Friday, December 13, 2013

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's November 2013 Calendar Redux

I failed in solving the Castro Theater calendar puzzle for November 2013.  The comments on that post have given me new life.  Brian Darr, whose blog I read daily for its near daily screening "recommendations," provided most of the answers to the missing names in the November calendar in his comments to my December 1 post.

Recapping what I had previously figured out:

November 5 - Frances Farmer

November 18 - Hedy Lamarr

November 25 - John Garfield

Brian told me that:

November 4 - Jean Marais

November 26 - Loretta Young

That leaves the man in the photo on November 12 unidentified.

I wondered who Jean Marais is.  Looking at his filmography, I believe I have only seen one movie with Jean Marais - Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête (1946) which is also frequently known by its English translated title - Beauty and the Beast.  I remember seeing that film at the Castro.  Below is a photo of Marais as he appeared for most of the film.  I can't believe I didn't recognize him.

Jean Marais in La Belle et la Bête

I'm surprised I didn't recognize Loretta Young but as I looked through her filmography, I realized I have not seen many of the films she made.  I did see her in The Crusades but I cannot remember anything about her performance.  As I mentioned in the post, I still remember the striking appearance of Katerine DeMille two years after seeing an otherwise unmemorable film for me.

For me, Loretta Young will always occupy a space in my brain for having Clark Gable's illegitimate child (Judy Lewis).  Young went through the trouble of birthing her in secret, placing her in the care of an orphanage and then adopting the child legally.

I deliberately omitted November 12 when asking Brian, in my response, to identify the unknown people in the photos so that there would be some challenge left.  Also recall that in the hardcopy calendar, November 12 is occupied by Lloyd Bridges.

While looking up Jean Marais on Wikipedia, I noticed he was born in 1913.  That had resonance because I was considering attending at The Films on 1913 program at Smith Rafael Film Center on December 12.

My co-worker had read a Hedy Lamarr biography earlier this year and had mentioned she would be 100 in 2013 if she were alive.  I quickly looked up the birthdays of Frances Farmer, Loretta Young, Lloyd Bridges and John Garfield.  All were born in 1913.

In IMDB, you can easily look up people born in a given year by finding someone born in that year (say Loretta Young in 1913) and clicking on the hyperlink on the birth year in the biography section.  Not only that but the results are listed in ascending rank order of the Most Popular People Born In YYYY.

Going down the IMDB list of Most Popular People Born in 1913, I initially thought November 12 was Peter Cushing but the nose wasn't right.  I kept going down the list; eliminating all actresses and any actors whom I could identify.  Finally at #55 on the IMDB list was an actor named Wesley Addy whose most famous credit is Network (1976).  I need to see that movie again; it's been two decades since I last saw it.  Conveniently, the IMDB photo of Wesley Addy is the same one used on November 12 of the calendar.  I could not have identified Wesley Addy, by name or appearance, before finding him on IMDB.

From the IMDB list, I noticed Vivien Leigh was the most popular person born in 1913.  #2 on the list was Burt Lancaster.  I'm still not sure about "the rules of the game" but just recognizing that all the individuals were born in the same year doesn't seem like enough.  The clues in the calendar typically point to a specific event.

I suspect that in the November calendar, the clues were pointing to the November 11 screening of From Here to Eternity which stars Lancaster although that may be reaching.

Danny Kaye (#3 on the 1913 list) is an actor who seems forgotten today; I don't recall any of films screening during his centennial year.  The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), arguably his most famous film, is being remade with Ben Stiller in Kaye's eponymous role.  It looks interesting to me and I may see it.

Castro Theater Calendar - November 2013

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's December 2013 Calendar

It was a very easy puzzle this month.

December 2 - I recognized Michael Caine immediately.

December 3 - This took a few seconds but after having seen 1970s era Carol Kane in The Last Detail and The Mafu Cage this year, I was quite certain it was Carol Kane.  The Caine/Kane homophone helped.

December 23 - I did not recognize this woman but having recognized Caine, Kane & Candy, I assumed this person was named Candy or some derivation (Candi, Kandi, etc.).  I initially wondered if it was a young Candice Bergen but looking at photos of Bergen from the 1960s, I realized this was not Bergen.  I briefly wondered if it was Candy Darling but the bouffant hairstyle nixed the notion without even looking at photos.

So I went to IMDB and searched for Candy under Names.  The list of female actresses were (in this order):  Christina Aguilera, Candace Cameron Bure, Candice Bergen, Candy Ann Brown, Candy Clark, etc.  Who knew Christina Aguilera's nickname is Candy?  I know what Aguilera looks like and I remember Candace Cameron from Full House so I eliminated those two.  Candy Ann Brown?  I didn't know her but she is a black actress with piercing blue/grey eyes.  That eliminated her.

Candy Clark was in The Man Who Fell To Earth.  The present day photos of her were promising; something about the eyes.  I found this San Francisco Chronicle interview with her.  In it, the writer states "It's her best role [The Man Who Fell to Earth], acting-wise, surpassing her Oscar-nominated performance as the platinum blond party girl Debbie Dunham in George Lucas' American Graffiti."  That's when I had my Eureka! moment.  The Dec 23 photo is from American Graffiti.

December 25 - I recognized John Candy immediately.

Michael Caine, Carol Kane, Candy Clark and John Candy - it must be Candy Cane in celebration of the holiday season.

Castro Theater Calendar - December 2013

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


While visiting my father in Las Vegas over the Thanksgiving week, we saw Philomena.

Philomena starring Judi Dench & Steve Coogan; directed by Stephen Frears; (2013) - Official Website

Philomena is based on the nonfiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith.  The name Philomena intrigued me.  A little research discovered that Philomena Lee was most likely named after St. Philomena.  The story of St. Philomena is worth of a movie if it hasn't already been made.

Quoting from Wikipedia, "Saint Philomena...was the daughter of a king in Greece who, with his wife, had converted to Christianity. At the age of about 13 she took a vow of consecrated virginity. When the Emperor Diocletian threatened to make war on her father, her father went with his family to Rome to ask for peace. The Emperor fell in love with the young Philomena and, when she refused to be his wife, subjected her to a series of torments: scourging, from whose effects two angels cured her; drowning with an anchor attached to her (two angels cut the rope and raised her to the river bank); being shot with arrows, (on the first occasion her wounds were healed; on the second, the arrows turned aside; and on the third, they returned and killed six of the archers, after which, several of the others became Christians). Finally the Emperor had her decapitated. The story goes that the decapitation occurred on a Friday at three in the afternoon, as with the death of Jesus."

Back to the film, Philomena is about Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) an elderly Irish woman who is put into contact with Martin Sixsmith, a journalist and disgraced Labour party figure.  When Philomena was a teenager in the early 1950s, she got pregnant.  Ashamed of her condition, her father placed her at a Catholic convent in Roscrea, Ireland.  While there she gave birth but signed away her parental rights and had to work for four years to pay back the convent for the costs of her and her baby's medical care.  Eventually, Philomena's son was adopted and she has had no contact with her son since then.

In present day England, Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) investigates Philomena's claims.  The nuns at the convent aren't too helpful but with a little digging, Sixsmith discovers that the nuns essentially sold the babies to the highest bidder and in those days, Americans had all the money.  It helps that a photo of Jane Russell hangs in the office of the Mother Superior of the convent.  In real life, Russell and her husband Bob Waterfield did adopt two children and one from Ireland although I don't know if it was from the same nunnery as Philomena Lee's son.

Using his contacts, Sixsmith confirms that Philomena's son and her friend's daughter were adopted by American.  He and Philomena fly to the US to track down the boy who would be in his 50s.  They discover that Philomena's son Anthony was renamed Michael Hess after adoption.  Michael Hess was a high ranking official in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.  I use the word "was" because he died in the mid-1990s.  Some more investigating reveals Michael Hess was a closeted homosexual, died of AIDS and his former partner Pete Olsen is still alive and living in the DC area.

Olsen shows Sixsmith and Philomena home movies of Michael & him including a trip to the convent in Roscrea they took towards the end of his life.  In a cruelly ironic twist, Olsen reveals that (per his instructions) Hess is buried on the grounds of the convent; the same convent Philomena has visited many times since leaving as a young woman.

Even though Philomena has been getting positive reviews, I thought it was a bit second rate.  Dench portrays Philomena as a country bumpkin.  Terribly naive for an old woman, suddenly, she becomes worldly when informed of her son's sexuality; using terms like bi-curious and "a beard."  Similarly, Coogan's Sixsmith is a pompous jerk and whose tenacity in the matter is suddenly attributed to his lapsed Roman Catholicism which doesn't seem to affect any other part of his life.  With one exception, the nuns at Roscrea are portrayed as cold and judgmental.

Moderately entertaining, Philomena doesn't reveal much about the characters.  The story is more interesting than the characters it involves; all the more so knowing it is based on fact.  It is interesting to see Dench play a simple woman who enjoys romance novels and remains a devout Catholic despite her treatment by the nuns. The role is about as different than her turn as M in the James Bond films as possible.

Mare Winningham has a memorable scene as Michael's sister.  Not exactly what a mother could hope for and far from excited at the prospect of meeting a friend of her birth mother, Winningham plays the woman as a cautionary tale that being adopted into a well-to-do family is not a panacea.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

2013 San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival

The 2013 San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (aka Third i) was from November 6 to 10 at the Viz and Castro and November 16 at the Landmark Aquarius in Palo Alto.

Third i conflicted with the French Cinema Now (FCN) series.  The distance from the Viz and the Clay (where FCN was screening) is walkable and I overheard some people in the FCN audience saying they were splitting time between the two venues.  I only did that one day.  I wanted to use up my Cinevouchers which meant I had to give preference to FCN.

I saw one film at Third i.

Peddlers starring Siddharth Menon, Gulshan Devaiah & Kriti Malhotra; directed by Vasan Bala; Hindi with subtitles; (2012)

Despite my limited ability to see films Third i, I was able to see the film which most interested me based on the program guide.

Director Vasan Bala's debut feature film, Peddlers, is quite an exciting ride.  Focusing on three characters in Mumbai, Peddlers shows the underbelly of Indian society.  The most interesting character is Ranjit (Gulshan Devaiah), an ambitious, young police detective.  Unfortunately, he suffers from erectile dysfunction.  I'm not sure why he doesn't get the little blue pills but he goes to considerable lengths to hide his problem.  We see him take a beautiful young woman back to his apartment.  While in the throes of passion, he forces alcohol down the woman's throat until she passes out.  Then he removes her clothes, squirts an enviable amount of liquid soap into a condom and tosses the condom into a waste basket next to the bed so that the woman can see physical proof of his sexual prowess.  Ranjit's charade doesn't come close to resolving the frustration he is experiencing.  He openly flirts with his next door neighbor's wife (Nimrit Kaur in a memorable role) and I thought that relationship would go one way but Bala took in an unexpected and frightening direction.

Mac is a petty street dealer.  He is awkward around women but hungry for their companionship.  His and Ranjit's lives are forever altered when Ranjit foils a robbery and chases Mac on foot through the streets of Mumbai.  Ranjit accidentally shoots a child.  It derails his career and makes him a social pariah.  He becomes obsessed with finding Mac whose name he does not know.

Bilkis (Kriti Malhorta), is a young mother diagnosed with cancer.  To make money for her medical treatment, she becomes a drug mule which bring her into contact with Mac who is strongly attracted to her.  Needing to leave Mumbai because the police are looking for him, Mac takes Bilkis to an abandoned apartment building in an industrial section on the outskirts of Mumbai.  Their relationship develops quickly as they live together as a couple.

A chance encounter between Ranjit, Mac and Bilkis leads to the conclusion.  Glimpsing Mac and Bilkis on the train, Ranjit attempts to arrest Mac but he runs away.  However, armed with Mac's dropped cell phone and knowing the destination of the train, Ranjit is able to track down Bilkis and threaten her with arrest unless she sets up Mac.  I thought she went along with the sting without enough regret but that's a minor quibble.  Ranjit captures Mac.  Unaware that Bilkis has set him up, he urges her to flee while he fights with Ranjit.  Eventually Ranjit kills Mac and the film ends with Bilkis' future looking least as bright as a cancer patient's outlook can be.

Peddlers has the Slumdog Millionaire look and feel.  They are comparable films but Peddlers has a harder edge to it.  Peddlers is extraordinary when you take into account it is Bala's first feature.  Even without knowing that fact, the film is compelling.  Gulshan Devaiah as Ranjit delivers a breakout performance.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Dark Matters: The Films of William Friedkin

The PFA had a William Friedkin series in September.  There were six films in the series.  I had seen three of the films within the past few years (To Live and Die in L.A., Cruising & Killer Joe).  The remaining three films interested me to varying.

I was most anxious to Sorcerer (1977) which was a remake of The Wages of Fear.  However, on the day of the screening, they changed locations.  It screened at the Landmark California Theater.  I wasn't sure if that was because it had sold out (Friedkin was in attendance) and I didn't want to waste a trip to Berkeley if the film was sold out so I skipped the screening.  I later learned the change of venue was due to plumbing problem or something and there were plenty of seats.  C'est la vie.

The Boys in the Band (1970) didn't really interest me and I was working that day.  I do regret missing the second film on the PFA schedule that day - The Big Knife which was part of the Wendell Corey series.

The only film swa one film in the Friedkin series.

The French Connection starring Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider & Fernando Rey; directed by William Friedkin; some French with subtitles; (1971)

I have seen The French Connection before but never in a movie theater and it has been several years.

The French Connection is set in 1970s New York.  The main character is NYPD narcotics detective Popeye Doyle.  Trivia:  Popeye's Fried Chicken is named after Popeye Doyle.

Doyle is a piece of work - casually racist, borderline alcoholic and anger management issues.  He is also a tenacious detective who isn't above breaking the rules which in contemporary terms would be called violating a suspect's civil rights.  The film follows a drug smuggling case from soups to nuts.  Doyle and his partner Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider) chase down a suspect.  The scenes was noteworthy for me because it vividly made clear the urban decay in New York.  They chase him down to alley way with garbage strewn about and a fire in an open top metal barrel.  He gives up his connection.

Later Doyle & Russo observe Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) at the Copa.  Interacting with known criminals and driving an expensive car, Doyle is convinced they are onto something big.  Meanwhile in Marseilles,  Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is a major heroin smuggler.  He enlists a television personality to smuggle heroin into the US by hiding it in his car.

As Doyle works his way up the food chain from Boca, Charnier arrives in New York to sell the heroin.  He falls onto Doyle's radar screen and is put under surveillance in an entertaining sequence where Charnier knows he's being followed by Doyle and Doyle knows Charnier knows he's being followed.

The French Connection has aspects of a procedural as much of the film covers the mundane.  The film is punctuated by Doyle's outbursts.  The most famous scene is car chases which takes place after Charnier's henchman (Marcel Bozzuffi) attempts to assassinate him.  Pumped on adrenaline and enraged, Doyle chases an elevated train which the assassin has hijacked.  Foreshadowing the car chases from To Live and Die in LA, the sequence is still exciting 40 years later.

The ending has always intrigued me.  Doyle leads a police raid to arrest all the major players.  Charnier makes a run for it.  Doyle & Russo chase him into a abandoned building.  Unknown to them, an FBI agent enters the building a few minutes behind them.  Doyle breaks the number one rule of gun safety.  Only shoot at what you can see.  Doyle shoots at movement and kills the agent with whom he had a documented animus.  Doyle doesn't concerned about the incident; Doyle & Russo don't even bother to call for an ambulance.  Instead, Doyle hears movement, goes into another room and the audience hears a gunshot offscreen.  We are left to wonder who fired the shot and if the shot found its mark.  If Doyle survived, what were the consequences of him shooting the FBI agent.

Actually, these questions were resolved in the sequel directed by John Frankenheimer:  French Connection II (1975).  I've never seen that film but given that Hackman and Rey reprised their roles, we can assume that both Doyle & Charnier survived the final gunshot in The French Connection.  I tend to think of The French Connection as a stand alone film and like the ambiguous ending.

The French Connection was one of the most celebrated films of its era.  The film won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.   Scheider was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

The film captures that gritty 1970s feel which ultimately resulted in New York City's bankruptcy.  Devoid of the outlandish fashion of the later part of the decade, the film doesn't look quite as dated as some films from the 70s.  Doyle wears a pork pie hat which reminded me of Buster Keaton's hat.

The French Connection was as outstanding as I remember it.  That's actually quite a compliment because my experience has been that many films don't stand up to repeat viewings.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Yang Fudong's Cinematic Influences

PFA stands for Pacific Film Archive.  I frequently see the organization referred to as BAM/PFA with BAM standing for Berkeley Art Museum.  I've never been to BAM.  I need to get over there before it moves.  I can't recall if I've mentioned it on this blog but the construction on the new BAM/PFA building is visibly progressing.  I walk past the construction site whenever I go to PFA.  The new BAM/PFA site will be one block from the Downtown Berkeley BART on Centre St.  It's scheduled to open in Spring 2016.

I thought about that because for the first time I can remember BAM and PFA had a companion exhibits.  BAM has an art exhibit by Yang Fudong titled Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993–2013 which ends at 5 PM today.  PFA had a film series titled Yang Fudong's Cinematic Influences which screened six films between August 22 and October 6.  I saw one film in the series.

Spring in a Small Town starring Wei Wei, Shi Yu & Li Wei; directed by Fei Mu; Mandarin with subtitles; (1948)

Voted Best Chinese Film of All Time in a poll of Chinese critics and cited as an influence by Kar Wai Wong.  I went to the screening of Spring in a Small Town by high expectations.  Indeed, the film plot seems to have been the basis for many Wong films.

Dai Liyan (Shi Yu) is the head of a once prosperous family.  The war has taken his health and much like the partially ruined compound of his estate, he is a functioning but broken man.  His health laid low by tuberculosis; his self-respect following suit.  His wife, Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei) senses this but with little to distract her and a reputation to uphold, she stays in her loveless marriage.  Is it loveless because he is physical incapable or because they have grown apart?  The answer is yes.

Dai's childhood friend Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) arrives for a visit.  Ostensibly staying on to treat his friend's illness, Zhang was also Zhou's first love which Dai is unaware of.  Quickly, Zhou's restlessness and frustrations find an potential outlet with Zhang but both are unwilling to cuckold Dai.  This sexual tension continues for the second half of the film as Dai becomes increasingly aware of the odd behavior of his wife and best friend.

Spring in a Small Town is an amazing film.  Made three years after the end of WWII, the damaged town is a symbol for the scars that were still fresh from the war.  Director Fei Mu adds visual flourishes that would make John Alton proud.  Many scenes are bathed in shadows.  Wei Wei has a remote beauty to her which the camera displays to great effect.  As I heard mentioned after the screening, Wei Wei was like the Chinese Ava Gardner.

There is a wonderful scene where Dai's younger sister turns sixteen.  Having her eyes on Zhang, she and her brother become aware of the full extent of the attraction between Zhang & Zhou as everyone's inhibitions are loosened by the alcohol.  Seemingly encouraging his wife, Dai's humiliation is near complete while the teenager is too naive to understand the full extent of the evening's events.

Like my favorite Kar Wai Wong's films, Spring in a Small Town was moody, claustrophobic and melancholy.  The experience of watching the film was more than the sum of the on-screen parts.  The inner conflict within the three main protagonists is hinted but still open to interpretation by the audience.

Spring in a Small Town was remade in 2002 as Springtime in a Small Town (directed by Zhuangzhuang Tian).  Well received by critics, I would like to see it for comparison purposes.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

2013 Mill Valley Film Festival

The 2013 Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) was from October 3 to 13.  I was able to see two films at the festival

Like Father, Like Son starring Masaharu Fukuyama; directed by Hirokazu Koreeda; Japanese with subitles; (2013) - Official Website
Tokyo Family starring Isao Hashizume, Kazuko Yoshiyuki & Masahiko Nishimura; directed by Yoji Yamada; Japanese with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website

I saw Like Father, Like Son at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael and Tokyo Family at the CineArts Sequoia in Mill Valley.

As has become my custom when in San Rafael, I stopped by Sol Food before Like Father, Like Son.  The food was delicious as usual.  Recently, Sol Food opened a location in Mill Valley.  I looked for it after Tokyo Family but couldn't find it.  For reference, it is at 401 Miller Ave.  The San Rafael locations on Lincoln and 3rd Street (The Big Place) and 4th (The Small Place) are within a short walk of the Smith Rafael but the Mill Valley location is quite far from the Sequoia which is at 25 Throckmorton Ave.

The first weekend of MVFF conflicted with Hong Kong Cinema.

I took a weekday off from work to run errands and ended up seeing three films (including Like Father, Like Son).

MVFF had a sidebar series called Focus: Three Generations Japan.  The series consisted of four Japanese films:  Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, I Catch a Terrible CatTokyo Family and Like Father, Like Son.  I wanted to see I Catch a Terrible Cat but the only screening that fit my schedule was at rush when I attempted to get tickets.  Not wanting to risk making the trip to Marin County only to be left on the sidewalk, I passed on I Catch a Terrible Cat.  This also reminds me that I completely whiffed on a Hayao Miyazaki series at the PFA this summer.  Miyazaki directed From Up on Poppy Hill which I enjoyed.

Like Father, Like Son uses a plot device which I have seen before but manages to keep the story fresh.  Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a driven salaryman who is raising his six year old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya) in his own image.  Writing this, I just realized the child actor's name is the same as his character's name.  To Ryota's consternation, Keita is not cut from the same cloth as him.  He soons learns why.  The hospital calls and informs Ryota and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) that babies were switched at birth and that there is high likelihood that Keita is not their biological son.

Once the DNA tests confirm Keita's not the Nonomiya's son, the hospital arrange for a meeting between the families.  Yudai and Yukari Saiki (Rirî Furankî and Yôko Maki) have the Nonomiyas’ son, Ryusei (Hwang Sho-gen) and vice versa.  Although swapping sons is not a requirement, the hospital administrators most families decide to do just that.  Apparently this switcheroo was not unheard of in Japan in the past.

This news actually comes as a bit of relief to Ryota.  Unable to motivate his son to satisfactory heights, Ryota now has a built-in excuse (it was in the genes) and an option to upgrade sons.  In fact, he hatches an idea which would make a eugenicists proud.  He keep Keita and adopt Ryusei since the Saikis are always short of cash.  Offended by the suggestion, the Saikis categorically reject his offer and Ryota "has no choice" but swap sons despite his wife's misgivings.  Ryota doesn't seem too shook up about it either.  In a heartrending scene, he informs Keita that he will live with the Saikis, he continue to practice piano if he wants to and most importantly, Keita is not to call the Nonomiyas ever again.

"Swapped at birth" is a premise that only the most untalented filmmaker could mess up.  Hirokazu Koreeda (also spelled Kore-eda) is the opposite of untalented.  His previous films I Wish (2011) and Nobody Knows (2004) have explored the separation of children from their families so this theme must have some resonance with him.  Kore-eda does something different.  Whereas the aforementioned films were told from the children's point of view, Like Father, Like Son is Ryota's story.  He has to lose Keita to appreciate him which is obviously cliche but under the capable direction of Kore-eda, the film never feels cliche.

Some films are like Caesar Salads.  The classic Caesar Salad is a thing of beauty.  Simple and delicious.  It's presence on so many menus is a testimonial to its popularity.  Some restaurants try to get fancy and put their own spin on the Caesar with varying results.  Others attempt the classic version and succeed.  Finally, there are places that attempt the classic and screw it up.  Like Father, Like Son is like a classic Caesar Salad.  It's well prepared and despite being exactly what I expected, it was pleasurable to consume.

Like Father, Like Son will be released in the US theaters in January. I recommend seeing it.

Tokyo Family is a remake of Yasujirō Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) which is frequently cited as the best Japanese movie ever made.  The director of Tokyo Family is Yoji Yamada who was an assistant director on Tokyo Story.

Yamada faithfully follows the plot of Tokyo Story with a few exceptions.  Further solidifying Tokyo Story's exalted standing, Tokyo Family doesn't achieve the same effect.  I will assume the reader is familiar with Tokyo Story so I will not summarize the plot to Tokyo Family.

The changes from the original which I refer to include a modern day setting.  Tokyo Story was set in contemporary times also but 1953 is much different than 2013.  Whereas the specter of WWII was ever present in Tokyo Story, it's the fallout from the Fukushima disaster (figuratively and literally) and generation long economic malaise which cast their shadow in Tokyo Family.  By extension, the youngest son is now alive if not well.  In the original, he had died during the war.  Now, he is underemployed and a disappointment to his parents.  The legendary Setsuko Hara played Noriko, the dead son's widow in 1953.  In 2013, Noriko is the son's girlfriend and her kindness is not just gratifying to the parents but also gives a sense of confidence that their son will be fine...if he hangs onto this fine woman.

In 1953, Ozu handled the mother's death off screen which was consistent his hallmark elliptical storytelling.  Yamada gives the woman a deathbed scene although she remain unconscious.  However, the family members show their grief with more emotions than their 1953 counterparts.

Not surprisingly, Tokyo Family gets the short end of the stick in direct comparison to Tokyo Story.  Obviously that's an unfair comparison.  I wonder how the film is received by the sadly sizable population who have not seen Tokyo Story.  The strongest comment I can make about Tokyo Family is that it reinforced my already high opinion of Tokyo Story.

Friday, December 6, 2013

2013 Chinese American Film Festival

The 2013 Chinese American Film Festival returned to 4 Star from November 13 to 19.  It coincided with the dates of New Italian Cinema at the Clay.  I probably would have gone to more films at both festivals if they didn't overlap but frankly I was kind fatigued by films and life at that point so maybe I would stayed home.

Fallen City starring Huang Jue, Yongdai Ding & Ruby Lin; directed by Huang Hong; Mandarin with subtitles; (2011)
Lethal Hostage starring Songlei Sun; directed by Cheng Er; Mandarin with subtitles; (2012)
Unbeatable starring Nick Cheung; directed by Dante Lam; Mandarin & Cantonese with subtitles; (2013)
Love Deposit starring Xia Yu & Jessie Zhou; directed by Qu Jiangtao; Mandarin with subtitles; (2013)
Shanghai Calling starring Daniel Henney & Eliza Coupe; directed by Daniel Hsia; Mandarin, Shanghainese & English with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website

In the past, I have gone to at least one screening per year where English subtitles were not available.  I'm glad to report that all the screenings I attended this year had English subtitles.  My only complaint in that regard is the opening credits of Love Deposit which set up the premise were not subtitled.  More on that later.

Fallen City - a cop in a small Chinese town recognizes the bank robber who eluded him a few years ago.  He chases him down and finally catches him but at that moment, an earthquake strikes and incapacitates the cop.  The robber puts on the cops uniform and heads out in the flattened town to find his daughter who is the reason for his return.  Dressed as a cop, he is constantly asked to help the victims of the earthquake.

I found the CGI effects amateurish and the acting was only marginally better.  Fallen City had a contrived plot and overacting interspersed amongst wooden acting,and characters.  It was the first film I saw and I was worried that the rest of the films in the series would be of this quality.

Lethal Hostage - starred Honglei Sun whom I saw in Johnnie To's Drug War.  The plot was a little difficult to follow but Honglei Sun plays a Chinese drug dealer who years ago kidnapped a dentist's daughter during a firefight with the police.  He used her as a hostage to cross the border back to his homebase of Burma (or Myanmar).  Years pass and the girl, no an adult, marries her kidnapper - Stockholm Syndrome in Burma among Ethnic Chinese.  There is also a cop tracking Sun whose sister lives next to another drug dealer.

The characters aren't given names (like my synopses sometimes) so the audience is kept detached from the characters.  The violence is ratcheted up a notch for a mainland Chinese film.  The scenes move back in forth in time which makes it difficult to understand the plot.  I'd like to see Lethal Hostage a second time.  Nicely photographed and chillingly disturbing at times, director Cheng Er and Lethal Hostage merit future attention.

Unbeatable was the most crowd pleasing of the films I saw.  Nick Cheung plays Scumbag Fai, a 1980s boxing champion in HK who threw some matches and has been living in disgrace ever since.  Chased out of HK due to gambling debts, he ends up in Macau working at a friend's MMA studio.  Siqi (Eddie Peng) is the son of a rich man whose father has lost his fortune.  To prove himself to his father, Siqi decides to enter an MMA tournament.

After the obligatory resistance, Fai agrees to train Siqi.  Siqi needs the cash prize to help his father, Fai needs redemption which he only partially achieves by training Siqi.  In a subplot, Fai rents a room in the apartment of Gwen (Mei Ting) and her precocious daughter.  The three form a makeshift family unit since the Gwen's husband has abandoned wife & daughter.  Gwen also has a screw loose due to being drunk when her son died.

Anyway, Unbeatable takes a slight detour from utterly predictable when Siqi is injured in one of his MMA matches.  Stepping into the breach is Fai, a 40something ex-boxer who was barely qualified to coach a MMA fighter much less participate in the biggest MMA tournament in Asia.  Fai ends up facing the fighter (Andy On) who injured Siqi.  Barely avoiding a broken neck, Fai just his ass kicked until the end when he uses his trick shoulder (a la Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon) to escape a submission move and deliver a knockout blow.

Unbeatable was directed by Dante Lam who made the brassy The Beast Stalker with Cheung.  Lam and Cheung find the right formula again.  If you went to Unbeatable looking for fight scenes, you were disappointed because the fighting didn't start until the final third of the film.  In the meantime, you get Cheung and the little girl playing dress up or Cheung and Peng in training montages which would put Sylvester Stallone to shame.  There is quite a bit of humor in Unbeatable until Siqi is paralyzed after getting his neck broken during a fight and Gwen goes crazy and is institutionalized.

Cheung shows quite a bit of range; especially taking into account his turn The Beast Stalker.  Andy Om also makes the most of his brief screen time which occurs solely within the confines of the octagon.

Love Deposit sounds like the title of a porno film.  Instead it has a clever plot conceit at the center of the story.  He Muyang (Xia Yu) runs a cafe called Love Bank.  As a promotional device, he offers "love deposit."  Couples record their true thoughts on video.  Each video is saved to a memory stick.  They pay a deposit.  If the couple is still together after a year, they can have their deposit and memory sticks back.  If they are broken up, He keep both.  The contract specifies he cannot turn over the memory stick to either partner if they have broken up within a year.  This causes angry confrontations with customers who want to know what their ex said about them.  He is keeps his commitments and always refuses.

Yu Xiaoyu (Jessie Zhou) has broken up with her boyfriend.  She attempts to extort, threaten, wheedle and buy access to the memory stick.  He, in need of employees, agrees to view the message and tell Yu one sentence per day if she works at the cafe.

Love Deposit loses some momentum after setting up the premise.  You know He & Yu have to get together but it's a matter of how to get them together in the funniest way possible.  At this point, we get the backstory of the Love Bank and it involves an embarrassing refusal of He's marriage proposal.  In order to save face, He invites Yu as his date for a college reunion.  He is still hung up on his college girlfriend 10 years later.  He even stalks her.  It's only when learns about the Love Bank and announces that she will be moving to Europe that He finally give Yu a chance - classic rebound relationship!  What's more romantic than that?

So maybe Love Deposit has nonsufficient funds but its a fun ride for the first hour or so of its 93 minutes.

Shanghai Calling put the American in the Chinese American Film Festival.  Daniel Henney is Sam, a thoroughly Americanized ABC lawyer in New York.  After winning a big case, he expects to be made partner at his law firm but instead he is transferred to the Shanghai office.  He reluctantly takes the assignment immediately regrets it.  He gets off on the wrong foot with his relocation consultant Amanda (Eliza Coupe), a Caucasian who can speak better Mandarin than him.  His first case results in patent infringement and furious client (Alan Ruck).  Unwilling to accept the advice of various expats to hire Chinese troubleshoot extraordinaire Awesome Wang (Geng Le), he digs himself a bigger hole as a Chinese company continues to pump out cellphones with tactile screens contrary to the exclusive marketing agreement Sam negotiated.  The only bright spot is that he and Amanda are getting quite cozy.  Sam had to move to Shanghai to get a white girlfriend.

Laughs are fast and frequent in this comedy about a fish out of water, when in Rome, stranger in a strange land, etc.  It seems a little derivative but Shanghai Calling is well crafted and populated with solid actors throughout.  Henney and Coupe get most of the screen time but Ruck, Le and even Bill Paxton shows up in smaller roles which give the film a break from the less than enthralling romance between Sam & Amanda.

A twist at the end surprised me and was the salvation for Sam whose moment of triumph involves laying off a factory full of Chinese worker who probably make 5% of his salary.

The real star of Shanghai Calling is Shanghai which looks incredible in the film.  Shanghai always looks great in films

Thursday, December 5, 2013

2013 Cinema By the Bay

Cinema By the Bay was the sixth and final film series in the San Francisco Film Society's 2013 Fall Season.  It was held from November 22 to 24 at the Roxie.  I saw one film in the series.

The SFFS had a sale on Fall Season Cinevouchers.  A Cinevoucher is a 10 film pass which is cheaper than buying 10 SFFS Member priced tickets.  The discounted Cinevouchers were only good for the Fall Season.  I bought three Cinevouchers (30 films) to cover the Fall Season.  At first, I thought I bought too much but by the time Cinema By the Bay rolled around, I only had one film left on the Cinevouchers.  I would have seen more during the series but between having to pay out of pocket and cumulative film fatigue from a particularly busy autumn, I decided to stick with one film at Cinema By the Bay.  All told, I saw 32 films on 31 purchased admissions during the SFFS Fall Season series.

Dear Sidewalk starring Joseph Mazzello & Michelle Forbes; directed by Jake Oelman; (2013) - Official Website

Dear Sidewalk didn't look like it was filmed in the Bay Area.  After the screening, I looked it up and it was filmed in Austin.  I'm not sure what the Bay Area connection was.

Throughout the film, I knew that I had seen the lead actress somehwere but could not place her.  As I read the closing credits, I saw that it was Michelle Forbes who played Ensign Ro Lauren in Star Trek The Next Generation.  That harkens back to my pseudo-fanboy days in college.  Some of us had access to the engineering building during off hours.  The student lounge was the de facto study hall at night & on the weekends.  On Sunday afternoons, we would take a study break and go into the main lecture hall which had a ceiling mounted projector which was hooked into cable TV.  We would watch ST TNG and I don't mind saying that Ensign Ro Lauren was one of the more popular female characters amongst my engineering cohorts.

Dear Sidewalk is about Gardner (Joseph Mazzello), a 24 year old postman.  He has a very structured much so that his co-workers wager whether or not he'll be a minute late to work.  His job suits his desire for structure; everyday he walks the same route while delivering mail.  As his 25th birthday approaches, he begins to take stock of his life and gets a quarter-life crisis.

One of the new customers on Gardner's route is Paige (Michelle Forbes), a free spirited divorcee with a shock of dyed red hair.  She has an immediate effect on Gardner.   She encourages him to break out of his routine which results in him not delivering the mail and eventually being fired (aren't mail carriers in a union?).  Anyway, Paige isn't a savior.  She has problems which dwarf Gardner's.  She doesn't have a job, she's doesn't have a boyfriend (despite her brother's efforts to set her up on blind dates) and she's a failed artist. 

Despite their 20 year age difference Paige & Gardner embark on a relationship.  The inexperienced Gardner thinks they are headed for marriage whereas Paige seemed more interested in a one-time sexual encounter.  Issues come to a head at Gardner's 25th birthday party and I'm glad to say they part ways and both are better for the experience. 

Dear Sidewalk is a quirky comedy with modern day fairy tale elements.  Gardner lives on a boat parked in his friend's driveway.  His world is extremely insular.  It reminded me of a film called Old Stock which I saw at this year's Cinequest.  Paige is essentially an agent of change for Gardner but they are both transformed by their shared experiences.  It's a familiar plot and any film that uses it rises and falls based on the variations to the plot and the performances of the actors. 

In the case of Dear Sidewalk, both Mazzello & Forbes turn in satisfactory performances but like the film, there isn't much to praise.  The film is like vanilla ice cream.  It's hard to mess up vanilla ice cream and it's hard to make one scoop stand out from another.  Most vanilla ice cream fits in the bell curve; satisfactory but not very memorable.  The same can be said of Dear Sidewalk

I will say that Forbes still retains a palpable screen presence and innate sexuality more 20 years after having first seen her on ST TNG

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

2013 New Italian Cinema

New Italian Cinema was the fifth film series in the San Francisco Film Society's 2013 Fall Season.  It was held from November 13 to 17 at the Landmark Clay.  It was co-presented with New Italian Cinema Events - NICE which is the acronym SFFS used for the series.  I saw five films in the series.

Balancing Act starring Valerio Mastandrea, Barbora Bobulova & Rosabell Laurenti Sellers; directed by Ivano De Matteo; Italian with subtitles; (2012)
Ali Blue Eyes starring Nader Sarhan, Stefano Rabatti & Brigitte Apruzzesi; directed by Claudio Giovannesi; Italian and Arabic with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
Out of the Blue starring Raoul Bova, Nicole Grimaudo & Rosabell Laurenti Sellers; directed by Edoardo Leo; Italian with subtitles; (2013) - Official Facebook
Gorbaciof starring Toni Servillo & Mi Yang; directed by Stefano Incerti; Italian and Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
One Man Up starring Toni Servillo & Andrea Renzi; directed by Paolo Sorrentino;  Italian with subtitles; (2001)

NICE conflicted with the 2013 Chinese American Film Festival at the 4 Star.  I split the baby and saw five films at New Italian and five films at CAFF.  The five films I saw at NICE made a strong lineup.


I don't get up to the stretch of Fillmore where the Clay Theater is located.  I'll have to check my records (on a different computer) to see when I was last at the Clay.  I believe it was 2011.  In the course of four weeks in November, I saw 13 films there.  With time to walk around before and between screenings, I found a few interesting spots.

In the location previously occupied by Johnny Rockets (Fillmore & Pine) is a new restaurant called Glaze.  It's a teriyaki joint with counter service.  The food was pretty tasty; the pork rib appetizer was particularly memorable.

Going the other direction on Fillmore, I walked up to Jackson and noticed a good old fashioned magazine shop.  It's called Juicy News.  I asked the proprietor if he had Sight and Sound.  He did but he also recommended another British film magazine which he sold.  It's called Cinema Retro.  I bought the magazine and read interesting articles on Elizabeth Taylor, Sue Lyon and Peter Cushing.  I liked it enough to buy a subscription.  Previously alerted to the existence of Smoke Signals on Polk (Vallejo), I'll have to stop by there sometime to compare the two magazine establishments.

With Noir City coming up next month (January 25 - February 3) and my digressing from films in this post, I should also call out Kayo Books on Post (Leavenworth).  I've spent many hours perusing their shelves.  "Our small store is like a museum of pulp fiction and non-fiction. The stock presents a glimpse into the lurid past of dimestore novels, sleazy 1960s exploitation, and 1970s pop culture."


Balancing Act was both realistic and and stretched belief.  Giulio (Valerio Mastandrea) is a Roman municipal worker.  As the film opens, we seem him having an office tryst amongst the filing cabinets.  I didn't realize this was Giulio until after the film ended and I thought about it a little.  Giulio is a family man - wife Elena (Barbora Bobulova), teenage punk rocker Camilla (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) and a kid brother who doesn't do much except to establish the large expense of orthodontia.

After establishing his good guy bona fides, Giulio agrees to leave their apartment because his mere presence upsets his wife.  She is aware of his office romance and cannot stand to look at him.  After realizing the separation may be longer than expected (possibly permanent), Giulio starts to live on his own while maintaining the middle class comforts his family has grown accustomed to.  However, a city worker's paycheck doesn't stretch as far as he had hoped.  He takes a second job off the books and still has trouble making ends meet.  When he is laid off his second job, it begins a downward spiral.

Unable to afford a place to live, he sleeps in his car.  Unable to afford to pay for a carnival ride for his son and his friend, he berates the cashier which results in his wife chastising his behavior.  Unable to eat, he begins to eat in homeless shelters.  Mind you, Giulio still has his full-time job with the city.  He can't admit (at least not fully) to his family that he can't support two households on his salary - Italian masculine pride I suppose.  In the meantime, his wife and daughter blithely live their lives as if nothing has changed.  They are vaguely aware that his behavior is off but cannot put two and two together.

Giulio decides to commit suicide (on Xmas day!) but an alert train operator hits the brakes on time.  Fortunately, Elena & Camilla have finally been made aware of his circumstances and are scouring the city looking for him.  They are reunited after his failed suicide attempt; presumably allowing him to move back into the house.

As I watched Balancing Act, I thought there was a kernel of truth in the film.  I know men who have gotten divorced and their financial situation worsened for it.  It's tough to support two household.  This isn't revelatory (Mrs. Doubtfire) but the dichotomy between Giulio's life and that of his family is hard to fathom.  Giulio would rather commit suicide than admit to his wife & daughter that he is having financial difficulties.  Although I never fully bought into the film, it was moving experience.  Mastandrea turns in a strong performance by showing the transformation Giulio goes through.  He and Rosabell Laurenti Sellers as his daughter have an easy chemistry together.


Ali Blue Eyes has an interesting development history.  Ali Blue Eyes director Claudio Giovannesi made a 2009 documentary titled Fratelli d’Italia which chronicled the lives of three immigrant kids in Rome.  One of those kids was Nader Sarhan who plays the lead role of Nader in Ali Blue Eyes.  The fact that the three lead actors have the same name as the characters they play is a  strong indication that Giovannesi is using nonprofessional actors and trying to achieve modern day Italian neorealism.  The title Ali Blue Eyes is a reference to a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini, a neorealist icon.

Ali Blue Eyes follows Nader for one week.  Nader is an Arab teenager who has been Italianized or is the Italicized?  He's either 2nd generation or Generation 1.5.  He lives in a traditional Arab household but Nader's best friend is an Italian teeanger named Stefano (Stefano Rabatti), his girlfriend Brigitte (Brigitte Apruzzesi) is Italian and just to put a fine point on it, he wears blue tinted contact lenses.

Nader is having behavioral issues due to an identity.  He has the normal teenage issues such being a boy who thinks he is a man but he has the added burden of being an Arab but wanting to be Italian.   He casually mentions his girlfriend at the dinner table and his mother voices her disapproval.  He is too young for a girlfriend and the girl isn't Muslim.  When Nader mentions Stefano has a girlfriend, her response is it's ok for Italians but not for Muslims which barely conceals her latent reverse racism.  He threatens to leave home if she doesn't reverse her ban and when she refuses, Nader storms out and doesn't return for the rest of the film.

Stefano is not much of a role model for Nader.  We are introduced to the two when the pull an armed robbery at a convenience store.  Tellingly, Nader can't bring himself to do it so they switch roles and Nader drives the getaway motorcycle while Stefano goes into the store with the gun.  This rather disturbing introduction doesn't even play into the story.  Stefano and his girlfriend have broken up...and Stefano hasn't gotten over it.  When he sees her talking to another boy at a dance club, he stabs the boy and flees the club with Nader.

Now Nader is hip deep in trouble.  Refusing to return home, he is forced to sleep at friends' houses or on the street.  The stabbed boy's relatives (ironically immigrants from Serbia or some Eastern European country) start searching for Stefano and Nader and they want to do more than just talk it out.  Most disturbing to Nader is that the now available Stefano starts showing interest in Nader's younger sister which is an inspired plot device.  Nader is stubborn in his right to have an Italian girlfriend but when an Italian boy shows interest in his sister, it's s completely different thing.

As the week progresses, Nader's situation worsens.  Everyone tells him that his parents are asking about him but he refuses to go home until his mother reverses her edict.  The Serbians are staking out Nader's school and closing in on him and Stefano.  The final insult is when an Arab friend of the family makes a homosexual pass at Nader.

When Stefano's father learns of the boys' troubles with the Serbians, Nader makes a critical choice.  He falsely admits to the stabbing.  Stefano's relieved father tells Nader to go home, tell his father and let his father work it out for him.  Nader has no intention of doing that.  His plan is unclear.  He approaches the Serbians and tries to resolve the issue but gets beat up and is lucky that is all that happened.  The final straw is when Nader spies Stefano kissing his sister in a parked car and takes a shot at him.

That's where the film ends.  The audience wonders what will happen to Nader - estranged from his family, feuding with his best friend, having admitted to a crime he didn't commit, homeless, etc.  Befitting a neorealist film, Ali Blue Eyes is a grim affair.  I thought it was a tremendous film.


Out of the Blue was a lot of fun.  Raoul Bova plays Andrea, an aging playboy.  I can't recall if he worked for an ad agency or a movie studio.  Regardless, his job was product placement.  He arranged for his clients' products to be displayed in films.  As he mentions, IBM & Pan-Am were featured in Kubrick's 2001:  A Space Odyssey. 

Andrea's life is turned upside down when Layla (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers from Balancing Act) and her maternal grandfather Enzo (Marco Giallini) show up.  Layla claims to be Andrea's daughter.  Her mother and Andrea had a summer romance many years ago.  Andrea was unaware of Layla's existence and it takes a DNA test before he believes her claims of paternity.  Enzo, a second-tier rock star from the 1960s, hangs around because his RV needs repair.

At this point, Out of the Blue starts dealing in cliches.  Andrea has to grow up because he has a child now, Andrea becomes a nicer person because of his daughter and the pretty gym teacher (Nicole Grimaudo) whom he flirts with, Andrea's parents encounter marital discord which the faux wisdom of Enzo resolves, Andrea's sidekick (director Edoardo Leo) gets out from under Andrea's sphere of influence and most of all Andrea & Layla (named for the Eric Clapton song) form a father-daughter relationship.

Far from profound or even original, Out of the Blue is well made and a likeable retread.  It's the kind of film I'm increasingly tolerable of as I get older.


This year's NICE officially had a Neapolitan sidebar series but seemed to unofficially be featuring actor Toni Servillo and director Paolo Sorrentino.  Servillo appeared in three films Gorbaciof, One Man Up and The Great Beauty.  Sorrentino directed the latter two films.  As I write this, The Great Beauty is playing at the Landmark Opera Plaza in SF and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley through Thursday, December 5 and may be extended.  Sorrentino also directed one segment of Napoli 24, a omnibus film consisting of 24 three minute films which played at this year's NICE.

Toni Servillo is an actor I was previously unfamiliar with.  He was in Gomorrah although I don't recall his performance.  I have not seen any films directed by Sorrentino.  His most well known film is This Must Be the Place (2011) with Sean Penn.

Marino Pacileo (Servillo) is a cashier in a prison in Naples.  I'm not sure why a prison needs a cashier but I assume friends & family of the inmates deposit money for their use.  I don't think that is a component of the US penal system.  Pacileo is called Gorbaciof because he has a birthmark on his forehead which causes him to resemble the former Soviet leader.  Gorbaciof skims the money from the day's receipts to play poker and the returns the money when he wins.  The control of the cash at the prison leaves much to be desired.

Gorbaciof plays illegal poker in the storeroom of a Chinese restaurant with a well known lawyer, the Chinese restaurant owner and assorted other dubious characters.  When the restaurant owner loses big, the lawyer (Geppy Gleijeses) hints he'll clear the debt if the man pimps out his daughter (Mi Yang) who works at the restaurant.  Despite his initial anger, Gorbaciof senses the man will ultimately agree to the arrangement which upsets him because he has long harbored feelings towards her...even though she can barely speak Italian.  Gorby lifts extra money from the prison till to pay off the man's debt but then has difficulty replacing the cash.  This puts him in a tough spot.  In order to replace the money, he goes to a prison guard for help.  The money arrives but now Gorby is in debt to the man and to pay off the debt, he has to take part in an armed robbery.  The robbery goes off with nary a hitch but in a cruel ending, accidentally shot in the car by his accomplices a la Pulp Fiction.

I forgot to mention that Gorby's previous action result in a romance with the Chinese woman which seems a little improbable given their age difference and the fact that Pacileo dresses like an extra from Saturday Night Fever.  Seemingly in possession of only one suit and one shirt, Gorbaciof struts around the movie like he is cock of the walk despite looking like a pathetic schlub; never mind the fact that he has a gambling addiction and everyone at work knows he is commingling the prison money.  Actually, there are long periods of silence in Gorbaciof which Servillo uses to good effect.  Since the girl speaks almost no Italian, Servillo communicates non-verbally with her and be extension the audience.

Gorbaciof is a showcase for Servillo to create this unique character.  Deeply flawed and pitied by others, Gorby is an anti-hero.  His one redeeming act in the film results in his death.  I wondered if anyone would care or even notice his passing.

One Man Up follows the lives of two men with with the same name - Antonio Pisapia.  Set in the early 1980s, Servillo play Antonio "Toni" Pisapia, a popular singer.  Andrea Renzi plays Antonio Pisapia, a professional soccer player.  The two men are not related and although they are aware of each other, they do not know each other.  The two actors never share the screen during the film.

Toni's downfall begins with a sex scandal involving an underage girl.  After a stretch in prison, he attempts to resurrect his career with little success.  Meanwhile, Antonio has some success as player but when we he refuses to throw a match, his teammates trip him during practice resulting in a career ending injury.  Antonio spends years attempting to get a coaching job but the mercurial owner of his team refuses to commit.

As the likelihood of achieving their life goals becomes increasingly remote, the two men become depressed and suicidal.  By chance, Toni sees Antonio on a television interview show the evening before Antonio commits suicide.  Moved by the man's life as recounted on the show, Toni kills the club owner whom Antonio blamed for his thwarted dreams.

One Man Up is an interesting film.  Servillo playing the coked up glorified lounge singer is a hoot.   Once again Servillo attacks the role and makes it unique.  However, the film never bridges the two parallel plot lines.  There is a fair amount of symbolism and dream sequences which I didn't fully understand.  Toni's brother died in a while spear fishing as a kid and Toni blames himself.  He cooks fish magnificently and obsesses over the quality of the dishes.

One Man Up was Sorrentino's first feature film as director.  SFFS programmer Rod Armstrong had earlier mentioned that Sorrentino would introduce One Man Up which was the final film on the 2013 NICE program.  Before the film started, Armstrong backtracked and announced that Sorrentino would not announce the film.  I think he was at the closing night party.  Armstrong ominously noted that Sorrentino said he couldn't remember making the film.  Viewed as a debut effort, One Man Up portends interesting things from Sorrentino which, according to his reputation, he has delivered.  I left the screening with an interest in seeing more of Servillo and Sorrentino's work (collaboratively and separately).

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

2013 French Cinema Now

French Cinema Now was the fourth film series in the San Francisco Film Society's 2013 Fall Season.  It was held from November 7 to 10 at the Landmark Clay.  I saw eight films in the series.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters starring Vincent Macaigne, Maud Wyler & Bastien Bouillon; directed by Sébastien Betbeder; French with subtitles; (2013)
A Castle in Italy starring Valeria Bruni Tedeschi & Louis Garrel; directed by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi; French and Italian with subtitles; (2013)
Rendezvous in Kiruna starring Jean-Pierre Darroussin & Anastasios Soulis; directed by Anna Novion; French and Swedish with subtitles; (2012)
Michael Kohlhaas starring Mads Mikkelsen & Delphine Chuillot; directed by Arnaud des Pallières; French and German with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
Miss and the Doctors starring Louise Bourgoin, Cédric Kahn & Laurent Stocker; directed by Axelle Ropert; French with subtitles; (2013)
Suzanne starring Sara Forestier & Adèle Haenel; directed by Katell Quillévéré; French with subtitles; (2013)
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear starring Pierrette Robitaille & Romane Bohringer; directed by Denis Côté; French with subtitles; (2013) - Official Facebook
Bastards starring Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni & Julie Bataille; directed by Claire Denis; French with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website


Michael Kohlhaas has a longer, alternate title of Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas.  Kohlhaas was a tremendous film which was based on a 19th century novel which in turn was based on a actual 17th century incident.  This film version switches France for the German setting of the story.

Kohlhaas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a horse trader.  When passing through an area, he discovers the Baron of the area has died and his son is the new Baron.  The new Baron requires a toll to pass through his land.  After some disagreement, Kohlhaas leaves two horses and a servant behind while he seeks legal resolution.  Indeed the practice is illegal and Kohlhaas returns with an official decree to take back his horses and servant only to find the horses abused and injured and his servant injured from dog maulings.

His complaints to the Baron don't go far so he seeks legal redress which is stymied by the Baron's friends at court.  Unwilling to let the matter drop, Kohlhaas' wife (Delphine Chuillot) goes to the royal court to petition her husband's case before the princess (Roxane Duran).  She is murdered at court and her bloodied body returned to Kohlhaas.  At this point, he decides to resolve the issue with his crossbow.

Quickly gaining followers who feel similarly aggrieved by the Baron, Kohlhaas forms an army that is a cross between Robin Hood's Merry Men and a hit squad.  On the verge of capturing and killing the Baron, Kohlhaas is persuaded to end the hostilities in exchange of amnesty and fair adjudication of the Baron's actions.  Kohlhaas unwisely agrees because his overriding concern is justice, not vengeance.

Kohlhaas' amnesty is eventually revoked and after a brief period as a fugitive he is captured.  The film ends with Kohlhaas' horses returned to him in good health and the Baron led away to spend a few years in prison for his crimes.  However, for the crime of armed rebellion, Kohlhaas is sentenced to death.  He submits to his sentence without complaint but Kohlhaas and the audience is left to wonder if it was worth it.

Michael Kohlhaas benefits from having a tremendous story to base its plot upon.  His single minded pursuit of justice and his ultimate Pyrrhic victory will split opinions.  Was it worth it? vs. How can you put a price on justice?  Mikkelsen plays Kohlhaas with a stoic demeanor for the most part.  Kohlhaas isn't one to show his emotions (even while bedding his wife) but it's evident that his passions are just beneath the surface and he is more than willing to act upon them.
Michael Kohlhaas, the film and the character, broods and simmers for the first part of the film.  He doesn't explode so much as he makes a deliberate choice which results in methodical and unavoidable violence.  The film doesn't have the pacing of a revenge tale by American movie standards.  I thought it was a welcome change of pace.  I was drawn into the film and deeply affected by the outcome.


Suzanne spanned 25 years in the life of the titular character (Sara Forestier).  Suzanne and her older sister Maria (Adèle Haenel) grew up without a mother because she died when they were young.  Their father (François Damiens) does his best but the girls grow up as what we would call latchkey kids.  From a young age, Suzanne has behavioral issues while her sister is the more responsible one.  Suzanne gets pregnant while in high school, later falls for a handsome petty criminal and abandons her son...and that's just the first half of the film.

Playing out like a soap opera at times, Suzanne is a cautionary tale about a woman who, inexplicably, makes bad choices in life.  Perhaps the presence of her mother may have made the difference but her sister grew up in the same environment and turned out differently.  Actually, being the younger sister of the more attractive and creative Maria was part of the problem for her self-esteem.

The scenes with Sara Forestier and Paul Hamy as Julien, Suzanne's troublesome boyfriend stand out.  Some may find Suzanne too obvious but I appreciated Forestier's portrayal of the downward trajectory of Suzanne's life.

The medicos in Miss and the Doctors are Boris and Dimitri Pizarnik (Cédric Kahn and Laurent Stocker).  The have a joint pediatric practice and are so close they can complete each other's sentence.  Frankly, they seem co-dependent but that will be taken care of soon.  They both fall in love with Judith (Louise Bourgoin), the mother of one of their patients.  Eventually, Judith chooses Boris which causes more than the usual sibling problems.  Their medical practice suffers and Dimitri is a recovering alcoholic who falls off the wagon.

The relationship between the brothers is ridiculous but if you can overcome disbelief, it's touching.  On top of that, Louise Bourgoin is beautiful and the bar she works in looks like a blast.  Most of all it is a comedy despite the serious medical issues the brothers face.  Striking a nice pace, director Axelle Ropert shows considerable skill with a tricky plot that could have gotten too complicated for its own good.  Louise chooses her ex-husband over Boris and the two brothers shut down the practice to go their own separate ways.  Dimitri ends up on the French Riviera while Boris gives Judith a second chance.  I'm not sure if I'm starting to like the rom-com genre as I age but Miss and the Doctors is a pleasing rom-com by my standards.

Ernest Toussant (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is a successful architect in Rendezvous in Kiruna.  He receives a phone call informing him that his son has accidentally died in Sweden.  However, he didn't know he had a son in Sweden.  After initial resistance, Toussant decides he must go to Sweden to identify his son's body which is absurd since he has never seen his son before.

On the way, the picks up Magnus (Anastasios Soulis), a Swedish hitchhiker.  Magnus is making his way back to Sweden from France.  Along the way, they encounter two problems.  Magnus gets into a fight with some bikers and one of them chases them down in Toussant's BMW.  Toussant forces him off the road and he breaks his leg.  This results in a police bulletin being issued for the car.  Simultaneously, a soon to be retired cop in the hometown of Toussant's son carries a grudge against Toussant for abandoning the boy and his mother.  Toussant is completely unaware of this.

Eventually, Toussant has a heart-to-heart with the cop and comes to regret his choices regarding his son and his mother (who is out of town).  Magnus wanted to stay with his grandfather but the old man turns him away (nice scene) because he is too depressed about his wife recent passing.

Darroussin is outstanding as Toussant who is always reserved but goes from cold to showing sympathy for those around him.  He expresses so much with a glance.

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear was a French Canadian film.  It undergoes a tremendous tonal shift from start to finish.  Vic is short for Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille), a 61 year old woman who arrives at her disabled uncle's house in remote French Canada.  Her reason for coming is eventually revealed.  She has just gotten out of prison and is staying with her uncle because it is the official address for her brother.  In reality, the young man next door cares for the old man and the brother is never around.  Vic quickly dismisses the young man.  Next we see a man whom I assumed to be a welfare worker checking in but it turns out he is probation officer.  He is all business but lets Vic stay despite suspecting her brother isn't there which violates the terms of her release.  At this point, I thought the film was going to be a offbeat comedy.

Later, Florence or Flo (Romane Bohringer) arrives.  Vic & Flo were inmates together and quickly settle into idyllic lesbian bliss.  However, Flo grows tired of the isolation as well as her sexuality and Vic senses it.  At this point, I thought the film was going to be a relationship drama.

An odd woman named Marina (Marie Brassard) shows up and claims to be a government worker testing the water lines.  Later still, she claims to have a second job as a bar manager where Flo has been racking up bar tabs and male sex partners.  Introducing further discord into Vic & Flo's relationship, it is revealed that she was an ex-con with a grudge against Flo.  Even more ominous is the fact that she and mean looking black guy shoot guns in the woods near Vic's place.  At this point, I thought the film was going to be a stalker/thriller film.

As the specter of Marina's revenge grows larger, Flo begins forming a friendship with her gay PO (Marc-Andre Grondin).  I thought things were going to work out for the pair when one of the most shocking and innovative death/torture scenes occurs.  Marina and her accomplice park a truck on a dirt path near Vic's place.  When Vic & Flo encounter the truck, they walk on the field to get around the truck.  Marina has placed bear traps and concealed them.  Both Vic & Flo get their legs caught in the traps.  I thought those traps had releases but in the film, the two women cannot release themselves and die from exposure or dehydration all the while suffering agonizing pain from the steel traps.

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear was a very original film which kept me guessing throughout.  There were strong performances throughout but Marie Bressard stole the show with her portrayal of Marina as externally kooky with a constant touch of danger.  Pierrette Robitaille was also impressive as the tired and frightened woman putting up a brave front.


Three mediocre films were the bottom of the barrel.   I should acknowledge these films weren't that bad.  FCN had a very strong lineup this year.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters is a clever dramedy about the existential crises of a group of 30something Parisians.   Less than a month after seeing it, I am having difficulty remembering how it ended.  Vincent Macaigne is outstanding as the lead.  There are voiceovers which are amusing and visual flourishes but in hindsight, it seems superficial.

Slowly, I've become something of a fan of Valeria Bruni Tedeschi.  A Castle in Italy is highly autobiographical despite Bruni Tedeschi's claims otherwise.  Her mother, Marisa Bruni Tedeschi, plays the role of her mother.  Her ex-boyfriend (Louis Garrel) plays the role of her boyfriend.  Bruni Tedeschi's brother died of AIDS.  Her character's brother (Filippo Timi in memorable performance) is dying of AIDS.  You get the idea.

However, A Castle in Italy doesn't ever gain traction.  Bruni Tedeschi plays Louise, a movie star that has stopped acting.  She comes from a prominent family which owns the eponymous estate.  Land rich, cash poor, the family is considering selling assets or, God forbid, opening the castle to public tours.  This tragedy is played out amongst Louise's other problems - her dying brother (with whom she has a peculiar relationship), her new young boyfrined, her ex-husband, etc.

It all seems slapdash and it didn't inspire any empathy from me.  A Castle in Italy is one of Bruni Tedeschi's lesser films.

Claire Denis is hailed as a modern day master.  Her Beau Travail was amazing; her Bastards less so.  If I were to right a single post about the film, I would title it "Inglorious Bastards."  Vincent Lindon plays Marco Silvestri, a commercial shipping captain.  He abruptly leaves his post and returns to Paris to find his family's shoe manufacturing business in ruins.  He takes an empty apartment one floor above Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), who just happens to be the mistress of Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor).  Laporte is involved in his family's financial ruin and his brother-in-law's suicide.

Silvestri quickly begins an affair with the sexy Raphaëlle but this isn't simply a case of cuckolding.  Silvestri's niece is in a psychiatric ward and she lives to wander the streets in the nude with blood running down her legs.  Apparently, she took part in some orgies in the country where ears of corn were used to sodomize her.  Eventually it turns out Laporte and her father were part of the orgy which gives Bastards a truly sordid atmosphere.

Atmosphere is pretty much all Bastards achieves.  It's told in nonlinear fashion so we have piece the puzzle together.  It can be confusing although it's fun ride.  Silvestri's ultimate goal is unclear so the finale is hard to put into context of what preceded.  Lindon & Mastroianni have a lot of chemistry on screen and Subor is sufficiently menacing.   Agnès Godard was the cinematographer for Bastards.

Monday, December 2, 2013

2013 Taiwan Film Days

2013 Taiwan Film Days was the third series in the San Francisco Film Society's Fall Season.  The series ran from November 1 to 3 at the Vogue Theater.

I ran the table at Taiwan Film Days.  I saw all 8 of the programs screened.

Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast; directed by Chen Yu-hsun; Mandarin and Taiwanese with subtitles; (2013)
A Time in Quchi; directed by Chang Tso-chi; Mandarin and Taiwanese with subtitles; (2013)
Taipei Factory; (2013)
Forever Love; directed by Aozaru Shiao & Kitamura Toyohar; Mandarin and Taiwanese with subtitles; (2013)
Soul starring Jimmy Wong & Joseph Chang; directed by Chung Mong-hong; Mandarin with subtitles; (2013)
Ripples of Desire; directed by Zero Chou; Mandarin and Taiwanese with subtitles; (2013)
Apolitical Romance starring Chang Shu-hao & Lu Huang; directed by Hsieh Chun-yi; Mandarin and Taiwanese with subtitles; (2013)
When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep starring Kai Ko & Chien Man-shu; directed by Hou Chi-jan; Mandarin with subtitles; (2012) - Official Facebook

Taipei Factory was short film compendium.  It consisted of four short films; each co-directed by a Taiwanese director and a foreign director.  The four films in Taipei Factory were:

Mr. Chang’s New Address; directed by Chang Jung-Chi & Alireza Khatami (Iran)
A Nice Travel; directed by Shen Ko-Shang & Luis Cifuentes (Chile)
The Pig; directed by Singing Chen & Jero Yun (South Korea)
Silent Asylum; directed by Midi Zhao & Joanna Preiss (France)


Two romantic comedies stood out for me.

When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep was scheduled to get a limited release late last year.  I recall the title but it disappeared without ever being released.

Cram schools are popular in Asian countries.  Actually,  I know they are popular in Japan and Taiwan was a Japanese colony for 40 years so I don't know if they are popular elsewhere.  Anyway, college admission is largely based on scores on standardized test.  A cottage industry has grown to teach to the test.  Apparently, there is a street in Taipei where many cram schools are located.

Tung (Kai Ko) is a nice but unambitious young man.  He's deeply in love but as we see in an inventive pre-credit opening sequence, his girlfriend dumps him and he falls into a depression.  Director Hou Chi-jan conveys this with a stop motion/jump cut sequence involving Polaroids which I thought was very clever.  He takes a job at a printers shop that caters to the cram school.  He hopes to reconnect with his lost love who has informed him via Post It note that she is enrolling in cram school.

Tung notices he photocopies a lot of quizzes where the instructor/proctor draws a sheep on the paper with dialogue bubbles encouraging the students.  Tung begins to draw a wolf on the original so that the photocopies have a running dialogue between the sheep and wolf.  The instructor is Yang (Chien Man-shu), an attractive young woman who holds a job for 100 days or something like that because of  a promise to her late mother.

Anyway, as Tung continues to pine away for his ex and Yang has commitment issues, they embark on a series of mini-adventures - looking for a lady's lost dog, encountering a noodle cart philosopher and finding out the backstory of the fried rice king.  Actually, that was another nice flourish.  The fried rice king was a cram school student who flunked out.  He shared a school locker with his girlfriend and we see the arc of their relationship from the camera viewpoint of the inside of the locker.  They both put items in the locker for the other to find and as their paths diverge, the nature of the items of change.

When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep was a very well made film.  It's also a lightweight rom-com which is fine but the main benefit of seeing it is putting director Hou Chi-jan on my radar screen.  I'm interested to see what he does next.

Apolitical Romance was anything but.  It has a very clever title because it could also have been A Political Romance.  The film's two lead characters symbolize their respective home countries.  Huang Lu is Qing Lang, a mainland tourist who encounters Ah-cheng (Bryan Chang), a slacker Taiwanese civil servant, in a Taipei street food stall.  Given the work assignment of writing a guide to cultural differences between Taiwanese and Mainlanders, Ah-cheng witnesses Qing making a disturbance when she tries to order food by weight instead of by pieces.  It gives him an idea.  He'll put Qing up at his apartment if she help him write his report.  She agrees to the arrangement with one additional proviso - he must help her find her grandmother's first love.  The two have been separated since the revolution when he fled to Taiwan. 

The rest of the film involves the couple in a love/hate relationship.  Ah-cheng finds six men with the same name and age as the man Qing is searching for.  They travel around the island searching for the man while getting to know each other better.  Qing is loud, boisterous and demanding; Ah-cheng is soft spoken, immature (he has toys all around his apartment) and easily persuaded.  Apparently these are commonly known stereotypes of Chinese women and Taiwanese men.

Along the way, they also argue about politics and needle each other about cultural differences which leaves the political message of the film always close the surface.  I don't know if the film was a political film with a rom-com backdrop or rom-com with political overtones.  Director Hsieh Chun-yi strikes a pleasing middle ground.  Like the state of relations between the two countries, there is rapprochement between the couple but their ultimate union is left unfinished which nicely sets up a sequel.

Huang Lu had a difficult assignment in making her rough-edged character likeable enough for a comedy and she did an admirable job.  Bryan Chang played Ah-cheng seemingly effortlessly.


Soul was an interesting film.  Part horror, part thriller, A-Chuan (Joseph Chang) collapses at work.  His co-workers drive him to his father's farm in a rural part of Taiwan.  A-Chuan is changed man literally. He speaks as though he is another person inhabiting his own body.  To back up the point, he kills his sister who is visiting.

Rather than turning in his son, his father (Jimmy Wong) locks him up in a storage shed on a remote part of the farm.  However, the issue won't die as his son-in-law comes looking for his wife.  The father has to kill him to keep the secret and soon thereafter a cop starts investigating.  Soul had the feel of a South Korean thriller which is meant as a compliment.  It's a solid film that might be 15 minutes too long.  My only complaint is that it has a languid pace at times which stops the film dead in its tracks and then it has to gain speed again.  There was a postscript which confused me a little.

Forever Love was a gentle comedy paying respect to the Taiwanese film industry of 1960s and 70s.  Mostly told in flashback, the film has the added benefit of some nice retro costumes.  Frankly, I don't remember it too well.

I remember thinking highly of A Time in Quchi when the film ended but six weeks later, I can't recall all the details which leads me to believe it made a good first impression but wasn't quite a strong as I remembered.  A young boy is sent to live with his grandfather one summer because his parents are getting divorced.  His grandfather lives in a small town while the boy is from the big city.  At first, he is bored but gradually he begins to appreciate the quiet life and people in his grandfather's town.  Then a tragedy strikes which deeply affects the boy.  The film plot was a little confusing at times and not that I think about it, the plot seems to have derivative of many films. 


Two short films in Taipei Factory stay in my memory.  In Mr. Chang’s New Address, a man comes home to find his house is missing.  When the police investigate, Google Maps puts the address in the sea.  It's kind of whimsical and absurd at the same time.

The Pig is set during a drought.  A long-in-the-tooth singer is getting pushed out of her job by a younger singer.  Looking to find a husband, she briefly considers the pig farmer.  He has his own problems as he and his mother cannot afford to keep the farm so they sell off their favorite pig. 


Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast was interminable at 145 minutes.  It was a comedy that riffed off of cooking competitions and haute cuisine.  I didn't think it was that funny but maybe it's cultural.  I do notice that I often find the humor in Chinese films lacking.

Ripples of Desire bored me silly as well.  Two sisters - one was courtesan/singer/musician, the other her assistant.  One had leprosy and then it turned out the other had it all along.  There were pirates in there somewhere.