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Film Features

Respect your elders


By Sara Maria Vizcarrondo


YEAR IN FILM Before Bruce Willis saved Bonnie Bedelia at Nakatomi Plaza, he was David Addison, detective-agency foil to Cybill Shepherd on Moonlighting. Then, after some multi-genre foreplay (1987’s high pedigree rom-com Blind Date, an iffy pop album), Willis charmed the pants off America in 1988’s Die Hard, sliding — gritty and glistening — down an air duct to escape the film’s fiery climax.

It’s been a hero’s journey ever since, so appropriately enough, the 57-year-old co-stars in next year’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation. According to the trailer, he’ll mow down villains triumphantly, then annoy some hottie with TMI about the pains of aging. Maybe Willis’ action-hero persona has come full circle, but the movies haven’t exactly evolved with him. With the exception of the mercifully MIA Steven Seagal, the 1980s’ biggest action stars spent 2012 doing the shtick they perfected long before latter-day idols like The Amazing Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield and The Avengers star Chris Hemsworth (both born in 1983, which makes them one year older than The Terminator and one year younger than First Blood) entered the third grade.

>>Read more from our Year in Film 2012 issue here.

But unlike more spandex-y saviors, the leathery hunks who’ve been making films for a generation aren’t asking us to grow with them; instead, they’re growing old in front of us. (In The Dark Knight Rises, Christian Bale’s Batman is just pushing 40, but he spents half the movie in post-injury, old-man wobble mode.) If we wanna watch these guys be badasses, we’d better mind our touchy-feely instincts, because aging is rougher than a hailstorm of bullets and nowhere near as pretty. At least the flashy shit happens quickly.

Usually, an actor demonstrating frailty provokes viewers to confront their own weaknesses — the goal there is identification, poignancy. So what are we to make of the unstoppable Expendables series? The movies are as one-note as the best glossy shoot-’em-ups, which is relevant because Sylvester Stallone couldn’t have cast Willis, Dolph Lundgren, or Arnold Schwarzenegger as the cockroaches of the mercenary world without their stone-cold legacies. This epic Viagra ad of a franchise is built on the same single-mission structure of the classics that made its stars famous in the first place. The Expendables 2 pads its cast with Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme (as a villain named “Vilain”) — but adds a “kid” (Liam Hemsworth) and a woman (Yu Nan) to the mix. Of course, the film atones for these updates making a plutonium mine the center of the film. (Also, it’s set in an old Russian military base — ah, sweet memories!)

But Stallone, Willis, and co. aren’t the only geezers attached to the aging-heroes trend. Think of Liam Neeson, sizzling anew at age 60 thanks to the Taken films. His career has only gotten hotter as he’s aged and started embracing lower-brow roles — does anyone look more fierce fighting wolves than Neeson? Tom Cruise, who turned 50 this year, doesn’t need a career reboot, even after Rock of Ages; his action-man streak continues apace with the upcoming Jack Reacher, plus 2013’s Oblivion and an inevitable fifth Mission: Impossible film.

James Bond may have shagged half of Europe, but he’s a lone wolf (no cubs) by design, and when the character turned 50 (current Bond Daniel Craig is 44), the plight of post-middle age was all his 23rd movie could talk about. Skyfall, a.k.a. The Best Explosive Marigold Hotel, features a Bond that fights for Britain and his own relevance at the same time — while the series does the same, making the bad guy a hacker and aiming for poignancy with a back story the 1960s Bond would have been too busy sexing around the globe to indulge.

According to the rules of the cowboy — speaking of, is Clint Eastwood still out there somewhere, talking to that empty chair? — the silver star goes to the next in line. But these cowboys ain’t going nowhere, no matter how many Channing Tatum clones start lurking around the box office. The Expendables 3 has already been announced (two words, casting directors: Nic Cage). No word if Willis is in that cast, but he does have G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Red 2 (another series about “retired, extremely dangerous” operatives), and A Good Day to Die Hard on the docket. Terrorists, Cobra Commanders, JCVD, wolves: 2012’s mature action heroes fear not these things. Their only true adversary is time. And possibly gravity.

They see me rollin’



YEAR IN FILM Two of 2012’s finest, most philosophical, and most frustrating movies share a setting of sorts. Although one film takes place in New York, the other in Paris, both films’ protagonists spend a lot of time in their white stretch limousines. The limo: an ostentatious symbol of status and wealth, a home away from home.

In David Cronenberg’s unsettling Don DeLillo adaptation Cosmopolis, it’s superwealthy magnate Eric Packer (a defanged Robert Pattinson) who eats, fucks, and talks business in a limo, trapped in ever-worsening NYC traffic. For Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, the limousine is also place of business. When I first saw Holy Motors, I noted the “limo-as-liminal-space” — Oscar’s limousine is his dressing room, a place of transformation for the chameleonic arch-performer.

>>Read more from our Year in Film 2012 issue here.

This common factor, though coincidental, is not accidental. The limousine as symbol and space is crucial to the structure of both films, which I’ve taken half-facetiously to calling “limo operas.” In both, white stretch limos are distinctive cells in the secret circulatory system of late capitalist society. Their passengers have a privileged viewpoint — they can see out, but others can’t see in. When the camera joins the passengers inside the limo, the city becomes an almost unreal backdrop for the private activities within.

In Cosmopolis, there’s an ongoing, ambivalent dialogue about the dispersal of all things into data; everything is getting smaller, faster, swept away by the flow of “cyber-capital.” But Eric Packer, whose vast wealth is about to collapse due to minute changes in the value of the yuan, is obsessed with large, worldly purchases. He has two private elevators with specialized soundtracks, and a Soviet bomber plane that he keeps in a hangar. He’s insistent that he wants to buy the Rothko Chapel, despite its nature as a public artwork. And he describes his limo as a car sawed in half and expanded. He’s had his limo “Prousted” — lined with soundproof cork like Marcel Proust’s bedroom — which he describes as “a gesture … a thing a man does.” The soundproofing doesn’t work, though. His limousine is a performance of his ego, and of its futility.

It’s also an object in the movie’s central dialogue about systems that operate beyond perception. Much like units of encrypted economic information, limos push through the city announcing the self-importance of their passengers. They might be carrying a president or a celebrity, but one of Packer’s employees reminds him that limos also connote “kids on prom night, or some dumb wedding.” And then they go away. Packer asks, “Where do all these limos go at night?” and he finally gets an answer from his limo driver — there are underground garages — they slumber beneath the city. Even his driver’s description of the garages reinforces the weird information-value of the vehicle — “a marketplace of limos.”

Oscar’s limo in Holy Motors is perhaps less of a grand statement to the public, but it’s still a sort of grandiose contradiction on wheels. Oscar is an actor who fulfills “appointments” — enigmatic, prearranged convergences with other lives, where he transmutes into elaborately conceived new beings, for an audience of no one and everyone. When another strange figure, the critic to Oscar’s artist, appears in the limo, Oscar explains his less convincing performances as a result of technological progress: “I miss the cameras. They used to be heavier than us. Then they became smaller than our heads. Now you can’t see them at all.” And so he prepares for his appointments in an eminently visible, garishly substantial machine. In the world of Holy Motors, white stretch limos are apparently markers of Oscar’s trade — when his limo collides with another, it is coincidentally also carrying a performer, his old flame, en route to her own appointment.

In contrast to Cosmopolis, Carax’s film gives a glimpse inside the occluded space of the garage where limos sleep — literally. In its amusing and crucial final scene, Holy Motors returns to the titular motor pool, and eavesdrops on the after-hours gossiping of an entire fleet of sentient limousines. One laments that they’ll soon all be junked, and another agrees: “Men don’t want visible machines anymore.” But visible machines are precisely what Oscar wants, so he makes his office in a limo.

Both Packer and Oscar are aging, battling obsolescence while stubbornly clinging to old operating procedures. In these two films, deeply entrenched in commenting on the withering progress of postmodern life, the stretch limo is a loud, defiant holdout. You might even call it a relic — it is, after all, a holy motor. *


Read more from Sam Stander at hellascreen.blogspot.com





1. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, US, 2011)

2. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary/France/Germany/Switzerland/US, 2011)

3. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada/France/Portugal/Italy)

4. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, US)

5-6. [tie] Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, US, 2011)/The Avengers (Joss Whedon, US)

7-8. [tie] Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, US/Ireland, 2011)/Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, US)

9. Whores’ Glory (Michael Glawogger, Germany/Austria, 2011)

10. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France/Germany)

11. Pina (Wim Wenders, Germany/France/UK, 2011)

12. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)

13. The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, US, 2011) 14. This Is Not A Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2011) 15. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK, 2011)

Chick it out



YEAR IN FILM Cluck as you may, it was only a matter of time before the chicks started rewriting those chick flicks. Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and their peers represent the girls — how politically incorrect — in all their messy, sexy, oozy, frizzy-haired, fallible, flabby, and unflappable glory. And this year saw a major meeting in the ladies room, films out real soon, that poked fun at women’s work, relationships, identities, and insecurities.

The pedestal that history’s most notorious auteur-patriarch was so quick to place his icy blondes upon, rhapsodized in the nostalgia-laced Hitchcock, was toppled in feminist Pygmalion revamp Ruby Sparks, penned by lead actress Zoe Kazan. Meanwhile, Rashida Jones took a revisionist tact and rethought the second-wave myth of the woman who can have it all by writing and playing the lovable power bitch who nevertheless kicks her slacker soul mate to the curb in Celeste and Jesse Forever.

>>Read more from our Year in Film issue here.

In a more clearly chick-flicky vein, writer-star Lauren Miller amped up the sexual side of the rom-com with For a Good Time, Call…, whereas Julie Delpy reveled in an old-world/new-urban interracial culture clash while writing, directing, and starring in 2 Days in New York. Zoe Lister Jones got the second-banana gal-pal’s revenge by writing herself all the best lines in the unsettlingly girlie Lola Versus, a movie that seemed designed to test the patience of men, critics (especially male ones) by wallowing in one girl’s mournful sexual shenanigans.

Why take on the notoriously powerless role of screenwriter? “A pretty dreary lot of hacks,” Raymond Chandler once put it. “On billboards, in newspaper advertisements, [the writer’s] name will be smaller than that of the most insignificant bit-player who achieves what is known as billing.” It’s a critical step in deconstructing the tropes, disassembling the lines, and unpacking the baggage so many so-called women’s films have been supplying for years. No wonder female actor-writers so often seem to be in a race for the bottom with the guys, writing themselves roles that make themselves look more morally ambiguous, sexually conflicted, taste-testingly lurid, and simply screwed-up. Born in Flames (1983), these movies aren’t.

Instead, dub them the natural byproduct of a DIY video-making movement or simply a pendulum swing away from 2011, when it seemed like all the blockbuster roles for women lay in servant’s quarters of The Help and females were protagonists of only 11 percent of all films, in contrast to 2002’s 16 percent (according to a report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University).

Chalk it up to the afterglow of Wiig’s Bridesmaids (2011), spinning off the comedy that won over audiences with its flurry of frenemy backstabbing, scatological humor, and extremely close attention to women’s bizarro rites of passage. Or attribute it to the seismic activity set off by Lena Dunham, who satirized the YouTube generation in 2010’s Tiny Furniture, a comedy she herself shot on a Canon 5D digital camera. Dunham’s HBO hit, Girls, only added fuel to a blogosphere backlash that seemed less about Dunham (her looks, her privileged background) and more about hipster-culture smugness, an entire generation’s perceived sense of entitlement, and good ol’ jealousy.

That kind of outcry is a risk that women are increasingly willing to take, as they wrote themselves onto the big screen and told their own stories. They spun tales about their perhaps petty, perhaps big-deal concerns, and went there — to the not so deep, but sort of dirty little secrets in the Hidden World of Girls, to crib the title of that Fey-hosted NPR series.

And however you felt about her genre-defining rom-coms, there was a certain sad poetry to the fact that writer-director Nora Ephron quietly passed away amid this year’s girlquake. She spent less time in front of the camera than many of these actress-writers do, but you know the woman who directed and co-wrote 1992’s This Is My Life — the film that inspired Dunham to make movies — would have been eager to pass the baton.





Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece, 2010)

Crazy Horse (Frederick Wiseman, USA/France, 2011)

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, UK, 2011)

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, US)

Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia)

Gerhard Richter Painting (Corinna Belz, Germany, 2011)

Gimme the Loot (Adam Leon, US)

I Wish (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2011) Marina Abramovich: The Artist Is Present (Matthew Akers, Jeff Dupre, US) Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK)

Harvey’s list



Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, US)

Bernie (Richard Linklater, US, 2011)

The Eye of the Storm (Fred Schepisi, Australia)

Fat Kid Rules the World (Matthew Lillard, US)

Footnote (Joseph Cedar, Israel, 2011)

Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick, US)

Hermano (Marcel Rasquin, Venezuela, 2010)

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France/Germany)

The Hunter (David Nettheim, Australia, 2011)

In Darkness (Agnieszka Holland, Poland/Germany/Canada, 2011)

Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs, US)

Klown (Mikkel Norgaard, Denmark, 2010)

Life of Pi (Ang Lee, US/China)

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, US/India)

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)

Michael (Markus Schleinzer, Austria, 2011)

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, US)

Natural Selection (Robbie Pickering, US, 2011)

Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, Norway, 2011)

Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, US)

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, US)

Sister (Ursula Meier, France/Switzerland)

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, UK/US)

21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, US)

Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore, US)


Gypsy Davy (Rachel Leah Jones, Israel/US/Spain, 2011)

The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki, various)

How to Survive a Plague (David France, US)

Informant (Jamie Meltzer, US)
The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, US)
The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, US/Netherlands/UK/Denmark)
Pink Ribbons, Inc. (Léa Pool, Canada, 2011)
Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, US)
Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/U.K.)
Surviving Progress (Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, Canada, 2011)
The Waiting Room (Peter Nicks, US)

Ficks’ picks


1. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada/France/Portugal/Italy) During the five times I watched this brilliantly slow-burning, transcendental flick, I saw dozens of audience members fall asleep, walk out early, and complain all the way down the corridor of the Embarcadero Center Cinema hallways. I had to watch it that many times (plus read the book and have countless late-night discussions) just to try and wrap my brain around this era-defining exploration of what it means to be a (hu)man in the Y2Ks. Robert Pattinson proved he’s a truly spectacular actor, Paul Giamatti has never been better, and David Cronenberg is only getting better as he gets older.

2. In the Family  (Patrick Wang, US, 2011) Self-distributed due to its length (169 minutes), this is a stunningly haunting and devastating work. Viewers with the patience to stick with it are rewarded with a genuinely achieved emotional volcano that I can only relate to John Cassavetes’ greatest films. A truly landmark film, in both style and content.

3. The Master  (Paul Thomas Anderson, US) Of all the films that Anderson has boldly attempted, audaciously experimented with, and (perhaps most importantly) been critically embraced for, The Master is a balanced period piece that combines both poetic and historical elements with a couple of truly profound performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. This is not a film only about Scientology, or about just one master. This is a film that asks many questions, but supplies few answers.

4. The Comedy (Rick Alverson, US) Perhaps containing the most mean-spirited characters of the decade, this harrowingly insightful satire of the hipster generation’s compulsion to heap irony upon irony inspired many an audience member to exit mid-film. But the many who dared to remain (including fans of the film’s lead actor, Tim Heidecker, from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) may have found themselves forced to question their own heartless (and even sociopath) tendencies.

Director Rick Alverson’s perceptive use of a contemporary antihero is quite comparable to the counterculture characters of the 1970s: Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976), Peter Falk in Husbands (1970), and Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970). And since The Comedy was not necessarily made to be enjoyed, it will probably, sadly, take 20 years for people to recognize that there is no finer film to define this generation.

5. Florentina Hubaldo CTE (Lav Diaz, Philippines) With this six-hour film, Lav Diaz has created yet another minimalist masterpiece that few will even attempt to watch — 20 people started out in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ screening, and only 10 finished it. Diaz has a monumental goal in mind for his character, and his film’s length is a major part of achieving it. I am not sure if there will ever be a time when six-hour character studies will be all the rage, but until then, Diaz is paving an uncharted road for others to follow.

6. Shanghai (Dibakar Banerjee, India) This Hindi remake of Costa-Gavras’ monumental political thriller Z (1969) may not have French New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard behind the camera, but Shanghai‘s director of photography Nikos Andritsakis adds his own brand of raw intensity. For his part, writer-director Banerjee creates an even more complicated look at the state of politics in the age of the modern terrorist. Seemingly inspired by fellow director Ram Gopal Varma’s career of gritty political dramas, Banerjee is an international director to watch.

7. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France) The perfect companion to David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, this film contains a tour de force performance by the almighty Denis Lavant (of Claire Denis’ 1999 Beau Travail), with Michel Piccoli, Eva Mendes, Édith Scob, and Kylie Minogue in supporting roles. Unique, surreal, and completely inspired, this day-in-the-life journey will make you want to watch it again as soon as it ends.

8. The Grey  (Joe Carnahan, US) The best existential “animal attacking human” flick since David Mamet’s 1997 cult classic The Edge. It’s a film that showcases Liam Neeson as he tapes glass to his fists to battle a pack of giant wolves — and manages to be emotionally stirring at the same time. Make sure to keep watching all the way through the credits.

9a. Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton, US, 2011) Lynn Shelton’s follow-up to her genre-defining bromance Humpday (2009) is a pitch-perfect indie that attempts to dig deep within its dark and confused characters. Depressed and confused thirtysomething Jack (played by Mark Duplass, master of casual awkwardness) heads off to a remote island to figure out his life. The only trouble: his best friend (a mesmerizing Emily Blunt) also has a lesbian sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is already there doing her own soul searching. With this contemplative, honest, and hilarious film, Shelton is turning out to be quite a splendid voice for our current generation of progressive pitfallers.

9b. Jeff, Who Lives At Home (Jay Duplass and Mark Dupass, US) They’ve done it again! With Jeff, the mumblecore masters (2005’s The Puffy Chair; 2010’s Cyrus) construct a stoner comedy-existential trip for the man-child generation. While inspiring outstanding performances from Jason Segal and Ed Helms (both the best they’ve ever been), playing brothers, a poignantly performance by Susan Sarandon as their mother raises this wonderfully earned sentimental indie flick to the ranks of family dramas like Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays (1995) and her most recent overlooked gem, The Beaver (2011).

10. Lotus Community Workshop (Harmony Korine, US) His next film, Spring Breakers (due out next year), is poised to become Harmony Korine’s most accessible film to date; it’s a T&A-filled exploitation film, led by James Franco as a grimy, gold-grilled-grinning, dreadlocked drug dealer who lives to prey on bikini-clad young girls. But 30-minute meta-masterpiece Lotus Community Workshop, which played the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year (as part of omnibus film The Fourth Dimension), is maybe Korine’s greatest film to date. The almighty Val Kilmer plays a dirt bike-riding, fanny-pack wearing, roller-rink guru named Val Kilmer — and yep, it’s as mind-blowing as it sounds.

11. ParaNorman  (Chris Butler and Sam Fell, US) This stop-motion animated film surprised parents who felt its PG rating should have been PG-13 — and it inspired gasps and even yells (from adults!) in every screening I attended. Daringly shot on a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR Camera and released in a fully utilized 3D, this ode to midnight movies is a kids’ film that will stand the test of time and should rank right alongside Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Army of Darkness (1992): horror parodies that transcended their own self-awareness and become classics themselves.

12-14 [tie]. A Simple Life (Ann Hui, Hong Kong, 2011), Amour (Michael Haneke, Austria/France/Germany), The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary/France/Germany/Switzerland/US, 2011) Ann Hui’s simple, straightforward tale of a woman’s choice to check herself into a retirement home after suffering a stroke will probably get overshadowed by Michael Haneke’s wonderfully minimalist approach to an elderly couple’s decline after one of them experiences the same ailment. Meanwhile, Béla Tarr’s final film is for acquired tastes only; it’s a cyclical journey with a rural couple, who eat potatoes, are isolated in a stormy darkness, and care for their horse. All three films lay out a terrifyingly realistic blueprint of old age.

15. Compliance  (Craig Zobel, US) No film at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival encountered as much controversy as Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with one audience member yelling “Sundance can do better!” You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Every screening that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at the fest. And it doesn’t disappoint: Zobel unleashes an uncomfortable psychological mindfuck on the viewer all the way through to the stunning final 15 minutes, which are even more shocking than all the twists and turns that came before.

16. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy, 2011) Can these Belgian brothers make a bad film? Seriously? Like their Palme D’Or winners Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and L’enfant (2005), Kid is yet another hypnotic, neo-realist portrait of modern-day youth. Every character makes unexpected yet inevitable decisions. No moment is false. The Dardennes create movies that make life feel more real.

17. Beasts of the Southern Wild ( Benh Zeitlin, US) Fantastical special effects created by 31 students at San Francisco’s own Academy of Art University (yes, I am biased), plus star Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, a precocious six-year-old searching to understand a world post-Katrina, post-race, and more importantly post-childhood. Combining David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2001), Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (2008) and perhaps even Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), Zeitlin has created a haunting enigma for modern audiences that deserves multiple viewings. But even though it won multiple prizes at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, will it get the Oscar attention it deserves?

18. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (John Hyams, US) When Jean-Claude Van Damme started this franchise back in 1992, it was a nice little combo of First Blood (1982), The Terminator (1984) and Robocop (1987). Twenty years later, the series’ fourth entry is co-written, co-edited, and directed by John Hyams, the son of Peter Hyams, who directed JCVD classics Timecop (1994) and Sudden Death (1995) — and man oh man does he deliver a tough and gritty little action sci-fi film. Van Damme takes on an even darker role than his scene-stealing turn in Expendables 2; with a cleverly subversive script, eloquently choreographed fight scenes (one of which gives Dolph Lundgren some pretty priceless moments), and a denouement that has to be seen to be believed, you may be rooting for this VOD released genre film as much as I am — not to mention Indiewire, which called it “One of the Best Action Movies of the Year!”

19. John Carter (Andrew Stanton, US) With a budget of $250 million, this epic based on Edgar Rice Burroughs stories brought the Walt Disney company to its knees by only making $73 million back. If you saw the film in 3D, you might be confused as to why no one bothered to see it. In my opinion (having watched it twice), John Carter achieves everything James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) did, as far as sci-fi extravaganzas go, but it also has an inspired story and a charming cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, and Willem Dafoe. This is possibly this generation’s Ishtar (1987), and like Elaine May’s infamous still-unavailable bomb, John Carter is actually enjoyable; it’ll need a decade or two for audiences to find it as one of the most enjoyable CGI spectacles in recent years.

20. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, US) [SPOILER ALERT!] I found The Dark Knight Rises hard to dismiss as just another money-making super-hero adaptation. After multiple viewings, I’ve come to think of the conclusion to the trilogy as the finest of the three. I’ve also had time to puzzle over the film’s intricate plot.

While many fellow critics seemed to find the film’s political handlings of Bane’s Occupy/French Revolution movement to be flimsy and even irresponsible, I would argue that the film works in a more complicated way toward politics. If Bane’s misguided revolution fell flat, then it would be important to look at Catwoman’s anarchist ways. And about that — did she put her selfishness aside to start over with a broke Bruce Wayne, or is the closing sequence just Alfred’s fantasy? (And if the latter is true, did Batman actually blow himself up in the end?)

And then there’s Blake, who bests the pathetic Deputy Commissioner, then turns his back on the well-meaning yet lying-to-the-people Commissioner Gordon. Though Blake knows he has to quit the police force amid such corruption, he can’t dismiss his urge to help the helpless and downtrodden — after all, he’s an orphan from the streets — and Robin is born. He’s alone (no butlers down in that cave anymore …), and will need to figure out what to do in Gotham City — a town that’s always wild at heart and weird on top.

(Note: list compiled prior to viewing Zero Dark Thirty or Les Misérables.)

Best Actor of 2012
Matthew McConaughey for Bernie (Richard Linklater, US, 2011), Killer Joe (William Friedkin, US, 2011), Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, US, 2011), and The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, US)

Best Unreleased Films of 2012

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonymous, Denmark/Norway/UK)

Black Rock (Katie Aselton, USA)

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK)

Pilgrim Song (Martha Stephens, US)

The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, US)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks programs the Midnites for Maniacs series, which emphasizes dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films. He is the Film History Coordinator at Academy of Art University.

Holiday movie massacre!



FILM To paraphrase Christmas Vacation (1989), 2012 is poised to deliver the biggest late-December film glut since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny Fucking Kaye. From Wednesday, December 19 to Tuesday, December 25, no less than 12 new movies are opening in the Bay Area, doomsday be damned.

Because I would not want to steer you wrong in this most wonderful time of the year — and since the movie everyone’s buzzing about, Zero Dark Thirty, doesn’t open in San Francisco until January 4; trust me, it’s worth the wait — I’m taking a cue from the man with the bag and making a list, checking it twice, etc. Who’s naughty, and who’s nice? Read on for my rundown of this year’s holiday movies.

Top of the food chain: Er, unchained. Django Unchained (out Tue/25), that is. Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western homage features a cameo by the original Django (Franco Nero, star of the 1966 film), and solid performances by a meticulously assembled cast, including Jamie Foxx as the titular former slave who becomes a badass bounty hunter under the tutelage of Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing the evil yet befuddlingly delightful Nazi Hans Landa in Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds, is just as memorable (and here, you can feel good about liking him) as a quick-witted, quick-drawing wayward German dentist.

There are no Nazis in Django, of course, but Tarantino’s taboo du jour (slavery) more than supplies motivation for the filmmaker’s favorite theme (revenge). Once Django joins forces with Schultz, the natural-born partners hatch a scheme to rescue Django’s still-enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whose German-language skills are as unlikely as they are convenient. Along the way (and it’s a long way; the movie runs 165 minutes), they encounter a cruel plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose main passion is the offensive, shocking “sport” of “Mandingo fighting,” and his right-hand man, played by Tarantino muse Samuel L. Jackson in a transcendently scandalous performance.

And amid all the violence and racist language and Foxx vengeance-making, there are many moments of screaming hilarity, as when a character with the Old South 101 name of Big Daddy (Don Johnson) argues with the posse he’s rounded up over the proper construction of vigilante hoods. It’s a classic Tarantino moment: pausing the action so characters can blather on about something trivial before an epic scene of violence. Mr. Pink would approve.

A disaster movie to make you rethink your tropical vacation: Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (2007’s The Orphanage) directs The Impossible (Fri/21), a relatively modestly-budgeted take on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, based on the real story of a Spanish family who experienced the disaster. Here, the family (Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, three young sons) is British, on a Christmas vacation from dad’s high-stress job in Japan.

Beachy bliss is soon ruined by that terrible series of waves; they hit early in the film, and Bayona offers a devastatingly realistic depiction of what being caught in a tsunami must feel like: roaring, debris-filled water threatening death by drowning, impalement, or skull-crushing. And then, the anguish of surfacing, alive but injured, stranded, and miles from the nearest doctor, not knowing if your family members have perished.

Without giving anything away (no more than the film’s suggestive title, anyway), once the survivors are established (and the film’s strongest performer, Watts, is relegated to hospital-bed scenes) The Impossible finds its way inevitably to melodrama, and triumph-of-the-human-spirit theatrics. As the family’s oldest son, 16-year-old Tom Holland is effective as a kid who reacts exactly right to crisis, morphing from sulky teen to thoughtful hero — but the film is too narrowly focused on its tourist characters, with native Thais mostly relegated to background action. It’s a disconnect that’s not quite offensive, but is still off-putting.

A disastrous movie to make you rethink procreation: A spin-off of sorts from 2007’s Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s This is 40 (Fri/21) continues the story of two characters nobody cared about from that earlier film: Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife) and Pete (Paul Rudd), plus their two kids (played by Mann and Apatow’s kids). Pete and Debbie have accumulated all the trappings of comfortable Los Angeles livin’: luxury cars, a huge house, a private personal trainer, the means to throw catered parties and take weekend trips to fancy hotels (and to whimsically decide to go gluten-free), and more Apple products than have ever before been shoehorned into a single film.

But! This was crap they got used to having before Pete’s record label went into the shitter, and Debbie’s dress-shop employee (Charlene Yi, another Knocked Up returnee who is one of two people of color in the film; the other is an Indian doctor who exists so Pete can mock his accent) started stealing thousands from the register. How will this couple and their whiny offspring deal with their financial reality? By arguing! About bullshit! In every scene! For nearly two and a half hours! By the time Melissa McCarthy, as a fellow parent, shows up to command the film’s only satisfying scene — ripping Pete and Debbie a new one, which they sorely deserve — you’re torn between cheering for her and wishing she’d never appeared. Seeing McCarthy go at it is a reminder that most comedies don’t make you feel like stabbing yourself in the face. I’m honestly perplexed as to who this movie’s audience is supposed to be. Self-loathing yuppies? Masochists? Apatow’s immediate family, most of whom are already in the film?

For theater geeks only: By contrast, the audience Les Misérables (Tue/25) hopes to reel in is abundantly clear. There is a not-insignificant portion of the population who already knows all the words to all the songs of this musical-theater warhorse, around since the 1980s and honored here with a lavish production by Tom Hooper (2010’s The King’s Speech).

As other reviews have pointed out, this version only tangentially concerns Victor Hugo’s French Revolution tale; its true raison d’être is swooning over the sight of its big-name cast crooning those famous tunes. Vocals were recorded live on-set, with microphones digitally removed in post-production — but despite this technical achievement, there’s a certain inorganic quality to the proceedings. Like The King’s Speech, the whole affair feels spliced together in the Oscar-creation lab. The hardworking Hugh Jackman deserves the nomination he’ll inevitably get; jury’s still out on Anne Hathaway’s blubbery, “I cut my hair for real, I am so brave!” performance.

For Marion Cotillard fans disappointed by The Dark Knight Rises: Hathaway’s Dark Knight co-star also has a new movie out this week. Unlike Hathaway, Rust and Bone (Fri/21) star Marion Cotillard never seems like she’s trying too hard to be sexy, or edgy, or whatever (plus, she already has an Oscar, so the pressure’s off). Here, she’s a whale trainer at a SeaWorld-type park who loses her legs in an accident, which complicates (but ultimately strengthens) her relationship with Ali (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, so tremendous in 2011’s Bullhead), a single dad trying to make a name for himself as a boxer.

Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to 2009’s A Prophet gets a bit overwrought by its last act, but there’s an emotional authenticity in the performances that makes even a ridiculous twist (like, the kind that’ll make you exclaim “Are you fucking kidding me?”) feel almost well-earned.

For those who are more Black Christmas (1974) than The Christmas Story (1983): Yes, Virginia, even smaller genre flicks get Christmas release dates. Irish import Citadel (Fri/21 at the Roxie) begins with terror: a young pregnant woman, on the verge of moving out of her soon-to-be-condemned high-rise, is attacked — while her husband, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard), looks on helplessly — by a pack of hoodie-wearing youths who inject her with a mysterious substance.

Though the baby lives, the woman dies, and Tommy becomes a haunted, paranoid husk of a man. Not that you can really blame him; the housing project he lives in is nearly deserted, and those hoodie-wearing gangs seem to be increasing (and are increasingly interested in his infant daughter). After an ominous build-up, the darkly disturbing Citadel can’t quite keep the momentum going, though James Cosmo (Game of Thrones fans will recognize him even out of his Night’s Watch blacks) offers an amusingly over-the-top performance as a foul-mouthed priest.

Thriller Deadfall (Fri/21), set amid a howling blizzard, has an all-star cast: Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde play a creepy-close brother-sister team who crash their getaway car after a successful casino heist; Sons of Anarchy‘s Charlie Hunnam plays a vengeful boxer just out of the slammer (with nervous parents played by Kris Kristofferson and Sissy Spacek); and Treat Williams and Kate Mara are an antagonistic father-daughter team of cops chasing after most of the above. Bana’s glowering performance is the high point of this noir-Western, though if the snowy landscape were a character, it’d be the most important part of the ensemble.

And the rest: Tom Cruise plays Lee Child’s taciturn ex-military investigator in action thriller Jack Reacher (Fri/21) — featuring a villainous Werner Herzog; Sulley and company return in Pixar’s enhanced re-release of its 2001 animated hit, Monsters, Inc. 3D (Wed/19); more 3D in acrobatic fantasy Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (Fri/21); a son (Seth Rogen) and mother (Barbra Streisand) drive cross-country in comedy The Guilt Trip (Wed/19); and Billy Crystal plays a harried grandpa on babysitting duty in Parental Guidance (Tue/25).


Dirty jokes


TRASH It has been noted that most people didn’t experience “the Sixties” until the Seventies, at least in terms of all that Free Love and chemical entertainment. But even at the latter decade’s most indulgent junctures, many people’s minds remained stuck in the Fifties — sniggering about the very idea of sex, using terms like “boobies,” insisting women be gorgeous idiots and men perma-adolescent clods.

The 1970s may have begun with 1971’s Carnal Knowledge — a bitter goodbye to the fucked-up-edness of pre-Sexual Revolution life — but the ’80s began with 1982’s Porky’s, which signaled a return to sex as dirty joke when it wasn’t harrowing in a vagina-dentata way (see: 1987’s Fatal Attraction). The apex and nadir of anything-goes Me Decade public sexual expression was the existence of Al Goldstein’s zine Screw, which pushed the frontiers of the new permissiveness while indulging infantile humor and fearful-hostile misogyny.

The most puerile if also most harmless expression of this was in comedic porn movies, which set a juvenile Borscht Belt tenor early on with Deep Throat (1972) and seldom aimed any higher thereafter. This ka-boom-cha! humor dominated the never-ending cycle of movie spoofs that probably started with 1970 softcore jungle send-up Trader Hornee, but they also spawned a short-lived subgenre that ever-adventurous Joel Shepard of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is celebrating with a retrospective this month. Reviving three features from our nation’s bicentennial year of 1976, “Honk If You’re Horny: Retro Sex Musicals” definitely proves that if you were born too late for that era, you missed some very, very strange experiences.


Where today’s trend toward “darker” versions of fairy tales on the big and small screen — Grimm, all those Snow Whites, the upcoming Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters — perhaps indicates how childish adult tastes have grown, in the Seventies those fables were used and abused to measure just how far from innocence we’d come. As early as 1963, no less than Herschell Gordon Lewis was presiding over “nudie-cutie” Goldilocks and the Three Bares, after which followed The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried (1971), the same year’s The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio (“It’s Not His Nose That Grows!”), and so forth. But the zenith, such as it is, of this trend was YBCA series kickoff Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy (1976), whose opening credits feature the unique attribution “Underwater Nude Volleyball sequences shot by …”

In director Bud Townsend and scenarist-composer Bucky Searles’ very free adaptation of Lewis Carroll, Alice (Playboy centerfold and future Jackie Chan co-star Kristine DeBell, making her film debut) is a repressed librarian led down a rabbit hole of sexual exploration and liberation. Before returning to the real world (and real delivery-guy cock), she’s given a tongue bath by creatures whose costumes anticipate furry fandom; enjoys good vibrations from a talking rock; fellates the Mad Hatter; and watches unisex couple Tweedledee and Tweedledum 69 each other (what else are they going to do?) One doesn’t remember stripping lesbian nurses in the original, or topless slo-mo horseback riding. The women dance like Vegas showgirls and the men seem kinda queeny; don’t even ask about the “songs.” Nonetheless this cheap cheesefest was picked up for release by 20th Century Fox, which cut it to an R and made a small mint.

Ergo it is perhaps not that surprising that YBCA’s second feature, 1976’s The First Nudie Musical, got its own mainstream release from Paramount, tacky and horribly dated as it is. Made just before star Cindy Williams began Laverne and Shirley (though after she’d appeared in 1973’s American Graffiti and on Happy Days with Ron Howard, who does a cameo here), this wheezing yokfest has her as secretary to a porn producer (Stephen Nathan). It’s his big idea to counter flagging box office by shooting a porno musical, though that effort is nearly derailed by his being forced to put a studio boss’ idiot son (writer and co-director Bruce Kimmel) behind the camera. The kind of unfunny that for 97 minutes may make you want to kill yourself, Nudie duly has some full-frontal shots and a not-bad dancing dildos number. Otherwise — oy.

Last and possibly least even in this context is 1976’s Let My Puppets Come, one of those films that must be witnessed just to confirm that it exists — no matter how much you may regret doing so afterward. Late Bronx-bred Deep Throat auteur Gerard Damiano made some of the era’s most famous and most interesting porn features (usually not the same ones), but here he indulged a self-parodic whim by satirizing his own crazy career in singing, dancing, fucking felt ersatz-Muppet form.

Puppets‘ protagonists are a group of schmoes indebted to the mob and forced to make a porno to pay it off. (In the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, the director alluded to his erstwhile mob benefactors-bosses while his still-fearful wife keeps vehemently trying to shush him in the background.) Their resulting masterpiece stars the likes of “Anthony Quimm” and “Clitorus Leachman,” features a bit of make-believe bestiality (a none-too-subtle reference to Throat star Linda Lovelace’s canine thrill reel), has fake commercials (vaginal deodorant, etc.), and a cameo by Al Goldstein himself.

Evidently Damiano’s backers didn’t appreciate the joke, since the film was released at just 40-odd minutes’ length, with most of its songs cut. But Shepard promises an ultra-rare screening of the full, intended hour-and-a quarter edit. Swallow at your own risk. *


Thu/6, Dec. 13, and 20, 7:30pm, $8-$10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF



Le grand career



FILM In the 1950s and ’60s silent comedy — which had hitherto seemed as extinct and useless as the dodo — experienced a popular revival, sparked by a Walter Kerr article in Life magazine and sustained by television broadcasts, compilation documentaries, the general rise of a cineaste culture, and the still-breathing status of a few old favorites. (Buster Keaton, for one, spent a very busy last 15 years making guest appearances on both the big and small screen.) That nostalgic interest didn’t greatly effect new Hollywood movies of the era, however, apart from a brief vogue for bloated homages like It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), The Great Race (1965), and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), exercises in slapstick elephantiasis that placed mistaken belief in the notion that bigger is always better.

In France, by contrast, at least a couple notable careers emerged devoted to honoring and elaborating on the tropes of silent comedy. The obvious one belonged to Jacques Tati, whose elegant orchestration of the clash between progress and fallible humanity made the modern world its subject while pretty much dispensing with sound (or at least dialogue) cinema altogether.

But Tati also had a protégé of sorts, Pierre Étaix, who had his own similar yet distinct run of films that made comparatively little impact outside France. If they’re almost entirely unknown to us today, that’s in large part because legal complications kept them unavailable for many long years. It’s only recently that they’ve been restored and re-released, reaching the US in a traveling retrospective that lands at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center this weekend and next. “Pierre Étaix: Lost and Found” is well worth crossing the bridge for — the five features and three shorts it encompasses represent a decade of work for the most part so delightful it seems downright perverse we’re just now making their acquaintance.

Smitten by circus clowning at an early age but also developing considerable skills as a musician and designer, Étaix began a stage career in his late teens. But it was his talent as an illustrator that caught the eye of Tati, for whom he became an assistant during the four years of preproduction on the writer-director-actor’s third feature Mon Oncle (1958). After that Étaix returned to live performance with considerable success, his comedy act at one point opening for quintessential Gallic pop idol Johnny Halladay. It was suggested he try making short films, and the elaborate second such effort, Happy Anniversary, wound up winning the 1963 Oscar for Best Live Action Short.

Still, his producer was reluctant to commit to a feature, so Étaix and his writing partner Jean-Claude Carriere wrote a script episodic enough that it could be released as several separate shorts if necessary. The Suitor (1962) put the star’s flexible prior character — an approximate cross between Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Steve Carrell — into a series of awkward courtships in response to his exasperated parents’ concern that he will never marry. (The funniest involves his wrangling an extremely drunk woman home from a nightclub.)

It was a success, prompting the much more ambitious Yo Yo (1965), an absurdist microcosm of 20th century history with his titular protagonist reeling from Roaring Twenties to World War II to the gray flannel suit corporate era. The next year’s As Long as You’re Healthy retrenched a bit — it really was three separate shorts strung together (a fifth was rather inexplicably cut and released separately as Feeling Good). Three were amusing; the fourth, involving a farmer, a hunter, and two picnickers creating havoc for each other on a rural day out, is a masterpiece of slapstick intricacy.

After a circus tour, he made his first color feature, 1969’s Le Grand Amour. It had just a wisp of plot (involving the specter of infidelity threatening hero Pierre’s marriage to Florence, played by Étaix’s actual spouse Annie Fratellini), but a surfeit of exquisitely realized gags including a marvelous, surreal dream sequence with locomotive beds.

But then he made an apparently fatal mistake: taking an interesting gamble on 1971’s Land of Milk and Honey, a caustic documentary (and, to an extent, parody of documentaries) that starts out as deliberately clichéd ode to La France then rapidly turns into a prolonged sneer at its citizens. Dwelling on talentless would-be singers in some Gong Show-like forum and ordinary, unattractive bodies on full display at the beach, no more impressed by the hippies than the bourgeoise, its portrait of a vapidly complacent populace struck a nerve when the 1969-shot film was finally released in 1971. It was the wrong nerve — the movie was loathed, and feels mean-spirited even today. Still, it hardly should have ended Étaix’s entire screen career as star and director.

Somehow it did, though, more or less. Étaix found financing for just one more feature of his own (1987’s autumnal Monsieur is Getting Older, not in the Rafael series), otherwise occupying himself with more stage work and TV. He also acted for an interesting mix of directors including Nagisa Oshima, Philip Kaufman, Otar Iosseliani, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Aki Kaurismäki — in addition to having earlier worked with Robert Bresson, Louis Malle, and (in the notorious, unreleased The Day the Clown Cried) Jerry Lewis. Now in his mid-80s, he’s stuck around long enough to enjoy his prime work being rediscovered and celebrated for its sometimes hilarious, often near-balletic ingenuity.


Dec. 7-13, $10.50

Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center

1118 Fourth St., San Rafael



Chopping spree



FILM Unlike the San Francisco Independent Film Festival’s flagship event and its popular DocFest, which more or less put roots down at the Roxie, genre fest Another Hole in the Head spreads its horror, sci-fi, and just plain weird wealth around to various venues. Yeah, the Roxie’s still on its list, but HoleHead also hosts events down 16th Street at the Victoria Theater, and at SOMA’s Terra Gallery and the Vortex Room — the latter an inspired addition, given the Vortex’s reputation as a haven for mondo cinema.

This year, HoleHead opens with a screening of Richard Elfman’s 1982 cult musical Forbidden Zone, presented in — holy Tyrrell! — remastered and colorized form. Elfman will be on hand to answer all your Sixth Dimensional questions, and a party (complete with Oingo Boingo cover band) follows.

Closing night looks to be a decidedly less festive affair, with Austrian director Michal Kosakowski’s unsettling Zero Killed — a feature film spun from his video installation and short film project, Fortynine. From 1996 to 2006, Kosakowski interviewed people about their murder fantasies, then used the tales (suicide bombings, school shootings, dog attacks, dinner-party poisonings, stabbings, shoving people into traffic or letting them slip off cliffs, etc.) as short-film inspiration, starring the storyteller as either perpetrator or victim.

A haunting musical score ups the creep factor, as Kosakowski tracks down each participant (many, but not all, are actors by trade) to interview them about their specific fantasies and other troubling topics, like revenge, torture, and “What is evil?” Zero Killed is a uniquely disturbing mix of fiction and documentary, cutting between horrific, blood-soaked vignettes and clinical talking-head interviews — often featuring the same subject.

There’s plenty of blood gushing forth in slick British standout Axed (listed as “Fangoria presents Axed” on the HoleHead schedule, so that right there should assure you of its splatter cred). When a businessman is, uh, axed from the corporate gig that turned him into an uptight prick long ago, he goes all Jack Torrance on his wife and teenage kids. As you might guess, the titular implement figures prominently in his plans, and Ryan Lee Driscoll’s film spirals from satirical to sadistic as each new body drops.

Changing gears, from in-your-face to perhaps too subtle: posting recently to his Observations on Film Art blog, scholar David Bordwell scrutinized what he called “discovered footage” horror films, with a focus on the Paranormal Activity series. Bordwell took particularly interest in the “rewards and risks” of the genre’s “narrow set of stylistic choices.” In these films, the camera itself occupies a heightened presence within the story. By now, everyone knows the psychological effect that’s supposed to have: if we’re aware of the camera, and it seems like an actual person is filming what we see, the images appear more real — and hopefully, “the reward” translates to genuine shrieks in the dark.

But for every Paranormal Activity sequel that’s seen by millions and rakes in hundreds of millions, there are dozens of copycats. And why not? Found-footage horror is non-traditional filmmaking at its most democratic. It can be made on the cheap, and wobbly production values are de rigueur. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to get ahold of a camera than to come up with an original idea, much less one that yields actual moments of fright.

With that said, The Garlock Incident does make an effort to tread new, albeit Blair Witch-y, ground. The set-up is that a group of Los Angeles actors — appealing 20-somethings all — are en route to Vegas for a movie shoot. Also in the van is ambitious director Lily (Ana Lily Amirpour), who obsessively films everything. After taking a spontaneous detour to visit a ghost town with a sinister back story, they discover a couple of maybe-abandoned shacks — and soon realize that getting off the main road was a bad idea. Oh, kids. It’s always a bad idea, especially for city slickers who can’t function without cell service.

Garlock‘s frustrating ending, which I wouldn’t dare spoil even if I fully understood it (even after watching it several times), is a letdown. Until its last act, though, Garlock is actually a pretty interesting look at how quickly relationships can break down when circumstances slide from uncertain to dire. But once you start puzzling over the ending, other doubts surface — like, by what logic would the actors’ audition footage be neatly edited into this roughly-shot, “found” chronicle of wilderness terror?

Speaking of wilderness terror and, alas, unsatisfying finales, retro-styled sci-fi adventure The 25th Reich screeches to a halt with a “to be continued” cliffhanger, just when shit is starting to get mind-blowingly insane. Argh! Fortunately, for the most part, the film — about a group of World War II soldiers who time-travel back and forth, squabbling among themselves as they pursue UFOs and Nazis — works just fine as a stand-alone, though its gleeful reliance on stereotypes (the Jew, the Italian, the Southern redneck, etc.) feels less like a nod to classic war films than a way to avoid actual character development.

The best gimmick centers on Captain O’ Brien, an erstwhile matinee idol not above reciting cornball lines from his own films at crucial moments. That he’s played by Jim Knobeloch — who also appeared in 2012’s other Nazi sci-fi flick, Iron Sky — is a perfect bit of obscure-genre synergy.

It wouldn’t be HoleHead without zombies. Comic The Living Corpse gets the (re-)animated treatment in The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse, which follows the titular beastie’s existential crisis after he — oops! — rips apart almost his entire family. Spared is a young son who is sent to a creepy boarding school for orphans, though he’s soon plucked from its halls to apprentice under a mad scientist. Meanwhile, the guilt-ridden corpse — real name: John Romero; memo to creative types: naming anyone “Romero” in your zombie-related whatnot is no longer a novel idea — roams the underworld and the land of the living, meting out occasional supernatural ass-kickings but mostly searching for his long-lost offspring.

The haunted-school scenes (complete with a kids vs. demons showdown) are clever, and the catchy soundtrack has punky flair, but the sheer number of plot threads nearly overwhelms the 82-minute film — maybe cool for fans of the comic, but viewers new to the material might wonder why, say, the “Spectral Protection Society” is elaborately introduced and then discarded. The overall effect is not nearly as fun (or “amazing”) as it should be.

Amazing, however, is one of many gushing adjectives I might use to describe my top pick of the festival: Mike Malloy’s Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ’70s — a jazzy, lovingly-compiled homage to some of the trashiest, most mean-spirited films ever made. Everyone’s heard of Spaghetti Westerns, but poliziotteschi movies have yet to make a true cult breakthrough (or be remade by Quentin Tarantino, but I’m sure he’ll get there eventually). A groovy-sleazy score and endless clips, posters, and still shots set the tone for Eurocrime!, which gathers some of the genre’s biggest stars (laid-back John Saxon; gracious Franco Nero; bratty Antonio Sabàto) to look back at their years chasing each other across rooftops, brawling in junkyards, and working with directors like Umberto Lenzi (“the screaming-est director I ever met in my life,” according to actor Henry Silva).

The doc, a tad long at 137 minutes, also explores why the films became so popular, despite the fact that their scripts were often ripped wholesale from American “angry cop” films (and, later, from each other) — and why that popularity didn’t last (possible culprits: laughable dubbing, distracting mustaches, brutal violence against women). Newcomers won’t believe that such a world of insane film exists, longtime aficionados will dig the nostalgia, and both camps will enjoy Eurocrime!‘s high-energy appreciation of a genre long overdue for this kind of treatment. 


Nov. 28-Dec.9, $10-$12

Various venues, SF


That’s a wrap



HOLIDAY GUIDE “Film fan” can mean many things: that guy who knows the name of every weapon in the Star Wars universe, the late-period Clint Eastwood apologist, the kid who dreams of being the next Joss Whedon, the woman who dresses like a 1940s femme fatale, or the neighbors who just named their new puppy “Kubrick.” What’s more, most people have some love for movies (or at least really good TV), so a cinematic gift is more or less a win-win situation as long as you make a slight effort to tailor it to the individual. Herewith, some ideas to get you started.

Bodacious Blu-ray box set Bond 50: The Complete 22 Film Collection goes from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig, compiling all the 007 flicks to date (with the exception of the current Skyfall, of course). Though not all Bond films are created equal (2002’s Die Another Day vs. suave 1960s Connery? No contest), the set would be a handsome addition to any space-age bachelor or bachelorette pad. For added impact, throw in a snazzy cocktail shaker and some martini glasses. Instant secret agent party!

For the Giants fan who’s already drowning in World Series memorabilia, why not splash out for one or both volumes of the ESPN Films 30 for 30 Gift Set Collection? The films in this Emmy-nominated series transcend typical feel-good sports docs to closely examine specific moments and important (or infamous) figures, with acclaimed directors (John Singleton, Barry Levinson, Barbara Kopple) contributing alongside up-and-comers. Each entry is different from the last, but all the stories are fascinating, focusing on topics as wide-ranging as the death of basketball star Len Bias, a New York City fantasy baseball league, fan love during the Los Angeles Raiders years (directed by Ice Cube), the friendship between Mike Tyson and Tupac Shakur, and the downfall of track athlete Marion Jones.

But maybe you don’t want to risk gifting any DVDs, since you’re not sure what the film fan in question’s collection already contains. To avoid any awkward, “Gee, thanks, but I already own the Deluxe Uncensored Letterbox Edition of Cannibal Ferox” moments ‘neath the mistletoe, seek out something completely unique. Visit the online boutique of local celebrity and film enthusiast Peaches Christ (store.peacheschrist.com) to pick up a t-shirt or tank top illustrated with an eye-catching image of Peaches herself (merry Christ-mas!) For another wearable option, check out the, pardon me, fucking amazing t-shirts offered by Los Angeles’ Cinefile Video (www.cinefilevideo.com), famed for tweaking band logos with names of famous directors — like, say, “Herzog” in Danzig font, with demon skull floating behind. The tees are highly popular and are therefore often out of stock, but as of this writing you can still pick up a Carpenters/John Carpenter/They Live mash-up in either black or cream. (I have the black one; it’s a real conversation-starter.)

With Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey coming out in December, consider guiding a younger reader back to the source with his or her own copy of the book. Naturally, there’s now a movie tie-in edition, but all that means is that the cover looks like the theatrical poster. For more Middle Earth fun, type “hobbit” into the search bar on Etsy.com, and you’ll find a range of gift ideas, from stocking stuffers (“Shire” scented candles, for pipe-weed aficionados) to big-ticket items, including a pair of Vans fantastically hand-painted with Bilbo’s likeness.

And what goes better with movies (and pipe-weed) than popcorn? San Francisco’s 479° Popcorn is organic and sold in dozens of Bay Area (and beyond) locations, like Rainbow Grocery, Bi-Rite, and even some swankier corner stores. You can also order it online (www.479popcorn.com). Flavors include black truffle and white cheddar, fleur de sel caramel, and Vietnamese cinnamon sugar. Sure beats the radioactive stuff they sell at the megaplex.

If the film fan on your list is local, consider investing in a membership to a local theater or cinema organization on his or her behalf — a rad gift for the recipient, and a boon to the venue or group you’re supporting. Members at the Roxie (roxie.com/support) get perks like free admission to regular screenings. Join the San Francisco Film Society (sffs.org/membership) for access to members-only events and the ability to purchase San Francisco International Film Festival tickets before they go on sale to the public. And San Francisco Cinematheque (www.sfcinematheque.org) members get discount admission to screenings and access to the group’s archives. All gifts that keep on giving, even when the lights come up.

GOLDIES 2012: Jamie Meltzer


GOLDIES He may be a filmmaker, but the inspiration for Jamie Meltzer’s first feature-length documentary came while he was flipping through the bins at a record store.

“I found this song-poem compilation,” Meltzer remembers. At the time, he was a San Francisco State University MFA student. “It was such an amazing, undiscovered-to-me subculture that I started making the film that day. It took me two years to go around and meet all of these song poets and musicians, but it really started in the record store.”

The end result morphed from thesis film into 2003’s Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story, which aired on PBS and earned a cult following. It also opened professional doors for Meltzer; after thanking one of his undergrad professors in the film’s credits, he learned that his alma matter, Vassar College, was hiring in its film department. In 2007, he transitioned to his current teaching gig, at Stanford’s prestigious MFA program in Documentary Film and Video.

“I was happy to come back to San Francisco, of course, but I was also really happy to step into the documentary-centric environment at Stanford,” Meltzer says. “It’s almost like a documentary lab — between the students and other professors, we’re all thinking about documentary films, talking about them, studying them, making them.”

His follow-up to Off the Charts, 2007’s Welcome to Nollywood, takes on another “Who knew?” subject: Nigeria’s vibrant film industry.

“Nollywood is the third-largest film industry in the world, and they have this independent film model that makes a lot more sense than even what we have in the US. That just kind of blew my mind,” Meltzer says.

“But beyond just being a portrait of an industry, the film ended up being a complex story. There’s all sorts of questions of, are these quote-unquote good films, or is the value that they’re being made and consumed as kind of a self-representation? To me, Nollywood and Off the Charts were similar in that way: different people passionately making art, but not sure how well it will be received. The character of the dreamer against all odds, that outsized ambition — I think that’s a big parallel with independent filmmaking in general. You always believe in what you’re doing, but you’re not really expecting other people to believe in what you’re doing.”

Meltzer’s current film, Informant, premiered at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival, and has since been on a nonstop festival tour. The doc explores the strange life of Brandon Darby, a lefty activist turned FBI informant who helped send two 2008 Republican National Convention protestors to jail. He’s a polarizing guy, but the film, which is anchored by an extensive interview with Darby, invites the audience to draw their own conclusions. Complexity is once again an important theme.

“The main thing was to try to respect the complexity of Brandon, as a subject, as a person, because he has all these different facets,” Meltzer says. “His story’s very intense, and he was very sincere and conflicted in ways that I found really compelling. It brought up a lot of interesting moral territory and all these moral issues. Then you’d go and talk to Brandon’s activist nemesis, and he had a totally different take, and you’d find yourself agreeing with his story. So, to have that kind of character who can be seen from such different perspectives — that’s totally astounding. I really wanted to get that across in the film.”

Informant, which avoids making any tidy conclusions, reflects Meltzer’s own philosophy on documentary making.

“Some audiences have this idea that documentaries have to make very clear and usually politically-based arguments. And that’s the thing that I set out not to do. I think it’s great that the film creates a dialogue over, ‘What is documentary?’ People question my point of view, they question the point of view of Brandon and the other characters,” he says. “Hopefully they will start questioning other documentaries, too, and the notion of objectivity. Documentary filmmakers know that documentaries aren’t objective in the least. But I think audiences still aren’t entirely clear on that.”

Meltzer credits both the Bay Area filmmaking community (particularly Frazer Bradshaw, Informant‘s director of photography) and his Stanford colleagues (including numerous former students) for helping him make the film. “San Francisco has a lot of people who are committed to working on things that they believe in for little or no money, out of passion. That can’t be overstated,” he says.

So what’s next? Making Informant was so difficult, Meltzer confesses, that he thought it would be his last film. But then he heard about a group of exonerated men in Texas who’ve formed a detective agency to help other innocent people behind bars. “You can’t pass up those kind of ideas,” the filmmaker says. “You have to grab them when they come.”

No doubt it won’t end up being a simple story — but Meltzer will weave all of its threads into a captivating tale.

This much is true



FILM The San Francisco Documentary Film Festival returns for its 11th year with a typically strong program — whether you like your docs quirky, political, musical, experimental, or just plain strange, DocFest has you covered. Plus, there’s an “80s New Wave Sing-a-Long,” because who doesn’t love screaming Spandau Ballet with a few hundred pals? Read on for more recommendations.

Sorry, recent San Francisco transplants, but you’ll never get to experience the Jejune Institute, an alternate reality game that started attracting players in 2008 and closed up shop in 2011. Participants, lured by flyers or word-of-mouth, began by visiting an office on California Street, where they’d watch a video imparting new age philosophy; they’d then be given instructions for a sort of scavenger hunt in nearby Chinatown. They learned of a missing girl named Eva, and of new meanings for the words “elsewhere” and “nonchalance.”

Was it real? Was it fake? Whatever the truth, it was definitely fun for dedicated players, for whom the narrative continued and got more complicated; there were spontaneous dance parties, a subterranean rescue mission, and a culminating seminar on “socio-reengineering.” The genius of Spencer McCall’s The Institute  is its tone. Some interviewees are clearly in character, while others — including creator Jeff Hull, who cites Oakland’s Children’s Fairyland as an inspiration — proffer both straight talk and ambiguity, keeping some of the mystery of this fake-cult-that-earned-a-cult-following alive.

Another locally-made film, Sam Banning’s thoughtful Cruel and Unusual, takes a look at the negative effects of California’s Three Strikes Law (and by the time DocFest starts, you’ll know if Proposition 36, aimed at reforming the law, has passed). The film charts several cases, including the ordeal of Kelly Turner, sentenced to life for the decidedly non-violent crime of forging a check. Her story has a happy ending, but as the film shows, she’s one among thousands who’ve received similarly harsh sentences for proportionally minor crimes.

Broadway stardom has always been an elusive prize, but it’s become an even tougher pursuit now that many musicals compete for ticket buyers by casting high-profile film and TV actors. Stephanie Riggs’ The Standbys  goes behind the scenes with three professional understudies. Even if you’re not a musical-theater fan, it’s not hard to sympathize with these folks — “Gotta dance!” types who suffer the psychological strain of always being ready to not perform. (And on the rare occasion they get to step in, they inevitably face a cranky, disappointed audience: “Who’s this clown? Where’s Nathan Lane?”) The lifestyle fosters more offstage drama than on, as when the affable Ben Crawford finally ascends to leading-man status in Shrek the Musical — a triumph after all those hours spent sitting backstage in elaborate greenface — only to be set adrift when the show closes.

As careers go, show biz is brutal, but politics may be worse, and Ann Richards’ Texas is probably the most inspiring yet depressing film in DocFest. That’s not the fault of filmmakers Keith Patterson and Jack Lofton, but rather history itself: the feisty, big-haired Texas liberal was knocked out of office by George W. Bush, her opponent in the 1995 gubernatorial race. But just because Texas has gone the way of Bush and (ugh) Rick Perry shouldn’t take away from Richards’ considerable accomplishments — like her prison-reform work, among the good turns detailed here — or diminish her personality, which was as towering as her coiffure.

Though numerous famous friends and admirers (Dolly Parton, Bill Clinton) chime in with words of praise, the footage of Richards just being Richards (at press conferences, on talk shows, and giving speeches — particularly her instantly legendary appearance at the 1988 Democratic National Convention) speaks for itself. If only Richards, who died in 2006, was still around; there’d be no one better suited to rip into the current crop of women-hating Republicans.

Shot like a thriller, Thymaya Payne’s Stolen Seas is an eye-opening exploration of Somali piracy, with re-enactments (using actual audio recordings) of tense ransom negotiations between a Danish shipping company executive and a man retained by pirates to act as their translator. The film also delves into Somalia’s troubled history and recent past, exposing the origins of the piracy epidemic — surprise, surprise: the United States has a hand in it — and the purely business reasons why it will likely continue more or less unchecked.

Though it’s an East Coast tale, Bay Area activists may spot kindred spirits in the subjects of Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky’s Battle for Brooklyn, about community members and business owners who organized against a fat-cat developer’s plan to construct the Brooklyn Nets’ new arena in their neighborhood. The central figure is Daniel Goldstein, a graphic designer turned rabble-rouser whose home is located within the project’s footprint. Filmed over seven years, Battle for Brooklyn offers a well-articulated takedown of the shady politics surrounding the deal, with the happy added bonus of seeing Goldstein marry a fellow activist and father a daughter as the fight progresses.

Two more to add to your list: Eating Alabama, filmmaker Andrew Beck Grace’s chronicle of his year-long quest to dine only on food grown by Alabama farmers (yeah, it sounds like a blog instead of a doc, but Grace’s adventures in local foodie-ism, which give way to broader insights, are thought-provoking); and Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her (also a recent selection at the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival), which reveals some startling contrasts and similarities between Miss India pageant contestants and girls who are being indoctrinated into the country’s Hindu fundamentalist movement.


Nov 8-21, most films $10-$12

Brava Theater

2781 24th St., SF

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF

Shattuck Cinema

2230 Shattuck, Berk.



Locally grown



FILM First and foremost, make it your business to see Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, which is playing the San Francisco Film Society’s “Cinema By the Bay” series and the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, both of which open this week. (See DocFest article elsewhere in this issue.)

Director Jesse Vile’s film shares some themes with The Sessions, in that its subject is a fiercely talented person who manages to be wildly alive despite being almost completely paralyzed. Hailing from Richmond in the East Bay, Jason Becker got his first guitar at age five as a Christmas present; it wasn’t long before his family realized he was a genuine riff-slingin’ musical prodigy. Home movies and MTV-style videos capture the teenage metalhead’s ascension from school talent shows to jam-packed arenas, and his delight at being hired for a highly sought-after gig in David Lee Roth’s post-Van Halen band.

He was just 20 — big-haired, wide-eyed, and fond of saying “Daaaang!” whenever anything took him by surprise — when he sought medical treatment for what he thought was a pinched nerve but what turned out to be ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Though his body deteriorated rapidly, his remarkably supportive family invented a way for him to communicate using only his eyes. Today, he can no longer play his beloved instrument, but he still makes music — and takes delight in embarrassing whoever’s “translating” for him by cracking off-color jokes.

Closing night selection CXL (from first-time feature director Sean Gillane and writers Theo Miller and Katherine Bruens) follows perpetually bummed-out writer Nolan (Cole Smith), whose Mission District existence is so realistic (oy, that awkward hipster house party) the film could only have been made by a local. Though he still pines for his ex, he falls for Cassie (Lisa Greyson), whose penchant for zany behavior lurches her dangerously close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl status: “I open random doors!” she exclaims when Nolan asks her what she does for fun. Groan.

But wait! Thankfully, CXL changes course before morphing into Ruby Sparks 2 — a dark plot twist ushers in a cheerfully surreal second half, as Nolan’s book, hilariously titled Dehydrated Tears, becomes an unexpected success, and his relationship with Cassie (and with reality) evolves in ways I won’t spoil here. A recurring sight gag has a pack of Nolans trailing behind the real one — suggesting that maybe there are parallel realities at play, or just a guy with a hell of a lot of personal baggage.

Finally, film fans will remember photographer Lucy Gray for “Big Tilda,” a piece that projected huge digital collages of actor (and San Francisco International Film Festival favorite) Tilda Swinton onto SF’s City Hall as part of SFIFF 2006. “A Conversation with Lucy Gray” includes a screening of her short film debut, Genevieve Goes Boating, about a playwright who pens a whimsical story about a girl who sets sail on a homemade boat — narrated by Swinton, of course. *



Fri/9-Sun/11, $12–<\d>$25

New People Cinema

1746 Post, SF


Past lives



FILM When filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger’s grandmother, Gerda Tuchler, passed away at 98, she left behind a Tel Aviv apartment crammed with a life’s worth of objects. As The Flat begins, Goldfinger and his family — particularly his mother, Gerda’s daughter Hannah — have just started clearing out drawers and closets, sorting through the possessions of a woman who apparently never threw anything away. The discovery of several vintage fox-fur stoles, complete with faces and paws, elicits much mirth.

But it’s while flipping through Gerda’s papers that Goldfinger hits pay dirt: a copy of Der Angriff, the newspaper founded by Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. The headline: “A Nazi Travels to Palestine.” The Nazi was Leopold von Mildenstein, an SS officer with an interest in Zionism. In 1933, he made the trip with his wife and a German Jewish couple named Kurt and Gerda Tuchler — Goldfinger’s grandparents, who moved there permanently a few years later.

This shocking revelation propels Goldfinger’s fascinating documentary forward. It’s part family history, as Goldfinger learns for the first time the tragic fate of his great-grandmother, and part old-fashioned mystery, complete with digging for clues in dusty archives and basements.

“I somehow got this feeling that I needed to grab my camera and film it,” he remembers over the phone from Tel Aviv, thinking back to the family’s first day in the apartment after Gerda’s death. “When I realized there was so much stuff over there, I thought maybe I could make a short film out of it. The line was: what can you learn about people from the stuff they left behind?”

Of course, he soon realized that a short doc wasn’t going to be enough. The Flat really began to take shape after he placed a phone call to the von Mildenstein’s elderly daughter, Edda — incredibly, still living at the house outside Düsseldorf where her parents had spent most of their lives. “This call completely blew my mind,” he says. “That was the minute I knew, this is it.”

A visit to the friendly but guarded Edda came next, followed by a return trip with Goldfinger’s curious (but remarkably reserved) mother in tow. With its many twists and turns, The Flat is the rare documentary about history that’s also loaded with suspense.

“Speaking broadly, being a German Jew, we are the kind of people who like to plan ahead,” the filmmaker says. “Every time I went to shoot a scene, and I thought ‘This is what’s going to happen,’ almost every time the opposite happened. It’s like the story was showing me what to do during the journey of making it.”

Though The Flat focuses on the past, Goldfinger wanted to avoid using animation, re-enactments, or other techniques to illustrate what he couldn’t film. “One of the key things for me was to try, through the present, to tell the past. For me, the real emotions lie in the present and the perspectives of people toward the past,” he says. “We also really tried to edit it as close as possible to the way I experienced it, so the audience could view the events through my eyes.”

Letters, photos, and a necklace given to Edda as a girl indicate that — against what would seem to be all logic — the Tuchlers and the von Mildensteins renewed their friendship after World War II. Though he was baffled by this, Goldfinger was even more affected by another discovery.

“If somebody had told me before that one day I would make a film about my family and the Holocaust, I would never believe it,” he says. “For me this is the most shocking, even more than the Nazis and von Mildenstein and my grandparents. To think that I had a great-grandmother, and she was a [Holocaust] victim, and nobody talked about it. All of my family, my mother, we were under the impression that we had no connection to it.”

The Flat first screened locally at the 2012 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, but it’s been enjoying successful runs in Israel and Germany for months. In Israel, Goldfinger says, the film has become “an event.”

“My aim was to take something that is very singular and personal and try to see the universal emotions and implications of the story — something that is deep enough that many people can share,” he says. “But I was very surprised. From the very first screenings, people said, ‘It’s exactly like in our family.’ And what they meant is that in their families, they also didn’t ask questions, or they don’t know enough about their parents’ pasts. I think it goes to show you that many people share these feelings, and that they really identified with what happened onscreen.”


THE FLAT opens Fri/2 in San Francisco.

Black-belt Sabbath



FILM In the 1970s, movies like Dirty Harry (1971) and Death Wish (1974) surprised and raised a certain amount of controversy for being quite so blatantly pro-law enforcement, and anti-scum of the earth — viewing good and bad in such simplistic terms was no longer fashionable, it being more typical to see films about corrupt cops or saintly criminals. With the arrival of the Reagan era, however, it became all black and white again. There was a certain amount of eye-rolling in liberal quarters when Rocky fought communism (1985’s Rocky IV), Brat Pack teens did likewise (1984’s Red Dawn), Rambo fought practically everybody (in films spanning 1982-88), and in 1986, Top Gun‘s Maverick and Iceman played “Who’s got the biggest balls?” like they wanted to do a taste test.

But times had changed very rapidly, and hardly anyone else — certainly no one filling those seats — questioned this cartooned new ultra-machismo as being a little, uh, stupidsville. We seem to be coming full circle back to that era, given recent re-launches of the above franchises, the Expendables movies (an anti-rest home for still-ready-to-‘roid 80s action stars), and a Red Dawn remake suggesting a whole lot of people are ready to find not-funny what they rather astonishingly didn’t find funny the first time around.

But this stuff is funny, at least if you don’t check your brain like a coat before entering the theater. Probably the world’s greatest as-yet-underappreciated treasure trove of cinematic camp lies in the umpteen cheaper knockoffs that were made of those original major-studio hits for the grindhouse, cable, and VHS rental markets.

OK, many of these machine-gunning-patriotism-set-to-power-ballads exercises were just formulaic dreck. But a surprising number (especially anything from the Cannon Group) were hilarious formulaic dreck, like the MacGruber (2010) movie but meaning it. They starred not Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Norris, or Van Damme but people like Cynthia Rothrock, Lorenzo Lamas, Leo Fong, and a whole lot of people who’d won some martial-arts prize or other but couldn’t touch “acting” with a ten-foot barbell. The likes of Cage II: The Arena of Death (1994), Ted V. Mikels’ War Cat (1987), Low Blow (1986), McBain (1991), American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989), and 1986’s Hell Squad (Vegas showgirls vs. terrorists!) are among the best drinking-game movies ever made.

These movies likely have their tiny fan bases. But until recently absolutely no one was a fan of 1986’s Miami Connection — let us just establish the tone by noting this movie takes place in Orlando — because no one had seen it. In the mid-1980s Richard (a.k.a. Woo-sang) Park, an established Korean director who’d recently transitioned to US marital arts movies, saw fellow émigré and taekwondo teacher Y.K. Kim doing a demonstration on TV. He proposed making an action flick together. So the two cooked up a jaw-dropping story, hired a never-to-be-heard-from-again scenarist, cast Kim’s students in most roles, and co-directed what was originally called American Streetfighters. When they were finished, they expected the world to take notice.

The world declined — sales agents and distributors laughed the filmmakers out of their offices. Kim finally arranged Florida bookings himself, yet still Connection died, albeit not before one local critic called it “the worst film of the year.” Even its self-made co-director/star finally had to admit it was at best a big write-off.

But two decades or so later, a curator for Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema bought a $50 35mm print off eBay, having no idea what it was. It instantly became an object of cult adoration by patrons, and the Drafthouse’s distribution arm now has a midnight phenomenon that’s growing nationwide.

Miami Connection is like 2003’s The Room, in that it’s one of those rare flabbergasting movies which seems to approach its medium as if no one involved had ever seen (let alone worked on) a film before, starring a multi-talent whose performance must be seen to be disbelieved. And who, like Tommy Wiseau, now basks in the belated appreciation of his sole screen vehicle, seemingly oblivious to the precise nature of that appreciation.

The film really is All That. Suffice it to say that Mark (Kim) is one hell of a taekwondo instructor as well as a member of an electro-rock band called Dragon Sound, a “new dimension in rock ‘n’ roll.” This is due to ideas like (actual line here) “We could write another taekwondo song, then after Tom does one of his guitar solos we can all break boards!” When Jane (Kathy Collier) is caught going out with bassist John (Vincent Hirsch) by her creepily possessive drug lord brother Tom (Angelo Janotti), it’s black belt taekwondo rockers versus kickboxing motorcycle-riding bad guys. Before Good triumphs, there is an “International Programming Contest,” spring break-type comedy, a gym full of people making those show-off weightlifting sounds that announce “I am a giant tool,” gratuitous biker-chick toplessness, terrible songs with power-of-positive-thinking lyrics, and much yelled dialogue leading to countless fights, shootings, and stabbings. There is also the parting onscreen message “Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace.” A bit late, that.

Miami Connection‘s clash between low-end but professional basic craftsmanship and batshit-crazy amateur everything else is a never-ending delight. Kim still operates a taekwondo studio in Florida, and has since also become a “philosopher/author/inspirational speaker.” He will not be attending the Roxie’s screenings this week. But as with Mr. Wiseau’s magnum opus, his movie can only snowball in terms of repeat viewers and fresh converts — so eventually, he’s bound to show up in the flesh to be worshipped.

And worship we will. 


Fri/2-Sat/3, 10:45pm, $6.50-$10

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF


Points of no return



FILM Wake in Fright opens with a slow 360 degree pan across a dry, barren, isolated landscape. There are railroad tracks and two small structures, but the rest is filled with a whole lot of nothing.

This is Tiboonda, the tiny Australian town where Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 thriller begins. The descriptor “thriller” and the film’s title — not to mention its arrival in theaters under the genre-friendly Drafthouse Films banner — suggests that Wake in Fright is a horror movie, but if it’s Aussie Outback thrill-killing you seek, look elsewhere (starting with 2005’s Wolf Creek). Wake in Fright is more of a psychological thriller, of the escalating-dread-building-to-a-gut-ripping-climax variety. Not for nothing did chatty ol’ Martin Scorsese, a champion of the film since its 1971 Cannes debut, admit “It left me speechless.”

Pity poor teacher John Grant (Gary Bond), assigned to teach in Tiboonda’s one-room schoolhouse by the government he owes money to in return for his own education. Or don’t: Grant, primly dressed in coat and tie despite the scorching weather, can barely disguise his disgust over being plopped into such a backwater. When the six-week Christmas break rolls around, he’s on the first train out of town, heading for an overnight stop in mining town Bundanyabba before flying to Sydney, where cool waters and his sophisticated girlfriend await.

Of course, the best laid plans of desperate, sweaty men always go astray. Kotcheff — who is actually Canadian and whose best-known film is probably the first Rambo movie, 1982’s First Blood (or 1989’s Weekend at Bernie’s) — sets the tone early with that lonely 360 degree shot, but Grant’s misplacement becomes even more obvious once he starts encountering locals in “the Yabba.” Everyone, except for the odd woman working the front desk at his hotel (has anyone ever come so close to making out with an electric fan?), emits a strange combination of menacing and friendly.

First, there’s the cop (Chips Rafferty) who, five seconds after meeting him in the town’s raucous meeting hall, simply insists that Grant chug multiple beers with him. Boozing leads to a back-room gambling game — where, again, everybody acts like it’s no big deal that there’s an outsider, “the guy in the jacket,” in their midst. “One mere spin and you’re out of it,” reflects an oily man (Donald Pleasence) Grant meets in the chaos. Prescient words: when an unlucky coin toss means Grant’s lost all his money, he’s not only out of the game — he’s out of his Sydney trip, out of any other options, and on his way to going out of his mind.

But he doesn’t get there alone, and Wake in Fright amps up as Grant’s downward spiral begins. There’s beer — gallons and gallons of the stuff — off-roading at breakneck speeds, fistfights, further strange encounters with Pleasence’s character (who turns out to be the unabashedly alcoholic town doctor), and a grim-faced beauty (Sylvia Kay, married to Kotcheff at the time) who is not as out of place in the sticks as Grant first assumes. The film’s most brutal sequence involves kangaroo hunting — it’s so disturbing that it warrants a disclaimer as the end credits roll. But really, all of Wake in Fright is a nasty, grimy, hopeless misadventure, an exposing of the dark heart Grant didn’t realize he had, or was even capable of having. “I got involved,” is all he can say of the experience, though the audience might lean more toward “Uh, what the fuck just happened?”

Wake in Fright‘s return to theaters (and first-ever uncut appearance on US screens) after 41 years is the result of a negative-saved-at-the-last-minute miracle — the sort of tale that makes cinephiles both happy and nervous, wondering about all those films that didn’t get rescued before they went into the shredder. Anyway, be glad Wake in Fright is still with us; it competed at Cannes in 1971, and played there again in 2009 as a “Cannes Classic.” If you didn’t catch it at the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival, here’s your chance to be freaked out by this newly-available classic.


Horror fans will recognize the name of Wake in Fright star Donald Pleasence from John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween — ’tis the season, after all, and that film happens to be screening at the Balboa Theatre Oct. 30-31. But the Carpenter movie du jour is 1988’s dystopian-future drama/true story They Live, which comes out on Blu-ray Nov. 6 — never before has Rowdy Piper’s mullet looked so crisply feathered, nor Meg Foster’s eyes so eerily seafoam, nor the black-and-white matte paintings depicting Los Angeles’ subliminally-enhanced landscape (“MARRY AND REPRODUCE”) so stark and startling.

There are some recycled extras, including Carpenter and Piper’s audio commentary, trailers, and a vintage press-kit reel featuring wrestling superstar Piper reflecting on his leading-man debut (“Ain’t a lot of difference between John Nada and Roddy Piper”). But there’s new stuff, too: separate interviews with Foster, Carpenter (who scoffs when he’s asked if he was tempted to edit down the film’s epic, legendary fight scene: “Fuck no!”), and co-star Keith David, who hilariously reminisces how he had to un-learn stage diction when he was hired for his first Carpenter film, 1982’s The Thing — and devotees of that film will want to rewind multiple times, just to hear David jokingly enunciate “You believe any of this voodoo bullshit, Blair?” in near-Shakespearean tones.

For behind-the-scenes junkies, there’s a featurette on the film’s “sights and sounds,” highlighted by an interview with veteran stunt coordinator Jeff Imada, who breaks down that iconic fight scene and reveals he played most of the aliens in the film (including the “What’s wrong, baby?” guy at the end). Just about the only thing missing from this Blu-ray package (kudos for the ridiculous cover art, Shout! Factory)? A pair of sunglasses. 

Wake in Fright opens Fri/26 in Bay Area theaters. Halloween screening info at www.cinemasf.com. They Live Blu-ray info at www.shoutfactory.com


Gimme Moors



FILM Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights has inspired multiple films, as varied in quality as the 1939 Best Picture nominee starring Sir Laurence Olivier — and the 2003 made-for-MTV adaptation, in which “Heath” is a pouty, motorcycle-riding himbo. The source material may seem an odd choice for acclaimed British director Andrea Arnold, best-known for 2006’s Red Road and 2009’s Fish Tank, both gritty films about working-class people, unfussily shot using hand-held cameras.

Resisting the urge to contemporize a classic, or shoot it as a traditional costume drama, Arnold takes her version in a near-experimental direction; her Heights makes Cary Fukunaga’s edgy 2011 interpretation of Jane Eyre (starring Fish Tank‘s Michael Fassbender) look tame by comparison. I spoke with Arnold about her daring spin on the Gothic classic.

San Francisco Bay Guardian You’re known as such a contemporary director, in both subject and shooting style. What made you want to take on Wuthering Heights?

Andrea Arnold It’s an interesting question, because I don’t really know. I knew at the time that it was a sort of stupid idea, but I couldn’t help it. I just had to do it. I don’t know why I became so possessed, and I still don’t really know why. It was a book that I had a fascination with — I think a lot of people do. It’s a very troubling book, a very unsettling book, a book that I don’t think is easily understood.

But I seem to like trouble. I sort of realized this about myself, that I’m always pushing myself in ways, like, I’ve got no idea how it’s going to work out, but I’m going to learn. I do think I’m not afraid of going on a journey that I don’t know where it’s going to go. With this film and this whole project, that definitely was a very unnerving and strange decision.

SFBG How did you approach adapting a classic literary work that’s been made into so many films before?

AA I didn’t think like that, or worry about that. I mean, I knew that it had been remade an awful lot of times. I think I didn’t realize how many times. But I just thought about when I went to film school we were all given the same scripts, and 20 people all made something completely different. With such rich material, you can find your own way. And I think when you get attached to something and you have to do it, you’re not sensible anyway.

I’ve always said that once I’ve got an image and an idea about making something, that it chooses you. You don’t choose it. And this was exactly the same. I just got obsessed with the idea of doing it. It wasn’t like I thought very sensibly about what had gone before. I didn’t think about it being a career move in any way.

SFBG Watching the film, it was clear that you — like Emily Brontë — had been inspired by the setting. The landscape is practically a character in the film, and the imagery includes lots of close-ups of insects and plants.

AA I think the difficulty of the location really [influenced] the film, in terms of the way everyone was feeling — it was hard to get around, and [we were] genuinely cold and fed up with the mud. First of all, I tried to find somewhere near where Emily had written it, which was the moors near Haworth, where she lived. The moors near Haworth are a bit like being in the middle of the ocean. They’ve got this undulating, endless feel to them. It’s really beautiful in that way: you feel the moors are everything and there’s nothing else in the world when you’re in the middle of it.

But it’s not so isolated around that particular area anymore. We couldn’t find anywhere that you couldn’t see things on the horizon. So we had to go further. We went to the North York Moors. And there were very few buildings, real places — I always wanted a real location — that were truly isolated. It wasn’t like I had lots of choice.

But I really like that place [where we filmed]. It was a very difficult place to work, though, no doubt. Everyone who worked on it said it’s one of the hardest things they’ve ever done, just physically. We couldn’t get vehicles there so we had to carry all of the cameras up the hills.

SFBG The film has gotten some attention for your casting choices — black actors play Heathcliff at various ages, and race is a recurring theme in the film. What motivated those decisions?

AA When I looked at the book, and all the descriptions of Heathcliff, I really felt that he wasn’t white. I was really surprised, after looking closely at how he was described, why nobody has actually done that before. I think if you’re being really faithful and truthful to the descriptions, that he’s more Asian than he is African. The fact that he’s called a gypsy, the Romany gypsies of that time would have originally come from Asia, and they’re very dark-skinned.

But after sort of investigating a bit more, I thought what really matters is that he’s different. I began to realize that Heathcliff is really Emily Brontë, and that she felt different for being female. There’s something about the book that makes me think that’s a large part of what it’s about.

SFBG The material may be a change for you, but the film is still shot like your other films, using a hand-held camera. Why do you prefer this method?

AA I didn’t think about making it in any different way than I normally do. I like hand-held cameras because if I’m working with non-actors, and there were lots of non-actors in this one, I don’t like them to feel restricted. If you put cameras on tripods then it sort of harnesses things. You have to start telling people where to stand, and hit marks. That’s something that I don’t enjoy.

Also, I didn’t see any reason why a period film shouldn’t have hand-held camera. I thought, just because we’ve seen lots of period films where they’re all very respectful, that doesn’t mean that’s how I have to be. I didn’t feel that I had to follow any sort of traditions. I just felt like I was trying to see it in my own way, and I didn’t let myself be inhibited by what had gone before. *


WUTHERING HEIGHTS opens Fri/19 in Bay Area theaters.

Darker than dark



FILM It is one of those hard truths one must learn to live with: Quentin Tarantino will always have seen more obscure exploitation movies than you. His new Django Unchained will arrive just in time for Christmas like a gift wrapped severed limb, leaving dedicated fanboy/fangirl types just weeks yet to immerse themselves in the world of spaghetti westerns to which it pays homage.

That makes two features in a row he’s made inspired by 1960s and 70s Euro trash cinema, following 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, which tipped hat to the era’s myriad international-coproduction war flicks. If you saw the obscure 1978 Italian film that was based on (and named after), you also probably already know who and what a Django is, how to pronounce him, and maybe even the factoid that countless (seriously, no one knows how many) ersatz Django “sequels” were made to cash in on the 1966 original’s success.

If not, join the more innocent multitudes at the multiplex come December, many of whom will no doubt be asking for one ticket to “Duh-jango,” please. There’s no shame in knowing nothing about such cultural marginalia. But what even faintly hipster-identifying person would admit to not knowing everything there is to know — even being bored with that knowledge — behind Reservoir Dogs (1992), the now 20-year-old Citizen Kane of indie meta guy flicks? How many people can not only quote its every line, but quote the every line of at least a few amongst its own umpteen mostly lousy imitations (yep, that includes you, 1999’s Boondock Saints)?


In the gradual groundswell of attention that greeted Dogs back then, viewers confidently cited Tarantino’s inspirations (as did he himself), noting the imprint of everything from classic noir titles to Kurosawa. Yet one movie that had a very direct influence was almost completely absent from those discussions, failing to rise from its prior two decades of complete obscurity even in the two decades post-Dogs.

Together at last in one canine-throwdown double bill is Day of the Wolves, that forgotten 1971 thriller — thanks of course to the Roxie Cinema and Elliot Lavine, themselves reunited for the latest installment in “Not Necessarily Noir,” that catch-all occasional series encompassing all things cool and (mostly) celluloid which don’t fit the loose strictures of their long-running actual noir retrospectives. Wolves and Dogs tussle to kick off the two-week schedule this weekend.

Day of the Wolves‘ low profile is somewhat explicable: it was never released theatrically in the US, and for years withheld from legal exhibition due to copyright issues. Still, one marvels how such a flamboyant relic of pure Seventies-ness could have remained under the radar for so long. TV and Vegas comedian Jan Murray is improbably cast as the mastermind who orchestrates the assembly of six career criminals in a secret desert location. All strangers, they’re instructed to call one another only by assigned number, wear identical outfits, and sport full facial hair (some obviously glued-on). Their mission is to “hit a whole town and peel it like an orange” — sealing off a “model community” in the Southwest, emptying every till, then scramming via private plane.

It’s an ingenious plan that counts on the complacent vulnerability of such burgs. In fact, Wellerton’s city council has just demonstrated ideal small-mindedness by firing its police chief (late, SF-born Richard Egan, a second tier 1950s star gone to flab) for the crime of actually enforcing laws on some of its more irresponsible A-list citizens. Thus the population of 7,000 or so is woefully under prepared when they find the power cut off, exit routes blocked, and seven armed desperados in charge.

The early going bears closest resemblance to Reservoir Dogs, and is the most inspired. (Later when the film gets to its prolonged actual climax, it devolves into a more ordinary Western-style shoot-’em-up between the raiders and Egan’s cop-turned vigilante, though there’s a doozy of a final twist.) Writer-director Ferde Grofe Jr., whose career in features sprawled sparsely from the early 60s to the late 80s, demonstrates a real flair for memorable idiosyncrasy, if less so for action. In style and content, Wolves is a perfect time capsule: groovy rock score (with “acid” guitar, bongos, and flute), very wide lapels, and a dune buggy chase. This near-classic B movie will be shown in one mightily color-faded, “pinked-out” 35mm print, an ostensible flaw that plays more like a finishing touch.

“Not Necessarily Noir III” mixes more such rediscoveries with fairly well known cult faves of the last decades, from neo-noirs to Hong Kong action to 70s New Hollywood questing (exceptional 1978 drama Who’ll Stop the Rain with Nick Nolte and Tuesday Weld; the seldom-seen ’71 Cisco Pike with Kris Kristofferson, Gene Hackman, and Warhol superstar Viva). Among its more rarefied titles are two Me Decade Franco-noirs with Jean-Paul Belmondo (who performs some amazing stunts himself in 1971’s The Burglars); 1968’s very disturbing crime thriller Night of the Following Day (wherein white-blond Marlon Brando is the good guy), and a supernatural blaxploitation double bill of very odd, arty 1973 vampire tale Ganja and Hess and the next year’s wacky, tacky voodoo revenge saga Sugar Hill.

Particularly worth checking out is Darker Than Amber, an attempt to launch a James Bond-style series featuring John D. MacDonald’s best-selling Florida sleuth Travis McGee. Unfortunately this 1970 maiden effort flopped, and the film has seldom been seen — especially without cuts — since. Admittedly it has pedestrian TV-style direction from Robert Clouse (who’d hit his sole career peak later with Bruce Lee’s 1973 Enter the Dragon), and the production values are just B-plus. But it’s an ideal vehicle for Rod Taylor, the brawny, wry, relaxed Aussie who should have been a huge star in the 60s and 70s, but despite a couple memorable films (1963’s The Birds, 1960’s The Time Machine) never got the right break. He’s surrounded by a memorable gallery of MacDonald characters, with two body-builder villains (William Smith, Robert Philips) in addition to the frequently shirtless star making this an notably homoerotic entry for the era in a macho action genre.


Oct. 19-31, $6.50-$10

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF



The big show



FILM/LIT Any horror fan can tell you that John Carpenter directed and co-wrote 1978’s Halloween. But it would require a slightly more credits-obsessed moviegoer to recognize the name of behind-the-scenes maestro Irwin Yablans.

In addition to being Halloween‘s producer, Yablans was also responsible for cult classics like Tourist Trap (1979), Roller Boogie (1979), and Hell Night (1981). His new autobiography, The Man Who Created Halloween: How a Bit of Desperation and Inspiration Gave Birth to the Movie That Changed Hollywood (self-published, 259 pp., $16.95), traces his path from Brooklyn childhood to Hollywood player. Along the way, he served in the army, met the love of his life, feuded with his brother (fellow film producer Frank Yablans), and — on a flight from London to Los Angeles — had a brilliant brainwave about babysitters being stalked by a killer on the scariest night of the year. I spoke with Yablans, who turned 78 this year, over the phone from Southern California.

San Francisco Bay Guardian What inspired you to write a memoir? 

Irwin Yablans I kind of kept quiet about all this stuff through the years because I was only involved in the first three [Halloween films]. I was really not able to gauge the public’s insatiable appetite for Michael Myers! And I got tired of it after awhile. I wanted to do other things. But I came back into the picture because there was a lot of misinformation and revisionist history floating around, and I thought it was time I talked about it. Then, I decided to write a book about my life.

And Halloween is going out into 1,000 theaters on Halloween this year — that’s amazing! When I came up with the little idea on an airplane 35 years ago, little did I know. [Laughs.] There’s a lesson to be learned from that: never underestimate the possibilities of a good idea. Don’t ever assume that because you thought of it, it might not be good. You have to believe in yourself.

[Pauses.] Before I go any further, I have to make a confession: I am a Giants fan. And I have been since 1947, because I was a Giants fan in New York. I was at the Polo Grounds in 1951 and watched Bobby Thomson hit that home run — in case you don’t know what that is, it’s the most famous moment in baseball history. I still watch the Giants every day. And I’ll tell you, they look pretty good this year!

SFBG Why did you decide to go the self-publishing route?

IY Well, I’d never written a book before. I’d always done a little writing for the movies, but about seven or eight years ago I thought I’d sit down with my computer and peck away. The first word I wrote was “cockroaches.” [Laughs.] I wanted to write for my family — I thought I’d leave behind some musings about my life that might be interesting for my kids and my grandchildren. About 50 or 60 pages in, I showed it to some people I respect and they said, “You ought to think about publishing this.”

When I got close to the end, I submitted it to a couple of publishers. I’d never been part of that world before — [and I realized it] was just like how I got into my independent film company. I found a publisher who wanted to publish it, but I found out that if I went with them, not only would they get a large portion of the receipts, but they don’t put any money up, or do any publicity or advertising.

So I said to myself, “Why do I need them?” [I found] CreateSpace on the internet, and I’ve had the most amazing experience. Independence is sort of in my blood. I like doing things myself, [even] my own public relations. You read in the book why we chose Jamie Lee Curtis [for Halloween] — when I met Jamie, I knew she was a fine actress, but I had this vision of getting a photo of her mother, Janet Leigh, and putting Jamie in a similar pose, and submitting it to AP and UPI. We got worldwide publication of that. And that’s the kind of thing I did all the way through with Halloween. You just have to take every opportunity to publicize the picture. Of course, John Carpenter made a very good movie.

SFBG I have to ask about Roller Boogie. It’s a midnight-movie favorite in San Francisco.

IY No kidding! [Laughs.] You know what’s great about that movie? The music! Earth, Wind, and Fire … it’s just a delightful little movie. Just great fun. I think I had more fun making that movie than any other movie I made, because it was so uplifting and so bright — I was on roller skates with my whole family during the shoot. I love the “Boogie Wonderland” number, and Linda Blair was such a charmer.

I tell you, the ’70s and ’80s were a lot of fun for me. I was so busy, making movies, distributing movies, and running all over the world. It was a great experience. I really loved every moment of it.



Gruesome discovery



FILM In the summer of 1999, horror fans hungered for something, anything, that wasn’t a Scream-inspired self-aware slasher.

Though it had no stars, a microscopic budget, and was filmed in nausea-inducing shaky-cam, The Blair Witch Project burst into cinemas with a novel set-up — filmmakers lost in the woods record supernatural goings-on before falling victim to evil themselves — and scares galore. Towering box-office receipts, a Time magazine cover, and legions of rip-offs ensued.

“We just wanted to scare people,” Blair Witch co-director Daniel Myrick told me when I interviewed him for the Guardian back in 1999. He couldn’t have known that Blair Witch‘s influence would still be felt over a decade later, in movies like the blockbuster Paranormal Activity series — and even outside the horror genre, where stories constructed from characters filming themselves have become commonplace.

Now there’s V/H/S, an energetically exploitative take on the trend that reaches past Blair Witch to high-five the granddaddy of them all, 1980’s legendarily nasty Cannibal Holocaust. V/H/S also nods to vintage horror’s fondness for the anthology format, setting up the action with a frame story, Tape 56: hooligans film themselves behaving badly, then prowl a house in search of a mysterious VHS tape.

The apparently abandoned dwelling is creepy enough, with a dead body just hangin’ out in the TV room. But each tape they watch contains material so shocking (a woman turns flesh-tearingly monstrous after a drunken hookup; a student Skyping with her boyfriend suspects her apartment is haunted; and a road trip, a camping trip, and a Halloween party all go very, very wrong) it unsettles even tough guys who, earlier in the day, were grabbing women on the street in service of their budding “reality porn” business.


Each “tape” is directed by a different filmmaker or filmmaking team, all of whom were directed to use the found-footage format. So yes, V/H/S is a movie about people filming themselves watching other people who are also filming themselves.

“With a found-footage anthology, you could make a found-footage movie about people finding footage, and that seemed like such an obvious idea,” explains Simon Barrett, who worked on both the wraparound and haunted-apartment tale The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger. “A lot of found-footage [features] become ludicrous; after two hours, you run into all the clichés of characters screaming at each other to turn the camera off. But you can believe that someone would leave the camera on for, say, 14 minutes of something scary happening to them.”

Adds Adam Wingard, whose multiple V/H/S credits include directing Tape 56, “Found footage is the most modern, new way to tell stories that we’ve seen before. We’ve seen vampires and ghosts. It puts it in a whole new context and framework for modern audiences — it basically spices up the genre.”

The biggest name on V/H/S‘s roster is probably Ti West, who made cult hit The House of the Devil (2009) and last year’s The Innkeepers.

“Some of my favorite movies are documentaries, so documentary-style filmmaking isn’t something that I have a problem with,” West says. “It’s that mostly [these kinds of films are] really derivative of the ones that came before them, which is frustrating.”

West, whose V/H/S segment is styled like a vacation video, prefers to shoot his films traditionally, though “I don’t think found footage is going to go away,” he says. “All of us in our daily lives [consume] found footage. We’re so accustomed to recording videos like it’s no big deal, and seeing videos recorded by amateurs. We’re so conditioned by the news and reality TV. It’s now just part of us, and part of our media.”

He’s right, of course. And when the found-footage aspect is no longer the film’s biggest novelty, like it was in the Blair Witch era, there’s room for other themes to emerge. V/H/S is — to use a word that doesn’t exist — “bro-y.” There are multiple scenes of male characters pointing the camera at clothed women, naked women, naked women who don’t know they’re being filmed, women the men are trying to have sex with, etc. (All of the filmmakers were male, though some female producers did work behind the scenes.)

V/H/S played multiple festivals, including Sundance, ahead of its theatrical debut this week. “I’m very curious about how mainstream audiences are going to respond,” Barrett says. “I feel like in the festival world, audiences come at these films ready to find some kind of political subtext to them, which I think our film overall kind of lacks at times. And when they’re trying to find out what it might be, that’s when segments get accused of being misogynistic.

He adds, “I think it’s an instinctive reaction to a horror film that touches on these subjects but doesn’t stop to tell the audience that these things are wrong, which — by the way, I think that actually is sexist, feeling you have to stop and tell the audience that women are empowered. That’s actually pretty condescending. I would rather just make a movie that does those things and hope that people get it. Which, you know, happens about half the time.”

The theme of voyeurism that runs through the film was a coincidence, though Barrett thinks that once the other filmmakers saw the frame story — inspired, he says, by Romain-Gavra’s “Stress” video for the band Justice, Harmony Korine’s 2009 Trash Humpers, and “sharking” videos — they might have been inspired in that direction.

“It is interesting that four of the six shorts could be interpreted as having some kind of failed sex tape element to them,” he says. “But I think that also just kind of organically came up, because we realized that we had total creative freedom to address the things that most found footage movies normally have to avoid. I think this was an opportunity for us to touch on these serious subjects in a goofy way. Ultimately, we just wanted to make a fun horror movie.”

West, who had a tight window to make Second Honeymoon, was the first to finish his short, turning it in before Tape 56 was completed.

“[V/H/S] turned out to have this really intense, misogynistic theme that kind of just came out of nowhere. It wasn’t planned,” he says. “Since I was first, I wonder: if I had gone last, would I have made something different? It sounds really stupid to say we didn’t know [the theme] was going on, but really everyone was very removed from each other.”

Also, West points out, “The filmmakers are not like the people they depict. In a way, the movie is presenting these awful dudes and they’re getting their comeuppance. So it may seem misogynistic, but actually it’s kind of this feminist revenge thing. I don’t know why it happened. I didn’t realize it until Sundance, when I was watching it and going, ‘There are some weird threads going on in this movie.'”


V/H/S opens Fri/5 in Bay Area theaters.

Northern promises


On the Road (Walter Salles, US/France/UK/Brazil, 2012) Walter Salles (2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries) engages Diaries screenwriter Jose Rivera to adapt Jack Kerouac’s Beat classic; it’s translated to the screen in a streamlined version, albeit one rife with parties, drugs, jazz, danger, reckless driving, sex, philosophical conversations, soul-searching, and “kicks” galore. Brit Sam Riley (2007’s Control) plays Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise, observing (and scribbling down) his gritty adventures as they unfold. Most of those adventures come courtesy of charismatic, freewheeling Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund of 2010’s Tron: Legacy), who blows in and out of Sal’s life (and a lot of other people’s lives, too, including wives played by Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst). Beautifully shot, with careful attention to period detail and reverential treatment of the Beat ethos, the film is an admirable effort but a little too shapeless, maybe simply due to the peripatetic nature of its iconic source material, to be completely satisfying. Among the performances, erstwhile teen dream Stewart is an uninhibited standout. Thu/4, 6:30 and 6:45pm, Smith Rafael. (Cheryl Eddy)

Road North (Mika Kaurismäki, Finland) Mika Kaurismäki’s films are generally much more broadly accessible than the dryly minimalist ones of his brother Aki, yet the latter has by far the larger international audience. That might change a bit with this likable seriocomic road trip. Emotionally recessive concert pianist Timo (Samuli Edelmann) is less than delighted one day to find an uninvited guest slumped outside his apartment: the father who abandoned him 30-odd years earlier. Far from having improved himself in the interim, Leo (Vesa-Matti Loiri) is a corpulent slob, convenience store robber, and car thief. But he is insistent in dragging his son on a journey whose full purpose he won’t reveal until its end. Actually, you can guess where it’s headed — but getting there is full of surprises, some touching and some very funny. Fri/5, 9pm, Smith Rafael; Sun/7, 6pm, Sequoia. (Dennis Harvey)

Fat Kid Rules the World (Matthew Lillard, US) It really does suck to be Troy (Jacob Wysocki from 2011’s Terri). An XXL-sized high schooler, he’s invisible to his peers, derided by his little brother (Dylan Arnold), and has lived in general domestic misery since the death of his beloved mother under the heavy-handed rule of his well-meaning but humorless ex-military dad (Billy Campbell). His only friends are online gamers, his only girlfriends the imaginary kind. But all that begins to change when chance throws him across the path of notorious local hell raiser Marcus (Matt O’Leary), who’s been expelled from school, has left the band he fronts, and is equal parts rebel hero to druggy, lyin’ mess. But he randomly decrees Troy is cool, and his new drummer. Even if he’s just being used, Troy’s world is headed for some big changes. Actor Matthew Lillard’s feature directorial debut, based on K.L. Going’s graphic novel, is familiar stuff in outline but a delight in execution, as it trades the usual teen-comedy crudities (a few gratuitous joke fantasy sequences aside) for something more heartfelt and restrained, while still funny. O’Leary from last year’s overlooked Natural Selection is flamboyantly terrific, while on the opposite end of the acting scale Campbell makes repressed emotion count for a lot — he has one wordless moment at a hospital that just might bring you to the tears his character refuses to spill. Sat/6, 3pm, Sequoia; Oct. 11, 7pm, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

The Central Park Five (Ken Burns, US) Acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns takes on the 1989 rape case that shocked and divided a New York City already overwhelmed by racially-charged violence. The initial crime was horrible enough — a female jogger was brutally assaulted in Central Park — but what happened after was also awful: cops and prosecutors, none of whom agreed to appear in the film, swooped in on a group of African American and Latino teenagers who had been making mischief in the vicinity (NYC’s hysterical media dubbed the acts “wilding,” a term that became forever associated with the event). Just 14 to 16 years old, the boys were questioned for hours and intimidated into giving false, damning confessions. Already guilty in the court of public opinion, the accused were convicted in trials — only to see their convictions vacated years after they’d served their time, when the real assailant was finally identified. Using archival news footage (in one clip, Gov. Mario Cuomo calls the crime “the ultimate shriek of alarm that says none of us are safe”) and contemporary, emotional interviews with the Five, Burns crafts a fascinating study of a crime that ran away with itself, in an environment that encouraged it, leaving lives beyond just the jogger’s devastated in the process. Sat/6, 3:30pm, Smith Rafael; Mon/8, 3:15pm, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Rebels with a Cause (Nancy Kelly, US) The huge string of parklands that have made Marin County a jewel of preserved California coastline might easily have become wall-to-wall development — just like the Peninsula — if not for the stubborn conservationists whose efforts are profiled in Nancy Kelly’s documentary. From Congressman Clem Miller — who died in a plane crash just after his Point Reyes National Seashore bill became a reality — to housewife Amy Meyer, who began championing the Golden Gate National Recreation Area because she “needed a project” to keep busy once her kids entered school, they’re testaments to the ability of citizen activism to arrest the seemingly unstoppable forces of money, power and political influence. Theirs is a hidden history of the Bay Area, and of what didn’t come to pass — numerous marinas, subdivisions, and other developments that would have made San Francisco and its surrounds into another Los Angeles. Sat/6, 6:15pm, Sequoia; Tue/9, 4pm, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

The Sessions (Ben Lewin, US) Polio has long since paralyzed the body of Berkeley poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) from the neck down. Of course his mind is free to roam — but it often roams south of the personal equator, where he hasn’t had the same opportunities as able-bodied people. Thus he enlists the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate, to lose his virginity at last. Based on the real-life figures’ experiences, this drama by Australian polio survivor Ben Lewin was a big hit at Sundance this year (then titled The Surrogate), and it’s not hard to see why: this is one of those rare inspirational feel-good stories that doesn’t pander and earns its tears with honest emotional toil. Hawkes is always arresting, but Hunt hasn’t been this good in a long time, and William H. Macy is pure pleasure as a sympathetic priest put in numerous awkward positions with the Lord by Mark’s very down-to-Earth questions and confessions. Sat/6, 7pm, Smith Rafael; Sun/7, noon, Sequoia. (Harvey)

Flicker (Patrik Eklund, Sweden) The provincial HQ of behind-the-times, inept telecommunications company Unicom is locus to a whole bunch of weirdness during the eventful work week chronicled by Swedish writer-director Patrik Eklund’s first feature. To wit: sterility by electrocution, tarantula therapy, grade-school performances of Frankenstein, Ted Danson fixations, workplace application of dunce caps, blind dates, domestic terrorism cults, and scented candle making. If you only see one Scandinavian comedy this year, make it Klown. If you only see two, however, this is definitely the other one. It’s a goofy, lightly surreal delight. Sat/6, 9pm, Smith Rafael; Mon/8, 3:15pm, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Jayne Mansfield’s Car (Billy Bob Thornton, US) Billy Bob Thornton’s first directing gig in over a decade is an ensemble piece set in small-town 1969 Alabama — like every U.S. town at the time, a hotbed of generational conflict over the Vietnam War and the generally changin’ times. Particularly defining that gap is the squabbling relationship between hawkish patriarch Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall) and youngest son Carroll (Kevin Bacon), who — though a World War II veteran, like brother Skip (Thornton) — has appointed himself a sort of elder to the local hippie population. That alone is enough to set Jim’s teeth on edge; he’s put in an even crustier mood upon hearing that his ex-wife has died, and her corpse is being brought back from England by the new family (John Hurt, Ray Stevenson, Frances O’Connor) she’d acquired after leaving him. The awkward meeting between two very different clans quickly thaws in various ways, however, some sexual, some comradely. Dismissed as a garrulous mess in its other festival showings to date, this Car is indeed one rusty, leaky, wayward vehicle at times, with some forced situations and way too much speechifying in the director’s script (co-written with Tom Epperson). But the thematically over ambitious, structurally clumsy movie is watchable nonetheless, with some real strengths: most notably strong performances (especially Thornton’s own) and a real feel for a particular high-Southern Brahmin milieu that hasn’t changed much more in the last 40 years than it did in the prior 40. Thornton will receive the MVFF Award and be interviewed onstage at the film’s screening. Sun/7, 6:30pm, Smith Rafael; Oct. 14, 5pm, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Ricky on Leacock (Jane Weiner, France/US) Shot over the last 40 years, since she was her subject’s student, Jane Weiner’s film about globe trotting director-cinematographer Richard Leacock is a fond tribute that pays due respect to the latter’s innovations in the documentary form. Dismayed by the lack of spontaneity that cumbersome equipment forced on the genre, he began devising a series of lightweight, synch-sound cameras that could unobtrusively travel with and capture events as they occurred. While his own mostly TV-targeted fruits of that labor are relatively little-known today, their impact on nonfiction cinema was enormous — and Leacock, who died last year at 89, was clearly charming company. Sun/7, 7pm, Smith Rafael; Mon/8, 9:15pm, 142 Throckmorton. (Harvey)

In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo, Korea) This latest bit of gamesmanship from South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo (2000’s Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors) has Isabelle Huppert playing three Frenchwomen named Anne visiting the same Korean beachside community under different circumstances in three separate but wryly overlapping stories. In the first, she’s a film director whose presence induces inapt overtures from both her married colleague-host and a strapping young lifeguard. In the more farcical second, she’s a horny spouse herself, married to an absent Korean man; in the third, a woman whose husband has run away with a Korean woman. The same actors as well as variations on the same characters and situations appear in each section, their rejiggered intersections poking fun at Koreans’ attitudes toward foreigners, among other topics. Airy and amusing, In Another Country is a playful divertissement that’s shiny as a bubble, and leaves about as much of a permanent impression. Tue/9, 4:15pm, Sequoia; Oct. 12, 9:45pm, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

To Kill A Beaver (Jan Jakub Kolski, Poland) Furtive, paranoid, solitary Eryk (Eryk Lubos) returns from places unknown to prepare his dilapidated farmhouse for a mission that, for a long time, remains equally unclear. Veteran Polish director Jan Jakub Kolski’s enigmatic drama takes its time unfolding the mysteries of Eryk’s traumatic past, unstable present, and future purpose. He’s all suspicion when he finds local teen Bezi (Agnieszka Pawelkiewicz) trespassing on his property, but her brazen come-on and hidden vulnerabilities chip away at his ample defenses. This intricate character study in the guise of a thriller puzzle is offbeat and absorbing, thanks in large part to Lubos’ prickly performance as a man as damaged as he is dangerous. Oct. 10, 6:30pm, Smith Rafael; Oct. 11, 9:30pm, Sequoia. (Harvey)

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France) Holy moly. Offbeat auteur Leos Carax (1999’s Pola X) and frequent star Denis Lavant (1991’s Lovers on the Bridge) collaborate on one of the most bizarrely wonderful films of the year, or any year. Oscar (Lavant) spends every day riding around Paris in a white limo driven by Céline (Edith Scob, whose eerie role in 1960’s Eyes Without a Face is freely referenced here). After making use of the car’s full complement of wigs, theatrical make-up, and costumes, he emerges for “appointments” with unseen “clients,” who apparently observe each vignette as it happens. And don’t even try to predict what’s coming next, or decipher what it all means: this wickedly humorous trip through motion-capture suits, graveyard photo shoots, teen angst, back-alley gangsters, old age, and more (yep, that’s the theme from 1954’s Godzilla you hear; oh, and yep, that’s pop star Kylie Minogue) is equal parts disturbing and delightful. Movies don’t get more original or memorable than this. Oct. 11, 6pm, Sequoia; Oct. 12, 3:15pm, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

The 35th Mill Valley Film Festival runs Oct. 4-14 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St, San Rafael; Cinéarts@Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton, Mill Valley; and 142 Throckmorton Theatre, Mill Valley. For additional venues, full schedule, and tickets (most shows $13.50), visit www.mvff.com. Additional short reviews at www.sfbg.com.


Indie indeed



FILM The 35th Mill Valley Film Festival is a star-studded affair, with tributes to Dustin Hoffman and 1977’s Star Wars and celebrity guests (Ben Affleck! Ang Lee! Stevie Nicks!), but indie cinema fans won’t want to miss Strutter. It doesn’t have any movie stars, but it comes courtesy of indie heroes Allison Anders (1992’s Gas Food Lodging, 1993’s Mi vida loca) and Kurt Voss, Anders’ co-director and co-writer on 1987’s Border Radio and 1999’s Sugar Town.

Anders says she views Strutter — the tale of Brett, a rock’n’roller working through heartbreak and post-college angst — as a continuation of her other films with Voss, all of which are music-themed and set in Los Angeles.

“When Kurt and I did Sugar Town, we kind of realized it was a companion piece to Border Radio. I think it was Michael Des Barres who said Border Radio‘s musicians were trying to pay their rent, and Sugar Town‘s musicians were trying to meet their mortgage. They were on a different level, but their desperation was the same,” she says. “In Strutter, the characters are even more desperate; nobody has any real roots except the streets of Los Angeles and the desert. In all three, there’s the music angle — but it’s also the desperation of trying to keep a band going, and what that means to people, particularly in LA.”

Though they tell separate stories, the three films share certain actors — but most of Strutter‘s leads are making their feature debuts. “I teach one quarter a year at UC Santa Barbara, which is where I met Flannery Lunsford, [who plays Brett],” she says. “I introduced Flannery to Kurt and they started doing some projects together. Then, Kurt and I started talking to Flannery about doing that last piece of the Border Radio trilogy, because Flannery also had a band.”

The love triangle between Brett, fellow musician Damon (Dante Ailano White), and femme fatale Justine (much-discussed, but never seen onscreen), was inspired by a famous rock’n’roll rivalry.

“Both Kurt and I were very enamored with the Britpop triangle of Brett [Anderson] from Suede, Damon [Albarn] from Blur, and Justine [Frischmann] from Elastica,” she says. “While we didn’t want to do that story, it was a kind of muse for the film, and we named all the characters after them.”

Anders may be a film-biz veteran, but she’s embraced the 21st century idea of online fundraising: both Strutter and its score (by Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis) were funded via Kickstarter.

“Kurt still has a sheet of paper where I wrote down names of people who, if each of them just gave us a little bit of money, we could finish making Border Radio. Back then you didn’t have any kind of mechanism for making that happen, but that’s essentially what crowdfunding is,” she says. “The great thing is, now you get your friends and people you don’t know to contribute to your project. Then, nobody [else] owns your movie, or record, or whatever it is. You’re doing your work on your own terms. If you’ve got a movie like Strutter, and you don’t have stars, and you’re shooting in black and white — we were doing everything the way we wanted to do it. For me, it was the better way to do things.”