Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Balboa Hat Trick

Without realizing it, I went through the first 11.5 months of 2014 without visiting the Balboa Theater.  I rectified that by going three consecutive days to see three film.

I originally intended to see Birdman but I got the showtimes mixed up.  When I showed up, it was The Babadook which was screening.  I went back the next day to see Birdman and followed that up the day after that with The Hunger Games sequel.

The Babadook starring Essie Davis & Noah Wiseman; directed by Jennifer Kent; (2014) - Official Website
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) starring Michael Keaton; with Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough & Zach Galifianakis; directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu; (2014) - Official Website
The Hunger Games:  Mockingjay - Part 1 starring Jennifer Lawrence, with  Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hensworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore & Philip Seymour Hoffman; directed by Francis Lawrence, (2014) - Official Website


I want to mention a few items.  I read that Century Cinema in Corte Madera was closing a couple of months ago.  I was informed recently that it is still in operation.  Apparently, a building moratorium has extended the life of the theater.

With The Interview in the news, I have new interest in seeing the film.  Frankly, I wasn't that interested but now that it has become a First Amendment issue and Sony pulling the film from distribution has been characterized as capitulation to terrorism, I may see the film more on principle than genuine interest.  The scandal may be a boom to independent cinemas since the major theater chains are refusing to screen the film.  The New Parkway and Camera 3 are showing the film starting on Christmas.


The Babadook, an Australian film, was a box-office flop domestically but has been a modest success internationally.  It's reputation was buoyed by a Sundance screening and widespread critical acclaim.  I typically don't like horror films but have to admit I greatly enjoyed The Babadook.  Essie Davis is Amelia, a harried single mother.  Technically, she is a widow as her husband died in a car crash while driving her to the hospital to deliver their children.  That child, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is now six or seven years old and quite a handful.  Samuel is hyperactive, clearly in need of a father figure & socially awkward but what bothers Amelia the most is his obsession with an imaginary monster named Mr. Babadook.

A mysterious pop-up book about Mr. Babadook makes Amelia think the problem is Samuel reading habits.  However, the book returns after Amelia throws it away and eventually burn it.  Samuel's behavior becomes more disturbing and irritating.  Unable to sleep, I thought Amelia was going to be the real monster (like The Shining).  Eventually, Mr. Babadook reveals himself to Amelia & the audience and he reminded me a little of a silent film monster (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?).

My interest waned at the end when Amelia does battle with Mr. Babadook,  Up until that point, Essie Davis' performance as the exhausted Amelia whose patients and sanity are test was extraordinary.  Wiseman proved capable in his role.  He's the type of boy you want to slap across the face but yet, at some level, you feel sorry for this sad little boy who never knew his father.

The Babadook isn't a good horror film.  It is a good film period.


Birdman is one of the most critically acclaimed films on the year.  I heartily agree with the consensus reviews.  Michael Keaton and Emma Stone give noteworthy performances among a strong cast but it was Edward Norton who knocked it out of the park.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film was the camera movements and blocking.  Mostly filmed backstage at a Broadway theater, the camera follows the constant movements of the actors.  The camera movement and a jazz score give Birdman a frenetic feel to match Keaton's anxious protagonist.  The older I get, the more I empathize with characters who suffer in not-so-quiet desperation such as Keaton's lead character.


I read all three novels in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games franchise.  I saw The Hunger Games (2012) and it's sequel The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire (2013).  Unlike the novels, I'm losing interest with each subsequent film in the series.  The filmmakers have split Collins' third novel into two films so this year is The Hunger Games:  Mockingjay - Part 1 and next will see the release of The Hunger Games:  Mockingjay - Part 2...I may not see it when it comes out.

My opinion of Mockingjay may be due to the splitting of the novel into two films.  The film seemed flat at times.  Perhaps because I had read the novel & knew there would be two films, I was anticipating the breakpoint in the film.  The film required a fair bit of knowledge of the previous two films.  I would think that someone who hadn't seen the first two films or hadn't read the books would be utterly lost.  At times, I found myself trying to remember plot points from the previous films to make sense of a scene from Mockingjay.  I may have also turned up my nose at general release film.  The film also suffered in comparison to The Babadook & Birdman.

Whatever the reason, I was decidedly mild about Mockingjay.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

2014 The French Had A Name For It: Crème de la Crème

Never let it be said that the Roxie doesn't know a good thing when it sees it.  First, the Roxie presented The French Had A Name For It, a 12 film series from November 14 to 17.  It was so successful that they presented The French Had A Name For It - Redux! from November 21 to 26.  From December 13 to 18, the Roxie presented Crème de la Crème of The French Had A Name For It.

Of the 12 films screened in the original series, I saw two during original series, four during the Redux! and three during the Crème de la Crème edition.  In addition, I had seen two films in the series previously at the PFA.  That means I've seen 11 of the 12 films screened.  The missing link was Les Maudits which I missed at Redux! and didn't screen at Crème de la Crème.  The Roxie added a new film to Crème de la Crème:  Le Monte-Charge.

Summarizing the films I saw during Crème de la Crème,

Le Monte-Charge (Paris Pickup) starring Robert Hossein & Lea Massari; directed by Marcel Bluwal; French with subtitles; (1962)
Chair de poule (Highway Pickup) starring Robert Hossein & Catherine Rouvel; directed by Julien Duvivier; French with subtitles; (1963)
La Vérité (The Truth) starring Brigitte Bardot & Sami Frey; directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot; French with subtitles; (1960)
Un témoin dans la ville (Witness in the City) starring Lino Ventura; directed Eduard Molinaro; French with subtitles; (1959)

As long as I'm writing about film noir, I should mention that the 2015 Noir City schedule has been announced.  This year's theme is "unholy matrimony."  Of the 25 films on the program, I have seen four (Suspicion, The Bigamist, The Thin Man & Clash by Night) of them although I need to check my records more closely.


Le Monte-Charge - Robert Hossein plays a parolee who returns to his Paris neighborhood just before Christmas.  He meets the mysterious Lea Massari who somehow manages to seduce him with barely a word and with her young son in tow.  She is married to a wealthy man and lives in a flat above his warehouse.  When he arrives there to bed her, he quickly encounters her dead husband.  He runs out of the apartment but against better judgment, he returns...and follows the woman to midnight mass...and helps take her back home after she faints.

It is the type of the film where the protagonist acts in self-destructive ways.  Even after finding out Massari's nefarious scheme, he helps her cover up the crime.  Their ultimate fate is more a comedy of errors than tragic.  Filled with long, pregnant pauses and imagery of steam engine train belching smoke, I thought the film was a little pretentious.  Le Monte-Charge was out of place with the other films in the series.

Highway Pickup was a much better vehicle for Hossein.  He plays a safe cracker who escapes prison and hides out as a car mechanic at remote gas station.  The owner Thomas (Georges Wilson) is eager to have a worker so he can take his wife Maria (Catherine Rouvel) out on the town.  It's hinted that she was a prostitute and her behavior doesn't dissuade anyone from that conclusion.  It just so happens that Thomas has a safe and Maria is very anxious to access the contents of the safe.  Once she gets her hooks into Hossein, the film travels down the noir highway at breakneck speed.

Like most of his films, Chair de poule is an exceptionally well made film.  Rouvel stands out as a particularly memorable femme fatale but all the actors are solid and the plot keeps twisting so you never quite sure how its going to end.  Highway Pickup was one of my favorite films from the series (or three series).

La Vérité was the most anticipated film of the series; at least it was for me.  As backstory, Brigitte Bardot had given birth only a few months before filming La Vérité and it most certainly didn't show.  Although married at the time of filming, Bardot began an affair on the set with her co-star Sami Frey.  Unable to choose between her husband & Frey, Bardot sought refuge in a secluded seaside village.  When the press found her, she slashed her wrists.  This is suspiciously similar to the plot of La Vérité where Bardot plays Dominique Marceau who is on trial for the murder of her lover Gilbert Tellier (Frey).  The trial and examination of witnesses allows the story of their relationship to be told in flashback.  In the end, Marceau slashes her wrists.

All that makes for a juicy prelude to the film but La Vérité is an outstanding film without knowing anything about Bardot's personal life.  It's also well known that Bardot & director Henri-Georges Clouzot clashed on the film.  I first became aware of Clouzot's mistreatment of actors and compulsive behavior from a documentary on his unfinished Inferno.  Bardot was struggling with press reports about her relationship with Frey & her jealous husband.  Clouzot allegedly drugged her drinks to calm her down and it didn't stop Bardot from allegedly slapping Clouzot's face on the set.

The premise of La Vérité is that a gold digger/tramp killed a promising symphony conductor.  As the trial unwinds, we see that the truth is more complex as the Bardot is a confused young woman swept up in Paris cafe culture and the upstanding young man is less than innocent.  The root of the problem is this intense sexual desire between the two and Clouzot captures Bardot's ample sexuality with gusto.  If nothing else, La Vérité should be seen to see Bardot at the height of sexiness.  Bardot's performance is noteworthy as well.  She continually layers complexities on to Dominique's seemingly vapid and venal character until the end when I felt her torment as acutely as any movie experience.

On top of the backstory & Bardot's performance, Clouzot adds a cynical and entertaining commentary about the French system of jurisprudence through the machinations and rivalries among the attorneys and other legal participants.  I was very impressed by La Vérité.

Witness in the City wasn't a bad film but it certainly suffered in comparison to Highway Pickup and La Vérité.  Lino Ventura plays a cuckold who kills his wife's lover & murderer.  Unfortunately, a taxi driver witnesses the murder so Ventura must kill again.  He doesn't count on the rather unified cabal of lethal taxi killers.  It was a little absurd towards the end but I can't complain too much.  I became a little bored by the extended end chase.  It was nice to see a young Lino Ventura.


2015 Noir City Poster

Saturday, December 20, 2014

2014 Another Hole in the Head

SF Indiefest's Another Hole in the Head was held from December 5 to 15.  The primary venue was the Viz.  I saw five films.

R100 starring Nao Omori; directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto; Japanese with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
Limo Ride; directed by Marcus Rosentrater & Gideon C. Kennedy; (2014) - Official Website
Suburban Gothic starring Matthew Gray Gubler & Kat Dennings; directed by Richard Bates Jr.; (2014)
The Astrologer starring & directed by Craig Denney; (1975)
Bloody Knuckles starring Adam Boys & Gabrielle Giraud; directed by Matt O'Mahoney; (2014) - Official Facebook

The centerpiece of the festival was the screening of The Astrologer.  This film was made by Craig Denney in 1975 and should not be confused with James Glickenhaus' 1975 film of the same name (aka Suicide Cult).  Mike Keegan (formerly of the Roxie) introduced the film.  I'm not quite sure what his affiliation with the film is.  Keegan likened the film to a private-press records.  I've heard of bootleg records but not private-press records.  Keegan described a situation where someone would commission a record and only a handful of copies would be made.  I'm not sure if that is what The Astrologer is.  According to Temple of Schlock, The Astrologer had a VHS release in Australia, a screening on CBS and a regional theatrical release.  It was filmed on 35 mm so the costs alone would be more than most would be willing to privately commission.  Instead, I would call The Astrologer a vanity project.

Keegan did add one tidbit which reminded me of novel I once read (Umberto Eco?) which involved a scam where people could get their novel published but essentially had to pay the publishing house to do it.  Anyway, Keegan mentioned that most of the actors in the film paid Denney to appear in the film.  A search of IMDB reveals that Denney and several of the credited actors in The Astrologer have no other acting credits.

The Astrologer is the result of the single minded efforts of Denney.  A plot synopsis wouldn't make sense because the film barely made any sense.  I'll give it a shot.  Denney plays Alexander - I believe he was an orphan who grows up at a travelling carnival.  Alexander goes from pickpocket to carnival act to diamond smuggler to media mogul to official psychic to the US Navy to jealous husband to bankrupt.  Frequently, the transition from one state to the other are extremely abrupt.  I should mention that the production standards are very low and that the acting is wooden.  Also, The Astrologer makes liberal use of some songs by The Moody Blues (although I doubt the song rights were properly secured).  Actually, the way Denney dragged out some montage scenes set to the music made me wonder if he had paid something for the rights and was trying to get every last penny from the music rights.

To say The Astrologer wasn't very good doesn't capture the experience.  Denney was obviously earnest in his desire to make an epic film.  His budget, plot, direction and acting skills were not up to the task.  Fortunately, these obvious shortcomings didn't deter Denney and we are left with this film that should never have been made and could only be financed by non-traditional means.  It's like curio or some strange artifact that future generations will be left to ponder.

The phrase "so bad it's good" may also be used to describe The Astrologer.  I don't think that applies here.  Denney had a vision and he implemented it to the best of his abilities given the limitations imposed on him.  Amateurish would be a better description.  I particularly recall a montage scene (one of several) where the ending shot was of a cigarette butt in a urinal which I think was meant to signify the dregs of society Alexander was associating with.  The image evoked from the audience (myself included).

The Astrologer had a coherent plot (which at times was badly edited or acted) and story arc of the rise & fall of Alexander the world's most famous psychic (his secret was that he practiced sidereal not tropical astrology).  Denney's reach exceeded his grasp which is not unlike many other films made by more celebrated directors.  That his budget was small only increases the appreciation I have for Denney's accomplishment if not his skills as a screenwriter, director and actor


Limo Ride has the distinction of having the highest mid-film walkout rate of any film I've seen.  At some point in the film, a person walked out and s/he was followed by another and it led to a stampede for the exit doors.  I would guess a third to half the audience walked out in 60 second period.

I stuck it out.  I didn't think it wasn't quite as bad as others apparently thought.  Billed as the greatest bar story ever told, Limo Ride is a documentary which relied on actors to recreate the scenes being narrated by the actual participants.  Basically, a dozen men (and one woman) take a limo ride from Alabama to Florida on New Year's Day.  There is a lot of drunkeness and drug use which leads to bar fights, nudity, armed robbery, etc.  Frankly, I can't recall the events because the film is more about the telling the story than the story.  In particular, I found one participant's voice to be hypnotic - gravelly with a slight Southern accent, it sounded a like the voice of a guy who smoked and drank too much.  It was perfectly suited to narrate this story although I seem to recall some people on radio with a similar voice.  Lacking in any redeemable qualities, the films' main caution is to not hang out with drunk idiots, especially these drunk idiots.


As seems frequently the case with Hole in the Head, the Japanese film was my favorite.  This year, that film was R100.  The film starts with a middle aged man and a young woman on a date.  The highlight of the scene is the roundhouse kick she delivers to the man's face.  The premise is that a S&M club exists.  A one year membership must be paid up front and cannot be cancelled.  The members are visited by dominatrices at anytime and abused in various ways.  You may wonder why even the most avid submissive or masochist would agree to this.  In the case of Katayama (Nao Omori), it is because his wife is in a coma and his guilt and frustration about her condition leads him to self-abusive behaviors.

Katayama has bit off more than he can chew as the women who abuse him become more bizarre and intrude in his personal life.  At one point, Katayama's young son is blindfolded and tied up in the traditional style of Japanese bondage.  It's both funny & disturbing.  Of course, at the same Katayama is being spat upon by a rather large woman.  It is her accidental death which sets the entire film in a different direction.

The Queen of Saliva's death causes the S&M club to declare war on Katayama.  The CEO (an even larger woman listed as 6'9" on IMDB) arrives in town to personally oversee his destruction.  With her army of female ninja warriors (who dress like the Gimp from Pulp Fiction), the final showdown is set to strains of Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

Silly but undeniably funny at times, this film defies convention and good taste in a way only the Japanese could pull off.  The title refers to the R-100 film stock which the audience occasionally sees as the film breaks the fourth wall by having the censors or studio executives complain about the film's content or plot inconsistencies while watching a preview.


I recently saw an episode of Criminal Minds for the first time.  I wasn't particularly impressed.  I noticed the habitually referred to the suspect as "the unsub" which was confusing.  It's a short of UNknown SUBject.  I also noticed that Matthew Gray Gubler sounds a lot like Rob Lowe.

I was completely unaware that Gubler was the star of Suburban Gothic.  In fact, I wasn't even going to see the film but while buying tickets for The Astrologer, I read about the film preceding it (Suburban Gothic) and inadvertently bought tickets to both films.

Suburban Gothic was better than I expected; mostly likely because of its well known cast.  In addition to Gubler, Kat Dennings (2 Broke Girls) plays Gubler's potential love interest and Barbara Niven & Ray Wise play Gubler's parents.

Raymond (Gubler) is an unemployed MBA who is forced to move back in with his parents.  As a youth, Raymond had psychic abilities - he could communicate with the dead.  As time passed, he has lost the ability.  However, moving back in with his parents and encounter the people who bullied him as a teenager seem to bring back his paranormal senses.

Suburban Gothic is a comedy and it gets its share of laughs.  As a horror comedy, it never quite "nails it.'  It never reaches that sense of meta nirvana like say Scream.  Of course, maybe that's not what the director was going for.  It's a well made film with strong actors and a workable script but it left me mild.

Bloody Knuckles is reminiscent of several films.  A comic book writer/illustrator writes an issue criticizing a local crime boss.  He takes offense and has the man's hand severed.  The severed hand begins to commit murders in retribution.  I definitely recall seeing a film with almost the same plot.  My knowledge of horror films is not encyclopedic enough to discern which film I am thinking of although I will note I saw a variation on this premise earlier this year in The Hands of Orlac (1925) at Cinequest.

The acting was wooden but the highlight of the film was a bloodbath at a gay S&M club where the otherwise mild-mannered owner turns into Homo-Dynamous, a, leather-clad, Darth Vader sounding avenger.  The bad guys were Asian which also seemed unusual although I'm not insinuating there was an racial element involved.

Overall, this year's Hole in the Head was as good as any I recall for the past few years.  I think I enjoyed last year's films slightly better.  I haven't bought a festival pass in a few years so my sample size is probably less than statistical valid.

Hole in the Head has a hardcore fan base.  In addition to the "usual suspects" I see at most film festivals, I saw the same people at several if not all of the screenings I attended this year.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's December 2014 Calendar

This month's puzzle in the Castro Theater's calendar only had one clue.

The image I have attached below is the revised calendar.  The original calendar (and its paper version) listed Boyhood and Pulp on December 11.  Both films were cancelled/postponed.  No reason was stated.  Although not listed on the calendar, the Castro screened Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice on December 11.

Similarly, Lea DeLaria's live comedy performance on December 31 was bumped with no explanation.  The film or event on New Year's Eve has not yet been announced.

December 1 - within a few minutes I identified Harry Dean Stanton without the help of the internet although I did confirm his identity that way.

I'm not sure of the significance of Stanton's image being displayed on the December calendar and I'm too busy to give it more thought.  I wish someone would provide me the answer key to these puzzles.


The month is halfway through and I have not been to the Castro.  I wanted to see Nightcrawler on December 10 but work kept me from making the 7 PM showtime.

I would like to see a screening of Blade Runner The Final Cut on December 15 &16.

Other films which I may see are The Women (Dec 27) and My Fair Lady & The Music Man (Dec 29).

Much of the January calendar is posted.  Pulp is rescheduled to January 13.  January 14 is programmed with an intriguing double feature of Planet of the Apes and Escape From New York.  I assume that is the original PotA.


Castro Theater Calendar - December 2014

Monday, December 8, 2014

2014 Mill Valley Film Festival

The 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) was held form October 2 to 14.  I saw five films.

The Little House starring Haru Kuroki, Takako Matsu & Hidetaka Yoshioka; directed by Yôji Yamada; Japanese with subtitles; (2014)
I Can Quit Whenever I Want starring Edoardo Leo & Valeria Solarino; directed by Sydney Sibilia; Italian with subtitles; (2014)
'71 starring Jack O'Connell; directed by Yann Demange; (2014)
Two Days, One Night starring Marion Cotillard; directed by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne; French with subtitles; (2014) - Official Facebook
In Order of Disappearance starring Stellan Skarsgård & Bruno Ganz; directed by Hans Petter Moland; Norwegian, Swedish & Serbian with subtitles; (2014)

I saw The Little House at the Smith Rafael in San Rafael.  I saw I Can Quit Whenever I Want, Two Days, One Night & In Order of Disappearance at the Sequoia in Mill Valley.  I saw '71 at the Lark in Larkspur.  It was the first time I've been to the Lark in a few years.

It was unusually hot on the days I went to the festival.  I remember after seeing '71 at the Lark, I returned to my car which was parked on the street during the late afternoon.  The steering wheel was too hot to handle.  I had to drive with one hand.  As it would become too uncomfortable to handle the wheel with one hand, I would switch to the other hand.  I repeated that for quite a while until I decided to pull over and park in the shade.  It reminded me of Texas.  You don't see it so much out here but in Texas, everyone has car shades which are made of folded cardboard or rolled foam.  If you parked your car in the sun, you would put your car shade on the dashboard.  If you didn't, your dashboard would eventually crack from the expansion and contraction of the dash due to exposure to the hot sun.  In addition, the metal on the seatbelt buckles could cause a slight burn if it touched your skin.  The steering wheel would also be intolerably hot.

Before I forget, I stopped in for coffee at a small cafe in Mill Valley. It's called Beth's Community Kitchen.  The sign on the doors says something like Beth's Community Kitchen and Bakery Atelier.  I had to look that word up.  Atelier - an artist's or designer's studio or workroom.

On the day I stopped in, there was a film crew making a documentary there about Beth.  The director/cameraman had an old school 16 mm camera with a spring wound motor.  Maybe we'll see a documentary about Beth at a local film festival.  Maybe I'll be in the background.


If I recall correctly, it was announced before the screening of The Little House that it was the only "film" being screened with a 35 mm print; everything else at the 2014 MVFF was digital.  For reasons not explained, this meant that there were one or two breaks in the action while they changed reels.  I'm not sure why that would be.  If it was changeover projection, there should be no breaks.  If it was a platter, the film was short enough that it should have been able to fit on one platter.

The Little House was directed by Yôji Yamada whose career had been defined by his Otoko wa Tsurai yo (It's Tough Being a Man)  or Tora-san series.  The series spanned 48 feature films and 26 years.  Yamada directed 46 of the films.  Actor Kiyoshi Atsumi starred in all 48 films.

More recently, Yamada's Twilight Samurai series has garnered attention.  My favorite Yamada film is The Yellow Handkerchief (1977).

The Little House is like many of Yamada's films - sentimental; sometimes overly so.  Told in flashback, a young man reads his late grandmother's memoirs.  What he discovers is that his grannie was in the middle of a love triangle (maybe 2) during the middle of WWII.

Haru Kuroki plays Taki, a young woman who comes to Tokyo to work as a maid.  After a brief stint in the household of an older couple, she is placed with their niece Tokiko (Takako Matsu) who is married and has a son.  Taki forms a close & loyal relationship to the family, in particular Tokiko.  The titular house reflects Tokiko's Western influence.  It's a Western style house more at home in a Norman Rockwell painting than 1940s Tokyo.  Early into the film, Tokiko is introduced to Shoji (Hidetaka Yoshioka), one of her husband's co-workers.

The main plotline of the film is the affair which Tokiko has with Shoji and Taki's complicity in enabling the affair.  Adultery & its consequences is a rich vein to tap but Yamada has placed the film in Taki's point of view which seems a stretch.  In other words, the maid had quite an influence in that household which I guess is the point of the film.

I won't give away the ending but will say that the consequences of losing WWII intervene before the consequences of Tokiko's infidelity become apparent. There is a postscript where Taki's grandson seeks out Tokiko's son in modern day Japan which seemed unnecessary and slightly cruel to me.

I will also note that there is slight but distinct theme of homosexuality in the film.  Taki, after initially being flustered, seems to be in love with Tokiko; at time she seems to be competing with Shoji for her attention.  Tokiko seems to enjoy the attention from both Taki & Shoji.  Shoji is vaguely effeminate and I began to wonder about the true reasons for his repeated refusals to marry.

The Little House is a middling film.  It's too sentimental for my taste but Yamada has a flare for these family melodramas.  Playing it out against the backdrop of WWII was also a bold choice.  No matter what happens with the characters, you know that the war is coming and then the defeat is coming.  It puts their concerns of love & honor in different perspective.


I Can Quit Whenever I Want went on to screen at the San Francisco Film Society's New Italian Cinema series a month after it screened at MVFF.  ICQWIW is about over-educated, under-employed Italians who have no avenues to make a living.  They resort to manufacturing and selling designer party drugs.  It's like Breaking Bad but played as a farce.  It's intricately plotted and the comedy is one of "fish out of water."  It was amusing while I watched it but not particularly memorable.

'71 was set in Northern Ireland during "The Troubles" in (you guessed it) 1971 which was the peak period of the strife.  Jack O'Connell is Gary Hook, a young British soldier in Belfast who is separated from his unit during a mission.  He is forced to make his way from the Catholic area to the Protestant area.  Along the way, he experiences hostility and kindness from expected & unexpected quarters.  The film did a good job in portraying the fear of retribution which normal citizens must have experienced as well as the betrayals and violence fomented by double agents who infiltrated both sides.  Two months after seeing the film, I can't quite recall the plot but instead remember specific scenes for their intensity.  The double crosses complicated the simple tale of rescuing Gary Hook.  The ending in particular made it appear as though the British wanted Hook to be murdered in order to create a martyr and justify their heavy-handed measures.

The Scandinavians make good action/revenge films and I've seen more than one at MVFF.  I saw Hellsinki in 2009, A Somewhat Gentle Man in 2010 and In Order of Disappearance this year.  Not quite as memorable as the previous two film, IOoD features Stellan Skarsgård as a snow-plough driver who takes revenge on a drug cartel for killing his son.  The premise is ridiculous and the violence is ridiculously over-the-top (the title refers to each person Skarsgård dispatches to the afterlife).  It reminded me of Point Blank where the killer seeks revenge by working his way up the criminal organization. Skarsgård is solid in every role he plays and this one is not different.  It's not quite as memorable as Hellsinki but IOoD continues a tradition of dark comedies masquerading as action films.


Two Days, One Night went on to screen at the SFFS' French Cinema Now a few weeks after the MVFF screening.  It was my favorite film of the five I saw at this year's MVFF.

The premise of the film is inspired.  Marion Cotillard is Sandra, a wife & mother who has been on disability leave at her job (I believe the company assembled solar panels).  It's not stated in the film but Sandra's leave was likely for stress or mental health reasons.  She is the high-strung type.

Anyway, when she is ready to return to work, she is informed that they got along fine without her and her job has been eliminated.  I can't recall how many workers were at her company; 16 is the number in my head.  Management found out there was too much work for 16 but not enough for 17; better to pay overtime sometimes than a 17th salary all the time.  Sandra complains and they offer a no-win solution.  They'll put Sandra's job to a vote among her peers.  They can vote to reinstate her to her job or they can vote for an annual bonus; it's one or the other.  She needs a majority, a tie will result in not being hired back and everyone getting their bonus.  They tell Sandra about this late in the afternoon on Friday.  She has to spend the weekend (the titular two days, one night) tracking down her former co-workers and asking them to vote for her to get her job back.

Naturally disinclined to beg her co-workers to hire her back, she is pushed by her husband and best friend.  However, it is the people that she encounters that make the film memorable and thought provoking.  Some are immediately for or against her.  Other people are sympathetic but need the money.  Some resent being put in a position to make the decision.  She encounters the full gamut of responses.

I won't reveal the ending but it shows that Sandra has learned to deal with stress much better than at the end of the film.

The reason I liked the film was because it made me think about my own workplace.  If I was approached with such a request, how would I vote?  The answer is "It depends on who is asking."  I think some people are qualified to their job so if asked to hire them back and forgo a bonus, I'd decline.  Then I thought that that position sounded harsh.  I think even if I voted no and got the bonus, I would be resentful that management put me in that position.

I fully empathized with Sandra and several of her co-workers during the film which served to make the film more personal.  In addition, Sandra is counting votes so there is the suspense as to whether or not she'll get 9 votes.  Two Days, One Night is an outstanding film; one of my favorites of 2014.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

He's a Maniac

Of all the film programmers at the various festivals and rep houses in the Bay Area that I am familiar with, the one I see most often in the audience is Jesse Hawthorne Ficks of Midnites for Maniacs.  I'm not referring to his watching the films he programs but rather the films at other film series.  I see him at the YBCA, the PFA, the Roxie, the Vogue, I see him on BART going to the films...I even see him while I'm grabbing a bite at the Grove catercorner from the YBCA (allow me to recommend the Eggs Benedict "Dave's Way" which is served all day long).

Such a cinephile deserves all the support I can give him.  Besides, he occasionally calls me out on my absences from his screenings.  I've seen four films at three of his recent events at the Castro.  On Labor Day Weekend, I went to see The Wiz.  In September, I watched Inside Llewyn Davis & Coal Miner's Daughter on a double bill.  In October, I saw Reign of Fire.  In August, I was going to see a William Lustig film at the YBCA which Jesse sponsored but it was sold out.  I missed his November Cassavetes & Son pairing so I could go to French Cinema Now.

On December 12, the Maniac has programmed two films allegedly inspired by his viewing of Los Angeles Plays Itself:  Who Framed Roger Rabbit & Ed Wood.  On January 2, he is pairing Snowpiercer & Runaway Train.  Both films will screen at the Castro.


The Wiz starring Diana Ross; with Michael Jackson, Ted Ross, Nipsey Russell & Richard Pryor;  directed by Sidney Lumet; (1978)
Inside Llewyn Davis starring Oscar Issac; with Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund & Justin Timberlake; directed by Joel & Ethan Coen; (2013) - Official Website
Coal Miner's Daughter starring Sissy Spacek & Tommy Lee Jones; with Beverly D'Angelo; directed by Michael Apted; (1980)
Reign of Fire starring Christian Bale & Matthew McConaughey; with Gerald Butler; directed by Rob Bowman; (2002)


I had never seen The Wiz before.  I was expecting blaxploitation; instead it was closer to Stephen Sondheim.  The Wiz is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz.  Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Ted Ross, Nipsey Russell & Richard Pryor play the Dorothy, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, Tin Man & Wizard, respectively.

At times, the plot was ghettoized such as when Dorothy & her cohorts encounter some prostitutes or when the Flying Monkey are a motorcycle gang.  All in all, the film was more tame than my expectations.  Once I settled into the film, I couldn't help but compare the scenes in The Wiz with the corresponding scenes in The Wizard of Oz.  Maybe it's just my musical tastes but the deciding factor was the music.

In addition, I think Diana Ross was too old for the role.  Judy Garland's Dorothy was a teenage girl & a feisty one at that.  Diana Ross played Dorothy as a shy, 30something school teacher.

It was ominous that the Emerald City is set in the World Trade Center Plaza.

Beyond the curiosity and bucket list values, seeing The Wiz was a dud for me.


I missed Inside Llewyn Davis during its original theatrical release.  I jumped at the opportunity to see it at the Castro.  Oscar Issac plays the eponymous character.  Set in the early 1960, Davis is a struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village.  He doesn't have a place to live so he sleeps on friends' couches.  While leaving the one such flat, the owners' cat escapes and Davis chases after it.  For much of the film, Davis is holding a cat and that is the explanation.

Davis is friends with Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), a married couple.  That doesn't stop Davis from having an affair with Jean who informs him that she is pregnant and that he is the father.  She demands he pay for the abortion and he takes a job singing backup for a novelty song Jim is recording (Jim is unaware of the affair or his wife's pregnancy) to get the money.

At the abortion clinic, Davis discovers he has a credit with them because his previous ended up not getting an abortion.  She has subsequently moved to Akron.  Partly to find his ex and child and partly to audition for a record producer (F. Murray Abraham), Davis hitchhikes out of NYC.  He is picked up by jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his driver, beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).  The trio share an awkward car trip until Turner ODs on heroin in a restaurant bathroom & Johnny Five gets arrested for arguing with the police.

Recounting the plot up to this point makes me realize that the plot isn't really necessary to understand & appreciate the film.  Llewyn Davis is a schmuck.  However, he is also an uncompromising musician which may be good for his music but is for his life.  He goes through life trying to hurt his friends but is largely unsuccessful.  It's also the story of Greenwich Village during a specific, pre-Dylan era.  There wasn't much money in singing folk songs so people did it for other reasons.  In the film, Davis does it for "the right reasons."

Inside Llewyn Davis doesn't bop you on the head with its message.  It's message is more like "life happens, deal with it."  Davis deals with it in a sad and funny way.  His plight contrasts with his acquaintances who have compromised and enjoying the benefits and suffering the costs of their compromise.

After the screening, Jesse shared two hypotheses.  First, Davis had been part of a successful duo before his partner committed suicide before the events of the film.  His life has been in a downward spiral since.  Jesse posited that Davis and his songwriting partner were gay lovers which explains why his life has gone in the dumper and why he gets so upset when a friend attempts to sing harmony to one their old songs.  I recall during the car trip, Turner asks Davis "Are you a homo?" and Davis responds with silence.

The second item Jesse posited was about an older man who pops up in a few scenes.  He has no dialog and his appearance is just short of conspicuous due to the camera time he is given.  Jesse's theory is that the old man is Davis from the future looking back on his life.  That's not a literal representation but as if Davis in the present time & Davis in the early 1960s were juxtaposed in the same frame.

During the viewing, I suspected the relationship between Davis and former partner was more intimate than a simple musical duo although I guess I was looking for more visible signs of their relationship.  Given that Davis impregnated two women, I wonder about his sexual orientation but he could be compensating.  It would also explain why he engenders such resentment from the women:  Jean is palpably contemptuous of Davis while his former girlfriend skipped town with his baby.

As for the old man, I'm not as convinced of Jesse's theory but the film doesn't contradict it.  The film ends with the likelihood that Davis will give up his musical career & rejoin the merchant marines.  The film feels like it is documenting a nexus in Davis' life.

I'm a Coen Brothers fan and Inside Llewyn Davis is one of their stronger entries; it's more subtle and understated than most of their films.


Inside Llewyn Davis was followed by Coal Miner's Daughter.  Jesse revealed to the audience that the film is being remade with Zooey Deschanel as Loretta Lynn.  After chortling from the audience, Jesse said Deschanel was endorsed for the role by Lynn herself.  I'm not sure if I misheard him or if he misstated the situation.  Deschanel played Lynn in a Broadway musical adapted from the film which was in turn adapted from Lynn's autobiography.  I can't find anything about a remake in film production.  Still the thought of Deschanel as Loretta Lynn is hard to fathom.

Director Michael Apted is an Englishman and best known for the 7 Up documentary series.  Given his filmography at the time, he seemed an odd choice to direct a film about a country singer from Appalachia but the film doesn't appear to have suffered from his direction.  Spacek won an Academy Award for her performance and the film was nominated for Best Picture.  Interestingly, Apted was not nominated for Best Director.

As Jesse mentioned in his introduction, Coal Miner's Daughter was made during a time when biopics just told the story.  They didn't delve too far into the psychological underpinnings of the characters.  If the movie is to be believed, Lynn was the victim of marital rape on her wedding night as a 15 year old.  She doesn't seem to be any worse off because of it.  Indeed, in real life her marriage lasted 50 years.  Tommy Lee Jones plays Doolittle "Mooney" Lynn, a WWII vet, moonshiner and Loretta's hard-drinking, hard-living husband.  To be honest, I think I would have liked to have seen more screen time exploring what made Mooney tick but the title of the filmvwas Coal Miner's Daughter not Coal Miner's Daughter's Husband.

The film touches all the bases.  We see the rise of Loretta Lynn, her friendship with Patsy Cline (Beverly D'Angelo), her struggles, her strained relationship with Mooney and their ultimate reconciliation.

Coal Miner's Daughter confirms that from day one, Tommy Lee Jones the type of actor that you can't ignore on screen.  Although Spacek won the Oscar, she had the benefit of acting or reacting to Jones' performance which is vaguely reminiscent of his other roles.  The slight Southern twang and cadence of his voice seem to be constant in all his film performances.  Jones has a talent for portraying aggressive but fallible men with an innate sense of decency.

The storytelling in the film seems dated but Coal Miner's Daughter is well above average and showcases Apted's versatility as a director.


Reign of Fire was made in the aftermath of 9/11.  If you look hard enough, you can see some allegories but ultimately the film is about dragons and dragon-slayers.  Actually, watching it 12 years after it was made, I thought Reign of Fire could be thought of today as an allegory for global warming and other looming environmental disasters.

Christian Bale is the leader of a group of people who take refuge from the dragons in a remote castle.  Matthew McConaughey (bulked up and with shaved head) is the American dragon-slayer who has come to recruit some men for his Ahabesque quest for the white whale...I mean dragon.  Bale fights the dragons (or more like he runs from the dragon), McConaughey fights the dragon, Bale & McConaughey fight each other and finally, Bale & McConaughey fight the dragon (and not that is not a euphemism).

There are holes large enough in the plot that you could fly an attack helicopter through but there is not need to recount them here.  I guess the CGI was good or good for its time.  Frankly, Reign of Fire bored me for the most part.  The post-apocalyptic films really have a hard time grabbing my attention.  Most people consider Reign of Fire a well-made but glorified B movie; all action, no story.  I won't disagree.

Jesse paired Reign of Fire with The Dark Knight.  Reign of Fire was the 2nd half of the double bill.  I missed The Dark Knight due to work & a trip to the gym.  I hadn't seen Reign of Fire  but I had seen The Dark Knight (at the Castro too).  In hindsight, I wish the Maniac had reversed the order of the double bill as I would have much preferred seeing The Dark Knight a second time over Reign of Fire a first time.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

2014 French Cinema Now

The San Francisco Film Society presented the 2014 French Cinema Now (FCN) from November 6 to 9 at the Vogue Theater.  I saw 7 of the 11 films on the program.  Of the three mini-festivals presented by SFFS this autumn, I attended the most films at FCN.  The lineup was very strong this year.

Paris Follies starring Isabelle Huppert & Jean-Pierre Darroussin; directed by Marc Fitoussi; French with subtitles; (2014)
The Last Diamond starring Bérénice Bejo & Yvan Attal; directed by Éric Barbier; French with subtitles; (2014)
The Good Life starring Zacharie Chasseriaud, Nicolas Bouchaud & Solène Rigot; directed by Jean Denizot; French with subtitles; (2013)
Love Is the Perfect Crime starring Mathieu Amalric, Karin Viard & Maïwenn; directed by Arnaud Larrieu & Jean-Marie Larrieu; French with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
Three Men to Kill starring Alain Delon; directed by Jacques Deray; French with subtitles; (1980)
The Easy Way Out starring Laurent Lafitte, Benjamin Biolay & Nicolas Bedos; directed by Brice Cauvin; French with subtitles; (2014)
Clouds of Sils Maria starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart & Chloë Grace Moretz; directed by Olivier Assayas; (2014)  

Two Days, One Night was on the FCN program but I had already seen it at the 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival.

Clouds of Sils Maria is an English language film.  It also played at the 2014 MVFF but I was not able to see it then.  I believe it sold out quickly.


Paris Follies was the opening night film & Isabelle Huppert must be the hardest working film actress in France.  In 2014 alone, I've seen her in four films (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Abuse of Weakness, Tip Top & now Paris Follies)   Paris Follies reunites Huppert with director Marc Fitoussi with whom she made Copacabana.

Paris Follies plays a housewife opposite Jean-Pierre Darroussin (Le Havre and Rendezvous in Kiruna).  They breed cows and I'm not referring to cattle for beef or milk cows,   It seems like they breed them for competition like the AKC dog show.  My knowledge of animal husbandry is limited so I cannot identify the type of cow.

Anyway, Huppert is bored in her marriage as her husband is somewhat bland.  She concocts an excuse to go to Paris to rendezvous with a younger man she met.  When she loses her nerves, she ends up with a Scandinavian businessman staying at her hotel.  Meanwhile, her husband has discovered her deceit and has gone to Paris to...well I'm not sure what his intention was.  You would think he would confront her but instead, he observes her.

Paris Follies is notable for making infidelity funny and keeping Huppert's character likable despite her behavior.  There is one tremendous scene which has nothing to do with the main plot.  Huppert's son is studying to be a mime.  Darroussin's character, convinced of his wife's betrayal, takes consolation in visiting his son while he is performing.  There is a sequence where the mime fall off a staircase onto an unseen trampoline and bounces back.  Initially, I thought they reversed the "film" but repeated use of the gag & careful observation lead me to believe it was performed as shown.

Paris Follies is an entertaining enough film.  Huppert is very good at showing her character's insecurities & quirks.

The Last Diamond is a caper film about a diamond heist.  Yvan Attal (Rapt) is the con man & expert thief.  Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) is the mark.  The Last Diamond was fairly predictable.  The con man (who is a decent guy at heart) falls in love with his mark but has to continue with the job because he is partnered with some ruthless associates.  It is a well made film and Attal & Bejo are solid in their roles but it wasn't too original.  

I can't help but think that with films like Paris Follies & The Last Diamond that actors of the caliber of Huppert & Bejo aren't slumming a little.  


The Good Life is based on a true story of parental abduction and living underground for more than a decade.  Yves (Nicolas Bouchaud) lives on a desolate farm with his two teenage sons, Sylvain (Zacharie Chasseriaud) and Pierre (Jules Pelissier).  Fleeing from the police, Yves & Sylvain are separated from Pierre.  They set up house on a riverbank far from anyone.  At least they think that until Sylvain meet an attractive teenage girl who is fishing.  Having been isolated all his life (no school & discouraged from making friends), Sylvain keeps his budding relationship with Gilda (Solène Rigot) a secret from his father.  The heart of the movie is the romance between Gilda & Sylvain.  Gilda has her own issues as her father is an alcoholic.  From her viewpoint, Sylvain's odd & secretive behavior represent a rejection of her until he reveals his secret.

The Good Life does a good job representing the difficulties a family like this must cope with on a long term basis.  It was very sad that in trying to raise his children, the father was actually doing more harm than good.

I know I see a lot of French films because I recognized all three leads in Love Is the Perfect Crime.  I saw Mathieu Amalric from Venus in FurQuantum of Solace, Karin Viard & Maïwenn from Polisse and for good measure Denis Podalydès who has a supporting role in Love Is the Perfect Crime was in Camille RewindsGranny's Funeral.

Let me start by saying that one of the stars of Love Is the Perfect Crime is the architect who designed the glass enclosed, curvilinear building on the University of Lausanne campus where much of the film is set.  Mathieu Amalric is Marc, an instructor at the university who has a habit of sleeping with his female students.  Actually, he also has a habit of killing them which is established in the opening scene.  I guess to be fair, the audience is initially unsure if that murder is some fugue state hallucination.  One thing that does become clear is that Marc had/has an incestuous relationship with his sister Marianne (Karin Viard) who is dating Marc's detested boss (Denis Podalydès).

Anna (Maiwenn) shows up on campus looking for her missing daughter (one of Marc's victims) and in a delightfully perverse plot twist, Marc beds mother as well.  Not only that but at times, it seems as though Anna suspects Marc killed her daughter.  There is a slutty coed that's coming on to Marc (he's banging everyone without a Y chromosome) but she's brings her own set of problems - her father is a gangster & she thinks Anna is cop.

Love Is the Perfect Crime is preposterous much of the time but it goes about it any sense of self-doubt.  Indeed, the exterior shots in the Swiss Alps and the university campus are beautiful.  The actors & director go about this film as if they are making a masterpiece.  My comments should not be interpreted as a negative review.  The film is great fun.  There is something addictive about Love Is the Perfect Crime which just kept my attention throughout.  Marc just keeps digging himself in deeper until the ending which is the the most preposterous scene of all.

While watching Three Men to Kill, I thought it was a film that Jean-Pierre Melville would have made if he survived into the 1980s.  The character's motivations seemed sufficiently inexplicable for a Melville films.  It was only afterwards that I did some research and found that Three Men to Kill star Alain Delon made three films with Melville (including Melville's final film Un Flic).  Anyway Three Men to Kill resembled a Melville crime film with 1980s aesthetics and fashions.

The plot to Three Men to Kill is very simple.  Delon plays a gambler who while driving comes across a car accident.  He transports the accident victim to the hospital but this was no accident.  It was a murder intended to look like an accident.  The assassins decide Delon has to be killed for reasons I not clear about.  Delon's character proves to be hard to kill and he spends the rest of the film working his way back up the food chain to find out who is responsible.

There is some expository dialog about the titular three men but none is given about why Delon's character is so skilled at high speed pursuit, evading killers, etc.  He has these skills, police contacts and a stubborn streak...deal with it like Delon deals with his assailants.

Perhaps if Melville had made Three Men to Kill, it would have been better.  Under Jacques Deray's direction, it was barely memorable.

The Easy Way Out is about the intersecting lives of three brothers.  Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) is gay, about to move to the suburbs and feeling bored with boyfriend/husband.  Gérard (Benjamin Biolay) can't get over the breakup with his estranged wife.  Louis (Nicolas Bedos) is engaged to be married but is dragging his feet and cheating on his fiancée.  These three brothers are in various states of love and stages in their respective relationships.  Agnès Jaoui as Antoine's headstrong & outspoken coworker and Gérard's love interest is memorable.

The Easy Way Out is an excellent comedy about disappointments & compromises we make in life which are only compounded by our neuroses.  Strong performances by the three lead actors and Guy Marchand & Marie-Christine Barrault as the parents buoy the film


Sils-Maria is a small town in the Maloja district of the canton of Graubünden in Switzerland.  That's not crucial to appreciating the Clouds of Sils Maria but I kept wondering about it during & after the screening.  Maloja Snake is a fictitious play which plays a key role in Clouds of Sils Maria.  The Maloja (rhymes with Aloha) Snake is not an animal but a real fog formation - the fog snakes its way through the valleys of Maloja.  Clouds of Sils Maria makes use of an actual 1924 German documentary called Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja (The Cloud Formations of Maloja) which shows the Snake.  Reading an interview with director & screenwriter Olivier Assayas, Maloja Snake (the play within the film) was envisioned as a harsher version of Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

Clouds of Sils Maria was an incredible film.  Juliette Binoche portrays Maria Enders, a famous 50something actress who go her big break by playing the co-lead in Maloja Snake as a young woman.  Maloja Snake is about a older woman who falls in love and becomes obsessed with a younger woman.  The relationship is so volatile that it ends with the older woman committing suicide.  Valentine (Kristin Stewart) is her personal assistant.

As the film begins, she is on her way to pick up a lifetime achievement aaward for Wilhelm Melchior, the playwright of Maloja Snake.  In transt, Maria learns that Melchior has died which turns the event into more of a tribute.  It also gives Maria a more introspective mood.  She has accepted the older woman's role in a revival of Maloja Snake but has misgivings.  She attempts to back out of the play but is contractually obligated.

Maria & Valentine decamp at Melchior's house in Sils-Maria.  His widow does want to live there anymore due to the memories it conjures.  Before leaving, she confides to Maria that Melchior's death was a suicide as he had a terminal illness.

Maria & Valentine spend the summer rehearsing Maloja Snake.  This is where Clouds of Sils Maria begins to show its something special.  As they rehearse, Maria's memories of the original play begin to come to the surface.  She transforms herself from playing the tormentor to playing the victim, both in the play and in life.  At times, Maria becomes overly emotional while rehearsing with Valentine.

Chloë Grace Moretz is Jo-Ann Ellis, the troubled teenage actor who is cast in the younger woman's role in Maloja Snake (the role Maria played many years ago).  Ellis is troubled Hollywood star with internet videos of her indiscretions readily available.  As Maria views these videos and gossip items, she becomes unsure of her co-star.  It isn't until a meeting with Ellis that Maria feels reassured.  Valentine ominously notes that Ellis' companion is a well-known writer who is married and the tabloids will eat it up.

The final portion of the film is set in London during the weeks & days before the play.  Ellis is at the center of a media firestorm as news of her affair has gone public.  It proves to be a distraction for Maria but by this point, her transformation is nearly complete.

The plot recap doesn't do justice to the nuances of the film.  The performances of Binoche & Stewart are tremendous.  The plot is the key to the film.  Key plot points are advanced elliptically which gives the film a vaguely mysterious tone and allows for the viewers to assign their own motivations to the characters' actions.

Among the standout scenes are the ones with Hanns Zischler as an actor who seduced Maria as a younger woman.  She is still bitter about it and the two are forced together when Melchior dies.

In a film within a film (not to be confused with the play within the film), Maria & Valentine go to a local cinema to see Ellis' latest film which is set in outer space and looks like something out of the 1970s.  Afterwards, in response to Maria's derision, Valentine defends the film's message despite the sci-fi trappings.  Of course, Stewart could just as well be talking about her own Twilight series films.

The most discussed plot point concerns Valentine's disappearance.  While hiking the mountains to get a view of the Maloja Snake, Valentine disappears while Maria is hiking in front of her.  The audience doesn't see the circumstances of her disappearance and in fact, I wondered if her disappearance didn't indicate that Maria was losing touch with reality.  Her disappearance is never explained and in the next scene, Maria has a different personal assistant.

The word meta applies to Clouds of Sils Maria; a working knowledge of Binoche & Stewart's professional & personal lives comes in handy during some of the film's scenes.  Knowing Maloja Snake is modeled on Petra von Kant gives some context for Maria's trepidation.


Although I enjoyed all seven films in the FCN series, there was only one film that I was enthusiastic about - Clouds of Sils Maria.  Less ambitious but still worthwhile is The Easy Way Out.  Everything else was step behind.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Chinese Thanksgiving

Lately, I've been forgetful.  I had a business trip where I thought I was booked at the Marriott but in fact, my reservations were at the Hilton.  For Thanksgiving, I thought I had booked a flight to visit my father on Thanksgiving Day but in fact, I had booked the flight for the day after Thanksgiving.  Fortunately, my father made me aware of this on the day before Thanksgiving.  Unfortunately, that was too late to wheedle a Thanksgiving dinner invitation from anyone.  For the first time in my life, I spent Thanksgiving Day alone.  With my gym closed, I was left with few options to amuse myself.  I ended up doing laundry and going to the movie theater

I watched two Chinese films on Thanksgiving Day.  In the morning, I went to the AMC Metreon to see Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2.  In the late afternoon, I went to the Camera 12 in San Jose to see Women Who Flirt.

Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 starring Louis Koo, Miriam Yeung, Gao Yuanyuan & Vic Chou; with Daniel Wu; directed by Johnnie To; Cantonese & Mandarin with subtitles; (2014)
Women Who Flirt starring Zhou Xun, Huang Xiaoming & Tang Sui; directed by Pang Ho-cheung; Cantonese with subtitles; (2014)

I wasn't particularly bullish on either film but I went to see them mostly based on their pedigree.


I saw Don't Go Breaking My Heart at the 2011 Hong Kong Cinema series presented by the San Francisco Film Society.  Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 is the sequel to that film.  When I read about 2, I wondered if I had seen the original.  I had to confirm it by searching this blog.  During the sequel, they showed some clips from the original as flashbacks which I recalled.  I can say that Don't Go Breaking My Heart was a barely memorable romantic comedy about a love triangle between Louis Koo, Daniel Wu & Gao Yuanyuan.  At the end, Wu's character (Qihong, an architect) wins the heart of Zixin (Gao) over the financier Shen-Ran (Koo).  Despite my luke warm reception, it was a major box office hit in China.

Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 opens with Zixin engaged to Qihong and a month out from her wedding.  Unemployed in the financial industry, Zixin is able to land a job at Yang Yang Yang's (Miriam Yeung) firm which is coincidentally across the street from Shen-Ran's new offices.  Despite Shen-Ran's womanizing, he and Yang begin a romance and form a high-powered couple.  Shen-Ran is unaware that Zixin works in Yang's office & Yang is unaware that Zixin used to be involved with Shen-Ran.  Simultaneously, Yang begins a friendship with Zixin's brother Paul (Vic Chou) that develops into something more than platonic.  Yang is unaware that Paul is Zixin's brother but after seeing him with Zixin at a bridal gown store, she mistakes Paul for Zixin's groom.  Zixin is unaware her brother is seeing Yang and Yang is, at least initially, unaware that Paul even knows Zixin.  For films like Don't Go Breaking My Heart and its sequel, half the humor is in maintaining these charades with the multiple & simultaneous exposure of the lies guaranteed.

The farce escalates in both emotions and escapades until a climactic showdown on Zixin wedding day.  In an attempt to win Zixin, Shen-Ran climbs the exterior of the high-rise building where Zixin & Qihong's wedding & reception will be held (on the top floor natch).  I won't give away the ending in case there is a Don't Go Breaking My Heart 3 but I will say that I was disappointed in the ending.  Specifically, some of the choices made by the characters seemed disingenuous with what had occurred before.

Like most HK comedies, Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 has zaniness in spades.  Miriam Yeung's Yang seemed particularly unsuited to be a CEO of a boutique trading house who hires Zixin based on her incorrect assessment of the stock market and depends on an octopus to predict stock market movements a la Paul the Psychic Octopus.

Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 didn't make much more of an impression on me than Don't Go Breaking My Heart.  Miriam Yeung who is quietly becoming one of my favorite HK actresses, acquits herself satisfactorily.  Actually, the entire cast is game but the plot doesn't quite serve them well enough.  I will readily admit that something may be lost in the cultural translation.


I went to see Women Who Flirt despite a lackluster preview reel mainly on the strength of director Pang Ho-cheung's track record.  With Women Who Flirt, I've seen five of his last six films (Love in a Puff, Love in the Buff, Vulgaria & Aberdeen are the other four) and have enjoyed them all to varying degrees.  Of the five Pang film aforementioned, I enjoyed Women Who Flirt the least.

The premise of Women Who Flirt is that Angie (Zhou Xun), a young woman who has harbored a not-so-secret crush on Marco (a former classmate and current co-worker) discovers that he has a serious girlfriend.  Marco (Huang Xiaoming) has put off Angie's romantic advances for years with various excuses but at the heart of it, he thinks of her as "one of the guys."  Angie enlists the help of her best friend May (Sie Yi Lin) in launching a counterattack to win Marco's affection.  May assembles the Barbie Army, a team of young, attractive women (who look like they could be Chinese fashion models) to tutor Angie under the project codename "Women Who Flirt."

What follows is an amusing battle of feminine charms.  Marco's girlfriend Hailey (Tang Sui) is the exaggerated stereotype - baby voice, manipulative, coquettish, etc.  Angie is no match for Hailey who would be a 4 star general if she joined the Barbie Army.  Although silly and vaguely reminiscent of a Hollywood romantic comedy of the 1950s, Women Who Flirt hides a deeply cynical view.  It's clear that Angie is the only adult in the film and her efforts to transform herself into a sexualized and infantilized entity are offensive for both the attempt and the end goal.  Why she would want to be with a slacker and idiot like Marco is beyond me.

However, I must admit that as a broad comedy, Women Who Flirt has its moments.  Zhou & Huang as Angie & Marco have tangible screen chemistry and the Barbie Army's machinations are absurd enough invoke laughter.  At times, Sie Yi Lin as May came close to stealing the film.  Her caterwauling of "I hate you!" was memorable indeed.

At its heart, Women Who Flirt displays a palpable contempt for the women who behave like these women and by extension, the men who are attracted to them.  I guess that is understandable but the film makes it appear as though this behavior is the norm or the standard to which young Chinese women aspire and that may be the real object of the film's contempt.


I notice the Camera Cinemas is showing a few Chinese films in the upcoming weeks.

On December 12, Back in Time (Congcong Nanian) is opening.

On Christmas Day, Love on The Cloud (Wei Ai) is opening.

Women Who Flirt's run at Camera 12 has been extended through at least December 11.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Sacramento - Changes at the Crest

I'm not a big fan of Sacramento.  It reminds me too much of Texas.  With that said, I've grudgingly come to admit it's not all bad.  Business trips and the Crest Theater are my primary reasons for going to the River City.  I've attended the Sacramento French Film Festival and the Sacramento Japanese Film Festival for the past few years.  It was through an email from the former that I learned that the Crest Theater was undergoing a change in management.

The company which managed the Crest for 28 years lost their lease on November 1.  The owner of the building and his fiancée are running the theater now.  This can be seen from the website.  The old website for the Crest Theater is still valid but it makes clear the old management is out and there is no referring URL to the new website.  I take that to mean they couldn't come to an agreement to transfer the URL.

The change in management raised concerns from Sacramento film festivals.  From what I gather there is lingering hard feelings between the old management led by Sid Garcia-Heberger and the building owner Robert Emerick.  I note that the Sacramento French Film Festival's next event on February 21 (8th Winter French Short Film Screening) is not being held at the Crest.  In addition, the venue for 2015 Sacramento French Film Festival (June 19 to 28) is not listed on their webpage.

Heberger is also affiliated with Trash Film Orgy whose programs have been almost exclusively at the Crest since its inception.  After 14 years, TFO is leaving the Crest.  "While [TFO] will continue to do shows elsewhere, it will never be the same as the Crest" said TFO co-producer Christy Savage in a Sacramento Press article from October.

The situation at the Crest reminds of me of the situation at the Castro Theater several years ago when Anita Monga was let go.

The Crest has a large auditorium on the street level but as recently as 2013 had two additional auditoriums in the basement screening films daily.  The new management is planning on opening the Empress Tavern in that basement space this month  The name refers to the original name of the movie theater on the site (opened in 1912).  The same article states that Joel Goulet (currently manager of the Balboa Theater) will program films for the Crest.

I like the Crest because it is conveniently located.  There is a Hyatt two blocks away where I could take refuge if I was skipping a screening at one of the festival.  I'll keep attending the Sacramento French and Japanese Film Festivals regardless of their venues.  I'll likely return to the Crest if their film programming appeals to me.

I never got to see a TFO screening there.  Their next event is the Miss Trash 2014 Pageant on December 5.  The event will be held at On the Y which is a well known bar in Sacto.

A couple of blocks down from the Crest (1013 K Street) is the Esquire (1211 K Street) which has an Art Deco exterior design.  It wouldn't surprise me if the Esquire was a 1920s movie theater converted into a multiplex.  I've long wanted to stop in there.  I am surprised that it has a functioning 70 mm film projector.  I knew it was an IMAX theater but I assumed it was digital IMAX.  The Esquire is currently screening Interstellar in 70 mm IMAX...one of of only three locations in Northern California.  The others are the Metreon & the Tech Museum in San Jose.  The other films on the Esquire's lineup appear to be digital.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

2014 Hong Kong Cinema

The San Francisco Film Society presented the 2014 Hong Kong Cinema series from November 14 to 16 at the Vogue Theater.  There were 8 films in the series and I saw 5.  I had already seen one of the films (The Golden Era) and another film did not appeal to me (The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom).  The film which I would like to have seen but my schedule did not permit was Uncertain Relationships Society and even that seemed aimed at younger demographic than me.

From Vegas to Macau starring Chow Yun-fat, Nicholas Tse & Chapman To; directed by Wong Jing; Mandarin & Cantonese with subtitles; (2014)
Chungking Express starring Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai  & Faye Wong; directed by Wong Kar-wai; Cantonese with subtitles; (1994)
The Midnight After starring Simon Yam & Suet Lam; directed by Fruit Chan; Cantonese with subtitles; (2014) - Official Facebook
Aberdeen starring Louis Koo, Gigi Leung, Miriam Yeung & Eric Tsang; directed by Pang Ho-cheung; Cantonese with subtitles; (2014)
Overheard 3 starring Sean Lau, Louis Koo & Daniel Wu; directed by Alan Mak & Felix Chong; Mandarin & Cantonese with subtitles; (2014)

The series was mixed bag for me.  I greatly enjoyed two films while the other three left me in various states of boredom.


SFFS programmed a 20th anniversary screening of Chungking Express which I had not previously seen.  With Chungking Express, I have now seen 8 of Wong's 10 feature directorial efforts.  The two missing links are My Blueberry Nights (Wong's only English language film from 2007) and As Tears Go By (Wong's 1988 directorial debut).

It's not very original for me to say I greatly enjoyed one of the most celebrated films of the past two decades but that is the fact.  Chungking Express is an unabashed romantic comedy or at least 90%.  Regardless, it has more quirky humor than his other films.

The film is divided into two parts which (upon first viewing) have nothing to do with each other.

The film starts with Takeshi Kaneshiro as a HK cop who is despondent over breaking up with his girlfriend.  He gives the separation 30 days; if at the end of that time, they have not reconciled, he will move on.  He marks the days off by purchasing canned pineapples (one per day) with an expiration date identical to the 30 day deadline (May 1 if I recall correctly).  Meanwhile, Brigitte Lin plays a drug smuggler who constantly wears sunglasses and a blonde wig.  When the Indian immigrants she hires to mule her smack rip her off, she is in deep trouble.  The two of them crisscross HK and each other until a fateful meeting in a bar leads to a one night stand.  As a postscript, Lin's character shoots a man (a white guy to boot) to apparently take care of her problem.

Although the 1st half of the film has its moments, it was the 2nd half of the film which burnished Chungking Express' reputation.  Another HK cop (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is also depressed about breaking up with his girlfriend.  He stops in at a all-night restaurant to get coffee and meets the owner's niece and new employee Faye (Faye Wong).  With her pixie cut, insouciant manner & expressive face, Wong is the breakout star in what was her first lead acting role.

I don't think they ever mentioned names on screen although IMDB lists character names.  In the film, I recall that Kaneshiro & Leung were referred to by their characters' badge numbers.  I don't recall Lin's character ever being addressed by name.  Faye Wong's character is called Faye.

Anyway, Tony Leung's ex-girlfriend (an airline stewardess) stops by the restaurant to leave a note for him.  Everyone in the restaurant steams open the note to read it.  More importantly, she leaves his apartment keys with the note.  Leung is not anxious to read the note so he keeps putting off picking it up.  Leung is also transferred to the dayshift.  When Faye sees Leung on duty, she rushes to his apartment with the keys and cleans, explores, buys new goldfish, fantasizes and generally acts in an outrageous manner which would be called stalking today but was oddly endearing in 1994 HK.  All the while, Leung senses something is off at home.  It isn't until he comes home early that he literally bumps in Faye coming out his apartment.

The second half of Chungking Express was delightful and as enjoyable as any movie experience I've had in a long time.  Faye Wong even sings a memorable Cantonese cover version of the Cranberries' Dream.  Unlike many films, I thought Chungking Express lived up to its reputation and is still fresh after 20 years.


I was also impressed with Pang Ho-cheung's Aberdeen.  I have to admit that my working knowledge of HK geography is embarrassing.  I couldn't identify Kowloon, the New Territories, Aberdeen, Repulse Bay, etc. on a map.  Aberdeen (aka Little Hong Kong) is a town on the south side of Hong Kong Island.  The film is set in Aberdeen although the setting is only relevant in one scene which I can remember.

Aberdeen is a slice of life film about three generations of the Cheng family.  Pang regular Miriam Yeung plays elder sister Wai Ching, a tour guide for old British fortifications.  Her husband Yau (Eric Tsang) is a doctor.  Louis Koo is Tao, her younger brother is a motivational speaker.  His wife, Ceci (Gigi Leung) is a fashion model & actress.  Their daughter Chloe is a precocious girl.  Wai Ching & Tao's father  (Ng Man Tat) is a widower and Taoist priest who has taken up with bar hostess (Carrie Ng).

Each family member faces their own challenges.  Wai Ching has unresolved issues with her late mother that she cannot get past.  Her husband Yau is having an affair with a nurse in his office.  Ceci is struggling with her age, lack of work and the pressures of the casting couch.  Tao is growing increasingly concerned about his daughter; worried that her weight & appearance will work against her in the future and also feeling guilt about a young girl he bullied for those very reasons during his youth.  Dong (the patriarch) mourns not just the loss of his wife but the loss of fishing which has been his family's way of life for generations.

Pang successfully juggles these disparate threads.  Whereas there was an element of the juvenile in his previous films, Aberdeen deals with universal issues that adults face.  It's not about guys making porn movies, people coping with a cigarette sales ban in HK or the self-detracting behavior of 20something women in China.  Instead, people get old, people have to deal with dead loved ones, people have to confront their own transgressions, etc.  These issues elevate Aberdeen to something memorable.  I won't say Aberdeen has gravitas but it is Pang's most more mature work to date.  It shows a leap in ambition from his previous films.  By ratcheting down the humor and focusing on the bittersweet lives on the Cheng family, Pang has made the best movie of his career so far or at least of the half dozen or so films I have seen.


From Vegas to Macau boasted an all-star cast and was described in the program guide as "genre-twisting."  I thought it was an action-comedy.  As I was leaving the theater, a couple was walking directly in front of me.  The man said to the woman, "I don't get Chinese humor."  Me neither.  From Vegas to Macau (aka The Man from Macau) relied on too many plot twists and broad humor.  It's one of those films where you see a car drive through a wall & explode.  Then the action rewinds and you see the real reason the car through the wall & exploded.  Another thing I notice about HK films I don't like is that they overly rely on technology to advance the plot.  In this case, Chow Yun-fat had an X-ray sensor attached to his fingernail which then sent the image to his brain via some cybernetics.  This was so he could cheat at cards.  He also had a deck of gold playing cards that he could toss with lethal accuracy.

Fruit Chan's The Midnight After was genre-twisting.  A bus full of people drive through a tunnel and when they come out, everyone else in HK has disappeared.  I don't recall the reason ever being explained.  There are hallucination of guys in Hazmat suits.  Some people turn into sand or dirt.  By the end, it rains blood.  To be honest, I don't know what I saw.  At times the film bored, at other times it was frustratingly vague and on the occasions it caught my attention, the film quickly lost it.

Overheard 3 is the third in a popular series of films.  I have not seen Overheard or Overheard 2.  Overheard 3 had something to do with the New Territories & how residents could inherit the right to build homes.  There are gangsters that want to build there.  The meat of the 131 minute film is that Louis Koo has just gotten out of prison (I presume this was covered in Overheard 2) after taking the rap for murder.  The four Luk brothers are gangsters & owe Koo a debt of gratitude.  Koo, with the help of hacker (Daniel Wu), is out to take the Luk brothers down.  The slips them a Mickey Finn, installs spyware on their cellphones and then manipulates them into turning on each other.  Perhaps something was lost in the translation but the complex criminal & interpersonal relationships, deceptions & betrayals & high tech surveillance just couldn't generate interest from me.  Frankly, these Chinese action films seem to be stuck in a rut.  It seems like I've seen a bushel full of these types of films which leave me mild at best.  They almost all have some memorable scenes or character but very few of them keep my attention throughout the film.