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Film Features

Screening is believing



SFIFF Most contemporary Americans don’t know much about Uganda — that is, beyond Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning performance as Idi Amin in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland. Though that film took some liberties with the truth, it did effectively convey the grotesque terrors of the dictator’s 1970s reign. (Those with deeper curiosities should check out Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait.) But even decades post-Amin, the East African nation has somehow retained its horrific human-rights record. For example: what extremist force was behind the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which proposed the death penalty as punishment for gayness?

The answer might surprise you, or not. As the gripping, fury-fomenting doc God Loves Uganda reveals, America’s own Christian Right has been exporting hate under the guise of missionary work for some time. Taking advantage of Uganda’s social fragility — by building schools and medical clinics, passing out food, etc. — evangelical mega churches, particularly the Kansas City, Mo.-based, breakfast-invoking International House of Prayer, have converted large swaths of the population to their ultra-conservative beliefs.

Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, an Oscar winner for 2010 short Music by Prudence, follows naive “prayer warriors” as they journey to Uganda for the first time; his apparent all-access relationship with the group shows that they aren’t outwardly evil people — but neither do they comprehend the very real consequences of their actions. His other sources, including two Ugandan clergymen who’ve seen their country change for the worse and an LGBT activist who lives every day in peril, offer a more harrowing perspective. Evocative and disturbing, God Loves Uganda seems likely to earn Williams more Oscar attention.

>>Check out our short reviews of several SFIFF films of interest.

More outrage awaits in Fatal Assistance, Port-au-Prince native Raoul Peck’s searing investigation into the bungling of post-earthquake humanitarian efforts in Haiti. So many good intentions, so many dollars donated, so many token celebrities (Bill Clinton, Sean Penn) involved — and yet millions of Haitians remain homeless, living in “temporary” shelters. Disorganization among the overabundance of well-meaning NGOs that rushed to help is one cause; there’s also the matter of nobody trusting the Haitian government to make its own financial decisions. Peck, a former Minister of Culture, offers a rare insider’s perspective. Though the film’s voice-overs (framed as letters that begin “dear friend”) can get a little treacly, the raw evidence Peck collects of “the disaster of the community not being able to respond to the disaster” is powerful stuff.

There’s more levity sprinkled amid the tragedy (and bureaucratic frustration) contained in Ilian Metev’s Sofia’s Last Ambulance. If nothing else, this doc will make you extremely cautious if you ever find yourself visiting the capital of Bulgaria; its depiction of the city’s medical care is grim at best. An underpaid, harried trio — doctor, nurse, and driver — grapple with dispatchers who don’t pick up and drivers who don’t let ambulances pass, bad directions, outdated equipment, and other unbelievable situations that would be funny if lives weren’t hanging in the balance. Metev never films the patients, instead keeping his focus on the paramedics. Sarcastic nurse Mila Mikhailova is a standout, sweetly calming down an injured child, bluntly advising a drug addict, and joking about her love life with her co-workers. Only during rare moments of downtime does her exhaustion emerge.

>>Dennis Harvey on SFIFF’s Finnish angle.

More lives in chaos — albeit slightly more existentially — are depicted in A River Changes Course, which picked up a Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Cambodian American filmmaker Kalyanee Mam followed a trio of rural Cambodian families over several years, eventually crafting a vividly-shot, meditative look at lives being forced to modernize. Talk about frustrating: farmers grapple with a new worry — debt — so the eldest daughter heads to Phnom Penh to work in a factory. But the paltry wages she earns aren’t enough to offset the money they will have to spend on food, since they can’t farm enough to eat without her around to help. Elsewhere, a teenage boy who figured he’d grow up to be a fisherman takes a backbreaking planting job when the fish grow scarce; he confesses to Mam that he’s long since given up any dreams of getting an education. “Progress” has rarely felt so bleak.

Adding a much-needed dose of quirk to all of the above is Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s Rent a Family Inc., about Ryuichi, a Tokyo man whose business name translates to “I want to cheer you up.” He’s a professional stand-in, offering himself or any of his rotating cast of staffers to pretend to be friends or relatives in situations, including weddings, where the real thing is either not available or won’t suffice.

That premise alone would make for an intriguing doc — though there’s a disclaimer that certain scenes with clients are “reconstructed” — but Ryuichi’s career choice feels even more surreal once it’s revealed how dysfunctional his own family is; among a wife and two kids, he gets along best with the family Chihuahua. Though Schröder focuses on Ryuichi’s ennui at the expense of delving into, say, what it is about Japanese culture that enables the need for fake family members, the guy is undeniably fascinating. “I’m like a handyman, fixing people’s social engagements,” he explains — but he has no clue how to mend his own. *


April 25-May 9, most shows $10-15

Various venues



Looking over the Overlook



FILM Though he’s now living in Los Angeles, Rodney Ascher was a San Franciscan “for years and years,” he says, adding that he used to spend “a lot of time at Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema.” He also has praise for the Roxie, the venue that’ll be hosting the local premiere of his Room 237 — a fascinating, kinda disturbing documentary that burrows deep down the rabbit hole with people who are obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece The Shining.

The Roxie screens that film Thu/18, and opens Ascher’s doc Fri/19; Ascher hints that he’ll journey to SF for the occasion. I spoke with him about Kubrick, Italian horror, and other mind-bending topics.

San Francisco Bay Guardian How did you find your five subjects?

Rodney Ascher Before I did the first interview, [producer] Tim Kirk and I spent maybe a year researching different theories about The Shining and people who were writing about it. Some people were fairly well-known to us, like Bill Blakemore, who has the Native American [theory]. His article was syndicated in newspapers in 1987, and has been reprinted all over the internet, so he was a person that we always wanted to talk to. Jay Weidner, who talks about subliminal techniques and allusions to the space program — his essay has circulated pretty widely online too.

So we started with them, and we would find other people as we went. The writer Jonathan Lethem, who’s had a lot of interesting things to say about The Shining, turned me on to John Fell Ryan, a guy in Brooklyn who’d been screening the movie backwards and forwards at the same time. Not only was that amazing in and of itself, but like a lot of this other stuff we were finding, it was amazing that it had only happened in the time since we’d started the project. A lot of [Room 237] is about the substance of what people are saying about The Shining — but it’s also very concerned with this phenomenon at the beginning of the 21st century, where an awful lot of people seem obsessed with this movie made in 1980, and isn’t that interesting, and why is that happening?

SFBG What was the interview process like?

RA I mailed [each subject] a digital audio recorder, and I would talk to them via Skype from my studio. I’d have a list of questions based on what I knew about what they had written, but oftentimes the more open-ended questions would lead in more interesting directions: “What was the first time you saw The Shining?” or “When did you figure out this idea? How did it come to you?”

I read someplace that one of the best interview questions is just, “Why?” I don’t have much of a hard-core documentary background, so I haven’t interviewed tons of people, but I figured out pretty quickly that the less I said, the better.

SFBG What role do you think the internet has played in this growing obsession with The Shining?

RA I think it’s got everything to do with it. Things like YouTube videos and digital technology in general allow us to look at movies more carefully. We try to have a little bit of a subplot of people being able to watch the movie in theaters, and then on home video, on DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube. As [the opportunity to watch the film again] increases, the way we watch it changes.

But it’s also things like comment threads and blog postings, which allow people to share ideas with other folks in a way that was never possible before. Even if you could write a newspaper article or a magazine entry, there are very practical length considerations that you’d have to work with. But now, if you feel like writing a 125-page article about the manager of the Overlook Hotel, you can put it up on your blog, and there’s no limit to how much detail you can include.

SFBG Both your 2010 short The S From Hell and Room 237 are about hidden meanings and subtexts. What draws you to those themes?

RA The S From Hell started because I read about these people who had a childhood phobia of the old Screen Gems logo, and I had a flashback to myself at the age of three. Although my experience wasn’t quite as intense, I had a similar strong, confused reaction to that thing. And I’ve watched The Shining again and again, and have been obsessed with it, even if I haven’t come close to deciphering it. So it may be that — although I barely appear in these movies — there’s an autobiographical quality to this, that I’m recognizing aspects of myself in what these folks are doing. But maybe it’s not best for me to try to analyze Room 237 too deeply!

SFBG The Shining isn’t the only film used to illustrate Room 237. How did you decide what else to use? I spotted clips from Lamberto Bava’s Demons (1985), for example.

RA It was kind of instinctual. I tried to [gather] movies from a similar time or place to The Shining, but in all respects, I’m making a connection between The Shining and these other films. Sometimes it might be very literal, sometimes it might be personal to my own history.

In a big-picture sense, I think we’re talking about the ways movies get into our heads. Bill Blakemore, one of our interviewees, has a great phrase where he compares The Shining to a dream, and Stanley Kubrick’s process of filmmaking to dreaming — that you condense everything that’s happened in your life up to that point, and then it comes out in dreams, in some kind of strange new version.

Demons is a movie about the line between what’s happening on the screen, and what’s happening in the audience, getting very blurry. So for people who are familiar with Demons, the connection might play very clearly; but for people who aren’t, they’re still seeing a really stylishly shot scene of people in a theater in the early ’80s who are struggling to understand this very baffling movie they’ve been presented with.

SFBG Room 237‘s sound design is very distinctive. Can you talk about how that came together?

RA The sound design is by Ian Herzon, an amazing guy who was able to create this heavy, atmospheric mix. It was important to me that Room 237 played more as an immersive experience than as a dry piece of journalism. In a weird way I wanted it to be kind of a horror movie in itself. And Ian has worked on some of the Resident Evil movies, so that was a style that he was comfortable with.

The music is by William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes, who specialize in [horror themes]. Jonathan plays in a band called Nilbog, which performs, like, music from Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Suspiria (1977) live in concert. Their studio looks like a museum of analog synthesizers. So when I was discussing the music I wanted for the film, and I was talking about the early ’80s, Italian synthesizer scores, or John Carpenter music, or Tangerine Dream’s score for Sorcerer (1977), we spoke the same language very quickly. I love the way the synth scores have this trance-inducing, meditative effect. They sometimes have even quasi-religious aspects to them, which seemed kind of appropriate, since we’re looking at The Shining the way some people interpret the Bible.

SFBG What is your reaction when you hear people say, “After seeing Room 237, I’ll never watch The Shining the same way again?”

RA That’s great! And another thing that a lot of them say is, “I’m gonna go and immediately re-watch The Shining,” which is awesome. The Shining is a maze that certainly me and the people that we talked to can’t get out of — so there’s something satisfying about luring other people back into the middle of it. 

ROOM 237 opens Fri/19 at the Roxie.

Able fables



FILM The weak recent likes of Jack the Giant Slayer and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters revealed the extent of expensive, formulaic action-movie lameness with which Hollywood is now determined to treat every story of universal familiarity (and conveniently, no pesky copyright). No doubt there will be a Cinderella: Bitch is Goin’ Postal somewhere in our future before the cycle spins out, if it ever does.

But fairy tales have such appeal that it’s hard not to want filmmakers to do interesting things with them, as opposed to the things they generally are doing with them. Two new European movies for grown-ups take elements of such tales — one a very familiar story template, the other just the tenor of a shiny, hyper real fable — and while they haven’t a great deal else in common, they both happen to be among the most delightful entertainments we’re likely to see this year.

Mikael Buch’s French first feature Let My People Go! is a fairy tale in the sense of something like Ma vie en rose (1997) or Potiche (2010) — it’s a warmhearted social satire stylized as if everyday life were constantly poised to break into a production number. Also, its protagonist is such a fairy: in what’s possibly the most inspired physical comedy performance by a French (or maybe any) actor since Jean Dujardin was last sighted, Nicolas Maury plays Ruben, a Parisian who came to Finland to pursue a masters in “comparative sauna studies” but stayed on for perfect boyfriend Teemu (Jarkko Niemi). With his skinny body language so floppy it’s like a master class in theatrical nelliness, Ruben gives off an air of someone ready at any moment to deliver a shrill hissy fit or world-class sulk. Not that he has occasion to, however, in this northern paradise of friendly moose, candy-colored villages, and postal delivery customers (the sauna thing didn’t pan out) who invariably greet him at the door with tasty snacks.

Of course, it’s a paradise he must be cast out of, after an inexplicably violent altercation with a customer on his route results in Teemu calling Ruben a “thieving murderer” and sending him back to (as the BF’s mother puts it) “that horrible country.” There, torn from the political correctitude of the great white north, he’s forced to deal with his ever-dysfunctional family: Mom (Carmen Maura) still thinks he just needs to meet “a nice Jewish girl,” Dad (Jean-François Stevénin) is cheating on her, sis (Amira Casar) is probably divorcing her “asshole goy husband,” and bro (Clément Sibony) is fed up with having to hold their hands through every new crisis.

Written by Buch and Christophe Honoré (not a guy usually associated with levity), Let My People Go! wends its way toward the predictable reconciliations all around with a certain sweetness and a great deal of inspired silliness. None more inspired than everything done by Maury, whose extreme stereotype might be offensive in another context — but in this endearing fable of tolerance, Ruben is as lovable as he is haplessly funny.

Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves is something else — Snow White, to be exact, transplanted to 1920s Spain and told (à la 2011’s The Artist) in the dialogue-free B&W style of that era’s silent cinema. If you saw the two crappy overblown Hollywood takes on that fairy tale last year, my condolences, but this is probably its best cinematic incarnation ever not made by someone called Walt.

Here, Snow is the daughter of a famous bullfighter (a beautiful performance by Daniel Giménez Cacho) who’s paralyzed physically in the ring, then emotionally by the death of his flamenco star wife (Inma Cuesta) in childbirth. He can’t bring himself to see his daughter until a grandmother’s death brings little Carmencita (the marvelous Sofía Oria) to the isolated ranch he now shares with nurse-turned-second-wife Encarna — Maribel Verdú as a very Jazz Age evil stepmother, whose vanity expresses itself in outrageous fashion spreads for the socialite columns. Once the girl matures (now played by the ingratiating, slightly androgynous Macarena García), Encarna senses a rival, and to save her life Carmen literally runs away with the circus — at which point the narrative slumps a bit. But only a bit.

Where The Artist was essentially a cleverly sustained gimmick elevated by a wonderful central performance, Blancanieves transcends its ingenious retro trappings to offer something both charming and substantiative. Berger doesn’t treat the story template as a joke — he’s fully adapted it to a culture, place, and time, and treats its inherent pathos — you didn’t see much of that in last year’s Mirror Mirror or Snow White and the Huntsman, did you? — with great delicacy. It’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t enjoy Blancanieves — well, excepting the audience for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.

LET MY PEOPLE GO! and BLANCANIEVES open Fri/19 in Bay Area theaters.

Ennui and I


FILM Thai filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s international breakthrough, Last Life in the Universe, came out 10 years ago, but its themes of isolation and loneliness still feel very much of the moment. Eternally cool Japanese star Tadanobu Asano plays librarian Kenji, whose Better Off Dead-style existential turmoil leads him to attempt suicide, or at least think long and hard about it, multiple times. His morbid fantasies are varied: hanging (with a note, “This is bliss,” later repurposed by his crass brother as scratch paper: “Gone jogging”); gunshot; bridge-jumping.

The latter brings him into contact with a pair of sisters, Nid and Noi (real-life siblings Laila and Sinitta Boonyasak); when Nid is suddenly killed in a car accident, Kenji and Noi form a cross-cultural attachment against the backdrop of the girls’ ramshackle Bangkok house — a riot of dirty dishes and slobbery that contrasts sharply with Kenji’s obsessively tidy apartment, though that space has been lately littered by two dead bodies, courtesy of some inconvenient yakuza-on-yakuza violence.

Working from a script by Thai writer Prabda Yoon, and benefiting from Christopher Doyle’s meticulous cinematography, Ratanaruang structures his film along a non-linear timeline, suggesting, as Doyle points out in Last Life‘s DVD commentary, the way the human mind jumps back and forth, mixing flashes of memories into perceptions of the present. It’s a film that will most benefit a viewer willing to pay close attention to its “implications, rather than explications, of ideas” (Doyle again), and certainly holds up under repeat viewings. Another added benefit of watching it again: appreciating the humor that Ratanaruang sneaks in on occasion, as when director Takashi Miike (whose Asano-starring 2001 Ichi the Killer is referenced early on), in a cameo as a gangster, tells a woman she has seaweed stuck in her teeth. (It’s all in the delivery.)

Director, writer, cinematographer, and star reunited in 2006 for the noirish Invisible Waves, which has its own moments of dark comedy, as Kyoji (Asano), a chef with underworld ties, murders his lover at the behest of her husband — his boss — before sailing on the world’s grimmest cruise ship from Macau to Phuket. Aboard, he meets a wistful single mother with the familiar name of Noi (Kang Hye-jung from 2003’s Oldboy); her baby’s named Nid. (Another connection to Last Life: a shady, karaoke-loving character who goes by Lizard, echoing a reptilian motif from that earlier film.)

Kyoji’s journey is complicated by his malfunctioning room, with its haywire shower head and temperamental front door. “I’m inside the room and I cannot get out,” the frustrated man explains over the phone to an unhelpful concierge. It’s clear long before he gets off the ship and begins fumbling around an unwelcoming Phuket, however, that the biggest trap Kyoji is caught in was set by his own dubious life choices. Not for nothing does someone dub him “the stupidest smart guy I ever met.”

Ratanaruang’s most recent film, 2011’s Headshot, makes its local debut as part of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ “Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang.” Dubbed a “Buddhist neo-noir,” Headshot features a flashy poster and an even flashier tag line: “Bangkok’s most dangerous cop is about to have his world turned upside down.” This is meant literally; the film concerns cop-turned-assassin Tul (Nopporn Chaiyanam) who suffers an injury that inverts his eyesight. Thankfully, the film is shot right side up, for the most part — and in Ratanaruang’s hands, what could’ve been a cheap gimmick becomes an entry point into a surprisingly layered tale.

Ratanaruang will be at the YBCA in person — his first-ever visit to San Francisco — for screenings of Headshot (Thu/4) and 2009 ghost story Nymph (Sun/7), which both star Chaiyanam. The YBCA’s retrospective also includes Last Life and Invisible Waves, plus 2007’s Ploy, about an endangered marriage, and 1999’s loopy thriller 6ixtynin9. 


April 4-21, $8–$10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF



Are you experimental?



FILM At 52, the San Francisco Cinematheque is nearly the same age as the San Francisco International Film Festival, which kicks off its 56th incarnation later this month. And though there’s bound to be some filmmaker overlap between SFIFF and SF Cinematheque’s fourth annual Crossroads festival,

fans of avant-garde, experimental, and non-commercial films won’t want to miss the latter, a weekend packed with works by 48 artists across eight esoterically-titled programs.

Crossroads, which is curated by Cinematheque artistic director Steve Polta, boasts several world premieres, including a pair worthy of particular attention: Jodie Mack’s Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project, and Scott Stark’s The Realist. At 40-something minutes each, these are among the longer works included in the program; both make the most of their running times to achieve artistically innovative and thematically complex results.

A partially animated, fully musical chronicle of the rise and fall of her mother’s mail-order poster shop, Mack’s Dusty Stacks of Mom lifts its tunes and certain motifs from Dark Side of the Moon. (Though the connection is never explained, it’s likely the Dark Side poster was a best-seller for the store, which specialized in dorm-room classics.) “Come and tour with me/my mother’s poster factory,” Mack sings by way of narration, as her camera discovers piles of cardboard tubes, stacks of handwritten invoices (which hint at why the business faltered in the Internet age), and images of stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp frozen in time as their 1990s selves.

Stop-motion animation and eye-candy collages bring these paper performers to life, with Mack’s good-sport mother appearing periodically alongside what’s left of her inventory. Though some of the Pink Floyd covers-with-new-lyrics can skew a bit twee, Dusty Stacks‘ visuals never falter; this was clearly a labor-intensive labor of love for Mack, who teaches animation at Dartmouth. A particularly inspired sequence flashes between the holy trinity of college-dude decor: Che, Bob Marley, and Tony Montana.

Dusty Stacks anchors Crossroads’ “Gigs in the Sky: Let There Be More Light!”, which contains films tied together by music and “this post-Kenneth Anger kind of colorful thing,” as Polta calls it. Unlike more mainstream fests, which curate shorts programs with an eye for obvious links between the works, Polta tapped into a more intuitive process.

“The program ‘on the beach (at night)’ has a really interesting film by Jim Drain and Ben Russell called Ponce de León. It’s got these really strange camera techniques in it, and the way it deals with visual space is really interesting, outside of what it’s saying about the way people spend their time and the way generations look back and forth at each other,” he says. “When I saw the opening film of that program, Danielle Short’s Lost Ambulation, it was like, ‘Oh yeah. There’s this sort of depth and flatness going on.’ At a certain level there’s a whole thread in the avant-garde world about these issues; it’s just like talking about painting when you talk about depth and flatness.”

The programs began to take shape early on, while he was looking at all 400-something Crossroads submissions. “You start to take notes: here are some trends. This film and that film would look really interesting back to back. They start to assemble in these little sort of gravitational groups,” he says. “That’s the fun, or the challenge, of curatorial work. It’s like cooking: how can you get a certain kind of flavor, and what can you do to bring that flavor out? Here’s a really interesting film, and putting this other film next to it will sort of change the way you look at it.”

However, he adds, “I also think it’s worth leaving these connections a little bit mysterious. It’s interesting to kind of put these ideas out there and let the viewers sort of pick up on them, or not.”

Local filmmaker Scott Stark is the only artist in this year’s Crossroads to command a solo program (save the inclusion of a 1947 short by Fernand Léger). Stark’s latest, The Realist, uses flickering images of mannequins and consumer goods to investigate themes of “loneliness, desire, and presenting yourself in a certain way,” Polta says; it’s a mesmerizing work. But Polta is quick to note that, again, a sense of mystery is key to the viewing experience. “Part of the fun of The Realist is discovering, as you’re watching it, that there’s some suggestion of a narrative.”

A program of sorta-family-related films, “(as if clinging could save us),” contains another of Polta’s standouts: Jonathan Schwartz’s Animals Moving to the Sound of Drums.

“The film resonates with a well-known classical avant-garde film, [Jack Chambers’ 1970] The Hart of London, which also has to do with repetition of generational experiences through time, and relationships between animals and humans,” Polta says. More than that, though, “[Schwartz] makes films that are really bold in the ways they reach out and embrace sentimentality and emotionalism. They have a faith in sincere emotion that hasn’t been really hip in the last decade. I’d like to think that there’s a balance of that in this festival, between a certain kind of irony and a certain kind of sincerity. People are trying to work that out right now in the avant-garde world right now, whether to be sincere or ironic.”

Another emerging avant-garde star, Michael Robinson, has addressed this dichotomy in his work. His dreamy, glimmering 45-minute Circle in the Sand closes out Crossroads’ last program, “Slaves of Sleep”/”Destroy, She Said.”

“[Robinson has] made a lot of short films using found footage, stuff from video games, and music you’d hear on the radio — but in a way that sort of dares you to squeeze some real, serious emotion out of pop culture that most people would treat as this kind of ironic thing,” Polta says. “Circle in the Sand is mostly, if not completely, footage that he shot. It’s a science fiction film with a vague narrative; it feels like it’s set at a certain point in human evolution where the mundane world that we live in now isn’t going to matter anymore. It’s got a lot of mystery in it about what’s going to happen next to the human race — which is what we’re sort of leaving you with in the final program.” *


Fri/5-Sun/7, $10 (festival pass, $50)

Victoria Theatre

2961 16th St, SF



In the blood



FILM Even Fukushima Daiichi-style nuclear meltdowns can’t sever the blood ties that bind a brood of CAAMFest films that focus on family. Modernity nevertheless ushers in a set of unique struggles in these films, not exactly family-friendly fare, though most are fulsome with empathy for these clans under pressure and in the viewfinder.

Throwing the lid back on the Mosuo Chinese ethnic minority, while unveiling the economic and cultural stressors weighing on families struggling to keep up in the soon-to-be world’s largest economy, The Mosuo Sisters documents the lives of two young women from a small village in the Himalayan foothills. Eldest sibling Juma is trying to maintain her role as family breadwinner — she sings in big-city clubs that trot her out like an exotic specimen — while the younger Latso is rooming with her, studying accounting and embracing urban life. It takes a global downturn to tear the two apart, as Latso is encouraged to help out on the farm and Juma finds it harder to remain the de facto matriarch-at-large, while the Mosuos’ way of life — in which “walking marriages” place the power and offspring in the hands of women and their households — is chipped away from afar by the draw of neon-dappled cities, rendered as eloquent, inexorable rivers of headlights by director-cinematographer Marlo Poras.

Two families — one far from home and the other navigating a thicket of cultural, political, and product safety issues — feel the pain of Xmas Without China in Alicia Dwyer and Tom Xia’s gently humorous and humane doc. Chinese-born, California-raised Xia is by all respects American (apart from his green card), but as a firestorm ignites over the lead in Chinese-made toys and the threat of Chinese industrial might, he comes up with the genius plan of finding out just how deeply China and its goods have rooted itself in the US, despite Americans misgivings. He finds a family, the Joneses, who are willing to go without anything made in China through the Christmas season — just to see if they can.

Meanwhile, Xia’s parents, who have set themselves up in their own American dream, a colonial McMansion, are also put under the lens as they struggle to keep up with their own neighboring Joneses, plotting the biggest Christmas-lights display on the block — and coping with homesickness for family back in the old country. As dad Tim Jones sneaks into the stash of verboten Chinese goods for his beloved Xbox, Xia uncovers his own insecurities, as he finds himself lying to the Joneses about his citizenship and hiding behind a facade of assimilation.

Taking the kin out on a pulpy, not-for-youngsters thrill ride, director-writer Ron Morales’ Graceland uncovers a lurid Manila of child sex workers, corrupt politicians and cops, and trash mountains. Chauffeur Marlon (Arnold Reyes) is tasked with enabling the dirty work of his politico boss, Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias), including packing up and paying off the little girls he drugs and rapes. The switch comes when kidnappers come for both their daughters, and the once-powerless servant becomes inextricably embroiled in the crime. Though occasionally threatening to topple over into scene-chomping territory and finally revealing drive-through gaps in its plot, the full-frontal Graceland is still capable of inspiring admiration for its sheer gusto, refusing to flinch at the brutality wrought on young girls’ bodies and likewise daring you to tear your eyes away in complicity.

Blood — whether it pulls a family unit together or rips them apart with fears of radiation contamination — underlies the apocalyptic scenes of The Land of Hope, the first feature film to grapple with the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Life in fictional Nagashima seems idyllic until the arrival of an earthquake and tsunami that ushers in a largely unseen nuclear disaster. Dairy farmer Yasuhiko (Isao Natsuyagi) forces his son Yoichi (Jun Murakami) and daughter-in-law Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) to leave him behind, along with wife Chieko (Naoko Ohtani), who suffers from dementia; it’s a sacrificial gesture that evokes 1983’s The Ballad of Narayama‘s mash-up of filial piety and noble embrace of death.

Yoichi denies reality as vigorously as he can, until Izumi becomes pregnant and learns that their new home also reads high in radiation. Writ with an eye to psychological trauma rather than physical dangers, Sion Sono (2002’s Suicide Club) has likely made his most ambitious film to date with Hope. It makes stirring use of exquisitely subtle images that imbue empty towns and blowing wind with dread; eerily surreal sights of a mother-to-be puttering around town in a Hazmat suit; and symbolism made literal, as when Ugetsu-like child phantoms materialize in wreckage from the waves.

Set in a country that prizes purity and conformity — and has a legacy of dealing with the aftermath of nuclear disaster — Hope may not leave you with hope, exactly. But it certainly imparts the expected horrors and unpredicted highs when the safe family home finds itself under siege, leaving on your mind’s eye the shadowy imprint of a woman, dressed in her finest kimono, dancing to festival music only she can hear, in the snow near a contaminated town reduced to tinder.


March 14-24, most shows $12

Various venues, SF and Berk.



The Nonconformist



FILM Most observers of last week’s Oscar telecast assumed elegant 86-year-old Emmanuelle Riva was the star of the movie she’d gotten a Best Actress nomination for. Conspicuously absent — from that and most other awards events — was Amour‘s real performing lead, who’d gotten crowded out of the field by the usual surplus of major English-language roles for men. As the dignified elderly husband decreasingly able to care for a longtime spouse’s dignity-robbing failing health, Jean-Louis Trintignant grows more dominant in his character’s helplessness as Riva’s recedes into illness. It’s a powerful performance made all the more so by the simple shock of seeing him. Hasn’t he been, er, away a while? Or to put it bluntly: he’s still alive?!

The last time wide audiences would have seen him was in the large ensemble of Patrice Chéreau’s 1998 Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. Already nearing 70 then, he remained somewhat active in theater while staying mostly off screen for the next 14 years. In honor of his return, the Pacific Film Archive is providing a retrospective that runs through April 21.

“And God Created Jean-Louis Trintignant” offers a mix of popular hits, agreed-upon masterpieces, and rarities that give fair measure of a long, prolific yet discriminating career. It’s surprising to see the wide range of films he’s played in, since Trintignant is so often the still center of them — he communicates such reserve, thoughtfulness, and economy of craft that it takes seeing numerous roles back-to-back like this to realize how very different his performances are. They’re just not flamboyantly different, in the way of a Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep. He’s said “The best actors in the world are those who feel the most and show the least,” a rule one could argue with — but it’s certainly true in his case.

Short, slight, handsome in a slightly nondescript way, he couldn’t have struck anyone at first as natural movie star material. But he did intrigue Roger Vadim, when the latter was looking for a newcomer to play off his female discovery in 1956’s …And God Created Woman. The woman was Brigitte Bardot, introduced completely nude (albeit laying on her stomach); it was Bardot and Vadim’s shared gift that though she spent the rest of the story clothed, one imagined with an indolent shrug those rags might tumble at any moment and she’d be starkers again. As the village lad who marries “that little slut” lest she be sent back to the orphanage (!), while she exerts a siren pull toward every other man around, Trintignant sounded a modest note in one of the most garishly silly yet influential films ever made. Yet the global sensation Bardot caused cast a public glare on anyone with a connection, let alone a purported inamorato. He voluntarily fled for military service.

When he returned — with rather less fanfare than Army-sprung Elvis — he set about building a serious actor’s resume with diverse projects and interesting directors. He was suddenly blond and uncharacteristically glamorous as a golden youth of Italy’s fascist elite in Valerio Zurlini’s Violent Summer (1959), so in love with an older woman (Eleanora Rossi Drago) they’re barely aware there’s a World War going on. But more typically he was creating anti-romantic characters typical of the 1960s — variably neurotic, eccentric, conflicted, always with more going on under the surface than one could fully grasp. One lesser-remembered PFA selection is Alain Cavalier’s 1962 New Wave triangle Le combat dans l’ile, in which his marital discord with Romy Schneider is eventually explained by his secretly belonging to a far-right terrorist cell.


Trintignant was in two of the most wildly popular “art” export hits of the decade, Claude Lelouch’s gauzy swoonfest A Man and a Woman (1966) and Costa Gavras’ political thriller Z (1969). Yet his race-car driver in the former tempers its Eurokitsch atmosphere with impenetrable cool, while in the hyperbolic latter he’s almost monastically austere as the investigator who patiently picks apart an assassination cover-up. Perhaps his ultimate role as a man of decisive inaction was as The Conformist (1970), again as a Mussolini-era fascist — one who betrays his friends as ruthlessly and usefully as director Bertolucci does the original Moravia novel. Amid that film’s ravishing baroque excesses, he’s as reptilian, quease-making, and pitiable as a Gollum, if better-dressed.

While he continued to make the odd all-star purely commercial project — a good one being rare 1973 American foray The Outside Man — he usually chose riskier fare. Thus he was the first major star to work with Eric Rohmer (as the Catholic fussbudget sorta-seeking romance in 1969’s My Night at Maud’s), and an early ally to figures as disparate as Jacques Demy, Claude Chabrol, Tinto Brass, Umberto Lenzi, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and André Téchiné.

Barely slowing despite the transition to character support, he’d found perhaps a definitive pre-Amour farewell role (and chronological end to the PFA series) as the retired judge busy bending laws for his personal amusement in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy (and career) finale Red (1994). It might have served as a perfect capper — but you’ve got to hand it to any 83-year-old savvy enough to realize Michael Haneke was worth coming out of retirement for. *


Through April 21

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.



If you’re nasty



FILM The current hand-wringing over whether an irresponsible entertainment industry corrupts our youth is notable for being such a blatant diversionary tactic by gun-control foes — their argument being a little beside the point, of course, since incidents are rather few of people being shot dead by a copy of Grand Theft Auto or a Saw flick.

The case against Hollywood as corruptor of morality and youth is otherwise nothing new. On several occasions outrage has risen enough to actually force changes (however modest or temporary), such as when unprecedented late-1960s levels of violent and sexual content instigated the creation of the current MPAA ratings system, now considered wildly out-of date.

But the biggest such fracas reached its zenith with the 1934 enforcement of the Production Code, which levied drastic new limitations on screen content. It introduced a bland new era, and orphaned the one just past — the one we’ve come to celebrate as “pre-Code,” and which is back once again in Elliot Lavine’s latest Roxie series, the week-long “Hollywood Before the Code: Deeper, Darker, Nastier!”

Hollywood had already been building — rightly or wrongly — a rep as the “modern Sodom” for some time. High-profile scandals during the silent era involving drug abuse, wrongful death, and unsavory sexual revelations prompted many a pulpit denunciation. When sound arrived, old talent was replaced by new imports from “blue” Broadway, where racy patter was de rigueur; so once the movies learned to talk, they quickly learned to talk … well, unclean, if not exactly legally dirty.

The Depression had brought harsh new social realities, and while audiences craved escapism, they didn’t mind if it was also vicariously rude and raw. (At least urban ones did — rural patrons had more conservative tastes, and in an era well before “wide” simultaneous openings on umpteen screens, the studios provided selective product accordingly.)

Violence was indeed a major issue: The original “gangster” cycle kicked off by The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932) horrified many, with mayhem that barely registers by today’s standards censored on a state-by-state basis. But the main thing was allegedly pervasive and pernicious “smut,” as represented by everything from Betty Boop’s skirt length to the average prude’s Satanic Majesty Herself, Mae West. (The Code’s impact could be most directly measured in the speed with which a toned-down and thus nearly irrelevant West went from box-office titan to has been.)

In the brave new world of the Code, such threats to national sanity went away because sex no longer existed. Even married couples were to be depicted as having separate double beds, one spouse keeping always keeping a foot on the floor during any kisses (of less than three seconds in duration) in their vicinity.

But on the pre-Code screen, everybody was doing everybody, often for sweet cold cash — though of course the world’s oldest profession was never exactly named. This latest Roxie series features plenty of its practitioners, dames at once hard-boiled and over-easy but ready to go soft for an upstanding guy. The most famous is dubiously employed Marlene Dietrich in von Sternberg’s 1932 exotica masterpiece Shanghai Express, wherein she husks “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Then there’s Miriam Hopkins as Ivy the barmaid in Rouben Mamoulian’s classic Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), with Frederic March in the lead role(s).

Most of the current program’s titles are variably obscure ones with glittering Golden Age stars in scenarios that further tarnish legally challenged ladies before romance buffs them shiny again — most in “four hanky” soap operas targeted toward a working-class female audience later represented by Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Paramount’s glossy 1933 Torch Song has the next year’s Best Actress Oscar winner (for It Happened One Night), Claudette Colbert, as a nice girl turned dirty-blues chanteuse. Further down the totem pole, there’s pre-screwball Carole Lombard as the heroine of Virtue (1932), introduced while being escorted out of New York by the vice squad. Her past won’t quit her when she redeems herself via marriage to cynical cabbie Pat O’Brien. It’s an archetypal pre-Code rediscovery, no doubt thrown together at the time yet wonderfully snappy, saucy, and even poignant now.

Its themes are taken even further by films set in the era’s reliably lawless “tropical” locales, fictive or otherwise. Nothing’s quite so filthy by implication as brief near-star (“The Girl with the Naughty Twinkle in Her Eye!”) Dorothy Mackaill’s 1931 William Wellman-directed Safe in Hell, wherein she’s the runaway goodtime-girl “only white woman on the island.” Save perhaps 1934’s pre-Code last huzzah Black Moon, a voodoo potboiler that puts King Kong’s girlfriend Fay Wray in yea worse peril.

Other notable highlights include Waterloo Bridge, the rarely-revived 1931 first version of Robert Sherwood’s play by Frankenstein director James Whale; quasi-Sapphic, proto-Petrified Forest melodrama Heat Lightning (1934); and a tribute to staple Hollywood character actor Lyle Talbot, whose author daughter Margaret will appear before screenings March 7.


“Hollywood Before the Code: Deeper, Darkier, Nastier!”

March 1-7, $11 (double and triple features)

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St, SF


Go South



FILM San Francisco is a town of many film festivals: SF IndieFest wraps up Thu/21, and the Center for Asian American Media Festival (formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) kicks off March 14. Lest you suffer fest withdrawal, the gap between is filled nearly end-to-end by Cinequest — San Jose’s 23rd annual salute to cinema that has a Silicon Valley-appropriate focus on technological innovations.

One example of that focus: Sony-sponsored 4K digital screenings of Taxi Driver (1976), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). While there’s no replacing the experience of seeing these classics projected on film, these restorations promise to render even Travis Bickle’s grimy apartment in eye-poppingly sharp relief. (“You talkin’ to me, or you checkin’ out my dirty dishes?”)

If the idea of burning highway miles to see movies you’ve already snagged on Blu-ray doesn’t appeal, Cinequest has corralled a genuine Hollywood icon for its Maverick Spirit Award: Harrison Ford. He’ll attend in person to discuss his career and, no doubt, field many a question about his rumored involvement in the upcoming Star Wars sequel-reboot-spinoff-thing — to be directed by J.J. Abrams, a past Maverick recipient himself. Other 2013 Maverick winners include Salman Rushdie, who’ll receive his award after the closing-night screening of Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children, based on Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel; and Chuck Palahniuk, who’ll be honored after a screening of a short film he scripted, Romance (one theme: Britney Spears), among others.

Cinequest’s largest component is, of course, its actual film programming, with a wide array of shorts, narratives, and docs. The fest kicks off with Sally Potter’s downbeat coming-of-age tale Ginger & Rosa. It’s the 1960s, nuclear war is a real possibility, and nuclear-family war is an absolute certainty, at least in the London house occupied by Ginger (Elle Fanning), her emotionally wounded mother (Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks), and her narcissistic-intellectual father (Alessandro Nivola). Ginger’s teenage rebellion quickly morphs into angst when her BFF Rosa (Beautiful Creatures‘ Alice Englert) wedges her sexed-up neediness between Ginger’s parents. Hendricks (playing the accordion — just like Joan!) and Annette Bening (as an American activist who encourages Ginger’s political-protest leanings) are strong, but Fanning’s powerhouse performance is the main focus — though even she’s occasionally overshadowed by her artificially scarlet hair.

Horror fans: the number one reason to haul your carcass to Cinequest is Year of the Living Dead, a ghoulishly delightful look back at the making of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Rob Kuhns’ doc skews more cultural-legacy than fanboy, deploying a variety of talking heads (critics Mark Harris and Elvis Mitchell, Walking Dead producer Gale Anne Hurd, filmmaker Larry Fessenden) to explain why Night — offering just as much social commentary as any film from the Vietnam and Civil Rights era, except with way more squishy entrails — endures on so many levels. The best part, though, is the extended interview with George A. Romero, grinning and chuckling his way through anecdotes and on-set memories. On directing his amateur actors: “Just do your best zombie, man!”

Also highly enjoyable is Tom Bean and Luke Poling’s Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, an affectionate portrait of the longtime Paris Review editor and “professional collector of experiences” who wrote books, articles, and made TV specials about his delight in being “the universal amateur.” His endeavors included playing football with the Detroit Lions, hockey with the Boston Bruins, and the triangle with the New York Philharmonic, among even more unusual pursuits. Some called him a dilettante (to his face while he was alive, and in this doc, too), but most of the friends, colleagues, and family members here recall Plimpton — born to an upper-crust New York family, he was friends with the Kennedys and worshipped Hemingway — as an irrepressible adventurer who more or less tailored a journalism career around his talents and personality.

Less upbeat but just as fascinating is Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross’ The Believers, which starts in 1989 as University of Utah scientists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons hold a press conference to announce they’ve discovered cold fusion — a way to make clean, cheap, plentiful power by fusing atoms instead of splitting them. But the initial excitement over their announcement soon gave way to skepticism and widespread dissent; eventually, their careers were in ruins, and by 1996, cold fusion was reduced to being a plot device for Keanu Reeves in Chain Reaction.

With new input from nearly everyone who was involved in the controversy (save the intensely private Pons, who’s seen in archival footage), The Believers captures cold fusion’s slow and spectacular fall from favor, while giving equal screen time to visionaries who believe it may still be possible. More importantly, its broader message explores what happens — or more pointedly, what doesn’t happen — when a radical idea appears, seemingly out of nowhere, to challenge an established way of thinking.


Feb. 26-March 10, $5-$50

Various venues, San Jose



No talking



FILM The 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival isn’t until July, but the fest’s Silent Winter offshoot offers a day packed full of classic delights to tide over its legions of fans until summer. The Castro Theatre plays host to four features and one shorts program, all of which boast live musical accompaniment.

Silent Winter’s earliest (1916) and latest films (1927) are both buoyed by charismatic leading ladies: Marguerite Clark, in J. Searle Dawley’s Snow White, and Mary Pickford in Sam Taylor’s My Best Girl. Clark, who found early fame as a Broadway star, was already in her 30s by the time film acting became a viable career option. No matter — she’s believably girlish as the princess with “skin white as snow,” hated by her jealous stepmother, whose own beauty comes courtesy of witchcraft. (Dig the proto-Witchiepoo who helps the conniving queen in her various evil schemes, and her giant kitty helper, too.) A teenage Walt Disney saw the film in 1917 and made animation history with the same story 20 years later — though his heroine lacks Clark’s easy effervescence.

Pickford’s own joie de vivre has been exhaustively documented, but she’s particularly charming in My Best Girl, a late-career film that marked her final silent film, as well as her only onscreen pairing with the man who’d become her third husband, Buddy Rogers (in a marriage that would last from 1937 until her death in 1979). Watching My Best Girl is an excellent reminder that the romantic comedy structure still used with great frequency today — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back just in time for a happy ending — is very much an old-school invention. Here, Pickford plays sassy shopgirl Maggie, who has no idea her cute new co-worker, Joe (Rogers), is actually the store owner’s son pulling an Undercover Boss.

Though My Best Girl is ostensibly a comedy, Pickford’s standout scenes are the film’s most melodramatic: first, when she conveys equal parts mortification and heartbreak when she realizes who her new crush really is, and later, when she pretends to be a gold-digging jazz baby to chase him away, believing he’s too good for her. Sob. Suck it, Reese, Julia, and whoever else — Mary (who was actually Canadian) is America’s sweetheart forever.

Buster Keaton, another actor (and director) much-beloved by silent film fans, is spotlighted in “Think Slow, Act Fast,” a program of three early shorts. The Scarecrow (1920), about a pair of farm hands battling over the farmer’s comely daughter, features a winning turn by one of Hollywood’s first canine stars — Luke, a pit bull owned by Keaton mentor Fatty Arbuckle. One Week (1920) follows a hapless newlywed couple as they attempt to assemble their pre-fab house; it’s a set-up that offers ample opportunity to showcase Keaton’s physical-comedy gifts. Third entry The Play House (1921) opens with what was a dazzling special-effects achievement at the time, as multiple Keatons play all of the parts in a minstrel show (yes, there’s blackface). After this Keaton-opoly is revealed to be a backstage dream, the rest of the short follows the comedian as he woos a twin he can’t quite tell apart from her sister — pausing here and there to crash different shows, including one where he impersonates a monkey.

Rounding out Silent Winter are a freshly restored Douglas Fairbanks classic, Raoul Walsh’s high-flying fantasy The Thief of Bagdad (1924); and Nosferatu (1922) director F.W. Murnau’s take on Faust (1926), his final German film.


Sat/16, $5–<\d>$15

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF


Heat of the moment



FILM The late 1950s saw Japanese film production and attendance at all-time highs. Soon the expanding television market would steadily draw audiences away, but in the meantime the industry was robust enough to encourage the promotion of assistant directors and other next-generation talents influenced by the era’s various artistic avant-gardes to make their own features. This resulted in a flowering of bold new voices parallel to France’s New Wave and other radical filmmaking shifts around the globe. As elsewhere, ideas and influences from the underground began bubbling up to the mainstream surface.

Unlike other places, however, Japan had its own conglomerate means of importing, producing, and exhibiting (in a micro-chain of specially designated theaters) more experimental work in direct if modest competition with commercial product. That means would be the Art Theater Guild of Japan, which a group of cineastes, filmmakers, and critics launched in 1961; by spring of the next year they’d secured 10 venues across the nation to showcase the work ATG distributed and, eventually, created in-house.

Two concurrent local retrospectives highlight the Art Theater Guild’s important but (at least in the West) underseen contributions. The organization is tangentially related to the roster of experimental shorts (plus Michio Okabe’s mondo-like 1968 feature counterculture overview Crazy Love) in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and San Francisco Cinematheque’s two-week “Fragments of Japanese Underground Cinema 1960-1974” series, which begins this week. But it’s central to the Pacific Film Archive’s already in-progress “Chronicles of Inferno: Japan’s Art Theater Guild,” continuing through month’s end.

Raised in a society whose rigid codes for behavior and loyalty enabled a remarkable post-World War II economic recovery, but which could also stifle individual expression, Japanese filmmakers emerging in the 1960s were if anything even more eager than young Americans and Europeans to tear apart inherited thematic, stylistic, and commercial conventions. Whether advocating for full-on revolution, critiquing the status quo, or playing with form, ATG’s productions pushed both medium and audiences out of the comfort zone.

That aim couldn’t have been more apparent in the company’s first original feature (co-produced with Nikkatsu Corp.), 1967’s A Man Vanishes by the celebrated Shohei Imamura (1963’s The Insect Woman, 1966’s The Pornographers, 1983’s The Ballad of Narayama). Ostensibly an investigative documentary about a salaryman who’s gone missing for two years, it’s a poker-faced prank that slowly grows more convoluted and bizarre until the film becomes a chronicle of its own unmaking, and an accusation directed at any notion of truth in cinema.

More traditional subjects are turned inside out in Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide (1969) and Toshio Matsumoto’s Shura (1971). The former is drawn from a 300-year-old tragic romance written for bunraku (puppet) theater; mixing abstraction and naturalism, actors human and otherwise, it’s a jewel that questions artifice itself. In contrast to the prolific Shinoda, Matsumoto made very few features, most famously 1969’s pop art-camp extravaganza Funeral Parade of Roses, which transplants Oedipus Rex to the Tokyo gay underground with cross-dressing singer-actor “Peter” as its ruthless glamazon protagonist.

Shura (a.k.a. Demons) is as cramped as that film is extravagant. Turning its extreme physical and budgetary limitations into the stuff of claustrophobic nightmare à la Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) or Roger Corman’s Teenage Doll (1957), it’s the tale of a samurai who gives everything up for love of a geisha — you know that’s a bad idea when early on she asks the question that needs no answer, “How dare you call me a vixen?” Once he realizes he’s been betrayed, all hell breaks loose in bursts of over-the-top violence that might be real or imaginary, given the film’s penchant for showing us successive alternate versions of the same scenes.

Arguably the series’ wildest stylistic leap is Shuji Terayama’s 1974 Pastoral: Hide and Seek, a bracing phantasmagorical chronicle of a very troubled mother-child relationship that reels from circus surrealism and mime makeup to porno sex and quiet lyricism. Perhaps its bitterest statement comes in the form of 1971’s The Ceremony from a pre-In the Realm of the Senses (1976) Nagisa Oshima. Rigorously formal in presentation (and taking place almost exclusively during public rituals), it traces the gradual soul crushing of a protagonist whose forced lifelong hewing to the model of a “pure and perfect Japanese” sacrifices any possibility of happiness. One of the ultimate “You think you hate your family?” horror films, it features multiple suicides and gruesomely joyless sexual interludes testifying to the suffocation of bourgeoisie conformity.

While its stature and role changed over time, ATG hung on through the mid 1980s, its final releases including such memorable ones as Yoshimitsu Morita’s anarchic social satire The Family Game (1983), an international hit. *


Through Feb. 27

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.



Feb. 14-28

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF



My campy Valentine


FILM Love is the drug, or so sang somebody once. Yet violent conflict has always been a more predominatingly addicting factor in movies — which is why it seems both natural and despairing that the Vortex Room‘s “For Your Vortex Only” celebration of “Love…Vortex Style” (please guys, only one title per series), every Thursday in February, features eight vintage movies in which “love” is less a matter of romantic fulfillment than a titular selling point.

Which is not to say the Vortex programmers have not ranged far and extra wide to find 16mm prints (when available) of the most obscure and eccentric among odes to St. Valentine, though several weren’t remotely obscure at the time. That would include the kick-off double bill, which starts off with 1979’s Love at First Bite — a post-Young Frankenstein knockoff farce whose selling point was aging Old Hollywood himbo George Hamilton as a Count Dracula exported via coffin-encased necessity to disco-era Manhattan. He’s funny; Richard Benjamin as Jewish-shrink Van Helsing is funnier. Not so much: the tiresome racial stereotypes or clutter of TV sitcom faces.

That movie was a sleeper hit. A shameful semi-success, by contrast, was its Vortex co-feature The Love Machine (1971) — second adaptation of a Jacqueline Susann bestseller after 1967 camp classic Valley of the Dolls, and by far the best. Of course it’s still a glossy, ridiculous swamp of lurid melodrama and degraded “name” actors. John Phillip Law (1968’s Barbarella and Skidoo) probably locked himself out of the mainstream stardom by playing Susann’s soulless, indiscriminately sexually satisfying TV-executive climber. He’s actually very good — more than one can say for the fellow thespians (notably Dyan Cannon, Robert Ryan, Jackie Cooper, and David Hemmings as a particularly mean homosexual caricature) in what was only director Jack Haley Jr.’s second stab at narrative directing before he turned exclusively to celebrating his son-of-Tin-Man Old Hollywood heritage via documentaries like 1974’s That’s Entertainment!

Actual Valentine’s Day programming at the Vortex is certifiably insane: 1935’s Mad Love has Peter Lorre as a mad scientist in the daddy of all severed-transplanted-hands-of-a-murderer thrillers; while 1987’s Love is a Dog From Hell, a.k.a. Crazy Love, channels the Skid Row poetics of Charles Bukowski into a dazzling Belgian demonstration of art house bravado. It’s fatiguingly great.


The last two Vortex Thursdays in February wade into genuinely forgotten cinematic chapters. Least (forgotten, but also worthy) among them is The Love-Ins, an inadvertently hilarious 1967 highlight in hippiesploitation with Peyton Place regular Susan Oliver and future Hawaii Five-O star James MacArthur as vulnerable university students roped into the dangerous radicalism of a Timothy Leary-like prof (Richard Todd). When she’s dosed on acid, the ensuing polite Alice in Wonderland “freak-out” ballet is perhaps Hollywood’s dumbest counterculture indictment ever.

Yea more obscure are this amorous series’ final selections. The Love War (1970) is a TV movie sci-fi with Lloyd Bridges and Angie Dickinson as combatants on an interplanetary-games war using Earth as its playing field. It’s gimmicky but stupid alongside the next year’s Quest for Love, a clever parallel-time fantasy perhaps beyond the capabilities of director Ralph Thomas (1974’s It’s Not the Size That Counts) and star Joan Collins (whose earnest efforts suggest she never had a naturalistic acting moment in her life).

Unavailable for preview was that Quest‘s Vortex co-feature Love Slaves of the Amazon, a 1957 Universal International exploitation film of which surely more should be known, if only to preserve our fragile balance between the sexes against so much perverted input. Including, of course, camp retrospectives like the Vortex’s. *


Thu/7, Feb 14, 21, and 28, 9 and 11pm, $10

Vortex Room

1082 Howard, SF

Facebook: The Vortex Room


Muppets, manholes, and mayhem



FILM Vincent Gargiulo is originally from Stockton and lives in San Francisco, but I spoke with him over the phone from Duluth, Minn., where he’s about to start filming his latest project, Duluth is Horrible. “So far, it’s actually lovely,” he admits. “But Duluth is Lovely, nobody wants to watch that movie.”

The title came to him in a dream — he’d never been to Duluth before — but he decided to take the inspiration and run with it. “I came up with a bunch of little stories, semi-based on my life, and decided to set it in Duluth and use that title, and here I am,” he says, noting that he’s casting locals to act in the project. “A lot of people have been supportive, and a lot have not been. But I’m just hanging out with the supportive ones.”

Before his Great Lakes odyssey, Gargiulo was best-known for a pair of videos that brought him a certain amount of notoriety: “David’s Pizza Commercial” (which has over half a million views on YouTube) and “Taste the Biscuit,” which caught comedian George Lopez’s eye and became a running joke on Lopez Tonight. Both clips are excerpts from longer Gargiulo projects; the pizza ad was part of a 1980s TV parody, KNFR From 7:00-7:30.

“I needed some local commercials, and I came up with this pizza song. I thought, ‘I should just give it to a random pizza place,’ so I gave it to David’s Pizza in Stockton — they got a commercial without them knowing about it,” he says. “I thought if anything from that film would have viral potential, it would be that, because the song’s pretty catchy. So I just put it out there, and sure enough, it did. I mean, I like all attention I can get, but I don’t necessarily seek it out. It was funny because a lot of people were interviewing David — he was on talk shows and stuff, and it was fun to watch. And they don’t even mention me at all.”

The San Francisco Independent Film Festival’s local-shorts focus, “Cults, Manholes, and Slide Rail Riders,” contains seven entries, but only one that features humans playing puppets. That’d be Gargiulo’s The Muppetless Movie, a fake movie trailer that pays earnest homage to the Muppets as only a true fan with a crazy idea can. The casting is impeccable: the director busts out a killer Kermit impression, and there’s dead-on Statler and Waldorf banter and an uncannily perfect Gonzo.

“I am a huge Muppets fan,” Gargiulo admits. “The new Muppet movie was coming out at that time, and I was afraid it was gonna suck. So I thought, ‘I’ll make my own Muppet movie, just to be on the safe side.’ Originally I was going to use puppets, but there’s probably more legal issues there. So I decided to have humans do it instead.”

Just about the only thing Manhole 452 has in common with Muppetless is that it’s another standout in “Cults, Manholes, and Slide Rail Riders.” Jeanne C. Finley and John Muse’s eerie short is narrated by an unseen commuter as he nervously rides the 38 Geary downtown from the Richmond. His paranoia: exploding manholes. As the film progresses, his fears are backed up by found footage depicting actual manhole explosions. His unease become ours, as we start to realize he’s onto something real and terrifying.

Muse and Finley have been working together since 1988; for the past several years, it’s been a cross-country collaboration, since Muse teaches at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and Finley teaches at California College of the Arts in SF. Manhole 452 originally appeared as part of a 2011 installation at Patricia Sweetow Gallery, whose Geary Street location provided early inspiration.

“My antenna was up, as was John’s, around the question of manhole covers,” Finley recalls. “We did a lot of research, and it became really evident that they blow all the time. For example, three days before our show opened, a manhole blew right in front of the gallery. So we were aware of this phenomenon — and then San Bruno happened. A horrible, horrible tragedy.”

Finley decided to count all of Geary Street’s manhole covers. “A lot of weird things have happened on Geary Street,” Finley says. (Manhole 452 specifically points out the former location of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple.) “It’s a really interesting San Francisco street, and a pretty ugly street, too.”

Soon after, the pair wrote a script based on actual stories that they’d dug up, interwoven with a character they imagined as their narrator: a man who’d had a manhole blow under his car while he was driving down Geary, forcing him to take the bus — and to question the stability of his surroundings.

“A lot of our work deals with inexplicable, unpredictable random events and the relationship of personal will to those random events: how do you confront an event of that nature, and move through it? And as you move on, how do you take it with you?” Finley explains.

Adds Muse, “We tend to try and make free-floating anxieties explicit and real, and give them shape. In this case, it’s the street: the street is a surface, it’s a membrane, it’s porous and delicate. At any moment that membrane could be torn away, and the fragility of everything is suddenly exposed. We thought about that metaphor a lot — the surface of the street as barely protecting us from what’s underneath.” *


Feb. 17, 2:45pm; Feb. 19, 7:15pm, $12

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St, SF


Weird tales



FILM It was a particular thrill to talk to Don Coscarelli on Jan. 8 — Elvis’ birthday. He is, after all, the guy who made 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep, which imagined an elderly version of the King fighting the evil mummy that’s menacing his nursing home. Coscarelli’s other credits include 1979’s Phantasm (and its 1988, ’94, and ’98 sequels), 1982’s The Beastmaster, and his latest: supernatural noir buddy comedy John Dies at the End, based on David Wong’s comedy-horror novel.

San Francisco Bay Guardian I’m a big fan of Bubba Ho-Tep. I read that you met [John Dies star] Paul Giamatti because he was also a fan of that film.

Don Coscarelli Absolutely true. About five or six years ago, I received an email from Eli Roth, who was over in Eastern Europe working on one of the Hostel movies. He’d had a meal with Paul while they were there, and Eli sent me this email right away: “All Paul could talk about was Bubba Ho-Tep!” I thought he was just exaggerating, but it was true — Paul really liked the movie a lot, which was really rewarding to hear.

When we first met, I was trying to put together a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep, and I had this idea that Paul could play Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The Bubba project didn’t end up coming together, but when I came across the David Wong book, I pitched it to him and he really liked the idea. So he helped as both executive producer and by playing the role of Arnie in the movie.


SFBG Besides Giamatti, the cast is mostly up-and-comers — plus Glynn Turman, who played the mayor on The Wire. Are you a Wire fan?

DC A huge Wire fan. I’m toying with the thought of starting from scratch and watching it from the beginning again.

SFBG How did you cast the dog, Bark Lee?

DC Here’s the thing with dogs: many years ago when I was a young lad, I made this movie called The Beastmaster (1982), and I learned not to expect much from animals. [Their performances] all have to be done in terms of editing and just lots of shooting. But this dog — and his real name is Bark Lee — I’d known for awhile, because [his owner is] a good friend who was one of the co-producers on the movie, Brad Baruh. So I thought, “Why couldn’t Brad’s dog just play the role?” Brad started training him on his own, and it worked out great. He did very well.

SFBG How did the special effects in John Dies break down, in terms of props versus CGI?

DC I never really quantified which is which. We probably bit off more than we could chew in terms of too many digital effects. But, look — they’re all just tools, and you just have to find the right one for the right thing. Sometimes, combining the two can be so much better than either of them.

The meat monster sequence [in John Dies] was always a challenge. In pre-production, I was trying to figure out how to do it. I consulted a lot of friends and effects folks, and was thinking at one time of making it a 3D construct. But then it had to interact with the actors, and throw out a sausage link and grab ’em by the neck, and I just didn’t see how that would work in CG.

Robert Kurtzman, who is one of the guys from K.N.B. EFX Group, had also done the Bubba Ho-Tep monster. He did an illustration where we could do it as a man in a suit, so we did it that way — and the suit is a total work of art. When it was finished, we added some highlights with CG, where we animated the little trout that runs up the back of the meat monster as he’s coming together. I think that added a level of bizarreness to it that took the edge off it just being only rubber.

SFBG John Dies has a lot going on: gore, surreal humor, buddy comedy elements, and even some film noir flair. How did you get the tone just right?

DC It’s all a function of the editing process. Going into it I had a lot of ideas about what the tone would be, but when you’re filming it’s hard to really keep track of that. With this screenplay, there was always the opportunity for it to go off the rails. It takes so many liberties and it’s so out there.

Luckily I had enough time where I was able to bracket the performances. I could do a subtle one, I could do a moderate one, and I could do an over-the-top one. Editing’s really like writing with visuals — you can watch the previous scene and watch the succeeding scene and then tailor it so that you’ve got some sort of tone and flow. But it always was a challenge.

SFBG Any chance you’ll ever make that Bubba Ho-Tep sequel?

DC Elvis is eternal. He will outlive all of us! It’s something I would like to do. It felt like it was gonna happen, about three or four years ago, and then it just fell apart. But I still would love to do it one day, and I’ve got a lot of great ideas.

One of the best things about Bubba was that we had a load of fun thinking up sequels. You can just take Bubba and put a monster after it, and you’d have a sequel. You’re talking about weird ones like Bubba Blob, and of course there was always Bubba Sasquatch, which would have been great. Because, you know, Elvis in the woods fighting a tribe of Bigfoot … now that would be cool! 

JOHN DIES AT THE END opens Fri/8 in Bay Area theaters.

Old joy — and pain



FILM Film editor Sari Gilman — her resume includes 2007’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and 2002’s Blue Vinyl — made her directorial debut with the 30-minute documentary Kings Point, a bittersweet exploration of a Florida retirement community. The film first screened locally as part of the 2012 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and will air on HBO in March. In the meantime, it’s been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. I caught up with Gilman to talk about her film — and little gold men.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Congratulations on your nomination! You knew your film was on the shortlist, but were you surprised when you made the final cut?

Sari Gilman Thank you! You know, I had no idea. I have worked very hard in my life to try not to predict the future. [Laughs.] I was very happy when I found out, but I don’t think it would have destroyed me if it hadn’t happened. Obviously, though, it’s a total thrill and a complete honor, and more than I ever expected when I started making this movie.

SFBG Do you get to, like, walk the red carpet?

SG I do! I gotta get a dress! I mean, not that anyone’s going to care who I’m wearing, but for me, it’ll be fun.

SFBG What’s your connection to Kings Point, the place, and what made you want to create a documentary about it?

SG My grandmother moved to the community in 1978, when I was about nine years old. I visited her there many times a year for 30 years. About 15 years in, I was starting to get involved in storytelling and still photography, and I was always really fascinated with the place on a couple of different levels: socially, it sort of seemed like it was a summer camp for old people, and then visually — it’s 7500 identical one- and two-bedroom condominium units, spread out over miles. So there’s a lot of architectural homogeneity. These long hallways that look exactly the same, with these palm-tree shadows on them. It seemed like a natural place to start exploring.

SFBG Since you knew the residents already, was it easier to get them to open up in interviews?

SG I think so. None of the subjects in the final film were people that I knew personally before I started making it, but some of them did know my grandmother, and they all knew me as the granddaughter of someone who lived there. I think that’s what made it easy for them to talk to me. I also shared a lot with them about my grandmother’s experience and my experience there, so the interviews weren’t so much interviews as they were conversations. Obviously, we cut my voice out in most cases, but I think that I was able to get the kind of candid stories that I got because I was on the other end of the camera talking to them.

SFBG Though you’ve worked extensively as an editor on other people’s films, you didn’t edit Kings Point. Why was that?

SG As an editor, I knew how badly I needed an editor. I know that directors need to have a collaborator to provide perspective, and look at the footage with a little more of an objective eye. I got incredibly lucky in that I was able to hire Jeffrey Friedman [co-director, with Rob Epstein, of 2010’s Howl and 1995’s The Celluloid Closet, among others], who is a local luminary and an amazing filmmaker who edits occasionally. He was actually my mentor when I was learning how to edit in the 1990s in San Francisco, so working with him on my first film was a really great experience.

SFBG The tone of the film is unique in the way that it balances light-hearted moments with the sort of sad undertone that runs throughout.

SG That was the biggest challenge. I knew there was going to be sadness and darkness, and humor and lightness, and I had a sense of what I wanted that to be, but I knew from the beginning that it would be hard to achieve. Jeffrey and I spent a lot of time achieving the tone. It was kind of like salt and sugar — “A little sprinkle here, oh, now it’s too dark, let’s add more of the other.” The feeling that I wanted to evoke, more than anything, was that certain feeling that I had when I was visiting there.

SFBG Had you always intended for Kings Point to be a short film?

SG No, I actually intended it to be a feature. It was in the cutting room that we decided to make it a short. A large part of that was because of the tone, actually — we had enough story to keep it going, but the tone of those stories were shifting the film in a direction that I wasn’t comfortable with. It was a little more of that “cute old person” movie. Kitschy, kind of, “Look at the old people doing belly dancing,” or whatever.

I was extremely sensitive to the fact that most people, when they heard about the film, would think that’s what they were going to be seeing. I was a little crazy-determined not to make that movie, because that wasn’t what my experience was. That’s not what I saw. In cutting it down, we got rid of a lot of the lighter stuff, which is what helped us achieve the tone that we did.

SFBG There have been several films with themes about aging lately: Amour, Quartet, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (all 2012) come to mind. Why do you think that is?

SG Oh, I definitely want to see Amour. I think it’s a moment whose time has come. As a population, the baby boomers have now started to retire, and in the next 20 years, we are going to see a major shift in the demographics of this country. There will be many, many more elderly than there are now. I think that people are starting to think about aging issues in a new way.

I truly hope Kings Point will encourage people to have those kinds of discussions. Nobody likes to grow old or think about what’s going to happen, but the truth is that we kind of need to. There’s a bit of a denial about the realities of aging; there’s so much emphasis placed on being independent, self-reliant, and remaining active. On the cover of AARP Magazine, you always see pictures of, like, 75-year-olds on bicycles riding to the beach. And that’s great, and everyone wants that to be their experience, but not everyone is so lucky. *


Damnation investigation



FILM It’s a peculiarity of our moment that the worse things get, the more people seem inclined to think everyone else is going to hell. Their interpretation of the Bible (or Quran, or whatever) is seemingly absolute, yet God seems to stay on their side no matter which way the worldly wind might blow. Righteous judgment of others has practically become the American way, not that we were ever less than an opinionated bunch.

There is much talk of “God’s love,” but in popular and pious discourse these days it seems exclusively to be tough love — the emphasis on cautionary corrective smack downs and threats of everlasting hellfire rather than comfort and salvation, to an often lunatic degree. Just when did so many get so interested in, even quite eager about, waggling a finger at those presumed to be headed Down There?

Documentarian Kevin Miller has an answer: 9/11. At least that provides an easy and dramatic turning point, from which a great many Americans seemed to become experts in who should be doomed to sizzle in that never-ending frying pan. As one political pundit put it on CNN soon after the Twin Towers tragedy, America now had a license to “Blow them all away in the name of the Lord.” A national desire for revenge was understandable. But that event did seem to trigger a fundamental shift in our society, and the public discourse hasn’t much calmed down since.

Miller’s Hellbound? uses reactions to 9/11 as one recurrent measure of why the “eternal conscious torment” theory of hell — as opposed to annihilationism, in which only the righteous experience immortality (the rest are simply destroyed), let alone namby-pamby, forgiveness-based universalism — holds such sway today. All three concepts are equally supported by Biblical passages; various historians and theologians here note how hesitantly Judaism first accepted the notion of a punitive afterlife (apparently inherited from Zoroastrianism), and how debate of such slippery ideas was often — not always, but often — considered a healthy part of religious devotion through the history of Christianity. After all, so many events and messages in the Bible are open to interpretation — not to mention the drastic changes in understanding that can occur when you take into consideration the linguistic, historical, political, and social contexts in which they were originally written (then frequently revised).

Yet as everyone knows, today a great number of people — some loud and influential — overlook all that in the hard certainty that they understand exactly what the Bible means and what God is saying. Particularly what and whom he doesn’t like, which inevitably points fingers at others (the gays, the welfare cheaters, the Muslims, Piers Morgan) rather than oneself. Miller spends a fair amount of time chatting up the hate-a-holics of Westboro Baptist Church, and while you might groan anytime they get a public forum, he actually engages with them sufficiently to avoid a yelling contest — and to demonstrate how “Not only do I damn you but God damns you too” bile is a cartoon masquerading as evangelical faith.

After all, as one calmer voice puts it, playing “paper Pope” as a smug individual interpreter of Biblical condemnation runs counter to a vast majority of what’s actually in that book.

“The irony is that you have this teacher named Jesus and then you essentially side with his enemies in [your] behavior,” says Crazy for God author Frank Schaeffer. “Evangelicism is for America what the Pharisees were in ancient Israel. These guys wreak vengeance on the people who bring the good news about a loving god … because that message puts the gatekeepers out of a job.”

Why would God create enormous numbers of folk — say, all those non-Christian ones — just to send them to Hades? If you’re a Buddhist or a Sikh raised in religious isolation, how have you exercised a personal “choice” against the true God that justifies sending you there? Don’t ask, just shut up, feel the fear, and hate who I hate — or such seems to be the message of many prominent “Christians” of late. But: “If you have a paradigm that doesn’t allow you to ask questions, there’s something wrong with your paradigm,” as another scholar puts it here.

In fact, Jesus was all about the loving enemies, plenty of the Bible suggests ultimate reconciliation and “washing of sins” for all, and isn’t making God hateful just a way of justifying the hate we feel ourselves? Maybe hell was merely meant to be “your condition, not a place … the malice we feel within our own conscience that ‘burns’ us,” an Orthodox rabbi says. God’s justice as restorative and healing, embracing all — the dread word is not heard in Hellbound?, but one could easily imagine many fervent believers of today feeling that that long-running yet currently unfashionable interpretation is dangerously close to, y’know, Socialism. *


Thu/17-Sat/19, 7:30pm (also Sat/19, 4pm); Sun/20, 2 and 4pm

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF



Hardly strictly British



FILM “In Somalia there are no such things as kid actors and stage moms,” explains the trailer for Asad, an 18-minute film about a Somali boy forced to choose between fishing and piracy. “There are just survivors telling a story.”

Critically acclaimed, winner of much festival love, and just nominated for a Live Action Short Film Oscar, Asad is one of many stories filling the Mostly British Film Festival, a week-long spotlight of works from the UK, Ireland, Australia, and South Africa. Some of these tales are less-than-inspiring — like the Downton Abbey-biting Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, based on a 1932 novella, though its period setting is mostly conveyed cinematically by some fetching gowns and hairstyles. As uncertain bride Dolly (Felicity Jones) guzzles rum in her bedroom, her boisterous, moneyed family (headed by Downton‘s Elizabeth McGovern) makes nice through gritted teeth while waiting for her to emerge in her wedding dress.

The tension cranks to 11 when Dolly’s rather recent ex (Luke Treadaway) shows up for the ceremony. We see their relationship unfold in golden flashbacks, and though it’s clear they deserve each other — neither character is particularly likable, for one thing — a reunion between the two is clearly not in the cards; heavy symbolism like the pair finding a rotting fox carcass on one of their summer jaunts makes this all too clear.

Fear not, though — a far more satisfying doomed romance, if such a thing is possible, unfolds in Jump, a Northern Ireland-set crime thriller whose jumbled-up chronology is contained within a single night. Though his script (co-written with Steve Brookes) gets a bit coincidence-heavy by the end, director Kieron J. Walsh brings a crackling energy to this tale of Greta (Nichola Burley, from last year’s Wuthering Heights), a gangster’s daughter who decides to end it all on New Year’s Eve. Teetering on a bridge rail, dressed as an angel (cough), she meets a man (Martin McCann) who convinces her not to take the plunge.

Once they discover a connection (long story short: they both hate her dad), they decide to rip off her father’s club and blow town. Elsewhere in time, dad’s goons (one rabid, one reluctant) chase down the missing money, while Greta’s two friends (one of whom is costumed as a slutty Mary Poppins) bumble through New Year’s and somehow get involved in the events described above. Everyone’s life is a mess (typical NYE: someone’s sobbing on the sidewalk, someone’s in jail), but all the loose ends are tied up by act three. As Greta points out in her fantastic accent, “Nothing’s real. It’s like a fillum.”

Other new films: opening-night pick Hunky Dory, starring Minnie Driver (who’ll appear in person) as an inspirational music teacher; Her Master’s Voice, a documentary about “world famous British ventriloquist Nina Conti,” who also directs; The Sapphires, about a 1960s girl group determined to find fame beyond the Australian Outback; Michael Apted’s 56 Up, the latest in his long-running doc series; Ken Loach’s love-beyond-borders tale Ae Fond Kiss; and the closing-night film, James Marsh’s IRA drama Shadow Dancer, starring Clive Owen and rising talent Andrea Riseborough.

Classic films also have their place at Mostly British. Fans of James Mason take note, as both Carol Reed’s 1947 noir Odd Man Out (starring Mason as an imperiled IRA agent) and Sidney Lumet’s 1966 espionage drama The Deadly Affair will screen. The latter features a sweet Quincy Jones bossa nova score — so incongruous to the setting and action it’s both distracting and awesome — and a blustering turn by Mason as a spy whose job woes are eclipsed only by the anguish he feels over his cheatin’ wife. All kinds of juicy Cold War intrigue in this one: code names, suspicious deaths, mysterious postcards, and bag-switching plots, plus stellar supporting turns by Harry Andrews as a tough guy (who also loves bunnies), and fading sexpot Simone Signoret as a secretive Holocaust survivor.

Another pair of oldies well worth revisiting, or seeing for the first time, are included in Mostly British’s David Lean double feature, which also happens to be a double feature for star Celia Johnson. In 1944 family drama This Happy Breed — as plot-twisty, character-stuffed, and entertaining as a soap opera, and shot in color to boot — she’s the brow-furrowed matriarch of a working-class family that tumbles through the decades between World Wars I and II. In 1945’s lusciously black-and-white Brief Encounter, she’s a lonely housewife who rediscovers desire after a chance meeting with an also-married doctor (Trevor Howard). Speaking of doomed romances, Johnson’s Oscar-nominated performance is a major reason why this film has become such a classic of that genre. *


Jan. 17-24, $12.50-$35 (festival pass, $99)

Vogue Theatre

3290 Sacramento, SF



Nero worship



FILM Though it’s much more a Southern than a Western — closer to Mandingo (1975) than Red River (1948), that’s for sure — Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained nonetheless pays specific homage to spaghetti westerns in its title and some stylistic fillips.

The subgenre of Euro-westerns that briefly revived the flagging American genre in the mid-to-late 1960s, spaghettis remain defined by their most famous creator, Sergio Leone. He kickstarted the vogue with 1964’s sleeper hit A Fistful of Dollars — a stark, nihilistic tale of greed and revenge that borrowed heavily from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo and turned Clint Eastwood into an international idol. It wasn’t strictly the first of its type, but the unexpected splash it made, plus its director’s singular cinematic voice, would continue to define spaghettis long after their heyday had passed. The huge close-ups, austere widescreen vistas, sparse dialogue, and cynical and violent content were Leone signatures that would be widely imitated — not just because these films were highly commercial for a time, but because their essences were ones that could be mimicked effectively enough by the lowliest fly-by-night production company.


Before it breathed its last, the genre had coughed up about 600 such knockoffs, the vast majority between 1965 and 1972 or so. Most of them were made in haste, interchangeable in flavor and story, and tedious to all but the diehard fan. As with many Italian-born film export waves, this one ensured its quick demise by cranking out so much crap.

Of course, there were exceptions beyond Leone’s, probably the most beloved and certainly the most influential of them being the original Django. Playing a rare theatrical revival, Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 bloodbath took the morbidity and weirdness of spaghettis — at least compared to their generally wholesome American forebears — and ran amuck, pushing gallows humor to the edge of black comedy. While not nearly as well remembered in the US as the Eastwood films, it was huge at the time, so much so that at least 30 features with “Django” in the title followed, even when no character with that name appeared on-screen.

The reason for all this is that Django, and his movie, remain dead cool. At least you couldn’t get any cooler than that most alarmingly handsome of Italian actors Franco Nero in black floor-length duster and leather hat, dragging a coffin around the desert, striking a stylishly sinister balance between Eastwood’s Man With No Name and José Mojica Marins’ Coffin Joe. His Django was a sardonic figure of mystery seeking revenge on bandits led by a corrupt military officer. Umpteen unpleasant altercations later, there’s a great climactic shootout in a graveyard, cementing Django’s vaguely evangelical air with some outright blasphemy.

Just what was in that box? Death, natch, but not in the way you might think — Django used his coffin as a plus-sized version of the way a movie gangster uses a violin case. The film was so violent for its era, what with ears sliced off and a body count of nearly 150, that it was banned for many years in various countries. The multilingual, far-left-leaning Nero preferred to pursue artistic adventure rather than genre success, making few other westerns. He does, however, duly make a cameo appearance in Django Unchained, sans coffin but still looking mighty fine for 71.


Fri/18, 11pm, $8.50-$11

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF



Golden doodles



Yeah, the presidential election happened months ago. But the most intense campaign season is just beginning, as multiple ceremonies ramp up to Hollywood’s ultimate night of self-congratulation (and occasionally questionable fashion): the Academy Awards. The nominations will be announced Jan. 10; the ceremony, hosted by first-timer Seth MacFarlane — of Family Guy and talking teddy bear fame — is Feb. 24. Predictions are based on Golden Globe nominations, Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, Independent Spirit Award nominations, random news and gossip reports, and my own loudmouthed opinion.

Best Actor This one’s already in the bag, or more accurately, tucked under the stovepipe hat: Daniel Day-Lewis is the closest thing 2013 has to a lock, for Lincoln. The only strike against the two-time winner is that his last trophy came pretty recently, for 2007’s There Will Be Blood. Though it’s unlikely any of the other nominees have a chance, best guesses for also-rans are Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables (he sings!); John Hawkes for The Sessions (he’s paralyzed!); and Denzel Washington for Flight (he drinks!) The fifth slot could go to Silver Linings Playbook‘s Bradley Cooper, The Master‘s Joaquin Phoenix (my pick), or dark horse Jack Black, for Bernie.

Best Actress Two women enter, one woman leaves … with a little gold man in tow. Best Actress looks to be a battle between Zero Dark Thirty‘s Jessica Chastain and Silver Linings Playbook‘s Jennifer Lawrence. Both have been nominated before, though Chastain might have an edge here: Zero is a serious action-drama that’s been hyped more than Playbook, and Chastain — last year’s “Where did she come from and why is she in every movie?” surprise — has settled down from overexposed newcomer to reliable talent. Lawrence, also the lead in the mega-popular Hunger Games series, is just 22 years old, and though her sophisticated work in Playbook belies her relative youth, she may be passed over with the understanding that she’ll soon be nominated again.

Other names that will likely appear on the ballot: Marion Cotillard, a past winner, for playing a woman who loses her legs in Rust and Bone; and Naomi Watts, a past nominee who should probably have gotten a statuette by now, for playing the matriarch of a tsunami-ravaged family in The Impossible. The last slot could go to Academy fave Helen Mirren (for the so-so Hitchcock); another past winner, Rachel Weisz, for her raw turn in The Deep Blue Sea; Emmanuelle Riva, winner of the San Francisco Film Critic Circle’s Best Actress award for her work as a dying woman in Amour; or grade-school discovery Quevenzhané Wallis, for her tough-sprite turn in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Best Supporting Actor After I saw Argo, I was certain that Alan Arkin (who won in this category for 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine) would repeat. Then I saw Lincoln, and decided Tommy Lee Jones was the clear favorite. Then I saw Django Unchained, and Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Christoph Waltz lurched forth. I suspect all of Django‘s supporting cast won’t actually be nominated (my favorite of the trio: Jackson), and The Master’s Philip Seymour Hoffman and Silver Linings Playbook‘s Robert De Niro are likely contenders. Matthew McConaughey could also slither in, for the crowd-pleasing Magic Mike. But right now, I’m leaning toward the hilariously world-weary Jones for the win. “It opens!”

Best Supporting Actress It’s going to be Sally Field, the nutty-yet-sympathetic Mary Todd in Lincoln, versus Anne Hathaway, the weepy, shorn Fantine in Les Misérables. I am not a Hathaway fan, but if the Academy — who are not immune to being emotionally manipulated by director Tom Hooper (2010’s Best Picture The King’s Speech) — wants to award someone from Les Mis, she’s more likely to squeak in than Jackman. Plus, she hosted the Oscars a few years ago. That’s got to count for something, right?

Other nominees: I’m hoping both Amy Adams (spooky in The Master) and Nicole Kidman (daffy in the Paperboy) get nods, but any slots left over will probably be filled by The Sessions’ Helen Hunt or Maggie “Dowager Countess 4-Lyfe” Smith, for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Best Screenplay (Original and Adapted) The Golden Globes, the Oscars’ boozier little bro, doesn’t differentiate between original or adapted, but its lumped-together nominees contain the likely winners in each category: Mark Boal for Zero Dark Thirty (original), and Tony Kushner for Lincoln (adapted). Other original nominees could include Django Unchained, The Master, Amour, and Looper; other adapted nominees will be sure-things Argo and Silver Linings Playbook, with The Sessions and Beasts of the Southern Wild possibly filling out the category.

Best Documentary The 15-film short list was released in early December, so there’s a bit of navigational help with this one. I have seen most (but not all) of the films on the list; with that disclaimer, my predictions for the final five are: The House I Live In, The Imposter, Searching for Sugar Man, This Is Not a Film, and the SFFCC’s top doc, locally-made hospital drama The Waiting Room. I’m still awaiting the chance to check out Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, a highly-praised look at clerical sex abuse from oft-nominated (and once-rewarded, for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side) director Alex Gibney.

Best Foreign Language Film Since only one film per country can be submitted, and The Intouchables snagged France’s spot, my favorite movie of the year (Holy Motors) isn’t even eligible. But that doesn’t matter, really — Intouchables will likely get a nod, but this race is for the critically-beloved Amour (from Austrian director Michael Haneke, whose The White Ribbon was nominated in 2010) to lose. Other short listers (there are a total of nine) include Canada’s War Witch, Chile’s No, Denmark’s A Royal Affair, Romania’s Beyond the Hills, and Switzerland’s Sister.

Best Director/Best Picture As Steven Spielberg surely recalls, just because you win Best Director (for 1998’s Saving Private Ryan) doesn’t mean Shakespeare in Love won’t swoop in and steal your Best Picture prize. Oscar can tap between five and ten nominees for Best Picture, so the categories won’t necessarily line up — but this year, they just might. Look for the top contenders to be Kathryn Bigelow-Zero Dark Thirty (see my review elsewhere in this issue; it’s also my pick to win), and Spielberg-Lincoln. Other likely nominees: Paul Thomas Anderson-The Master; Ben Affleck-Argo; Tom Hooper-Les Misérables; David O. Russell-Silver Linings Playbook; and Michael Haneke-Amour.


Bigger than Bigelow



FILM There was hella hoopla over Kathryn Bigelow being the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, for 2010’s The Hurt Locker. It’s a good possibility she’ll soon be the first woman to win two directing Oscars, if Zero Dark Thirty‘s remarkable haul of critical kudos continues into statuette season.

But even if Zero (more on that below) doesn’t claim cinema’s top prize, Bigelow will probably win another Best Directing Oscar before another woman anyway. She’s just about the only female director making films that work Oscar’s magic formula: critically praised, culturally significant, headline-grabbing, and popularly loved (with box-office hauls to match). Women may be making inroads on the screenwriting end of things (and you’ll find lauded female names among documentary, foreign-language, and film-producing credits), but the most successful post-millennial female directors — Sofia Coppola (a Best Original Screenplay winner for 2003’s Lost in Translation), Catherine Hardwicke, Andrea Arnold, Debra Granick, Lisa Cholodenko, Lynn Shelton, Kelly Reichardt, and Sarah Polley, to name a few — haven’t been able to tick enough of those golden boxes.

Whether or not a film wins an Oscar is hardly a measure of its true worth. But hoisting a Best Directing Oscar does count for something important, particularly in an industry that largely runs on male power. Bigelow’s success is particularly notable because she does not make so-called “women’s pictures,” whatever that may mean (she did make a vampire flick long before Hardwicke, though, as fans of 1987’s Near Dark will recall). With the exception of 2000’s little-seen The Weight of Water and 1989’s Blue Steel (would anyone remember that movie, if not for Derek Zoolander?) — with honorable mention for Angela Bassett’s formidable supporting turn in 1995’s Strange Days — Bigelow’s films tend to be, uh, “men’s pictures.”


The surfing, skydiving, bank-robbin’ three-punch of Point Break (1991) allowed Keanu Reeves to set a course for action-hero superstardom (without it, he’d never have been cast in 1994’s Speed); though the film features a traditional romantic subplot, it’s mostly about the bromance between Reeves’ undercover FBI agent and Patrick Swayze’s New Age macho man. K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) was Bigelow’s first foray into a military milieu; its tale of trouble aboard a Soviet nuclear submarine, circa 1961, was couched in a $100 million production that neither earned back its budget nor convinced anyone of Harrison Ford’s ability to do a Russian accent. (Interestingly, the film’s Rotten Tomatoes summary foreshadows the reception to date of Zero Dark Thirty: “A gripping drama even though the filmmakers have taken liberties with the facts.”)

Bigelow rebounded with The Hurt Locker (2008) — scooping up her accolades in front of ex-husband and former film-production partner James Cameron, whose 2008 Avatar grossed billions but didn’t win over Academy voters. Set during the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker follows the high-stakes, high-tension routine of a three-man bomb disposal team. It launched actor Jeremy Renner to stardom, and earned a screenwriting Oscar for Mark Boal, a journalist who’d been embedded with a US Army bomb squad. Along with the 2008 HBO mini-series Generation Kill (based on a book written by a journalist embedded with the Marines at almost the same time as Boal), The Hurt Locker — a tense, gritty thriller shot using hand-held cameras — was one of the first large-scale docu-dramas based on the months immediately following the 2003 invasion.

After the Oscars, rumor had it that Bigelow and Boal’s next film would be a South American “drug parable,” with big names like Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp floated as possible stars. Clearly, a more exciting project took precedence — one that’s already raked in critic’s association prizes, and raised the ire of government types, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who insist that it has “taken liberties with the facts.”

Front-loaded with equal parts acclaim and controversy, Zero Dark Thirty moves into wider release this week, and larger audiences will be able to make up their own minds about it. It’s certainly edgier than another 2012 film about CIA heroics. (There’s no waterboarding in Argo.) “What I want you to know is that Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts,” CIA Acting Director Michael Morell explained in a recent statement, taking issue not just with the depiction of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (that’s “torture” to you and me), but also the way the film singles out one character as masterminding the operation to take down Osama bin Laden.

“The point was to immerse the audience in this landscape, not to pretend to debate policy,” Bigelow responded in an interview with entertainment site the Wrap. “Was it difficult to shoot? Yes. Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes, but it was.”

The extent to which torture was actually used in the hunt for bin Laden may never be known, though popular opinion will surely be shaped by this film, as it’s produced with the same kind of “realness” that made The Hurt Locker so potent. Zero Dark Thirty incorporates torture early in its chronology — which begins in 2003, after a brief opening that captures the terror of September 11, 2001 using only 911 phone calls — but the practice is discarded after 2008, a sea-change year marked by the sight of Obama on TV insisting that “America does not torture.” (The “any more” goes unspoken.)

Most of Zero Dark Thirty is set in Pakistan and/or “CIA black sites” in undisclosed locations; it’s a suspenseful procedural that manages to make well-documented events (the July 2005 London bombings; the September 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing; the December 2009 bombing of Camp Chapman in Afghanistan) seem shocking and unexpected. Even the raid on bin Laden’s HQ is nail-bitingly intense. The film immerses the viewer in the clandestine world, tossing out abbreviations (“KSM” for al-Qaeda bigwig Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and jargon (“tradecraft”) without pausing for a breath. It is thrilling, emotional, engrossing — the smartest, most tightly-constructed action film of the year.

At the center of it all: a character allegedly based on a real person whose actual identity is kept top-secret by necessity. She’s interpreted here in the form of a steely CIA operative named Maya, played to likely Oscar-winning perfection by Jessica Chastain. No matter the film’s divisive subject matter, there’s no denying that this is a powerful performance. Maya is the perfect Bigelow lead; she succeeds in a male-dominated world by focusing solely on her job and her ultimate goal, sexism and gender politics be damned. “Washington says she’s a killer,” a character remarks after meeting this seemingly delicate creature, and he’s proven right long before bin Laden goes down.

Some critics have argued that the character is underdeveloped, but anyone who says that isn’t watching closely enough. Maya may not be given a traditional back story (all we know is she was recruited into the agency after high school), or any outside life to speak of (even Renner’s unhinged Hurt Locker vet is shown going home to a wife and kid), or the desire to distract herself with romance (“I’m not the girl who fucks … it’s unbecoming” she explains at one point, dismissing a colleague’s inquiry into her social life). But there’s plenty of interior life there, and it comes through in quick, vulnerable flashes — leading up to the payoff of the film’s devastating final shot.


ZERO DARK THIRTY opens Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters.

No headbutting?



LIT/FILM The folding travel toothbrush is a central element in every Jack Reacher novel. It’s his only possession, the only thing the wandering ex-military cop takes with him when he throws away his old clothes and buys new ones, the only thing that ties him directly to his old life in the U.S. Army. It’s part of the Reacher formula, one that consistently works through 17 books by Lee Child.

It’s not in the Jack Reacher movie.

That was the first sign that one of the best trash-lit characters to come on the scene since John D. MacDonald invented Travis McGee hasn’t translated so well to the big screen. (McGee never did, either; the only McGee movies ever made were disasters, and MacDonald hated all of them.)

But the esoteric musings of McGee, on everything from Florida real-estate development to the demise of San Francisco, were the charm that held those modest plots together. Child, who has a background in television production, offers more action-packed stories with all the elements that ought to make a great movie.

Like MacDonald, though, Child goes a bit deeper than the traditional trashy thriller writer. His books have themes of violence and redemption, of freedom and responsibility, of wanderlust and homesickness that can’t just be shoehorned into a fast-paced screenplay with Tom Cruise. This may not be Shakespearean literature, but it isn’t Mission Impossible, either.

To make it more challenging, there are long periods of silence in the Reacher book, and those don’t work will in today’s mainstream cinema — but without them, the pacing is all wrong.

I showed up at the movie ready to be let down. The diminutive and emotional Cruise seemed all wrong as the tall, taciturn Reacher; I was hoping for a more Daniel Craig approach. Child, on the other hand, was totally down with the casting, so I was ready to give it a shot. (Or, as the book title from whence this flick emerged put it, One Shot.)

The book is a classic of the Reacher oevre, with a tiny bit of 2007’s Shooter mixed in. There’s a former Army sniper named James Barr (Joseph Sikora) who gets charged with an apparently random killing spree; the evidence is overwhelming, the cops have him nailed, and the execution-mad district attorney tells him if he doesn’t confess, he’s going to get the death penalty.

Barr refuses to talk; he just takes a legal pad and writes “Get Jack Reacher.” Which turns out to be tricky; Reacher has no address, no credit cards, no car, no driver’s license … nothing to pin him down. He’s almost impossible to find.

But he shows up on his own — not to help save Barr but to tell the cops that the guy once murdered a bunch of civilian contractors in Iraq. Reacher had him nailed, but the Army, for political reasons, let the case go. He’s ready to send the guy to the chair, if he doesn’t kill him with his own hands first.

But then the DA’s daughter, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), who is representing Barr, convinces Reacher to take another look, and together they discover a fiendish plot involving an 80-year-old mob capo from the old Soviet Gulag.

Nice movie plot. And the film version doesn’t take too many liberties with the general idea of the book.

But there’s no headbutting, which is Reacher’s trademark fighting technique. And he never has sex with the female protagonist, which is disappointing.

That and the fact that the movie’s about 20 minutes too long — and the car chase scene alone is about five minutes too long (and car chases are not part of the Reacher mix) and there’s an embarassing scene where Cruise takes his shirt off just so we can see him with his shirt off left me wondering: did Lee Child really sign off on this screenplay?

So that’s the bad news. The good news is that the film is entertaining, Cruise does the best he can under the circumstances, and he delivers the key lines nicely. Pike does a fine job of being sexy without being movie-star beautiful. The fight scenes are lively and fun and not too overdone.

And Werner Herzog is just spectacular as the evil Zec, a man so tough that he chewed his fingers off in prison to avoid getting gangrene. Watching Herzog sneer and be scary, horrible, and fascinating at the same time is worth the price of admission.

No nudity. Five people beaten near death. Three cops cars destroyed. Sniper porn. Fight to the death in the pouring rain. Not a great tribute to a great character, but I’ll take it. *

JACK REACHER is now playing in Bay Area theaters.