Dennis Harvey

Romania dreamin’


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Programmers in the film festival, cinematheque, and rep-house exhibition worlds are forever hunting for undiscovered cinematic flavors. They are like truffle-sniffing pigs. No offense intended — after all, truffles are valuable for their rarity. During the past few years, such programmers have witnessed a stunning renaissance of native film activity in Romania, which has no business being so exciting onscreen because (a) it’s Romania, for god’s sake, still hobbling out of Nicolae Ceausescu’s 20th-century dark ages, and (b) it only produces six features per year. They can’t all be good, can they?

Oh yes, they can. Romanian movies are sweeping international prizes and have even scored a couple of theatrical releases in a US art-house market resistant to intelligent, complex, starless films in a foreign tongue. Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days reaches US theaters next year, and Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ is likely to follow.

You can catch California Dreamin’ now in the Pacific Film Archive’s "Revolutions in Romanian Cinema" series. The process of severance from the Ceausescu dictatorship — Communist Eastern Europe’s most paranoiac and corrupt — is, naturally, a frequent subject. Catalin Mitulescu’s warmly observed The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006) views the regime’s final chapter in 1989 from a teenage girl’s perspective. Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) is a gritty you-are-there reenactment of the street chaos and random shootings that occurred on the night of the government’s overthrow. Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08: East of Bucharest (2006) ingeniously reexamines the same events as antiheroic satire, with the contradictory recollections of a TV call-in show’s guests making hash of the revolution’s already mythologized story. Another fascinating flashback, Alexandru Solomon’s The Great Communist Bank Robbery (2004), provides documentary scrutiny of an infamous crime in a nation where folks were too terrified to rob anyone, let alone the all-powerful government, suggesting that the case was quite likely a frame-up designed to rid the party of its high-ranking Jewish members.

Other films look beyond Ceausescu to the more recent past and still-problematic present. Cristi Puiu’s acclaimed The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) is like Sicko as directed by Aki Kaurismäki, a deepest-black comedy whose hapless elderly protagonist complains of chest pains — though it’s his endless, Kafkaesque odyssey through a broken-down public health system that kills him. California Dreamin’, subtitled Endless because it will never truly be finished (its 27-year-old writer-director died in a car crash before completing the final edit), is nonetheless a marvelously accomplished, sprawling, affectionate, barbed canvas. Set in 1999, it finds a top-priority NATO mission commanded by gung ho veteran jarhead Cpt. Jones (Armand Assante) waylaid by provincial officials who stubbornly demand paperwork, even if the bureaucratic logjam creates an international incident. Forced to cool heels, the visiting soldiers enjoy free-flowing local booze and celebrations in their honor. This cross-cultural tragicomedy might have been shorter had Nemescu lived to complete postproduction. As is, it’s close to perfection.

These new Romanian films are special for their attentiveness to individual characters and larger social scales, for their balance of rueful humor and genuine sympathy, and for the unpredictable yet organic intricacy of their narrative courses. Technically, they’re all highly polished, without a whiff of the stylistically self-indulgent territorial pissing typical of young filmmakers. The new Romanian cinema isn’t personal in the familiar auteurist sense. It’s populist — a term not to be confused with stupid in this case — storytelling, accessible to anyone willing to brave the Balkan barrier of subtitles. *


Nov. 3–Dec. 9, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-1124

Fellini in Arkansas


"Ahm tired uh yer uppity, citified ways!" leering slob Odis (Gene Ross) tells houseguest Helen (Norma Moore) in S.F. Brownrigg’s Poor White Trash II, a 1974 movie also known by the equally savory title Scum of the Earth. The late Brownrigg’s gasp-producing moonshine swaller of incest-cum-insanity is one of several delights in the new program of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ film curator Joel Shepard, "Red State Cinema: Rural Auteurs," which spans from Harry Revier’s 1938 Child Bride (which was aimed at traveling tent cinemas) to Joe Pickett and Nick Preuher’s new documentary Dirty Country (a profile of factory worker and raunchy composer-performer Larry Pierce). Jennifer Baichal’s terrific 2002 The True Meaning of Pictures looks at the controversy surrounding Shelby Lee Adams, whose memorable photographs of dirt-poor Appalachia residents were accused of artificially heightening hillbilly squalor for a fascinated upscale audience. Then there’s Arkansas auteur Phil Chambliss, who makes films of varying length starring friends, family, and gravel-pit coworkers. Chambliss’s aren’t home movies but eccentric narratives as bizarre, humorous, and strangely familiar as the weirdest relative in your family.


Nov. 1–16, $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening room

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

Silencers, please


The James Bond movies had a cultural impact like no other film series in the 1960s, spawning umpteen imitations, from cheap Europudding productions (the ones directed by Mario Bava and Jess Franco are quite delightful) to Hollywood spectaculars. There were rival series too. The most popular — and critically loathed — starred Dean Martin as Matt Helm. In Donald Hamilton’s original books Helm is a tough customer involved in relatively realistic adventures. But the Helm movies — the prime inspiration for Austin Powers — are consummate ’60s expressions of Playboy middle-class-male masturbation fodder, surrounding the leather-skinned, martini-slurred star (Martin’s line readings often suggest he’d been propped up for the take) with chesty starlets half his age, clad in the loudest possible peekaboo showgirl or allegedly mod attire.

As pungently nostalgic as a lapful of spilled Old Spice, 1966’s The Silencers at one point has the relatively mature Cyd Charisse (singing voice dubbed by Vicki Carr) performing a nightclub number. She wears a flesh-colored body stocking adorned with black suction cups that have what look like deflated yellow condoms dangling from them. Our hero delivers wheezy bons mots — more like bones mots — while fending off bombshells, including his secretary Miss Lovey Kravezit (Beverly Adams). Ever the gent, he asks each eager beaver if she has been vaccinated. Elevating matters somewhat is the presence of Stella Stevens as Gail, a haplessly klutzy tourist inadvertently pulled into Helm’s bullet-dodging realm. Her wide-eyed, good-natured screwball turn brings a little heart into this silicone fantasy — even if the movie insists on finding ways to humiliate her.

Dino’s Helm weaved his unsteady way through three more adventures. Murderer’s Row at least has Ann-Margret in a great go-go dance wig out on the hippie discotheque floor. Anyone reckless enough to watch all four garishly remastered features collected in Sony Pictures’ Matt Helm Lounge DVD set (guilty as charged) is going to lose more brain cells in approximately seven hours than Martin did in, er, an average week.


Fri/26, 6:30 p.m., $10 donation (free for members)

Mechanics’ Institute

57 Post, SF

(415) 393-1000

Rat with wings


SEVENTIES FLASHBACK The ’60s were all about changing society. When that didn’t pan out, the ’70s went all inwardly focused, pursuing pleasure and spirituality. Both goals frequently commingled as fads, cults, and pop religio-psych fixes. The Age of Aquarius dawned no more: Planet Self-Help was rising, and exotic waves washed across the shore of American consciousness.

Perhaps nothing in that era’s landscape of seekerdom spread its populist wings farther — or became a more dated Me Decade punch line — than Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Richard Bach’s precious wee tome (of fewer than 10,000 words, stretched to book length by Russell Munson’s black-and-white aviary photos) was first issued in 1970 by Macmillan after numerous other publishers passed. This little-being-that-could tale is about a "one-in-a-million bird" who yearns to transcend his garbage-eating tribe by flying for the pure joy and challenge of it. Expelled from this group, he’s taken in by gull teachers operating on a "higher plane" and ultimately graduates to "working on love" with his original, dumbly materialist flock, which needs schooling the most. It’s kinda Zen, albeit with Western appeal in that the seeker is granted special FasTrak-to-enlightenment status: "You, Jon, learned so much at one time that you didn’t have to go through a thousand lives to reach this one," one teacher tells our protagonist. So Anakin Skywalker!

With collegians steeped in Herman Hesse and Carlos Castaneda fanning the flame, Seagull became a phenomenon, surpassing Gone with the Wind‘s hardcover-sales record. It topped the New York Times‘ best-seller list for 38 weeks and was translated into umpteen languages (my thrift-shop edition is English-Korean). It inspired a ballet, a spoken word record by "MacArthur Park" crooner Richard Harris, myriad parodies, and a cameo appearance on Brady Bunch daddy Mike’s bedside table. Could a movie version possibly miss?

Oh yes, it could: thanks to Paramount Home Video, the single most ridiculed flop of 1973 is newly out on DVD. Like most such whipping posts (Heaven’s Gate, Inchon, etc.), it’s not nearly as bad as its reputation suggests. Still, some cringing is appropriate. Much is Bach’s fault, even though he sued Paramount over minor textual deviations. The pompous parable and sentiments behind lines like "There’s got to be more to life than fighting for fish heads!" remained all his. Lit crits carped well before film reviews dug a deeper hole. One called the book "a mishmash of Boy Scout–Khalil Gibran–Horatio Alger doing Antoine de Saint-Exupéry spouting the Qur’an as translated by Bob Dylan." But full shit-storm blame rested on the decision by the producers and director Hall Bartlett to visualize a live-action narrative starring actual gulls (controlled on set by radar signals) with dubbed Hollywood actors’ voices.

Painfully whisper-intense James Franciscus "beaked" Jonathan. Richard Crenna, Hal Holbrook, Dorothy McGuire, and Nanny and the Professor‘s Juliet Mills were other seagull ventriloquists. Perhaps evocative, simple animation à la 1971 AMC Movie of the Week classic The Point (which had music by Harry Nilsson) would have been a better path. Bartlett (his career a casualty) went on a promotional tour with "star" birds, creating a truly shitty situation in hotel rooms nationwide. That didn’t help to choke back reviewers’ laughter or massive public indifference. Nobody denied Jack Couffer’s stunning, Oscar-nominated cinematography. And Neil Diamond’s original song score — soaring or insipid, choose yer side — took on a commercial life of its own.

But the film was doomed. A second version, replacing dialogue with Sir Lawrence Olivier’s narration, was released. But when a movie’s already branded a dud, such salvage tactics never work. This screen Seagull lives on as a fabled crapsterpiece, designated "Golden Turkey" by the likes of future conservative art warden Michael Medved. Aviator turned novelist turned sage Bach found his audience shrinking, though a faithful core remains, which now forgives and even appreciates the movie he disowned. These days Love Story, Erich von Däniken (of Chariots of the Gods?), and pet rocks have little noncamp residual value. But Jonathan Livingston Seagull is still in print.

Lovejoy and company


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"Think about the children!"

That cry, most memorably a mantra for Reverend Lovejoy’s wife, Helen, on The Simpsons, encapsulates the pervasive movement to childproof American life. Parents no longer have the time, will, or ability (so they claim) to properly censor all aspects of culture their kids might be exposed to, so a rising chorus demands the government do it for them.

Yet these efforts only underline the scattershot nature of an institutional overview of today’s wide-open mediascape. The FCC heavily fines cusswords and wardrobe malfunctions on network TV, yet cable can do whatever the fuck! it pleases. Men lured via fantasy underage chat rooms into bogus real-world meetings by FBI agents can be imprisoned for crimes of intent. Meanwhile, the hugely popular Bratz empire sells trendy updates on Jodie Foster’s Taxi Driver li’l ho look to preteen girls as ersatz self-empowerment.

The closely aligned flip side of that salaciousness is the market for angelic innocence — those Keane-eyed Olsen twins tap into commingled public fascinations with child precocity, with jailbait allure and its righteous condemnation, and with women starving themselves back to a pubescent size-zero ideal. How often has such high-end childsploitation led to balanced adult life? Face it: we already think about the children way too much.

A whole worm can of child adorability, complicity, ability, and above all, parental responsibility (or lack thereof) is opened up by My Kid Could Paint That. Amir Bar-Lev’s excellent documentary starts out as a straight-up chronicle of a way-underage artistic phenomenon, until unforeseen developments suggest some sort of mass-media con job based on dreams of squeaky-clean white suburbia.

The Olmsteads of Binghamton, N.Y., are a catalog family, so wholesomely good-looking you might think they were assembled by a casting agent. They are nice too. You might expect any thirtysomething heterosexual couple this L.L. Bean–clad to be yuppies, but in their modest upstate New York burg, they get along like everybody else. Mother Laura is a dental assistant. Father Mark works at the Frito-Lay factory. And their offspring? Marla and little brother Zane are well adjusted and beyond cute. If you don’t like kids, picture a basket of golden Lab puppies or something.

Not long after she turned two, Marla insisted on joining Daddy’s off-clock pastime as an amateur artist, painting her own pictures. The attractive, oddly sophisticated-looking results were hung at home. Eventually, a friend suggested they be exhibited in his café, where they elicited actual purchase offers. Another friend, professional artist Anthony Brunelli, then proposed a mid-2004 show at his gallery. It all still seemed kind of a lark.

Then a local newspaper story leads to another — in the New York Times. Normal life ends: so-called pint-size Picasso Marla is the human-interest novelty du jour for every national magazine and TV show. Collectors bid up to $25,000 per canvas. Art critics weigh in and are, for the most part, as impressed as they are nonplussed. Both senior Olmsteads apparently take pains not to pressure Marla toward more art making or media glare than her four-year-old temperament desires. (They also try not to make her older brother feel any less special, though a couple of moments in this movie make you think he has years of therapy ahead.) Yet Mark Olmstead does seem eager to seize the moment. Is this the art-world entrée he’d always wanted for himself?

That question becomes a matter of discomfiting public conjecture once something very bad happens. The Sunday-evening staple 60 Minutes — having stationed a surveillance camera in the Olmsteads’ home (with their permission) to observe Marla’s artistic process — airs a segment that strongly implies the whole child-genius thing is a fraud. Footage is shown with Mark rather aggressively directing Marla’s painting. The tide turns: collectors froth at the mouth, journalists and critics harrumph, hate mail arrives in bulk, and the Olmsteads feel shunned in their own community. They take steps at vindication, but things only get more complicated.

If you watch many documentaries these days, you’re sick of filmmakers putting their mugs and ruminations on camera, whether germane to the subject or not. But there’s a real intensity to Ben-Levy’s soul-searching in My Kid Could Paint That, as he weighs emotional attachment to the Olmsteads — and their expectation of loyalty — against his own nagging doubts and the golden prospect of a vérité exposé.

My Kid Could Paint That provokes on numerous levels. Regardless of whether she’s all that or not, can so much scrutiny — cynical or flattering — be good for Marla? As the title suggests, Ben-Levy’s film also examines deep populist hostility toward abstract (as opposed to traditional representational) art. Perhaps the only question this fascinating documentary doesn’t address is one that lands between artistic-value and cult-of-personality terrains. If Marla Olmstead turns out not to be sole creator of these paintings, why are they suddenly worth less? The oil canvases are vividly colored, complex, often ravishing. I’d be thrilled to have a print, let alone an original.

The creepiest folks in My Kid Could Paint That are those whose art appreciation gets turned off the moment it occurs they’ve enjoyed something possibly not created by an adorable, towheaded child. They’ve invested so much in the prodigy image they can’t see the still-beautiful product that remains. They are pederasts of an acceptable sort — people who only wuv something as long as it comes from a certifiably "pure" source. Innocence-fetishizing Mrs. Lovejoys are always the first to condemn adults who might well be damaged former prodigies themselves. It’s a microcosm of the hypocrisy that raises hysteria over mythically elevated levels of child sexual abuse, while caring little about those myriad ill-raised kids who end up welfare mothers or otherwise inconvenient adults.


Opens Fri/12 in Bay Area theaters

Take it sleazy


CULT FILM Erstwhile cofounder of San Francisco’s late, lamented Werepad — a "beatnik space lounge" (among other things) — Jacques Boyreau, also a filmmaker (Candy Von Dewd), lives in Portland, Ore., these days. But he’s dropping into town again with a characteristic surprise package in the form of the Supertrash Peepshow at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. We’re promised a slide show and lecture revealing the "secret schools of design" in vintage exploitation movie posters and other pop ephemera, as showcased in Boyreau’s new coffee-table tome, Supertrash, a sequel to 2002’s eye-popping volume Trash. Then, to dive more deeply into the cinematic sleaze of yore, he’ll present a true rarity: the fragrantly named Fleshpot on 42nd Street, the final sexploitation epic of notorious grade-Z Staten Island auteur Andy Milligan. It was one of his few real hits — if only on the 1973 downtown grindhouse circuit — but has since become one of the least-remembered titles in an already obscure oeuvre (The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!, The Ghastly Ones), since only a single print survives.

Fleshpot juggles Milligan’s usual hysteria, misanthropy, crude technique, and ripe dialogue with more restrained, realistic aspects in line with mainstream counterculture downers of the period like The Panic in Needle Park and Go Ask Alice. Heroine Dusty (Laura Cannon, a.k.a. Diane Lewis) is a morally lax looker who splits when her latest sugar daddy asks her to, like, pick up after herself. She thus goes from "playing house with some guy in Queens" to playing house with a real queen: blond-fright-wigged Cherry (Neil Flanagan), a tranny hooker pal who says, "Why don’t we join forces? We could both turn quite a few each night if we play our cards right!"

Swapping abusive, money-pinching tricks, these two indelicate souls are well matched: she’s a petty thief who hates sex but would rather trick than work a regular job, and he’s an even crasser soul who sobs, "I’m no prize package: a cocksucker — not even a good one. Too weird to be called a man, too old to try and look like one!" It’s a shock when Dusty meets a guy who’s nice, employed, and genuinely likes her — Bob, played by no less than Deep Throat porn legend Harry Reems. Of course, in the Milligan universe this rare glimpse of happiness (let alone good, consensual intercourse) is doomed to end tragically. Lurid, lively, and cheap as a back-alley BJ, Fleshpot embodies a particular brand of movie entertainment that you can’t get anymore in a public space. When it’s over, you’ll want to be hosed off.


Thurs/4, 7:30 p.m., $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

Scary Larry


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Nature enjoyed rebelling against arrogant, polluting humankind in the paranoid ecosploitation cinema of the 1970s: Prophecy, Phase IV, Frogs, Sssssss, The Food of the Gods, and even the Oscar-winning fake documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle all suggested Mother Nature was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Back then, though, nature was just bitching within safe fantasy confines. Who could have guessed something as nonfictionally apocalyptic as global warming would be a coming attraction by millennium’s end? Where prior generations only suffered nightmares of an unplugged Earth, ours might actually witness the beginning of the self-inflicted end. Kind of makes you feel special, doesn’t it?

Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter isn’t the first global-warming horror film, and it surely won’t be the last, but it’s unlikely there will be a better one anytime soon — or a better horror movie this fall. After Rob Zombie’s lamentable Halloween and at least three major Toronto disappointments (the lesser-sung The Devil’s Chair, George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, and Dario Argento’s howlingly bad Mother of Tears), it’s a relief to be reminded the genre isn’t innately allergic to intelligence and nuance.

Actually, those qualities are probably why nobody’s handed Fessenden a remake of some ’70s drive-in classic or Japanese hairy-ghost flick — he can’t be trusted to make a film obvious enough that it will lure the usual suspects to umpteen mall screens on opening weekend. (All the justified bitching about Halloween didn’t stop ’em from lining up like sheep, if only to sound the first Monday-morning complaints behind the Starbucks counter.)

Fessenden’s movies are creepy rather than stab crazed, with genuinely interesting characters and recognizable human emotions. Habit (1997) is about a loser guy (played by the director) who’s seeing a mysterious woman who just might be a vampire — or maybe that’s just his cover for some serious denial issues. Wendigo (2001) involves a man-deer beast, but more disturbing is its dead-on portrait of a crumbling marriage and poor parenting skills. The Last Winter is a comparatively epic endeavor. It boasts a cast of several! It features wide-screen sunset vistas! It includes helicopter shots! But once again, it’s a story in which the peril might be supernatural or might simply be the result of people losing their grip.

In arctic Alaska (played by Iceland — go figure), an advance team preps a multinational oil company’s projected new drill in a hitherto protected national wildlife refuge. Because lip service must be paid to the environment, North Industry is hosting an impact study before drilling begins. As far as North Industry team leader Pollack (Ron Perlman) is concerned, the study is just a useless formality, but eco watchdog James Hoffman (James LeGros) begs to differ. Pollack meets this unwelcome new coworker after a five-week absence dealing with the suits back in civilization, and his homecoming is further soured by the discovery that another change has occurred: where he used to be the designated bed warmer for second in command Abby (Connie Britton), the sensitive Hoffman now enjoys that role.

Dumped, horny, and ornery, the macho Pollack is not receptive to Hoffman’s foreboding statements about the great white flatness outside. Unseasonably warm temperatures are creating logistical problems, and there are signs the permafrost might be melting, yet Pollack greets such news like a Marine boot-camp instructor handed a sachet of patchouli. As in: fuck you, hippie. Then things start going haywire at the station, from unexplained power outages to personnel wig-outs. An intern vanishes, then returns nearly catatonic. What’s going on out there? Whatever it is, it’s as intent on whittling down the North crew’s number as your standard masked dude with machete at a girls’ school. Except The Last Winter isn’t that kind of horror movie.

It’s the kind, rather, that builds an atmosphere of dread from disorientation and psychological fragility instead of things jumping out from behind doors. In fact, as with Wendigo, the least effective elements in The Last Winter are its most literally minded fantastical. Fessenden does ambiguity with such skill that when monster thingies finally arrive, it’s a bit of a tacky letdown. The most harrowing moments in this beautifully crafted film are contrastingly realistic, such as a sudden plunge through thin ice into freezing waters.

Movies like The Last Winter don’t win awards, and sometimes they don’t get distributed. (It’s taken this movie more than a year to reach US theaters; elsewhere, it’s been shunted directly to DVD.) But I can’t think of a genre film I’ve enjoyed more in 2007, let alone another one that has rewarded repeat viewings. Even if The Last Winter weren’t scary, funny, surprising, and gorgeously shot, Fessenden would still warrant all kinds of gratitude for letting the terminally underappreciated and invariably excellent James LeGros carry a movie. He’s so good here that if there were any justice in the world … ah, forget it. There isn’t.


Opens Fri/28 in Bay Area theaters

Tough turf


CULT FILM "WAAAR-ee-erzzz — come out to PLAAY-ee-ay!" This catchphrase, first spoken in an annoyingly unforgettable singsong (and supposedly improvised) by actor David Patrick Kelly, has infiltrated pop culture to the extent that it’s been sampled or mimicked by musicians from Twisted Sister to the Wu-Tang Clan to the Offspring. If you don’t know — how could you not? — it’s from The Warriors, Walter Hill’s 1979 urban action joyride. Revived this weekend at the Red Vic Movie House (hardly for the first time), The Warriors barely rippled across the radar of most respectable critics at the time (though the New Yorker and the New York Times liked it). Yet it’s grown more beloved and influential than all the prestige releases of 1979 combined (Apocalypse Now possibly aside). I mean, who quotes lines now from Kramer vs. Kramer or Norma Rae?

Based on a 1965 novel by Sol Yurick (very loosely, which he did not appreciate), the film finds nine representatives of Coney Island’s Warriors gang journeying in their scruffy-sexy little leather vests all the way to the Bronx. There, messianic Cyrus (Roger Hill) of the Black Panthers–like, paramilitaristic Gramercy Riffs has called a summit for all 100 New York City gangs. Saying their combined 60,000 soldiers could take over the city against a measly 20,000 cops if they united forces, he bellows, "We got the streets, suckers! Caaaan youuuu diiiiig iiiiitttt?"

Just cuz he can, weasly li’l psycho Luther (Kelly) of the Rogues chooses this moment to assassinate Cyrus. Amid the subsequent pandemonium, Luther pins the blame on the Warriors, whose black leader, Cleon (Dorsey Wright), is promptly lynched. This conveniently leaves the cutest white boy — Andy Gibb–coiffed, clench-jawed Michael Beck as Swan — in charge. He has to get the remaining Warriors, now pursued by every gang and cop around, safely home from "27 miles behind enemy lines." Their breathless all-night journey includes altercations with myriad rival units, all outlandishly outfitted in matching costumes: the Baseball Furies wear pinstripe uniforms and KISS-style makeup; the Punks look more like pop rockers, with overalls and a shaggy-haired boss on roller skates. Other groups look like mimes (now that’s tough), disco funksters, ninjas, and so on. Luther’s guys resemble extras from Scorpio Rising. The Lizzies are, uh, lezzies, though they pretend otherwise to entrap some easily dick-led Warriors.

Movies from the ’70s often seem idly paced now, yet The Warriors moves like greased lightning. There’s nonstop action yet surprisingly not all that much serious violence, save at the beginning and the end. But it didn’t seem that way to most observers in early ’79, when word quickly spread of gang beatdowns and three alleged murders taking place in or outside screenings. (Easy to see why actual gang members flocked to the movie — it flatters them with a fantasy of gang life as unflappable, thrill-a-minute, dark-superhero coolness.)

Naturally, there were also rumors that these reports were fake — drummed up by either the studio or procensorship types to create controversy. In the unlikely case that Paramount was behind it, its strategy certainly backfired, since the studio ended up having to pull ads and some prints and bankroll security at certain theaters. (Nonetheless, the film did pretty well nationwide.)

There were regrettable consequences for other movies too. Their suddenly skittish distributors didn’t do jack to promote two terrific movies now tainted by the gang label: Philip Kaufman’s wonderful The Wanderers, which was more an American Graffiti–style nostalgic flashback than anything else, and Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge, a brilliant suburban-teen-revolt study. Both found their audiences in subsequent nonstop cable airings.

Most Warriors fanatics were dismayed when a director’s cut DVD came out earlier this year that inserted comic book–style freeze-frame graphics and a pretentious prologue. There may be worse indignities to come: Tony Scott, who’s never made a realistic movie in his life, is slated to direct a "more real, less camp" remake using Los Angeles gang members. Can you dig it? Er, no. (Dennis Harvey)


Fri/14–Sat/15, 7:15 and 9:20 p.m. (also Sat/15, 2 and 4 p.m.), $5–$8.50

Red Vic Movie House

1727 Haight, SF

(415) 668-3994<

Fall Arts: Popcorn — and human pies


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1. Across the Universe Stage visionary (The Lion King) turned occasional film director (Titus, Frida) Julie Taymor’s latest attracted advance attention of the wrong kind. Revolution Studios found her final cut of this Vietnam War–<\d>era musical drama — whose characters break into Beatles songs — too surreal and abstract, reediting it without her consent. Given that, Taymor’s extravagant visual imagination, a script by two 70-year-old Swinging London veterans, low-watt leading actors, and weird cameos (Eddie Izzard, yes; Bono, god no!), this could turn out great, awful, whatever — but it shouldn’t be ordinary. (Sept. 14)

2. The Brave One Jodie Foster is Ms. 45! Or she’s Charles Bronson in Death Wish — take your pick. She’s a New Yorker turned vigilante after suffering a violent assault. Reasons this probably won’t be cheesy include director Neil Jordan and Terrence Howard, Mary Steenburgen, and Jane Adams in supporting roles. (Sept. 14)

3. The Last Winter Global warming has provided an agenda for various cautionary documentaries, nature flicks, and penguin-centric cartoons. This latest by underappreciated genre specialist Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo) puts it where it really belongs: in a horror movie. James LeGros and Ron Perlman lead an advance team planning oil drills in pristine Arctic Alaska. Cabin fever, the supernatural, and perhaps a fed-up Mother Nature fast decimate these human intruders. Recommended for those who like their horror ambiguous and psychologically fraught. (Sept. 28)

4. Lust, Caution OK, Hulk wasn’t so hot. But that aside, is there a working commercial director with a higher-quality track record than Ang Lee? Great expectations are de rigueur for this Mandarin-language drama entangling Joan Chen and Tang Wei with politically powerful Tony Leung in World War II–<\d>era Shanghai. (Oct. 5)

5. For the Bible Tells Me So Like No End in Sight and Sicko, this is one of those documentaries you’ll wish every diehard conservative would see. Daniel<\!s>G. Karslake’s feature takes an evenhanded, big-picture look at just how and why the US religious right has made homosexuality its favorite target. (Oct. 12)

6. No Country for Old Men By all accounts, this lesser Cormac McCarthy novel has been adapted into the greatest Coen brothers movie in aeons. Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, and Kelly Macdonald are among those embroiled once Josh Brolin finds $2 million, mucho cocaine, and a lotta corpses in the Texas desert. Trouble is, evil Javier Bardem wants his dough and his blow back. Gruesome splatstick ensues. (Nov. 21)

7. Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten Julien Temple’s documentary portrait of the late Clash-leading punk rock hero has been praised to the skies — though not having seen it, I’m a little unclear as to why Johnny Depp, John Cusack, and Matt Dillon are leading interviewees. (Dec. 6)

8. Atonement Ian McEwan’s extraordinary novel — about the havoc wrought by a child’s misunderstanding in pre-WWII England — required careful handling. With a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, direction by Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice), and a cast including Brenda Blethyn, Keira Knightley, and Vanessa Redgrave, this might well be as good as it needs to be. (Dec. 14)

9. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street This looks like a perfect match for director Tim Burton, whose work has largely disappointed since 1994’s Ed Wood. But can Johnny Depp as the titular murderous Victorian — or Helena Bonham Carter as his human pie–<\d>baking pal — actually sing this demanding Broadway-operatic score? Can Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, or Sacha Baron Cohen? The breaths of Stephen Sondheim’s and Burton’s fans are bated. (Dec. 21)

10. Youth Without Youth George Lucas has been saying he’ll return to his small-scale filmmaking roots for at least a couple of decades. His original industry booster, Francis Ford Coppola, actually delivers on that promise with this HD-shot adaptation of a Mircea Eliade story. Tim Roth plays a professor turned globe-hopping fugitive; Downfall‘s Hitler, Bruno Ganz, and secretary Alexandra Maria Lara are reunited as players on Roth’s enigmatic journey. After his full decade’s absence, it’ll be intriguing to see what dragged Coppola back behind the camera. (Dec. 21)<\!s>*

Might makes wrong


A couple of years ago, filmmaker Thom Anderson remarked to me that all films about war, even those that aim to show its injustice, are prowar.

War Made Easy might be the first film I’ve seen since hearing Anderson’s assertion that effectively counters such a claim. Admittedly, Anderson was likely referring only to dramatic movies, especially those produced by Hollywood. Yet even a contemporary doc such as Fahrenheit 9/11 not only takes the honor of military force for granted but spins it into a cause for voice-over dramatics. In contrast, War Made Easy codirectors Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp’s documentary uses Norman Solomon’s recent book to perform an autopsy on the now-zombified propaganda surrounding post-1940s US war.

Alper and Earp’s doc skips smart-ass sarcasm and the usual air of incredulity in order to make complex points clear, and it does so skillfully and quickly. It still has moments when horror and humor commingle, such as when various embedded TV reporters cream their business slacks or loaned camouflage gear during assertions of love for aircraft such as the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the A-10 Wart Hog.

George Santayana’s famous statement that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it is proven without a doubt throughout War Made Easy. A parade of presidents mouths variations of the same theme, which goes something along the lines of “We love democracy and peace so much that we have to murder others to maintain it.”

With the passing of time, the words and phrases used to justify US military action have become increasingly debased and the puppets mouthing them more craven, until today, when we have George W. Bush repeating the word evil more often than an old metal album skipping on a turntable. Yet if evil exists, he and his cronies are exact embodiments of what they decry. Witness a moment in this movie when Bush describes Saddam Hussein as “a homicidal dictator addicted to weapons of mass destruction.” (Johnny Ray Huston)

Americans no longer like the war in Iraq. They know it is not going well. Still, most don’t really want to know how things got so bad. Ergo, there’s probably not much hope No End in Sight will join the ranks of those rare recent must-see documentaries involving penguins, Global Warming 101, or Michael Moore. That’s too bad, because Charles Ferguson’s film has no preaching-to-the-converted tone or snarky on-camera filmmaker.

Ferguson, a sometime lecturer at UC Berkeley, draws on heavyweight connections to show how the administration continually matched arrogant, ignorant policy with new staff, people who — not unlike Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld — lacked experience in combat and postwar infrastructure rebuilding, let alone knowledge of Middle Eastern history, culture, and relations.

“I don’t do quagmires!” Rumsfeld quips in one of several gag-inducing moments of news conference levity. It’s repeatedly noted that Bush didn’t read even the one-page summaries crafted for his wee attention span.

No End in Sight includes input from US and Iraqi scholars as well as former Pentagon, CIA, and White House staff, sorely disillusioned American military leaders, and grunts badly wounded by inept policy. This movie should be required viewing for all US citizens currently obsessed with gas prices, the wacky misadventures of Lindsay Lohan, and their navels. The DVD version is going to make a great Christmas present. (Dennis Harvey)


Opens Fri/10 in Bay Area theaters

See Movie Clock at


Thurs/9, 7 p.m., $12

Grand Lake Theater

3200 Grand Lake, Oakl.

(510) 251-1332, ext. 102


Festival Guide


The opening-night selection at the Jewish Film Festival is Israeli writer-director Dror Shaul’s worldwide prizewinner, Sweet Mud. It views 1974 kibbutz life from a 12-year-old’s perspective, but don’t expect rosy childhood nostalgia. Though it doesn’t lack humor or adventure, it takes on backstabbing and conservatism in kibbutzim.

On a lighter note, the closing-night film Making Trouble: Three Generations of Jewish Funny Women is a TV-style documentary enjoyable simply for its episodic homage to six famous funny ladies, including Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, brassy belter Sophie Tucker, and Saturday Night Live‘s Gilda Radner. Though the career of still-breathing subject Joan Rivers has skewed toward tacky celebrity-culture exploitation, she’s sharp and candid discussing an uphill climb from being the most-hated female sassmouth on the Catskills circuit.

There are several culture-clash comedies at this year’s JFF, and one sure bet is French actor Roschdy Zem’s charming directorial debut, Bad Faith. He and Cécile de France play Parisians of wholly secular Muslim and Jewish backgrounds, respectively. Their romance goes swimmingly until she becomes pregnant, sparking all kinds of familial strife. The fest’s sidebars include a miniretrospective for Berlin-based Jewish director Dani Levi, who made a splash with 2005’s farcical Go for Zucker. Levi is the winner of the fest’s Freedom of Expression award; alas, his latest, My Fuehrer: The Truly Truth about Hitler, strains mightily and uselessly to burlesque the Third Reich’s waning days.

Among the JFF’s Israeli documentaries, one delight is Shlomo Hazan’s hour-long Film Fanatic. It follows entrepreneur Yehuda Grovais’ attempts to create a commercial ultra-Orthodox cinema — even though his constituency is explicitly banned from watching theatrical films. Among US documentaries, one winner is Ilana Trachtman’s world-premiere feature Praying with Lior, a family portrait that illuminates issues of faith, disability, and self-sacrifice.

Silent voice


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When US moviemaking started out, it was an enterprise disreputable enough to attract the wrong sort of people: get-rich-quick speculators, third-tier theater folk, organized crime, and even — god forbid — Jews. The last rose to pilot most major studios as Hollywood became a gigantic industry. Yet this alleged Jewish mafia (a term still not fully retired in some circles) seldom used wealth and imagistic power to integrate fellow Jews into the cultural mainstream. Instead, they largely buried their ethnicity by living outrageously grandiose versions of the WASP American dream. The movies they made suggested a melting-pot fondue composed solely of Anglo-Saxon American cheese.

A long line of stars stretching from cowboy hero Bronco Billy onward adopted Anglicized names and hid (or at least didn’t publicize) their ethnicity, among them Lauren Bacall, Charles Bronson, Tony Curtis, Lorne Greene (birth name: Chaim Leibowiz), and Judy Holliday. (If you think this practice doesn’t continue today, dig beneath the surface.) The moguls themselves practiced private-sphere assimilation by ditching Jewish first wives for apple-pie glamazons.

Nonetheless, the number of films produced during Hollywood’s first decades meant a few Jewish movies slipped onto the screen, if only for novelty’s sake. One is a 1925 feature called His People. This rediscovered gem is the centerpiece attraction of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s 27th annual program. Its July 21 screening at the Castro Theatre will be accompanied by a commissioned score played live by New York City jazz star Paul Shapiro and his sextet.

Shapiro will be the big lure for many. I hope his klezmer bop sounds don’t overwhelm the film. It has a relatively simple, borderline-cliché plot, including a variation on the classic "I hef no son!" moment, which reached a camp zenith when rabbi Sir Laurence Olivier disowned Neil Diamond in 1980’s remake of The Jazz Singer. But prolific, forgotten director Edward Sloman handles even that purple melodrama with tact and affection.

In "the Ghetto" (as titles inform us) of NYC’s Lower East Side, the Comiskey family struggles along. Devout immigrant father David (Rudolph Schildkraut) pegs all of his hopes on studious offspring Morris (Arthur Lubin). Dad is harsher in his judgment of Sammy (George Lewis), a street scrapper (usually in the service of defending his jag-off sib) and supposed ne’er-do-well. Only Mama Rose (Rosa Rosanova) perceives Sammy’s true-blue nature, while suspecting Morris is a weasel. It’s Sammy’s scandalous moonlighting as a boxer that puts his bro through law school. After graduating, little ingrate Morris gets a prize position and courts his rich uptown boss’s WASP daughter, claiming that he’s "an orphan" when queried about his background. Fear not: his comeuppance will be mighty, though not unforgiving.

His People is a real discovery. Wonderfully openhearted and funny, the film respects both cultural tradition and progress, rejoicing in Sammy’s love for Irish girl next door Mamie Shannon (Blanche Mehaffey). Brit transplant Sloman also directed another obscure but admirable Jewish-themed silent, 1927’s Surrender, among nearly 100 Hollywood titles. (He also racked up dozens of screen credits as an actor.) This movie suggests a major talent, yet his career sputtered once the talkies arrived. By 1938 he’d abandoned movies for radio work. In 1972 he died in Woodland Hills at the age of 86.

His People is a major exception to the silent era’s ironic general avoidance of Jewish imagery beyond the occasional comic stereotype, scheming shopkeeper, or biblical flashback. Even after Al Jolson kicked off the sound era as a cantor’s son in the 1927 part-talkie version of The Jazz Singer, Jews largely remained in the closet onscreen. They were permitted to be funny, to sing, to do serious thespian heavy lifting, so long as they appeared merely ethnic, preferably passing for Italian, amorous "Latin," or best of all, solid-gold WASP. You can’t condemn yesteryear’s performers for doing what they needed to do to succeed. But this box office hit from 1925 suggests how much richer history — the history of movies, just for starters — might have been if everyone had been encouraged to be themselves from the start.*


July 19–<\d>Aug. 6, most shows $9

See film listings for schedule

(925) 275-9490

Tune in, turn on, “Psych-Out”


CULT FILM Some movies define a generation. Some distort a generation. Very special ones manage both. Welcome to the genius of Psych-Out, a 1968 American International Pictures epic (produced by none other than squeaky-clean American Bandstand icon Dick Clark) that remains perhaps the all-time high-water mark in cinematic hippiesploitation.

Oh, Psych-Out, Psych-Out, Psych-Out! How many times have I loved your psychedelic excesses since that fateful first viewing in the 1980s at Boston’s annual Schlock-around-the-Clock marathon? Not even my housemate’s desperate need to exchange MDA-driven warm fuzzies in the lobby could tear me from such enchantment. (She did succeed in wrangling me away that night from such additional gems as The Thing with Two Heads. A small resentment lingers.)

Psych-Out, which plays as part of the Red Vic’s commemoration of the Summer of Love’s 40th anniversary, is the least heralded of an unofficial AIP trilogy from that year, alongside The Trip (Peter Fonda drops lysergic under the tutelage of ever-levelheaded Bruce Dern) and Wild in the Streets (the US voting age is lowered to 14, resulting in Shelley Winters being sent to a concentration camp for too-old people). Those films were actual hits. Psych-Out ran through the drive-in mill and was quickly forgotten.

Stupid humans!! How could they resist a film advertised thus: "These are the PLEASURE LOVERS! They’ll ask for a dime with hungry eyes. But they’ll give you love — for NOTHING! Have you ever TASTED FEAR or SMELLED MADNESS? LISTEN to the sound of PURPLE!" Nearly 30 Susan Strasberg plays Jenny, an underage runaway searching for her brother (Dern as "the Seeker," a sort of Crazy Acid Jesus). Escaping their abusive mother — glimpsed in one genuinely disturbing flashback — the mute Audrey Hepburn–goes–mod gamine arrives in San Francisco, center of the known counterculture universe, where she’s taken in by the hipsters who constitute rock group Mumblin’ Jim: a ponytailed Jack Nicholson, barely bothering to finger-mime rip-off Hendrix riffs as guitarist Stoney; jive-talking drummer Elwood (Max Julien); keyboardist Ben (biker-flick staple Adam Roarke); bassist Wesley (Tommy Flanders); and Wesley’s shareable wife, Lynn (Linda Gaye Scott), who can’t hit a tambourine on tempo to save her life. Then there’s Dean Stockwell as Dave, the serenely weird ex-bandmate turned fountain of guru wisdom. He lives in a rooftop cardboard box.

All help Jenny look for that elusive messianic bro, at least when not introducing her to the joys of thrift shop fashion montages and Golden Gate Park Be-Ins (at which garage greats the Seeds play). Befitting this turbulent generation, distracting crises occur. Some are peacenik-versus-redneck stuff requiring hippies to kick local junkyard greaser ass. Others are drug related, as when future bad director Henry Jaglom hallucinates that his limbs need cutting off. This occasions the immortal line "C’mon man! Warren’s freaking out at the gallery!"

Psych-Out has everything: kaleidoscope visuals, STP dosing, horror-movie hallucinations, and dialogue like "It’s all one big plastic hassle." The Strawberry Alarm Clock contribute not just their signature "Incense and Peppermints" but also a theme ("The Pretty Song from Psych-Out") whose lyrics and melody encapsulate the entire plotline with a dreamy be-there-or-be-square vibe and the song "Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow," which soundtracks a particularly senseless sequence involving the soft-focus stringing of beads around a communal household. More bent yet is the scene in which Nicholson and Julien sit in a van, their nutty bloodshot eyes suggesting major real-world fry-dom.

Psych-Out was largely filmed in the Haight-Ashbury of fall 1967, lending some aspects an authenticity that concurrent Hollywood hippiesploitation flicks lacked. Yet locals reportedly greeted the crew with such hostility that they had to hire Hells Angels as guards. The end-product melodramatic hash must have induced much derisive stoner laughter among subsequent longhaired viewers.

Director Richard Rush had an odd, thwarted career that peaked with one genuinely admired film (1980’s The Stunt Man), then after a long layoff crashed fatally against the 1994 erotic thriller absurdity Color of Night (Bruce Willis as a psychiatrist stalked by a transsexual patient). On the other hand, the richly colorful Psych-Out‘s Hungarian émigré cinematographer, Laszlo Kovacs, went on to shoot all of Peter Bogdanovich’s, Bob Rafelson’s, and Dennis Hopper’s major films — plus Shampoo, Ghostbusters, and less prestigious but popular recent vehicles for Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts.

Psych-Out is a camp classic that nonetheless makes you desperately wish you were there then. It’s a "bad" movie, yet wonderful in ways that aren’t silly or dated at all. Its freak flag is on.


Fri/6–Sat/7, 7:15 and 9:25 p.m. (also Sat/7, 2 and 4:15 p.m.), $5–$8.50

Red Vic

1727 Haight, SF

(415) 668-3994

Cemetery gates


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Perhaps the only nonzombie movie in recent memory in which the dead outnumber the living, Colma: The Musical did not appear to be a hot prospect when it premiered at last year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. A musical suburban-youth angstfest made locally on a shoestring, starring and produced by no one you’ve heard of? A movie originally intended to be an indie concept album and a stage show? It is the nature of such things to be cute in theory and adorable in execution — but only if one is friends with the cast and crew. If not, it might prompt the type of frozen smile reserved for requests such as "Will you go with me to see my old college roomie play Evita?"

The high energy at the packed Kabuki Cinema for Colma‘s first big screening didn’t necessarily raise my expectations. So the cast and crew have a lot of friends, I thought. Add a decent percentage of the burg of Colma’s approximately 2,000 current residents — hey, I’d go see anything named after my hometown too — and indulgence could be counted on, no matter how lame or amateurish the movie turned out to be.

It’s normal to go a little nuts when something you expected to be so-so at best emerges as totally ingratiating instead. The worthy underdog is usually a little overrated; one current case in point is another movie musical, Once. But in the case of Colma: The Musical, over the past 15 months a number of newspaper writers and people at subsequent festivals have been as surprised and delighted as I was at that first screening. Now Richard Wong’s movie is at a theater near you — at least in San Francisco, with New York City and Los Angeles showings soon to come — and it’s possible it could become a feel-good sleeper around the nation. Like, well, Once.

Almost everywhere anyone grows up seems like Deadsville at the time, boredom being the glue that holds adolescence together. But of course in Colma, the Bay Area’s ruling burial site (breathing-to-decomposing ratio: 1 to 1,500), that notion is redundant. The protagonists of Colma: The Musical are three best friends who’ve just finished high school and have no idea what they’ll do with the rest of the week, let alone the rest of their lives. Equal parts awkward and deadpan, they love and torture one another as if going through naturally spazzy growth spurts.

Jug-eared Billy (Jake Moreno) is a wannabe actor and serial monogamist with the attention span of a gnat, so his head-over-heels crushes come as fast as reprises of the ironically titled lovesick song "Mature." His parents are weird, but at least they’re trying hard to relate to him, unlike the militarily stern widower dad of Rodel (scenarist, composer, and lyricist H.P. Mendoza), who does not react well when his son’s crackhead secret ex-boyfriend reveals Junior is a ‘mo. Much like Rodel, Maribel (L.A. Renigen) is privately crushing on Billy. Even though she’s an aspiring slut, she’s probably the most grounded of the three.

Crises happen, feelings are hurt, and production numbers are born. Two particularly resourceful, near-spectacular highlights of this $15,000 production are the drunken barroom kiss-off "Goodbye Stupid" and "Deadwalking," a wistful lament sung by Maribel and Rodel while innumerable white-gowned ladies and black-tied men waltz through one of Colma’s oldest cemeteries. The sassy humor at play is perhaps best defined by Mendoza piping the tune "One Day" to a car-alarm accompaniment. But nothing is quite so exhilarating as the opener, "Colma Stays" ("like rigor mortis"), a snarky anthem that introduces the Bay Area, the movie’s lead characters, and Colma‘s droll tenor in a sugar rush of split-screen, lip-synching joy.

Colma: The Musical was shot on mini-DV in a widescreen format, and in his first directorial feature, cinematographer-editor Wong already knows how to fill the screen and cut images to music with a genius simplicity that shames most Hollywood (even MTV) veterans. The filmic energy ideally complements performances that are deadpanned to perfect al dente density.

Irresistible at first listen, Colma: The Musical‘s songs haven’t held up quite as well as I’d hoped over the last year’s repeat listens on CD. But as someone who still treasures the ’80s college rock likes of Game Theory, Let’s Active, They Might Be Giants, and subsequent torch carriers, I’ll happily note that a musical that sounds like those groups rather than the usual bad MOR (a description applicable even to the pseudosoulful Dreamgirls and the garish top 40 pastiche Moulin Rouge) is a step in the right direction.

On the other hand, the movie has improved. Clocking in at a generous 113 minutes during its festival travels, Colma: The Musical has since been tightened to a lean 95 without losing poignancy, hilarity, or nuance. "Listen, things got outta hand, things were said, basically everybody’s at fault here," Rodel quasi-apologizes at a late point after an instance of much interpersonal ado about basically nada. The makers of Colma, by contrast, have made something remarkable from almost nothing. Their film is as sweet, funny, and dweeb-pop catchy as anything you’re going to see this year.*


Opens Fri/22

See Movie Clock at“>

For Christ’s sake


The cultural divide between a supposed gay agenda and faith-based biases is well represented in several features within Frameline’s expansive 2007 program. Its representations run a wide gamut — just as the terms gay and Christian have come to encompass wildly disparate US communities.

On Frameline’s nonfiction side, Markie Hancock’s Born Again deftly mixes home movies, archival news footage, and more to chart the director’s long, often agonized journey away from being the perfect overachieving and overbelieving product of her Pennsylvanian parents’ staunch evangelical faith. At a Christian college and then in wide-open Berlin, Hancock began to question the conservative beliefs that had — along with her family’s approval — constituted her formative-years identity.

The devout Hancock clan members are models of tolerance compared to the subject of K. Ryan Jones’s Fall from Grace. That individual is none other than Rev. Fred Phelps, the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., a man long notorious for his congregation–cum–extended family’s outrageous displays of public homophobia. Most recently, Phelps and his followers found infamy by picketing the funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq, a phenomenon they approve of — the notion being that these American military deaths are somehow God’s vengeance for the pipe bomb that student pranksters planted at Westboro Baptist a decade ago.

Yup, these people are cray-ay-ay-azy! Also scary. Two among Phelps’s several estranged children say he used the Bible to justify domestic violence. Unlike most hatemongers, Phelps’s small but fervent clan actually embrace the word hate. Their notion of Christianity is all hellfire and zero forgiveness or compassion. They are pseudo-Christian Antichrists.

A gentler treatment of Bible-based intolerance can be found in Rock Haven, the first directorial feature of San Francisco’s David Lewis. Its titular fictive Northern California burg (played by Bodega Bay) is where Bible college–bound Brady (Sean Hoagland) moves from Kansas with his widowed mother (Laura Jane Coles), who’s opening a Christian school. The moment Brady spies slightly older Clifford (Owen Alabado) striking Grecian postures on the beach, however, unclean thoughts — then nekkid actions — put him on a collision course with his mom’s values.

Deeper yet less serious in tone, writer-director-star Pete Jones’s delightful Outing Riley is a comedy in the Judd Apatow vein, often raucously funny without sacrificing warmth or character dimension. Jones plays Bobby, a 30-ish Chicagoan who loves his Cubs and his beer. And also his male lover — but that is a secret kept well hidden from his three Irish Catholic brothers (including one priest), with whom he’s still best buds. Their sister, Maggie (Julie Pearl), is one among several folks urging him to come the hell out, for Christ’s sake. But doing so doesn’t go down too well at first, not even with the designated bad-boy bro (the wonderful Nathan Fillion, of Waitress and Firefly). Ultimately, things turn around in an agreeable fashion that doesn’t cut corners for cheap uplift.

The result is one of those rare gay movies that should or could be shown to all the straight dudes in America who claim they "can’t really deal with that gay shit." Incredibly, Outing Riley doesn’t have a theatrical distributor yet. Catch it at Frameline, or may the Lord help ya. (Dennis Harvey)

BORN AGAIN (Markie Hancock, US, 2007). June 21, 7 p.m., Victoria

FALL FROM GRACE (K. Ryan Jones, US, 2007). Mon/18, 7 p.m., Roxie; June 20, noon, Castro

OUTING RILEY (Pete Jones, US, 2004). Fri/15, 9:30 p.m., Castro

ROCK HAVEN (David Lewis, US, 2007). June 21, 9:30 p.m., Castro

There’s no business …


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One of the most entertaining books ever written about the commercial theater is Ken Mandlebaum’s Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops (St. Martin’s, 1992). There’s something inherently fascinating about the backstories and eventual fates of big stage musicals. The egos involved and the radical revisions that take place during tryouts and previews (a process far more public than movie retweaking) make for high drama, even before you add the Russian roulette economic factor.

While Mandlebaum wrote from a dedicated fan’s orchestra-seat perspective, the absorbing new documentary ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway goes way backstage — director Dori Berinstein is a Tony-winning stage producer (her latest hit is Legally Blonde) and has privileged access. Her team reportedly shot more than 250 hours of footage, encompassing virtually every Broadway show of the 2003 to 2004 season, then narrowed the focus to the development and destinies of four high-profile musicals.

The quartet spotlighted here spans artistic ranges and commercial fates. The $14 million spectacular Wicked, a schlock-sentimental version of Gregory Maguire’s revisionist Oz fantasy, got no critical love during its closely observed San Francisco tryout — erstwhile Godspell composer Stephen Schwartz admits to making significant changes between that run and the Broadway opening. But while Wicked proved neither a reviewers’ nor a Tony favorite, it’s a rare case in which those factors don’t matter. It’s a massive million-dollar-a-week hit whose geek-empowerment message particularly resonates with younger girls. Those whose parents can afford Broadway prices, that is.

On a whole other plane, the Tony Kushner–Jeanine Tesori project Caroline, or Change was an emotionally complex, stirring, major high-culture event. Its producers, as New Yorker critic John Lahr puts it, "agreed to lose a little money so this very good thing which doesn’t fit the commercial formula [could] be seen." If only for a few months: with its more bitter than sweet emphasis on racial inequity and family dysfunction, no amount of acclaim could turn it into a tourist attraction.

While practically a Broadway bargain at merely $3.5 million in production costs, Avenue Q was considered the season’s longest shot — a Sesame Street parody whose relatively youthful target audience isn’t big on theatergoing. Wags anticipated an off-Broadway show that belonged off Broadway. Its triumphant critical reception and eventual clutch of Tony Awards turned such expectations upside down. Cocreators Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez are the giddiest protagonists here, their can’t-believe-our-luck exuberance offering a contrast to the sober insights delivered by such experienced hands as Schwartz and Caroline‘s director, George C. Wolfe.

Finally, there’s Taboo, a $10 million total loss for producer Rosie O’Donnell, who shepherded it to Broadway after loving a smaller-scale London staging of the gender-bending, Boy George–scored musical. Was it just too gay for Broadway? (No, that’s not an oxymoron.) Was it simply not very good? (A devoted cadre of mostly punk-goth fans would vehemently disagree.) Did negative press attention to O’Donnell and an apparently turbulent production process unfairly brand it a flop before the opening? We may never know — Taboo sure ain’t coming to a theater near you anytime soon. One of ShowBusiness‘s most poignant threads focuses on young unknown Euan Morton, who wins raves in a star part in the huge show. After its closure, his US work visa is revoked; he’ll have to restart his career back in England from square one.

ShowBusiness covers everything from playwriting to rehearsals to street buzz to critics, but one wishes it had more depth. Berinstein’s insiderdom gets her access but perhaps also limits her willingness to bare all. Clocking in at 102 minutes, her documentary is almost a dirt-free zone. It’s refreshing when Marx and book writer Jeff Whitty admit they could barely stand each other while collaborating on Avenue Q — though success certainly improves their rapport. And ultimately, their multiple Tony Award wins provide a dramatic highlight. At the ceremony, Carol Channing and LL Cool J copresent an award. It’s a showy moment whose mix of the sublime and the surreal encapsulates how unpredictable the business Berinstein examines can be. *


Opens Fri/8 in Bay Area theaters

See Movie Clock at“>”>

Czech, please!


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A faltering economy is the biggest threat to most national film industries, but Czechoslovakia’s had a more distinct misfortune: it was shut down by occupation forces not once but twice. Most famously, the 1960s Czech new wave, in which talents like Jirí Menzel, Ivan Passer, Vera Chytilová, and Milos Forman first flourished, was abruptly dammed by the 1968 Soviet invasion. The type of widespread film-buff culture that brought attention to those directors scarcely existed when — before the Nazis commandeered local studios and permitted only a handful of strictly escapist films to be made for the home market — the country’s cinema had its first golden age.

Before World War II, Czechoslovakia boasted one of the most adventurous and lively — if not widely exported — movie industries in the world. Of course, this meant there was room for a lot of populist fluff. But the 12 features in the Pacific Film Archive’s new series "Czech Modernism, 1926–1949" show why Nazi invaders sensed a celluloid threat: these films are full of playful social critique as well as imaginative stylistic leaps. They assume that an audience is intelligent and that it will enjoy the subversion of authority. These films don’t provide pacification, let alone propaganda.

As playwright and Velvet Underground fan turned president Václav Havel would suggest some decades later, Czech life — at least the urban variety — has long appreciated the intersection of the avant-garde and leftist politics. The region’s geographic location, between the sophisticated capitalist West and the stylistically impoverished Communist USSR, at times seems directly reflected in these films’ colliding influences, from German expressionism to Soviet formalism to an Erich von Stroheim–esque attitude decadence.

The series’ two movies by director Vladislav Vancura apply a mad stylistic energy to subjects that might easily have been played for simple melodrama or pathos. In 1933’s On the Sunny Side, a pair of city children whose friendship bridges the class divide end up dumped in an orphanage when their parents are deemed unfit: first it’s fatherless, accordion-playing Honza, then pigtailed Babula, whose womanizing dad has just bankrupted the family. Frenetic montages contrast the adult worlds of poor and rich, cutting between breadlines and champagne-guzzling flappers. At the progressive home for foundlings, by contrast, equality is ensured by self-government — as a collective, the kids are better able to look after their own welfare than the grown-ups who’ve failed them.

Vancura’s Faithless Marijka, from the next year, is set in the Carpathian Mountains, with local nonprofessional actors as the leads. But it’s no sylvan idyll. The supposedly central tale of a lumberjack’s cheating spouse is nearly lost amid the struggles of laborers to triumph over their greedy oppressors (whose ranks include a disturbing anti-Semitic caricature).

A similar mix of poetic naturalism and Eisensteinian montage marks Karl Junghans’s 1929 silent Such Is Life. Its titular shrug downplays a vigorous look at some ordinary Prague residents, notably a put-upon laundry worker (Vera Baranovskaya, who played the title character of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s 1926 Mother), her loutish husband, and a manicurist daughter pretty enough to attract major trouble. Similar perils await two office girls lured into a lecherous nightlife in 1931’s From Saturday to Sunday, by Gustav Machatý, who would create an international sensation with Hedy Lamarr’s nude swim in Ecstasy two years later. This time romance rather than lust prevails as the more innocent secretary flees a grabby grandpa and winds up meeting her pure-hearted lower-class match.

Mistrust toward the rich and powerful was also a frequent theme in the era’s Hollywood films, in an attempt to please American audiences suffering though the Great Depression, which in turn triggered Czechoslovakia’s economic hardship. But the criticism in such films was usually glib, the solutions fanciful. Not so here. It’s eye-opening to watch a popular hit like Martin Fric’s 1934 Heave Ho!, widely regarded as the best effort from local comedy team Jirí Voskovec and Jan Werich.

Werich plays a dissolute multimillionaire informed one day that his stocks are worthless and he’s broke. Teaming with an unemployed laborer (Voskovec) who’d ranted against factory-shutting fat cats on the radio (before being dragged off), he discovers — after making a mess of various odd jobs — that he’s inherited a huge building. Unfortunately, it’s just a bunch of steel girders, so the penniless duo hit on the scheme of collectivizing construction with other indigent workers, who’ll have a home when it’s finished. Naturally, corporate types try to thwart this truly free enterprise, but they are treated to the ol’ titular gesture. A socialist semimusical with sight gags and assorted silliness, this sure ain’t Gold Diggers of 1933. *


Through June 24; see Rep Clock for schedule; $4–$8

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-1124

It’s a mad, mad about Mads world


Mads Mikkelsen has excessively high cheekbones on very long, flat facial planes, making him the kind of handsome actor suited for morally untrustworthy roles. Hence his casting as a charismatic antihero in the violent Pusher series (sort of Denmark’s big-screen Sopranos) and as the villain who inflicts improbably impermanent damage to chairbound James Bond’s weenus in 2006’s Casino Royale. Mikkelsen has been voted his country’s sexiest man, or something similar, two years running, and he was wonderful as a prim apostle of third-world charity atoning for an asshole past in Suzanne Bier’s After the Wedding (2006). Perhaps because he projects a certain tense ambivalence, saintliness also works for him — it’s something we have a hard time believing in now, so the unlikelier the casting, the better.

After the Wedding and many other excellent Danish films in recent years were written by Anders Thomas Jensen, who also directed Adam’s Apples. It has Mikkelsen as Ivan, the vicar of a country church whose congregation barely extends beyond the criminals he takes in for their community-service sentences. The latest to arrive is Adam (Ulrich Thomsen, who’s also played a Bond villain), a paunchy, shaved-head neo-Nazi who prefers to communicate by mute snarl or fist. Adam’s paperwork actually calls him evil. Ivan chirps, "There are no evil people!" His glass is forever half full, suffused with God’s forgiveness. He is the biggest fool Adam has ever suffered, and no amount of verbal or even violent physical abuse seems to shake his belief that God is on his side.

Because so many outrageously terrible things happen in it, Adam’s Apples has been called a black comedy. Fair enough. It’s often very funny, with the script’s continually surprising developments served up in a perfect deadpan by Anders’s direction, the classically handsome CinemaScope compositions, and a keening string score. But where it ends up is so far from cynicism that I pray no Hollywood remake arrives to desecrate its memory. Anders has worked more than once with most of his cast and crew. They should never be allowed to stop: James Bond production schedules should have to fucking wait until each Anders project is done. If Adam’s Apples isn’t the best movie I see in 2007, whatever movie is will be really, really, really good.


Opens Fri/11 in Bay Area theaters

See Movie Clock at”

On tone’s tail


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With that inimitable San Franciscan condescension toward anything too popular, various eyes rolled skyward when the SF Film Society announced the tributees at the 50th SF International Film Festival would include the two most famous Hollywood-type people who live hereabouts, George Lucas and Robin Williams. Like a canyon-echoed foghorn, bass exhalations of "borrrrrr-ing" filled select pockets of local airspace. But really, wouldn’t those same naysayers be wondering aloud whether the fest lacked sufficient clout if it hadn’t pulled such big guns for its 50th anniversary?

Intellectual purists might think fondly of the SFIFF’s 1987 tribute to Hungarian Gyorgy Szomjas or of 2004’s ahead-of-the-cusp Malaysian cinema showcase, but the festival has always courted and attracted celebrities. If inventors could perfect a time machine, there’d be a huge queue to revisit some of its earliest stellar events.

World cinema giants passed through the SFIFF’s gates from its beginning in 1957, when it was local theater owner Bud Levin’s all-volunteer baby and veteran Hollywood star Franchot Tone played the role of MC. But the press was naturally always more intrigued by visiting stars, nubile starlets, and what designer couture socialites wore to gala events. Indeed, as the ’60s evolved, fashion and the bountiful femininity it decreasingly cloaked often overshadowed public discussion of Luis Bunuel, Jean-Luc Godard, and John Cassavetes. A near-topless North Beach dancer known as Exotica riveted attention in 1964, the same year several Playmates of the Month attended. Actress Carroll Baker’s see-through ensemble did the trick in 1966, while the suicidally plunging neckline of uninvited guest Jayne Mansfield meant she was asked to leave. The same year, festival chairperson Shirley Temple Black quit to protest the inclusion of the Swedish feature Night Games, which she considered pornographic.

In 1965 the late SFIFF program director Albert Johnson commenced an extraordinary series of epic afternoon tributes to Hollywood legends. No one else was doing such events, so he got the cream of the back-harvested crop: Gene Kelly, Lillian Gish, Howard Hawks, Henry Fonda, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, John Huston, Frank Capra, and more. Soon everyone began imitating Johnson’s clips-and-chat template.

But the SFIFF was hardly done with lassoing big names both nostalgic and current. The 1975 festival featured the strange-bedfellow roll call of Shelley Winters, Dyan Cannon, Natalie Wood, Jack Nicholson, Robert Evans, Burt Lancaster, Roger Vadim, Gale Sondergaard, and Merv Griffin. In 1979, Sir Alec Guinness, still basking in Lucas-bestowed glory, was honored in the festival’s first (and last, to date) opening-night tribute. Among the glittering attendees were O.J. Simpson and then-girlfriend Nicole Brown. How sweet.

Due in part to an increasingly cutthroat festival landscape, in recent years the SFIFF has tilted toward sober rather than silly celebrity visitors. Tabloid types now need it even less than it needs them. Still, there have been felicitous highlights among latter-day tributes: Fillmore resident Winona Ryder’s refreshing public dis of one local print gossip hound as "a parasite"; Clint Eastwood’s lovely penchant for crediting collaborators whenever he was faced with a direct compliment; Annette Bening shouting anecdote prompts to onstage spouse Warren Beatty; Geena Davis admitting that unlike most self-conscious actors, she loves to watch herself onscreen.

Less ingratiating moments are often memorable for what they reveal about a beloved (or not) figure. Dustin Hoffman’s bizarre ramblings in 2003 reminded me of the tribute to a ditzy Elizabeth Taylor that I’d witnessed at a festival in Taos, NM, a couple years earlier. I’ve never felt such pained sympathy for an interviewer as during Harvey Keitel’s curt cutoff of every respectful Q&A path during a 1996 event. Then there was the time Sean Penn’s ever-so-rebellious cussin’ before a full house at the Kabuki Cinema sent Robin Wright storming out with kids in tow just minutes into his 1999 tribute.

The SFIFF is never going to be the kind of festival Paris Hilton feels she need attend. But even the talented are capable of charmingly awkward – and just awkward – moments. The SFIFF’s awards often cast unexpected light on professionals we’d hitherto identified by their roles; this can make for lurid fun. Still, I prefer it when talents I admire keep their personality flaws off my windshield. Once those bugs get embedded, it’s hard to enjoy a clear view again. *

FILM SOCIETY AWARDS NIGHT May 3, 7:30 p.m., $500-$25,000. Westin St. Francis Hotel. 335 Powell, SF. (415) 551-5190



FOG CITY MAVERICKS With George Lucas and others. Sun/29, 7:30 p.m., $20-$25. Castro


Sleazy like Sunday morning


The collective teeth of umpteen fanboys and fangirls commenced grinding when it was announced that the release of the Quentin Tarantino–Robert Rodriguez nuevo-schlock faux double bill Grindhouse would be preceded by rare 35mm revival screenings of actual ’60s through ’80s sleazebag hits such as Fight for Your Life and They Call Me One-Eye. A wonderful and laudable thing, of course — at least if you live within driving reach of Los Angeles’s New Beverly Cinema.

Well, if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em. By fortunate coincidence, San Francisco is getting something similar, which will play nowhere else — so nyaah-nyaah. That thing would be "A Month of Sleazy Sundays," four unholy nights of vintage exploitation gems beginning this April Fools’ Day at the Mission District’s lovable Victoria Theatre, brought to you by Another Hole in the Head and SF Indiefest’s Bruce Fletcher, among others.

The April quartet of triple bills offers a panoply of delights, like those shown at drive-ins, urban flea pits, and semirespectable joints such as San Francisco’s late Strand Theatre before it went porn and then closed entirely. These films were made for audiences, not for the private snickering of home viewers. Dark Channel’s rare 35mm prints are unlikely to be mint — but then, pink-out and scratchiness now seem integral to this kind of vintage theatrical experience.

The kickoff program spotlights English-language outer spaciness as only the Italians can deliver. Two entries are shameless Star Wars knockoffs from 1978: Alfonso Brescia’s War of the Robots and Luigi Cozzi’s Star Crash. The former stars Antonio Sabato Sr. (mmm). The latter stars Marjoe Gortner (Jesus with more eyeliner), Caroline Munro (in leather bikini and thigh-high boots), and a pre-Baywatch David Hasselhoff. It also sports the stupidest action scenes ever. Sandwiched between these cheese baths is Mario Bava’s genuinely eerie Planet of the Vampires, the 1965 sci-fi-horror hybrid that purportedly inspired Alien.

Highlights abound within the three remaining Sundays. April 8 brings 1970’s psychedelic séance- and H.P. Lovecraft–drawn tab o’ satanism The Dunwich Horror, in which an exquisitely perverse Dean Stockwell drafts grad student Sandra Dee (!) for sacrifice. It’s followed by the next year’s really hairy biker saga Werewolves on Wheels. A creature feature melee April 15 features Larry Hagman’s first and last directorial effort, 1972’s Beware! The Blob, a.k.a. Son of Blob, the sequel no one was waiting for — until, perhaps, it was rereleased a decade later as "The movie that J.R. shot!" Finally, a grindhouse odyssey April 21 travels from the 1934 adults-only Phyllis Diller campsterpiece Maniac to the 1971 Southern moonshine-circuit classic Preacherman to, finally, the politically incorrect yet dy-no-mite 1975 blaxploitation whopper The Black Gestapo. (Dennis Harvey)


Through April 22; single feature $8, double $15, and triple $20

Victoria Theatre

2961 16th St., SF

(415) 863-7576


Imitation of Kubrick


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John Malkovich dominates Colour Me Kubrick in much the same way a poodle might lift its pampered leg to claim each stationary street object with its personal scent. He’s offensive, oblivious, frilly, absurd — all in service to a character’s refined self-preservative instinct, of course.

This happens from his first seconds onscreen, when he’s just a background form moving blurrily down a rear staircase while we’re supposed to be focused on an attractive young foreground figure — who turns out to be the focus of Malkovich’s attention too. As late real-life Stanley Kubrick impersonator Alan Conway, the actor sashays toward us and his prey with such louche, pervy, fagalicious focus that he immediately becomes a deluxe comic creation who transcends offensive stereotypes.

Malkovich is such a mannered thespian and a weird cultural icon that Being John Malkovich (1999) could count (and base itself) on his amused participation. How many contemporaneous Hollywood stars would consent to pomo ridicule of themselves? He is so frequently wrong-but-interesting (in 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons, for starters) that one tends to forget the times he’s been brilliantly apt, as in The Sheltering Sky (1990) and Ripley’s Game (2002). He’s peculiar enough to almost always feel like stunt casting — akin to a CGI effect, vivid yet not remotely natural.

This is one reason he’s so perfect for Kubrick, drawn from one of those stranger-than-fiction news items in which everyday humanity’s vulnerable trust in itself is laid bare by some con-artist freak with delusions of grandeur. For a spell in the 1980s, middle-aged London dole queue yobbo Conway, no stranger to pulling scams, hit on a great one: impersonating Kubrick, the expat American considered by many the world’s greatest director, whose famous reclusiveness ensured that very few knew how he actually looked and sounded (i.e., nothing like Conway).

Conway used the starry-eyed glaze prompted by this sham identity to cadge free drinks and dinners from strangers (after all, would a wealthy celebrity like Kubrick bother carrying vulgar cash?), seduce young men (gay and straight — a promised career boost from cinema’s master proves to be major psychological lube), and generally act like the flaming fountain of specialness Conway thought he was. Several gullible real folk fell hard for this ruse, coughing up cash or freebies to buy favor from the "genius." In the film, they include fictive comedian Lee Pratt (Jim Davidson), posh restaurant owner Jasper (Richard E. Grant), even a heavy metal band. They were hoodwinked despite Conway’s not even bothering to research his role — he knew only superficial facts about Kubrick and often made pronouncements that would strike anyone with half a brain as ludicrous. (At one point he announces his next project will be 3001, with "Elizabeth Taylor as Mission Control.") Eventually Conway’s reputation (and embittered victims) hit the public radar, ending his game.

Malkovich is the whole show here. He’s fearlessly willing to play the fool — several times Conway’s chunky ass occupies center screen, underlining not just the protagonist’s but the actor’s ignorance of the concept behind a Stairmaster. Conway dons a steady stream of fashion don’ts (minikimono, anyone?), imbibes beaucoup vodka, and sobs so hysterically when his latest hot young lover storms out that you might think these histrionics are genuine at last. But that too is an act. Gloriously indulged, Malkovich revels in the role of a self-loathing wannabe narcissist who may not possess one genuine bone in his unlovely body.

Kept afloat by one spectacularly good performance and a delightful premise, Colour Me Kubrick is otherwise a somewhat leaky boat. First-time director Brian W. Cook suggests this may not be his ideal career role. His movie often haplessly jumps from one incident to another, as if connective scenes were axed by either budgetary or intellectual limitations. It relies too heavily on music cues from Kubrick flicks (such as the Moog classicals of 1971’s A Clockwork Orange) and in-joke cameos (Marisa Berenson, Ken Russell). Still, Cook’s earned the brownie points and then some necessary to make this film: he was Kubrick’s assistant director from 1975’s Barry Lyndon through the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut (1999). (Scenarist Anthony Frewin also worked as Kubrick’s researcher, from 1968’s 2001 on.) Cook’s résumé is juicy with stellar successes, famous flops (Orca: Killer Whale, 1977), and cult flicks (1973’s original The Wicker Man, 1980’s Flash Gordon, the 1979 Who documentary The Kids Are Alright). He’s worked for Michael Cimino (1980’s Heaven’s Gate onward), occasional auteur Sean Penn, Brian de Palma, and Mel Brooks.

The world may not suffer greatly if Cook never directs another movie again. But if he doesn’t eventually write a tell-all professional biography, I will cry. I nearly cried during Colour Me Kubrick — but only because John Malkovich was almost too funny to bear. *


Opens Fri/23 at Bay Area theaters

See Movie Clock at


Blood money


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Most Americans are fairly sure they are being screwed where it hurts most: in the wallet. But if they think they know why, it’s usually a red herring, while the actual primary causes of shrinking financial stability remain obscured by propaganda, media inattention, and institutional stonewalling. By timely coincidence, three worthwhile documentaries opening this week shine some light on the matter. One profiles a longtime champion of consumer protection, while the others examine two realms in which lack of regulation is letting our dollars dance off a cliff of corporate profiteering and dubious ethics.

An Unreasonable Man is Henriette Mantel and Stephen Skrovan’s admiring yet critical portrait of Ralph Nader. The previous century’s most famous consumer advocate racked up a roster of triumphs that protected citizens against corporations — that is, until Ronald Reagan commenced ongoing deregulation trends. Famously starting with auto design safety in the early ’60s, then encompassing pollution, food and drug guidelines, nuclear power, the insurance industry, and workplace risk-protection, Nader did enough public good during his career — with worldwide legislative ripple effects — to merit secular sainthood. Then he decided to run for president, in 2000, as a Green. He won just enough votes for many Democrats to blame him for the catastrophic ascent of George W. Bush. Needless to say, the latter is no friend of Nader’s consumerist lobbying, which suffered a defection of support from nearly all quarters.

Lengthy but engrossing, An Unreasonable Man wants to reclaim Nader’s legacy, even as it admits that his black-or-white morality can be both admirable and mulishly exasperating. After all, in the end he didn’t rob Al Gore of the Oval Office: with familial help from the Sunshine State, Bush stole it.

If the current climate had allowed Nader’s Raiders as much clout as they had under the Jimmy Carter administration, could Americans possibly have been led into the shithole examined by Maxed Out? James Scurlock’s survey of the out-of-control credit and debt industry begins by informing viewers that this year "more Americans will go bankrupt than will divorce, graduate college, or get cancer."

Of course, thanks to our current president, they won’t be able to declare bankruptcy anymore — the lazy sods! Instead they can enjoy a lifetime of astronomical interest rates, threats, and continued solicitations to sign up for yet more loans and plastic.

Maxed Out includes personal stories of housewives driven to suicide, longtime homeowners tricked into foreclosure, and even underpaid soldiers targeted for exploitation by creditors after Iraq tours. The movie’s institutional focus spotlights the deliberate holding of customer checks until late fees can be charged (an executive from one company guilty of such tactics was Bush’s pick for financial-industries czar), spinelessness on the part of government investigative committees, and flat-out collusion by many politicos. Meanwhile, the national debt goes up and up, in good part owing to Iraq, making it unlikely that Social Security or basic social services will be around in the future.

Speaking of Iraq and bottomless money pits, for the first time in any major conflict, a great share of US military expenditure now goes to private security contractors. In less linguistically evasive times we called them mercenaries, or soldiers of fortune. Who are these people, and who are they accountable to? Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque’s Shadow Company is a well-crafted grasp at answers, though that latter question is a hard one. Some of the people interviewed in the movie sound conscientious enough, and as some grisly footage attests, the risks they run are no joke. More private contractees have been killed in Iraq than all non-US military personnel put together. But the booming $1 billion-a-year industry of private military companies (PMCs) doesn’t operate under any strict guidelines.

We’ve already outsourced the running of many prisons and schools to private concerns. When war itself is a for-hire endeavor — and a hot job market, since PMC employees’ salaries dwarf those of actual soldiers — is there any doubt left that we’re fighting for venture capitalism, not democracy? *




All three films open Fri/9 at Bay Area theaters

Snoop on the East side


Doin’ the ‘Dance


Sundance has become a spectator business event, like the weekly box office returns. This year turned out to be a surprise bull market when the same buyers who went in saying there was little of apparent commercial appeal on the program wound up spending tens of millions in an acquisitions frenzy. I didn’t get to see Son of Rambow, an ’80s nostalgia piece about action movie–obsessed kids that earned a cool $8 million distribution deal. But that movie at least sounds like real fun. Predictably, most of the features that scored dealwise were on the safe, earnest, kinda bland side, such as Adrienne Shelly’s posthumously completed Waitress, the Australian dramedy Clubland, and the John Cusack–as–Iraq War widower vehicle Grace Is Gone.

Other big-noise titles expired on arrival, including several exploring (or is that exploiting?) the de rigueur shocking subject of our moment, child abuse. Noses were held around Hounddog (the Dakota Fanning–rape film) and An American Crime (Catherine Keener as a monster foster mom), though child abduction drama Trade won some appreciation. Such controversial flicks were often more exciting in advance hype than onscreen, though conversely several bad-taste movies proved more than edible. Many thumbs went up for vagina dentata black comedy Teeth, and my own at least were hoisted for all-star, Commandments-inspired The Ten (in which Winona Ryder enjoys vigorous pleasuring with a ventriloquist’s dummy), from the good folks of comedy troupe the State. Not to mention (in a different realm entirely) Robinson Devor’s Zoo, an extraordinarily poetic and nonjudgmental documentary-dramatization mix about something you might expect those adjectives couldn’t apply to: the 2005 death of a Seattle man whose colon was perforated by an Arabian stallion’s member.

Zoo was a startling exception to a problem that’s become common among the kind of indie cinema Sundance programs — stuff that, since it’s often funded by HBO or PBS or whatever (or is simply produced with the expectation of a small- rather than big-screen career), tends to look, act, and smell like TV. There’s nothing wrong with that, since good fiction stories can be told and compelling documentaries crafted without the need for great visual panache. Still, the lack of aesthetic excitement, the sheer broadcasty-ness (abetted by so much HD photography) increasingly makes anything that feels like a real film seem refreshing. Examples most often surfaced among more experimental features (yes, they still get programmed at Sundance — you just don’t hear about them), such as Zoo and the ecstatically intimate soccer documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.

Sundance proved again this year that it’s the premier showcase for movies starring people who can single-handedly make viewing worthwhile. Parker Posey, Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, and Samantha Morton had two entries each. Steve Buscemi, god bless him, had three (including one he cowrote, directed, and starred in). Plus, there were opportunities to see actors like Ryan Reynolds (The Nines), Queen Latifah (Life Support), and Anna Faris (Smiley Face) get the generous roles you knew they were capable of filling. At times at Sundance the US film world almost seems like a repertory company of versatile, brilliant professionals — one that sometimes lets A-list Hollywood guest stars take part, in which context they tend to flounder (i.e., Lindsay Lohan in the achingly dull Jared Leto is Mark David Chapman drama Chapter 27; first-time director Anthony Hopkins’s embarrassing, surreal egofest, Slipstream). They may not get the big breaks, but the cool kids in class can always make the popular ones look insipid. (Dennis Harvey)