to college together.  They all ride around in the same blue convertible together.  They all eat in the same Chinese restaurant together. You get it.  Kim plays Mark who is the only Asian in the group, about a foot shorter than everyone and looks about 15 years older than everyone else in the band.  Did I mention that they are all into Tae Kwan Do and Mark is a master martial artist?

Dragon Sound gets a gig at a nightclub which pisses off the the band which was dropped to make room for Dragon Sound.  They get into fight with them but Dragon Sound kicks their asses without breaking a sweat.  The band then gets in touch with the local biker gang but Dragon Sound kicks their asses too.  The best friend of the biker gang boss is a yakuza type who likes to hang out in biker bars.  He has an army of ninjas who ride around Florida on motorcycles with swords.  When the biker boss is killed, Mr. Yakuza sics his ninjas on Dragon Sound.  Although a few members of Dragon Sound get roughed up, Mark eventually kills Mr. Yakuza and everyone lives happily every after.

That synopsis skips over the bad acting, laughable casting, the unmemorable music, the cheap production values and the unrealistic fight scenes.  It's important to remember that Y.K. Kim went nearly bankrupt making this film so it's difficult to criticize it.  It is interesting to note the differences in the eras.

In the 1980s, Kim shot this on 35 mm film and spent considerable sums of his own money filming, processing and editing the film.  Today, a person could shoot a film like Miami Connection for a couple hundred dollars.  I'm coming to believe that is a bad thing.  Part of the charm is that Kim and his cast play it straight or to the best of their (admittedly limited) acting abilities.  Kim is emoting his ass off because his ass is on the line.  He sunk his entire life savings into this film so he is not going to mail it in.  Today, the actors would treat it as a goof because they probably spend more on a Friday night beer run than on the "film" and it would show in their it guerilla style, edit something together on your Macbook & throw it up on YouTube.

Usually, I'm not into "bad" films.  There are enough good films I haven't seen that I can't waste my time on bad films.  Knowing some of the backstory about the making of Miami Connection, I'm more willing to cut it some slack.  At some level, I think I might even like it.  The best thatI can I say publicly is that I don't regret seeing Miami Connection.  Of course, I used my Roxie Membership card for admission so there was no incremental cost to me.  I doubt I'll see the film a second time.

It wouldn't surprise me if a year or two from now, someone mentions Miami Connection, Y.K. Kim or Dragon Sound to me and I'll have a vague notion that I've heard of them somewhere.  It's very possible that I'll find this post, refresh my memory and smile...slightly.

I'd be doing future self a disfavor if I didn't post some Dragon Sound videos.

The lead singer sounds a little like Pat Benatar.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

2012 Taiwan Film Days

The San Francisco Film Society hosted Taiwan Film Days from October 12 to 14 at the Viz.

Of the seven films screened, I watched six.  The exception was A Brighter Summer Day by Edward Yang which I passed on since I saw it at the YBCA in September 2010.

Din Tao: Leader of the Parade; directed by Fung Kai; Mandarin & Taiwanese with subtitles; (2012)
Days We Stared at the Sun; directed by Cheng Yu-chieh; Mandarin with subtitles; (2011)
Ye Zai; directed by Tseng Ying-ting; Mandarin, Taiwanese & Thai with subtitles; (2012)
Jump! Ashin; directed by Lin Yu-hsien; Mandarin & Taiwanese with subtitles; (2011)
Blowfish; directed by Lee Chi-yuarn; Mandarin with subtitles; (2011)
Joyful Reunion with Kenneth Tsang; director by Tsao Jui-yuan; (2011)


The lineup at Taiwan Film Days ultimately proved disappointing.  Joyful Reunion was a sequel to Eat Drink Man Woman by Ang Lee.  The festival guide made no mention of this (at least not in the English language portion).  Somewhere between 1994 and 2012, Chef Chu (Kenneth Tsang) lost one of his three must have happened when he relocated from Taipei to mainland China.  Lacking the passion for food and love which I recall from the earlier final, Joyful Reunion was anything but.  Any film living in the shadow of Eat Drink Man Woman would have been hard pressed to carve out its own identity but Joyful Reunion was lacking on its own merits.  I doubt the film would have been made except for its link to EDMW which are tenuous at best - different actors and different director.

Slightly better was Din Tao: Leader of the Parade, a box office smash in Taiwan.  Din tao is a traditional Taiwanese dance involving dance teams dancing & beating rhythmically on large drums.  My unfamiliarity with din tao was probably the film's saving grace since I was very familiar with the plot.  Prodigal son returns home to disapproving father whose business (leader of a din tao troupe) is faltering.  Using his newfangled and non-traditional ideas, the son leads the troupe to success while a) reconciling with his father, b) beating out a rival and c) getting the girl.

Despite being based on the director's brother's life, Jump! Ashin also seemed formulaic.  Ashin is a gymnast with one leg slightly longer than the other.  That doesn't really play into the plot but it was an interesting detail.  Anyway, as he gets older, Ashin gets involved in gang life with his best friend.  His buddy gets hooked on smack which leads to all kinds of problems.  The two of them have to leave town and go into hiding.  Eventually, Ashin wants to compete again so he returns to his hometown to compete in an international gymnastics competition which is held in a small school gymnasium.  Oh, I forgot about the wheelchair-bound woman who works at the answering service Ashin uses.  The two of them fall in love over the phone conversation they have when he retrieves his messages.


Blowfish also had a plot which strained belief but kept dialogue to a minimum which allowed the audience to fill in the details for themselves.  A woman discovers her boyfriend/husband is cheating on her.  She decides to sell his prized blowfish via some Craigslist type bulletin board.  She takes a bus to some small town (she presumably lives in Taipei) to deliver the fish.  The buyer is a shaggy haired guy.  With few words exchanged between them, she accompanies him home; ostensibly to inspect the aquarium.  Once at his house, they have sex (again with little verbal interaction).  Afterwards, instead of going home, the woman sets up camp by moving in with the man.  Again, this is not discussed.  She just stays home while he goes to work each day as a baseball coach at the middle school in town.  It's clear a woman lives or has lived at this house due to her clothing in the bedroom.  The blind neighbor hears the woman and assumes it is the man's wife.  From the blind woman, we discover his wife has left him for a truck driver and that has sent him on his downward spiral.   Cut to the chase - the woman returns and after some wordless drama, the man eventually chooses her over his wife.

Again, the plot is predictable but the lack of spoken word gives the film a slightly unique twist.  I can't recommend Blowfish but at the same time, I'll say I was less disappointed by Blowfish then the first three films I mentioned above.


I kind of liked Ye Zai although it was not quite as gritty as advertised.  Covering similar territory to last year's Pinoy Sunday, Ye Zai ventures into the immigrant community in Taiwan.  This must be a significant issue in Taiwan because if the film is indicative, Taiwan has a bounty system for illegal immigrants.  Ye Zai, the title character, is one of these bounty hunters which means he essentially makes his living by making the lives of the miserable more miserable.  His estranged brother has hired a Thai caregiver for their elderly father.  She has disappeared and his sister-in-law wants Ye Zai to track her down.  I can't remember why but Ye Zai has a three day deadline to catch her.

Ye Zai runs into some shady characters as he tracks the Thai woman down.  Then when he catches her, he shows uncharacteristic sympathy towards her.  This is where procrastination has cost me.  I cannot recall the ending.  I remember both get detained by the police and I think she was deported but I cannot recall any scenes after them in the police station.  I guess that is a tepid recommendation for the film.  None of the performances stood out in my memory either.


That leaves the interestingly titled Days We Stared at the Sun which is based on a Taiwanese television miniseries.  Actually, the film is not based on the series, it is edited compilation of the series.   So they took 10 hours worth of material and boiled it down to two hours.

Unrepentantly melodramatic and with plot twists galore, DWSATS is set in the world of teenagers and gangsters.  DWSATS follows two high school classmates - one is juvenile delinquent who robbed a bank on a whim and the other is more strait-laced but is under pressure from his father's gambling or load sharking debts.

The story delves into subplots too numerous to recount but ends in tense gun battle.  I wouldn't call the film profound but it was extremely entertaining.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The New Parkway Theater Opening Postponed

As I previously mentioned, the New Parkway Theater is scheduled to open/reopen on November 30.  Make that "was scheduled."  J. Moses Ceaser sent out an email early Monday morning which read:

 "We’re sadly not going to be ready to open on the 30th.  We’re going to be close, but with Thanksgiving this week, we won’t be able to squeeze in all of the final inspections that we need to officially open our doors.  So we’re looking at a delay of a few weeks.  Not a huge delay, but I want to apologize to all of you who have been looking forward to the big night as we have, and now have to wait just a bit longer.  As soon as we’re 95% sure of our opening night, we’ll send out an email blast to let you know."

The New Parkway has been an astonishing story to me.  I didn't think it would reopen given the delays in negotiating a lease and what I thought was an underfunded budget.  Ceaser should be commended for his tenacity in bringing this project to fruition.

I was becoming skeptical about the reopening because the New Parkway's website has nothing on the grand opening which I think would be well publicized.  The website has nothing regarding future showtimes, admission policies, etc.  I suspect they will launch a new website for the grand opening; either a different URL or a new design.

I've been reading Will Viharo's blog avidly.  Viharo wrote in the initial blog post, "I'll be recounting many more memories of 'Thrillville' and the Parkway in this blog, daily for the next 30 days, counting down to the grand opening of The New Parkway on Friday, November 30, 2012."  The title of each blog post ended with "(XX days until opening)."  That is until November 4 when the posts mysteriously stopped counting down.  

Was the November 30 opening in doubt as far back as November 4?  I don't know.  This isn't Watergate and I'm not Woodward or Bernstein but reading about Will's memories with the original Parkway, I feel like I missed out on something special so I'm going to try to get the New Parkway as often as possible when it does open.

As I get older, Oakland after dark is a little intimidating to me.  A co-worker was assaulted near 19th and Broadway at 9 or 10 PM on a weeknight two or three years ago.  He was on his way to the 19th Street BART station.  That would be the station I would take if I went there and that gives me pause.  I'd have to walk five blocks up Telegraph or Broadway to get to the New Parkway and would likely be returning to BART in the general vicinity and time my colleague was mugged.  However, Oakland does offer a free bus shuttle which runs up and Broadway until 1 AM on Friday & Saturday nights.  That shuttle ends service at 7 PM on Monday through Thursday and does not operate on Sunday.