Cheryl Eddy

Life through the lens


FILM It’s been nearly 30 years since documentarian Ross McElwee made Sherman’s March — usually written without its lengthy, if accurately descriptive, subtitle: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. It picked up the Grand Jury prize at Sundance in 1987, years before the festival became a career-maker for the likes of Steven Soderbergh (whose Sex, Lies, and Videotape premiered at the 1989 fest). If McElwee didn’t go on to become a household name, he did begin his Harvard teaching career during the Sherman’s March era. He currently holds the title “Professor of the Practice of Filmmaking” — a suitably important job for an artist whose practice has informed the work of countless filmmakers over the past three decades.

Two of McElwee’s key works, along with short films by his Harvard colleagues, make up “Afterimage: Ross McElwee and the Cambridge Turn,” a three-day Pacific Film Archive series that has McElwee in conversation with author Scott MacDonald (American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn). Sherman’s March is not included, but Backyard (1984) ably demonstrates his trademarks: first-person voice-over (delivered in his unmistakable Carolina drawl); turning the camera on friends and family, most of whom are willing subjects; and crafting a plot of sorts out of a personal journey. (At 40 minutes, Backyard was presumably easier to program than Sherman’s March, which runs 155.)

His most recent feature, 2011’s Photographic Memory, retains all of these characteristics; it also incorporates cinema verité footage first glimpsed in Backyard. The films are ideal companion pieces. Both address father-son relationships, with a focus on the son’s lurching entry into adulthood. In Backyard — shot in the summer of 1975, when McElwee was on summer break from his filmmaking grad program at MIT — the artist documents his brother Tom’s preparations for medical school, a career choice that delights his conservative, Southern-gentleman surgeon father. To his other son, the one with scraggly long hair and a camera attached to his face, Dr. McElwee admits, “I’ve resigned myself to your fate.”

Backyard can also be read for its themes of race in the mid-1970s South, where segregation is still a way of life, and its exploration of grieving, since at the time of filming McElwee’s mother had recently died. It’s as multilayered as the many lives it captures, in a time when filming people just going about their everyday business was pretty uncommon. Dr. McElwee, for one, wonders why his son is wasting expensive film shooting his father puttering around the yard. Back then, home movies were just that — certainly not made for public consumption, and the relaxed demeanor of McElwee’s subjects bears this out.

By contrast, Photographic Memory — one of 16mm devotee McElwee’s first ventures into digital filmmaking — is very much a product of the 21st century. The son from Backyard is now the father, fretting over his own directionless son, Adrian. We see Adrian (in footage no doubt repurposed from earlier McElwee films) as an adorable kid, calling his father “Da-da” and comfortably emoting in front of the lens. Present-day Adrian, an emo 21-year-old, is a glowering poster child for the Selfie Generation, forever tapping on his phone, slurping on iced coffee, and giving off an air of unearned superiority. He avoids eye contact. He’s no longer interested in being filmed, unless he — a budding filmmaker himself — is the one calling the shots. “What makes me think he’s hearing anything I say?” McElwee wonders after trying, and failing, to break through.

At wit’s end, McElwee digs up old journals and photographs from his early 20s, pre-Backyard, when he took a year off college to bum around France (his father was, naturally, aghast). There, he met a charismatic man who became his photography mentor, and a woman with whom he had a significant affair. “It’s admittedly painful to try and penetrate the purple haze of my prose,” he says over a scene where he flips through his youthful scrawlings as his son holds the camera. “I feel a little embarrassed at showing Adrian these pages.”

Admitting embarrassment is a dying art in these narcissistic times (Ugly photo? Just throw a filter over it! Made a mistake? Blame the haters!) — and it’s one reason why McElwee’s films resonate so powerfully. He’s keenly self-aware in a way that’s refreshingly old-fashioned. He knows when to let his images do the talking, and when to let forces beyond his control steer his narrative. There’s much to take in when he returns to sea-swept Brittany, a place he’s romanticized in his memory. “The whole experience was so … French,” he wryly notes, realizing how vague and clichéd that sounds.

As McElwee immerses himself in the scenery he’s dreamed of for decades, he reflects on what kind of person he was back then. Turns out the atmosphere awakens the essence of his younger self far better than his old photos, which are filled with places and faces he doesn’t recognize. (If only he’d had a movie camera back then!) If the stealth mission of his trip is to grasp onto something, anything, that will help him relate to his moody son, it goes mostly unfulfilled — witness a Skype conversation between the US and France, as cluttered with technological difficulties as it is attitude problems.

But there are no tidy endings in McElwee films, because that’s how life is. In the last scene, it’s revealed that Adrian has decided to attend film school, mirroring Tom McElwee’s decision to follow in his father’s footsteps. Is there another McElwee legacy in the making? Stay tuned for the inevitable next chapter. *


March 30-April 2, $5.50-9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk


Teen dystopian drama! Sex addicts! Muppets! Yep, it’s new movie time


So many new movies this week to choose from, film fans! Better just cancel all your plans, and also any notions you had about eating and sleeping. Read on for our takes on the latest in teen dystopia, the new Anita Hill doc, the latest Muppets caper, and part one of Lars von Trier’s sex-addiction saga. AND MORE!

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq Writer-director Nancy Buirski’s documentary follows the short, brilliant career of a young dancer named Tanaquil Le Clercq, who came up in the New York City ballet world of the 1940s and ‘50s. Le Clercq was discovered by George Balanchine, married him (as three other dancers had done before her), sparked a paradigm shift in the ballet world regarding what was considered the quintessential dancer’s body, had numerous ballets set on her by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and then, at the peak of her career, at age 27, was stricken by polio and left paralyzed in both legs. The film takes its time moving toward this catastrophe, recounting Le Clercq’s early adult life through interviews with her contemporaries and tracking her professional progress through gorgeous archival footage of her performances. Equally moving archival material are the letters from a longtime correspondence between Le Clercq and Robbins that documented two very different periods of her life: the first, when Robbins was choreographing ballets for her, including Afternoon of a Faun, and professing his love; the second, after her paralysis, when she wrote him a series of poignant communications describing her impressions of her illness and her new, circumscribed world. The film has some trouble holding on to its center — as in life, Balanchine proves a magnetic force, and Afternoon of a Faun feels inexorably drawn to his professional and personal details. We don’t get enough of Le Clercq, which you could say is the tragedy of her story — nobody did. But the letters do provide a sense of someone resourceful and responsive to life’s richness and joys, someone who would get past this crisis and find a way to reshape her life. (1:31) (Lynn Rapoport)

Anita In 1991, Anita Hill found herself at the center of a political firestorm when she testified about being sexually harassed by US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. “The issue became my character as opposed to the character of the nominee,” she recalls in Anita, a revealing new documentary from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Freida Mock (1994’s Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision). Twenty years after she first made headlines, Hill recounts her story in the same eloquent voice familiar to anyone who watched her testimony; her first-person narrative, paired with accounts by her supporters, stresses the consequences many women suffer from daring to speak out. The documentary, which shows how one woman’s forthrightness about sexual harassment can upturn her life, also explores the ways in which Hill’s Bush-era notoriety laid the foundation for a prolific career dedicated to battling sexual harassment and women’s oppression. She became an unlikely icon, and a role model for women battling similar circumstances. On the other hand, Thomas still sits on the bench. (1:17) (Laura B. Childs)

Bad Words Settling a grudge score whose precise origin remains unclear until late in the game, world-class misanthrope Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is celebrating his 40th birthday by competing in a national spelling bee. Yes, spelling bees are generally for children, and so is this one. But Guy has found a legal loophole permitting his participation, and the general hate wending his way from contest staff (Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall) — let alone the tiger-mom-and-dad parents ready to form a lynch mob — is just icing on the cake where he’s concerned. What’s more, as some sort of majorly underachieving near-genius, he’s in fact well equipped to whup the bejesus out of overachieving eight-year-olds when it comes to saying the right letters out loud. The only people on his side, sorta, are the online journalist (Kathryn Hahn) reporting on his perverse quest, and the insidiously cute Indian American competitor (Rohan Chand) who wants to be besties, or perhaps just to psych him out. (Note: The tyke’s admitted favorite word is “subjugate.”) Written by Andrew Dodge, this comedy in the tradition (a little too obviously) of 2003’s Bad Santa and such provides the always enjoyable Bateman with not only a tailor-made lead role, but a directorial debut as well. He does just fine by both. Yet as nicely crafted and frequently-pretty-funny Bad Words is, at core it’s a rather petty movie — small, derivative, and cynically mean-spirited without the courage of genuine biliousness. It’s at once not-half-bad, and not half as badass as it pretends to be. (1:29) (Dennis Harvey)

Child’s Pose See “Smotherly Love.” (1:52) 

Dark House Nick (Luke Kleintank) has the most depressing superpower since X-Men‘s Rogue: whenever he touches someone destined for a violent death, he has a vision of his or her terrible demise. On a rare visit to his institutionalized mother  (Lesley-Anne Down), amid her ravings about “things in the walls,” she confesses that Nick’s father is still alive. After she dies, he inherits a folder stuffed with wrinkled papers — including the deed to an old mansion that’s been haunting his dreams since childhood. With his best friend and pregnant girlfriend in tow, Nick sets out to find the apparently cursed dwelling (wide-eyed locals refer to it as “Wormwood”). What they find is best not revealed here, though it does involve Tobin “Jigsaw from the Saw movies” Bell. This latest from controversial director Victor Salva borrows multiple elements from his 2001 horror breakout Jeepers Creepers (backwoods locations and folklore, murderous fellows in duster coats, superstition vis-à-vis the number 23, etc.) but sprawls beyond that film’s taut road-trip-from-hell structure, and has far more characters prone to making stupid decisions. There’s also the issue of having a certain, uh, monster intone orders to its followers via any available furnace vent — it’s funny every time, and it sure ain’t intended to be. (1:42) (Cheryl Eddy)

Divergent Based on the blockbuster dystopian-future YA novel by Veronica Roth (the first in a trilogy), Divergent is set in a future city-state version of Chicago in which society is divided into five character-based, color-coded factions: Erudite, Amity, Candor, Abnegation, and Dauntless. Like her peers, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), the film’s Abnegation-born teenage heroine, must choose a permanent faction — with the help of a standardized aptitude test that forgoes penciling in bubbles in favor of virtual reality psychic manipulation. When the test fails to triangulate her sole innate personality trait, she learns that she belongs to a secret, endangered sixth category: Divergent, an astonishing set of people who are not only capable of, say, acts of selflessness but can also produce intelligent thought, or manifest bravery in the face of danger. Forced to hide her aberrant nature in a society whose leaders (Kate Winslet) are prone to statements like “The future belongs to those who know where they belong,” and seemingly bored among Abnegation’s hive of gray cardigan-wearing worker bees, Beatrice chooses Dauntless, a dashing gang of black-clad, alterna-rock music video extras who jump on and off moving trains and live in a warehouse-chic compound whose dining hall recalls the patio at Zeitgeist. Fittingly, a surly, tattooed young man named Four (Theo James) leads Beatrice, now Tris, and her fellow initiates through a harsh proving regimen that, if they fail, will cast them into an impoverished underclass. Director Neil Burger (2006’s The Illusionist, 2011’s Limitless) and the behemoth marketing force behind Divergent are clearly hoping to stir up the kind of madness stoked by the Twilight and Hunger Games series, but while there are bones a-plenty to pick with those franchises, Divergent may have them beat for pure daffiness of premise and diameter of plot holes — and that’s after screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor’s major suturing of the source material’s lacunae. The daffiness doesn’t translate into imaginative world-building, and while a couple of scenes convey the visceral thrills of life in Dauntless, the tension between Tris and Four is awkwardly ratcheted up, and the film’s shift into a mode of crisis is equally jolting without generating much heat. (2:20) (Lynn Rapoport)

Enemy Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an associate history professor living the usual life of quiet desperation in a very smoggy, beige, vaguely dystopian Toronto when he makes a startling discovery: glimpsed in the background of an otherwise forgettable movie rental is someone who is his complete doppelganger. Intrigued, he discovers the identity of actor Anthony (Jake again), and pokes around in the latter’s life enough to discover that they both have blonde partners (Adam’s girlfriend Mélanie Laurent, the other dude’s pregnant wife Sarah Gadon), though beyond that and the eerie physical-vocal resemblances, they’re near-opposites — Anthony is more confident, successful, assertive, and belligerent by far. Their paths-crossing isn’t going to be a good thing. Just how bad it will get depends on how you read a mysterious, perverse opening sequence and some increasingly surreal imagery scattered throughout. The second of director Denis Villeneuve’s back-to-back Gyllenhaal collaborations is very different from last year’s long, intricate, real-world thriller Prisoners. Based on a José Saramago novel (The Double), it sports the same ominous, metaphorical fantasticism that was previously translated to the screen in the widely disliked (but faithful) 2008 Blindness — another movie that played better if you know where its source material is coming from. This intriguing Kafkaesque paranoid puzzle is not to be confused with Richard Ayoade’s forthcoming Dostoevsky-derived The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg. Actually, go ahead and confuse them — they’re stylistically distinct but otherwise practically the same fable-nightmare. (1:30) (Dennis Harvey)

Le Week-End Director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi first collaborated two decades ago on The Buddha of Suburbia, when the latter was still in the business of being Britain’s brashest multiculti hipster voice. But in the last 10 years they’ve made a habit of slowing down to sketching portraits of older lives — and providing great roles for the nation’s bottomless well of remarkable veteran actors. Here Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent play a pair of English academics trying to re-create their long-ago honeymoon’s magic on an anniversary weekend in Paris. They love each other, but their relationship is thorny and complicated in ways that time has done nothing to smooth over. This beautifully observed duet goes way beyond the usual adorable-old-coot terrain of such stories on screen; it has charm and humor, but these are unpredictable, fully rounded characters, not comforting caricatures. Briefly turning this into a seriocomedy three-way is Most Valuable Berserker Jeff Goldblum as an old friend encountered by chance. It’s not his story, but damned if he doesn’t just about steal the movie anyway. (1:33) (Dennis Harvey)

Muppets Most Wanted Building on the success of The Muppets, Jim Henson’s beloved creations return to capitalize on their revitalized (and Disney-owned) fame. This follow-up from Muppets director James Tobin — technically, it’s the seventh sequel to the original 1979 Muppet Movie, as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew points out in one of the film’s many meta moments — improves upon the 2011 film, which had its charms but suffered by concentrating too much on the Jason Segal-Amy Adams romance, not to mention annoying new kid Walter. Here, human co-stars Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and others (there are more cameos than you can count) are relegated to supporting roles, with the central conflict revolving around the Muppets’ inability to notice that Constantine, “the world’s most dangerous frog,” has infiltrated their group, sending Kermit to Siberian prison in his place. Constantine and his accomplice (Gervais, whose character’s last name is “Badguy”) use the Muppets’ world tour as a front for their jewel-heist operation; meanwhile, his infatuated warden (Fey) forces Kermit to direct the annual gulag musical. Not helping matters are a bumbling Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) and his CIA counterpart (Sam the American Eagle, natch). Really, all that’s needed is a simple plot, catchy songs, and plenty of room to let the Muppets do their thing — Miss Piggy and Animal are particularly enjoyable here; Walter’s still around, but he’s way more tolerable now that he’s gotten past his “man or muppet” angst — and the film delivers. All the knowing winks to the grown-up fans in the audience are just an appreciated bonus. (1:46) (Cheryl Eddy)

Nymphomaniac: Volume I Found battered and unconscious in a back alley, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is taken in by good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), to whom she explains “It’s all my fault — I’m just a bad human being.” But he doesn’t believe there are such things. She seeks to enlighten him by narrating the story of her life so far, from carnally curious childhood to sexually voracious adulthood. Stacy Martin plays her younger self through a guided tour of excesses variously involving Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen as her parents; a buncha guys fucked on a train, on a teenage dare; Uma Thurman as one histrionically scorned woman; and Shai LaBeouf as a first love who’s a cipher either because he’s written that way, or because this particular actor can’t make sense out of him. For all its intended provocation, including some graphic but unsurprisingly (coming from this director) unerotic XXX action, von Trier’s latest is actually less offensive than much of his prior output: He’s regained his sense of humor here, and annoying as its “Look at me, I’m an unpredictable artist” crap can be (notably all the stuff about fly-fishing, cake forks, numerology, etc. that seems randomly drawn from some Great Big Book of Useless Trivia), the film’s episodic progress is divertingly colorful enough. But is Joe going to turn out to be more than a two-dimensional authorial device from a director who’s never exactly sussed women (or liked people in general)? Will Nymphomaniac arrive at some pointed whole greater than the sum of its naughty bits? The answer to both is probably “Nah.” But we won’t know for sure until the two-hour second half arrives (April 4) of a movie that, in fairness, was never really intended to be split up like this. (1:50) (Dennis Harvey)

Shirin in Love This blandly TV-ready romantic comedy stars Nazanin Boniadi as a ditzy child of privilege in Beverly Hills’ Iranian-American community. Sent by her aggressively shallow magazine-editor mother (Anita Khalatbari) to find an elusive best-selling novelist for an interview, she not only stumbles upon that author (Amy Madigan) but discovers she’s already had a meet-cute with the latter’s hunky son (Riley Smith) under embarrassing circumstances. Will Shirin be able to shrug off the future her family has planned for her (including Maz Jobrani as a plastic-surgeon fiancé ) in order to, y’know, find herself? The very obvious answer takes its sweet time arriving in writer-director Ramin Niami’s innocuous film, which hews to a stale lineup of formulaic genre conventions even when relying on whopping coincidences to advance its predictable plot. The novelty of its particular social milieu goes unexplored in a movie that reveals even less about assimilated modern US Persian culture than My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) did about Greek Americans. (1:45) (Dennis Harvey)

Tiger and Bunny: The Rising Based on the Japanese anime series (and a 2012 film, Tiger and Bunny: The Beginning), this lighthearted look at superheroes with human problems imagines a world in which the blaring Hero TV channel tracks the movements of various caped crusaders, who compete against each other for points as they race to defeat random villains. All of the heroes, who we meet both in and out of costume, work for the same parent company, and each has a corporate sponsor whose logo is a prominent part of his or her ensemble. (Heroes are big business, after all.) In the first film, we met “Wild Tiger,” a bumbling single dad, who’s reluctantly paired with talented new kid “Bunny.” They clash at first, but eventually prove a powerful team. In The Rising, a douchey new boss relegates Tiger to the junior-varsity Second League, while Bunny gets an annoying new partner, “Golden Ryan.” Meanwhile, a mysterious trio of baddies menaces the city, forcing all of the heroes to work together whether they want to or not. The most surprising part of The Rising is its sensitive development of the “Fire Emblem” character. Presented as a mincing gay stereotype in the first film, here he’s given a sympathetic back story via dream sequences that detail his youthful exploration of cross-dressing and personal identity struggles. Encouraging, to say the least. (1:48) New People. (Cheryl Eddy)

‘Budapest,’ ‘Mars,’ and more: CAAMFest + new movies!


Last night heralded the opening of the Center for Asian American Media’s CAAMFest; it runs through March 23 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; Great Star Theater, 636 Jackson, SF; New Parkway Theater, 474 24th St, Oakl; New People Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post, SF. For tickets (most shows $12) and complete schedule, visit For commentary, see “The Art of Martial Arts,” “Telling Tales, ” and “Women With Movie Cameras.”

New movies after the jump.

Better Living Through Chemistry Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, and Michelle Monaghan star in this dark comedy about a mild-mannered pharmacist whose life is upended when he meets a pill-addicted trophy wife. (1:31) 

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me See “Shooting Straight.” (1:21)

The Face of Love Five years after her husband, Garrett (Ed Harris), drowns while on vacation for their 30th anniversary, Nikki (Annette Bening) chances upon his exact double, Tom (Harris again). She pretends to be a divorcée and hides all photographic evidence that would out her reason for pursing Tom, an easygoing art professor and painter who actually is divorced (he’s buddies with his ex, a low-key Amy Brennemen). To her delight, he reciprocates her interest — but as their relationship grows, it becomes harder to conceal the, uh, doppelgänger situation from Nikki’s adult daughter (Jess Weixler) and neighbor (Robin Williams), a widower who’s jealous of Nikki’s new love. Harris and especially Bening are great — and they’re great together — but The Face of Love, from director and co-writer Arie Posin (2005’s The Chumscrubber), is the romantic melodrama equivalent of a one-joke comedy (with at least one Vertigo-inspired scene, and a drippy score that underlines every emotional story beat). The end to Nikki’s agonizing charade, and the end of the movie, can’t come soon enough. (1:32) (Cheryl Eddy)

Generation War German import Generation War was originally called Our Mothers, Our Fathers, to underline the relevancy of the discussion it’s presumably trying to stir at home — even if for many viewers the war generation would have been their grandparents’. Directed by Philipp Kadelbach and written by Stefan Kolditz, it starts out in dismayingly hackneyed fashion as we’re introduced to our youthful protagonists. Celebrating a birthday in 1941 near the war’s start, when Axis victory seems assured, they pose for a photo you know damn well is going to be the heart-tugging emblem of innocence horribly lost for the next 270 minutes. Fast-paced yet never achieving the psychological depth of similarly scaled historical epics, Generation War grows most interesting in its late going, when for all practical purposes the Allies have already won the war, but Germany continues to self-destruct. Imminent peace provides no relief for protagonists who’ve survived only to find themselves fucked no matter what side they stay on, or surrender to. That moral and situational complexity is too often missing in a narrative that aims for sympathy via simplicity. The underrated recent film version of The Book Thief (2013) was criticized for soft-pedaling the era, but it was about (and from the viewpoint of) somewhat sheltered Aryan children living in a civilian wartime. Generation War’s characters are of exactly the age to be fully indoctrinated young zealots, yet none of them seems touched by National Socialist dogma. Of course such naiveté is designed to maximize their later disillusionment. But War doesn’t even try to approach the serious analysis of national character in something like Ursula Hegi’s great novel Stones from the River, in which we come to understand how time, propaganda, and preyed-upon weaknesses can turn a town of perfectly nice Germans into fascists capable of turning a blind eye toward the Final Solution. Note: longer review here(4:30) (Dennis Harvey)

The Grand Budapest Hotel Is this the first Wes Anderson movie to feature a shootout? It’s definitely the first Anderson flick to include a severed head. That’s not to say The Grand Budapest Hotel, “inspired by” the works of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, represents too much of a shift for the director — his intricate approach to art direction is still very much in place, as are the deadpan line deliveries and a cast stuffed with Anderson regulars. But there’s a slightly more serious vibe here, a welcome change from 2012’s tooth-achingly twee Moonrise Kingdom. Thank Ralph Fiennes’ performance as liberally perfumed concierge extraordinare M. Gustave, which mixes a shot of melancholy into the whimsy, and newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero, his loyal lobby boy, who provides gravitas despite only being a teenager. (Being played by F. Murray Abraham as an older adult probably helps in that department.) Hotel‘s early 20th century Europe setting proves an ideal canvas for Anderson’s love of detail — the titular creation rivals Stanley Kubrick’s rendering of the Overlook Hotel — and his supporting cast, as always, looks to be enjoying the hell out of being a part of Anderson’s universe, with Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and Adrien Brody having particularly oversized fun. Is this the best Wes Anderson movie since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums? Yes. (1:40) (Cheryl Eddy)

Love and Demons A man (Chris Pfleuger) in the midst of a midlife crisis, a woman (Lucia Frangione) starting to realize she’s completely dissatisfied with her life — does this relationship have a chance? Enter each partner’s personal demon, eager to have a hand in shaping events in what turns into a not-so-friendly competition. At first, the intervention seems helpful; the male demon encourages the man, a wannabe screenwriter, to get a better job, clean up the apartment, and blurt out feel-good-isms like “I want to build something together.” But what’s this about murder? Meanwhile, the female demon (Arnica Skulstad Brown) appears to be the ultimate gal pal, stroking the woman’s ego by telling her she could do so much better, going on shopping sprees with her, and sharing her stay-skinny coke stash. Temptations ahoy! Written, directed by, and costarring local filmmaker JP Allen (as the male demon, he’s the cast’s cigarette-smoking, smirking high point) this intriguing look at modern love earns bonus points for its excellent use of SF locations — and creative editing that helps break up the film’s many voice-overs and fourth-wall-breaking moments. (1:24) (Cheryl Eddy)

Need for Speed Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul stars in this tale of a breakneck cross-country car race, an adaptation of the popular video game. (2:10)

Particle Fever “We are hearing nature talk to us,” a physicist remarks in awe near the end of Particle Fever, Mark Levinson’s intriguing doc about the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson particle. Earlier, another scientist says, “I’ve never heard of a moment like this in [science] history, where an entire field is hinging on a single event.” The event, of course, is the launch of the Large Hardon Collider, the enormous machine that enabled the discovery. Though some interest in physics is probably necessary to enjoy Particle Fever, extensive knowledge of quarks and such is not, since the film uses elegant animation to refresh the basics for anyone whose eyes glazed over during high-school science. But though he offers plenty of context, Levinson wisely focuses his film on a handful of genial eggheads who are involved in the project, either hands-on at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), or watching from afar as the mighty LHC comes to life. Their excitement brings a welcome warmth to the proceedings — and their “fever” becomes contagious. (1:39) (Cheryl Eddy)

Veronica Mars Since the cult fave TV show Veronica Mars went off the air in 2007, fans of the series, about a smart, cynical teenager who solves mysteries and battles her high school’s one percenters — a sort of adolescent noir minus the ex nihilo patois of Rian Johnson’s 2005 Brick — have had their hopes raised and dashed several times regarding the possibility of a big-screen coda. While that sort of scenario usually involves a few of the five stages of grief, this one has a twist happy ending: a full-length film, directed by show creator Rob Thomas and cowritten by Thomas and show producer-writer Diane Ruggiero (with a budget aided by a crowdfunding campaign), that doesn’t suck. It’s been a decade since graduation, and Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) has put a continent between herself and her creepy, class war–torn hometown of Neptune, Calif. — leaving behind her P.I. vocation and a track record of exposing lies, corruption, and the dark side of the human soul in favor of a Columbia law degree and a career of covering up same. But when Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), her brooding, troubled ex, gets charged with the murder of his pop star girlfriend and asks Veronica for help, she can’t resist the pull of what she admits is a pathological impulse. Plus, it’s her 10-year reunion. And indeed, pretty much anyone who had a character arc during the show’s three seasons makes an appearance — plus (naturally) James Franco, Dax Shepard (Bell’s husband), and (oddly) Ira Glass. It could have been a cameo fusillade, but the writing here is as smart, tight, funny, and involving as it was on the TV series, and Thomas and Ruggiero for the most part manage to thread everyone in, taking pressure off a murder mystery that falls a little flat, updating the story to reflect current states of web surveillance and pop cultural mayhem, and keeping the focus on the joy of seeing Veronica back where she belongs. (1:43) (Lynn Rapoport)

The art of martial arts


CAAMFEST Prolific producer Sir Run Run Shaw, an iconic figure for kung fu movie fans, died Jan. 7 at age 106 after an epic career in cinema. (Amazingly, he did not retire until 2011.) CAAMFest screens a trio of films in tribute: Li Han-hsiang’s musical The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959); King Hu’s Come Drink With Me (1966), a major influence on Ang Lee’s 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — both feature lethal leading lady Cheng Pei-pei; and Chang-hwa Chung’s cult classic 1972 King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death), which one assumes Quentin Tarantino can recite in his sleep. (You only have to get as far as the title sequence to hear music he used to memorable effect in the Kill Bill films.)

Hong Kong International Film Festival Society Executive Director Roger Garcia penned Shaw’s obituary for the Jan. 13 Wall Street Journal, noting that “[Shaw’s] life and career grew alongside movies’ evolution from the black-and-white silents to today’s global media industry.” Shaw and his brother Runme opened Hong Kong’s largest studio in 1959, “a potent artistic and business combination that ushered in the era of Mandarin film production.” Shaw Brothers Studio “revolutionized the martial arts genre” via collaborations with directors like Come Drink With Me‘s Hu; it also served as a launch pad for actors who became international stars, like Jackie Chan.

I caught up with the HK-based Garcia by email to ask him a few more questions about the late, great Sir Run Run Shaw.

SF Bay Guardian The Shaw Brothers had an enormous filmography. What stands out about the three films in CAAMFest’s tribute?

Roger Garcia The films reflect some of the characteristics of Shaw Brothers Studio’s output at the time, when Mandarin language production dominated the HK film scene. Li Han-hsiang’s King and the Beauty is exemplary of the “quality” costume picture and Huangmei opera films of the time. It also features the great director King Hu in it — he was Li’s protégé. [He directed] Come Drink With Me, generally regarded as a groundbreaking martial arts film with its innovative staging. The film made a star of Cheng Pei-pei. She had previously featured in some Shaw Bros musicals and was a dancer originally. King Boxer is interesting because it was made by one of the best Korean action filmmakers, Chang-hwa Chung. It was a characteristic of the Shaw Brothers to bring in directors from other Asian countries to basically remake some of their native hits. [Another example] is Umetsugu Inoue, who specialized in remaking his hit Japanese musicals into Mandarin Shaw Brothers movies.

SFBG What other Shaw Brothers films do you recommend?

RG The most interesting are the films by Lau Kar-leung, especially Executioners From Shaolin (1977) and Dirty Ho (1979), which are masterpieces of the genre. 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) is also popular and an enjoyable film.

Other works are the coded lesbian and gay films, especially 1972’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, which is a staggering work about lesbian love and intrigue by Chu Yuan. It is a pinnacle of gay cinema. I also find the camp aspect of Chang Cheh’s The Singing Thief (1969) quite charming.

SFBG What is Shaw’s lasting legacy?

RG I think in terms of film — because we must not forget he created TVB, the major Chinese TV corporation, and was also a major philanthropist in the last years of his life — he brought Chinese cinema to the post-war world. He also had a vision of pan-Asian cinema with distribution and production around the region that we are perhaps only catching up with now! *


Sat/15, 2pm, The Kingdom and the Beauty; 5pm, Come Drink With Me; 8pm, King Boxer, $12 per film

Great Star Theater

636 Jackson, SF


Telling tales


CAAMFEST The feel-good movie of last year’s Center for Asian American Media film festival was The Cheer Ambassadors, a documentary charting the high-flying accomplishments of Bangkok University’s cheerleading team. This year’s The Road to Fame taps the same performance theme, but there’s an undercurrent of melancholy that tugs at each of its peppy subjects. The setting is Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama, where young adults envision careers like those of celebrity alums Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. The reality, of course, is that the majority of them will struggle to get any job after graduation, much less realize their show-biz fantasies.

Added pressure is applied by the kids’ parents. Though Chinese youth may have adopted Western-style dreams of the spotlight, many in the older generation were denied the chance to go to college or experience any freedom of occupational choice. All of The Road to Fame‘s featured subjects are in the 19-to-21 age range, born in the era of China’s one-child policy, so the incentive to succeed is particularly urgent, for both financial and emotional reasons. With two parents and four grandparents looking on, “There are six pairs of eyes on only one child,” points out drama teacher Liu Hongmei, whose own martial-arts movie career was supplanted by her desire to work with students.

Given all of these factors, the choice of musical Fame — about a performing-arts school teeming with wannabe stars — as the kids’ final showcase is wonderfully apt. As a bonus, American teachers with Broadway bona fides (the lead has a hint of Corky St. Clair flair) have come to China to work with the students, including standouts like charismatic Chen Lei, who comes from “a simple family” that expects her to take care of them, frustrating her desires to work abroad; and Wu Heng, a talented singer with luxuriant pop-star hair whose parents joke (or are they joking?) about him supporting them. Tension arises during casting, and the expected backstage drama ensues as “A” and “B” casts are chosen and the kids — already fearing the uncertainty of life post-graduation — start to get a sense of how difficult making it will be. On a side note, The Road to Fame is the latest from Chinese-born, US-educated blogger and filmmaker (2005’s Beijing or Bust) Hao Wu, who was detained by Chinese authorities in 2006 while filming a documentary on Christian Chinese house churches. (Presumably, the government viewed musical theater as a more “appropriate” topic.)

Along with The Road to Fame, CAAMFest’s documentary competition is composed almost entirely of urgently contemporary tales. In American Arab, Iraqi American filmmaker Usama Alshaibi takes a deeply personal look at what it’s like to live in the US — specifically, small-town Iowa — post-9/11 with the first name “Usama.” (The results are not entirely surprising.) More compelling is Dianne Fukami and Eli Olson’s Stories From Tohoku, a sensitive study of Japanese still struggling to rebuild after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Interviews with survivors, as well as Japanese Americans (including Kristi Yamaguchi, who visits the region to lend support), illuminate the incredible resilience of people whose communities were completely flattened.

“My history has disappeared, so at this point, all I can do is enjoy my life,” says one woman as she points out where her house used to stand. Though not everyone reacted with such calmness — a chef who volunteered at a relief center recalls becoming resentful amid increasing demand for his services — there’s an overall sense that the culture’s embrace of what Zen Buddhism terms “Gaman,” or “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity,” helps Japanese recoup from tragedy, be it war, internment camps (in the case of Japanese Americans), or natural disaster.

Less elegantly crafted but no less searing is Duc Nguyen’s Stateless, about the handful of Vietnamese people still holding out hope for resettlement after years or even decades of living as illegal aliens in the Philippines. Aided by a determined lawyer whose practice seems to be their only source of advice and hope, the refugees — unable to return home and live under a post-war regime that’s marked them as troublemakers — struggle to get by, with the golden promise of asylum in the US shimmering just out of reach. It’s a moving tale, but it’s compressed into a 55-minute film that sometimes comes up short on context.

The sole film with experimental leanings in the documentary competition is Lordville, a quiet exploration of the nearly abandoned town of Lordville, NY. Though a few determined eccentrics have kept the population of the oft-flooded burg from dipping to zero, it’s the past that filmmaker Rea Tajiri, a Lordville resident, is most interested in, thanks to her ownership of a home owned by one of the town’s founders. Native American history, misty roads, broken-down houses, ever-present flowing water, and the musings of neighbors, a genealogist, and an environmental scientist fill in this portrait of a place where natural and human history are often at odds, and yet are inextricably bound.

The remaining films in the doc competition: Tenzin Tsetan Choklay’s Bringing Tibet Home, about a Tibetan artist who smuggles soil out of his embattled homeland for an installation in India; Masahiro Sugano’s Cambodian Son, about Cambodian American poet and activist Kosal Khiev; and Esy Casey’s Jeepney, about the Philippines’ iconic public-transport buses. *


March 13-23, most shows $12

Various SF and East Bay venues


Yesterday, today, and Tomorrow


VISUAL ART Tom Tomorrow’s real name is Dan Perkins. This is important information if you ever happen to call him up, because you will have to squelch the urge to blurt out “Hi, Tom!” when he answers the phone.

“It happens! That’s what I get for coming up with a pen name,” the editorial cartoonist laughs from his home in Connecticut. “When I was starting out, I was in San Francisco running in a little anti-corporate ‘zine called Processed World. A lot of the contributors used pen names, because there was always a sense that you might get blacklisted or boycotted or something if you were associated with it. So I started using this pen name, which was a misremembered version of an old cartoon character. I didn’t quite realize that I was going to have this 25-year career, and would be stuck with this thing!”

He chuckles before adding, “I would also say, even more than the anonymity in the early days, I thought it would be a mnemonic [device]. The cartoon was called This Modern World. It wasn’t about politics so much in those days, it was riffing on technology and consumerism, and ‘Tom Tomorrow’ seemed appropriate to this kind of retro-futurist thing I was doing.”

Longtime Guardian readers need no introduction to Perkins’ work. This Modern World — which satirizes current events with wry humor and laser-sharp intelligence — has appeared weekly in these pages for nearly 20 years; it’s also syndicated in other papers across America. In addition, he’s authored a children’s book and several cartoon anthologies, including 2012’s The World of Tomorrow, which features an introduction by rocker Eddie Vedder (Perkins drew the album art for Pearl Jam’s 2009 Backspacer, which elevated him to a level of fame he never expected: “There are people who have tattooed [my art] on their flesh!”) Last year, he added the prestigious Herblock Prize to his list of cartooning and journalistic accolades. Though he’s East Coast-based these days, he’ll be heading to California next week for events at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco and the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa.

Long before he made his name with This Modern World, Perkins says he was “always drawing little comics and cartoons, as far back as I can remember. I’ve been putting together a new PowerPoint show for this Cartoon Art Museum event, and I’ve actually dug up some of these old cartoons. I have this political cartoon that I drew at the age of 14! It’s terrible [laughs], but it’s kind of funny to show it. It’s about Jimmy Carter! Because when I was 14, Jimmy Carter had just given an interview to Playboy magazine, and was being widely mocked for saying that he had lusted after women in his heart. So here I am at 14, drawing a cartoon about that, which is very funny to me in retrospect.”

As he got older (“like every young cartoonist in the 1980s, I went through a phase of trying to do a Gary Larson rip-off, because The Far Side was at the height of its popularity”), he began combining collage with cartooning “in order to riff on advertising culture and technology and so on,” before circling back to politics.

“I’m just doing this one cartoon — it’s not a comprehensive news source — so each week has to be some mixture of something I’m really interested in; something that maybe, hopefully has a news hook; and something that I have something interesting to say about,” he says. “Something that I can be funny about. It may not always show, but I really don’t want to waste the reader’s time.”

Though he admits George W. Bush was an easier politician to make fun of, the Obama administration has also supplied him with plenty of material. “I have a recurring character named ‘Droney’ — the friendly surveillance drone. I do a lot of stuff on the NSA, and the fact that Guantanamo has not been closed, and so on.”

A veteran of the alt-weekly publishing world, Perkins has a unique perspective on how the industry has changed over the years. “I think the short answer is, alt-weekly cartoonists — and there’s maybe a dozen of us working right now — are truly an endangered species. We came into a certain ecosystem and set our own rhythms around that ecosystem,” he says. “Obviously, between the financial crash in 2008, and the ongoing influence of the Internet, that’s been a more tenuous ground. I’m profoundly grateful to the papers that still run cartoons like mine, but it’s an era of entropy. We’re all kind of just hanging on. I’m not the only content creator ever to point out the fact that it’s tricky to figure out how to make a living online. It’s ironic, because [thanks to the Internet], my reach as a cartoonist has never been greater.” (His semi-joking advice to young cartoonists: “Marry someone with tenure.”)

For his Cartoon Art Museum gig, he’ll be sharing the spotlight with a special guest: one of San Francisco’s famed Doggie Diner heads. “To me, the Doggie Diner heads represent my San Francisco. They represent the San Francisco of artists and pranksters. I have a real affection for them. Sometimes, when I have a dream sequence and I need to convey something strange and surreal, I’ll have a Doggie Diner head say a few words, floating in the background.” *


Tue/11, 7-9pm, $5

Cartoon Art Museum

655 Mission, SF

March 15, 2pm, free with admission ($5-$10)

Charles M. Schulz Museum

2301 Hardies, Santa Rosa


Writing in the dark


LIT True-crime fans will know the name Harold Schechter: the prolific author and Queens College professor has written books on such nefarious characters as H.H. Holmes, Albert Fish, and Ed Gein, as well as mystery novels centered around Edgar Allan Poe. His latest is The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, 386 pp., $24 hardcover, $9.99 eBook). It tells the disturbing story of Robert Irwin, a talented yet deeply troubled sculptor who slaughtered three people, including the mother and glamorous sister of a woman he was obsessed with, in 1937 New York City.

The killings — which took place in an upscale neighborhood that was, oddly, no stranger to violence — seized the public’s imagination, and the police investigation and Irwin’s trial were exhaustively covered by the tabloid media. Though the case has largely been forgotten today, the story still makes for undeniably compelling reading. I called up Schechter to learn more.

SF Bay Guardian How did you come across the story of Robert Irwin?

Harold Schechter For my last book — Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of — I was looking at crimes that had generated a lot of publicity in their time, but had since faded from public memory. The Irwin case was one that I became fascinated with. I wrote an entry on it in that book, but the more I looked into it, the more substantial a subject it seemed.

Originally, [The Mad Sculptor] was just going to be about the Irwin case, but then I kept coming across references to these other tabloid-sensation crimes that had occurred in the same neighborhood, Beekman Place, in the span of 18 months. So that became the book.


SFBG What transforms a crime into a “tabloid-sensation” crime?

HS I just came across this really interesting quote from a well-known book that was published in the 1930s. The person said, referring to [1922’s highly publicized] Hall-Mills murder case, “The Hall-Mills case had all the elements needing to satisfy an exacting public taste for the sensational. It was grisly, it was dramatic, it involved wealth and respectability. It had just the right amount of sex interest, and in addition, it took place close to the great metropolitan nerve center of the American press.”

When I write my books, I look for crimes that have a certain kind of story to them. It’s not just the gruesomeness of the murder, or the number of murders. Some of the most famous crimes in American history, like the Leopold and Loeb case, just involved one single murder. But it had colorful characters involved, plus that combination of money, violence, and sex. In the case of Robert Irwin, the mere fact that the tabloids could call him “The Mad Sculptor” made it immediately gripping. It conjures up all of these horror-movie elements.

SFBG Other than newspapers, what were your research sources?

HS The psychiatrist who treated [Irwin], Fredric Wertham, was another thing that attracted me to the case. I’ve been interested in him for many years, partly because of his connection to the comic-book industry. [Wertham wrote 1954’s The Seduction of the Innocent, which accused comic books of contributing to juvenile delinquency.] Also, the second true-crime book I ever wrote was Deranged, about cannibal pedophile Albert Fish, and Wertham had been his psychiatrist, too.

When Wertham died [in 1981], his wife donated all of his papers to the Library of Congress with the stipulation that they not be made available to scholars for, I think, 25 years. But just when I started to work on the Irwin book, Wertham’s papers became available. There’s a tremendous amount of material in his archives, so that was a very important source. And then, you know, the New York Public Library, and different New York archives and historical societies.

SFBG One unusual aspect of the Irwin case was that victim Veronica Gedeon had modeled for true-crime magazines, like Inside Detective.

HS I was aware of those magazines, but I didn’t quite realize how many there were. There were dozens of these lurid pulp detective magazines and true crime magazines, and they always had very sensationalistic painted covers, generally of scantily clad women being threatened in various ways. But the articles themselves were often quite well-researched and skillfully written, and they were all lavishly illustrated, including some actual crime-scene photographs, and dramatizations of them.

Ronnie Gedeon had posed in a bunch of them, always wearing a negligee or whatever, about to be strangled or shot. And of course, all of the tabloids kept pointing out that there were all of these premonitions of her murder in those photographs. Again, you can’t beat that combination of sex, violence, the trendy neighborhood, this madman who was a sculptor, an artist. It was just, as I say in my book, a kind of perfect storm of prurience.

SFBG The Mad Sculptor is both true-crime book and history lesson. It really gives a good sense of what NYC life was like at the time.

HS I see my books really as social histories. I feel very strongly that you can learn as much about a cultural moment from the particular crimes that the public is obsessed with as you can from looking at what movies are popular, or what heroes are worshipped. The Manson case tells you as much about the 1960s as the Beatles do. The Leopold and Loeb case tells you a great deal about the underlying fears and anxieties of the 1920s.

SFBG Your books always have such great titles: Fiend, Deviant, Bestial. What’s the naming process like?

HS I started with Deviant, about Ed Gein. At the time, I chose it because I’d been doing a lot of thinking about horror fiction and horror movies. The narrative structure of so much horror has to do with somebody who’s kind of following the straight and narrow path, and then just takes the wrong turn, like in [the Gein-inspired] Psycho. Horror is often about deviating from your usual path and ending up in some nightmarish world. So Deviant was chosen for that reason.

Then, for some reason, I got it into my head that it would be cool to write a trilogy of books that begin with the letter “D.” Partly maybe because there were so many creepy “D” words. So I wrote Deranged, then Depraved. At that point I kind of ran out of “D” words, but I had already established this one-word thing, so I did Fiend and Bestial and Fatal.

At that point, I was starting to get away from just writing about serial killers. So when I wrote my book The Devil’s Gentleman, I kind of abandoned the one-word title. But I have to say, I’ve always been kind of proud of my ability to come up with cool titles! Of course, The Mad Sculptor — sometimes they name themselves. *

Goldies 2014 Dance/Film: San Francisco Dance Film Festival


GOLDIES Greta Schoenberg founded the San Francisco Dance Film Festival in 2008, but she didn’t realize it at the time. It began as “Motion Pictures,” a gallery show combining dance photography with screenings of Schoenberg’s “screen dance” films — short works she’d made specifically for the camera.

It was a success, so the next year, she asked other artists who were making dance films to contribute. (The dance-film genre also includes staged performances filmed for archival purposes and dance-themed documentaries, in addition to more experimental works.) The 2009 event was also a hit; it attracted the interest of the Ninth Street Independent Film Center, which was searching for a way to celebrate Bay Area National Dance Week. Schoenberg’s shorts program was a perfect fit.

“Skye Christensen — who was the director [at Ninth Street], and is now on our board — suggested that we make it into a real festival,” remembers Schoenberg. “It was her idea to call it the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, which was a little daunting. But I’m so glad I did, because I think that leap forward was just the risk somebody needed to take, and it happened to be me.”

With help from Christensen and other community arts organizations, Schoenberg assembled a volunteer staff and launched the first official San Francisco Dance Film Festival in 2010. The DIY effort worked. “We had people sitting on the floor in the lobby in our rush ticket line. We had already outgrown the [Ninth Street] space.”

An evolution into something even bigger seemed inevitable. Enter Judy Flannery, who was looking for a way to bring Dance Screen — the prestigious dance film and video competition presented by the Vienna-based International Music + Media Centre, or IMZ — to San Francisco.

“When I was first asked by this European organization if I could help them collaborate with a US dance film festival, I said the only two I knew of were in LA and New York,” recalls Flannery — until she learned about Schoenberg’s fledgling enterprise.

Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover

“I made this proposition to Greta that it would be great to get the San Francisco festival better-known. I felt she’d done this amazing thing, which was to identify a need. There wasn’t anything in Northern California that allowed filmmakers to show dance films,” Flannery says. “Plus, this is one of the most vibrant dance communities in the country, and we’re also renowned for having a super independent film community. So why hadn’t they gotten together to make dance films? This was a golden opportunity to make this a more established festival.”

She adds with a laugh, “I basically said I’d like to put it on steroids.”

Initially, Schoenberg hesitated — but Flannery won her over.

“I made this Faustian deal with Greta that I would do a big chunk of the work, alongside Greta and a lot of volunteers, to help establish the fourth festival, in 2013, as a collaboration between the San Francisco Dance Film Festival and the European Dance Screen,” she says. “I was also able to get some other artistic organizations involved, like the San Francisco Ballet and the San Francisco Film Society.”

The SFDFF’s newly heightened profile allowed for an expanded program beyond screenings, with panel presentations (on topics like digital distribution and music-rights issues) and the “Co-Laboratory” program, which paired local choreographers with local filmmakers and gave them a compressed window of time (one week!) to create a short dance film together.

“We wanted to encourage local dancers and filmmakers — who are very busy doing their own things — to go, ‘Look what happens if we work together!’,” Flannery says. “It was a wonderful way to engage the very communities we want to celebrate. This year, we want to build on what we were able to pull off last year.”

And the SFDFF’s upward trajectory shows no sign of leveling off. Plans for the future include, of course, the 2014 festival (calling all filmmakers: submissions are open through May 1), which takes place in November and will include a tribute to veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Eventually, the SFDFF hopes to become a year-round organization. Expanding its audience is a key goal.

“This genre is not new — it’s been around since the early days of cinema,” Schoenberg says, citing the works of Muybridge and Maya Deren as examples. “What is new is the technology that’s available for the average dancer. Now, you can make a film on your iPhone. That’s exciting! And through these works, you can expose somebody to dance in a way that they’re comfortable with. They might not inclined to go to a live performance of an unknown contemporary dance company, but if they’ve seen a shorts program of contemporary dance works, maybe they would. As a dancer, I don’t feel like dance films can ever replace live performance. That would never be the goal. But using these films as ambassadors, and getting people to understand dance a little bit more — I think they’re an amazing tool for outreach.”

Masterpiece theater


FILM “I’m not a painter,” admits Tim Jenison at the start of Tim’s Vermeer. He is, however, an inventor, a technology whiz specializing in video engineering, a self-made multimillionaire, and possessed of astonishing amounts of determination and focus. Add a bone-dry sense of humor and he’s the perfect documentary subject for magicians and noted skeptics Penn & Teller (longtime Jenison pal Penn “hosts,” while Teller directs), who capture his multi-year quest to “paint a Vermeer.”

What now? Yep, you read that right: Inspired by artist David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, Jenison became interested in the theory that 17th century painters used lenses and mirrors, or a camera obscura (a device familiar to anyone who’s ever been to San Francisco’s Cliff House), to help create their remarkably realistic works. He was especially taken with Vermeer, famous for works like Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665), feeling a “geek kinship” with someone who was able to apply paint to canvas and make it look like a video image. It took some trial-and-error (and one great bathtub “Eureka!” moment), but Jenison soon figured out a way that would allow him — someone who barely knew how to hold a brush — to transform an old photograph into a strikingly Vermeer-like oil painting.

From the film’s early moments, it’s apparent that Jenison, who can fix anything and is obsessed with knowing how things work, is of the “go big or go home” school of thought. Witness his comically giant pipe organ — constructed of organs scavenged from multiple churches — which he plays using self-taught skills gleaned from careful study of a player piano he restored during his Iowa childhood. So when he decides to paint a Vermeer, specifically The Music Lesson (1662-65), he refuses to half step in any way, declaring that he’ll only use materials Vermeer would have had access to. He’ll grind his own pigments and glass lenses, and construct an exact replica of the room in Vermeer’s house where the painting was made.

A trip to Delft, Netherlands, is arranged, with time spent studying the light, architecture, layout of Vermeer’s studio, period-appropriate furniture and pottery, and Dutch (he eventually learns to read Dutch). He also jaunts to London to discuss the project with Hockney (“It’s very clever!” the esteemed painter chuckles over Jenison’s technique), and catch a glimpse of the original painting, concealed from public eyes deep within Buckingham Palace.

Back in the San Antonio warehouse he plans to transform into Vermeer 2.0, he chats with Philip Steadman, like-minded author of Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces, a book Steadman says caused “great anguish” among historians. It was controversial, he notes, to suggest that Vermeer didn’t just grab a brush and paint what he saw; this “alternate history” challenges the common perception of how an Old Master worked. But technology creeps into every aspect of Jenison’s project, with both uber-modern sophistication (3D computer modeling to make sure the proportions of his “music room” exactly match the original painting) and 1600s flair, as Jenison stares into the humble mirror that allows him to replicate his subject on canvas.

Jenison’s attention to detail is staggering; a montage compresses the 200-plus days spent assembling each piece of the room by hand. When the actual painting finally begins, the movie is two-thirds over — a smart filmmaking choice, since as Jenison, ever the jokester, admits, “This project is a lot like watching paint dry.” In many of these scenes, Jenison films himself laboring over the work’s many tiny, precise details, including individual stitches on a rug.

Slow moments aside, Tim’s Vermeer is otherwise briskly propelled by the insatiable curiosity of the man at its center. Jenison’s finished work offers more proof than any theory ever could about how 17th century artists were able to “paint with light” so realistically, but it avoids concluding that Vermeer was more machine than artist. Instead, it offers a clear challenge to anyone who subscribes to the modern notion that “art and technology should never meet.” Why shouldn’t they, when the end results are so sublime? *


TIM’S VERMEER opens Fri/14 in San Francisco.

New movies: Clooney, vampires, stellar imports, and more!


This week’s big release, George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, is a dud. So what else should you see instead? Options include a pair of well-received foreign imports (Gloria and Stranger by the Lake), as well as a tribute to a 1980s comedy classic courtesy of SF Sketchfest. Read on!

Gloria The titular figure in Sebastian Lelio’s film is a Santiago divorcee and white collar worker (Paulina Garcia) pushing 60, living alone in a condo apartment — well, almost alone, since like Inside Llewyn Davis, this movie involves the frequent, unwanted company of somebody else’s cat. (That somebody is an upstairs neighbor whose solo wailings against cruel fate disturb her sleep.) Her two children are grown up and preoccupied with their adult lives. Not quite ready for the glue factory yet, Gloria often goes to a disco for the “older crowd,” dancing by herself if she has to, but still hoping for some romantic prospects. She gets them in the form of Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), who’s more recently divorced but gratifyingly infatuated with her. Unfortunately, he’s also let his daughters and ex-wife remain ominously dependent on him, not just financially but in every emotional crisis that affects their apparently crisis-filled lives. The extent to which Gloria lets him into her life is not reciprocated, and she becomes increasingly aware how distant her second-place priority status is whenever Rodolfo’s other loved ones snap their fingers. There’s not a lot of plot but plenty of incident and insight to this character study, a portrait of a “spinster” that neither slathers on the sentimental uplift or piles on melodramatic victimizations. Instead, Gloria is memorably, satisfyingly just right. (1:50) (Dennis Harvey)

The Lego Movie The toy becomes a movie. Fun fact: Nick Offerman gives voice to a character named “Metalbeard,” a revenge-seeking pirate. So it’s got that going for it, which is nice. (1:41) 

The Monuments Men The phrase “never judge a book by its cover” goes both ways. On paper, The Monuments Men — inspired by the men who recovered art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, and directed by George Clooney, who co-wrote and stars alongside a sparkling ensemble cast (Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh “Earl of Grantham” Bonneville, and Bill Fucking Murray) — rules. Onscreen, not so much. After they’re recruited to join the cause, the characters fan out across France and Germany following various leads, a structural choice that results in the film’s number one problem: it can’t settle on a tone. Men can’t decide if it wants to be a sentimental war movie (as in an overlong sequence in which Murray’s character weeps at the sound of his daughter’s recorded voice singing “White Christmas”); a tragic war movie (some of those marquee names die, y’all); a suspenseful war movie (as the men sneak into dangerous territory with Michelangelo on their minds); or a slapstick war comedy (look out for that land mine!) The only consistent element is that the villains are all one-note — and didn’t Inglourious Basterds (2009) teach us that nothing elevates a 21st century-made World War II flick like an eccentric bad guy? There’s one perfectly executed scene, when reluctant partners Balaban and Murray discover a trove of priceless paintings hidden in plain sight. One scene, out of a two-hour movie, that really works. The rest is a stitched-together pile of earnest intentions that suggests a complete lack of coherent vision. Still love you, Clooney, but you can do better — and this incredible true story deserved way better. (1:58) (Cheryl Eddy)

Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: DocumentaryThis year, the Oscar-nominated docs are presented in two separate feature-length programs. Program A contains The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, about a Holocaust survivor; Karama Has No Walls, about protestors in Yemen during the Arab Spring; and Facing Fear, about a gay man who encounters the neo-Nazi who terrorized him 25 years prior. Program B contains Cavedigger, about environmental sculptor Ra Paulette; and Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, about a dying prisoner being cared for by other prisoners.

Stranger by the Lake Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is an attractive young French guy spending his summer days hanging at the local gay beach, where he strikes up a platonic friendship with chunky older loner Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao). Still, the latter is obviously hurt when Franck practically gets whiplash neck swiveling at the sight of Michel (Christophe Paou), an old-school gay fantasy figure — think Sam Elliott in 1976’s Lifeguard, complete with Marlboro Man ‘stache and twinkling baby blues. No one else seems to be paying attention when Franck sees his lust object frolicking in the surf with an apparent boyfriend, one that doesn’t surface again after some playful “dunking” gets rather less playful. Eventually the police come around in the form of Inspector Damroder (Jerome Chappatte), but Franck stays mum — he isn’t sure what exactly he saw. Or maybe it’s that he’s quite sure he’s happy how things turned out, now that sex-on-wheels Michel is his sorta kinda boyfriend. You have to suspend considerable disbelief to accept that our protagonist would risk potentially serious danger for what seems pretty much a glorified fuck-buddy situation. But Alain Guiraudie’s meticulously schematic thriller- which limits all action to the terrain between parking lot and shore, keeping us almost wholly ignorant of the characters’ regular lives — repays that leap with an absorbing, ingenious structural rigor. Stranger is Hitchcockian, all right, even if the “Master of Suspense” might applaud its technique while blushing at its blunt homoeroticism. (1:37) (Dennis Harvey)

Top Secret! After the sleeper smash of 1980’s Airplane! (and the TV failure of 1982’s Police Squad! series, which nonetheless led directly to the later, successful Naked Gun movies), the Madison, Wisc.-spawned comedy trio of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker had one more exclamation point up their collective sleeves. That resulted in this hit 1984 parody of Cold War spy movies (and Elvis Presley musicals) starring Val Kilmer (in his perpetually open-mouthed film debut) as hip-swiveling American rock star Nick Rivers, who is dispatched to East Germany on a diplomatic entertainment mission. Instead, he gets yanked into major intrigue that includes kidnapped scientists, Omar Sharif, an elaborate Blue Lagoon (1980) spoof, and of course extremely realistic cow disguises. It also features this immortal exchange between Nazi-Commies, as they’re torturing captured Nick: “Do you vant me to bring out ze LeRoy Neiman paintings?” “No — ve cannot risk violating ze Geneva Convention!” Herrs Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker will reunite on the Castro stage to screen and discuss their incisive political classic as it enters its fourth decade of cultdom. The 30th anniversary afternoon program Sat/8 is co-presented by SF Sketchfest (, Midnites for Maniacs, Noise Pop, and the Jewish Film Festival. Castro. (Dennis Harvey)

Vampire Academy Bloodsuckers go to high school in this adaptation of the YA series directed by Mark Waters (2004’s Mean Girls). (1:45)

Ennui the people


FILM San Francisco IndieFest celebrates its Super Sweet 16 with multiple films presenting an appropriately teenage outlook on humanity: Most of the time, people suck. They suck in ways you expect, ways you don’t expect, and ways you should have expected but chose not to, for your own sucky reasons.

Fortunately, not all of these lessons in disappointment come packaged in depressing movies — though at least one, Bluebird, does. In snowy Maine, an otherwise kind and responsible school bus driver (Amy Morton) screws up the head count at the end of her route, and a child is left behind on a long, cold night. The small town reacts as you’d expect, with stares and whispered gossip. But as it turns out, most of the characters affected by this tragic mistake are already in a pretty bad place, and must now face hitting a floor even lower than they’d imagined was possible.

Chief among them is the bus driver’s weary husband (Mad Men‘s John Slattery, playing nicely against type except for one very Roger Sterling-ish scene), who’s just found out he’ll soon be unemployed, and the neglected boy’s troubled mother (Louisa Krause), who adds this incident to her running list of personal demons. Writer-director Lance Edmands edited Lena Dunham’s 2010 breakthrough Tiny Furniture (blink and you’ll miss Girls‘ Adam Driver in a handful of Bluebird scenes); his first feature as writer-director is very much in the classic American indie mode, with ordinary people’s lives intersecting in an ordinary town, extreme feelings of loneliness and unfulfilled dreams lurking just below the surface. Frankly, it can get morose, though Emily Meade (who resembles a younger Emma Stone) brings some spark as a high-schooler dealing with sucky boy drama on top of sucky everything else.

Less earnest, thank goodness, is the latest short from San Francisco filmmaker Vincent Gargiulo (2011’s The Muppetless Movie), which screens as part of IndieFest’s “#feelings” program. Filmed on location in Minnesota, Duluth is Horrible follows a handful of oddballs working through heartbreak via Reddit posts, awkward blind dates, and karaoke. Gargiulo — who told me during last year’s IndieFest that the idea for Duluth came to him in a dream — wields his own brand of bizarre humor with complete confidence. Here’s hoping he channels that into a feature film next.

Two of IndieFest’s genre standouts also hinge on human shortcomings. Joe Begos’ Almost Human follows a trio of friends dealing with the aftereffects when one is, uh, abducted by aliens, then returns a few years later acting mighty strange. The man’s left-behind former fiancée and best friend have just enough time to come to grips with their guilt and paranoia before they have to start fending off creepy offers of “Join me and be reborn!” Yeah, this is a wall-to-wall John Carpenter homage — the lead character appears to have stepped right off the set of 1982’s The Thing — but it’s done exactly right, with some spectacular, blessedly CG-free gore effects to boot.

Also a must-see for horror fans: Zack Parker’s Proxy, a Hitchcockian mindfuck of a movie that offers up so many plot twists it’d be nearly impossible to relay a spoiler-free plot summary — though as soon as you hear the pregnant woman’s last name is Woodhouse, as in Rosemary, it’s made pretty clear that this grieving-mother tale ain’t gonna be what it seems. If you can make it through the brutal attack that happens in Proxy‘s first five minutes (close your eyes if you must), you’ll be richly rewarded.

It feels almost wrong to lump Hank: Five Years From the Brink into this roll-call of sinister neighbors and emotional vampires, but there are certainly many who’d call former Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson worse names. This latest doc from Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost trilogy) follows the template favored by Errol Morris in films like 2003’s The Fog of War and last year’s The Unknown Known, surrounding an extended sit-down interview with news footage and home movies reflecting on a political subject’s career.

In Paulson’s case, he walks us through the 2008 financial crisis (Jon Stewart referred to him as “Baron Von Moneypants”) with the benefit of hindsight, and a certain amount of self-effacing humor. Whether or not you agree with the guy’s actions, he’s actually pretty likeable, and Berlinger’s decision to include interviews with Paulson’s no-nonsense wife, Wendy, adds a human angle to the decisions behind the “too big to fail” fiasco.

I hear you sighing. You demand uplift, dammit! Where are the happy movies? Though it’s not without moments of relationship angst, Mexican filmmaker Fernando Frias’ Rezeta just might be the festival’s feel-good breakout. Largely improvised and filmed using handheld cameras and a cast of first-time actors (how do you say “mumblecore” in Spanish?), Rezeta follows a year or so in the life of Albanian model Rezeta (Rezeta Veliu), who arrives in Mexico with a good grasp of English but little knowledge of the local culture.

On her first job, she meets Alex (Roger Mendoza), a metalhead whose friendship becomes the one constant in her breezy life. As they slowly become a couple — the passage of time is marked out by Alex’s changing facial hair and Rezeta’s developing Spanish-language skills — the places where their personalities don’t quite mesh become increasingly apparent. Rezeta picked up a special jury award at the recent Slamdance Film Festival, and it’s not hard to see why; the characters feel so real. Don’t we all know that sweet girl who turns into a catty pain when she’s drunk, or that guy who’s too cool to get excited about anything, or that couple who’s fun to be around — until they start screaming at each other on the sidewalk outside the bar? Ah, youth.

Also worth mentioning: wonderful centerpiece pick Teenage, a collage film by Matt Wolf (2008’s Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell) that’s based on Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, spanning the adolescent experience from 1875-1945. First-person narrators (voiced by Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw, among others) reflect on the lives of teens from the US, the UK, and Germany, emphasizing both current events (World Wars I and II) as well as dance and music fads.

Finally, I’d be remiss for not calling your attention to A Field in England, easily the single weirdest pick of IndieFest 2014. Fans of Ben Wheatley, a fest vet and one of the most exciting directors to come out of England in years (2011’s Kill List, 2012’s Sightseers), already know what’s up; everyone else, step boldly into this black-and-white slab of insanity set amid a handful of deserters scuttling away from their posts during the English civil war. And then the cape-wearing necromancer shows up, because of course he does. “I think I’ve worked out what God is punishing us for,” one hapless character gasps. “Everything!” *


Feb. 6-20, most shows $12

Various venues, SF and Oakl.


Mumble, mumble, murder


FILM Joe Swanberg’s latest film to play the Roxie, 24 Exposures, isn’t actually his newest. That’d be family drama Happy Christmas, which just premiered at Sundance. Going by festival reviews, Christmas sounds like it’s in the vein of Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies — last year’s Olivia Wilde-starring tiptoe into the mainstream, a departure for the indie writer-director-actor — with a marquee cast that includes Buddies‘ Anna Kendrick and hipster queen Lena Dunham.

24 Exposures is the busy artist’s 15th flick to play the Roxie in a year (the list includes Buddies, 2012’s acclaimed All the Light in the Sky, 2007 breakout Hannah Takes the Stairs, and the only public screening to date of short Privacy Settings). In some ways, 24 Exposures marks another departure, being an “erotic thriller” (scare quotes needed, because it’s highly aware of its genre) — though it also incorporates Swanberg’s affection for relationships that aren’t working out, no matter how much the principals talk about their problems. His interest in horror (see: his participation in 2012 anthology film V/H/S and 2011 cult hit You’re Next, etc.) flavors 24 Exposures‘ plot: Parallel lives collide when photographer Billy (Adam Wingard), who snaps cute, topless women posed in gruesome death scenes, meets depressed cop Michael (Simon Barrett), who happens to be investigating the actual murder of a cute, topless woman.

Yep, this film stars director Wingard and writer Barrett of You’re Next and V/H/S fame. That slurping sound you hear is the mumblecore snake eating its tail, and not for the first time. (Is there anyone in that scene who hasn’t appeared in or worked on a peer’s film? The answer is no.) In 24 Exposures, it’s less of an in-joke than expected, since Billy and Michael don’t achieve BFF mode until the film’s coda. The relationships that form the core of the film are between Billy and the various women in his life, including girlfriend Alex (Caroline White), who is totes cool with his artistic pursuits as long as she’s included in the process, and any three-ways that occur after the shoots. Inevitably, there’s tension when she returns from a weekend away and realizes Billy’s been “taking smutty pictures when I’m not here.”

Billy is a sleaze, but otherwise he’s basically a harmless dude in a cardigan. If 24 Exposures had been made in early 1980s Europe, the film would pump out more bloody bodies for Michael to find; there’d be way more POV creeping and probably a chase involving an unseen killer wearing black leather gloves. Despite a sleek credit sequence illustrated with pulpy artwork, this is no lo-fi giallo. A better reference point is one from the script itself: Silk Stalkings, that 1990s epitome of basic-cable sexy thrillerdom. That it’s brought up jokingly (as in, “Do you feel like a character in Silk Stalkings right now?”) only enforces 24 Exposures‘ aspirations toward meta-ness.

The self-consciousness doesn’t end there. The film’s synthy score, which swells knowingly during suspenseful moments, is another obviously obvious choice. But if you’re expecting 24 Exposures to descend into full-on camp, you’ll come away disappointed. Lurid is perhaps a better descriptor, since 24 Exposures is bulging with “boobies” — a word Billy uses moments after explaining to a skeptical model that he practices “dress-up mixed with fine art.” Earlier, he’s described his work as “personal fetish photos,” clarifying that they’re “classy.” (Truly, they’re not.) We never see the results displayed anywhere, yet this is apparently his profession, not a private hobby, since the photo shoots involve makeup artists and assistants.

Clearly, 24 Exposures is poking fun at the erotic-thriller genre, and itself by extension. Any haters who cry “misogyny!” — because Swanberg’s camera ogles just as much as Billy’s does — are answered in a scene that’s been planned with them in mind. Photographing death is “way more interesting than taking a picture of a fuckin’ tree in your front yard,” Billy tells Michael, who counters by asking, “Why is it always dead women? Why not a dead old guy?” It’s not about that, Billy insists. “It’s ridiculous for me to try and explain this, because it’s not something that I even think about. You can’t say, ‘Why am I doing this?’ You just have to say, ‘OK, I’m attracted to this, and that’s what I’m gonna do.'”

That’s vague, and — again — Billy is a sleaze, but Swanberg’s careful to make his underlying point visually. When Michael asks Billy, “Have you ever seen a real dead body?”, it foreshadows the film’s second cute-girl murder. A distinction is made when a character we’ve come to sympathize with is brutally killed, and hers is the only crime scene that doesn’t invite us to leer at the victim.

The film’s last act cuts some months ahead; we see aspiring memoirist Michael receiving feedback from a book agent (played by Swanberg), who advises him to rewrite his manuscript. There are too many loose ends, he says, and not enough strong connections between the cop and the photographer. Oh, and the ending needs work, too. 24 Exposures, you’re talking to yourself — and you know it, and we know it, and you know we know you know.

Up next for the prolific, probably sleep-deprived Swanberg, who’s likely also got a dozen or so new movies in the pipeline: helming an episode of the San Francisco-set HBO series Looking. Wonder if there’ll be a scene set at the Roxie? *


24 EXPOSURES opens Fri/31 at the Roxie.




SF Bay Guardian How’s Sundance?

Joe Swanberg It’s been amazing. [Happy Christmas] is a pretty small, personal movie, so it’s nice that people seem to be liking it.


SFBG When will it be coming out theatrically?

JS We’re probably gonna follow the Drinking Buddies (2013) release pattern of doing VOD and theatrical sometime around July, and then having it come out on DVD around Thanksgiving.


SFBG You’ve had 15 movies screen at the Roxie Theater in the past year, which is a pretty astonishing number.

JS They did a retrospective, which was incredible. Not only was it a great chance to hang out in San Francisco for a week, but it was amazing for me to look back at a lot of movies that I hadn’t seen in a long time. It’s also crazy to think that there’s that much stuff. I sort of forget that I’ve made that many movies.


SFBG Do you not consider yourself prolific?

JS Because I don’t write, I can very quickly jump from one project right into the next. The first six years I was making movies, I was making around one a year, because I had a day job and that was all the time I could spend on it. As soon as I was able to support myself as a filmmaker, I really was making a lot of them [laughs] — there was one year where I made six, which was really too many by anyone’s standards. It made the following year really strange, trying to actually get all of those out into the world. And also, while they’ve all had some form of distribution, there’s really only four or five of my movies that people have heard of. There’s all of these others that only the hardcore cinephiles have checked out.


SFBG When you say you don’t write, do you mean because your films are improvised?

JS Yeah, exactly. I do write, but it’s just an outlining process. I’m working so collaboratively with the actors that it’s not the sort of difficult screenplay process that a lot of filmmakers go through.


SFBG With this long filmography, is it weird for you to be suddenly known as “the director of Drinking Buddies”?

JS It’s totally fine. I tend to like the newest film the best, just because it’s the closest to where my head is at. Drinking Buddies would be the one that I would recommend to people, and talk about as well. And probably Happy Christmas will very quickly become the next center of conversations. I haven’t watched a lot of those early ones in a long time, so I don’t even know if I would like them anymore [laughs]. Hopefully, they’re all leading toward something. Getting better. Let me put it this way: It’s great that people are talking about Drinking Buddies and not some movie I made six years ago.


SFBG You mentioned that Happy Christmas is a personal movie, and obviously Drinking Buddies ties into your much-documented love of beer. So what inspired 24 Exposures?

JS I had been acting in genre movies a lot, especially with Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. I was really interested in what motivated them to make those kinds of movies instead of romantic comedies or something [laughs]. Also, I think a lot of what 24 Exposures is about is the responsibility and ownership of that stuff. I wanted to investigate where the women fit in. Are they passive models who are being exploited, or are they willing participants? Are they co-authors of the art? Is it a little bit of all of those things? It’s something that I’ve made other movies about, too. I’m genuinely interested in the collaborative process. Who ends up taking the credit, and who ends up feeling taken advantage of?  

SFBG The film is very meta.  

JS Definitely. I was reading Richard Brody’s book on Jean-Luc Godard at the time, so meta was very much on my mind. I was interested in the way that Godard played around with genre movies, but very atypical genre movies. They were always much more like Godard movies than they were genre movies. It was fun to sort of dabble in that space. The other thing that was exciting to me was how my generation’s sexuality was informed by late-night Cinemax and very cheesy, soft-focus, heavy-music kind of stuff. (I’m 32.) When all of us were in junior high, that was the most erotic thing we had access to. That aesthetic is such a joke now. It’s so dated. So I wanted to investigate that as well.  

SFBG Do you worry that someone will come across the film and not pick up on that subtext?

JS This is an interesting one for that question. Pretty much all of my movies have existed very squarely in the art-house audience, so I haven’t really thought much beyond that sort of space. But that’s changing these days, especially with Drinking Buddies, and, I’m assuming, with Happy Christmas too. So maybe 24 Exposures will be seen by considerably more people than some of those earlier ones. But I feel like the movie’s sort of subverting the genre at every turn. It never fully gains momentum as a pure exploitation thriller. Every five minutes it reminds you that you’re watching a movie, and puts in some sort of criticism or other unsexy thought into your head.  

SFBG Totally changing gears, but I noticed you directed an episode of HBO’s Looking, which all anyone here can talk about right now.  

JS Yeah! It was one of the most fun things I’ve done as a filmmaker. I really like the show, too, so I’m just happy to have had some little piece of involvement. I live in Chicago, so I have hometown pride, but San Francisco is without a doubt the most beautiful city in America. I spent three weeks trying to find a bad view, and I couldn’t. *

Death and life


FILM This week, the African Film Festival National Traveling Series touches down at the Pacific Film Archive, bearing seven features and a number of shorts. The only film to have previous local distribution is Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George, about a Nigerian couple living in Brooklyn whose marriage is tested when the wife — played by Walking Dead badass Danai Gurira; her husband is Jim Jarmusch muse Isaach De Bankolé — fails to become pregnant with the son her in-laws demand. The gorgeous photography earned Bradford Young (who also lensed Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) a cinematography prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and, appealing cast aside, his work is the main reason to catch George on the big screen.

The strongest film in the festival is the one that closes it: David Tosh Gitonga’s crime drama Nairobi Half Life, submitted by Kenya as its first Best Foreign Language Film contender last year. Though it didn’t make the Oscar shortlist (frankly, it was a tough year for foreign films, with Amour claiming all major accolades), it’s easy to see why it made the cut. It’s the not-unfamiliar tale of a rural dreamer named Mwas (the charismatic Joseph Wairimu) who sets out to pursue an acting career in the big city (“where the devil lives,” according to his mother). His improv skills are on point, but he is completely gullible, which makes him a prime target as soon as he arrives in “Nairobbery.”

Urban life offers many hard lessons, whether it’s Mwas finding his place in the gang he joins as a means of survival, or overcoming the snooty dismissals of the professional actors he enounters at theatrical auditions. In both realms, he gets in over his head, but he’s a quick thinker and a talented hustler, which gives him an edge his opponents tend to underestimate. If Nairobi Half Life‘s script leans a little heavily on Mwas being caught between two worlds (alternate title suggestion: Nairobi Double Life), its energy is infectious and its presentation is polished — props to producer Tom Twyker (1998’s Run Lola Run, 2012’s Cloud Atlas), whose One Fine Day Film Workshop guided its making.

Director Lonesome Solo’s more rough-hewn and downbeat Burn It Up Djassa also weaves a tale of desperation that culminates in violence, this time in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast’s largest metropolis. Again, there’s a conflicted young man at its center: Tony, or Dabagaou” (as he’s known in the ‘hood), whose rise from cigarette seller to killer on the run is shared via a streetwise narrator who lays down story beats like a hip-hop version of Shakespeare; his scenes are the most cinematic amid what feels like an otherwise largely improvised effort. And indeed, Burn It Up Djassa builds to a tragedy of Bardian proportions. You’ll see it coming, but it’s wrenching nonetheless.

Death is the main character in Alain Gomis’ Dakar-set Tey, or “today,” which takes place in a world that resembles ours but with one key supernatural difference: Those who are about to die are given 24-hour advance notice. One morning, seemingly healthy fortysomething Satché wakes up with the grim knowledge that this is his last day. By the same mysterious power, those closest to him — his family, friends, a bitter former lover, and his wife (though not, it seems, his young children) — are also made aware. Though there’s a certain amount of wailing from his older relatives, Satché accepts his fate, drifting through a day that begins with a sort of living funeral, in which both praise and criticism are lobbed at him, and leads into a raucous street parade and hang time with friends.

As the day grows longer, it turns more melancholy; he visits the man who’ll be preparing his corpse for burial, who reminds Satché he’s lucky to know when his time is up so he has a chance to say his good-byes. But Tey isn’t a total bummer of a movie — it has a dreamy quality and moments of humor, as when Satché shows up late to a ceremony held in his honor, but can’t find anything to eat or drink at the completely pillaged catering table. That this dead man walking is played by American slam poet Saul Williams (though Satché is Senegalese) adds to his inherent outsider vibe. The ticking clock breaks down any forced politeness in his encounters, particularly with his wife, which gives us an idea of what he like was before he knew he was about to die.

End-of-life issues also dominate Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Kwaku Ananse, one of three films composing “Between Cultures: Recent African Shorts” (the other two, Faisal Goes West and the Quvenzhané Wallis-starring Boneshaker, were not available for preview; among the features, Damien Ounouri’s documentary Fidaï, a portrait of his Algerian freedom-fighting great uncle, was also unfortunately unavailable). Kwaku Ananse casts the West African trickster character, Anansi (Americans know him from classic children’s book Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti), as its main character’s recently-deceased father. The young woman has come to his Ghanan village for his funeral, and to confront the second family he was keeping on the side. The 25-minute work slowly becomes more fairy tale-like as it progresses, anchored by a solemn but fiery performance by lovely star Jojo Abot.

Elsewhere in the fest, a mockumentary from Cameroon (banned in Cameroon, not coincidentally) about what would happen if the president suddenly disappeared (Le Président) is paired with short Nigerian doc Fuelling Poverty; both examine deep-seated corruption in troubled, post-colonial economies. And for a completely different audience (ages seven and up) is Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie’s Zarafa, the animated story of a young boy who escapes slavery in Africa and becomes enmeshed in the remarkable, mostly true story of the first giraffe to take up residence in France. *


Jan. 25-Feb. 26, $5.50-$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.


Soft eyes


FILM Chip Lord first came to public attention as a founding member of art collective Ant Farm (1968-78), which allowed him to explore his interest in alternative architecture via projects like the Cadillac Ranch installation in Amarillo, Texas. He later segued into teaching (at UC Santa Cruz) and video art, with works that include a long-running series examining city spaces. A San Francisco resident, he’ll be at the Exploratorium this week screening a trio of urban-themed works.

SF Bay Guardian Before we get into your Exploratorium screening, I wanted to ask about 2010’s Abscam (Framed), a re-creation of the 1981 FBI surveillance operation that exposed a government bribery scandal. Have you seen American Hustle, which dramatizes the same events?

Chip Lord I did! I enjoyed it. Obviously, it takes liberties with the truth of the Abscam events — but it was done in a very clever way.

SFBG Do you think it got the hotel-room surveillance scene right?

CL No, because when I did my re-enactment I went to the actual room where one of the FBI operations took place, at the Travelodge at [New York’s] Kennedy Airport. What was rather ironic was that the art on the wall was the US Capitol building — I think it had to have been added after the fact by an ironic hotel decorator.

SFBG As a nod to the Congressman who was busted there?

CL Yeah. [Laughs.] But I will say, in terms of the way [American Hustle depicted] the appearance of the video surveillance — that scene was very accurate.

SFBG You have three films screening at the Exploratorium, one of which, Venice Underwater, is making its local debut. You’ve been making city-centric films for over 20 years. What drew you to Venice, Italy, as your latest subject?

CL I had a residency in Venice at the Emily Harvey Foundation in 2008. I’d never been there before, and I was attracted to it as a city where there are no cars — and, of course, knowing that it’s a prime tourist destination. At the time, I didn’t have a high definition camera. I shot a lot of footage in standard definition video, and then I realized that I had to go back and reshoot some of it in HD.

It’s largely an observed film. It has some voice-over, but it’s very minimal. I wanted it to be in the style of Frederick Wiseman, which gives the viewer more responsibility in arriving at its meaning. Not being specifically guided as much.

SFBG When the voice-over happens, it’s like the viewer becomes a tourist for a few minutes. But most of the time, the viewer is observing the tourists. And there are so many of them!

CL The title refers metaphorically to the flood of tourists, which has gone up every year over the past 10 or 15 years. Meanwhile, the residential population is diminishing. Most of the people who work in the tourist industry don’t live in the city; they’re commuting in every day. And the city has been cooperative in allowing more and more buildings to be converted into hotels. It reaches a point at which you wonder: Is it becoming a Disneyland version of itself?

SFBG Did the sheer number of tourists allow you to blend in and film discreetly?

CL That was an advantage, especially on the Rialto Bridge, where everybody has a camera. You can be filming a subject, and they’re not aware of it because it’s just another camera. There’s one sequence with a Japanese couple, and I was kind of stalking them for awhile — intentionally trying to construct a sequence where you would see them wandering and taking pictures and interacting. I think that was a more substantive portrait of the tourist experience in a way.

They did become aware, but they didn’t say anything; a couple of shots, I couldn’t use because the young woman was looking at the camera and sort of giving me a dirty look. At that point, I stopped [filming them].

This type of shooting is a form of people-watching. If you introduce a camera into that equation, it’s very challenging. You want to get close to people, but without changing their normative behavior, and you don’t want to be invading somebody’s privacy. It’s a kind of complicated ethical situation.

SFBG Another film in the program is Une Ville de l’Avenir (2011), which uses clips from Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965). This recontextualizing technique is one you’ve used previously. What do you think it helps achieve?

CL What’s wonderful about Godard’s film is that it’s set in the future and has a very archetypical sci-fi plot, with a Big Brother character. But he shot it in present-day Paris, which was a brilliant idea. He found very good locations. I love that film, but I thought, “Now we’re in the future that was imagined in that film, in a way. It would be interesting to go back and re-imagine some of the locations.” That’s the basic idea. I also book ended it as an airplane movie. So what you’re seeing of Alphaville, you’re seeing on an airplane.

I’m more interested in defining these kinds of public spaces than sticking to the narrative plot of his original film, although I did use music from Alphaville as well — such an evocative score.

SFBG Air travel is a recurring theme in your films, including the final Exploratorium film, In Transit (2011). Have you encountered any post-9/11 artistic challenges?

CL I’ve been told to stop filming many times. [Laughs.] I happened to make the unfortunate choice of spending some time at Kennedy Airport right after the “shoe bomber” had been apprehended. At that point, anybody who took out a camera in an airport was kind of suspect.

But from a larger perspective, air travel is an activity that has become so boring and routine — but it’s still kind of miraculous. I always try to get a window seat, because it can be just amazing to look out the window for an extended period of time. For In Transit, I wanted to capture both of those elements. *


Thu/16, 7pm, free with museum admission ($19-$25)


Pier 15, SF


Gods and mom-sters: the week’s new films


This week: August: Osage County (bumped from its previously-scheduled opening last week) unleashes 2014’s first bolt of LOOK AT ME I’M ACTING! Other choices you have while you count down to the Golden Globes (Sunday night) and the Oscar nominations (next Thursday) include Ralph Fiennes’ latest actor-director turn in Charles Dickens tale The Invisible Woman; Mark Wahlberg’s Navy SEALs drama Lone Survivor; and Renny Harlin’s CG’d-up action-tacular The Legend of Hercules.

August: Osage County Considering the relative infrequency of theater-to-film translations today, it’s a bit of a surprise that Tracy Letts had two movies made from his plays before he even got to Broadway. Bug and Killer Joe proved a snug fit for director William Friedkin (in 2006 and 2011, respectively), but both plays were too outré for the kind of mainstream success accorded 2007’s August: Osage County, which won the Pulitzer, ran 18 months on Broadway, and toured the nation. As a result, August was destined — perhaps doomed — to be a big movie, the kind that shoehorns a distracting array of stars into an ensemble piece, playing jes’ plain folk. But what seemed bracingly rude as well as somewhat traditional under the proscenium lights just looks like a lot of reheated Country Gothic hash, and the possibility of profundity you might’ve been willing to consider before is now completely off the menu. If you haven’t seen August before (or even if you have), there may be sufficient fun watching stellar actors chew the scenery with varying degrees of panache — Meryl Streep (who else) as gorgon matriarch Violet Weston; Sam Shepard as her long-suffering spouse; Julia Roberts as pissed-off prodigal daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), etc. You know the beats: Late-night confessions, drunken hijinks, disastrous dinners, secrets (infidelity, etc.) spilling out everywhere like loose change from moth-eaten trousers. The film’s success story, I suppose, is Roberts: She seems very comfortable with her character’s bitter anger, and the four-letter words tumble past those jumbo lips like familiar friends. On the downside, there’s Streep, who’s a wizard and a wonder as usual yet also in that mode supporting the naysayers’ view that such conspicuous technique prevents our getting lost in her characters. If Streep can do anything, then logic decrees that includes being miscast. (2:10) (Dennis Harvey)

The Invisible Woman See “A Tale of Two.” (1:51)

The Legend of Hercules Renny Harlin rises from the dead to direct Twilight series hunk Kellan Lutz in this 3D, CG-laden retelling of you know which myth. (1:38)

Lone Survivor Peter Berg (2012’s Battleship, 2007’s The Kingdom) may officially be structuring his directing career around muscular tails of bad-assery. This true story follows a team of Navy SEALs on a mission to find a Taliban group leader in an Afghani mountain village. Before we meet the actors playing our real-life action heroes we see training footage of actual SEALs being put through their paces; it’s physical hardship structured to separate the tourists from the lifers. The only proven action star in the group is Mark Wahlberg — as Marcus Luttrell, who wrote the film’s source-material book. His funky bunch is made of heartthrobs and sensitive types: Taylor Kitsch (TV’s Friday Night Lights); Ben Foster, who last portrayed William S. Burroughs in 2013’s Kill Your Darlings but made his name as an officer breaking bad news gently to war widows in 2009’s The Messenger; and Emile Hirsch, who wandered into the wilderness in 2007’s Into the Wild. We know from the outset who the lone survivors won’t be, but the film still manages to convey tension and suspense, and its relentlessness is stunning. Foster throws himself off a cliff, bounces off rocks, and gets caught in a tree — then runs to his also-bloody brothers to report, “That sucked.” (Yesterday I got a paper cut and tweeted about it.) But the takeaway from this brutal battle between the Taliban and America’s Real Heroes is that the man who lived to tell the tale also offers an olive branch to the other side — this survivor had help from the non-Taliban locals, a last-act detail that makes Lone Survivor this Oscar season’s nugget of political kumbaya. (2:01) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)

Liv and Ingmar You wouldn’t expect anything less than soul-scorching intimacy from a documentary on the relationship of acting icon Liv Ullmann and moviemaking maestro Ingmar Bergman. And Dheeraj Akolkar satisfies with the help of plentiful clips from Bergman’s filmography, disarmingly frank interviews with Ullmann, behind-the-scenes footage, and grainy images of and excerpts from letters and memoirs by Bergman. Ullmann was the unforgettable face and inspiration for Persona (1966) and other Bergman classics; he was her director, mentor, and teacher; and they were brought together by film and remained drawn to each other despite the scandal of their respective spouses. Their at-first-happy then increasingly jealously-filled and isolated life is translated into intensely personal, searing visions like Shame (1968), which sparks at least one close-to-the-bone anecdote from Ullmann. She shows Akolkar photos of a bundled-up Bergman in a boat beside a vessel carrying an underdressed, freezing Ullman and Max Von Sydow. “He was really angry that day,” she recounts. “You ask if he was ever cruel to me. This time, he was really cruel. I hated him so much and I was planning to leave him.” Some might criticize Akolkar for his loose hand with the couple’s story and his heavy reliance on invaluable Bergman works like 1973’s Scenes From a Marriage — no dates or clues to the films or productions used are given until the credits roll — but more irksome are the sentimental montages, “reenactments,” and score: one can picture Bergman convulsed in the beyond during the most saccharine moments. Liv and Ingmar’s strength is the woman at its center. Revealing mementos from her “dearest Pingmar,” as well as unguarded glimpses into her heart, the almost achingly sincere Ullmann gets the last word here, as befits a survivor and an actress who never hesitated to let the camera see every emotion flitting across her lush features — making this doc less about Ingmar and the specifics of his career, and more about Liv and her still living, breathing emotional life. (1:23) (Kimberly Chun)

Super Tramp


FILM Was ever an actor so closely associated with his signature character than Charlie Chaplin and his Little Tramp? (The best second-place I could come up with: Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman.) The San Francisco Silent Film Festival honors the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s creation with “The Little Tramp at 100: A Charlie Chaplin Centennial Celebration.” Naturally, the 11-minute Kid Auto Races at Venice, which introduced the character to audiences Feb. 7, 1914, is on the bill. (For sticklers: Mabel’s Strange Predicament, the actual debut of the Tramp, was filmed prior to Venice, but released a few days later.)

In Chaplin’s 1964 autobiography, he wrote about assembling the character in the wardrobe room. “I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small, and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering [producer Mack] Sennett had expected me to be a much older man [Chaplin was around 25 at the time of filming], I added a small mustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. By the time I walked on stage he was fully born.”

You know the rest: Moviegoers couldn’t get enough, and — apologies to Team Buster Keaton — the Tramp became the silent era’s most popular figure, and remains its most iconic symbol. This tribute screens Venice with 1921’s The Kid, which begins as a destitute young mother (Chaplin’s frequent co-star and sometimes girlfriend Edna Purviance) tearfully places her newborn in the back seat of a fancy car with a note: “Please love and care for this orphan child.” Her desperate scheme is foiled when the auto is stolen by a pair of heavies; fortunately, the baby is soon scooped up by the Tramp, whose initial reluctance to play Daddy melts away with reassuring speed.

The action jumps ahead five years, with Jackie Coogan — one of the first child stars, and the reason there’s a California law protecting the earnings of underage performers from their greedy guardians — playing the ovary-rattlingly adorable title character. He and his adoptive father may live in squalor, and earn their dough a few shades on the wrong side of the law, but they make a surprisingly tight family unit, sharing comically huge stacks of pancakes, battling the local bullies, etc. Meanwhile, the tyke’s mother has become wealthy, and there’s a happy ending in store — but not before a rooftop chase, a trippy dream sequence, and deliverance on the film’s opening promise to supply “a picture with a smile, and perhaps a tear.” This screening features accompaniment by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (with Timothy Brock conducting Chaplin’s score), plus a Chaplin look-alike contest before the show — so get that mustache correct!

The Kid was Chaplin’s first full-length after nearly a decade of shorts, a trio of which are grouped together in a program dubbed “Our Mutual Friend.” The title references the Mutual Film Corporation, which signed Chaplin to a $670,000-per-year contract in 1916. (Not too shabby a figure today, it was a mind-blowing amount at the time.) He immediately got to work justifying his huge salary, cranking out hit after hit. These three share similar casts, with Purviance playing “the girl” and favorite Chaplin foil Eric Campbell (who stood a foot taller, and from some angles a foot wider, than the diminutive Chaplin) playing “the baddie.”

The Vagabond (1916) is the most melodramatic of the bunch; it follows a violin-playing hobo who encounters a waif being held captive by what the glossary of unfortunate movie stereotypes would call “gypsies.” (Campbell plays a whip-cracking patriarch.) The Tramp rescues her, but not before a passing artist paints her portrait and helps her reunite with her (rich) family — like The Kid, The Vagabond contains themes of economic disparity, a favorite Chaplin topic. Far more lighthearted are Easy Street (1917), in which the Tramp finds religion (thanks to an angelic church worker) and a backbone, after becoming a cop and defeating the local heavy (Campbell, adorned with spectacularly “evil” eyebrows); and The Cure (1917), in which an wobbly “inebriate” checks into a health spa, toting a huge suitcase full of booze. His fellow patients include a comely lass and an angry, towering brute.

The simple stories of all three shorts are elevated by flamboyant comedy set pieces, so effortless-seeming they mask what had to have been elaborate preparations and choreography. Any time there’s a bucket of water, or a hole in the ground, Chaplin is bound to fall in eventually — but there’s great delight in watching him teeter around and prolong disaster as long as possible. He also never met a revolving door he could pass through just once. And there’s never a stretch without some little moment of subtle hilarity, to counteract all the broad slapstick: Watch as Chaplin pretends to share his hymnal with an infant in Easy Street, then shrugs when he’s ignored. (That film also contains one of the oddest moments in Chaplin’s filmography, when the tramp accidentally sits on a heroin addict’s needle and leaps up, infused with drug-fueled super strength — pre-Production Code sordid humor at its finest.) All three films feature accompaniment by Jon Mirsalis on piano.

The final program is 1925’s The Gold Rush — like The Kid, an essential feature that no Chaplin fan minds revisiting, and an ideal vehicle for newbies to make his acquaintance. As a prospector seeking his fortune in the frozen Yukon, the Tramp fights a hungry bully and falls in love with a pretty girl (of course), but he also performs the oft-imitated tableside “roll dance” — and gnaws on his own boot. Priceless. And since lively music is a huge part of the experience: Timothy Brock once again conducts the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, playing Chaplin’s own score. *


Sat/11, “Our Mutual Friend,” 1pm; The Kid, 4pm; The Gold Rush, 7:30pm, $10-$22

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF


Cage heat: salute the screen icon’s 50th bday!


Oscar-winning actor (for 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas), cultural curiosity (for his Superman and Elvis obsessions, tax troubles, hair, etc.), Coppola family member (Francis Ford is his uncle), meme generator, and cult icon Nicolas Cage is about to become a half-century man. And what better way to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of the most predictably unpredictable movie stars of all time than by checking out a pair of his movies?

Tomorrow (NC’s actual bday: Jan. 7), Midnites for Maniacs unspools a pair of Cage classics, starting with his breakout role as a totally tripandicular Hollywood punk mooning after the title character in 1983’s Valley Girl. This movie has it all: a killer soundtrack, terrible-amazing hair and fashions, the immortal EG Daily, and maybe the best prom scene in the 1980s teen-movie canon. We melt with you, Nic.

Second half of the show is the brilliantly bizarre rom-com crime thriller 1987 Raising Arizona, which is not only one of Cage’s best films, but also a top-spot contender from directors the Coen Brothers. Insert your favorite quote here … “Son, you got a panty on your head.”

Also promised: “dozens of Cage trailers!”, so prime yourself for scenes of balls-to-the-wall insanity and greatness. Here’s hoping for high-pitched hilarity from Peggy Sue Got Married (1986); Cher getting feisty in Moonstruck (1987); snakeskin perfection in Wild at Heart; TCB-ing from 30,000 feet in Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) — and a healthy showing from his 1990s action classics (1996’s The Rock, 1997’s Face/Off and Con Air). I’ll even to go bat for National Treasure (2004) if that means extra clips from Adaptation (2002) and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). SHOOT HIM AGAIN…HIS SOUL IS STILL DANCING!

(Just let’s leave the 2006 Wicker Man remake out of it, OK?)

“Nicolas Cage’s 50th Birthday” Triple Bill
Fri/3, 7:20pm, Valley Girl; 9:20pm, Raising Arizona, $12
Castro Theatre
429 Castro, SF

Watch out!


YEAR IN FILM What the hell am I watching? I muttered that phrase many times in 2013, with interpretations ranging all over the cinematic map. There was a sense of amazed “How did they do that?” during Gravity; feelings of intrigued unease during Upstream Color and The Act of Killing; and a genuine feeling of befuddlement as a book I thoroughly enjoyed, World War Z, was transformed into a puddle of CG mud with Brad Pitt bobbing at its center.

It was a year full of memorable images, for better and worse. I won’t soon forget The Counselor‘s car-fucking sequence; The Conjuring‘s creepy Annabelle doll; or the sight of Jonah Hill becoming possessed by a demon in This is the End (or by a handful of well-aged Quaaludes in The Wolf of Wall Street). On the other hand, I’ve been struggling to remember anything that happened in the number one movie of the year, Iron Man 3.

That’s not Tony Stark’s fault. Mega-budget films like Iron Man 3 make high box-office numbers their top priority. To sell a lot of tickets, you have to appeal to as many different kinds of filmgoers as possible; the avoidance of sharp edges and left-field insanity is to be expected. But there’s hope to be found in films like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, the sixth-biggest moneymaker of the year, which married crowd-pleasing suspense and technical beauty (that 3D!) to a surprisingly stark, profound story about loneliness and loss.

Gravity was among many films this year that lingered on themes of fear, abandonment, and forced self-reliance. The other big example: J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost, which sets a solo sailor — Robert Redford, one of few movie stars with as much built-in audience goodwill as Gravity‘s Sandra Bullock — adrift on a perilously leaky vessel. Unlike Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone, Redford’s unnamed salty dog isn’t gasping for oxygen (yet …), and he’s scrambling to survive sudden storms instead of onslaughts of space junk. But Redford’s plight might actually be the tougher one. All is Lost offers neither exposition nor any room for existential reflection. (Hell, it barely offers any dialogue; no wacky Mardi Gras stories from George Clooney here.) We have no idea who Redford’s character is, or why he’s puttering around alone on the Indian Ocean. Compared to Ryan, he remains calm as each new calamity presents itself. But both characters — she, a rookie in space; he, a seemingly experienced seaman — scramble to read instruction manuals when they find gizmos that might help them survive, even for just a few more moments.

The stakes are less dire for the lonely protagonists of Spike Jonze’s Her and the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. And you kinda get the sense that both Her‘s Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Inside‘s Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) have only themselves to blame for their ennui. But unlike Llewyn, who bumbles his way through a 1960s New York folk scene riddled with mistakes he’s only recently begun to regret, mid-21st century Los Angeleno Theodore finds a coping strategy that brings him joy. Even when the “relationship” he’s cultivated with his computer operating system hits the expected snags, Jonze sneaks a little bit of optimism in there. By the film’s end, Theodore’s intimate brush with technology has guided him toward some very human soul-searching — again, unlike Llewyn, whose story finishes exactly where it began.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish — a documentary investigating the 2010 death of a SeaWorld trainer at the jaws of a male orca named Tilikum — also brought a tale of isolation to the forefront. It’s capped with a lingering shot of the giant animal hovering, motionless, in a solitary-confinement tank. Home sweet home. Thoughtful and provocative, Blackfish avoids sensationalism, adding interviews with killer-whale experts to its slate of ex-SeaWorld employee talking heads. It’s not simply an exposé of a specific attack, though it does contain footage shot just before the Tilikum incident. It’s an indictment of an amusement-park industry that puts profits above the safety of its employees, and tries mightily to turn intelligent, unpredictable animals into goofy attractions.

And greed, as it happens, was another big theme for 2013. It’s a topic that lends itself to high-energy tales of ill-gotten gains and dramatic tumbles, with stakes as meaningless as the designer handbags snatched from Paris Hilton’s closet by Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring bandits — or as huge as the political careers toppled by the antics of American Hustle‘s con artists and slippery FBI agents. Nowhere was this familiar story arc so gleefully explored than in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which — like Bling and Hustle — was based on a true story. Even better, its tale of 1990s stock-market swindling is based on the book written by the fiend who lived it (Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio), and shot by Martin Scorsese with top-of-his-game panache.

In a parallel universe, someone might make a film casting Belfort as the villain. Here, he’s the obnoxious, thieving, narcissistic, witty, scheming, drug-gobbling douchebag you hate to love. What the hell am I watching? The birth of an antihero, 2013-style. *



1. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway/UK)

2. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, US/UK)

3. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, US)

4. American Hustle (David O. Russell, US)

5. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, US)

6. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, Austria/US)

7. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US)

8. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, US)

9. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, US)

10. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, US)




Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, US); Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France/Belgium/Spain); Drug War (Johnnie To, China/Hong Kong); Nebraska (Alexander Payne, US); The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, US)




Leonardo DiCaprio vs. the stairs, The Wolf of Wall Street

“Let’s boo-boo.” — The World’s End

Mastodon’s “cameo” in Monsters University

Louis C.K.’s ice-fishing story, American Hustle

Judi Dench explains the plot of Big Momma’s House to Steve Coogan, Philomena

“I wanna rob!” — Emma Watson, The Bling Ring

Sun Honglei’s transformation into “Haha,” Drug War

Jem Cohen’s musings on Bruegel, Museum Hours

“Everytime” musical number, Spring Breakers

John Goodman’s “Santería” speech, Inside Llewyn Davis John C. Reilly’s cameo, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Back in Burgundy


FILM The return of Ron Burgundy — the boorish, quotable Will Ferrell character immortalized in 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy — has been heralded for months, thanks to an extravagant marketing campaign that has included car commercials, a new Ben & Jerry’s flavor, and Burgundy-branded Scotch.

But before you claim Burgundy fatigue, there’s the actual sequel to consider. And Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is quite hilarious, as it turns out. Director, co-writer, and longtime Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay — formerly of Saturday Night Life, he’s the co-founder of Funny or Die, and has directed such Ferrell hits as Anchorman and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) — came to town to discuss his new comedy.

SF Bay Guardian I know you’re here to talk about Anchorman 2, but first I have to express my deep love for Step Brothers (2008).

Adam McKay We were just talking about how that’s the one movie we have that’s super-polarizing. People either loved it or hated it. Roger Ebert wrote one of my favorite reviews that we’ve ever had, where he said that the movie was a symbol of the downfall of Western civilization. [Ed. note: the exact quote is “In its own tiny way, it lowers the civility of our civilization.”] Will Ferrell and I loved that. It read like the Richard Jenkins character in the movie wrote the review! But it might be my favorite movie we’ve done. I think it makes me laugh the hardest.

SFBG Will you ever make Step Brothers 2?

AM We were actually on our way to making Step Brothers 2. The problem was, everyone I told said, “Why? Cause you can’t do Anchorman 2?” I said to Will, “Are we gonna make this movie and the whole response is gonna be, ‘[They made this because] they couldn’t do Anchorman 2‘?” I just didn’t want to deal with that. Fortunately, we love Anchorman as well. But yeah, we had a whole idea. We’d outlined it. John C. Reilly was in. So it still may happen.

SFBG A lot of Anchorman 2‘s humor comes from its cameos. Were you flooded with calls from actors who wanted in?

AM We did have a little bit of that, actually, which is unusual. Fortunately, they were people we loved. I heard right away that Tina [Fey] was up for a cameo, and I’m like, “Yes!” I bumped into Sacha [Baron Cohen], and I was like, “Hey, would you wanna…” “Yeah, I’ll do it!” It was weird to get those kind of effusive responses. It was kind of crazy.

SFBG The first film was PG-13. I’m surprised the sequel is, too. While watching it, I assumed it would get an R for language.

AM We actually had a long battle with the MPAA over it, and we had to trim down quite a few things. It’s all, like, sexual innuendo, and if you say this word you can’t say that word. But meanwhile, if you kill 100 people they don’t care. We were kind of pulling our hair out. But at the end of the day, I think we did pretty well with it. It was always meant to be PG-13. It’s a silly, kind of living cartoon movie. It’s not a hard, dirty movie.

The crack scene was a big, big [sticking point]. Originally it was much longer. But you’ll get to see that on the DVD. There’s a whole other version of the movie where we replaced all of the jokes, since we did so much improv. So it’s the exact same physical movie, but almost every joke is different.

SFBG A lot of the jokes might be perceived as racist or sexist if they were taken out of context. How do you ensure that viewers don’t receive those the wrong way?

AM That was really tricky. We had to calibrate that through all the screenings that we did. The first screening had too much of that in it, and it felt a little uncomfortable, so we’d kind of pull it back. But the whole premise is, these guys are idiots. And they don’t understand anything about multiculturalism, women’s lib — they don’t get any of it. So as long as that premise is clear, you’re OK. They’re not mean guys — except for Champ Kind, who probably is a Tea Party right-winger. But the rest of them are just idiots.

So long as the racial jokes were more just ignorance, it was OK. But if it ever became like a pointed slam, that’s when it would cross the line. So we stayed away from all that kind of stuff, and just had them sort of live in ignorance.

SFBG Like the first Anchorman, the film layers its silliness over cultural commentary. Here, it’s how ridiculous 24 hour news has become.

AM That was always the inspiration. In the first movie, we had women breaking into the newsroom, and these avuncular anchormen just being shits, basically. And that’s hilarious and awful at the same time, and significant enough that you have stakes that you can tell the story.

So for this one, the central idea was 24-hour news, and when the news became what it is today. Really, we knew we had the movie when we were like, “Let’s have Burgundy be the guy who ruins it all.” [Laughs.] And we decided to pin it all on him: the birth of infotainment, the birth of ratings-driven, corporate-owned news, and the idea that Burgundy would be really good at it.


ANCHORMAN 2 opens Wed/18 in Bay Area theaters.

SF Sketchfest posted its schedule today! (Spoiler: it’s awesome)


Dudes! Nerds! Pedro-voters! SF Sketchfest 2014 posted its complete schedule today, unveiling over 200 shows to be held in 20 venues from Jan. 23-Feb. 9. Over the past 13 years, the fest has exploded from humble local offering to one of the most popular comedy events in the country, luring the biggest names in the biz — as well as cult comedy heroes — to town.

Tickets go on sale Sun/15 at 10am, and since SF Sketchfest is P.O.P.U.L.A.R., you won’t want to delay if something in the line-up catches your eye. (Pro-tip: though the festival does contain sketch shows, it also has music, film screenings, live recordings of pod casts, panel discussions, lots of tributes, and more.) You want guidance? Highlights? Best bets and sleeper hits? Read on!

Opening night (Jan. 23), there’ll be a tribute to the tenth anniversary of Napoleon Dynamite, with Jon “Napoleon” Heder, Efren “Pedro” Ramirez, and Diedrich “Rex” Bader in person at the Castro Theatre. Later that night, also at the Castro, Jack Black and Kyle Gass attend a celebration of all things Tenacious D, which promises “an evening of conversation, clips, and songs.” Better get it on in the party zone, if you know what I’m sayin’.

Other highlights include:

* SF Sketchfest’s tribute to Key and Peele (Jan. 25), whose Comedy Central show is provocative, smart, and hilarious (exhibit A, below)

* a “Farewell, Futurama!” (also Jan. 25) chat sesh with cast and crew members of the beloved animated show

* a Feb. 2 spotlight on HBO’s Enlightened, with Laura Dern, Mike White, Luke Wilson, and others in conversation

* a tribute to THE ALAN ARKIN with a 35th anniversary screening of The In-Laws (Feb. 6)

* a 30th anniversary screening of Revenge of the Nerds, with cast and crew in person (Feb. 8)

Plus so much more: Tim Heidecker! Allison Brie! Maya Rudolph! Amy Schumer! Comedians I’m not cool enough to know about, but you probably are! Hustle over to SF Sketchfest’s website and feast your eyes.

Dragons and drag: new movies from Peter Jackson and Tyler Perry, plus more!


Breathe easy, halfling: the middle installment in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is a huge improvement over the first film. Also new this week: Emma Thompson turns in a cranky-yet-lovable performance as the woman who wrote Mary Poppins in Saving Mr. Banks (with Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney); Liev Schreiber battles oddly familiar space monsters in The Last Days on Mars; and Tyler Perry celebrates the holidays as only he can, with A Madea Christmas. Read on for reviews and trailers.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Just when you’d managed to wipe 2012’s unwieldy The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey from your mind, here comes its sequel — and it’s actually good! Yes, it’s too long (Peter Jackson wouldn’t have it any other way); arachnophobes (and maybe small children) will have trouble with the creepy, giant-spider battle; and Orlando Bloom, reprising his Lord of the Rings role as Legolas the elf, has been CG’d to the point of looking like he’s carved out of plastic. But there’s much more to enjoy this time around, with a quicker pace (no long, drawn-out dinner parties); winning performances by Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Ian McKellan (Gandalf); and Benedict Cumberbatch (as the petulent voice of Smaug the dragon); and more shape to the quest, as the crew of dwarves seeks to reclaim their homeland, and Gandalf pokes into a deeper evil that’s starting to overtake Middle-earth. (We all know how that ends.) In addition to Cumberbatch, the cast now includes Lost‘s Evangeline Lilly as elf Tauriel, who doesn’t appear in J.R.R. Tolkien’s original story, but whose lady-warrior presence is a welcome one; and Luke Evans as Bard, a human poised to play a key role in defeating Smaug in next year’s trilogy-ender, There and Back Again. (2:36) (Cheryl Eddy)

The Last Days on Mars An eight-member crew of a multinational expedition to Mars are just wrapping up their six-month mission when they discover sign of life — well, “bacterial cell division,” albeit of a virulent strain that seems hellbent on turning anyone who comes in contact with it into violent un-dead. Hence the visiting humans are soon battling for survival, including Liev Schreiber (hero), Romola Garai (sorta-love interest), Olivia Williams (mean girl), and Elias Koteas. Though well crafted, this first feature by Irish director Ruairi Robinson (adapted by Clive Dawson from Sydney J. Bounds’ 1975 short story) can’t help but be a letdown as its menace turns out to be nothing more than transformed humans in pasty “monster” makeup lurching around grabbing the panicked, still-living specimens. You’ve seen all this before, in forms both scarier and cheesier, but either way often more memorably handled than here. (1:38) (Dennis Harvey)

Saving Mr. Banks Having promised his daughters that he would make a movie of their beloved Mary Poppins books, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has laid polite siege to author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) for over 20 years. Now, in the early 1960s, she has finally consented to discuss the matter in Los Angeles — albeit with great reluctance, and only because royalty payments have dried up to the point where she might have to sell her London home. Bristling at being called “Pam” and everything else in this sunny SoCal and relentlessly cheery Mouse House environ, the acidic English spinster regards her creation as sacred. The least proposed changes earn her horrified dismissal, and the very notion of having Mary and company “prancing and chirping” out songs amid cartoon elements is taken as blasphemy. This clash of titans could have made for a barbed comedy with satirical elements, but god forbid this actual Disney production should get so cheeky. Instead, we get the formulaically dramatized tale of a shrew duly tamed by all-American enterprise, with flashbacks to the inevitable past traumas (involving Colin Farrell as a beloved but alcoholic ne’er-do-well father) that require healing of Travers’ wounded inner child by the magic of the Magic Kingdom. If you thought 2004’s Finding Neverland was contrived feel-good stuff, you’ll really choke on the spoons full of sugar force-fed here. (2:06) (Dennis Harvey)

Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas Writer-director-star Tyler Perry returns with his seventh Madea film. (1:45)

Gore to the world


FILM Consider the giants of ho-ho-horror. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) boasted an above-average cast (Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon). Christmas Evil (1980) was dubbed “the greatest Christmas movie ever made” by no less an authority than John Waters, who recorded an audio commentary for its 2006 special-edition DVD.

And then there’s Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), which borrows several of Christmas Evil‘s plot points: a kid suffering mental damage from a Santa-related trauma grows up, unwisely takes a job working with toys, become obsessed with the concepts of “naughty” and “nice,” and eventually snaps. Christmas Evil may have the better last shot (you’ll believe a van can fly!), but Silent Night, Deadly Night is not without its sleazy charms.

Directed by Charles Sellier Jr. — best-known for creating TV’s The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, he later segued into Christian-themed entertainment — Silent Night, Deadly Night contains scream queen Linnea Quigley, a year before her signature role as the naked, grave-dancing “Trash” in Return of the Living Dead. Though she’s only onscreen for a few minutes, her death scene (shrieking, flailing, topless, wearing jorts, piercing antlers) is Z-grade slasher gold.

Beyond Quigley’s rack (and the other boobs showcased eagerly and gratuitously herein) and some gorgeous Utah location shots, Silent Night, Deadly Night‘s memorable moments come courtesy of its creepy soundtrack. The Internet proves that least one dance remix exists of “Santa’s Watching,” a nightmarish ditty which reprises throughout the film. In the film’s opening credits, it’s a sing-songy lullaby; it plays in full-cheese form on a car radio shortly before unfortunate tot Billy Chapman sees his parents slaughtered by a baddie in a Kris Kringle costume; and it’s sung drunkenly by grown-up Billy’s co-workers at the toy store where he works.

And Santa is, indeed, watching. Early on, wee Billy’s catatonic grandfather snaps to when nobody’s looking, which is one of the film’s few genuinely frightening bits. “Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year!” he croaks with cruel glee. “If you see Santa Claus tonight, you better run for your life!” Point taken, Gramps.

A few years later, Billy and baby brother Ricky are marking time at a Catholic orphanage. Billy’s still traumatized by what he witnessed (exhibit A: he punches the benevolent Santa that comes to visit the kids on Christmas), but the bitchy Mother Superior believes her punishments will set the naughty (ahem) boy right. When the film jumps ahead a few more years, Billy (played as an adult by Robert Brian Wilson) is a strapping lad employed at a dingy toy shop. He’s happy for the first time, therefore we get a peppy montage (more original music!) that spirals into darkness as soon as we realize what month it is.

Guess who’s pressed into Santa-clad service, with predictably messy results? (Not Billy’s boss, who kicks off the store’s after-hours party by announcing “Time to get shitfaced!”) Like Christmas Evil, Silent Night, Deadly Night is novel amid the 1980s slasher wave in that it follows the killer’s story, rather than empowering whatever Jamie Lee Curtis character is left standing at the end. Frankly, by the last reel, it’s a relief when put-upon weirdo Billy goes full psycho, meting out punishment among the naughty (and sparing the very few he deems “nice”).

And what about little Ricky? Oh, he survives to cause his own jingle-bell rampage in the sublimely campy, meme-spawning Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987) and the less-notable Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989). The series continued with the Clint Howard-starring, witch-themed Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 (1990); and Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991), featuring Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney as the titular craftsman. Spoiler alert: He’s evil. Just like Santa. *


Sat/14, 10pm, $10

Balboa Theatre

3630 Balboa, SF