One of the many refreshing aspects of Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated is that it doesn’t focus on an obvious topic. Documentaries have begun reaching more viewers in recent years, but few take on the many-fangled foibles of the Bush era in an imaginative manner. Dick’s new film does, in addition to providing a lesson about the intersection between film history and American history, a convergence that isn’t as petty or easily dismissed as one might think. This is a smartly comedic private-eye movie with a feminist, even lesbian sensibility. It’s just dressed up in doc clothes.
Leaving aside Dick’s last name, in This Film Is Not Yet Rated the real private dick is Becky Altringer, a PI the director hires to spy on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) — to reach inside its seemingly impenetrable gated fortress and help reveal its inner workings. Taking a cue from Michael Moore, Dick foregrounds Altringer, a woman normal enough to admit that she gets a thrill (necessary amid the waiting and drudgery that make up most of her day) out of spying on people who don’t know she’s watching them. It also sets her portrait against the entitled eccentricity of the MPAA’s oft Republican and rich members, who discriminate against the likes of Altringer on a daily basis in the name of their own supposed normalcy. Needless to say, they’re a pretty kooky bunch.
Dick’s strongest subtext is female pleasure. Here is a filmmaker who has read his Laura Mulvey yet somehow not wound up with a starchy collar. Considering his past work on subjects such as artist and masochist Bob Flanagan, it isn’t a stretch to say that a Bay Area brand of feminism informs Dick’s latest work, which devotes a lot of time to female (and often queer) filmmakers whose visions of sexuality have made the MPAA uncomfortable. Sitting before a movie poster that spells out her attitude toward recently retired MPAA president Jack Valenti, a Peppermint Patty–rasping Kimberly Peirce tells how the ratings board was much more threatened by a close-up of Chloë Sevigny’s face in orgasmic bliss from lesbian oral sex than it was by, say, Boys Don’t Cry’s protagonist getting a bullet in the head. Mary Harron is even more perceptive in her discussion of the organization and its reaction to her American Psycho. A scene in which the killer literally chomps cannibalistically on a woman’s crotch bothered them less than an orgy scene.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated moves rather quickly through the Hays Code clampdown, a very conservative period in Hollywood. But it does take the necessary time to dig into the ascent of Lyndon B. Johnson underling Lew Wasserman. His influence lingers: for decades under the Wasserman-appointed Valenti’s command, the MPAA has worked in tandem with the major studios to squash individuality and independence. Bearing the IFC and Netflix stamps of approval, Dick’s movie arrives at a time when home video receipts dwarf theatrical box office numbers, and thus the ratings system (outside of Blockbuster country) might not matter as much as it once did. But right now is better than never when it comes to tarnishing a corrupt institution’s legacy.SFBG
THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED
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Low-key yet brutal, Half Nelson is exactly the kind of movie Hollywood will never make. Notably, it’s entirely cliché free. There’s no deliverance for Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), an eighth-grade teacher whose raging crack habit is steadily taking over his life. There’s no real turnaround for 13-year-old Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of Dan’s students who’s being eyeballed for drug-delivery service by the neighborhood dealer, Frank (Anthony Mackie). And though Dan and Drey forge an alliance amid their unstable worlds — they kinda have to after Drey discovers Dan, who’s also her basketball coach, hitting the pipe after a game — the friendship is a shaky one. “I want to know consequences,” Dan tells his class, trying to get them excited about his latest history lesson (later, he’ll engage in an arm-wrestling contest to illustrate “turning points”). But in his own life, Dan can barely face another day without getting high first.
The first feature from producer-writer Anna Boden and director-writer Ryan Fleck, the unflashy Half Nelson uses subtlety to speak volumes. Its beats are succinct but intense: when Dan’s ex-junkie ex-girlfriend briefly appears, she’s rosy cheeked and sporting an engagement ring — pretty much the embodiment of the kind of hope for the future that Dan can’t imagine ever having. The film doesn’t spend much time on exposition. We never learn how or why Dan started using. Like last year’s Down to the Bone, Half Nelson burrows into the mind of a full-blown addict whose ability to fake normalcy becomes more precarious by the day. The first time the stern principal hooks Dan into an emergency meeting, it’s to reprimand him for straying from the lesson plan. The second time, he’s just taught a class on hyperdrive, with an oozing nosebleed to boot, and his double life is in full crumble.
Even as she comes to terms with her favorite teacher’s shortcomings, Drey has plenty of her own problems. Her weary mother barely has time for her between double shifts; her father is merely a voice on the telephone; and her older brother is incarcerated, a circumstance that’s the direct result of his association with Frank. To Dan’s dismay, the candy-chomping Frank insinuates himself into Drey’s largely unsupervised life, and an odd tug-of-war results. Clearly, neither man is a good father figure, not by any stretch. There’s a tense confrontation between Frank and Dan that perfectly illustrates Half Nelson’s ability to inject unpredictability into familiar movie moments. The scene also picks up a key thematic thread — can one man make a difference? — that’s echoed by Dan throughout the film, particularly in a late scene involving a visit to his grossly liberal (and liberally inebriated) parents.
Half Nelson is a film with no wasted space, and that goes double for its acting. Epps (stoic) and Mackie (charmingly manipulative) are excellent, but this is Gosling’s game from the start. His layered, sympathetic performance conveys not just Dan’s jittery freak-outs and frustrations but also his deep inner anguish. It’s what makes watching Half Nelson a wholly satisfying experience. (Cheryl Eddy)
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Poor Generalissimo Franco, not yet dead a decade before the Spanish film industry he’d so carefully censored gained its new leading tastemaker: a plump, girly homo fond of gender blur, anticlericalism, and nuclear-family meltdowns. Twenty-two years have passed since What Have I Done to Deserve This? made Pedro Almodóvar “enfant terrible of Spanish cinema” — a title that still sticks in his late 50s — as well as a dominating cultural force.
New movies “by Almodóvar” (like Picasso or Cher, he became an institution early on) are international events as those by Fellini or Bergman used to be in the ’60s. There remain good Spanish movies by directors working in entirely different styles. Yet in terms of what gets seen abroad, you might reasonably judge the whole industry to have gone Almodovaresque — a term applicable to select hit films by established talents like Bigas Luna (Jamón Jamón) and Álex de la Iglesia (Ferpect Crime), not to mention rising talents like Ramón Salazar (20 Centimeters) and Manuel Gómez Pereira (Queens). There may well be too many shrill, candy-colored Spanish comedies in which women act like hysterical drag queens and men like horndogs — but the master himself is no longer making them.
His ongoing evolution is partially charted in “Viva Pedro,” an upcoming four-week retrospective at the Castro and Shattuck theaters. The eight films in this series are what Sony Classics could get its hands on. “Viva” has to skip over his first five features (including What Have I Done?), leaving little of the John Waters–style anarchy that dominated his early work. (Like Waters, Almodóvar started out making campily offensive 8mm silents with nonsynch soundtracks, up through Fuck Fuck Fuck Me Tim!, his 1978 feature debut.) Particularly missed is Labyrinth of Passion, the quintessential all-purpose Almodóvar title and one of his funniest films. Also left out are early-’90s titles Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down; High Heels; and Kika.
Still, there’s plenty of good stuff in a package encompassing his two most outré forays into homoeroticism (1986’s Matador and the following year’s Law of Desire, both with Banderas), his most successful farce (1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), and the strange, still-in-progress trip toward profundity commenced in 1995 with The Flower of My Secret.
Almodóvar reportedly often shoots scenes in alternate funny and serious modes. The eccentric Flower is said to have found its largely serious tenor in the editing room. This high-wire balance between baroque ideas and earnest emotions was less wobbly in 1997’s wonderfully lurid Live Flesh. Two years later, Almodóvar surprised critics by delivering All About My Mother, a waterfall of Douglas Sirk–ian suffering female tears universally hailed for its newfound maturity. I (resistant) imagined Susan Hayward hammering her coffin lid, yelling, “Manny, you son of a bitch agent, that shoulda been my script!”
Almodóvar came out (in all senses) of the Madrid-centered Movida arts movement, whose late ’70s–early ’80s explosion of punk, camp, and transgression personified the most radical forces behind Spain’s rapid transformation from Franco-era repression to today’s extremely liberal culture. Traditional Spanish obsessions with death, sex, and religion plus post-Franco giddiness toward finger-diddling every hitherto taboo subject needn’t be “read into” Almodóvar movies — they’re spelled out on every flamboyant, melodramatic surface.
But not until his most recent two films did all these themes blend together in sardonic yet sympathetic wide-screen perfection. These are 2002’s Talk to Her — in which the main female characters are comatose, leaving the men to do the emotional weight lifting — and 2004’s Bad Education, a Catholic black comedy cum sexual-horror film oddly, elegantly redolent of Vertigo. In November we’ll get Volver, with Penélope Cruz and Carmen Maura returning to the fold. Whether or not it matches his recent achievements, Almodóvar has already earned the right to seem larger than life. SFBG
Begins Sept. 1
429 Castro, SF
2230 Shattuck, Berk.
With the simultaneous advent of personal computers and video games on a massive scale in the early ’80s, it was unsurprising that Hollywood tried to fit all things virtual into the exploitable framework of cheesy teen comedies. The latest Midnites for Maniacs triple bill reprises three of the era’s daffier such efforts.
The eccentric Heartbeeps, a major flop released in 1981, puts Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters in constrictingly ingenious makeup as two servant robots who run away from their factory warehouse in the brave new world of 1995. Despite meeting such over-the-top types as Randy Quaid, Christopher Guest, Mary Woronov, and Paul Bartel en route, their comic odyssey is weirdly sentimental, even inspirational — it’s like Jonathan Livingston Seagull for androids.
More successful but equally derided was 1985’s Weird Science, which struck many as several juvenile steps backward for writer-director John Hughes after that year’s The Breakfast Club. Alas, he was never so silly or immature or funny again. Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith are dweebs who create an “ideal woman” (Kelly LeBrock) on their computer; she of course comes to life and teaches them all sorts of valuable life lessons while embodying a world of adolescent male masturbation fantasies.
Last and ever-so-least — save in camp value — is Joysticks, the Roller Boogie of video arcade movies, from the director (Greydon Clark) of Satan’s Cheerleaders, Skinheads: The Second Coming of Hate, and Lambada, the Forbidden Dance. A mean politician (Joe Don Baker, not walking so tall career-wise in 1983) tries to shut down the local arcade, believing it to be a hotbed of underage sin. Our heroes (cute guy, nerd guy, fat and desperately-trying-to-be-a-young-John-Candy guy named “McDorfus”) thwart him and save democratic freedom amid many Porky’s-style jokes. What you need to know: sequences are separated by the graphic of a Pac-Man biting its way across the screen; “punk” subsidiary villain King Vidiot is played by Napoleon Dynamite’s future Uncle Rico (Jon Gries); and the theme song really is just about playing video games (“Jerk it left/ jerk it right/ shoot it hard/ shoot it straight/ video to the maaaaaax!!!”). (Dennis Harvey)
MIDNITES FOR MANIACS: “DIGITAL SEX: 80’S STYLE!” TRIPLE FEATURE
Fri/25, 7:30 p.m.
429 Castro, SF
Meet the individual who just may be the coolest cat in America right now — snake handler Jules Sylvester, the guy responsible for charming winning performances out of Samuel L. Jackson’s fork-tongue costars in Snakes on a Plane. Sylvester, a Hollywood veteran who’s wrangled critters on everything from Men in Black (thousands of cockroaches) to Out of Africa (lions, dogs, and owls) to Arachnophobia (duh), is bar none the jolliest person I’ve ever talked to at 8:30 in the morning on the subject of killer snakes.
SFBG: What was your first reaction when you heard there was gonna be a movie called Snakes on a Plane? Most people are, like, “Say what?”
JULES SYLVESTER: That was my reaction too. I actually laughed my head off, like, there’s no way they’re gonna keep that title. I was quite impressed that Samuel L. Jackson liked the title so much that’s one of the reasons he took the movie.
SFBG: How do you direct snakes? Are they pretty smart?
JS: No, they’re thick as a brick! But each snake has his own slightly different character. It’s snake management more than anything. They’re not trained at all. People are very vain. We like to say our reptiles love us. They really don’t give a rat’s butt.
SFBG: So for particular scenes, they would say, “OK, we need a snake to fall here,” and you’d figure out which type to use?
JS: That’s correct. I had about 450 snakes I took up to [the set in] Canada.
SFBG: [Interrupting] Did you take them on a plane?
JS: I thought it was pretty tacky to put them on a plane to do a movie called Snakes on a Plane. So I drove them! When we actually filmed, I only used like 60 or 70 at any one time. I used them for maybe two hours on the set. The temperature by that time is pretty hot, and they’re getting a little tired. You take that team out and you bring in the second team, so you never exhaust your snakes.
SFBG: What’s the fiercest snake in the movie?
JS: Definitely the albino cobra. When I put him on the airplane seat and touched his tail, he turned around and he just laid into the cushion. He just chowed on that cushion. He kinda hoped it was me. [Laughs delightedly.] That’s just his job — his job is to be very pissed off.
SFBG: If you actually encountered a snake on a plane in real life, what should you do?
JS: Cover [the snake] with a blanket. It’s an awkward one, in that I know what I would do, but Joe Blow wouldn’t know what the hell to do. It’s like, screaming bloody murder and pointing at it is the worst thing you can do — that will panic everybody. SFBG
SNAKES ON A PLANE
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In its almost 27 minutes, Samantha Reynolds’s Back to Life doesn’t break down the history of taxidermy, but it does prod, stumble, and finesse its way into some memorably off-kilter portraiture, not to mention insight about mortality. Her decision to be on camera initially might seem amateurish (especially after the movie’s opening animation), but as a surrogate viewer, she achieves an uncomfortable intimacy with her subjects. And her subjects are something else. They include one taxidermist who is simply continuing the family business and another whose creative memento mori urges are directly connected to family horror: a father who shot himself and an uncle who committed matricide, for starters. “I put it in her hands before I pushed the button,” the latter taxidermist says, referring to the book I’m OK, You’re OK and another relative, both now in powder form in a glass bottle on her mantle.
There are no Norman Bates types in this doc, just bereaved pet owners, artists dealing with their lot in life, and businesspeople doing their job — a job that just happens to involve sawing off the legs and heads of dead pets to make molds, a task that Reynolds herself joins in on with a grimace. Back to Life is just one of the many byways available in the varied programming of “SF Shorts” — the first San Francisco International Festival of Short Films. Even better is Kim Romano’s Muriel, a profile of a 67-year-old woman in Key West who tosses off one-liners that Woody Allen would covet; Romano has a gift for funny and even poignant framing, and there are more vivid characters in her 19-minute movie than you’d find in a full day of Sundance drama features. Overseen by a jury that includes filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt, the seven programs include sections devoted to documentary and comedy. Festival directors James Kenney and Michael Coyne took in over 900 entries before choosing 56. That last number includes a movie by Melissa Joan Hart, a.k.a. the director formerly known as Sabrina the teenage witch. (Johnny Ray Huston)
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The sweet 16 has nothing on your average quinceañera, a celebration of reaching womanhood at age 15 that has roots in ancient Aztec civilization and is a tradition still very much alive throughout the Americas. Not unlike the bank-breaking theatrics of debutante balls, weddings, and bar mitzvahs in other communities, there’s often a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses extravagance to them that celebrates prosperity and community as much as youth and the coming-of-age.
Two such blowouts bookend Quinceañera, which won both the Grand Jury and Audience awards for Best Dramatic Feature at Sundance this year. Dazzled by her cousin Eileen’s bash — complete with DJ, live band, and Hummer limo with lighted stripper pole in the back — 14-year-old Magdalena (Emily Rios) begins stoking her own delusions of imminent coming-out grandeur. This dismays her less-than-prosperous priest-by-day, security-guard-by-night dad (Jesus Castaños), who likes to think of his little girl as pure, simple, and devout. That image takes a worse beating when he finds out Magdalena is in, you know, “trouble” — something that freakishly came about despite her not having gone all the way with on-off boyfriend Herman (Ramiro Iniguez).
When the physical evidence can no longer be hidden, the domestic consequences are predictably dire, and Magdalena ends up another black sheep taken in by Tío Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez), the great-uncle who “loves everyone and judges no one.” Already in residence is Magdalena’s cousin and Eileen’s tattooed, muscle-bound, cholo sibling Carlos (Jesse Garcia), thrown out by his parents for being a “liar and a thief and a pothead and a gay.” He sure acts the part of bad news, though like Magdalena may well be more sinned against than sinner.
Both ashamed of past deeds and uncertain what their futures hold, the cousins cohabit uneasily, the household barely kept afloat by Tomas’s earnings as the neighborhood champurrado vendor and Carlos’s at the local car wash. At least the latter is getting some action — when a yuppie gay couple (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood) buys the Echo Park property encompassing the front house and Tomas’s longtime rear garden rental, Carlos becomes the nightly “peanut butter in their sandwich,” as Magdalena snorts. But this too turns problematic, raising issues of gentrification, fidelity, and economic power, which the movie is careful not to hammer too heavily.
A gay couple who themselves live in Echo Park — the idea for this movie arose when they were asked to photograph the quinceañera of their neighbors’ daughter — cowriters-codirectors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland risk overstacking the deck with a heavy-handed screenplay. But Quinceañera takes the mantle from 2006’s Junebug as the hugely satisfying little late-summer movie amid so many bigger ones worth skipping. Its pet project genuineness is especially heartening given that Glatzer and Westmoreland (who previously codirected 2000’s idiosyncratic The Fluffer) are longtime toilers in the Hollywood trenches where not much art is made, let alone for art’s sake: one has done a whole lotta reality TV (including conceiving America’s Next Top Model), while the other’s résumé includes such one-handed wonders as Dr. Jackoff and Mr. Hard. SFBG
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In early ’80s Hollywood, director John Byrum set about making a film set in ’20s Paris. Coming down from the nouveau bohemian high of filming 1980’s Heart Beat, a film based on Carolyn Cassidy’s accounts of Jack Kerouac, Byrum was fully prepared to tickle the underbelly of the poetic avant-garde. He aimed to do so through a film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.
The Razor’s Edge tells the story of Larry Darrell, a young American who has just returned from war and decided to loaf around Paris to find the meaning of his life. From there, Maugham unravels some of the most misunderstood fibers of the human condition: jealousy, love, antipathy, lust, greed, and spirituality. Steeped in sex, drugs, murder, and philosophy, the novel had been the basis for a 1946 film starring Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter. Byrum brought a copy of the book to his friend Margaret “Mickey” Kelley, who was holed up in the hospital after giving birth.
“The very next night around four in the morning, the phone rings and it was Mickey’s husband, Bill [Murray],” Byrum remembers, via phone from his home in Connecticut. “All he said was, ‘This is Larry, Larry Darrell.’”
That sealed the deal. With a marquee name in tow, Byrum was set to remake The Razor’s Edge, starring Bill Murray — in his first-ever dramatic role. Throwing conventional script-writing out the passenger side window, the pair soon drove across America to write the screenplay. Murray and Byrum returned with a script that bore no resemblance to the 1946 film version. They even wove a farewell speech to Murray’s late friend John Belushi into the text.
There was just one problem: they had to find someone to let them make the thing. “I’ll tell you who got this movie made,” Byrum says. “It was Dan Aykroyd. Dan pointed out that we could give Ghostbusters to Columbia in exchange for a green light on The Razor’s Edge — Bill was convinced. Forty-five minutes later we had a caterer.” This devil’s bargain is par for the course. Hollywood legend has it that Tyrone Power committed to do one more Zorro movie for the privilege of playing Larry Darrell.
The film that took a drive around the country to write would soon take a trip around the world to film — the boys found the rest of their cast and set out. With Theresa Russell, Catherine Hicks, and Denholm Elliott in tow, the next year and a half would see the crew touch down in France, Switzerland, and India. The moment the last shot wrapped, Murray was on a plane to the set of Ghostbusters.
The Razor’s Edge — starring Bill Murray and shot entirely on location with a $12 million budget and a ridiculously talented cast — bombed. In a big way. Ghostbusters, the film Murray agreed to do only to get this one made, was released just weeks before, and it more than eclipsed Byrum and Murray’s labor of love, which ultimately ended up grossing only $6.5 million.
“I knew we weren’t going to get Oscars and fame from it,” says Byrum. “But when the film tanked so badly, Bill went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne because he was sick of the movie business.”
Twenty years later, Bill Murray has established himself as a master of dramatic roles, and the irony isn’t lost on Byrum, who at least gets to enjoy The Razor’s Edge’s ascendant cult movie status. “I wish I hadn’t gotten there first,” he says. “But when you get to do all these things making a movie, who cares if it’s a hit? I mean, it helps — but who cares?”
THE RAZOR’S EDGE
Tues/15, 7 and 9:30 p.m. (part of the Castro’s “70mm Series,” Aug. 11–19)
429 Castro, SF
One question that has swirled around Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is whether it is too soon to make a film about the WTC attacks. Survivors have compared their experiences to Bruce Willis movies, The Planet of the Apes, and The Towering Inferno, and the rest of us only ever experienced the event as representation anyway — is it too soon to turn a disaster film into a disaster film? Or is it too soon to turn the deaths of more than 2,700 people into entertainment?
Perhaps fearing such criticism, Stone doesn’t entertain; instead, he’s created one of the most plodding disaster flicks ever made. By focusing on two Port Authority police officers trapped beneath the rubble, Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) and John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), Stone tries to form a heavily underlined allegory about passing through hell to make it to the light.
There is an oft-repeated urban legend about an actress — Pia Zadora, usually — who is so awful in a theatrical production of The Diary of Anne Frank that during the second act, as the Nazis are searching the house, somebody in the audience calls out, “They’re in the attic!” Cage approaches that level of performance here. He usually conveys “befuddled” and “dopey” with a kind of genius, but Stone highlights his regular-guy qualities and removes humor and irony to create a caricature of virtuous and inarticulate American masculinity. Cage’s failed attempt to act against type combined with Stone’s blaring sentimentality might easily lead audiences to hope against hope that the next crumbling building will drop a girder just so and end this tortured performance for good.
The sappy music and fuzzy domestic scenes that Stone relies on to convince us we should care about his characters only suggest instead that Americans, in our relationship to technology, have stopped being human. Stone, at least, seems to believe that we wouldn’t know what to feel about death and salvation without an orchestra drowning out our ability to feel anything but contrived replicas of grief and hope. Cute and heartwarming moments usually serve to negate the reality of death. More profound cinematic journeys into hell, such as Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water, with its creepy Hello Kitty bags, and Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space, with its badass fuzzy heroine, face death, complexify reality, and transform cute into its opposite; Hotel Rwanda never uses the “heartwarming” survival of its heroes to look away from the deaths of thousands. Turning historical events into heartwarming allegories is a problem generally, because it creates meaning at the expense of complexity; it’s also a problem specifically, because America didn’t actually pass through hell on Sept. 11 but settled in and began vigorously exporting hell.
If you expected Stone to give voice to the conspiracy theories that serve as a dreamworld underbelly to the official story, you’ll be disappointed. You want to feel the deep cosmic sadness that such mass death and terror deserve? Sorry. As a historian, Stone has made a career out of distorting our collective mythologies. He waited almost 20 years to make the Doors pompous and boring (The Doors, 1991), about 30 to take the fun out of “Who shot JFK?” conspiracy theories (JFK, 1991), and millennia to make Greek imperialism trite and campy (Alexander, 2004). Instead of the Native Americans who often pop up in Stone’s films to deliver wise and mystical sentences, there is an apocalyptic Christian ex-Marine, Dave Karnes, (Michael Shannon) saying things like, “God put this curtain of smoke here to hide something we aren’t yet ready to see.”
Or at least something horrible and complicated that Stone isn’t ready to show us. Jimeno has his own visions of Christ with a water bottle, and Karnes goes off at film’s end to Iraq to avenge the attack. Stone might like to hide his reactionary focus on vengeance and family values behind the screen of a true story, but his waving flags, footage of President Bush, Christian imagery, and use of the word evil are choices that convey obvious political messages. Although many were too distracted by Colin Farrell’s silly blond wig to notice, Stone already revealed his secret affection for imperial military adventures in Alexander. Even worse, World Trade Center doesn’t have any silly blond wigs to distract us and keep us from pondering the political message of making an apocalyptic catastrophe as boring as hell. (Stephen Beachy)
Still several entries short of being its own disaster-movie subgenre, the miniwave of Sept. 11 cinema continues with Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. Scrubbed of any JFK-style theorizing, Stone’s respectful take on the tragedy focuses on a pair of Port Authority Police Department officers who were pulled alive from the Twin Towers rubble 12 hours after the buildings collapsed.
The film’s tagline promises “a true story of courage and survival,” and indeed World Trade Center goes for the uplift-amid-tragedy jugular. The 9/11 movies may be here, but it’s clearly still too early to dramatize the events without offering catharsis. Even United 93, Paul Greengrass’s take on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, spun its obviously devastating final moments into a tribute to its hijacker-defeating passengers. World Trade Center stacks the sentimental deck even higher by plopping movie stars (Nicolas Cage, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crash’s Michael Peña) into the disaster. While United 93 had a nearly documentary feel, with nonactors in key roles and gritty handheld camerawork, World Trade Center is classically cinematic, foregoing a sprawling retelling of the 9/11 story in favor of a tightly compacted exploration of human determination.
The day starts like any other, as PAPD cops John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Peña) settle into their routine, tracking runaways and giving directions to tourists. Suddenly there’s a shadow overhead, a terrible sound, and the men are hustling several blocks to aid the evacuation of the first World Trade Center tower to be hit — accidentally, they think — by an airplane. Stone never shows the planes’ impact; within the film’s world, context (and explicit mention of terrorists) feeds in via televisions blaring in the background of nearly every scene that takes place beyond ground zero. Even when the towers collapse, trapping McLoughlin and Jimeno deep within a perilous pile of stone and metal, neither realizes what Stone assumes every viewer will already know about Sept. 11 chronology.
At a certain point, World Trade Center splinters. McLoughlin and Jimeno cling to life, chatting back and forth about pop culture (since the film is drawn from the men’s own recollections, it’s entirely likely the Starsky and Hutch conversation really took place), their intense pain, and their families. Meanwhile, Donna McLoughlin (Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Gyllenhaal) anxiously await news of their missing husbands, with golden-hued flashbacks reminding all partners of happy domestic moments they’ve been taking for granted. There’s a brief the-whole-world-is-watching montage that illustrates grief on an international level. And, of course, there’s President Bush on the news spewing rhetoric, inspiring ex-Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon) to don his military gear and head to New York City to help out.
The problem here isn’t in the way Stone and first-time scripter Andrea Berloff characterize these real-life people as almost supernaturally brave under extraordinary circumstances (Jimeno’s personal encounter with Jesus is World Trade Center’s “ride the snake” moment, but it kinda works amid the ongoing theme of faith as a survival tool). And it’s not that the film disregards the people who died that day. The tone here is very, very reverent. But it’s telling that World Trade Center focuses on a success story; unlike the characters in United 93, which built off a few cell phone calls to reconstruct the flight’s last frantic moments, World Trade Center’s heroes lived to share their memories, sickly sweet what-should-we-name-the-baby arguments included.
By focusing so intently on just the McLoughlins and the Jimenos (and to a lesser extent Karnes, a rather one-note concession to Stone’s military fixation) the film leaves the door open for countless Sept. 11–related movies to come. It’s just a question of whether future filmmakers will hew to Greengrass’s example and go raw or create movies like Stone’s World Trade Center: a bit overcooked. SFBG
WORLD TRADE CENTER
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The tug in the 2003 girl samurai flick Azumi between that J-cult of kawaii, cute — as embodied by the button-nosed, bee-stung-lipped assassin Aya Ueto, who resembles a pert Japanese version of Jessica Alba — and the particularly cutthroat scenario fueling the manga-based, CGI-ridden film make it the perfect pop vehicle for director Ryuhei Kitamura. His mission: drag the Japanese swordplay genre into the 21st century if it kills him — and leaves him choking on his own blood in the most mangled yet decorative way possible. Kitamura, who mixed swordplay with yakuza and zombies in his 2000 debut, Versus, ransacks as many flashy devices from cinema, TV, and games as he can.
To enact what might be considered the perfect post-9/11 scenario, Azumi and her otherwise all-boy crew of adorable youngsters have been trained from birth as killing machines in order to “neutralize” the warlords vying to destroy the tenuous peace in Tokugawa-era, 19th-century Japan. They’re forced to ignore the down-home atrocities committed in random villages under the orders of their stern samurai teacher, Gessai (Yoshio Harada). But when the kids are put to their final test and forced to kill or be killed by their favorite fellow student, Azumi begins to question her training-slash-brainwashing.
From her school uniform–like tunic to her eager-to-excel mien, Azumi is as much a child of Charles Darwin — a fresh-faced schoolkid of Kinji Fukasaku’s soon-to-be-remade Battle Royale (Dakota Fanning swinging an ax versus Emma Roberts toting an AK-47?) — as she is the daughter of Japanese cinematic swordswomen like Lady Snowblood. Comparing Azumi to other female-centered revenge fantasies such as the Snowblood series, Lady Vengeance, and Ms. 45 will ultimately disappoint: Her gender seems almost incidental; her empathy, yet another self-preserving tool. Flirting with pacifist — and sadistic — subversion but ultimately succumbing to blood and conditioning, Azumi proposes that a kind of unjust justice is its own justification. If that ain’t kitsch — and if Azumi isn’t a signpost in a decadent period of samurai filmmaking — what is? (Kimberly Chun)
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Acclaim is often decreed as much by fashion as by accomplishment. While Frank Borzage spent four decades as a well-paid Hollywood director and was honored with two Oscars, his talent wasn’t — and still isn’t — fashionable. In his hundred or so features, he routinely elevated or rescued contrived material. Typed as a director of romances and melodramas, he made myriad movies that were phony in concept — but never in their treatment.
Indeed, purity was often his subject, transcendence a running theme. What sometimes looked like “mush stuff” to critics now seems an oft-extraordinary intensity of unforced emotion. “Frank Borzage’s Philosophy of Desire,” a retrospective starting at the PFA this week, just scratches the surface of a very deep filmography. Its 12 titles can match up against any dozen by John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, and Howard Hawks.
Making his unlikely way into showbiz from a working-class Catholic immigrant family in Salt Lake City, the strapping, athletic Borzage entered movies as a popular mid-1910s actor. Disgusted by the poor product of a fledgling company he signed on with, he offered to direct himself, and early two-reel westerns distinguished him as an innovator with sophisticated visual and psychological instincts.
He abruptly jumped to the A-list when chosen to direct the first film version of Fannie Hurst’s Humoresque. This tale of a concert violinist rising from New York City’s Jewish ghetto was detested as “too realistic” by its own producer (Paramount’s Adolph Zukor) but became a surprise smash — winning praise from Russia’s Sergei Eisenstein and Europe’s surrealists. As Herve Dumont’s fine Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic puts it, Borzage’s usual narrative centered on “the young couple facing adversity.” Using poetical imagery and few words (Borzage admitted to being a de facto silent film director well into the sound era), his genius lay in mixing beauty and pain, happiness and sorrow in profoundly telling sequences he often invented himself.
These near-mystic surges of human yearning found quintessential expression in films he made for Fox during an eight-year stint starting in 1925. That year brought his first masterpiece, Lazybones, which cast cowboy star Buck Jones against type as a country layabout who ends up raising a local girl’s abandoned child. There’s one scene when the tot is crying because she’s teased and shunned as a “bastard,” and he comforts her with a self-deprecating lie. The moment is classic Borzage — character stoicism and directorial restraint at a point of crushing sadness — and for anyone who likes an honest cry at the movies, it is almost unbearably good.
Lazybones was not a hit, but the later films (most famously, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel) that Borzage made with newcomers Janet Gaynor (herself the subject of a current PFA program) and Charles Farrell were huge. Later the director found another elfin, fragile, yet morally fibrous favorite femme in Margaret Sullavan, heroine in a trilogy that subtly charted the growing fascism in Germany: 1934’s Little Man, What Now?, 1938’s Three Comrades, and 1940’s The Mortal Storm. These ambitious movies blended comedy, romance, thriller, and drama to unpredictable effect. But no film of the era exemplified Borzage’s penchant for unclassifiable projects more than 1937’s History Is Made at Night, an exquisite-corpse narrative lent total emotional truth by his handling of Jean Arthur’s flight from a demented rich husband into the arms of headwaiter Charles Boyer.
Demands for more focused escapism and propaganda during WWII paired Borzage with inappropriate projects, and the postwar cynicism and penchant for spectacle made him seem even less relevant. What snowball’s chance in hell is there that 1959’s The Big Fisherman (which former Max Ophüls, Josef von Sternberg, and Hitchcock cinematographer Lee Garmes called “the finest thing I ever did — a visual masterpiece”) might ever get restored? Holding one’s breath is ill-advised.
Borzage died of cancer at 68 in 1962. Back then, his greatest films seemed antique. Now we know better. The summer of 2006 has brought the latest universal insights by M. Night Shyamalan and Kevin Smith. Guess what — the least worthy work by Borzage never stunk up the joint like Lady in the Water or Clerks II, nor auto-serviced such undeserved directorial narcissism. SFBG
PHILOSOPHY OF DESIRE”
Through Aug. 23
2575 Bancroft, Berk.
Last year I put the Uruguayan movie Whisky on my top-10 list and voted for it and its lead actress, Mirella Pascual, in many film polls, including Film Comment’s and the Village Voice’s. With impeccable precision, Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll’s sophomore feature sets a dedicated romantic next to a depressive’s withered and miserly soul (in understated yet glossy color — so many gorgeous royal blues). Just for its mordant look at a business run with out-of-date machinery, I hoped in print that it would get a Bay Area theatrical run.
Now Whisky has a San Francisco play date, at this year’s SF Jewish Film Festival. Rebella and Stoll’s film is screening at the Castro on July 24 — a little less than three weeks after Rebella committed suicide at his apartment in Montevideo. Looking at Whisky again with this knowledge was painful. The deep loneliness and sadness that run like a river beneath much of the movie’s surface humor were already evident, and now they are fully exposed. But if you love life and cinema, you should see this great film in that great theater. Rebella and Stoll are true talents, and even before this month, the final moments of the former’s last finished work came across as a rare, pure vision of heartbreak. (Johnny Ray Huston)
“What is the international camp language? It’s beating.” In an instant, a guide at the former concentration camp just outside of Mauthausen, Austria, transforms a group of high schoolers from giggly to terrified. From the looks of the parking lot, Mauthausen is like any other historical attraction. Sightseers roll up in enormous motor coaches, clutching digital cameras loaded only with fun-time Euro-vacation shots — until now.
There’s no narration in KZ, Rex Bloomfield’s layered doc about the Mauthausen camp’s post–World War II transformation into an exceedingly unsettling tourist destination. (KZ is short for the German word Konzentrationslager, or concentration camp.) The film is largely composed of interviews with visitors, guides (“I’ve been taking antidepressants for years,” one remarks woefully), and Mauthausen residents — many too young to remember the camp’s horrors and some too old to realize that Hitler Youth nostalgia isn’t something most folks would want caught on tape. The disconnect between town and camp, past and present, can be breathtaking. “McDonald’s” and “Mauthausen” are painted on the same billboard; a young couple shrug off the fact that their comfy home once belonged to an SS officer; and the local tavern features lederhosen, suds, and a folkie strummer whose sunny lyrics praise “the cider tavern up by the KZ.”
Though Bloomfield doesn’t shape his film with archival footage, talking-head academics, or voice-overs, the way KZ is edited makes it pretty clear he’s just as stunned as we are by the juxtapositions his film uncovers. An elderly Mauthausener remarks that during the war she wasn’t sure what was going on in the camp, just that it was “nothing good”; moments later the camera cuts to a group nervously shuffling into the KZ’s gas chamber, where they hear incredibly graphic descriptions of deaths that happened where they now stand.
For its San Francisco Jewish Film Festival engagement, KZ screens with the short The Holocaust Tourist: Whatever Happened to Never Again?, which examines the off-kilter rebirth of Jewish culture (think faux-Hebrew signage and “Jewish-style” restaurants that serve pork) in Krakow, Poland, owing to the popularity of Schindler’s List. What visitors to Mauthausen or Krakow (the closest big city to Auschwitz) actually get out of their experiences is unclear; some seem deeply moved, while others are simply checking off another stop on, say, their “Highlights of Poland” itinerary. As both films point out, being a tourist is perhaps all most people can — or should — be in places where such evil still lingers.
Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, Israel, folks with zero interest in confronting horror head-on can’t avoid it when a suicide bomber targets their hangout, a laid-back watering hole called Mike’s Place. Amazingly, filming for the documentary Blues by the Beach — intended as a feel-good look at “real life in Israel” beyond headline-grabbing violence — had begun before the April 2003 attack. After the project’s primary catalyst, American producer Jack Baxter, was seriously injured in the blast, Joshua Faudem (an Israeli American with a filmmaking background who happened to be a Mike’s Place bartender) carried on with help from his then-girlfriend, Pavla Fleischer, also a filmmaker.
Despite this stunning chain of coincidences, Blues by the Beach unfortunately suffers from lack of focus, shifting from Baxter’s search for a doc subject to Mike’s Place to Faudem’s failing relationship with Fleischer. Though the filmmakers’ post-traumatic stress is well earned, it can get tedious. Far more inspiring is the resilience of Mike’s Place itself. Visit the bar’s Web site (www. mikesplacebars.com) for a striking illustration of how recent tragedy offers just as much opportunity for off-the-wall juxtaposition as anything left over from World War II: a page memorializing the victims of the bombing and another page proudly displaying pics from the bar’s annual “Pimp-n-Ho” costume bash. SFBG
JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
July 20–Aug. 7
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Meryl (Justine Clarke) is basically the human incarnation of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, except without the “survival” part. As she rides the train home after her father’s funeral, animated thoughts of fiery collisions and strangle-happy strangers zip into her head as abruptly as they cut into Look Both Ways’ otherwise live-action proceedings. That Meryl’s nightmares are adorably hand drawn doesn’t make them any less dreadful or persistent; later she imagines being eaten by a shark (while in a swimming pool) and the ickiest possible consequences after she sleeps with photographer Nick (William McInnes) soon after they meet.
The fact that they first cross paths at the site of a tragic train accident — and that Nick (who also struggles with visions of doom) has just found out he has cancer — is a typically morbid spoke in Look Both Ways’ death-obsessed machinery. Fickle fate pulls the strings of the Meryl-Nick pairing, and of those around them, including Nick’s exceedingly angry coworker Andy (Anthony Hayes) and his reluctantly pregnant ex-girlfriend Anna (Lisa Flanagan). A pair of nearly wordless performances anchor Look Both Ways’ emotional core, as a train driver who’s run over a pedestrian and the pedestrian’s widow struggle with their grief — and eventually connect over a sympathy card featuring a seascape painted by Meryl, appropriately enough.
A festival sensation by Australian writer-director and animator Sarah Watt, Look Both Ways isn’t actually the feel-bad movie of the year. It’s probably the sunniest movie about death you’ll ever see, and one that captures the awkwardness of life with unusual accuracy. Its unglamorous characters react to disasters like real people would, tempering their shock with distractions such as kids’ birthday parties or impulsive physical intimacy. Watt’s visually inventive style keeps Look Both Ways from being too sentimental, to a point. As the film winds down, it seems overly eager for closure, resulting in pop song–montage overload and a mawkish group cry that just happens to transpire during the film’s single rainstorm. Like the double meaning of the film’s title — look before you leap, but remember it’s OK to leap! — it feels a bit shallow and glossy after all that inspired gloom. (Cheryl Eddy)
LOOK BOTH WAYS
Roxie Film Center
3117 16th St., SF
Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center
1118 Fourth St., San Rafael
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Hear ye! Hear ye! Step right up to the Castro Theatre. Behold a bizarre trio of crooks. One an expert ventriloquist in old lady drag. Another a Goliath whose fickle heart is bigger than his brain. The third a pint-size schemer, who thinks nothing of pretending to be a baby in a stroller in order to case a high-class joint for jewels. Witness these three sell counterfeit parrots — you heard right, counterfeit parrots! — to unsuspecting mugs in order to visit their homes and rob them blind. Watch 1925’s The Unholy Three, just one of director Tod Browning’s circus-influenced nightmares.
The treats at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival include Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and Madonna muse Dita Parlo in Au Bonheur des Dames with live music by the Hot Club. But all of this city’s imps of the perverse will be gathering for The Unholy Three (screening Sun/16 at 5 p.m.), if only to pay homage to Browning, “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney, and mein liebchen, the one and only Harry Earles (real name: Kurt Schneider), who later approached Browning with the idea of turning the Tod Robbins story “Spurs” into what became 1932’s nightmarish and unforgettable Freaks. Also based on a Robbins story, The Unholy Three might contain Earles’ best performance, especially since, as Danny Peary notes in an entry within his book Cult Movie Stars, Earles’ high-pitched voice was often “unintelligible” when transmitted through the primitive sound technology of early talkies.
He may be a dead ringer for tear sprayer extraordinaire Ricky Schroder in The Champ, but don’t cross him: Peary incisively observes that Earles’ face “was doll-like and seemed harmless until you looked closely and saw it was hard and quite eerie.” The Unholy Three mines this effectively. Earles’ character, Tweedledee, is introduced performing on a sideshow stage. When the audience within the film mocks him, it doesn’t take long for him to lose his temper and kick a laughing little boy in the face. Soon afterward he’s in infant disguise, whether locked in a stroller and acting as if ruby necklaces are mere baby beads or half in and half out of masquerade, smoking a cigarette while wearing a jumper. According to Browning biographer David Skal’s Dark Carnival, this type of outrageousness reached its apex in a child-killing Christmas Eve scene by a tree that doubtless would have given Dawn Davenport at the start of Female Trouble a run for her murderous money — if it wasn’t censored.
Though Browning’s astute biographer verges on going too far in comparing it to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s shadow play, The Unholy Three humorously and kinetically uses comic strip speech bubbles in a way that prefigures pop art and Batman on TV. Also, as writers such as Skal, David Thomson, and Carlos Clarens have observed, it exemplifies early-20th-century horror’s interest in reconfiguring common romantic and sexual aggravation into fantastic stories of vengeance. Himself forced to perform as an infant and a circus runaway who made an early living as “The Living Hypnotic Corpse,” Browning no doubt related to Earles and to Chaney (whose pantomime abilities stemmed partly from childhood communication with his deaf parents).
The Unholy Three’s titular characters form a perverse trinity of sorts, with Earles’ Tweedledee a modern child of mythical Leprechaun figures and a less lusty uncle of Cousin Lymon from Carson McCullers’ Sad Café. You don’t have to be Leslie Fiedler to recognize that both Earles and Chaney present an interested viewer with a mythic image of his or her secret self. SFBG
SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
429 Castro, SF
Legendary critic Pauline Kael once described Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman as “crap on a motorcycle.” It might be as cheese-constipated as movies get, she argued, but at least it has the good sense to amplify the cheese to mind-obliterating excess: Junk this big and fast is bound to satisfy an audience — or at least stupefy it into submission.
The tactic is especially relatable to that dubious summer movie subgenre, the TV-show-to-movie adaptation. If most television shows are crap, most shows made into films attempt to shine up the turd with tremendous torque: over-the-top set pieces, deafening pyrotechnics, gimmicky postmodern conceits, and general crap-tasticness (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle was even accommodating enough to throw in some actual motorcycles).
Strangers with Candy offers a perversely ingenious spin on this sad state of affairs. The late-’90s Comedy Central TV series (created by longtime collaborators Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Dinello) was in essence a parody of a bad TV show to begin with, so it’s only appropriate that the movie plays like a parody of a movie based on a bad TV show.
The story revolves around the tribulations of Jerri Blank (Sedaris), a skeezy 46-year-old former junkie, prostitute, and child runaway. After being released from prison, Jerri decides to start her life over. (“Can we chay-ange?” she asks in dramatic voice-over as she shanks a fellow inmate in slo-mo.) She returns to her childhood home, promptly enrolls in her old high school as a freshman, and tries her best to fit in — which for the clueless Jerri means showing up wearing the highest waisted jeans ever while carrying a copy of the yellow pages in lieu of a textbook.
If the show was an excuse to satirize the fertile ground of straight-faced coming-of-age melodrama, the movie is an excuse to take the satire full tilt: Virtually every scene ends with a swell of the climactic, emotional score as characters come to terms with their feelings (“I wasn’t pushing you away, I was pulling me towards myself”). And the crap-on-a-motorcycle principle culminates with the purposefully sitcomish main plotline — which hinges on Jerri and her team winning the science fair with a feces-powered battery — leading to a Carrie-style “fire” and rampage in the gym.
Strangers was a relatively obscure cult success on basic cable, and many mainstream moviegoers probably won’t know what to make of this odd little gem. Dedicated fans, however, have little to worry about. The principals reprise their roles (including Dinello as the naive, not-so-ambiguously gay art teacher Mr. Jellineck and Colbert doing a variation of his self-satisfied asshole talk-show persona as Mr. Noblet), and the nasty spirit at the core of the show hasn’t been diluted.
That nasty spirit is personified by walking, talking track mark Jerri Blank, and Sedaris gamely destroys any shred of personal vanity she might have had left after the series to portray her again. Jerri’s pathetic desperation and her obliviousness to her shortcomings make her part childlike rube, part vicious opportunist, and Sedaris revels in every poisoned aside she spits through her contorted overbite. “I was thinking about pussy,” she deadpans. “Science fair is for queers.” Despite Jerri’s rottenness, she’s more of a comic-tragic figure than someone simply to laugh at. Her gameness to try and fail over and over (without ever realizing she’s failed) makes her, if not entirely lovable, at the very least endearing. She may be a bitter pill to swallow, but Candy is still one of the sweeter surprises in a movie season inevitably stinking of a certain number two. SFBG
STRANGERS WITH CANDY
3010 Geary, SF
2113 Kittredge, Berk.
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for theaters and showtimes
“My basic photography lesson is this: You frame the perfect composition, exactly like you want it, and then you step forward,” says Larry Clark. “What that does is screw things up a little bit, so they’ll become more real, more like the way you see.”
We’re at a restaurant South of Market, and the man behind the monographs Tulsa and Teenage Lust and the films Kids, Bully, and the new Wassup Rockers is talking when he should be eating. I’m glad, because he has a lot to say. On the car ride to Zuppa, he reminisced about a brief late-1960s spell in San Francisco after an Army stint in Vietnam — once here, Clark’s time included a few Janis Joplin encounters. Once we’ve sat down at the table, when I mention the ties between Wassup Rockers and the underrated 1968 Burt Lancaster vehicle The Swimmer, Clark agrees that Lancaster’s performance is “extremely brave” and then serves up a real whopper: A film publicist once told him that Lancaster had a love affair with Luchino Visconti during the filming of 1963’s The Leopard, and that Lancaster was left an emotional wreck when Visconti dumped him.
Well, when in Rome …
It’s an interesting, clichéd truism to apply to Clark’s work, which doesn’t fit the tired modern sense of gay by any stretch of the imagination but is certainly appreciative of male as well as female allure. In the silly and energetic Wassup Rockers, his distinctive eye rolls with a band of Guatemalan and Salvadoran skateboarders as they travel through Beverly Hills, a gated community that starts to seem more and more like a prison. Wassup is often like a 21st-century version of a Bowery Boys comedy, with Clark (in his words) “riffing off of white people” and “riffing off of pop culture.” Before one of the title characters shares a bubble bath with Janice Dickinson, he and a friend — whose jeans and bulge would make Peter Berlin envious — have a tender tête-à-tête with some Hilton types. “Paris and Nicky were too old for me [when the film started shooting],” Clark jokes.
Born in Oklahoma but sporting a huggable Brooklynese accent and looking surprisingly healthy and sweet (if worn) at 63, Clark is still very much a child at heart, the nonsnarky and better-dressed real-life answer to Strangers With Candy’s former smack user and permanent high schooler Jerri Blank. Wassup Rockers is his third collaboration with cinematographer Steve Gainer, who picked up tricks of the trade working under Roger Corman in the 1990s. The link is an apt one because Clark is still working with genre in the Corman teensploitation or celebration-of-youth-culture sense.
Does Clark think his one-step-forward approach to camerawork dates back to the early 1970s and the speed-shooting and baby-death days of Tulsa? “It was a little more formal then,” he says, adding that he was more influenced by Robert Frank imitators — and by “the best,” Walker Evans — than by Frank, whom he knew little about when he made the book. “Tulsa is really about rooms. We’re in very small rooms, and we’re very close.”
Going back to those rooms means going down with Janis again; as the fellow Clark enthusiast with me observantly notes, a Joplin poster appears on the wall of one of those dark spaces. “The first time I met her it was early in the morning and we were walking across that big park in Haight Ashbury,” Clark recalls. “She was with someone from Big Brother [and the Holding Company] and I was with someone who knew him. I remember she was smoking a cigarette and she was holding it like this” — he imitates a loose gesture — “and her fingers were all yellow, and she said, ‘I really like these Pall Malls because you smoke them right down to the end like a junkie.’”
Clark hasn’t gone right down to the end like a junkie, though Tulsa certainly pictures exactly that type of fate with a void-gazing ferocity that no television episode of Intervention will match. It’s crazy, really, how many ways mass media — fashion and advertising and “indie” film in particular — have both copped and watered down or misinterpreted Clark’s aesthetics (a bit similar to what’s happened with John Waters, though perhaps even more subtly pervasive). The producers of MTV’s Laguna Beach and The Hills, original offender Calvin Klein, and now American Apparel owe him a mint’s worth of royalties for their third-rate rip-offs. At least the latter recently threw a huge party for the cast members of Wassup Rockers and their families, complete with live performances by the band featured in the movie.
If Clark is still thriving in art and life today, some credit should be given to his girlfriend, Tiffany Limos, whose candid criticism of Clark’s past movies doubtless informed his approach to Wassup Rockers. Limos is too young to be responsible for the genius choice of soundtracking Clark’s recent mammoth Manhattan gallery show, “Punk Picasso,” with Nancy Wilson’s But Beautiful, but she did tell him to place a hilarious video installation of her beyond-hyper bichon frise near the show’s end, an element that is echoed in a funny dog-attack scene within Wassup Rockers.
“That video is like the real Larry Clark,” Clark says with a laugh. “Tiff was coming home, and when she would leave I would always tell her that I could not say her name while she was gone because the dog would go crazy. I thought, ‘I’m going to show Tiffany what happens when I say her name.’ But when I made the video, never in my wildest imagination did I think I would use it. It’s funny because I’m talking to this dog like it’s a human being. Sammy runs into the street and I scold him — ‘You’re going to get killed!’ — just like I was talking to a kid.”
Limos also got her friend the fashion designer Jeremy Scott cast in Wassup Rockers as a lascivious gay photographer who looks like Perry Farrell and has a mansion full of horrendous steroidy physique shots (actual work by Tom Bianchi). “Tiffany would bring these photos of Jeremy home,” says Clark. “We had this private joke about him that if you pointed a camera at him he would always do something incredible. Then we would see photos of him at parties in magazines, and true to form, he would always be making some flamboyant pose.”
As the interview winds down, the man who began with a photography tip says he now prefers making films. Then Clark makes a final distinction. “I was never really a photographer,” he says. “I was an artist and a storyteller [when I started out with Tulsa], and I was using photography because that’s what I had.” (Johnny Ray Huston)
1572 California, SF
2230 Shattuck, Berk.
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com
Just a few summers ago, we were all snickering into our popcorn tubs: a Pirates of the Caribbean movie? Yo-ho-no! But what could’ve sucked harder than The Haunted Mansion turned into a monster 2003 hit, buoyed by ghostly buccaneers, showy effects, and Johnny Depp’s impeccably bizarre turn as Captain Jack Sparrow, surely the most inventive character yet to emerge from a 21st-century blockbuster. Long before Depp’s Oscar nomination, plans were afoot to increase Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’s bootylicious haul with a pair of sequels filmed back-to-back. So, how can you love a series based on a rather sedate Disneyland attraction — films accompanied by a merch deluge not seen since fanboys were still jazzed about gettin’ to know Darth Maul?
Pretty much, it’s the pirates. Peg legs, cannon battles, talking parrots, mutiny on the high seas, rum chugging — pirate shit is damn near irresistible, especially when Depp’s riding the mast. Within the first reel of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, a chorus of arrrs is raised, a mangy bird plucks out some poor soul’s rotting eyeball, and a crew member remarks that Captain Sparrow is acting “strange … er” than usual. Chest’s plot is more convoluted than Pearl’s, but every character — including Sparrow, feisty Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), heroic Will (Orlando Bloom), and prissy Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) — is searching for someone, or something, with single-minded determination. Chest also shares Pearl’s ticking-clock pacing, with lives and relationships and eternal souls hanging perilously in the balance. Naturally, all these quests become interwoven and complicated by distractions, including a detour to a Skull Island–meets–Joe Versus the Volcano atoll, a gung ho swordfight, a beast bearing giant and aggressive tentacles, and the salty whims of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), whose ghostly Flying Dutchman operates like a kelp-strewn variation on the Philadelphia Experiment.
Unlike, say, flicks based on beloved comic books, Chest has no touchstones to hit or homages to pay, other than dropping in a few references to the first film. This allows director Gore Verbinski and scripters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (like sultan-of-slick producer Jerry Bruckheimer, all back from Pearl) the freedom to toss whatever they want into their Chest, which runs almost as long as Superman Returns but is infinitely more jolly, Roger. For a big-budget studio confection, there’s actually a lot of imagination at play; Nighy’s sneering performance, coupled with the special effects used to create Davy “Fishface” Jones’s slimy visage, allows for a character who’s equal parts Phantom of the Opera and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.
Of course the main reason the Pirates movies are so fun is Depp, without whom we’d be talking about a few hours of flashy CG and a couple of pretty faces (Bloom, you’re still on notice for Elizabethtown). Sparrow prances, turns tail, delivers flowery double-talk, and cares only about saving his own skin (and, of course, his precious hat) — yes, he’s a showboaty clown, but Depp manages to make him likable where others (Jim Carrey?) would simply come up annoying. I’m still not sold on Depp’s Willy Wonka interpretation. But it’s with good reason that Sparrow’s the only film character he’s played more than once.
And he’ll play him again, to be sure. It’s not spoiling anything to say that Chest ends with classic middle-film-of-a-trilogy ambiguity; fates and loyalties wind up shakier than the points on Sparrow’s discombobulated compass. The third Pirates is due next summer, so you won’t have long to wait to see what happens. In the meantime, Chest is a solid adventure with a sense of adventure — cinematic currency that’s as good as gold these days, ye scurvy dog. SFBG
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN:
DEAD MAN’S CHEST
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He may have the world’s largest collection of Kim Wilde posters on his apartment walls, but caterpillar-browed Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is no kid in America: He’s an aging drunk in Romania with a ruined liver and a rupturing brain. And Bucharest on a Saturday night is no place to be when you’ve got the headache and stomachache from hell — in fact, its medical system is a many-leveled modern day approximation of exactly that infernal pit, which is probably why the first name of the title character in Christi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is Dante.
Overtly labeled an anti-ER by its maker, and about as far away from Superman Returns as you can get inside a movie theater this week, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu doesn’t exactly sound like fun: The film follows the booze-pickled Lazarescu out of his fleabag apartment as gruff but ultimately sympathetic paramedic Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu) wheels this supposed GOMER — get out of my emergency room — from one hospital to another, while both are verbally abused by sluggish doctors and nurses. Yet Puiu’s movie is primarily a sharp and multifaceted black comedy, from slow-coder Lazarescu’s mouthiness early in the journey to the off-the-cuff yet detailed portraits of his eccentric neighbors and the successive “caregivers
Imagine that Supermans III and IV never happened, and that in Superman II Lois Lane never realized that Clark Kent was really the Man of Steel disguised in a pair of dorky glasses. (The part about Lois and Superman knocking boots, however, still stands). Now you’re up to speed on Superman Returns, whose title reflects the film’s story — after a five-year outer space sojourn, Superman (Brandon Routh) heads back to Metropolis, to the consternation of ex-sweetie Lois (Kate Bosworth) and supervillain Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) — as well as the film itself, which like Batman Begins heralds a return to cinematic form for its title character. The result may not be as giddily triumphant as Spider-Man 2, but all told, the 21st century is officially a damn good time to be a superhero.
Director Bryan Singer (X-Men) is clearly a huge Superman fan; Superman Returns takes its subject very seriously. With two and a half hours to fill, all the cool super-shit you want to see (X-ray vision, bulletproof body parts, swooping around with one fist extended, etc.) is in there, plus plenty of iconic moments. (Marlon Brando’s Jor-El makes multiple from-beyond-the-grave appearances — and has the cry of “Great Caesar’s ghost!” ever before inspired audience applause?) Needless to say, Superman Returns’ superbudget (imdb.com estimates it at $260 million) spells jaw-dropping special effects. Sure, you’ll believe a man can fly, but you’ll also believe a man can stop a fiery airplane from smashing into a baseball stadium.
The effects can get out of control, though — the climax, which takes place partially underwater, drags a bit despite looking great. At least by the time we get there, all of Superman Returns’ hard work building sympathetic characters pretty much pays off. The film’s intertwining story lines follow Superman as he dons Clark Kent garb at the Daily Planet and wistfully yearns for Lois, who’s semi-happily settled down with nice guy Richard (perennial third wheel James Marsden). Oh yeah, and she has a scraggly-haired five-year-old who may or may not be half-Kryptonian. Meanwhile, bald baddie Luthor is out of jail, ridiculously well funded, and as set on world domination as he is on knocking Superman out of the sky.
The Luthor stuff inevitably supplies the film’s comic relief, thanks to Spacey’s manic performance and certain weird touches (like sidekick Parker Posey’s time-warp wardrobe and a running gag about a Pomeranian). And if you’re looking for correlations between Superman Returns and current events, try Luthor’s plan to destroy the United States — eagerly reported on by Metropolis’s version of cable news. (In the 21st century, the Daily Planet stays afloat thanks to this editorial mission: “There are three things that sell papers: tragedy, sex, and Superman.”)
Of course, the main conflict in Superman Returns doesn’t even involve Luthor: It’s whether or not Lois will forgive her super soulmate for abruptly skipping town. (You know how all that tension between Spider-Man and Mary Jane kind of overshadowed the Doctor Octopus shenanigans? Yeah, it’s like that.) The film’s overriding theme, though, is of fathers and sons. Not for nothing does Brando keep popping up, reinforcing the idea that Superman (Jor-El’s “only son”) was sent to Earth to save humankind — a concept that everyone on earth pretty much buys, including, eventually, the bitter Lois (author of a Pulitzer-winning editorial titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”). But even if you ignore the religious metaphors and check your watch during the mushy relationship bits, it’s hard not to get summer movie thrill-chills when John Williams’s familiar theme (recycled here as part of John Ottman’s score) plays under the swooshing title credits. Absolute perfection, maybe not — but super’ll do. SFBG
Opens Wed/28 in Bay Area theaters
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What’s a three-letter word for ejaculate? Whether 58 down in the May 28 edition of the New York Times crossword is meant as a noun or a verb is unclear, but I’m hoping it has nothing to do with the clue for 37 down, “It runs down the leg.” Ewww. I knew the Times’ Sunday crossword had the reputation of being the Mt. Everest of word puzzles, but I never knew it was so dirty. As it happens, though, Will Shortz is a smarty-pants and a smart-ass: The answer, wincingly appropriate to any normal human being trying to finish one of these suckers, is “cry.”
Still, the mustachioed Times crossword editor seems remarkably un-smart-assy in Patrick Creadon’s entertaining new doc, Wordplay. He’s more of a likable nerd with Asperger’s syndrome–ish tendencies, as are the featured puzzle aficionados, who worship his work with the fervent zeal accorded to fundamentalist doctrine. Actually, for the celeb followers (who include Bill Clinton and Ken Burns), Shortz’s crossword puzzles aren’t much more than welcome diversions. But for the rest of his impassioned converts, the born-again religious metaphor isn’t much of a stretch. Most, after all, seem pretty unexceptional — until you plunk them down in front of a puzzle and they channel the word like possessed Holy Rollers with Paper Mates.
Wordplay follows a handful of these nerdlinger types as they compete in the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Contestants include city girl Ellen Ripstein, a mousy former champion who twirls a mean baton and looks a bit like a middle-aged Sofia Coppola; Al Sanders, a paunchy, middle-American perpetual runner-up; and young Tyler Hinman, a cocky, small-town frat boy.
The contest is surprisingly intense. Still, what elevates Wordplay beyond Spellbound: The AARP Years is not the competition, but the community born of it. “It’s like finding a lost tribe,” says musician Jon Delfin, who started competing in 1985. Usually his kind feel judged for their peculiar talent, but for one weekend a year, they wander out of social purgatory to bask in the glow of the promised land and its balding godhead. The only thing is, for this crew Valhalla just happens to be the Stamford, Conn., Marriott. (Michelle Devereaux)
Embarcadero Center Cinema
1 Embarcadero Center, SF
1115 Solano, Albany
The Road to Guantánamo is the true story of three British citizens who were held without charges for two years at the American detention camps in Guantánamo Bay. Director Michael Winterbottom’s film combines documentary with dramatization in a way that is slightly confusing in the beginning, as we quickly cut between the men who were actually detained (Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, and Rhuhel Ahmed) and the actors who play them (Rizwan Ahmed, Arfan Usman, and Farhud Harun). The performances are first-rate, however, and the illusion of reality is created with harrowing enough detail that the gap between reportage and acting, or between documentary footage and reenactment, quickly seems irrelevant.
The worst thing a film like this can do is leave its audience feeling manipulated into believing something it was inclined to believe anyway. But The Road to Guantánamo consistently lets the story do its own work, and dumps us into the basic situation without too much backstory; it doesn’t make its protagonists overly heroic, paste any love stories over the narrative, or overwhelm its audience with music that tells us what we should be feeling.
For a film loaded with war casualties and torture, it’s disarmingly entertaining. What begins as a buddy-flick road movie quickly becomes a journey into hell. Three friends leave Britain for Pakistan, where a bride is waiting for one of them. A naive side trip to Afghanistan, just as the US bombing is getting under way, quickly carries them beyond the typical budget travel annoyances of gastrointestinal illness and makeshift restrooms and into a war-torn landscape full of the mutilated citizens of a country being indiscriminately bombed. Their final circle, however, is that abyss located both at the center of the American psyche and in Cuba. Rounded up with a batch of suspected Taliban fighters, our heroes come face-to-face with the Bush administration’s love affair with torture, humiliation, and endless detention without charge.
“Where’s Osama bin Laden?” the American interrogators ask their clueless victims, a question so ridiculous it is comic. The Americans are so perfectly American and so perfectly piggy that it’s easy to forget these scenes are being acted. Even in other recent films that package their torture as political critique, like Syriana and V for Vendetta, the subjects and objects of the verb “to torture” have been muddled; we’ve watched only white Americans and Brits enduring the worst, at the hands of Muslims, cartoon characters, or — in movies like Hostel, in which the torture is pure entertainment — East European whores and Germanic S-M fags. As in dreams, audiences probably understand that the roles are confused, and that Americans should actually be the ones wielding the clubs and attack dogs. Finally, however, we’ve been presented with a more accurate grammar: The Americans and British are torturing and the Muslims are tortured. For that reason alone, The Road to Guantánamo is an important and necessary film. SFBG
THE ROAD TO GUANT