Dennis Harvey

SFIFF: Explosive stuff!


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SFIFF The pop detritus of today is the archaeological evidence of tomorrow, to be pieced together by future generations — should there be any — who will no doubt want to know what the hell we were thinking. Their conclusions may be bizarre. But will their conjecture be any stranger than our present-tense realities?

Inventing tomorrow’s conspiracy theories today is Mock Up on Mu, the latest pseudodocumentary, sci-fi historical dig, Situationist prank, and thinly veiled fight-the-power rant by San Francisco’s collage king, Craig Baldwin. In the mode of his prior cult faves Tribulation 99 (1992), O No Coronado! (1992) and Spectres of the Spectrum (1999) — albeit with a higher percentage of new staged sequences mixed into the ingeniously assembled archival errata — it again grinds fact and fiction into a tasty genre-defying pulp. For many, Mu‘s world premiere is the most eagerly awaited event in the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival’s goody-laden schedule.

It’s 2019 AD on the Empire of Mu — the Moon — where L. Ron Hubbard (Damon Packard) is building theme parks, selling crater-naming rights, and beaming corporate logos back to "that prison planet called Earth." Having been banished from our planet, he must dispatch "Agent C," a.k.a. Marjorie Cameron (Michelle Silva), back to the blue ball to engage in some espionage involving the seductions of both Ra-worshiping rocket scientist Jack Parsons (Kal Spelletich) and sleazy defense contractor Lockheed Martin (Stoney Burke). Realizing "Commodore" Hubbard’s purposes may be more nefarious than professed, she finds the truth is out there … way out there. It’s naked and shameless, in fact. Those hippies were right: free love will save us all.

As ever, there is a certain investigative method behind the Oakland-born Baldwin’s jigsaw madness. The real Parsons was the founder of the pre-NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an avid occultist. He started a private boat dealership with none other than Hubbard, before Hubbard absconded with some money and Parsons’ girlfriend (whom he married). Soon thereafter, Hubbard wrote the original Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1950, which in turn led to that gift to mankind we call Scientology. As for Parsons, he went on to marry painter, author, and psychic Cameron, who, like him (as well as Hubbard) was an early American devotee of Aleister Crowley and a participant in sex magick rituals.

Thus you don’t need six degrees, let alone Kevin Bacon, to connect Wernher von Braun, Kenneth Anger, and Tom Cruise. History is fun! As is Mu, with its antic use of everything from old propagandistic footage to clips spanning eras of cinematic sci-fi: Georges Melies’ 1902 Trip to the Moon, the original Flash Gordon serial and 1936’s H.G. Wells–based Things to Come, drive-in trash (it’s always cheering to see 1962’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die), and Star Trek. The resulting fair-use frolic nonetheless reveals a serious side or three while exploring the dense and slightly demented history of military and aerospace business in sunny California.

Baldwin recently took a break from his numerous other roles — programmer at Other Cinema; teacher at SF Art Institute, California College of the Arts, and Artists Television Access — to sound off on Mu.

SFBG I hate to ask such a blunt question, but what is this movie about?

CRAIG BALDWIN My "Mu-vie" is about how utopian visions of technology and space exploration became compromised by the military in the late 20th century. And [about] how the lives of [technological and space travel] pioneers afford a rich trace of California regional history after World War II: the complex crossing of alternative tech research, personal belief systems, lifestyles, artistic practices, newly organized and newly imported religions, and spiritual institutions. Plus that era brought an explosion of the formerly marginalized sci-fi genre, of which Mu is of course the very latest iteration!

Mu is also about the cult of film, especially experimental film. I’m trying to work though a new model of historiography or storytelling that I am calling collage-narrative. It’s a humble stab at opening up a new space in film practice that is not only of interest to historians but also to aesthetes. And, my dear, I don’t have to tell you that these groups are certainly not mutually exclusive!

SFBG Your father worked for a rocket manufacturer. Has that made you more interested in Cold War and military-industrial complex themes?

CB Yes, my dad worked for Aerojet. He was born the same year as Parsons! And I was born the year Parsons died. I am his reincarnation. But the point is something like 30 percent of Californians were involved in the aerospace biz at its height.

SFBG How much real Scientology material is in Mu?

CB [The film] remains at the level of Swiftian allegory or satire, spinning off of their Genesis story and [acting as] a meta-gloss on Hubbard’s own autobiography.

SFBG I wish Unarius had become the growth religious cult of our time. They’ve certainly made better movies. But regarding yours, the real life connections between Parsons, Hubbard, Crowley, "Mother of the New Age movement" Cameron, occultism, and scientific and military work are stranger than fiction.

CB Everyone has been very influenced by the New Age, uh, belief systems. But more than anything, I identify with postwar bohemians, beats, and hippies. Those days when rocket scientists and sci-fi pulpmeisters and occult conjurers and proto-Wicca ritual carnal orgiastic pagans intermingled may be long gone — though Kenneth Anger is still around.

SFBG Mu uses a lot of excerpts from mainstream and low budget entertainment. But where does the less familiar material — educational, promotional, and so forth — come from? You must spend infinite hours looking for the perfect clip.

CB It comes from my usual source: My basement archive of 2,500 industrial films. I do spend time in there, but could hardly claim to find the perfect clip. Au contraire. I call it "availabilism" — making what I do have work for me, through editing and audio techniques, overwriting it all into an associational stew hopefully akin to the half-memory, half-fantasy, sublinguistic colloid of thought itself.

SFBG What reaction does your work get from students? They presumably grok the pop culture stuff, but do they get the political undercurrents?

CB People can be responsive to the pop-cult clips, or the regional history, or the antiwar sentiments. But methinks [Mock Up on Mu] will be a touchstone for legions of occult or subcult partisans ravenous for these almost mythic tales of the roots of alternative religions.

SFBG Sir, your Thetan level must be off the charts.

MOCK UP ON MU Mon/28, 9:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; April 30, 8:55 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

>SFBG goes to SFIFF 51: our deluxe guide

Sibling rivalry


REVIEW This week most San Francisco cineastes will be focused on the International Film Festival — but please don’t let this Italian import, one of the best in years, leave town before you catch it. Cowritten (with director Daniele Luchetti) by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli of the fantastic Best of Youth (2003), the film shares that four-hour epic’s ability to pare decades of roiling postwar Italian political history into an absorbing personal drama. Accio (Elio Germano) is the youngest child, perpetually at odds with everyone in his poor family. He is a natural contrarian and zealot — first as a divinity student too self-righteously pious even for the priests to bear, then as an avid member of the Fascist Party. (His hometown is the small central Italian city Latina, a one-time party stronghold founded during the Mussolini era that previously had been an undrained swamp.) Those proclivities, not exactly fashionable in the story’s 1960s and ’70s setting, particularly exasperate Accio’s brother Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio, one of those Italian men who are so good-looking they almost constitute a traffic hazard), a charismatic born leader who becomes increasingly involved in the Communist Party and underground radical actions. Still, blood is thicker than water — and by the end we realize this famiglia‘s constant yelling and slapping are as much forms of affection as anything else. And the siblings do have something else in common, namely a jones for Manrico’s upper-class girlfriend Francesca (Diane Fleri). My Brother has been compared to Italian leftist classics like Marco Bellochio’s Fist in His Pocket (1965) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution (1964), no doubt largely because its manically malcontent protagonist — an indelible performance by Germano — and almost too-hyperactive imagery echo their restless intellectual agitprop. Fortunately, this is too warmly human a drama to share those films’ Godardian paternity.

MY BROTHER IS AN ONLY CHILD opens Fri/25 in Bay Area theaters.

Offbeat direction


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When successful actors turn to directing, you can often gauge how long they’ve been immersed in fiction by the degrees of condescension and cliché in their movies. Ethan Hawke is an unfortunate recent example. I’d say John Cassavetes is the classic one … but then people would hunt me down and kill me.

Of course, some actors can think outside themselves behind the camera: George Clooney, Sarah Polley, and Ben Affleck (who knew?) provide recent testimony. Even Mel Gibson might qualify. Though his films reveal a sadomasochistic freak flagelutf8g himself and us for God, they still express something beyond the cumulative wisdom acquired from drama school scene study and that aerial view of society one gets from the top of the entertainment industry heap.

Tom McCarthy isn’t as famous an actor, despite working steadily (on Boston Public, The Wire, and several Clooney movies) for a decade. This low profile may be an asset: while his 2003 writing-directorial debut, The Station Agent, sounded too precious, it turned out to be wonderful. McCarthy’s directorial follow-up, The Visitor, isn’t as successful. Still, it’s an unforced, gracefully crafted, emotionally rewarding (to a point) miniature that suggests he has a reliable second career option.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is an Ivy League economics professor who is as dour as a spreadsheet. He fires his fifth piano teacher in a row (stage great Marian Seldes) because he’s frustrated about poor progress at his chosen hobby. He’s a bone-dry lecturer whose office hours are coldly unwelcoming and lives in a Connecticut house too big for anyone with such a shrunken soul. His department forces him to deliver a paper at a New York University–sponsored conference, and thus he reenters, for the first time in years, his large Manhattan apartment.

Walter is surprised to discover Senegalese émigré Zinab (Danai Gurira) in his bathtub; her screams nearly bring Walter a beat-down from Syrian boyfriend Tarek (Haaz Sleiman). Once it’s sorted out that a scam artist has rented Walter’s prime piece of real estate to the couple in his absence, they set off, though they have no immediate berth.

Rousing from emotional slumber, Walter eventually invites the couple to stay. Then he starts to enjoy their company, or at least that of Tarek, a percussionist with an ingratiating personality who starts teaching him how to drum — a better musical option for Walter than the piano, even if he is the stiffest white guy attempting funkiness this side of Jad Fair. Tarek invites the stuffy 60-something to his jazz club gigs and introduces him to Fela Kuti CDs. It’s all good — until the NYPD profiles Tarek one night and he’s thrown into a windowless, characterless, Queens correctional facility, with deportation imminent.

The Visitor is beautifully acted and admirably sculpted. But in the last laps, McCarthy has Walter deliver a big speech to low-level governmental authorities, complete with an ironic fade-out on Old Glory and gives Walter a too-convenient, thwarted romantic interest.

It all leads to a routine, uplifting ending that would play better if Jenkins (of Six Feet Under and myriad supporting roles) had developed some drumming chops. This movie is a respectable follow-up to The Station Agent. But its suit-finds-groove response to globalization and deportation ultimately feels like a formula McCarthy should have already seen beyond.


Opens Fri/18 in San Francisco

See Movie Clock at

Fun but no Dice Man


Though early paperback editions brandished a "Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture" tag, there’s never been a movie of the 1971 cult novel The Dice Man. That’s a pity, because this tale of a psychiatrist who ditches his too-orderly life — by beginning to roll dice to make decisions — is a screen natural. I bet screenwriter Daniel Taplitz has read the Luke Rhinehart (a.k.a. George Cockcroft) book. His and director Marcos Siega’s Chaos Theory is a Dice Man update, softened and family values–sweetened for our counter-counterculture age. Ryan Reynolds plays Frank, a best-selling efficiency expert whose life derails in a marital meltdown. Pulling a 180, he decides "never to make a decision again" and to rely on random index-card suggestions instead. Streaking, bar fights, extramarital sex, no-hands motorcycle riding, and other vicarious freedoms ensue. Just when it hits its giddy comic stride, Chaos Theory retreats into conventional, sentimental terrain. Still, Frank’s brief vacation from conformity might give some people ideas. (As Dice Man once did for me, when I embarked on an interstate hitchhiking trek.) And if Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) might finally reach the screen after a half-century, there’s hope for Rhinehart’s book. In fact, Paramount claims a movie version is "in development." ‘Course, they’ve been saying that for 30-plus years.


Opens Fri/11 at Bay Area theaters

See Movie Clock at

Tom’s jones


Last year, after he was "fired" by Paramount for becoming the new Wacko Jacko, Tom Cruise bought United Artists. As the company prepares to Cruise into an uncertain future, the Castro Theatre is presenting a retrospective of its oft-glorious middle period. It kicks off with some Woody Allen (1977’s inevitable Annie Hall and 1975’s rare Love and Death). The lineup includes once-celebrated films (1955’s Marty, 1971’s The Hospital); classics that gained that stature after their initial release (1955’s Kiss Me Deadly and Night of the Hunter); and newly-struck 35mm prints. The 35 mm batch includes 1961’s West Side Story, whose hothouse palette makes it one of the greatest-ever testaments to old-school Technicolor.

Plus, Tom Cruise will personally introduce every screening and shake each patron’s hand as they leave. OK, we made that part up. But you never know.


Thurs/3 through May 4; $7–$9.50

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

Youth gone wild


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It’s hard for a contemporary reader to fathom why — indeed, it was probably hard for many non-Eire readers to fathom even then — but when Edna O’Brien’s debut novel, The Country Girls, came out in 1960, she was considered a disgrace to all of Ireland. Priests burned it in churchyards and denounced it from the pulpit. Her books — soon to include two Country Girls sequels, as the original was a hit everywhere else — were banned from the Emerald Isle as late as 1977.

Just what could have been so offending about a book now described in reference books as "comic and charming," in contrast to her more "somber and sophisticated" later works? Not a whole hell of a lot, by current standards. In The Country Girls, O’Brien’s two young female protagonists drink, disrespect the clergy, use bad language, and flirt with men. Actually, only the naughty one commits most of these "sins." But even the "nice" one becomes dangerously attached to a married man. Painted as boozy, abusive, and unreliable, Irish manhood in general doesn’t come off too well in the boisterous yet coolly told chronicle of these Girls. Which might be the real reason that it incited such public condemnation, notwithstanding all expressions of moral outrage.

In addition to her literary fiction (which got a whole lot more sexually frank in subsequent years), O’Brien has written screenplays and teleplays since the early 1960s, and stage scripts for many years as well. Lately she’s developed a rather simpatico relationship with the Magic Theatre. Tir na nóg, a nearly-half-century-later theatrical adaptation of The Country Girls, is her third Magic premiere. It follows the rather dreadful hair-pulling lady fight over one husband in Triptych (recurrent focus on such male-companion neediness is why O’Brien is a major female author seldom embraced by feminist academics or critics) and the structurally conventional, enjoyably juicy imploding-family melodrama Family Butchers.

Tir na nóg is something else, "a play with song" (its initial title) that tries mixing music, dance, a source narrative boiled down to rapid-fire outline, and yea more elements into a meta-theatre experience. It doesn’t entirely work, due more to the text than any failings in departing Magic artistic director Chris Smith’s resourceful production. But it’s still an arresting evening, with fine work from the largely multicast nine-member ensemble.

The "country girls" here are two authorial alter-ego halves. Kate (Allison Jean White) is the only child of a long-suffering mother (Cat Thompson) and drunken, abusive pa (Matt Foyer). Baba (Summer Serafin) is only child to the western village’s wealthiest couple, a flame-haired bratty terror.

Once the two girls are later sent off to convent school, the bad girl predictably gets them both expelled. After intermission, they make a first stab at adult life in big-city Dublin: serious-minded Kate as a working student carrying on a fitful affair with ardent-yet-married-to-a-mental-case "Mr. Gentleman" (toweringly suave Robert Parsons); Baba as an aspiring vamp stealing thrills from her own less-discriminatingly-chosen cheating beaus.

The book isn’t exactly a blur of incident. But in its first half O’Brien’s adaptation too often feels like a careless cinematic downsizing of highlights into too-short scenes, glue-gunned together by variably vocalized song snippets.

After the break, however, Tir na nóg (which translates as "land of youth") slows down for several poignantly deep scenes, notably between Kate and her stern Austrian landlady (Darragh), as well as a couple of unsuitable suitors. Beautifully handled by Smith and his design collaborators, the play goes off-rails a bit when O’Brien imposes as ending a flashback-memory montage, with principal characters (including dead ones) drifting back onstage to speak prior best lines in echo! echo! echo! recollection. Yet there’s a certain charm to ex-Riverdance choreographer Jean Butler’s ensuing ensemble step-dance finale.

If the novel’s Kate came off as a guileless blank slate — passively dragged down again and again by Baba’s misdeeds — White fills out that character with impressive gravitas. Serafin is a marvel as the antsy-panted best friend who simply can’t repress her disrespect for authority, or precocious aspirations as a va-voom mantrap.


Through March 23

Wed-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 2:30 and 7 p.m., $40-$75

Magic Theatre

Fort Mason Center, Marina and Buchanan, Bldg. D, third floor, SF

(415) 441-8822

There won’t be blood


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Michael Haneke would likely be offended if you said you enjoyed his movies — though no doubt he would enjoy hearing you were offended by them. The chill surface neutrality of a Haneke feature such as Caché (2005) is designed to intrigue and then frustrate — by depriving extreme situations of their usual sensationalism and neat narrative resolution so that we end up implicated by our own thwarted expectations. Even as a scold, Haneke is too disciplined to let us join him on his soapbox. The whole point lies in being discomfited.

The "normal" boy who kills a girl in Benny’s Video (1992); the bourgeoisie unraveling due to exposure of their own race and class prejudices in Code: Unknown (2000) and Caché; and an entire society reverting to primitive behaviors after unspecified catastrophe in Time of the Wolf (2003) are all so disturbing because they’re so banal. Even when portrayed by movie stars, these figures are willfully ordinary, observed at length performing dull tasks or making poor decisions for petty reasons. The one time he approached a conventional melodramatic arc and larger-than-life protagonist (if an antiheroine) was in the Elfride Jelinek adaptation of The Piano Teacher (2001) where Isabelle Huppert’s character embodies the masochistic role usually played by his viewers themselves.

None of these films are exactly date movies, but they still orbit an audience’s comfort zone more closely than Haneke’s most notorious film, the original 1997 Funny Games. Now, Haneke has made the seemingly perverse choice of creating a shot-for-shot remake as his first English-language feature. Actually, it’s a decision as coolly logical as any he’s made, since he has said more than once that the original is more a comment on US society and media than their Austrian equivalents.

Beyond its sheer unpleasantness, both language and subtitling prevented the original from reaching his target audience. Still, it’s unlikely people will be turning out en masse for Funny Games U.S., as the movie is being called everywhere but here. Those who do take the plunge are likely going to hate, hate, HATE it — which will be one way of gauging that Haneke’s subversion of standard genre rules is working as planned.

We meet the Farber family via eye-of-God aerial shots following their car to the exquisitely leafy countryside where their expansive lakeside summer home resides. With little Georgie (Devon Gearhart) in the backseat, Ann (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth) play guess-the-classical-composer. It’s too perfect and we know it, because Haneke incongruously interrupts their banter with a jarring blast of cacophonous death metal (actually a John Zorn piece) — the only music heard in the film that’s not ostensibly played from CD by an onscreen character. Horror, it suggests, might just be a dial flip away from intruding on this cozy trio.

Stopping short of their own electronic gate, the Farbers greet strangely uncommunicative neighbors standing on their lawn with two unknown men. Later, while father and son prep the sailboat, Ann gets a visit from Paul (Michael Pitt), who says he’s staying with the aforementioned neighbors and has been sent to borrow some eggs. Apologizing profusely, he nonetheless quickly manages to turn her hospitality into sputtering rage. Meanwhile, the dog disappears. Soon Paul is joined by Peter (Brady Corbet), his doppelgänger in tennis whites and floppy bangs. They look like consummate squeaky-clean preppies — or Hitler Youth. They have a not-long-hidden agenda. Things degenerate very quickly.

For all their sadism, Peter and Paul aren’t so much conventional villains as they are abstracts — tools to indict the viewer for participating in these games, or expecting anything like the usual fictive payoffs. The casting of the instantly recognizable Watts and Roth distracts at first, but Haneke’s approach (which employs agonizingly long takes, including one extreme instance that approaches 10 minutes in duration) and the actors’ grueling expressions of physical and emotional distress hit the right note of violated ordinariness.

It’s worth noting that perhaps Haneke’s most ingenious (and frequently overlooked) gambit is that there is almost no onscreen violence. As much as Funny Games feels like particularly merciless, graphic torture porn, the actual moments of assault are almost always cut away from or just out of frame. The one exception turns out to be Haneke’s single cruelest joke — and naturally, it’s on you. Without coming right out and saying it, Funny Games is now very much an answer to Hollywood norms and a larger cultural denial: here, violence is all suffering and no spectacle. *


Opens Fri/14 at Bay Area theaters

Saint Peter


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Arguably no modern film director made a better sustained entrance than Peter Bogdanovich, whose first four features were all triumphs. Targets (1968) was a chilling conceit that brought Hollywood pretend terror (Boris Karloff basically playing himself) against a modern real-world horror, the randomly mass-murdering sniper. That critical success led to a major studio deal to adapt (with then wife and collaborator Polly Platt) Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show (1971), a melancholy black-and-white flashback to 1950s rural Texas. It won two Oscars, was nominated for five more, and served as a launching pad for actors including Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, and Cybill Shepherd. Next came What’s Up, Doc? (1972), a delightful, San Francisco–set nod to 1930s screwball comedies with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. Its huge success was equaled by 1976’s Paper Moon, with O’Neal and daughter Tatum as a Depression-era confidence duo.

That’s a heady four hits in five years — and they’ll all be shown at the Castro Theatre in a tribute to the director presented by Midnites for Maniacs’ Jesse Hawthorne Ficks. Another four films will be seen in director’s cuts different from original theatrical versions. Further, Bogdanovich himself will be on hand at all but the earliest matinees. He’s a great raconteur who’s insightfully frank about the ups and downs of an eventually checkered career.

"Ups and downs" puts it mildly. While Bogdanovich started out on top, Hollywood relished kicking him with each downward step. But he’s still here — and especially visible recently, thanks to his role on The Sopranos as Lorraine Bracco’s shrink. Behind the camera too, he’s gotten love lately from the four-hour DVD documentary Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007). Bogdanovich, who hasn’t directed a big-screen movie since 2001’s lamentably underseen The Cat’s Meow with Kirsten Dunst, hopes to soon start shooting an adaptation of Tracey Letts’s jet-black stage comedy Killer Joe — and he’s got other irons in the fire.

If it’s thus a fine moment to be Bogdanovich, there have been many not-so-great ones. Phoning recently from Los Angeles, he recalls that before the debut of Daisy Miller (1974), his first commercial failure, critic Judith Crist asked him, "Is it good? It better be … because they’re waiting for you." Catching major flack for that film was Shepherd, the model-turned-actress he left Platt for.

"Peter and Cybill" were inseparable, possibly obnoxious. They cohosted The Tonight Show for a week and were reportedly arch as hell. They occupied the inaugural cover of People, with the headline "Living Together Is Sexy." The director quotes Cary Grant (doing a perfect vocal imitation) advising, "Petah, please stop telling people you’re happy and in love!" Asked why, Grant said, "Because they aren’t happy and in love."

Even those who liked Daisy Miller went Attila on 1975’s At Long Last Love, a lavish tribute to ’30s musicals with Cole Porter songs recorded live by some actors who were trained singers (Madeleine Kahn) and others who weren’t (Shepherd, Burt Reynolds). It was meant to be charming. It got the most vitriolic reviews this side of Battlefield Earth. Bogdanovich now says, "We rushed and fucked it up. The first preview in San Jose was an unmitigated disaster. Then we recut and remixed, and it played quite well. But I made some calamitous changes after that, and didn’t preview it again before release. We were just killed. Later we made a different edit. When Jesse called me to say he was showing it, I said, ‘Why?’ ‘I like it.’ ‘Oh, you’re the one.’<0x2009>"

The Castro will screen that improved edit — which is charming. Although the title is still a pseudonym for "turkey," At Long Last Love has never been released on video or DVD. In a town where success usually excuses all egotism, Bogdanovich had still somehow crossed a line. His failures were blamed on sheer arrogance. "I got a lot of that," he says — though back then a purportedly imperious on-set demeanor and statements like "I’m not modest, I’m not humble, and the more success I have, the more critics will resent me" surely didn’t help. He’d had the temerity to befriend Hollywood legends including Grant, John Ford, and Orson Welles — who was practically a permanent houseguest. Who the hell did he think he was?

Cynics had already interpreted Bogdanovich’s hit homages to Hollywood’s past as evidence he didn’t have an original thought in his head. Then they gloated over his nonhits. Despite the star power of Reynolds and both O’Neals, Nickelodeon was a 1976 Christmas flop. (Forced to shoot in color, Bogdanovich says, "It’s another movie in black and white" — which is how he’ll show it at the Castro.)

Despite excellent reviews, 1979’s Paul Theroux adaptation Saint Jack didn’t find an audience. Ditto 1981’s They All Laughed, an enchanting, ensemble romantic comedy. It was (among other things) a valentine to his new love and protégée, erstwhile Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten — who shortly after filming ended was killed by the thuggish promoter-husband she’d tried to leave amicably. That murder-suicide was followed by more ugliness: a war of words between Bogdanovich and Hugh Hefner; "dramatization" of the tragedy in 1983’s Star 80 ("I begged Bob Fosse not to do it") and a TV movie; and distribution problems for They All Laughed that cost him millions. Sympathy soured when Bogdanovich became involved with Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise — who was all of six months older than his own daughter. (Nonetheless, their eventual marriage lasted 13 years.)

Bogdanovich had a left-field comeback in 1985’s Mask, with Eric Stoltz as Elephant Kid and Cher as biker-chick mom. But even that was marred by public sparring with both Cher and studio execs. The latter substituted Bob Seger tunes for Bruce Springsteen ones key to the story’s real-life inspiration. (The Castro’s "theatrical world premiere" cut restores all the Bruuuuce.) Whether good, bad, or indifferent, his subsequent ventures flopped. In an eerie echo of past events, 1993’s The Thing Called Love came out (barely) after star River Phoenix OD’d. Bogdanovich turned to directing TV episodes (including for The Sopranos) and cable movies. It wasn’t a comedown, he says. "The scripts were good … and I got to work with actors like Cicely Tyson, Sidney Poitier, and George Segal."

Bogdanovich also relit an acting career abandoned decades earlier. Having written essays about film history (notably for Esquire) before moving to Hollywood, he thinks his industry hater trail is partly due to perception of him as critic turned filmmaker. He considers the roughly 45 stage productions he acted in (and the 6 he directed) from age 15 to 24 as his real prior job.

Given all past tempests, Bogdanovich seems on good terms with his exes — Shepherd (in town with the play Curvy Widow) has promised to show up at the Castro late Friday for The Last Picture Show and At Long Last Love; Louise is flying in to talk about her late sister when They All Laughed shows on Sunday.

Is it painful for them to see Dorothy Stratten onscreen? "Yeah, especially now that [costar] John Ritter has died," he says. "But you know, when you see it with an audience, it’s OK — it takes the pain somewhat away. One of the peripheral tragedies [to Stratten’s death] was that the movie was never properly seen in its day. You couldn’t really look at it in the way it was meant to be enjoyed."


Fri/7–Sun/9, $10 per day ($25 weekend pass)

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF,

Gruesome twosomes


Grindhouse Psychos!

(Shriek Show)

CULT DVDS Nepotism is hardly absent from mainstream Hollywood. But off-grid exploitation and sexploitation flicks have oft been a family affair by low-budget necessity. Russ and Eve Meyer, Ray Dennis Steckler and Carolyn Brandt, and Ron and June Ormond are only the most stellar names amongst many who purveyed legendary cinematic trash from the sanctimony of holy matrimony.

By coincidence, two of three features in Shriek Show’s not-too-shabby new discount box set Grindhouse Psychos! illuminate comparatively obscure marital exploitation couples. Cop Killers is a 1972 hippie drug-deal meller featuring actors who’d later go on to produce and star in the classic softcore spoof Flesh Gordon (1974). It’s not bad, though nowhere as good as the packaging ("In front of them, cops. Behind them, dead cops!"). Making a punchier impression are early-’80s titles that kept it all in the family.

Actually, Roberta Findlay’s 1985 Tenement, a.k.a. Game of Survival, a.k.a. Slaughter in the South Bronx, was released several years after husband Michael died in a bizarre helicopter-decapitation accident. Together they’d done it all: a kidnapping-rape film with pre-fame Yoko Ono (1965’s Satan’s Bed); an infamous trilogy of ultrasleazy late-’60s "roughies" (1968’s The Curse of Her Flesh, etc.); the 1974 cannibalism-meets-Bigfoot schlock masterpiece Shriek of the Mutilated; porn films both gay (Michael, Angelo, and David) and straight (Funk in 3-D). They engineered 1976’s Snuff, which capitalized on urban legend by intercutting crude new fake-documentary "murder" footage into a 1971 Findlay film shot in Argentina called The Slaughter. That con made millions.

Widowed Roberta soldiered on variably as director, cinematographer, producer, and scenarist for another decade, often under masculine aliases. Her activities ran a short gamut from porn (Lifestyles of the Blonde and Dirty) to horror (1987’s Blood Sisters). Tenement was an exception — an urban thriller à la Death Wish 3 (1985), Class of 1984 (1982), or any other ’80s movie where the evil gang was mixed race, punk, and dedicated to exterminating decent society. Here, one such crew gets arrested for shooting up in a Bronx apartment building’s empty basement. Freed five seconds later, they exact revenge by trapping and killing residents one floor at a time. Natch, the tenants fight back.

Considered so violent in 1985 that it was given an X rating, Tenement survives as the kind of vigorously crass grade-Z exercise that gives vintage exploitation a good name. Findlay is bemused and delightful in her DVD-extra interview, recalling the shoot amongst real junkies and gangs like a retired teacher might remember naughty third graders.

Much less prolific than the Findlays were Joseph Ellison and Ellen Hammill-Ellison, creators of just two New Joisey B flicks. Their incongruous 1986 doo-wop musical, Joey, bombed. But six years earlier, Don’t Go in the House made the full drive-in and grindhouse rounds, achieving disreputable immortality as an oft-cited example of extreme horror misogyny. Emotionally scarred by a late mother who’d used the gas stovetop as a disciplinary tool, Norman Bates–like nebbish Donny (Dan Grimaldi, The Sopranos‘s Patsy Parisi) lures women to his creepy hilltop home, where he gets back at mommy by burning them to death.

The reason this movie became notorious is the first such death. It left a lingering icky stain on my brain — among many others — and is mighty disturbing still. Gentleman Donny offers a ride to a stranded flower-shop proprietress (Johanna Brushay), who’s given enough screen time to seem like a real person rather than slasher-flick cannon fodder. Knocked unconscious after an unsettling buildup, she wakes to find herself naked, suspended from ceiling to floor in a metal-walled room he’s assembled for his new pastime. Entering in a flame-retardant suit, he douses her with gasoline, then applies a blowtorch at length — the grisly result patently faked by FX superimposition but horrible nonetheless.

Nothing else in this flaming Psycho imitation is so vividly appalling. But that sequence alone places House firmly in the special category of overenthusiastically female-abusive films one can’t quite believe a woman actually helped produce, let alone cowrote.

Love and war


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Planet Mamet is normally a very manly-man’s world, where alpha males growl, snap, and try to steal one another’s bones. Women either similarly play rough or become obstacles to the overweening guy-versus-guy competition. Ergo, Boston Marriage is an anomaly: seldom staged since its 1999 premiere, this is a most atypical David Mamet play in that the characters are all female, the language florid, and the tone giddy — even, well, campy.

It probably seems more so than hitherto in John Fisher’s Theatre Rhinoceros staging. Mamet has certainly written other comedies: American Conservatory Theater’s recent revivals of Sexual Perversities in Chicago (1974), Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), and Speed-the-Plow (1988) highlighted their hilarity. But it is inherently cruel humor, the kind you know precedes some character’s genuine evisceration.

Boston Marriage is different — not kind, exactly (or at all), but larky and farcical rather than predatory. Even though it ends on the author’s frequent knife-twisting note of revealing just who’s conned who, this arch period fancy doesn’t have his usual hunt-or-be-hunted severity. It’s not out for blood — it’s just bitchy.

The 19th-century term Boston marriage referred to spinsters of means who chose to cohabit. For platonic companionship, society once politely presumed; because they’re muff-diving from the shores of Lesbos, we assume now. Alas, no Kinsey poll exists to reveal just how much either public myth translated into private practice. "Woman of fashion" Anna (a sublimely self-absorbed Trish Tillman) is thrilled to greet "you, my et cetera!" Claire (Alexandra Creighton), just back from an unexplained "prolonged absence." The latter is nonplussed to discover her housemate has redecorated their drawing room in flower-patterned rose chintz — Jon Wai-keung Lowe’s set design is vivid — but strangely neutral when Anna announces the home makeover was paid for by a wealthy male "protector" now keeping her as mistress.

Viewing this as a sacrifice she’s made to secure Claire’s and her material comfort, Anna is anything but neutral when her "dearest one" announces she too has news: she is in love, with a "young person" of the female persuasion. Sugar turns to spite in a blink, as Anna snipes, "I expect thanks — I get nothing but the tale of your new rutting!" — with worse soon to come from both sides. Compounding the offense, Claire has a favor to ask: the use of their house for a rendezvous with her chickadee this very afternoon. At first it seems Anna will allow that "vile assignation" over her dead body. But she’s not above negotiation, or trickery, or even voyeuristic curiosity. When the guest arrives, however, things take an unexpected turn that leaves both ladies frantic at the possibility of ruin.

Authorial inspiration flags a bit in the second half as the characters go off on too many conversational digressions and scheme their salvation in I Love Lucy terms. But Fisher’s honed staging and excellent cast (nicely clad in period frocks by Jeremy Cole) work agreeably throughout. Mamet pours on the antiquated phraseology ("You Visigoth!," "O land of Goshen!") but also indulges in some surprisingly crass (and funny) double entendres. There’s no end of hilarity in Anna’s abuse of maid Catherine (Pamela Davis, doing a neat parody of a classic stage type), at whom she spews endless anti-Irish condescension — never mind that the poor woman is Scottish.

Boston Marriage‘s characters may be far from three-dimensional, but they’re not supposed to be; they inhabit a universe as artificially stylized as that of the "lesbians" in Jean Genet’s plays (or Holly Hughes’s). Nor are they exercises in authorial misogyny: even operating in a more absurdist mode than usual, Mamet grants them the same steely wills, obstinate prejudices, emotional pressure points, and surprising resources as his most sharklike male combatants. Still, Anna and Claire need each other — the goal here isn’t power but love, however much power must be wielded to get it.


Extended through March 9

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; $15–$35

Theatre Rhinoceros

2926 16th St., SF

(415) 552-4100, ext. 104

“Cinema Piemonte”


PREVIEW The northwestern Italian region of Piemonte is noted for production of wine, wheat, and Fiats. Its principal city, Turin, a.k.a. Torino, was briefly the nation’s capital after unification — and soon afterward became the focus of its early film industry as well. While both crowns were eventually stolen by Rome, the area maintained a role in Italian cinema through the decades. That history is sampled in this weekend of features set in Piemonte, presented by the Associazione Piemontesi of Northern California in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute and Regione Piemonte. The four programs run a wide gamut, not least because they span 90 years between them. The closer on Sunday should be a major occasion: a restored print of Giovanni Pastrone’s 1914 Cabiria, the apex of the lavish costume epics that dominated Turin’s industry and proved a huge influence on the likes of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. This three-hour tale of ancient Rome will be accompanied live by pianist Stefano Maccagno, playing his original score. Another big international hit was 1949’s Bitter Rise, a heady brew of neorealism and noir melodrama that made Silvana Mangano — at the time a very well-developed 19 years old — into the first postwar Euro bombshell. Packed into tight clothes as a scheming peasant rice harvester, she seemed the very embodiment of wanton s-e-x years before Bardot, Monroe, and Loren came along. Mario Monicelli’s 1963 I Compagni, a.k.a. The Organizer, is a somewhat more serious labor drama, with Marcello Mastroianni, superb as usual, portraying a professor agitating for improved textile worker conditions at the dawn of the 20th century. Opening the weekend, and serving as its lightest note, is Davide Ferrario’s Dopo Mezzanote (After Midnight, 2004), a whimsical romantic comedy set in Turin’s Mole Antonelliana — a beautiful 19th-century structure that happens to house Italy’s National Museum of Film.

CINEMA PIEMONTE Fri/29, 7 p.m.; Sat/1, 4 and 7:30 p.m.; Sun/2, 4 p.m., free

Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, Marina at Laguna, SF,



Avoiding taking a political stance in favor of depicting a military operation under extreme circumstances with stark, vivid immediacy, Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort reenacts the Israeli Army’s evacuation of the titular fortress during its 2000 pullout from Lebanon. Constructed next to an ancient castle built by 12th-century crusaders, the enormous bunker — in which characters often seem to be running around like rats in a maze — was taken from the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1982 and fortified to an even more imposing degree. The skeleton crew that remains is anxious about both leaving and staying. As their planned departure nears, surrounding Hezbollah troops step up their shelling to make it appear they chased the Israelis out. This creates numerous harrowing situations; so do the self-doubt and inflexibility of youthful commander Liraz (Oshri Cohen), who makes some serious tactical errors and finally seems reluctant to let the men complete their mission by blowing the whole place sky-high. It’s not on the movie’s agenda to question whether Israel should have been there in the first place, which may seem a titanic omission to some viewers. But by simply conveying the unpredictability, heightened emotions, and claustrophobia of being under siege, Beaufort is perhaps the most visceral war movie since Downfall.

BEAUFORT Opens Fri/22 in Bay Area theaters.

Talking points


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The two women invited to a mysterious dinner party in the American Conservatory Theater–commissioned Brainpeople have no idea why they’re there. For some time we’re not sure why we are either. After detouring into the uncharacteristically straightforward screenplays of The Motorcycle Diaries and Trade, playwright José Rivera is back in quirky magic-realist overdrive. Too much of this 80-minute one-act feels propelled by a willful eccentricity less delightful than pointless. There is a point, though — and it’s worth the wait.

Dressed-to-kill beauty Mayannah (Lucia Brawley) has summoned two houseguests to her Los Angeles manse, which is heavily fortified against the violent police state outside. Both are promised substantial monetary reward for their attendance, though it seems all they’ve got to do is arrive (via armored limo) and enjoy "the meal of your lives."

This must be too good to be true. Garrulous wallflower Ani (Sona Tatoyan) voices our suspicions by nervously inquiring if the huge platter o’ mystery meat is, er, people. (It ain’t, but it is something equally seldom masticated.) Fellow guest Rosemary (Rene Augesen) doesn’t care what it is — she is hungry. She also displays odd shifts in mood and accent, soon exposed as a whole cacophonous chorus of schizoid "brainpeople" taking turns à la Sybil with her body and behavior.

In Daniel Ostling’s creepy-elegant dining room set, beautifully lit by Paul Whitaker, all three women reveal their demons via flamboyant yet unfelt monologues. Augesen in particular contorts through multivoice fireworks more actor punitive than audience rewarding. But Rivera and director Chay Yew’s premiere production are heading somewhere. When the "miracle" Mayannah hoped would occur this evening does, performers and play transcend all prior filigreed excess. Brainpeople ends on a sustained grace note that’s unsettling, poignant, and haunting.


There’s just one woman’s voice revealing all in Curvy Widow, the Cybill Shepherd showcase that’s opened here after a reportedly very rough Atlanta tryout and considerable retooling. But it’s the kind that can suck air out of a room all by itself.

A first playwriting effort by Bobby Goldman, widow of stage and screen writer James Goldman (The Lion in Winter), this plotless autobiographical monologue is the precise equivalent of an experience everybody suffers sometime: you’re stuck with that worst-case-scenario stranger who views every social contact as a passive admirer to regale with dazzling banter about their adventures, knowledge, professional stature, and general fabulousness. Yet all you’re hearing is the deafening roar of hot air. Under such circumstances even an elevator ride can seem interminable. Curvy Widow is 90 minutes long.

Shepherd’s "character" (the program leaves no doubt that Goldman "IS The Curvy Widow") is a 57-year-old professional fixer who does everything from choose furniture to chase squirrels out of the house, enabling other rich folk to do zilch for themselves. Her meant-to-be-hilarious dating travails include many descriptions of men who are rude, unattractive, "dumb as posts," or otherwise less than worthy of her. But just what does the widow deserve? Not jury duty, vaginal dryness, or various other complaints that amazingly made it into this revised script. It’s true men get away easier with being pushy and abrasive — they’re "ballsy," not "bitchy." But when women like Goldman and (in interviews) Shepherd celebrate having those qualities as empowerment, are they inverting a stereotype or just making excuses for being spoiled jerks?

There are a handful of funny lines, plus others Shepherd sells as funny. One can’t really blame her mostly awkward performance, Scott Schwartz’s direction, or the ugly physical production for everything else. You want to tell the Curvy Widow, "Shaddap and get a vibrator." But she already has an autopleaser. This play is the ultimate act of self-love.


Thurs/14–Sat/16, 8 p.m. (also Sat/16, 2 p.m.), $12.50–$20.50


221 Fourth St., SF

(415) 749-2228


Through March 9

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat., 3 p.m.); Sun., 3 and 7 p.m.; $50–$75

Post Street Theatre

450 Post, second floor, SF

(415) 771-6900



REVIEW A semisequel to writer-director Eric Byler’s 2002 debut feature, Charlotte Sometimes, this low-key but quietly devastating relationship meltdown in the mode of Harold Pinter and Neil LaBute is his best work to date. Tre (Daniel Cariaga) is a burly, shaved-headed, aggro personality who burns rubber driving drunk and reckless one night to the Santa Monica Mountains house of longtime bud Gabe (Erik McDowell) and his girlfriend, Kakela (Kimberly-Rose Wolter). On the run from yet another bridge burned, Tre’s irked to find the guesthouse already occupied — by prickly Nina (Alix Koromzay), who has just left her husband. It’s dislike at first sight for the two temporary residents: she’s tightly wound, and he likes to push people’s buttons for the hell of it. Yet in Byler and Wolter’s screenplay, that negative spark doesn’t at all preclude their ending up in bed — it might even hasten the event. Meanwhile, Tre embarks on an even more perverse path, playing on rudderless trust funder Kakela’s self-doubts to seduce her away from the trusting, oblivious Gabe. Does this angry thirtysomething slacker antihero ("I reject the notion that a steady job makes me successful and a college degree makes me smart," he protests) simply see her as another female meal ticket? Is he really interested in her? Or is his agenda some complicated, half-acknowledged result of feelings of resentment and possessiveness toward his best friend? Tense and ambiguous, with sharp character detailing and explanatory background spaces left artfully blank, this is the kind of cunning, sardonic psychological study that pays off in grim affirmation of the worst suspicions about human nature. See it with someone you want to break up with.

TRE Opens Fri/15 at the Four Star Theater. See Movie Clock at

Tiger Beat bard


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If 1967 was the Summer of Love, then late 1968 through mid-1969 brought the seasons of mass deflowering. This wasn’t due to LSD, flower power, or even the trickling down of the sexual revolution. Rather, it was the perfidious influence of a nearly 400-year-old play that teenagers had previously read and watched with glazed eyes. Franco Zeffirelli’s big-screen version of Romeo and Juliet made underage sex look extremely hot, virtuous, and stick-it-to-the-man rebellious. And because it was rated G (until the Motion Picture Association of America subsequently wised up and gave it a PG) and based on, you know, the Bard, parents couldn’t object.

Foolish adults, so not with it! As sheer incitement to Get Laid Now, this Romeo and Juliet was the worst celluloid influence on America’s impressionable youth since Splendor in the Grass seven years earlier — and that was an old-fashioned movie whose mature stars (Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty) were only playing at being teens. Plus, they kept their clothes on.

Not so Zeffirelli discoveries Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, age 17 and 15, respectively. It took her frenziedly heaving bosom and his famously bare ass (the shot that perhaps heated up gay lib as much as Stonewall) to add new life to hitherto yawnsville poetry, making everyone under the age of consent desperate to be in love, thwarted, secretive, coital, and tragic. That last is, after all, the ultimate teenage fantasy: to die knowing that grown-ups will finally realize that crushing your delicate feelings drove you to it. Oh, now you’re sorry! Enjoy that eternal guilt! (In 1981, Zeffirelli would film the ultimate camp incarnation of this theme, Endless Love.)

Much was made of the principals’ youth, for once close to that of the characters as envisioned by Shakespeare. The most famous prior screen version, MGM’s 1936 extravaganza, had cast thirty- to fiftysomethings in the lead roles. Onstage, various famed thespians practically portrayed the young lovers into senility. Zeffirelli — who’d successfully tamed famous couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a robust Taming of the Shrew the year before — not only selected young actors but also juiced Romeo and Juliet with a hyperbolic style designed to excite. The film’s color-saturated photography, costumes, and production design make Renaissance-era Veronese life the apex of sensuality. Nino Rota’s score (with a love theme that topped the United States pop charts as a Henry Mancini instrumental) is romantic catnip. Male testosterone — including that of Tybalt, as played by Michael York, who’d never seem so flamingly heterosexual again — jumps off the screen in splendor, with equally rattling sword fights and projectile codpieces.

The goal was intoxication, and as obvious as some of the above tactics might appear now, Romeo and Juliet remains a heady brew. The mega make-out movie’s principals handled such fantastic early pop culture fortunes with varying success. Hussey carved out a long, diverse adult acting career in projects around the globe. Whiting, an unhappy teen idol ("Oh Romeo, Romeo, why are you so difficult to talk to?" Tiger Beat lamented), tried to earn cred in an eccentric array of projects. But most were poorly received, apart from 1973’s exceptional all-star TV movie Frankenstein: The True Story, in which he played the bad doctor. The next year he retired to engage in other pursuits.

Zeffirelli — an opera director before, during, and after his relevancy as a screen auteur — revealed himself to be a maestro of overripe kitsch in such films as 1971’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon (a now-unwatchable Jesus People Movement–era shampoo-commercial take on St. Francis), 1988’s Young Toscanini (La Liz meets C. Thomas Howell), and 1999’s Cher-starring Fascist Italy soft sell Tea with Mussolini. He’s openly gay, yet a big-time papist (who supports the church’s stance on homosexuality), as well as a member of media magnate and corruption magnet Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia party. One of his greatest legacies may turn out to be inadvertent: Bruce Robinson, who plays Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, later claimed Zeffirelli’s on-set overtures inspired the genius character of Uncle Monty in Robinson’s immortal 1987 directorial debut, Withnail and I.

Thanks to Marc Huestis’s one-night-only 40th anniversary revival at the Castro Theatre — with Hussey in person, interviewed, and no doubt impersonated by local personalities in the preshow — Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet will be celebrated as a cultural phenomenon. The cheesy contemporary amp-up that Baz Luhrmann engineered in 1996, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes doing the heavy breathing, also struck a popular adolescent chord, but its trendy vulgarity has already aged a whole lot worse than Zeffirelli’s version. The latter remains breathless, and is duly classic.


With Olivia Hussey in person

Thurs/14, 7 p.m., $12.50–$25

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 863-0611

From Juliet to Mother Teresa and Mrs. Bates


Born in Argentina and raised in England, Olivia Hussey was just 15 when she was chosen to play li’l miss Capulet in the 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet. Since then she’s had a bewilderingly diverse career that encompasses work with Burt Lancaster ("a lovely gentleman"), Vanessa Redgrave ("such a giving lady"), and Michael Jackson (Hussey acted in an unreleased Jackson music video that also featured Lou Ferrigno), as well as legendary softcore directors Radley Metzger and Zalman King. Hussey has played the Virgin Mary, Mother Teresa, and Norman Bates’s mom. She’s done voice work on Pinky and the Brain and Nintendo games. She appeared in the infamous 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon and starred in the 1974 mother of all slasher flicks, Black Christmas. She’s been in adaptations of Sir Walter Scott, Stephen King, and Harold Robbins. Her résumé also includes Turkey Shoot (a.k.a. Escape 2000), a particularly nasty and effective 1980 Australian spin on "The Most Dangerous Game."

In addition to acting gigs, the still gorgeous 56-year-old Hussey remains busy with her clothing line of romantic kaftans and tunics, which are quite beautiful. She’s also a sales rep for mangosteen beverage ZanGo (the health benefits of which had not yet been determined as of deadline by yours truly). She recently spoke with me by phone from her Los Angeles home. The interview had been delayed by a home emergency.

OLIVIA HUSSEY I really have to apologize for missing your call earlier.

SFBG No problem, but as punishment my questions will now be limited to Lost Horizon and Turkey Shoot.

OH Oh god! But people do ask me about Turkey Shoot. I laugh about it as one of the worst movies ever made. Yet a friend of mine in Rome loves it — he hosts regular screenings.

SFBG I actually heard your Romeo and Juliet before seeing it. A junior high English teacher played the soundtrack to our class, which laughed uncontrollably because there’s so much panting. Of course, it made sense in context later on.

OH Oh yes. Franco [Zeffirelli] really pushed us for what he called "that breathlessness of youth." He was obsessed with it.

SFBG Speaking of which, your breasts were so pushed-up — you must have been extremely tightly corseted.

OH I was! A lot of the clothes were very imperial style, [with] high-breasted velvet. But to get them even more so I had interior corsets pulled tight — it was really hard to breathe. Sometimes they had to take breaks between shots simply because the costumes drenched me with sweat.

SFBG Your Romeo, Leonard Whiting — are you still in touch?

OH We’re still close; I just spoke to him last week. Most actors do maybe a hundred films, and they’re lucky if they do one real classic that’s remembered. Romeo and Juliet is still shown to students everywhere. I get e-mails from young people all over the world. It’s such an honor.

SFBG What was it like working with Zeffirelli on both Romeo and Juliet and Jesus of Nazareth?

OH He’s the best. In a perfect world I would have worked with him only, forever. People always ask if I had a crush on Romeo, but I had a crush on Franco! The man had so much passion for what he did.

SFBG Your career slowed down for a few years immediately afterward.

OH I was offered all kinds of things. But when I was the hottest young actress in the world, I didn’t feel like acting. I’m that kind of person.

SFBG You got very busy later on, though. What are some of your other personal favorite movies or roles?

OH I loved doing a 1974 low-budget film in Canada with a new director, Bob Clark — Black Christmas. We had a blast. Much later I auditioned for the Steve Martin film Roxanne, and he stuck around just to meet me. He said, "You starred in one of my favorite films of all time." I said, "Oh, Romeo and Juliet?" But it was Black Christmas. He’d seen it 10 or 12 times.

SFBG Any particularly unpleasant experiences?

OH I didn’t like doing [the all-star 1978 Agatha Christie mystery] Death on the Nile. I had agoraphobia at the time, and that was really hard. On the other hand, Peter Ustinov was so much fun, Angela Lansbury an absolute delight, and David Niven lovely. We were all so excited to meet Bette Davis — she was such a legend. But it’s awful to work with someone who’s just unpleasant.

Also, three weeks into rehearsals for Lost Horizon, I knew it was going to be bad. [Costume designer] Jean Louis kept asking me, "Are you eating too much?" and letting out my waistlines. I was afraid to tell the studio I was pregnant.

Should you be ‘dancing?


The Sundance Film Festival is like Los Angeles (in fact, for 10 days Park City, Utah, really is LA, plus snow). Each year you think it can’t possibly get any more congested and shallow, yet it does. This is largely the fault of umpteen opportunists (people who set up celebrity gifting lounges! Paris Hilton!) who show up to exploit the enormous and indiscriminate media spotlight.

But the festival must also share blame, its original "purity" having given way to a marketplace and red-carpet zone often barely distinguishable from the entertainment mainstream. This year found such personalities representing indie cred as U2, Robert De Niro, and Mary-Kate Olsen. Media attention invariably goes to the most high-profile films — for which folks like Josh Hartnett and Tom Hanks suffer pay cuts for art’s sake — which almost invariably disappoint. Ultimately unwanted and unloved this year were such big-noise entries as The Deal (William H. Macy, Meg Ryan, and LL Cool J … together at last!) and What Just Happened? (De Niro, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn), both soft satires of that kwazy industry.

There was the ongoing curse of the Sundance selection that plays like a moderately quirky cable flick, this time encompassing The Last Word (Winona Ryder and Wes Bentley), Smart People (Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker), The Year of Getting to Know Us (Jimmy Fallon and Lucy Liu), and so forth. There were literary adaptations (of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke and Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), each easier to take if you hadn’t read the book; sophomore slumps (Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock’s Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, aptly described in the Sundance catalog as "a Happy Meal of a documentary"); and the usual cases of festival acquisition fever likely to look less all that in the sobering light of theatrical release. Principal examples: American Teen, a heatedly bid on doc that smells as manipulated as an MTV reality show (in fact some MTV staff told me so), and Hamlet 2, which is Waiting for Guffman plus Dead Poets Society minus about 45 percent of the laughs that description would lead you to expect. Fifty-five percent ain’t bad, but is it worth Focus Feature’s $10 million?

Of course, there were plenty of good movies at Sundance. Nonfiction cinema is usually where the most quality is concentrated, this year being no exception. There was an astute appreciation of Hunter S. Thompson (Gonzo) and one of Derek Jarman. Anvil! The Story of Anvil paid fond tribute to a Spinal Tap–ish Canadian ’80s metal band that refuses to quit even though it probably ought to. On the "my movie, my self" tip, Christopher Bell’s Bigger, Stronger, Faster was a funny, surprisingly sympathetic look at steroid use, while Londoner Chris Waitt’s A Complete History of My Sexual Failures made autohumiliation hilarious.

On the fiction front, there was less to get excited about — The Wackness was yet another teen-angst exercise, albeit a good one, with Ben Kingsley cast more or less as Dennis Hopper. Tuvalu director Veit Helmer’s Absurdistan is definitely the German Azerbaijani Lysistrata whimsy of the year. But only one film at the festival knocked my socks way off: Half Nelson makers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar, about a Dominican Republic pitcher’s culture shock when drafted into the United States minor leagues. I don’t even like baseball — but this movie is the rare kind so enjoyably right that after a while you find yourself grinning like a fool from sheer pleasure.

Caine is able


The opening scene in a tragically forgotten 1968 swinging-London artifact called The Touchables — released stateside to universal catcalls — had four model-gorgeous "birds" breaking into an off-hours Madame Tussaud’s. Goal: stealing the object of their desire, a wax dummy of Michael Caine. This proves too fleet a diversion — the glamorous gang are soon off to their next plot-dominating caper, hijacking a handsome pop star to a countryside inflatable plastic pleasure dome for extended go-go dancing and S-M games. But it does make the point that in 1968, Michael Caine was a huge pop icon. And not just in the United Kingdom but also in the United States, where Beatlemania had temporarily made all things Brit — Twiggy, Tom Jones, even Herman’s Hermits — automatically crushworthy.

We’d certainly emulated and admired England all along, after that unpleasant colonial-separation business. But in the ’60s it was no longer a matter of aristocracy envy. Suddenly the Mick Jaggers and the Lulus and so forth made being working-class British cute and desirable and ever so "now." Caine was the first Cockney sex symbol — which made him a celebrity in America but a downright cultural sensation at home.

The Mechanics’ Institute’s February "Raising Caine" series revisits some of his defining roles, though only one ventures past 1972. The first selection, 1966’s Alfie, was his breakthrough. Casting him as a rascally ladies’ man who strings along women (from Jane Asher to Shelley Winters) while entertaining us with direct-camera-address commentary, it both celebrated the sexual revolution and delivered a reassuring moral spank-down.

Caine had earlier made a major impression in 1965’s The Ipcress Files as Len Deighton’s spy hero Harry Palmer, a scruffier, less impenetrably sophisticated alternative to Sean Connery’s James Bond. The movie’s sequel, 1966’s Funeral in Berlin, is second in the Mechanics’ retrospective. (The third Caine-as-Palmer feature, 1967’s Billion Dollar Brain, surrendered to Bond-style fantasy excess and a surprisingly prescient anti–Yank imperialism. Recently released to DVD after decades of difficult access, it’s worth a look.)

The resulting fad was weird but laudable: Caine landed on the average side of handsome (complete with spectacles), had bad hair, and spoke like a mensch. (Memorable quotes include "I’m the original bourgeois nightmare — a Cockney with intelligence and a million dollars.") When Connery ditched Bond, he had to prove himself as an actor. When the Palmer films and Alfie and such were finished, Caine just kept working — sometimes brilliantly but often indiscriminately, in movies that could only have dangled as lure the money he admitted was a deciding factor. The good ones include 1971’s Get Carter and Sleuth (which complete the Mechanics’ series along with the 1983 translation from the stage Educating Rita), John Huston’s 1975 Rudyard Kipling adventure The Man Who Would Be King, and Woody Allen’s 1986 Hannah and Her Sisters (for which Caine won his first Supporting Actor Oscar).

The bad ones? For starters, twin Irving Allen "disasters" The Swarm (1978) and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979). Not to mention 1987’s Jaws: The Revenge, 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol … need more be said? Only that Caine has his cited On Deadly Ground (1994) costar Steven Seagal as the only person he’d never work with again. (Good choice!) Caine (it’s "Sir Michael" now, which he must find hilarious) hasn’t lost his touch, though. As an aged Cockney hustler in 1998’s Little Voice, he gives a climatic rendition of "It’s Over" that is the most lacerating deliberate bad singing this side of Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia (1995). He was superb handling the more sentimental aspects of 1999’s The Cider House Rules (winning a second Oscar), in the underseen Brit ensemble classic Last Orders (2001), as the true protagonist of 2002’s The Quiet American, and as one brainy holdout amid the Orwellian future of Children of Men (2006).

So is he more served or subservient playing butler to Batman? (I’d say the former.) Caine is an excellent actor who always admitted that selling out was part and parcel of the trade. Sex symbol then, willing tool now (and also then), he never blew pompous public wind or truly embarrassed himself onscreen, even when the films embarrassed themselves. He once said, with bracing honesty, "You get paid the same for a bad film as you do for a good one." Either way, he earns the check.


Feb. 1–29, $10

Fri., 6:30 p.m.

Mechanics’ Institute

57 Post, SF

(415) 393-0100

Material world


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The year 1988 marked the apex of David Mamet’s celebrity. He’d won a Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross, and American Buffalo was being produced by every little theater on the planet. He’d scripted several mostly admired films and had just directed his first, the coldly ingenious House of Games.

It must have been a heady time. One doesn’t get the impression that Mamet is the type to enjoy simply being celebrated. So it’s logical that at the moment when whatever he premiered next would be a guaranteed BFD, he both seized the opportunity and fuck-you’d it. Speed-the-Plow was a biting-the-hand-that-feeds-me satire of Hollywood-industry soulessness whose subject alone guaranteed wide attention. Then Mamet cast Madonna as the girl. By all accounts, she was a complete zero. But needless to say, the show was a massive event.

Two decades later the hype has long settled. Loretta Greco’s revival at American Conservatory Theater reveals Speed-the-Plow as what it always was: an acidic comedy that isn’t one of Mamet’s best plays but is too entertainingly brash to resist. The notion that Hollywood is essentially soulless — all about business, not art, as the characters keep repeating — was hardly news back then. And now everybody from key grip to Dairy Queen day manager analyzes what did and didn’t sell in the Monday-morning tally of last weekend’s box office. Why do we care? Is it because Hollywood, more than ever the focus for so many putative proletarian dreams, inspires gloating resentment as much as fascination?

Speed-the-Plow was never really controversial, even within the biz. Mamet clearly loves the winner-take-all crassness of his male characters here, for whom every interaction is a dominance game. Top dog Bobby Gould (Matthew Del Negro) has just been promoted to head of production at a major studio. His expensively minimalist new office (a movable set piece by G.W. Mercier) hasn’t been even been fully assembled when erstwhile coworker Charlie Fox (Andrew Polk) comes calling.

From Polk’s flop-sweating, highly physical performance you immediately glean that Charlie thinks he should be the man behind the desk — but since he’s not, he’ll do all the begging required of him. Actually, he’s got a very big bone to offer: out of the blue, a huge star has offered to make a prison buddy picture Charlie has a temporary option on. This is such a stroke of fortune that both men impulsively share their glee — the language getting a lot more sexual — with pretty, clueless temp secretary Karen (Jessi Campbell).

Once she exits, Charlie wagers this "broad" is too high-minded for Bobby to seduce — though B’s power and influence would lure just about any other Los Angeles underling into the sack in five seconds. Bobby arranges for Karen to visit his house that very night, on the pretext of her giving him a "report" on the loftily symbolic, probably unfilmable literary novel he’s been told to give a "courtesy read."

One shudders to think of Madonna stonewalling in the second-act scene, in which a garrulous Karen tries to sell Bobby on how he could "make a difference" by green-lighting a movie based on this apparently life-changing (though insufferable-sounding) tome. He plays along, trying to steer the evening in a horizontal direction. Yet the next morning, with Charlie anxiously awaiting their planned triumphant prison-flick pitch to the studio chief, Bobby is a changed man — a born-again wishbone pulled between commerce and conscience.

Satisfyingly cruel as this final tug-of-war is, it makes the play’s credibility vanish: Bobby is too content an admitted "whore" to turn Mother Theresa overnight. And with the epically tall, jock-handsome Del Negro in a part Joe Mantegna originated, the character radiates such golden-boy confidence that one can’t believe he’d have much use for a merely cute flunky like Campbell’s Karen.

Greco lets the lines breathe — her cast’s naturalistically varied delivery avoids that Morse-code monotony the playwright prefers for his staccato Mametspeak. But she doesn’t lend much weight to the ultimate question of who’s manipuutf8g whom, as this production’s Karen doesn’t seem capable of calculation. The lack of ambiguity makes this a frequently very funny Speed-the-Plow, but sans much suspense or climactic sting. *


Through Feb. 3

Tues.–Sat, 8 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; no matinee Wed/16); Sun., 2 p.m.; $14–$82

American Conservatory Theater

415 Geary, SF

(415) 749-2228

Year in Film: Things we lost in the theater


The economy: Apocalypse Now — or at least soon. Iraq: No End in Sight. Israel: "Putting Out Fire with Gasoline (Theme from Cat People)." China, in its role as the principal backer of our colossal national debt: I Spit on Your Grave. Our president: National Lampoon’s Permanent Vacation.

In 2007, as life increasingly resembled lurid or delusional fiction, movies stepped up to the social-responsibility plate and started presenting a franker version of reality.

That is, the movies nobody saw.

The ones everyone did see, in quantifiable box office terms, were Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, the third Bourne and Pirates flicks, a fifth Harry Potter, and … Transformers. In other words, movies whose major reference points are other movies, comic books, and video games. (The Bourne films are refreshingly low-CGI, but they offer only a pretense of institutional critique.) If most multiplex patrons’ level of caring or knowledge about international and domestic politics was turned into a film, it could be titled Whatever-Man 3.

The summer — that silly season of things blowing up and boob jokes — is likely to spread even wider across the calendar henceforth, because this fall and winter offered serious year-end awards-bait stuff, and nobody wanted it.

Europeans have branded this the best year for United States cinema in a long time. But the ambitious, uncompromising two-and-a-half-hour-plus dramas released late in the year — 1970s ambling-epic throwbacks such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Into the Wild, and There Will Be Blood — are against-the-wind efforts. Even intelligent dramas wrapped in easy-access thriller form, like Eastern Promises, Michael Clayton, Zodiac, Rescue Dawn, and Gone Baby Gone, have attracted few takers. (You could deem the long, self-important American Gangster an exception, were it not so derivative. Check out Larry Cohen’s 1973 Black Caesar.)

Commercially speaking, this fall’s glut of somber dramas — including Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Things We Lost in the Fire, Reservation Road, We Own the Night, and Lions for Lambs — collapsed like a row of dominoes. Their failure was variously blamed on an overcrowded marketplace and being pushed prematurely off screens by the latest CGI extravaganzas. Several of them just weren’t good, but even the best expired quickly.

Two films likely to face off for Academy Awards, No Country for Old Men and Atonement, have drawn larger numbers, though in their different ways neither has much to say about the world we live in now. No Country turns a minor Cormac McCarthy novel into a major Coen brothers effort that’s still just a great genre piece at the end of the day. Atonement turns a brilliant Ian McEwan novel into a sumptuous Merchant-Ivory-like affair, muffling the book’s bitter heart.

Every movie that did try to wrestle with our extremely precarious, morally compromised place in the scheme of things basically tanked. Maybe that’s less surprising than the fact that so many filmmakers actually got to make works dealing in one way or another with the current American realpolitik, if only on the relatively neutral, empathetic trickle-down level of grieving military spouses (Grace Is Gone), traumatized soldiers readjusting to civilian life (Home of the Brave), or World Trade Center widowers (Reign Over Me).

The Crash crowd shunned scenarist Paul Haggis’s much better (though not politically daring or even pointed) second film as director, In the Valley of Elah. It fictionalizes a real-life case (Iraq vet Richard Davis’s 2003 murder), as did Brian De Palma’s Redacted, drawn from a 2006 incident in which several US soldiers gang-raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and then killed her entire family. An atrocious movie because of its ill-chosen mockumentary form, loutish tone, and garbled message, Redacted ironically attracted widespread notice due to the loud protestations of Bill O’Reilly and other conservative pundits who proclaimed it treasonous. They didn’t say it was fraudulent — as Republican saint Ronald Reagan once told us, "Facts are stupid things."

Despite the lure of Angelina Jolie and the publicity stumping of her producer–spouse–love slave Brad Pitt, Michael Winterbottom’s more overtly fact-based A Mighty Heart — about kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s murder by Pakistani jihadists — got no audience love. Ditto Rendition, with America’s sweetheart Reese Witherspoon as another agitating spouse with a missing husband, this one an Egyptian-born US citizen imprisoned and tortured by the CIA on dubious terrorism charges.

That the year’s better feel-bad dramas didn’t take off despite their star power is disappointing, if not unexpected. But it truly depresses that Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, the year’s best documentary — and arguably best movie, period — failed to break out despite universal raves. This engrossing, incendiary, genuinely balanced chronicle of how the George W. Bush administration destroyed and betrayed Iraq — and probably doomed everyone to a general fucked-up-ness only global warming might trump — doesn’t even bother indicting the reasons we attacked in the first place. It’s busy enough simply detailing the arrogance and ineptitude that have turned our supposed reconstruction of the nation into a lit match hovering beside the tinder of pissed-off former allies worldwide.

No End in Sight should have been a must-see that marshaled voter-taxpayer opposition to the freaks in the seats of power. It should at least have ignited as much enthusiastic outrage as An Inconvenient Truth and Fahrenheit 9/11. But it was an intended bombshell that landed like a softball on Astroturf.

There are a few more politically charged movies in the pipeline, notably director Kimberly Peirce’s first feature since Boys Don’t Cry, Stop Loss. But given the commercial cold shoulder such films have received lately, what can we expect from a post–writers’ strike Hollywood that will be looking to restore its brief income slowdown as safely as possible? Gems like Norbit, Because I Said So, Bratz, Good Luck Chuck, Daddy Day Camp, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Halloween, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, License to Wed, Saw IV, and Wild Hogs — not to mention the three- to fivequels. Even when those movies bombed, they landed softly enough (often redeemed by profitable DVD releases) to affirm the wisdom of sticking to strict formulas.

Escapism: good. Wholesale obliviousness: better. Will there be a 2010 equivalent to 2007’s finest narrative flick, The Assassination of Jesse James (estimated cost: $30 million; domestic gross: $3 million, despite a career-best Brad Pitt)? Not likely.


1. Adam’s Apples (Anders Thomas Jensen, Denmark)

2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, US)

3. Colma: The Musical (Richard Wong, US)

4. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, US)

5. Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, et al., US)

6. Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie, US)

7. The Last Winter (Larry Fessenden, US/Iceland)

8. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, US)

9. Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, US)

10. Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer, Australia)

Barber of gore


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Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street works so well you might not notice that it’s based on a Broadway musical, and one that’s close to opera. Which is the idea, of course. Pop musicals have been making a slow, tentative comeback of late by packaging numbers as mind’s-eye fantasies (Chicago), as actual stage performance (Dreamgirls), or with an ironic camp gloss (Hairspray, Enchanted).

But Sweeney Todd is something other than a pop musical — it’s by Stephen Sondheim, for god’s sake, who translates strangely to the movies because his sensibility is complicatedly, wholly theatrical. No one else has so consistently used their reluctance about or contempt toward musical-theater conventions to transcend them; no other stage composer’s so-called flops are so treasured for their good points and risk taking. Sondheim’s characteristic mix of sentimentality, misanthropy, and high art is as Broadway as an $18 souvenir program. And Burton’s best movie since Ed Wood 13 years ago succeeds precisely because it finds ways to be faithful to the source material in particular details while turning the whole into a Tim Burton film — a black comedy–cum–horror movie, albeit one blacker and more horrific than any he’s made before.

Sweeney (Johnny Depp, with Susan Sontag–as–Bride of Frankenstein hair) returns to 19th-century London after escaping a prison island and being rescued by young sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower, who bears an alarming resemblance to Clare Danes). Arriving incognito in his sooty, verminous old neighborhood, he’s recognized by his torch-bearing former landlady Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). She tells him his wife poisoned herself long ago and that their daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), is now the close-watched ward of the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who’d framed Sweeney in order to facilitate the rape of his beautiful spouse. Sweeney has just one goal now: wreaking vengeance on Turpin and his wormlike flunky the Beadle (Timothy Spall). Woe to anyone who gets in his way.

Setting himself back up in business as a barber, Sweeney first dispatches an inconvenient rival, Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), then commences seriously decimating the male-customer populace out of frustration after a first shot at the judge is thwarted. Tenderhearted — she takes in Pirelli’s boy assistant, Toby (Ed Saunders) — but also eminently practical, Mrs. Lovett uses this corpse crop to transform her self-deemed "worst pies in London" into a cannibalistic culinary smash.

The acclaimed John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd recently seen at the American Conservatory Theater was ingenious. But by stripping down the production elements (for example, slain characters donned smocks tastefully daubed with red), it drained this musical thriller of, well, blood. Burton doesn’t stint: the sticky stuff flows in geysers here, accompanied by plenty of gore, brutality, and perhaps the single nastiest demise doled out to a leading screen character all year.

The show’s mordant humor remains. Yet from the unusually (for Burton) stark, somber production design to the restrained principal performances, this is a story-driven, serious Sweeney Todd. The original Broadway production’s Len Cariou was a grimacing ghoul and Angela Lansbury a comedy gorgon — together they were a Grand Guignol Punch ‘n’ Judy. Despite their Edward Gorey look, however, Depp and Bonham Carter aren’t playing caricatures but recognizably tormented souls.

But can they sing? Er … kind of. Burton lets the near-incessant, brilliantly orchestrated music provide the ballast, allowing his leads to act their songs, making their small, reedy voices work for them. Even the best singers here (Bower, Saunders, Wisener) have high lyric instruments, not big Broadway guns. The result won’t necessarily please Sondheim purists, but it does lend the material more pathos than usual, especially in the quintessentially macabre-sweet take on "By the Sea" and the empty comfort of "Not While I’m Around." The best movie adaptations of other forms usually succeed because they take the spirit of the original and make it cinema, absolute fidelity be damned. This Sweeney Todd is a practically perfect expression of Burton’s art. But Sondheim comes off all right too. *


Opens Fri/21 in Bay Area theaters

See Movie Clock at

Legends of the follicle


TRIPLE FEATURE It may be hard to fathom now, but Burt Reynolds was probably the biggest movie star of the 1970s. Other actors of his generation have gained more prestige, made fewer flops, or carried above-the-title status to the grave or today (like Robert Redford, who arguably has zero marquee value left). Reynolds put up a feeble fight as his career ebbed into TV shows, supporting roles, and self-parody. But he had many hits, both high- and lowbrow. He was the first since Bing Crosby to be the top box office star five years in a row. More, he exuded the defining territorial scent of Me Decade masculinity: wearing open wide-lapel shirts with an exposed medallion, smelling of Jovan Sex Appeal ("a provocative blend of exotic spices and smoldering woods interwoven with animal musk tones"), and equally at ease ogling the new secretary, prowling singles bars, and being the complete angler … in a hot tub, preferably.

This supremely confident archetype sported the au naturel mossy mounds of an athletically fit chest. (Later Reynolds became a notorious patron of the topside kind of rug.) He wasn’t "hairy" — he was hirsute, virile. His swagger might’ve evaporated like Samson’s had that pelt — or the manly ‘stache typically hovering above it — been shorn.

Billed as "Three Moustache Rides with Burt Reynolds," Midnites for Maniacs’ Castro Theatre salute presents the star in the very prime of his beef. Two artifacts on the triple bill must be counted among Burt’s greatest misses — one is practically a lost film — while the last was indeed his single greatest hit. But they’re all Burtalicious.

A college football star whose pro prospects ended with a knee injury, Reynolds was discovered onstage in New York, reached Hollywood in 1959, and spent subsequent years doing episodic TV and B movies. He seemed stuck in the second tier until cast as the most defensively capable of four suburban guys facing extreme redneck peril in 1972’s Deliverance. That did it. Even in a harrowingly unpleasant movie, Reynolds oozed charisma. Such cock-of-the-walk confidence led him to pose nude (hand covering genitals) that year in Cosmopolitan. He later complained this particular career move had typed him as a sex symbol who couldn’t be taken seriously. But Burt Reynolds was always first among people not taking Burt Reynolds seriously.

The public liked best the amused wise guy of talk show appearances, particularly when he was running from–slash–smirking at the law in action comedies ideal for the drive-in circuit. His biggest (if not best) was 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, Midnites for Maniacs’ midnight show. Not far removed is the program’s middle feature, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a felicitous pairing with Dolly Parton that stalled in the transfer from the Broadway stage.

But Reynolds didn’t want to be forever moonshinin’ and doggin’ the sheriff. He wanted to be suave and elegant, like his idol Cary Grant. Thus he dove into At Long Last Love, a film so excoriated in 1975 that it’s never been released on VHS or DVD. This Castro showing might well be its first United States projection since the original run. Love is a throwback to giddy, art deco 1930s musicals. Unwisely, it had Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, and others not known for their song and dance skills performing vintage Cole Porter tunes live on set.

A gorgeous-looking soufflé that failed to rise, the film met with complete commercial and critical rejection. Hollywood gloated, director Peter Bogdanovich having impressed too many as an arrogant arriviste foisting a "talentless" model-actress girlfriend on the public. (Though Shepherd’s career would ultimately recover better than his.) Still, it has charms — including Reynolds, who makes musical amateurism seem a wry in-joke.

Always haphazard in picking projects (he reportedly turned down James Bond, Die Hard, Terms of Endearment, and Star Wars), Reynolds gradually eroded his stardom. Despite a prestige boost from Boogie Nights (which he thought dreadful until it started getting raves), he’s continued to take work whenever, wherever. He’s now 71 years old, a trooper who can’t or won’t quit, though his odds of ending on a grace note grow remote. He certainly deserves better than Cloud 9, one of eight acting jobs he took last year alone that no one noticed. He has the starring role: coach to an all-stripper volleyball team. Sigh. If he understood that he remains well loved, would he be choosier? Unlikely. The Reynolds archetype is an all-American winner who knowingly pratfalls into loserdom, winking en route. That fallen-jock-angel persona remains sexy. He minted it.


Fri/7 (At Long Last Love, 7:30 p.m.; The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, 9:45 p.m.; Smokey and the Bandit, midnight), $10

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

Purple penetrator


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Being rich and famous dupes so many into thinking they have profound life wisdom that must be shared. Is it simple narcissism? Is it that when material desires are fulfilled too easily, spirituality becomes the top high-end item left to acquire?

Guy Ritchie may do stupid things, like remaking Lina Wertmüller’s reactionary-in-1974 Swept Away as a 2002 vehicle for his wife, Madonna, whose acting kills entire movies on contact. But he’s also clever, at least regarding surfaces. Yet there’s usually nothing beneath them, unless in-joke movie references count as deep. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000) are deliriously, obnoxiously showy exercises in hyperworked camera, editing, and soundtrack. Their affectedly cool ‘tude is wrought of pissing-contest testosterone, compiled genre clichés, and Ritchie’s training in music videos and TV commercials. Love ’em or leave ’em, these movies are elaborate toys for boys, their pulp roots elevated to artier status by Brit exoticism and a big bag of stylistic tricks. Tricks, you’ll recall, are for kids.

After those samey successes and one stinging flop, Ritchie was ripe to expand his range. He and Madonna developed as sentient beings too, what with childbearing and third world adoption and all that kabbalah stuff.

Yet one wonders: has spiritual evolution given Ritchie more depth as an artist? Merely considering the question hurts.

Ritchie’s latest movie, Revolver, premiered at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival to howls of derision. More than a year later, it’s here, and — like Richard Kelly’s similarly dissed, delayed, and recut Southland Tales — it’s still terrible. Not just because it’s an unsalvageable mess, but also because it’s an expression of ersatz profundity that confirms a shallow intellect. This being Ritchie, his big stab at insight regarding the human condition arrives as a hyperstylized gangster movie, albeit with less smug jokiness than before and a stinking new pantsload of pretension.

Ritchie’s usual muse Jason Statham plays Jake Green, just released from seven years in prison and eager to avenge himself on the casino kingpin (Ray Liotta) who put him there. He signs on with nasty loan sharks Vincent Pastore and André Benjamin, who promise to abet his vengeance — but at a high price. Soon everyone wants to kill Jake, but he kills them instead. It’s all just bullet-riddled bodies flying through space. Senseless as a thriller, Revolver could be enjoyed for its textural luxuriance — Ritchie does have a gift for constructing dynamic scene-by-scene aesthetics — if not for the paralyzing pomposity that hitches onto this empty cargo train.

Revolver is so transparently about nothing that its final revelations become inadvertent punch lines at the auteur’s expense. We’re told "the ultimate con" is the ego, Jake’s own "worst enemy" his bad-boy self. That’s before the epilogue. (Warning: it involves Deepak Chopra.) There isn’t enough pot in the world to make such quasi-philosophical wankery provoke the intended whoa.

The idea of Ritchie liberating himself from the trap of ego is contradicted by every frame of this self-consciously flashy and vain movie. Revolver inhabits a fantasy man’s-man world. It’s a painful example of wannabe mysticism — riddled with kabbalah and numerological references — and it’s exactly as enlightened about women as a mid-’60s James Bond flick. Female cast members are displayed mute, surgically enhanced, open mouthed, and variably unclad, like porn models. The sole older woman (Francesca Annis) is a retro lesbian-sadist caricature modeled on Lotte Lenya in 1963’s From Russia with Love. She paws cringing younger female slaves who recall the runway look-alikes in Robert Palmer’s "Addicted to Love" video.

Revolver also finds time to be racist, via Tom Wu’s stereotyped Asian crime boss, Lord John. Why bother distinguishing? This movie is a massive, great-looking embarrassment. But Ritchie is probably so insulated he can assure himself it’s merely misunderstood. That’s his loss. *


Opens Fri/7 in Bay Area theaters

Uncuddly Leigh


Jennifer Jason Leigh is nearly 50 years old. She looks about 15 years younger, yet without that plastic appearance redolent of cosmetic surgery. For a while she was a real movie star, if not quite a popular one, sustaining widely seen films through performances such as her homicidal nut in Single White Female (1992) and tightly wound abuse victim in Dolores Clairborne (1995). Equally memorable, if less seen, were her turns as dirt-dumb yet sympathetic prostitutes in Miami Blues (1990) and Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), a working-class housewife and mother blasé about her phone-sex day job in Short Cuts (1993), an undercover cop turned junkie in Rush, and the brilliant but dysfunctional Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994).

Leigh blazed through ultrastylized retro hard-boiled patter as the female reporter in the Coen brothers’ underrated 1994 flop The Hudsucker Proxy. Who saw her extraordinary performance in Georgia, a painfully astute sibling drama she produced (and her mother wrote) the next year? Hardly anyone. As time passed she could be glimpsed guest-starring on TV’s Hercules and Spawn and retreating into supporting roles (like the wife who gets killed 10 minutes into 2002’s Road to Perdition) when she wasn’t turning to animation voice gigs.

It’s true that mainstream audiences never really embraced Leigh, who enacted real disappointment and displeasure instead of fake romantic bliss while losing her virginity in her first lead role, in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. She hadn’t made it easy, unlike the drastically less complicated Julia Roberts. Leigh resisted being ingratiating or easy to understand and consistently played gawky characters in difficult moral circumstances. She was a nervous talk show guest, and she didn’t seem obviously sexy, despite her frequently naked screen roles.

"I’ve never been a careerist," Leigh remarked during an awkward recent onstage conversation with Ben Fong-Torres (who seemed strangely fixated on a lascivious line of questions she wasn’t buying), part of a tribute at the Mill Valley Film Festival. That remains true. She’s as gifted as any actress of her generation but hasn’t quite scaled the high-profile heights of variably contemporary thespians such as Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, or Nicole Kidman.

The last is her costar in Margot at the Wedding, written by Leigh’s husband, Noah Baumbach. Baumbach is best known for writing and directing 2003’s The Squid and the Whale, though his 1995 debut, Kicking and Screaming, has a cult following, and 1997’s Mr. Jealousy ought to as well. Margot pursues Squid‘s major themes: sibling and parental relationships, comings-of-age, familial wounds inflicted unintentionally and otherwise, and the emotional chaos physical intimacy wreaks. But Margot takes them out of the city, all the way to … the Hamptons. Still, that’s country enough for the neurotic, erudite urbanites who are Baumbach’s specialty. Close proximity to the outdoors can’t get them to relax their grips on historical baggage and personal grudges, even toward kin. In fact, a backyard tree turns out to be the symbolic — and physical — catalyst in the movie’s application of a lit match to blood relations long primed for explosion.

Kidman’s Margot is a type familiar in real life yet seldom so well detailed onscreen: the cunning malcontent who gnaws like a termite at other people’s happiness, convincing everyone that it’s for their own good. And Margot at the Wedding is concise, hilarious and cathartic, portraying cruel behavior sans authorial malice or even basic moral judgment. These people can’t help what they do. The quirky dysfunction feels utterly credible. There’s a moment when Kidman’s and Leigh’s characters reference a relative’s youthful sexual abuse — then erupt in inappropriate laughter. It’s shocking, yet it seems just right, because that kind of gallows humor is typically a survivor’s closely held secret weapon.

Kidman’s chilly, defensive sexpot owns the title, but Leigh’s Pauline is the movie’s emotional ballast. Playing closer to her offscreen personality (or so Baumbach says), Leigh is a one-generation-late hippie chick who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt — no matter how many times they’ve failed to return that favor. The story line and dialogue’s excoriating peak occurs when Pauline is finally driven past endurance, howling well-earned abuse at the monster sister who’s undercut her entire life. Leigh wails on 2007’s most satisfying screen rant. If Baumbach wrote it for her, the favor is returned threefold. Who else could pull off its full, verbose fury — and make sense of the story’s refusal to fade out afterwards?

Leigh’s major performances have always been the kind that people deem difficult: they’re knotty, uncuddly, indelible. This is the rare movie whose scripted complexities are equal to those she brings to it.


Opens Wed/21 in Bay Area theaters

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