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Going commando


CHEESY, SLEAZY CINEMA Last year found Jack Abramoff a peculiarly hot commodity at the movies, especially if you consider he spent most of the year in federal prison and hadn’t exercised his own Hollywood ambitions in nearly a quarter-century.

But then his recent on-screen exposure was not of an ilk he’d have chosen for himself: as subject of a documentary (2010’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money) and biographical drama (plain Casino Jack, also 2010) both depicting the now-infamous Washington, D.C., lobbyist as personification of that Shrub Era conservative jingoism, corrupt backdoor business deals, egomania, and greed that helped land us in our current economic craphole. And which got him four years, ending last month even as former Republican House Majority leader and BFF Tom DeLay faced the start of his own money-laundering slammer stint.

Abramoff was not likely to have enjoyed either portrait, not even as semi-sympathetically (albeit poorly) portrayed by Academy Award-winning thespian Kevin Spacey in the weaker film. If he’d been able to invent his own starring vehicle, no doubt it would have been more a flatteringly bold cross of 1987’s Wall Street (the Michael Douglas part), 1960’s Exodus (the Paul Newman as he-man crusader for Israel part) and 1980s Rocky-Rambo Stallone (the whole enchilada, from bulging biceps to rippling Old Glory and Commie-wasting weaponry). In the Reagan America of his physical if not yet political prime, he really was a bit of all those things: bodybuilder, Zionist, rabid anti-Red.

Whether he ever harbored dreams of being a celluloid hero, or was always content to become a real-life Supermensch, Abramoff did once make a movie — exactly one — exemplifying his beliefs and self-image in suitably cartoonish fashion, before realizing Hollywood’s corridors of power were puny game for a real man. So he moved on to the more hallowed halls of D.C. and Manhattan. But first, there was Red Scorpion.

This 1988 actioner starred 6-foot, 5-inch Swedish meatball Dolph Lundgren, hot from playing the robo-Russkie villain in Rocky IV (1985) and He-Man in Masters of the Universe (1987), as a “perfect killing machine” sent by evil Soviet commanders to assassinate a resistance leader in a fictive African nation under the thumb of Communist oppressors.

Tending not to play well with others, Lt. Nikolai Rachenko spends his first night here in jail for “disorderly conduct” — after a few drinks he’d kicked open a saloon door, beat up half the patrons, and machine-gunned the joint. Boys will be boys. He shares a cell with a local freedom fighter (Al White) and an American reporter (M. Emmet Walsh at his formidably most-obnoxious). For no obvious reason our steroid miracle of a KGB enforcer decides moments later to switch sides and help them escape. This effort requires killing about a million extras playing Russian and Cuban military occupiers to the tune of Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.” (Because nothing says “Democracy rocks!” like the orgasmic trills of an African American queen.)

Slowly-dawning ability to feel empathy for suffering peoples indicated by the heavings of his perpetually oiled torso and completely unintelligible mutterings, Nikolai is recaptured by former masters and made to endure homoerotic torture. He escapes again, staggering through the desert alone, shirtless and shiny. Bushmen rescuers teach this Golden Bwana something or other — like Billy Jack, he sweats, grunts, and hallucinates toward enlightenment — and give him a scorpion tattoo as diploma.

Now armed spiritually as well as abdominally to do good, his reappearance in civilization spurs Walsh to call this juiced Russki “the gutsiest goddamn sonuvabitch I ever met.” (Arne Olsen’s screenplay, from the brothers Jack and Robert Abramoff’s story idea, is seldom even this articulate.)

The climactic triumphant popular uprising at one point hinges on Lundgren lifting a truck out of a sandtrap with his bare bulging guns, a bit included purportedly because Jack Abramoff was an iron-pumping addict himself at the time. (What makes the scene funnier is that it evidently occurred to no one that Nikolai’s load would be lightened if Walsh got his fat ass out of the truck cab for a minute.)

A movie rife with bad dialogue badly spoken — you’ll gulp as White seemingly enthuses “When we arrive there will be a celebration and much fisting!” — ends aptly with the worst pronunciation ever of “Fucken’ A.” Our heroes are then freeze-framed while strolling over another umpteen freshly killed Commies.

Red Scorpion was shrugged off as what it basically was, yet another Rambo ripoff arriving toward the tail end of that subgenre’s lifespan. (A theatrical flop, it did well enough on tape and cable to prompt 1994’s in-name-only sequel Red Scorpion 2, on which the Abramoffs got executive producer credits.) There certainly are more cheap, inept, laughable, senseless, just plain dumb films of its ilk — though this one does excel at dumbness — and unlike many it does have one good joke, involving a grenade and a decapitated hand. Otherwise, if not for its primary motivator’s subsequent antics, Red Scorpion would be just another forgotten B-grade cultural relic.

But the Beverly Hills-raised Abramoff — who spent the earlier part of the 1980s as an aggressive far-right youth activist — intended this first-last cinematic venture as a stealth combo of dynamite popular entertainment and anti-Red Menace propaganda. He modeled the character of “Mombaka’s” resistance savior Sundata (played by Ruben Nthodi) on real-life Angolan anti-Marxist rebel warlord Jonas Savimbi, a darling of later Cold War hawks. (Others would soon call him “a charismatic homicidal maniac.”)

It is still debated whether Red Scorpion‘s $16 million budget was secretly funded primarily by the South African government and/or military. Abramoff denies it — though he had already spearheaded support of the apartheid regime as College Republican National Committee chairman and founder of the dubiously named think tank, International Freedom Foundation. In any case, once protestors got wind of the production shooting in South Africa-controlled Namibia — defying an international boycott — a skittish Warner Bros. pulled out as distributor. (Scorpion was then picked up in the U.S. by Shapiro-Glickenhaus, who later gave us 1990’s Frankenhooker and 1992’s Basket Case 3: The Progeny.)

The shoot was fraught. Some actors and crew complained they were never paid; production was suspended for three months when money ran out; star attraction Lundgren was apparently quite the hulking handful on and off set. Afterward, Abramoff — who’d converted to Orthodox Judaism at age 12 after seeing Fiddler on the Roof (1971) — blamed the film’s potty-mouthed and violent excesses on director Joseph Zito (of future Tea Party fan Chuck Norris’ own 1985 anti-Commie classic Invasion U.S.A.) He founded something called the Committee For Traditional Jewish Values in Entertainment as penance.

That noble latter endeavor was abandoned about five seconds later, however, since by then Abramoff realized he had better things to do than mess around with pansy-ass showbiz. Among his future, better-known achievements — the ones that got him top billing as Inmate 27593-112 — were bilking casino-owning Native American tribes, keeping third world factory sweatshops safe from investigation, pimping Congress to myriad corporations, and otherwise pedaling corruption ’round the globe, all while clutching family values and raving against the Godforsaken liberals. He was ever so righteous about doing wrong.

Today, he’s free, if uncharacteristically silent, having finished both his hoosegow stint and a halfway-house stay during which he worked for below minimum wage at a Baltimore kosher pizzaria. One suspects he will not be flippin’ pie in the future, however. Sibling Robert Abramoff is still in the biz, producing such fascinating-sounding recent projects as 2009’s Pauly Shore and Friends, 2009’s Jesus People: The Movie, and 2010’s Dino Mom.

Lundgren, recently looking fine (if downsized) in 2010’s all-star Expendables, now directs his own direct-to-DVD action vehicles. Still fighting the good fight, alongside Israeli special forces and South African mercenaries, Savimbi died in a hail of machine-gun fire eight years ago. That event helped end Angola’s civil war after nearly three decades. And Red Scorpion lives on, more or less. I found my used VHS copy at Rasputin Music for 50 cents. Fucken’ A!

Mädchen gone wild


Every nation had its distinct cinematic response to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Germany’s was characteristic in offering the pretense of order, “scientific” educational value, and encouraging a healthy collective morality — even if all this was usually mere gloss over the usual, more marketable qualities of copious T&A.

Encouraged by Scandinavian films already tearing down censorship barriers worldwide, Deutschland screens (the free-Western ones only, needless to say) began addressing the matter directly in 1968. Then, Oswalt Kolle, a psychiatrist’s son and tabloid journalist turned celebrity sex educator, commenced making features like Sexual Partnership (1968), The Sensual Male (1970), and Your Child, That Unknown Creature (1970). These fairly sober mixtures of documentary and dramatized “case histories” were as widely translated as his writings. (Nonetheless, Kolle and his family relocated to Amsterdam, citing constant harassment by conservative German politicians and media as the cause.)

Such success inevitably attracted imitation. Dr. Gunther Hunold’s Schulmädchen-Report had made best-seller waves with its collection of interviews with 14- to 20-year-old women about their sexual experiences and opinions. Enter Wolf C. Hartwig of Rapid Film, producer-distributor of such savory titles as Satan Tempts With Love (1960) and Your Body Belongs to Me (1959). He bought the book’s film rights, retaining Hunold as co-scenarist and consultant for 1970’s Schoolgirl Report: What Parents Don’t Think Is Possible, which proved so enormously popular that an entire national subgenre was born.

The resulting series of Schoolgirl Report features stretched through the entire Me Decade. All 13 are being issued on DVD by the Impulse Pictures label of South San Francisco’s CAV Distributing Corporation, a project that reaches its precise midpoint next month with 1974’s Schoolgirl Report Volume 7: What the Heart Must Thereby …. Watching too many of these interchangeable vintage sexploitation “documentaries” in close succession can be hazardous to your mental health, but in moderation — as with most things – — they prove instructive.

Volume 1 set the mold, sometimes in stone: factors like the groovy Farfisa-acid guitar-flute rock instrumental theme by Gert Wilden and His Orchestra (whose original soundtracks would continue to run a delightfully dated gamut from go-go discotheque to cocktail jazz to Mantovani-like schmuzak), cheap production values, Ernst Hofbauer’s on-the-nose direction, the wooden acting (despite allegedly “starring many anonymous youths and parents”), and an entire opening credits sequence would scarcely budge in film after film. More flexible within a limited range were the bodies bared by 20-something actors playing teens (seldom convincingly) and the framing devices for each installation of variably comic, dramatic, and tragic vignettes.

The first movie started with a flower-decal-covered VW full of hippie chicks and dudes driving by as a female voice says “That’s us: today’s youth. We want a new morality without hypocrisy.” Then an actor playing a reporter announces this “effective and spontaneous documentary shows our youth as they really are. [It] will open many parents’ eyes.”

More likely the Schoolgirl films opened a lot of men’s pants. For all the earnest jabber about “sexual prejudice and why German families hang on to it,” Hartwig, Hofbauer, scenarist Gunther Heller (Hunold split after the series’ launch) and company weren’t interested in liberating minds — let alone promoting feminism — so much as wrapping age-old male fantasies in a cloak of socioanthropological inquiry.

Women are occasionally victimized in the Schoolgirl universe: a lone black girl is set up for gang rape by racist classmates, a country lass is forced into prostitution by loutish dad, etc. But such instances usually end up with the protagonist rescued by a convenient Prince Charming, often as our narrator urges us to question whether they brought the abuse on themselves.

The overwhelming majority of tales present a brave new world of brazenly aggressive females demanding satisfaction whenever, wherever, with whomever. Particularly with older men, including priests, teachers, bus drivers, family friends, guest workers (Rinaldo Talamonti often appears as a comedy-relief Italian stereotype addressed in terms like “Hey, spaghetti! Show us your macaroni!”), even sexy older brothers.

Their behavior sometimes edges from fantasy fodder into the fanatical, as when a married fencing instructor tells his obsessed student, “You must be reasonable!” and she replies “I’ll be reasonable when I’m 75!” Or when another underage lassie brags that beyond regular partner sex, “I also do myself four or five times a day.” Most disturbing is a frequent refrain of blackmail, almost invariably used by nymphets on a reluctant authority figures to maintain a sexual relationship (and/or good grades). In the ickiest instance, Volume 5‘s 15-year-old Margit seduces Grandpa, saying if he refuses she’ll say he raped her; three months of action later he confesses to parents and police rather than endure more shame.

Ostensibly celebrating women’s newfound sexual freedom, the Schoolgirl Reports often seem to regard that as a menace to society as well. (At one curious point we’re informed “They’re all reading Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto, which turns men into slaves and a necessary evil for sex.”) Needless to say, the series’ major off-camera collaborators were an entirely penis-bearing roll call.

These films made tens of millions, not just in Western Europe but in overseas locations where their copious full-frontal nudity (nearly all female, of course) required cutting or fogging to meet local standards. Entries appeared around the globe under titles like Campus Pussycats, Smartie Pants, Further Confessions of a Sixth Form Girl, and Super Sexy Show. The 1980 final chapter didn’t hit American screens until three years later as Making Out — quite the reduction from an original German title translating as Don’t Forget the Love in Sex. Meanwhile Germany had been flooded with copycat “reports” (housewife, schoolboy, nurse, etc.), and in 1975 saw the legalization of hardcore porn. So a once ubiquitous, now quaint and bizarre example of mainstream softcore slowly petered (ahem) out.

The Impulse-CAV discs are notably stingy with extras — there aren’t any, not even trailers or a horrible-English-dubbing option — but in a way that suits their blunt appeal. After all, one shouldn’t expect many frills from movies wherein a dessert-spooning virgin (sex aside, ice cream appears this generation’s predominant onscreen indulgence) muses that a passing motorist “could help me get rid of that bothersome hymen,” or the “pathological dream world” of a girl troubled by incestuous thoughts features psychedelic imagery of Daddy menacing her nubile naked self with a shish kabob.

Oi yay!


MOVIES WITH MOHAWKS Punk and the movies met when the former was very young. When punk eventually grew up, the movies still insisted on viewing it as a child. Their union, nowadays perverted by mutual materialistic bloat, has been rather like an arranged marriage: long-lasting, with moments of real understanding, but fundamentally fraudulent.

Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly’s hefty new tome Destroy All Movies!!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (Fantagraphics, $35) chronicles this tragicomedic marriage in A-Z encyclopedic form encompassing more than 1,100 movies, 450 pages, and lots of vintage promotional imagery.

Eleven hundred? Really? Well, sorta. For every documentary, concert, film, or serious drama (1998’s American History X, 1986’s Sid and Nancy, etc.) reflecting some genuine subchapter of punk history, there are movies in which ersatz “punks” are cartoonish villains either intentionally funny (1987’s Surf Nazis Must Die) or not (retiree-terrorizers getting their sneers removed in 1985 by Death Wish 3‘s ever-vigilantic Chuck Bronson).

Let us not forget the many sci-fi futures in which everyone is kinda punk (most famously 1981’s The Road Warrior, 1982’s Blade Runner, and 1981’s Escape From New York). Punks seemed a natural fit — at least filmmakers thought so — for horror flicks, whether being sexy-scary (1987’s The Lost Boys) or zombiefied (1985’s Return of the Living Dead).

Destroy All Movies!!! fittingly spotlights such actual punk scene-bred, variably underground talents and movies as Lizzie Borden, 1984’s Repo Man, Jon Moritsugu, 1984’s Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, Derek Jarman, 1982’s Liquid Sky, and Penelope Spheeris. Many of these get the benefit of elongated discussion and related interviews.

But the book also has room for characters confined to just a scene or background — anyone remember punks in 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters or Crocodile Dundee? The editors do. They’ll likewise remind you when punks infiltrated After School Specials (1987’s The Day My Kid Went Punk), porn (1985’s New Wave Hookers), and the Linda Blair ouevre (too many to mention).

The Roxie hosts book-signing and screening festivities in honor of Destroy All Movies!!!‘s upcoming release. Festivities includes free mixtape and onstage punk haircut giveaways, punk trailers, and 35mm prints of two prime 1980s artifacts. Exhibit One is Times Square (1980), producer Robert Stigwood’s attempt to do for punk-new wave what 1997’s Saturday Night Fever had for disco. His editorial interference muffled the Sapphic tilt of the underage runaway heroines’ BFF relationship, but a guilty pleasure and great double-LP soundtrack (featuring XTC, Patti Smith, the Cure, and more) survived.

Pleasures guiltier still lie in 1984’s Surf II, whose title is the first anarchic joke (there was no Surf I). Its “plot” involves a mad scientist (Eddie Deezen) turning surfer bullies into indiscriminately hungry punk zombies (that again!) via radioactive Buzz Cola. It features a young Eric Stoltz, L.A. mod revivalist band the Untouchables, and Love Boat refugees Ron “Horshack” Palillo and Ruth Buzzi. Unleashed amid umpteen 1984 teen sex comedies, Surf II was dismissed as demented and arbitrary — exactly why we like it now.


Nov. 19, 8 p.m., $10

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF


Falling for Fallout — again


Fallout: New Vegas

(PC, PS3, Xbox 360) Obsidian Entertainment/Bethesda Softworks

GAMER Despite the reverence it commands, the Fallout series has a tortured history. The first two games (both classics) were developed by Black Isle Studios and published by Interplay. Out of nowhere, Micro Forte and 14 Degrees East stepped in to produce a licensed spin-off in 2001. Interplay’s 2003 financial difficulties led to the demise of Black Isle, and the publisher produced a fourth game in-house before selling the Fallout name to Bethesda Softworks, which released the mega-hit Fallout 3 in 2008.

The creative core of Black Isle, meanwhile, went on to form Obsidian Entertainment, which cut its teeth on ambitious-but-flawed follow-ups to popular franchises like Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights. After the success of Fallout 3, the company got permission from Bethesda to return to its roots, producing a new game in the post-apocalyptic Fallout universe, superintended by series vets Josh Sawyer and Chris Avellone.

The result was Fallout: New Vegas. Though its outward appearance is defined by the wooden character models and awkward animations of the Gamebryo engine (a holdover from Fallout 3 and Bethesda’s swords-and-sorcery smash OblivionNew Vegas feels and plays more like one of Black Isle’s isometric 1990s classics.

This distinctive sensibility is most notable in the writing, which oozes dark comedy and pulpy, hard-boiled dialogue in a way that Fallout 3 never did. Questing and character creation have also been redesigned in accordance with the Black Isle games’ core principles, necessitating difficult choices whose outcomes are not always immediately clear. The score, by delightfully named Israeli composer Inon Zur, deftly echoes the series’ bizarre, dystopian musical tradition.

There is one element of the original Fallout titles that nobody missed: the bugs. Unfortunately, Black Isle’s questionable quality assurance survived the name change, and New Vegas is not without its many hiccups. Given the sheer scope of the game, however, it’s hard to complain too stridently.

When Interplay shuttered Black Isle in 2003, many of the company’s leading lights felt that the Fallout franchise, every bit their brainchild, had been unfairly taken from them by the vicissitudes of corporate law. Seven years later, they’ve gotten the opportunity to welcome the gaming public back to wasteland. And nothing, after all, says “we’ve missed you” like a dual-mohawked psychopath with a belly full of mutated cockroach steak and a rusty machete.


War — what is it good for? Video games!


Medal Of Honor

Danger Close, Electronic Arts

(Xbox360, PS3, PC)

GAMER Though it arrives a few years behind its contemporaries in updating the mechanics of the original World War II series, Medal of Honor follows Call of Duty and Battlefield into the modern age of warfare. The most memorable aspect of this reboot’s PR muttering was that it was going to be authentic. Game developers working closely with members of the military is nothing new, but developer Danger Close wanted its take to be relevant to today’s war by setting the fight in Afghanistan and making the villains the Taliban. The game’s professed intent is to honor the soldiers who die every day in the conflict but, while the locations lend the game a sort of theoretical accuracy, Medal of Honor mostly just feels like War Games 101.

You won’t have any problems jumping into the action. From the first moments, Medal of Honor‘s game play, pacing, and button layout recall Modern Warfare‘s winning formula. The story is a tad more down to earth, but not without thrills and chills, and a good chunk of the game is devoted to sniper missions that do more than pay homage to the iconic Modern Warfare level “Ghillies in the Mist.” There are a few new twists (I will say, it’s been a while since a war game has made suppressive fire a mandatory game play element) but for the most part Medal of Honor emulates Modern Warfare‘s “shooting gallery” experience, which makes it fine, if not terribly inspired.

First-person shooters now ship with split personalities: single-player and multiplayer. The experiences are so divided (literally, with completely separate title screens) at this point that they might as well be two different games. Many developers have begun to send multiplayer development out-of-house, with the intention of focusing all their strength on the single-player experience. It’s probably a good idea — if one team is spread too thin, both experiences suffer.

Medal of Honor seems to have taken the stance “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” enlisting Battlefield developers DICE in creating its multiplayer experience. As such, Medal of Honor‘s multiplayer emulates the tight feel and style of Battlefield 2 fairly well, but lacks the balance of the different classes. Limiting the choice to assault, spec-ops, or sniper doesn’t encourage teamwork in the same way that including a medic or engineer does.

I suppose Danger Close deserves some kudos for even attempting to engage with a real, contemporary war, but it’s also the sort of thing that needs to be done right. If you’re going to talk the big talk, you better walk the long walk, and Medal of Honor doesn’t really offer much that you can’t find in either of its competitors’ more refined products. Nonetheless, it remains an engaging, well-made war game that delights adequately enough and could indicate a better game to come. 

Better living through porn


When one door closes another opens: as summer comes to an end, Good Vibrations gives us something to ensure that warm sensation continues — porn.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. On Sept. 23, the Castro Theatre opens its doors to the Good Vibrations Indie Erotic Film Festival’s short film festival competition, after a lead-up week of diverse, sex-positive programming at various venues. The annual contest, now in its fifth year, offers filmmakers the chance to share their unique erotic visions on the big screen.

“As heavily censored as film and TV are today, it’s important to have a safe outlet,” says Steffan Schulz, who is screening his film Lorelei. “More importantly, and specifically to an erotic festival, the Puritan mentality that dominates American society today is really kind of hypocritical.”

The short films vary wildly in terms of gender, sexuality, and explicitness. While Schulz’s Lorelei is more sensual than hardcore, Maxine Holloway and Lex Sloan’s Outlaw is a bit more raw: the titular character is a nine-and-three-quarters-inch dildo.

“When casting, it was important for us to represent the queer community and show a diverse selection of sexualities and bodies,” Holloway and Sloan explain in a jointly-written e-mail. “Which mostly entailed Maxine making a list of people she really wanted to fuck or make-out with and then asking nicely.”

For most of the filmmakers, who range from local to international, these movies are a response to the limited scope of the mainstream porn industry. That means looking at groups who are too often sidelined and approaching erotica from a different perspective.

Spanish filmmaker Erika Lust is screening her fetish film Handcuffs, which she hopes will help open minds.

“Primarily I thought that practice of dominance and submission might still be kind of a taboo for most women,” she says. “In general, I would like to see more of a female view … until it seeps into the mainstream that women are not only there to provide something for the male gaze.”

It’s significant that so many of the films shown at the IXFF delve into realistic portrayals of female sexuality. After all, the porn industry has long been derided as degrading to women — or at least a dangerous perpetuator of the fake female orgasm. Humor is another area several of the filmmakers identified as sorely lacking from mainstream porn. Allegra Hirschman, who also competed last year, is showing T4-2, a film inspired by 1960s and ’70s sitcoms. Naturally, there’s a sexual twist, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny.

“Sometimes erotica is so serious it can become somber,” Hirschman notes. “We think adding some hilarity can help erotica remain relatable. It can be playful and still retain its erotic power.”

On a broader scale, the festival speaks to Good Vibes’ sex-positive vision. It’s all part of an exciting effort to celebrate and redefine erotica. Those who have attended in the past know that the films step into uncharted territory more often than not — sometimes even rendering co-MCs Dr. Carol Queen and Peaches Christ temporarily speechless.

“It is always riveting to see people getting sexy outside the lines and being turned on by something you didn’t know moved you,” Holloway and Sloan point out. “And to be really specific, we also would like to see more sex in cars, vajazzling, sex scenes with food, 1960s hairdos, ponytail butt plugs, and humor in our erotica.”

Seems like a lot to cram into one film. But hey, there’s always next year. (Louis Peitzman)


Sept. 18–23, various venues, $7–$10


Trust no one


CULT CINEMA The ’70s were prime time for conspiracy theories, particularly at the movies — thanks to Watergate as well as queasy unresolved 1960s conflicts between the counterculture and the establishment.

Paranoid thrillers like Three Days of the Condor (1975) and The Parallax View (1974) riffed off nonfiction All the President’s Men. An entire independent studio-cum-distributor — Sunn Classics — made or bought "documentaries" befuddling folkloric fears around topics like Bigfoot, reincarnation, the Bermuda Triangle, and crop-circley UFO invasions. Bestselling novelist Ira Levin (The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby) unleashed antifeminists, Satanists, and more as figures of pulp speculation.

The Vortex Room’s July schedule has been entirely taken up with cinematic expressions of vintage conspiratorial paranoia. You’ve already missed some, but what’s left is choice. Thursday’s double bill offers two seldom-seen whoppers. Once-famous (if now forgotten) is The Hellstrom Chronicle, 1971’s contribution to a long line of questionable Best Documentary Oscar winners. Tricked out with extraordinary nature photography, it portentously posits mankind’s greatest peril as takeover by the insect world. Ooh … scary?

Equally swacked is 1978’s The Lucifer Complex, a bizarro patchwork — clearly shot at different times, under sharply different budgetary circumstances — eventually pointing toward a Nazi rejuvenation scheme à la Levin’s The Boys From Brazil. The Man From U.N.C.L.E.‘s Robert Vaughn is its unfortunate star.

July 29 brings the mutha lode of ’70s sci-fi conspiracy movies. First the nearly terrific action fantasy of Peter Hyams’ 1977 Capricorn One, in which such colorfully mismatched chess pieces as Elliott Gould, Karen Black, O.J. Simpson, Sam Waterston, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro, and Telly Savalas shuffle in a government cover-up scheme. Spoiler: we never really landed on the moon!

Five years earlier, English "Supermarionation" marionettist Gerry Anderson (of Thunderbirds fame) released his sole live-action feature. Invasion: UFO offers Swinging London perspective on a war against invading aliens in the distant future of 1980.

This typically brisk, academy-trained, Dr. Who-like Brit take on coarse commercial nonsense is woofed up by bombshells in skintight leotards and platinum-wigged minions in white/burgundy overalls. (Clearly the costume designer was heterosexual, and then some.) Although let’s face it, there’s nothing like a silver Mylar jumpsuit to bring out the disco-licious in either sex. Meanwhile, others wear mesh muscle tees well before your average Judas Priesthead started doing so. Invasion: UFO is the gift that Quaaludes keep on giving. (Dennis Harvey)


Thurs/22 and July 29, 9 p.m., $5

Vortex Room

1082 Howard, SF




FILM FESTIVAL Now in its seventh year, San Francisco’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival aims to draw fans of fantastical and shocking cinema into the Roxie and Viz theaters for its slate of 32 films. Spanning horror, science fiction, and fantasy, Hole Head features films from Singapore to Serbia, including 10 flicks from Japan.

Despite this cultural eclecticism, there is one theme that seems to crop up throughout the program: homage. A surprising number of these films are primarily interested in referencing or commenting on formative genre pictures that came before.

Of course, such an approach to genre filmmaking need not be retrograde. When it works, as in the hilarious kaiju pastiche Death Kappa, there’s no question about why someone would want to both mock and commemorate the storied run of man-in-suit monster movies. Kappa brings out the humor in an already existing template, mixing shades of H.P. Lovecraft and E.T. (1982) with Japanese folklore but ultimately ending up in the same place: city-smashing mayhem.

Among the Japanese selections is an assortment of gore films, weird fantasy-action movies entirely predicated on opportunities for spouting blood. These often feel like they’re in dialogue with themselves, lampooning older forms but also riffing on their own ridiculousness. RoboGeisha plays like a live-action cartoon, where laws of logic and good taste don’t apply and the best way to deal with a terrorist is two tempura shrimp to the eyes. Not gory but similarly frenetic is shock auteur Takashi Miike’s latest, an unexpectedly light adaptation of a children’s anime series called Yatterman, which is literally a live-action cartoon as well as a 1970s throwback.

Sometimes, though, the tribute-obsession can seem like wallowing. Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre, blessed with an absurd title and the exotic appeal of being an Icelandic horror film, is basically a by-the-numbers slasher that retreads The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and others to the point that its shocks are predictable.

Many other subgenres are represented, from torture porn to luchador action, but one of the festival’s highlights dwells outside any such bracket. Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto’s metaphysical fantasy Symbol documents the travails of a man inexplicably trapped in a mysteriously interactive white room. It sometimes feels like a feature-length comedy sketch, governed by certain rules or patterns that drive its simple but ultimately cosmic plot. Constrained though it may be, it makes no concessions to genre and feels inspiringly new as a result.

Regardless of a few staid entries, such a forum for genre cinema is absolutely crucial, particularly on such an international scale. Even if we need another zombie reinterpretation like we need a hole in the head, Another Hole in the Head will hopefully be with us well into the future.


July 8–29, $11

Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF

Viz Cinema, New People, 1746 Post, SF



I want it that way


IDOL WORSHIP I’m not going to say the Backstreet Boys made me gay, because no boy band — regardless of how late-1990s dreamy — can change one’s sexual orientation. But BSB did act as a barometer for gayness that helped usher me into a newfound understanding of my sexuality. When you’re 13 and you’d rather hang out with pretty boy Nick Carter than Catholic schoolgirl Britney Spears, you know something’s up.

Actually, Nick wasn’t really my favorite. I was all about sensitive older man Kevin Richardson, now exiled from the Backstreet Boys because he’s (wait for it) 38. As for the others, A.J. McLean and Howie Dorough were never on my radar, too “bad boy” and “boy next door,” respectively. Meanwhile, unofficial frontman Brian Littrell was super enthused by his born again status, which even at a young age I found less than thrilling.

But I digress. Boy bands were everywhere when I was in middle school, and your response to the invasion was key to your social standing. If you were a girl, you were required to pick a favorite and run with it. If you were a boy, you had to act disdainful and dismiss them all as homos. If you were, well, me, you secretly knew all the lyrics, did your best to act like you didn’t, and got called a “fag” anyway because a couple assholes totally heard you humming “As Long As You Love Me” during PE class.

I didn’t know I was gay when I was 13, but I knew I was different. I spent a good amount of time trying desperately to fit in, which meant denying my interest in bubblegum pop and focusing on more respectable pop punk, like Green Day and the Offspring. (Objectively, Green Day is far queerer than BSB. But who knew?) I distinctly remember a day in English class when my friends (who were girls) looked over a picture of the Backstreet Boys and picked out the cutest. I didn’t say anything, but my mind was blaring, “KEVIN, KEVIN, KEVIN” while I bit my tongue.

Times have changed. The boy band craze fizzled, I came out, and an ironic appreciation of kitsch became increasingly popular. I can now say that I’m excited to see the Backstreet Boys in concert without a hint of shame or fear. (“That is so gay.” Yes, exactly.) Fuck it — I can be proud. Isn’t that what this month is all about? When I hear “I Want It That Way” at the Warfield, I’ll be able to belt it, surrounded by a slew of former teenage outcasts doing the same. Sing out, Louise: “No matter the distance, I want you to know, that deep down inside of me … ” 


With Mindless Behavior

Sun/27–Mon/28, 8 p.m., $42.50–$62.50


982 Market, SF


ALSO headlining the main stage at Pride Celebration on Sun/27 (see Pride listings)

Imported cheese


CINE DE CULTO It’s impossible to undersell the extent to which everyone was space travel crazy from the 1950s through the early ’70s. Even nations not actively involved in the Cold War race for space “supremacy” shared the giddy thrill as U.S.S.R., then U.S. efforts successfully launched projectiles toward the cosmos. Those technological leaps and Cold War-fueled fears that the bomb could end life as we know it turned science fiction from an infrequent cinematic genre into a popular, prolific one.

Different nations put their own spin on this celluloid space race, the Soviets for instance treating it as territory of soberly scientific national pride. On the other end of the spectrum, Mexico did sci-fi wackier, cheaper, and often with more inspiration than its neighbor up north. These movies often ended up cut, retitled, and badly dubbed for U.S. consumption at kiddie matinees and on late-night creature feature shows, where they inevitably provoked howls of laughter.

Some camp value definitely remains, but next week’s Pacific Film Archive series “El Futuro Está Aqui: Sci-Fi Classics From Mexico” offers a rare chance to see several choice nuggets in their original-language form and in pristine prints. As a result, they seem more conspicuously well-crafted (on par with major studio Hollywood B movies of the ’50s), even — dare we say — dignified, than you’d expect. Which is not to say they aren’t frequently nuts as well.

Nothing says Mexploitation more succinctly than Santo vs. the Martian Invasion, a 1966 adventure that was one of the immortal masked wrestling hero’s last in B&W. Aliens in flying hubcaps — I mean flying saucers — seek to invade Earth by making people disappear with their ray-guns and interfering with TV transmissions. They also wear silver Mylar pants without shirts (dudes) or low-cut onesies (chicks). These Martians are hot. But they insist on world peace, so of course they must be stopped.

What could be more terrifying? Civilizations ruled by women, of course! In the prior year’s Planet of the Female Invaders, abducted Earthlings find themselves on Sibila, where that terrible reversal of the natural order has come to pass. But fear not: as lost visitors from the normal world soon discover, the women secretly long to be fussed over and told what to do by he-men.

Also in the PFA series are 1959’s lunatic The Ship of Monsters, which manages to encompass singing cowboys, Venusians in taped-on J-Lo dresses, vampires, and more. As for 1957’s The Aztec Mummy vs. the Human Robot, it involves … well, you figure it out. (Dennis Harvey)


June 24–27, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249



Worst worst movie?


INTERNATIONAL CINEMA It wouldn’t be a Cannes Film Festival without scandals onscreen and off. The recent 63rd edition found international media struggling to come up with some — Jean-Luc Godard’s no-show, the generally feh quality of competition films. Pretty weak. Little incited righteous outrage over artistic license as before: think of prior provocations by Gaspar Noé, Carlos Reygadas, and Vincent Gallo.

But last year there was not only Lars von Trier’s polarizing Antichrist but a film Roger Ebert called "the worst film in the history of Cannes." Kinatay nonetheless won Brillante Mendoza a best director jury prize. This unwatchable piece of arty trash (per Ebert) premieres locally this weekend. Clearly, differences of opinion will prevail.

Kinatay — i.e. "butchery," so Tagalog speakers are forewarned — falls into that Cinema of Punishment category von Trier, Noé, and ever-increasing younger filmmakers seem inordinately fond of. The basic idea being to rub your nose in it, "it" being the soullessness of contemporary life as illustrated by some combination of cruelty, tedium, unpleasantly graphic content, and aesthetic onslaught. At worst, movies classifiable this way exist for nothing beyond their smug, empty shock value. At best, they really do shock you into a state of heightened … something. Sensitivity? Dismay?

Kinatay is not a vanity wank à la Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (2003). Nor does
it over-enjoy the sadism it’s decrying a la Noé. It is grueling, not just in content terms but the viewer effort required. But it’s also a work by a clearly gifted filmmaker, the Philippines’ leading indie talent, serious in intent if problematic.

Newlywed police trainee Peping (Coco Martin) needs extra cash. So he agrees to a shady mission whose purpose is only gradually gleaned, to his horror: riding along with corrupt fellow cops as they abduct, beat, rape, and murder prostitute Madonna (Maria Isabel Lopez), ostensibly to punish her large drug debt.

Peping’s long night of squirming empathy, inaction, and major disillusionment feels like it passes in real time. Yet there’s considerable craft in Mendoza’s aesthetic choices, not to mention an uncommonly rich sense of teeming, dangerous Manila street life in his opening scenes. I highly doubt Kinatay was the worst Cannes film of 2009, let alone ever.

Ebert, freshly anointed by San Francisco International Festival celebration and generally considered a "seventh art" angel, has a history of such pronouncements. Prior movies he’s been appalled by include Blue Velvet (1986), I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967), Pink Flamingos (1972), The Tenant (1976), and recent Australian horror Wolf Creek (2005). The latter was terrific (and a commercial bust) precisely because it made its characters’ serial-killer’d travails truly punishing to watch. Ebert isn’t infallible, and "worst ever" pronouncements are often fallible in the extreme.


Sat/12, 7:30 p.m.; Sun/13, 4:30 p.m., $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787


King Z


FILMMAKER INTERVIEW In the event of an actual zombie outbreak, legendary horror director George A. Romero would no doubt survive. For one thing, he stands an imposing six-feet, five inches, and happens to maintain an anti-zombie stronghold — er, getaway — in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he’d just been vacationing before the press tour for the sixth film in his "Dead" series, Survival of the Dead. Plus, Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, meaning Romero has more than 40 years of experience wrangling the undead. I asked him about that, and more, on his recent visit to San Francisco.

SFBG Did you ever think in 1968 that you’d still be making zombie movies in 2010?

George A. Romero Never. And I never thought of it as a series — it was a film. I didn’t want to make another one, especially after [Night] got "discovered." I said, I really can’t do another one unless I have a strong idea. Ten years later, I knew the people who were developing the first indoor shopping mall that any of us had ever seen, near Pittsburgh. I went out to visit it before it was even open, and the trucks were bringing in all this stuff, and I said, "Jesus Christ, it’s like this Taj Mahal to consumerism" — and then I said, "Ok, this might serve."

Completely serendipitously, I got a call from [Italian horror filmmaker] Dario Argento, and he said, "George, please, you must make another." He flew me over to Rome, stuck me in a little apartment, and told me to write the script [for 1978’s Dawn of the Dead]. That’s when I first started to think, "Boy, I could have fun with this." I could express myself, express my politics a little bit, poke a finger at society, and bring the zombies out every once in a while. The first four [Dead movies] were more than 10 years or more apart from each other. And I liked the idea that they were snapshots of different decades, stylistically and everything else.

After Land of the Dead (2005) — which was the first sort of big one, and I’m not sure I should have studio’d it up, if you know what I mean — I wanted to do something about emerging media and citizen journalism, so I had this idea to go back to Night [for 2007’s Diary of the Dead], go back to the roots, do it real guerrilla-style. Just like with Night, I thought it would be a one-shot deal: "I’m gonna take this little sidebar now, and try to have fun while I’m at it." [The company that financed the film] gave me final cut, creative control — first time since the very early films that I made — and [since] I stayed within a certain budget range, even though it had a limited distribution, it wound up making a lot of money. That’s why [Survival of the Dead] is here.

SFBG Survival of the Dead spins off a minor character from Diary of the Dead. Did you have that story line in mind while you were making Diary?

GAM When [the financers] said, "Well, we made so much money, we gotta do it again," I said, "OK, what if we do it again, and it makes a lot of money? You’re gonna want to do it again. So why don’t we go in thinking of a plan? I could take these characters from Diary, I had ’em all picked out — we could make three films, and I know exactly where they’re gonna go. And I will interweave the stories and introduce plot elements that recur, and characters that meet each other again." Which is something I always wanted to do, but I couldn’t with the first four films because they’re all owned by different people. So I said, we’ll take a broader topic like war, enmities that don’t die, and do this sort of structured set piece. Small budget but bigger scope. Then I thought, well, let’s play around with style too. So I got the idea for doing it like a Western, which came from an old William Wyler film called The Big Country (1958) — it’s the same two old farts shooting at each other. The next one, if we do it, I’d love to do it noir.

SFBG The zombie attack is already underway when Survival begins. The human survivors are almost jaded by their presence — the undead take a back seat to the human conflict more often than not.

GAM Yes, in this film, more than any of the other ones that I’ve done. In a way, if you think of it, my stories are all about the humans, because the zombies could be almost any disaster — it’s just that zombies are more fun for me and for horror fans. But in this one, they’re almost just an annoyance, like mosquitoes. Also, except for Night and Diary, they’ve always started with the thing well underway. I think there’s also a horror tradition there, too — from the second Godzilla movie on, it’s, "Oh, it’s just Godzilla."

SFBG Zombies seem to be enjoying a particularly high pop culture profile these days. What do you think is the reason behind their neverending popularity?

GAM I think video games really popularized them. There’s only been one real blockbuster zombie film, Zombieland (2009), and that’s very recent. It started with Resident Evil, House of the Dead. Now there’s this huge thing, Left 4 Dead. Zombies are perfect targets for a first-person shooter — they’re like the coyotes of monsterland. It’s fun to see them eat a stick of dynamite. But zombie walks — I’ve had my voice piped into Budapest for a zombie walk. What? Thousands of people coming out and doing this. It’s sort of a happening — go out and get drunk. It’s cheap costuming — smear up your clothes, slap some goop on your face, and go stumbling out. Even if you’re drunk, you can still stumble.

SFBG Do you watch the new zombie movies, like Zombieland?

GAM I don’t like them very much. As I said, I think it all started with video games — they have to move fast in video games to make the game fun. So filmmakers like Zack [Snyder], when he did the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), made the zombies run. I thought that was crazy. That whole evolution seems to have just warped it. To me, zombies should be like my guys, kind of stupidly stumbling along, and only have power in numbers or when people make mistakes.

SFBG Final question. Do you ever get tired of talking about zombies?

GAM [Laughs] Yeah! *

SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD opens Fri/28 in Bay Area theaters.

Secret agent “homme”


NEW-OLD MOVIE The Cold War heated up a public appetite for spy adventures well before James Bond became a pop phenomenon. In fact, Ian Fleming hadn’t yet created 007 in 1949, when Jean Bruce commenced writing novels about Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, a.k.a. Agent OSS 117 — eventually more than 90 of them. When Bruce died (crashing his Jaguar — what a man!) in 1963, just as the screen Bond was taking off, his widow wrote another 143. Then her children wrote two dozen more, as recently as 1992.

Needless to say, this French superspy was ready-made to join the ranks of umpteen 007 wannabes, appearing in somewhere between six and 11 films (it’s unclear whether all involved de La Bath, or were just Bruce-based) through 1970, played by at least four actors. The series remained well-known enough to get a new life in 2006 when director Michel Hazanavicius and top French comedy star Jean Dujardin sought to spoof 1960s espionage flicks a la Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997).

That was a big hit, so now we’ve got a sequel. OSS 117: Lost in Rio isn’t as fresh or funny as the preceding Cairo, Nest of Spies. But it’s still a whole lot fresher and funnier than Austin Powers Nos. two (1999) and three (2002). Dujardin’s de La Bath is the very model of jet-set masculinity, twisting the night away at a ski chalet with umpteen soon-to-be-machine gunned “Oriental” lovelies in the opening sequence, flashing a pearly, superconfident smirk at the neverending stream of multinational babes elsewhere, wowing them poolside with his top-of-the-mid-1960s-line male physique (nice, but don’t expect visible abs). Of course such pleasure pursuits take place strictly between car chases, shootouts, and karate fights.

Posing (badly) as a reporter to root out Hitlerites hiding in Brazil, our lone-gun hero is distressed to discover he has help from Israeli Mossad agents, one a mere chick. “Hunt down a Nazi with Jews?” he exclaims, complaining the target villain “will recognize them … their noses, obviously.” Beyond its pitch-perfect recreation of swinging ’60s cinema clichés (Naugahyde-lounge muzak, slightly feverish Technicolor, etc.), these films’ main joke is how cluelessly, casually racist, sexist, and xenophobic de La Bath is. The joke is on him, but his charm is remaining blissfully unaware.

Agreeably silly, Lost in Rio doesn’t go for Hollywood-style slapstick and grossout yuks. Instead, its biggest laughs are usually droll throwaways, as when 117 explains a shocking sudden costume change with the unlikely declaration “I sew,” or during an LSD-dosed hippie orgy proves quite willing to go with the flow — even when that involves another guy’s groovy finger breaching security up the pride of French intelligence’s derriere.

OSS 117: LOST IN RIO opens Fri/14 in Bay Area theaters.


St. Elvis?


TV BIOPIC The John Carpenter-directed biopic Elvis hit network TV airwaves in 1979, ironically enough in the same time slot as that slice of Deep South Americana Gone With the Wind (1939). The Big E had expired just two years previously, and Elvis worship was in full flower. The TV movie thus squeezed out the Gable-Leigh epic to take top spot in the nation’s hearts, for that night anyway.

Released in March on DVD in its full three-hour glory, Elvis was put together by Dick Clark’s production company, which apparently wanted a fairly by-the-numbers hagiography. Kurt Russell does a credible job of capturing the curled lip and intonation of the humble country boy who wore flashy clothes and mixed white country, black blues, and various pop influences until he hit the big time.

Screenwriter Anthony Lawrence worked on several of Elvis’ less than groundbreaking Hollywood vehicles, including Roustabout (1964) and Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966). Lawrence also penned scripts for both The Outer Limits and Medical Center, which might be even better qualifications for writing about someone who had as many problems with impulse control as Presley.

But, alas, the life we see is oddly squeaky clean. We see nary a caffeine tablet eaten. Lawrence depicts Elvis remaining fairly chaste while waiting to find his true love Priscilla (Season Hubley), not to mention during the additional time spent waiting for her to mature to legal marrying age. (For those jaded souls who need something a bit more salacious, e.g. the skinny on the King’s thing with Tura Satana, check out Alanna Nash’s recent Baby, Let’s Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him.)

We see Elvis the seeker reading a passage from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet aloud to Priscilla, but nowhere is there a shot of his other favorite bedside reading, The Physicians’ Desk Reference. According to Elvis biographer Bobbie Ann Mason, he used said volume “like a shopping catalog.”

We do get Shelley Winters as Elvis’ beloved mother Gladys, surely one of the oddest casting choices in the Carpenter ouevre. The black wig Winters sports made me think of Divine, which in turn reminded me of how much more fun I had watching the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll cutting up in John Waters’ Cry-Baby (1990).

Carpenter’s thumping synthesizer soundtrack tunes, so key to the addictive pleasures of his horror pictures — including They Live (1988) and Halloween (1978) — are sadly absent. There are decent versions of early Sun numbers with some guy named Ronnie McDowell doing credible vocals. Maybe the creepy synth would be more appropriate for a follow-up biopic on the final years (this one ends in 1969; Presley’s ended in 1977), including a recreation of Elvis’ legendary 1970 White House meeting with Richard Nixon.

In the “Hausu”


P>CULT FILM Words fail Hausu, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 goofy and deranged horror flick. Hausu is the sort of film that makes a writer want, to borrow the site of one of the film’s zanier set pieces, to draw deep from the tainted wells of cliché and hyperbole — to laud it as a trippy, must-be-seen-be-believed, insane, "like [blank] on acid," avalanche of WTF — precisely because such descriptions actually come close to doing it justice. The cult favorite, which has been leaving a whole new generation of fans gobsmacked in its wake thanks to a restored and newly subtitled touring print (its first U.S. run) from Janus Films, finally arrives at the Castro Theatre for a one-night-only engagement that should be the top priority on anyone’s bucket list.

More Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride than Last House on the Left (1972), Hausu starts from a familiar enough premise. A troupe of giggly teenage girls (each fancifully named in accordance with their personalities: Sweet, Melody, Fantasy, Prof, Mac, Kung Fu) lead by de facto leader Gorgeous head off to the countryside to spend the summer in the crumbling villa belonging to Gorgeous’ wheelchair-bound aunt. From there, Hausu enters a class of weird all by itself that leads to many belly laughs and much head scratching: Auntie’s white cat Blanche (Blanche!?) shoots green sparks from its eyes; a piano devours Melody, leaving behind only her fingers, still picking out notes; Gorgeous’ step-mother is inexplicably accompanied by an off-camera wind machine. I could go on.

Of course, we know it’s only a matter of time before spooky goings-on ensue and the bodies start piling up, but the journey is the destination on this very strange trip thanks to Obayashi’s seemingly limitless arsenal of special effects and love for all manner of cinematic flash, his stylistic flights-of-fancy, random plot detours (look out for the ramen bear), and a Monty Python-esque approach to violence and gore. As singular a debut feature as one could hope for, Hausu and its everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach become less random once you know a little of Obayashi’s background: one of Japan’s leading 8mm and 16mm experimental filmmakers of the 1960s, Obayashi was able to channel his surreal aesthetic into a highly successful career as a TV commercial director in the following decade. In many respects, Hausu represents the perfect synthesis of the avant-garde and the commercial. But don’t take my word for it.


Sat/17, 7:30 and 9:45 p.m., $7.50–$10


429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120


Hey kids! It’s Panique time!


CULT DVD Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fernando Arrabal have overlapped their whole lives. The Chilean Jodorowsky and Spanish Arrabal arrived in Paris is the mid-1950s, eventually cofounding (with late, lesser remembered artist French artist Roland Topor) the Mouvement Panique — a post-surreallist group named after the god Pan and dedicated to “terror, humor, simultaneity.” The two initially focused on theatrical performance and have in subsequent decades created massive bodies of plays, poetry, novels, visual art (paintings for Arrabal, comic books for Jodorowsky), and more. Internationally, they’ve been most widely experienced as filmmakers of some notoriety whose sporadic work in that medium was busiest during the wide-open late 1960s and early ’70s.

Jodorowsky, of course, rates high on any cineaste’s list of cult idols for the blood-soaked spaghetti western Christ parable El Topo (1970) and mystical-baroque colossus The Holy Mountain (1973), both recently freed from decades of legal trouble for legitimate DVD release. Arrabal’s films have been even harder to see and have fallen into comparative obscurity, partly because they’re less “fun” despite sharing much in the way of striking, shocking, and frequently blasphemous imagery.

In 2005 Cult Epics brought out a collection comprising his first three features: Viva la muerte (1970) and The Guernica Tree (1975), two violently grotesque fantasias about the Spanish Civil War whose dead included his own assassinated painter father, a loyal Republican; plus I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (1972), a no-less surreal yet strangely touching love story of sorts between an urban playboy on the run and the three-foot-tall male desert hermit.

Given their penchant for full-frontal nudity, antifascist politics, desecration of religious iconography, and other MPAA-unratable themes, perhaps the weirdest overlap between the two most famous “Panique” insurrectionists is that each once strayed into the alien realm of family entertainment. (They no doubt seized this inapt moment as a respite from perpetual funding woes, which famously scuttled Jodorowsky’s ready-to-go Dune and his El Topo sequel.)

Unsurprisingly, the results did not send Disney into a market-dominance panique. In fact, Jodorowsky’s 1978 for-hire project Tusk was, at least until recently. one of the most infamously unseen movies ever made, a literally and figuratively elephantine India adventure deemed unwatchable for any audience. Check out the cruddy French-language dupe with Spanish subtitles on YouTube and see how far curiosity gets you.

Arrabal’s kid flick wasn’t quite so fully buried, but it too has remained an obscure object of completist desire. Fortunately his second and final DVD collection from Cult Epics just arrived to fill that need. Nominally released in 1982, French-Canadian coproduction The Emperor of Peru stars Mickey Rooney — there goes the scenery in one big chew — as a wuvvable wheelchair-bound eccentric found living in the forest by three children on summer holiday. A former steam train engineer, he teaches them to run an abandoned locomotive so they can take their Cambodian-refugee friend back home to his parents. Never mind that there’s probably not much rail linking the South of France and Phnom Penh, let alone that in 1982 the Khmer Rouge remained very active.

How many children’s films would have dialogue like “Father’s in a concentration camp”? Emperor‘s real raison d’être, in any case, is its myriad fantasy sequences, sprung from the childish imagination of Toby (Jonathan Starr). In his daydreams he’s a firefighter or astronaut whose heroic deeds are applauded by such bystanders as Napoleon Bonaparte. Amid the goofy, mostly innocuous proceedings are stray moments of unmistakable Arrabal — as when Rooney, in full Arabian Nights regalia, is surrounded at imperial court by dwarf attendants. (Arrabal has a thing for little people.)

The new collection also includes Car Cemetery, a 1983 New Wave “punk” pose fest with Gallic pop king Alain Bashing as a postapocalyptic rock star Christ (ouch indeed). Among other rarities are Arrabal’s delightful hour-long 1992 video Farewell, Babylon!, a collage of past works, impish narrative, and sampled New Yorkers including Spike Lee and Melvin Van Peebles.

Just “Duck”-y


CULT FILM STAR Although the mainstream Hollywood press and audiences at large may not have flocked to theaters in support of the initial release of Howard the Duck in 1986, a core group of devoted fans and successive generations of viewers have elevated the film to cult classic status, resulting in a long-awaited special edition DVD release last year.

Ed Gale, the actor who stepped inside the Howard costume and helped bring the character to life, will be appearing at this weekend’s WonderCon, the largest comic book and pop culture convention in Northern California, to meet fans and sign autographs (look for him at booth M19 in the Autograph Area, room 105).

In what was his first Hollywood role (it was actually the first movie he even auditioned for), Gale used highly energetic body language to convey the emotions of the diminutive yet daring duck. That high level of energy expenditure took a physical toll on the actor — and the restrictions presented by the full-body costume made even simple things, such as eating, very difficult.

“When it became apparent I was losing too much weight too fast — I lost 11 pounds in 30 days — they had to give me straws with protein shakes, or they’d drop M&M’s down my beak,” Gale remembered, speaking over the phone from Los Angeles.

Filmed largely in the Bay Area (the characters visit the California Academy of Sciences, take taxis in the Sunset District, and fly over the rooftops of downtown Petaluma), Howard the Duck had the backing of George Lucas as executive producer — which is one reason Gale suspects the movie was treated so harshly by critics when it appeared to be a financial failure.

“We as a society love to build people up and then tear them down, apparently they felt it was time to tear George Lucas down. But the power of the people has proved them wrong.”

Gale, who has also appeared in films like Child’s Play (1988) and Spaceballs (1987), along with more recent roles in television including My Name is Earl and Bones, says Howard is still the most popular character he has played. He’s looking forward to returning to San Francisco.

“The adage that my manager told me was, ‘If you’re going to be good, be the best. If you’re going to be bad, be the worst, and you’ll never be forgotten.’ And with Howard the Duck and all the great fans, that has never been more true,” he said. “I definitely want to meet a whole new bunch of friends in the city where it all began.” (Sean McCourt)


Fri/2, noon–-7 p.m.; Sat/3, 10 a.m.–7 p.m.;

Sun/4, 11 a.m.–-5 p.m., $5-$40

Moscone Center South

747 Howard, SF



Breast intentions


CULT CINEMA The 2010 Academy Awards ceremony did indeed mark historic
firsts. Oh, not just the fact that a woman finally won Best Director.
I mean somebody (Alec Baldwin? Steve Martin? I forget) saying
"vagina" live to a bazillion people worldwide, some of them no doubt way short of both voting age and bedtime. Of course you can say fuckwad, fuckhole, and fuckety fuckelstein on cable. But this was network, and the Oscars besides. How community standards do change.

Turn the clock back 50 years or so, and you couldn’t even say "pregnant" — when Lucy Ricardo was "expecting" on I Love Lucy, no euphemism was quite delicate enough. Before audience-restrictive MPAA ratings arrived a few years later, big-screen movies had to be pretty circumspect too, no matter that fully clothed Jayne Mansfield was more obscenely suggestive than the plain old medical-grade v-word could ever be. (FYI, Best Use of the Term in a Porn Title: Big Trouble in Little Vagina.)

That was in the mainstream, where actual public nudity was as yet unthinkable. A few rungs down the cultural ladder, however, things were gradually loosening up. Art and smut conveniently blurred from the late 1940s onward, as certain European filmmakers (Ingmar Bergman among them) began pushing toward greater sexual frankness. This delighted U.S. grindhouse distributors, who wasted little time buying exploitable features, then cutting the offending hell out of them even as their ads promised shocking, adults-only content.

Such was the case with Night of Lust, a 1962 production by Casablanca-born French producer-director-scenarist Jose Bénazéraf. In 1965 American entrepreneur R. Lee Frost announced this feature, purportedly "BANNED all over the world!," could "at last be seen in the U.S. uncut, after three years in court!" He neglected to mention he’d trimmed nearly 20 minutes from it himself.

What remained in the barely-hour-long version playing the Red Vic this week was a lurid jumble that makes it difficult to figure out Bénazéraf’s original intentions, let alone why some then considered him an important Nouvelle Vague figure. (Critics abandoned him once he went into straight-up porn.) But with its continuity gaps, moralizing narrator, atrocious dubbed dialogue, and positively Freudian camera fixation on myriad bared breasts, this supposedly true crime story torn from "Interpol File 218" is campy fun, at least.

This isn’t the Paris of lovers, but Sicilians vs. Frogs fighting over millions in heroin, plus strippers, stranglers, kidnappings, and catfights. Not adding any romance either is an original free-jazz-combo score by no less than Chet Baker — his trumpet playing sometimes mimed by a musically inclined mob boss — who was then living his own European heroin crime saga. It would get him imprisoned in Italy, then deported from England and Germany. Whether those events too were sprinkled with random sightings of jiggling mammaries, we’ll never know. (Dennis Harvey)


Wed/17-Thurs/18, 7:15 and 9:30 p.m. (also Wed/17, 2 p.m.), $6–$10

Red Vic

1727 Haight, SF

(415) 668-3994


Claire, clearly


TV EYED Still stuck on Lost? Executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are counting on it, and it’s about half-past the time to finally wrap it up, because the time-travel device and the many dead people who flitted around the island were starting to make it seem like very little was at stake. The revelation that the Lost crash survivors appeared to simply be chess pieces in a cosmic bout between the blonde, sad-eyed, and benevolent-seeming Jacob (Mark Pellegrino) — who intercedes in the islanders’ destinies — and his murderous-minded Smoke Monster/Man in Black/anti-Locke nemeses (played by Titus Welliver and Terry O’Quinn) didn’t help matters either

So despite the attractions of brawls between Sayid (Naveen Andrews) and Dogen (Hiroyuki Sanada); the dryly smart-ass, geek charm of the intuitively gifted Hurley (Jorge Garcia) sparring with the telepathically talented Miles (Ken Leung); the promise of seeing killed-off faves like physicist Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies) and rock star Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) again; and the weird mixed personal pleasure of seeing Oahu haunts standing in for, say, downtown South Korea (an effect that usually jars my Honolulu-bred self straight out of the story) — I must confess that the most intriguing and chilling character this season is Claire (Emilie de Ravin). She gave birth on the island to a son who, an Aussie psychic prophesied, was surrounded by danger. She then becomes the focus of the latest rescue mission embarked upon by Kate (Evangeline Lilly), who has a thing for saving moms.

Bestowed with a name that seems diametrically opposed to the smoky obfuscation veiling Lost, Claire also embodies the cyclical patterns of the island. She’s "gone native" in the madly violent, Col. Kurtz-style survivalist swagger of the French woman Rousseau (Mira Furlan), who also gave birth on the island and, after the disappearance of her baby, likewise took leave of her senses. Claire’s ax murder of a captive Other truly shocked: both in its prime-time bloodlessness — the death of Boone (Ian Somerhalder) was gorier — and uncharacteristic cold-bloodedness. We’re not in the Kansas of the guileless, sweet-faced single mom anymore.

Claire also embodies more than a few of the themes critical to Lost survivors: she has a missing-daddy issue, much like the father-challenged Jack (Matthew Fox), Locke, Hurley — hell, who doesn’t have problems with Pops on this show? Much like Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sayid, she was also an abduction victim, and she’s in the thick of the current crisis between good and evil. Despite Lost‘s references to dharma and Ram Dass, this battle between the island god-titans seems to be disappointingly flattened into a kind of Judeo-Christian light vs. dark, do-gooders vs. sinners sort of dichotomy. Claire upsets that tidy apple cart as the little nut-bag lost who is locked into a deal with the gloom and doom team.


Dames on the brain


DVD REVIEW Columbia’s new two-volume, eight-film set "Bad Girls of Film Noir" is a delightful addition to any shelf of B-movies, and a damn good excuse to insist on using a friend’s DVD projector.

Two of the films in this package, Women’s Prison (1955) and One Girl’s Confession (1953), had pre-DVD release screenings at this year’s Noir City Film Festival at the Castro Theatre. Though he was not the most charismatic guest speaker in the history of that sublime annual SF movie ritual, Grover Crips, Sony’s vice president of asset management and film preservation, certainly deserved the tribute he received at Noir City. The transfers to DVD from new vault prints that make up this fine package are truly impressive. And while some of the titles included don’t exactly fit snugly in the noir canon, there’s so much here worth watching that for any fan of the array of delirious thrills that constitute "golden age" Hollywood filmmaking, such quibbles are strictly in killjoy territory.

Women’s Prison is a veritable treasure trove of guilty cinematic pleasures, and one of three flicks in the set featuring blonde bombshell Cleo Moore. The rest of the cast includes noir mainstays Audrey Totter (the versatile Swede who was so, so good in 1949’s The Set-Up, Tension, and Alias Nick Beal) and Jan Sterling (the scorching, jaded, less-than-faithful wife in 1951’s Ace in the Hole). Howard Duff and Ida Lupino, married in real life, seem to be having a blast as the good-guy prison doctor and his nemesis, the psycho warden obsessed with escalating levels of discipline.

For their glimpses of mid-20th century New York City, the two on-location thrillers The Killer That Stalked New York (1950, check out Jim Backus as a sleazy club owner) and The Glass Wall (1953) are hard to beat and show that John Huston wasn’t the only Hollywood director influenced by neorealism. These two feature, respectively, Evelyn Keyes and Gloria Grahame. The latter film especially, whose trailer brags that it was "shot secretly by hidden cameras in teeming Times Square and all over exciting New York City," really captures the flavor of midtown Manhattan street life.

And as inept as the story’s framing device is, I praise the gods of Tinsel Town for giving me Night Editor (1946), mostly because of the statuesque, scheming femme fatale played by Janis Carter. It’s a bit of stretch pairing her with the, shall we say, less than charismatic William Gargan, but I can’t imagine any actress putting more sexually-charged zest into a request to gaze at a murder victim.

Brick by brick


TOY-NAMATION Denmark has given us so much. In the past few decades alone it has gifted the world with live-sex club acts, Brigitte Nielsen, breakfast pastries, and Lars “Antichrist” von Trier. In 1969 it became the first country to legalize pornography, and two decades later did likewise for same-sex marriage. It is also currently designated the least corrupt nation on earth, with the greatest income equality.

But predating all these wonders was that cultural juggernaut we call Lego. Toymaker Ole Kirk Christiansen named his company that in 1934; 15 years later, he began producing interlocking plastic bricks, though it was not until 1958 that the perfected current design debuted. (Thus, 52-year-old blocks remain compatible with ones you could buy today.) In 1988, Lego Group’s last patent on its fortune’s literal building block expired, resulting in a rash of cheap imitations, most manufactured in (surprise) China. But a Lego is a Lego is a Lego. Like Kleenex, it is a brand name more familiar than the object’s literal description. What five-year-old wants his “interlocking plastic brick”?

This week sees the (direct-to-DVD) release of the first feature-length Lego movie. The first thing you notice about Lego: The Adventures of Clutch Powers is that there’s been some heinous error: how can this not be stop-motion animation, but CGI?! What’s the point if we’re not seeing actual crazy Legos-constructed figures moving around an all Lego-landscape?

That said, it does sport a certain blocky design theme, and the early-1980s Cars-type songs with handclaps and synths seem just right. Clutch is an all-American, thrill-seeking, planet-saving blowhard who learns the value of teamwork by being forced to cooperate with a girl (plucky!), musclehead (jerky!), and egghead (German!) on an intergalactic voyage to defeat an evil wizard and his army of skeleton warriors. There’s a little Indiana Jones here, a little Shrek there, a lotta Lord of the Rings hither and yon.

But these 82 innocuous minutes are just a blip in the ever-widening Lego cosmos, which includes umpteen subsidiary toy franchises, clothes, video games, books, theme parks, “Lego Serious Play” (for business consensus-building!), and independent uses that run from elaborate Lego reconstructions of live action movies to epic online biblical illustration The Brick Testament.

Legos are timeless and cool. The company is laudable, not just for inviting action and imagination from kids, but for being a good global citizen. Lego’s corporate responsibility bylaws regarding environmental impact, charitable contributions, and treatment of workers are the sort of “socialist” stuff that would be lobbied out of existence here in five seconds. Oh, those Scandinavians — when will they realize all their prosperity, public benefits, and high overall happiness index is really a living hell in sheep’s clothing? Surely they need an angry Tea Party movement to protest a society that actually takes care of its own. 


Not such a cani-ball


NEW DVD Considering that it’s the most notorious case of its kind in North American history (cannibalism for survival as opposed to lunacy’s sake), and that movies have been less than shy about portraying flesh-eating in recent decades (at least the zombie kind), it’s a little strange that the Donner Party saga has occupied so little celluloid space to date.

You know the generalities: 19th-century wagon-train emigrants from the Midwest got caught by severe winter weather, ran out of provisions, and resorted to eating their dead. This occurred among a small group (of 87 original travelers, less than half finally survived) who’d struck out on snowshoes to cross the Sierra Nevada and hopefully raise a search party to rescue those left behind. A handful made it, but by the time four successive relief expeditions reached the camps — the last in April 1847 — many of the stranded pioneers had died, and some of the others had begun to eat their corpses as well.

Ric Burns — Ken’s brother — made a good PBS documentary about this history in 1992. But there have been surprisingly few dramatizations. A new direct-to-DVD arrival simply titled The Donner Party should, then, be welcome for filling a curious gap. Add the notion of Crispin Glover top-billed as an increasingly hysterical devout Christian who’s first to propose snackin’ on his comrades, and expectations naturally run high.

Alas, debuting writer-director T.J. Martin’s film is earnest, dull, and not even particularly devoted to the historical facts. Attempting to capture the desperation and tedium of starving and freezing to death in near-hopeless wilderness conditions is a noble cause of sorts, but Party emerges so enervated and uninvolving one wishes for a little lurid exploitation.

The film starts as the portion of the larger Donner Party who became convinced to take a “shortcut” route — dubbed the Hastings Cutoff after its promoter — is already trapped by snowstorms in abandoned or makeshift shelters, running out of supplies and with no game in sight. Those who decide to strike out include Glover’s moneyed trip financier and 24‘s Clayne Crawford as the hired guide who at this point considers it’s every man for himself. Among those playing eventual jerks are Sons of Anarchy‘s Mark Boone Jr. and Leverage‘s Christian Kane.

Shot on location, The Donner Party looks handsome, though not so much so to make a good argument for winter camping. Still, a chapter in U.S. history this grotesque ought to be more squirm-inducing. The scariest thing here is Glover leading the cast in prayer — admittedly an unnerving concept. But not one that one that ought to feel freakier than chowing down on your travel companions.


Ask, don’t tell


POP STAR ON FIRE Let’s get one thing straight — despite what his album (For Your Entertainment, RCA) and single proclaim, Adam Lambert is not here for your entertainment. Well, sure, he’s a performer, and as such he has certain obligations to his fans. But that doesn’t mean he exists solely for our benefit. If he did, we’d be able to mold him to our liking, creating either a sexuality-defying glam rock god or, to use a Rufus Wainwright term, the gay messiah.

Lambert is neither of those things, simply because people aren’t that easy to define. And yet, this affected tug-of-war has garnered plenty of media attention. The problem is that it doesn’t account for Lambert as a person — or as a musician.

It would be naïve to suggest Lambert didn’t ask for media attention, but he certainly never asked to be pinned down. Now, through no doing of his own, he’s been thrust into a lose-lose situation. If he appears with scantily clad women (as he does in his recent Details spread and in the "For Your Entertainment" music video), he’s too straight. If he, er, commits to gay by getting down with his bassist, he’s offensive to the mainstream.

In an open letter to Adam Lambert, Out Magazine editor-in-chief Aaron Hicklin laments that Lambert’s record label requested that his interview not be "too gay." Problematic? Most definitely. It’s shameful and upsetting that anyone would try to curb Lambert’s enthusiasm for manparts. But I found Hicklin’s letter equally bothersome. "You’re a pioneer," he writes. "An out gay pop idol at the start of his career. Someone has to be first, and we’re all counting on you not to mess this up."

Excuse me? Did you just tell Adam Lambert that he has a responsibility to please every gay person in the country? (No jokes, please.) That’s a pretty big weight to put on one guy’s shoulders. Not to mention that it severely inhibits his freedom of expression. Give Lambert some space to figure out his own shit. That goes for both an overprotective label and an overidentifying gay fanbase. I understand the urge to hold him up as a gay role model, but maybe that’s not what he had in mind.

Moreover, this controversy neglects the spectrum of sexuality that we queer people are supposed to promote. That’s why we use the word "queer": many LGBT men and women feel that the labels society has created for us just aren’t sufficient. Look at Lady Gaga, an artist for whom Lambert has frequently expressed admiration. Gaga came out as bi, then recanted — not because she has any problem with being bisexual, but because she doesn’t want to be defined. She’s queer (I doubt she’d argue that), and she’s awesome, but no one’s asking her to be the poster child for bisexual women. She’s a free bitch, baby.

So let’s step back. Adam Lambert just released his first album, and it’s pretty damn great. He’s openly gay and that hasn’t hurt his record sales. There’s a lot for the queer community to be happy about here, whether or not he chooses to be our spokesperson. If he does decide to be the gay messiah, I’m sure we can all get behind that. (Again, no jokes.) And if he decides to keep it fluid, I think that’s worth celebrating, too.

Hey, as long as the music’s still good.

Valley of the dolls


CULT HORROR Many babysitters had the bejesus scared out of them by the 1975 TV movie classic Trilogy of Terror, in which Karen Black is attacked by a "Zuni fetish doll" come to malevolent life. Yet among key 1970s horror films, this one inspired relatively little imitation, unless Chucky and myriad Gremlins knockoffs count. One exception, however, remains among those subterranean titles so improbable people don’t quite believe it exists until they see it — then they can’t believe what they’re seeing. That would be Black Devil Doll From Hell, a no-budget camcorder wonder gone straight to video (and Hell?) in 1984.

It was produced, directed, written, scored, and edited — all very badly — by Philadelphia auteur Chester Novell Turner, whose whereabouts or even continued pulse no one seems sure about after he completed a second, even more obscure feature. (That 1987 horror omnibus, Tales from the Quadead Zone, is currently on YouTube. It’s hypnotically dreadful but no BDDFH.)

Shirley L. (for Latanya) Jones, definitely not to be confused with the Partridge Family lady, plays a Marian the Librarian type who buys a ventriloquist-dummy-looking doll from a junk shop. It begins inserting itself into her hitherto virginal, God-fearing thoughts … then into other places, barking some of the most ludicrously filthy dialogue in cinematic history.

Naturally, being pleasured by a jive-talking misogynist puppet can’t end well for our heroine. As if atoning for its own egregious sins, the film ends with an actual church ceremony whose sermonizing goes on even longer than its slug-slow opening credits. Stupefying, hilarious, endless (even at 70 minutes) and unforgettable, Black Devil Doll from Hell has inspired various tributes. My favorite written one is BlackHorrorMovies.com’s description: "The little train wreck that could."

Full-blown cinematic tribute — in comparatively glorious HD — just arrived on DVD after a couple years of inciting fanboy love and occasional outrage on the horror festival circuit. Black Devil Doll (2007) has puppet sex, wildly padded closing credits, an animated prelude in which G turns to X ("Rated X by an all-white jury!" tipping hat to 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song), and significant acknowledgement of "breast augmentation by Dr. Leonard Gray of San Francisco." (No joke — he’s got a Web site.)

Yup, this Black Devil Doll is local, shot in the East Bay by brothers Shawn and Jonathan Lewis, with multitasking cinematographer John Osteen. Antioch has never looked more … Antioch. There, executed Black Power revolutionist and multiple rapist-murder of white chicks Mubia Abul-Jama is reincarnated as an evil doll fully kitted out in 1970s pimpwear and jiving potty mouth. (Before you get too offended, let us note here the wiseass creators are themselves African American.) He makes himself at home with chesty Heather, but turns homicidal once she invites over equally bimbolicious pals Natasha, Candi, Buffi, and Brandi for an evening of wine coolers and Twister.

Those roles are played by thespians with names like Precious Cox, whom you probably won’t be seeing at Berkeley Rep anytime soon. Nonetheless, this new Doll is enthusiastically finagled: even when the joke runs thin, all concerned bat it out of the park in terms of sheer energy, recalling Russ Meyer’s turbo-charged expressions of knowingly absurd sexploitation. Turner’s Hell was awesome for its ineptitude and unintentional humor. The Lewis’ Doll is sheer intentional (albeit heterosexual) camp, joyous enough in its deliberate cheese and craftily rude dynamism to be equally hilarious in an entirely different way.