Dennis Harvey

The ballad of Carmelo


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By the time you read this, a whole lot of filmmakers, publicists, journalists, and miscellaneous affiliates from Los Angeles will have once again descended on Utah for the annual feeding frenzy known as Sundance. Just what the aforementioned feed on isn’t always or exactly movies — the original raison d’être can get lost in the general scuffle. Classic old-school festival films — those quiet, starless character dramas and vérité documentaries sans hot-button topic and celebrity endorsement — tend to get elbowed to the back of the crowd by more pushy types.

Such was the case two years ago for Romántico, which finally gets a theatrical release this week. As good as if not better than anything else in Sundance’s 2005 American Documentary Competition, it nonetheless attracted no awards and scant interest. Admittedly, a film about undocumented immigrant Mexican musicians in San Francisco didn’t sound so compelling next to docs about mentally ill indie rock heroes, death row exonerations, Enron, kick-ass jock paraplegics, clergy sex abuse, and every comedian in the world telling one dirty joke. Plus, there had been a lot of documentaries about undocumented Latin Americans in the States of late — like Iraq (and clergy sex abuse), it’s an inevitable subject du jour for nonfiction cinema.

Most similarly themed docs before and since Romántico have had a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, tackling specific issues with activist zeal. Several (Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary and Un Franco, 14 Pesetas among them) have been very good. But despite the concern they share, they’re like well-crafted news bulletins, while at core Romántico seems like something else entirely — soulful and poetic, its tone and narrative oddly reminiscent of ’40s Italian neorealist classics.

Part of the reason is that it simply looks great. A frequent cinematographer on other directors’ projects, Mark Becker shot his own first feature himself. Not only does he have a definite eye, but he also made the deliberate decision to shoot on film (16mm and Super 16) — an approach practically unheard of for a documentary these days. Yeah, yeah, new formats have done a great service in making the so-called seventh art more affordable, immediate, flexible, democratic, and so forth. But anyone who tells you video can look just as rich as film stock is high. It (still) just ain’t so.

Though he’s since moved to New York City, Becker was living in the Mission District when he became intrigued by Mexican émigré musicians who play for tips in the area’s restaurants and on its streets. They form a subterranean "bachelor culture," making enough money to support the wives and children back home they might not see for years on end.

Becker had a short film in mind until he met a protagonist worthy of long-form scrutiny — Carmelo Muñiz Sanchez, who serenades diners with familiar tragic love ballads as half of a duo with Arturo Arias. When Sanchez abruptly returned to Mexico for the first time in four years in late 2000, after hearing that his diabetic mother’s health had worsened, Becker followed.

Romántico was shot sporadically over a three-and-a-half-year span, time enough to capture dramatic changes in the lives of both Sanchez and Arias. When we first meet them, they’re sharing a minuscule flat with two other Mexicans and four Guatemalans who all work at the same car wash. (The number of roommates seems limited only by the amount of floor space on which to sleep.) Our protagonists also log long hours as entertainers, making as much as $50 each on a good night. This might seem a threadbare existence, but it allows Sanchez to support his mom, wife, and two daughters (both preadolescent when he left in 1997) in relative comfort. In their town of Salvatierra, less fortunate families routinely compel female members into prostitution to survive. Sanchez will do anything to shield his loved ones from that and from privation, even if it means painful separation from them. The more footloose Arias has fewer responsibilities. In fact, his tendency to fly off on benders of unpredictable duration is one of Sanchez’s biggest headaches.

A dignified but unpretentious man nearing 60 at the film’s start, Sanchez makes an engrossing hero, and he’s very interested in telling his story. His whole life has been a struggle, its only goal that his children’s lives not be. The reverse immigration journey of sorts that he undertakes is joyous because it leads to a family reunion. But it also soon underlines why he left in the first place: his earning prospects in Mexico, where his job options are limited to playing in mariachi bands and selling flavored ice from a pushcart for far less income, are a fragment of what they were off the grid in the United States. With getting a legal worker’s visa near impossible, he must consider a second dangerous border crossing at an age when many Northern gringos mull retirement. This isn’t a matter of creature comforts — it’s about money to keep his daughters alive, in school, and off the streets.

At just 80 minutes in length, Romántico doesn’t dawdle. Yet it has a contemplative tenor seldom found in contemporary documentaries, and the frequent beauty of its images is amplified by Raz Mesinai’s ethereal instrumental score as well as the mini–passion plays Sanchez and Arias sing. Like those theatrically despairing, sometimes suicidal, and frequently sexist songs of love gone wrong, Romántico is seductive in its melancholy — and so easily overwhelms emotional defenses that you’ll probably find yourself desperate to know what’s happened to Sanchez and Arias since the end of filming. *


Opens Fri/19


Shattuck Cinemas

See Movie Clock at


F stands for family …


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It is not — finally — a good moment to be a social conservative, as the Republicans have finally failed enough on so many fronts that their failure is being acknowledged. Evidence increasingly suggests large segments of the population don’t really care that much about the terrifying threat of gay marriage, don’t want to turn the clock way back on abortion rights, and prefer keeping church and state as they’re supposed to be: separate. Whatever happened to "family values"?

Maybe folks outside such crazy-liberal enclaves as our own have at last realized that the old mom–dad–2.5 children under one roof equation is an outdated ideal simply because so few people are living it anymore. (Statistics recently confirmed that two-parent households are now indeed in the minority nationally.)

If the movies generally reflect how the public wants to see itself, then 2006 suggested to a large extent that few viewers see the point of happy traditional-family portraiture, even as fantasy material. It used to be that conflict often arose when external circumstances yanked characters from their snug, supposedly normal domestic setup. Now things are usually unstable from the get-go: parents (if both are present) at each other’s throats, kids in alienated crisis, any contented people likely to be delusional (and probably well medicated).

Thus it shouldn’t have been such a surprise, maybe, that the year’s big sleeper was Little Miss Sunshine — a family road trip movie in which everybody who’s old enough to have an opinion loathes everyone else, mostly for good reason. Saddling each relationship with maximum dysfunction, winking at attempted suicide and the appearance of pederasty, the smugly clever script allowed audiences to feel superior to the hapless Hoover clan even as they bought into caring about them. (I didn’t dislike the movie, but it seemed more cynically manipulative than was acknowledged.) Maybe medium-black comedy is the new warm-and-fuzzy comedy for jaded urbanites. If so, it was a surprise that the film adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’s memoir Running with Scissors didn’t do better, since it offered more spectacular bad parenting, growing pains appallingly handled, mockery of basic room and board issues, terrible sexual initiations — and was based on a purportedly true story.

Less-farcical treatment of multihousehold toxicity drives the excellent Little Children, which not only sports the year’s strongest treatment of a pederast (apart from the documentary Deliver Us from Evil) but sees nearly every parent-child and spousal relationship in it unravel in a humid miasma of discontent. Ditto the little-seen but admirable 12 and Holding, whose juvenile protagonists act out in all the wrong ways after one of their friends is accidentally killed. Still, they’re in better mental health than the adults supposedly minding them. Then there are those House of Windsor inbreds who stick together through The Queen. Not that they have any alternatives: in contrast to normal folk, they seem as odd, unnerving, and extinction-bound as a herd of dodoes.

Just about the only nuclear family units onscreen in 2006 were in full-on peril: a mutant clan laying siege to the suburban one (whose members only stop arguing once they start getting killed) in The Hills Have Eyes; Gael García Bernal as a malicious usurper avenging himself on deadbeat dad William Hurt’s new, improved family in The King; Judi Dench acting as a flying wedge to drive apart school colleague Cate Blanchett’s home in Notes on a Scandal; Babel seeing danger everywhere for reckless children and the grown-ups who fail to protect them. Even without kids to worry about, the couples in antiromantic comedy The Break-Up, current upscale drama The Painted Veil, and French marital fry-up Gabrielle can hardly get away from each other fast enough.

What little sentimentality there was to be found in these areas came in suspect packages. Aaron Eckhart’s divorced tobacco industry public relations whiz in Thank You for Smoking may be a slimebag and a tool (and know it), but hey, he still wants his kid to look up to him. It’s the one plot point this movie doesn’t treat with total sarcasm — which only makes the ersatz heartwarmingness queasier. Fairly straight-up family values could be found in movies as diverse as World Trade Center, Apocalypto, The Fountain, and Rocky Balboa — but the one thing uniting those titles is that in important ways they’re all psychologically bogus.

Things look a lot better in the realm of alternative family setups, which this year encompassed such genuinely adventuresome movies as Quinceañera and Shortbus. In less politically correct realms, substitute dads were where you found them — in the mob boss (The Departed), crackhead teacher (Half Nelson), or suicidal gay uncle (Little Miss Sunshine) — but despite their flaws, they were still better than the real, biological item. On the other hand, sometimes the replacement parent is bad enough to make a child’s mind disappear into CGI fantasyland (see Pan’s Labyrinth). As far as the ’60s and ’70s went, institutionalized alternative families don’t look so hot in retrospect: check out the documentaries Commune and Finding Sean. Not to mention the one about a little place called Jonestown.

Children are the future, natch, and no movie made that future look scarier than Jesus Camp — whose little Christian soldiers are being homeschooled into a rigidity of science denial, social intolerance, and street-hassling recruitment. It was also the film, fictive or documentary, that saw narrow-gauge family values in their most aggressive practice. When and if these kids start questioning their parents’ judgment, we may see nuclear family meltdowns of hitherto unknown toxicity. Or worse, if they don’t: god help the rest of us when these know-nothings with a programmed agenda reach voting age. *


(1) Quinceañera (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, US)

(2) Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell, US)

(3) Little Children (Todd Field, US)

(4) Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, US)

(5) The Queen (Stephen Frears, UK/France/Italy)

(6) Ondskan (Evil) (Mikael Hafström, Sweden)

(7) El Cielo Dividido (Broken Sky) (Julián Hernández, Mexico)

(8) United 93 (Paul Greengrass, US/UK/France)

(9) The Puffy Chair (Jay Duplass, US)

(10) Evil Aliens (Jake West, UK)

For Your Consideration


People like Christopher Guest’s improv-based comedies — This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind — in a peculiarly self-satisfied way, confident that enjoying them means they’re in on a sophisticated joke that the ordinary Adam Sandler–liking rabble don’t get. Yet for all their small joys, Guest’s films make me wish they had big ones — bigger laughs, sharper satire, more narrative drive. The actors automatically raise a smile because we’ve loved them so many times before. But are they the best judges of their material? I had secret doubts — and A Mighty Wind made it OK to say them out loud.
Still, For Your Consideration seemed a sure thing. But the result is an in-joke without a punch line — one that seems even more impotent due to the proximity of Borat, a satire that actually has something to say and is freakin’ hilarious besides. The idea here is that a small feature with a cast of minor names is being shot with no great expectations when suddenly Oscar rumors start floating around, putting all concerned into an anticipatory tizzy — most notably has-been actress Catherine O’Hara, hungry newcomer Parker Posey, Guest’s own temperamental director, and Eugene Levy’s conniving agent.
So far, so OK. Guest and his most loyal creative partners here (Levy, O’Hara, Fred Willard) have on average logged over three decades on film and TV. They must have experienced more than a few troubled shoots and monumental egos. Yet the major characters here are blandly nice, none more than mildly eccentric. And the Oscar-buzzed movie they’re shooting, Home for Purim, parodies the kind of stagy, earnest, wannabe Arthur Miller prestige project that has been DOA since the ’70s. And back then it would have been a PBS or Hallmark Hall of Fame special.
The only scenes attuned to today’s showbiz — not coincidentally, the funniest here — lampoon empty-hype Entertainment Tonight–type shows, with Willard and Jane Lynch as breathlessly excitable hosts. Elsewhere, For Your Consideration seems to have been made by fogies — it’s stiff jointed and embarrassingly proud of limp drollery that seldom pays off in real laughs. Like Home for Purim, this movie thinks it’s Oscar material. But it’s not even the stuff Golden Globes are made of. (Dennis Harvey)
Opens Fri/15 in Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at

Oh, Alejandro


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These days finesse in the art of montage is too often used to compensate for ineptitude (or just laziness) in the art of storytelling. Of course, rhythmic, Eisensteinian montage can be beautiful in itself and can even bear the weight of actual substance. Right now there is no more impressive practitioner of this particular skill than Alejandro González Iñárritu, who since his first feature, Amores Perros, has worked on the kinds of expansive, crisis-driven, crisscrossing stories that practically require cathartic crescendos of pure editorial bravado.
González Iñárritu doesn’t write his own screenplays (Guillermo Arriaga does), and the two features since Perros have credited others as editors. But Perros, 21 Grams, and the new Babel are so much of a piece — conceptually, thematically, stylistically — and the work his collaborators have done elsewhere is so dissimilar that there’s no doubting González Iñárritu’s all-controlling hand.
Anyone who works on so ambitious a scale risks missteps and unevenness. Babel is a teetering monument, and its plot is hole pocked as if made of Swiss cheese. Yet it’s also better shaped as a whole than Amores Perros and carries its burden of existential hand-wringing less pretentiously than 21 Grams. Mercifully, it abjures the latter’s jaundiced palette for Rodrigo Prieto’s full-bodied, naturalistic wide-screen compositions. There are individual passages that are as dazzling as anything onscreen this year. Perros told three consecutive Mexico City stories; Grams interwove three chronology-scrambled threads set mostly in New Mexico (though originally conceived for Mexico City). Babel sprawls across the globe, tenuously linking tales of culture shock in Mexico, Japan, and Morocco.
The last is where San Diegan professionals Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett have gone for reparative alone time. They’re about to reconcile, maybe, when a stray bullet from a young goatherd’s gun strikes their tour bus. The panic among fellow passengers and impact on innocent locals are ramped up by international media attention on this “terrorist act.”
The same couple’s two preschool children are back in San Diego with Mexican housekeeper-cum-nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza). She’s willing to go the extra mile when the globe-trotting parents get in trouble — but not, when those troubles drag on, to miss her own son’s wedding. Amelia finally decides to take her towheaded charges across the border, with reckless nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) as their most untrustworthy chauffeur.
Ultimately connected to these dramas by the thinnest of threads, a third strand centers on deaf-mute Tokyo teen Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). Her mother is dead, her CEO father distant. Further alienated from the speaking world, Chieko plunges into raver postures of wannabe nymphomania that are by far Babel’s least convincing or pointed ploy. Still, they engender the movie’s most exhilarating montage — an ecstasy-propelled joyride that arcs from desire to bliss to aftermath, only slightly overdoing the audio on-off effects meant to capture the nonhearing experience.
What is González Iñárritu saying here? Why are the near-death experiences of American yuppies straying outside their home safety zone — in nations painted as menacingly chaotic, even the director’s native Mexico — more vivid than the travails of residents? Surely that’s not González Iñárritu’s intention, but the star power of Pitt and Blanchett and the pixie perils endured by their fictive kids tend to tip the scales in that direction. In interviews the director says what he thought would be a movie about cultural differences ended up being about subjects — family, parenting, compassion — that unite all people. Babel does gesture thataway, yet its primary emphasis is on crisis creation and ambulance chasing. Hot-button issues like terrorism, illegal immigration, and US imperialism are diversionary flags González Iñárritu waves without actually signaling anything.
Among filmmakers working in this fashionable crazy-quilt-of-humanity genre, many less talented ones are even more convinced they’re making an important statement about life. Babel is so accomplished and urgent as spectacle that maybe it’s folly to expect more than the rewards of an engrossing, sweeping surface. Babel might not be a great movie, but you can’t watch it without knowing González Iñárritu will someday make one. SFBG
Opens Fri/3 at Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at for theaters and showtimes
For Cheryl Eddy’s interview with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, go to

Head of Hopper


CULT MOVIE Movie history is full of figures who could do no wrong one minute, then blew it — never trusted to do right again — the next. This year alone something like this happened to the richly deserving M. Night Shyamalan, and it might soon be happening to Darren Aronofsky, whose sci-fi soap opera The Fountain is arguably the most daft hijacking of major-studio cash in 35 years — since Dennis Hopper morphed from princeling to pariah via something called (with masochistic foreboding) The Last Movie.
An eccentric journeyman actor onscreen since 1955, Hopper was way past 30 when he codirected Easy Rider with Peter Fonda. Any studio would have supplied him any sum to get the follow-up. Universal gave him half a mil for The Last Movie, and he stayed on schedule and on budget throughout shooting in a far-flung Peruvian Andes village.
Then the aging boy wonder returned home to edit — for 18 druggy, hazy months, as executives freaked and anticipation rose to a tottering peak. A documentary chronicling that period, The American Dreamer, shows Hopper in extremis — doffing clothes (“symbolically,” he says) to run around suburban Los Alamos; cohabiting with a harem of hippie goddess freeloaders; comparing himself to Orson Welles, then exhaling, “I’d like to go about a month with three chicks in a hot tub.”
Upon release, The Last Movie — which screens in a new, Hopper-funded 35mm print this weekend — looked like the nail in the coffin of acid casualty cinema. The film was a mess, a freak show, an indulgence par excellence — with an incoherent quasinarrative that had Hopper as a stuntman on a western who stays on during postproduction to reenact the mythic pulp action with villagers who can’t or won’t separate the phony spectacle they’ve hosted from more spiritual yet violent reality.
“I only hope that after this game is over, morality can begin again,” prays (in vain) the local priest, played by spaghetti western icon Tomas Milian. But morality has left the building. The Last Movie isn’t the balm for stoner egos that Easy Rider offered. It incriminates everybody — colonialists, swingers, industry suits, the greedy (like our hero’s covetous Indio girlfriend), and filmmaking itself. Periodic “scene missing” titles help make this a deconstructive metamovie well ahead of its time. It’s an antiaudience picture, now more breathtaking than ever in sheer gall.
Who could make such a movie now? Might stars align again to permit such major-studio strangeness? Hard to imagine: The Fountain is nutty and navel-gazing but sentimental in a way Hopper’s auto-excoriating wack-off abhors. All those lysergically and vaginally oversatiated months spent editing The Last Movie make it a stand as memorably bold — if ruinous — as Custer’s.
Hopper is 71 now, but The Last Movie will always be a boy-man’s definitive up-yours against pricks in suit and tie. It’s a lyrical abstract as yet unchallenged for discombobulation by any film made under a major studio’s umbrella. It remains a startling finger driven straight up the Universal. (Dennis Harvey)
Fri/20–Sat/21, 7:30 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, screening room, SF
(415) 978-2787

Naughty is nice


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Once upon a time, a fair number of people, heartened by the Sexual Revolution and the corresponding collapse of censorship in movies, thought porn was just the preliminary phase to the next obvious step: soon, they assumed, mainstream films would also have real, explicit sex.
The last time anybody thought that was probably 1975 — or if really stoned, 1977. But for a while there, that wild idea seemed not only possible but inevitable. Deep Throat pretty much closed the obscenity conviction book on consenting adults watching adult content in public venues. Hugely successful mainstream films such as Carnal Knowledge and Last Tango in Paris seemed to be tearing down the last “good taste” barriers protecting viewers from having frank discussions about sex and its explicit simulation.
The wide-open ’70s offered a variety of liberated lifestyle choices. Cities had singles bars and sex clubs; the suburbs had hot tubs. Top 40 radio was smirking “Mama’s Got a Squeeze Box” and “More, More, More.” Even network TV had gone raunchy with “jiggle” shows (Charlie’s Angels) and odd one-off leering atrocities like the 1979 Playboy Roller Disco Pajama Party. In the midst of all this sex, sex, sex, it seemed a logical end point would be the total de-shaming of America. Fuck movies would become “real” ones, and “real” movies would include fucking.
Who could imagine how far back the pendulum would swing? Porn would survive, but it and sex would retreat behind closed doors. These days the annual art house succes de scandale, like Brown Bunny and Baise-Moi, is invariably depressing and negative.
Ergo, it is worth all kinds of cheering that somebody has finally made that movie. The one that has talented actors having plot-relevant and unfaked sex, that is beautiful, touching, funny, and artistic enough to be one of the best films of the year. It’s John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, which knows exactly how anomalous it is and where it fits into the current zeitgeist. (The most quotable line occurs when one character surveys an orgiastic scene: “It’s like the ’60s but with less hope.”) Mitchell is defiant enough to create hope, even his own zeitgeist if need be.
Cute New York City gay couple the “two Jamies” (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy) are considering spicing up their routine, so they consult sex therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee). In a frazzled moment, she admits she’s never had an orgasm, something she’s never told her husband (Raphael Barker). These questing characters intersect with others at the sex party held regularly at chez Justin Bond (with the performer playing himself).
Shortbus finds narrative room for stalking, attempted suicide, three-ways, and every numeral on the Kinsey Scale. Yet the film never feels cluttered or sensational. In fact, its openhearted seriocomedy (the script is a collaboration between Hedwig and the Angry Inch writer-director Mitchell and the cast) integrates sex so fully into a plaintive, affirmative call for communality that shock value is only intermittent — and deliberately funny when it occurs.
Will Shortbus occasion new local obscenity challenges? Probably not. But 40 years ago, censorship battles were a constant source of news and box-office draw. Before the United States graduated from softcore to hardcore, with many court decisions en route, the hot spot for all things smutty was several thousand safe yet alluring miles away.
This passing rage for cinematic “sin” from parts North will be chronicled by SF-to-Denmark émigré Jack Stevenson at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this week. He’ll present three programs (a clip show and features Venom and Without a Stitch) during “Swinging Scandinavia: How Nordic Sex Cinema Conquered the World.”
It really did. This “myth of total sexual freedom” — as put forth in Stevenson’s book Totally Uncensored!, due in 2007 — was particularly seductive to uptight Americans. By and large, Sweden and Denmark enjoyed remarkably progressive social attitudes at the time. After preliminary taboo-nudging efforts, one dam broke with I, a Woman, a notorious tell-all turned into a show-all (by 1966 standards) portrait of the sexually restless “new woman.” It grossed an astonishing $4 million in the United States alone. But that was nothing compared to I Am Curious (Yellow), a Godardian “kaleidoscope” of hard-to-separate documentary, improv, and staged elements encompassing all the era’s sexual, political, and intellectual questionings. Finally allowed to screen in America (over 18 months after its late-1967 Stockholm premiere), it was probably the most-seen and most-loathed crossover hit prior to The Blair Witch Project — similarly drawing audiences who expected familiar genre exploitation but got something much rawer and more challenging.
A whole series of Danish porn comedies and angsty Swedish sex dramas continued to be churned out until the mid-’70s. The Scandis had brought down many original barricades: Torgny Wickman’s 1969 Language of Love (which Robert de Niro takes Cybill Shepherd to see in Taxi Driver) might be the first commercial feature to show unobscured intercourse. But they soon found themselves intellectually bored and pushed aside marketwise by the expanded allowance for soft- and hardcore production elsewhere. The yahoos (us folks) had won by simultaneously commercializing and marginalizing the Sex Rev. SFBG
Opens Fri/6 in Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at for showtimes
Thurs/5, 7:30 p.m.; Sat/7, 7 and 9 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
(415) 978-ARTS

Pedro’s progress


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Poor Generalissimo Franco, not yet dead a decade before the Spanish film industry he’d so carefully censored gained its new leading tastemaker: a plump, girly homo fond of gender blur, anticlericalism, and nuclear-family meltdowns. Twenty-two years have passed since What Have I Done to Deserve This? made Pedro Almodóvar “enfant terrible of Spanish cinema” — a title that still sticks in his late 50s — as well as a dominating cultural force.
New movies “by Almodóvar” (like Picasso or Cher, he became an institution early on) are international events as those by Fellini or Bergman used to be in the ’60s. There remain good Spanish movies by directors working in entirely different styles. Yet in terms of what gets seen abroad, you might reasonably judge the whole industry to have gone Almodovaresque — a term applicable to select hit films by established talents like Bigas Luna (Jamón Jamón) and Álex de la Iglesia (Ferpect Crime), not to mention rising talents like Ramón Salazar (20 Centimeters) and Manuel Gómez Pereira (Queens). There may well be too many shrill, candy-colored Spanish comedies in which women act like hysterical drag queens and men like horndogs — but the master himself is no longer making them.
His ongoing evolution is partially charted in “Viva Pedro,” an upcoming four-week retrospective at the Castro and Shattuck theaters. The eight films in this series are what Sony Classics could get its hands on. “Viva” has to skip over his first five features (including What Have I Done?), leaving little of the John Waters–style anarchy that dominated his early work. (Like Waters, Almodóvar started out making campily offensive 8mm silents with nonsynch soundtracks, up through Fuck Fuck Fuck Me Tim!, his 1978 feature debut.) Particularly missed is Labyrinth of Passion, the quintessential all-purpose Almodóvar title and one of his funniest films. Also left out are early-’90s titles Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down; High Heels; and Kika.
Still, there’s plenty of good stuff in a package encompassing his two most outré forays into homoeroticism (1986’s Matador and the following year’s Law of Desire, both with Banderas), his most successful farce (1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), and the strange, still-in-progress trip toward profundity commenced in 1995 with The Flower of My Secret.
Almodóvar reportedly often shoots scenes in alternate funny and serious modes. The eccentric Flower is said to have found its largely serious tenor in the editing room. This high-wire balance between baroque ideas and earnest emotions was less wobbly in 1997’s wonderfully lurid Live Flesh. Two years later, Almodóvar surprised critics by delivering All About My Mother, a waterfall of Douglas Sirk–ian suffering female tears universally hailed for its newfound maturity. I (resistant) imagined Susan Hayward hammering her coffin lid, yelling, “Manny, you son of a bitch agent, that shoulda been my script!”
Almodóvar came out (in all senses) of the Madrid-centered Movida arts movement, whose late ’70s–early ’80s explosion of punk, camp, and transgression personified the most radical forces behind Spain’s rapid transformation from Franco-era repression to today’s extremely liberal culture. Traditional Spanish obsessions with death, sex, and religion plus post-Franco giddiness toward finger-diddling every hitherto taboo subject needn’t be “read into” Almodóvar movies — they’re spelled out on every flamboyant, melodramatic surface.
But not until his most recent two films did all these themes blend together in sardonic yet sympathetic wide-screen perfection. These are 2002’s Talk to Her — in which the main female characters are comatose, leaving the men to do the emotional weight lifting — and 2004’s Bad Education, a Catholic black comedy cum sexual-horror film oddly, elegantly redolent of Vertigo. In November we’ll get Volver, with Penélope Cruz and Carmen Maura returning to the fold. Whether or not it matches his recent achievements, Almodóvar has already earned the right to seem larger than life. SFBG
Begins Sept. 1
Castro Theatre
429 Castro, SF
(415) 621-6120
Shattuck Cinemas
2230 Shattuck, Berk.
(510) 464-5980



With the simultaneous advent of personal computers and video games on a massive scale in the early ’80s, it was unsurprising that Hollywood tried to fit all things virtual into the exploitable framework of cheesy teen comedies. The latest Midnites for Maniacs triple bill reprises three of the era’s daffier such efforts.
The eccentric Heartbeeps, a major flop released in 1981, puts Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters in constrictingly ingenious makeup as two servant robots who run away from their factory warehouse in the brave new world of 1995. Despite meeting such over-the-top types as Randy Quaid, Christopher Guest, Mary Woronov, and Paul Bartel en route, their comic odyssey is weirdly sentimental, even inspirational — it’s like Jonathan Livingston Seagull for androids.
More successful but equally derided was 1985’s Weird Science, which struck many as several juvenile steps backward for writer-director John Hughes after that year’s The Breakfast Club. Alas, he was never so silly or immature or funny again. Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith are dweebs who create an “ideal woman” (Kelly LeBrock) on their computer; she of course comes to life and teaches them all sorts of valuable life lessons while embodying a world of adolescent male masturbation fantasies.
Last and ever-so-least — save in camp value — is Joysticks, the Roller Boogie of video arcade movies, from the director (Greydon Clark) of Satan’s Cheerleaders, Skinheads: The Second Coming of Hate, and Lambada, the Forbidden Dance. A mean politician (Joe Don Baker, not walking so tall career-wise in 1983) tries to shut down the local arcade, believing it to be a hotbed of underage sin. Our heroes (cute guy, nerd guy, fat and desperately-trying-to-be-a-young-John-Candy guy named “McDorfus”) thwart him and save democratic freedom amid many Porky’s-style jokes. What you need to know: sequences are separated by the graphic of a Pac-Man biting its way across the screen; “punk” subsidiary villain King Vidiot is played by Napoleon Dynamite’s future Uncle Rico (Jon Gries); and the theme song really is just about playing video games (“Jerk it left/ jerk it right/ shoot it hard/ shoot it straight/ video to the maaaaaax!!!”). (Dennis Harvey)
Fri/25, 7:30 p.m.
Castro Theatre
429 Castro, SF

Fifteen, minute


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The sweet 16 has nothing on your average quinceañera, a celebration of reaching womanhood at age 15 that has roots in ancient Aztec civilization and is a tradition still very much alive throughout the Americas. Not unlike the bank-breaking theatrics of debutante balls, weddings, and bar mitzvahs in other communities, there’s often a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses extravagance to them that celebrates prosperity and community as much as youth and the coming-of-age.
Two such blowouts bookend Quinceañera, which won both the Grand Jury and Audience awards for Best Dramatic Feature at Sundance this year. Dazzled by her cousin Eileen’s bash — complete with DJ, live band, and Hummer limo with lighted stripper pole in the back — 14-year-old Magdalena (Emily Rios) begins stoking her own delusions of imminent coming-out grandeur. This dismays her less-than-prosperous priest-by-day, security-guard-by-night dad (Jesus Castaños), who likes to think of his little girl as pure, simple, and devout. That image takes a worse beating when he finds out Magdalena is in, you know, “trouble” — something that freakishly came about despite her not having gone all the way with on-off boyfriend Herman (Ramiro Iniguez).
When the physical evidence can no longer be hidden, the domestic consequences are predictably dire, and Magdalena ends up another black sheep taken in by Tío Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez), the great-uncle who “loves everyone and judges no one.” Already in residence is Magdalena’s cousin and Eileen’s tattooed, muscle-bound, cholo sibling Carlos (Jesse Garcia), thrown out by his parents for being a “liar and a thief and a pothead and a gay.” He sure acts the part of bad news, though like Magdalena may well be more sinned against than sinner.
Both ashamed of past deeds and uncertain what their futures hold, the cousins cohabit uneasily, the household barely kept afloat by Tomas’s earnings as the neighborhood champurrado vendor and Carlos’s at the local car wash. At least the latter is getting some action — when a yuppie gay couple (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood) buys the Echo Park property encompassing the front house and Tomas’s longtime rear garden rental, Carlos becomes the nightly “peanut butter in their sandwich,” as Magdalena snorts. But this too turns problematic, raising issues of gentrification, fidelity, and economic power, which the movie is careful not to hammer too heavily.
A gay couple who themselves live in Echo Park — the idea for this movie arose when they were asked to photograph the quinceañera of their neighbors’ daughter — cowriters-codirectors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland risk overstacking the deck with a heavy-handed screenplay. But Quinceañera takes the mantle from 2006’s Junebug as the hugely satisfying little late-summer movie amid so many bigger ones worth skipping. Its pet project genuineness is especially heartening given that Glatzer and Westmoreland (who previously codirected 2000’s idiosyncratic The Fluffer) are longtime toilers in the Hollywood trenches where not much art is made, let alone for art’s sake: one has done a whole lotta reality TV (including conceiving America’s Next Top Model), while the other’s résumé includes such one-handed wonders as Dr. Jackoff and Mr. Hard. SFBG
Opens Fri/11
See Movie Clock at for theaters and showtimes

A flickering light


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Acclaim is often decreed as much by fashion as by accomplishment. While Frank Borzage spent four decades as a well-paid Hollywood director and was honored with two Oscars, his talent wasn’t — and still isn’t — fashionable. In his hundred or so features, he routinely elevated or rescued contrived material. Typed as a director of romances and melodramas, he made myriad movies that were phony in concept — but never in their treatment.
Indeed, purity was often his subject, transcendence a running theme. What sometimes looked like “mush stuff” to critics now seems an oft-extraordinary intensity of unforced emotion. “Frank Borzage’s Philosophy of Desire,” a retrospective starting at the PFA this week, just scratches the surface of a very deep filmography. Its 12 titles can match up against any dozen by John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, and Howard Hawks.
Making his unlikely way into showbiz from a working-class Catholic immigrant family in Salt Lake City, the strapping, athletic Borzage entered movies as a popular mid-1910s actor. Disgusted by the poor product of a fledgling company he signed on with, he offered to direct himself, and early two-reel westerns distinguished him as an innovator with sophisticated visual and psychological instincts.
He abruptly jumped to the A-list when chosen to direct the first film version of Fannie Hurst’s Humoresque. This tale of a concert violinist rising from New York City’s Jewish ghetto was detested as “too realistic” by its own producer (Paramount’s Adolph Zukor) but became a surprise smash — winning praise from Russia’s Sergei Eisenstein and Europe’s surrealists. As Herve Dumont’s fine Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic puts it, Borzage’s usual narrative centered on “the young couple facing adversity.” Using poetical imagery and few words (Borzage admitted to being a de facto silent film director well into the sound era), his genius lay in mixing beauty and pain, happiness and sorrow in profoundly telling sequences he often invented himself.
These near-mystic surges of human yearning found quintessential expression in films he made for Fox during an eight-year stint starting in 1925. That year brought his first masterpiece, Lazybones, which cast cowboy star Buck Jones against type as a country layabout who ends up raising a local girl’s abandoned child. There’s one scene when the tot is crying because she’s teased and shunned as a “bastard,” and he comforts her with a self-deprecating lie. The moment is classic Borzage — character stoicism and directorial restraint at a point of crushing sadness — and for anyone who likes an honest cry at the movies, it is almost unbearably good.
Lazybones was not a hit, but the later films (most famously, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel) that Borzage made with newcomers Janet Gaynor (herself the subject of a current PFA program) and Charles Farrell were huge. Later the director found another elfin, fragile, yet morally fibrous favorite femme in Margaret Sullavan, heroine in a trilogy that subtly charted the growing fascism in Germany: 1934’s Little Man, What Now?, 1938’s Three Comrades, and 1940’s The Mortal Storm. These ambitious movies blended comedy, romance, thriller, and drama to unpredictable effect. But no film of the era exemplified Borzage’s penchant for unclassifiable projects more than 1937’s History Is Made at Night, an exquisite-corpse narrative lent total emotional truth by his handling of Jean Arthur’s flight from a demented rich husband into the arms of headwaiter Charles Boyer.
Demands for more focused escapism and propaganda during WWII paired Borzage with inappropriate projects, and the postwar cynicism and penchant for spectacle made him seem even less relevant. What snowball’s chance in hell is there that 1959’s The Big Fisherman (which former Max Ophüls, Josef von Sternberg, and Hitchcock cinematographer Lee Garmes called “the finest thing I ever did — a visual masterpiece”) might ever get restored? Holding one’s breath is ill-advised.
Borzage died of cancer at 68 in 1962. Back then, his greatest films seemed antique. Now we know better. The summer of 2006 has brought the latest universal insights by M. Night Shyamalan and Kevin Smith. Guess what — the least worthy work by Borzage never stunk up the joint like Lady in the Water or Clerks II, nor auto-serviced such undeserved directorial narcissism. SFBG
Through Aug. 23
PFA Theater
2575 Bancroft, Berk.
(415) 642-0808

Royal Fleischer


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Ever since somebody figured out that movies were, indeed, an art form, directors have been viewed as lone authors, or at least queen bees imperially orchestrating the efforts of mostly faceless subordinate collaborators. This is a flattering view, and sometimes a fairly accurate one. But they don’t call it the film industry — as opposed to, say, the film canvas — for nothing. Most employable directors are worker drones who just get the job done. Any job. After all, it’s competency that’s needed, not vision, the goal being entertainment rather than art.
When Richard Fleischer died three months ago, a final door closed on one of the most versatile, undiscriminating, and thoroughly Hollywood careers ever. In fact, the 90-year-old director had long been retired — his last feature was 1987’s Million Dollar Mystery, a starless farcical flop that coproducer Glad Bags promoted via a product tie-in: a $1 million treasure hunt. (The movie, alas, earned less than its title.) But his never stopped being ubiquitous as the “directed by” name on many of the most frequently televised films ever made. Some had originally been major hits, some bombed, some just punched the clock. But all were created equal in the eyes of the tube — and most likely, it seems, in the purview of Fleischer himself.
Just try connecting the dots between the features Fleischer directed between 1966 and 1976, when he was at his peak as a critically derided but reliable veteran entrusted with millions in studio money. He bounced from the psychedelic sci-fi adventure of Fantastic Voyage — with body-suited Raquel Welch as its most special effect — to 1967’s elephantine family musical fantasy Doctor Dolittle, then wasted no time and probably less sleep before turning to 1968’s The Boston Strangler.
Next up was 1969’s notoriously stupid Che!, with Dr. Zhivago (a.k.a. Omar Sharif) as the romantic revolutionary and daft Jack Palance as Fidel. Then came straight-up WWII patriotism via 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora!, followed by a western, a Godfather knockoff, Charles Bronson avenging as usual, blind Mia Farrow walking barefoot on broken glass to escape a murderer, 1973’s immortal Soylent Green, 1975’s bad-taste campsterpiece Mandingo, and — perhaps most incredibly in this context — Glenda Jackson as The Incredible Sarah in 1976. (Pauline Kael griped, “To think we were spared Ken Russell’s Sarah Bernhardt only to get Richard Fleischer’s,” dubbing him a “glorified mechanic [who] pleases movie executives because he has no particular interests and no discernable style.”)
Somehow amid all this middlebrow showmanship, Fleischer snuck in a small, low-key, fact-based British movie during 1971. 10 Rillington Place — part of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ “Too Scary for DVD: Neglected Horror on 35mm” series — is closer in spirit to the sharp, documentary-influenced B-grade noirs (1952’s The Narrow Margin, 1949’s Trapped) with which he started out his career, before Disney’s 1954 live-action smash 20,000 Leagues under the Sea promoted him to the A-list. Fleischer made several true crime films over the years, but arguably none truer than this chillingly poker-faced tale.
The Christie murders were infamous in Britain, not least because the execution of a probably innocent man played a significant role in that country’s abolition of the death penalty. Milquetoast landlord John Christie drugged, assaulted, and strangled numerous women, hiding their bodies in the Notting Hill house and backyard he shared with tenants and his oblivious wife. 10 Rillington Place focuses on those events of 1948, when a rather awful young couple (Judy Geeson, John Hurt) and their baby took the dingy upstairs flat. The Evanses were easy prey — the husband an illiterate compulsive liar with an IQ of 70, the pretty wife no exemplar either but understandably concerned that a second pregnancy would make their already marginal existence impossible. Christie (Richard Attenborough, future director of Gandhi) claimed knowledge of then-illegal abortion procedures, to Beryl Evans’s fatal misfortune.
Trading in British working-class miserabilism as if born to it (even Ken Loach would be impressed), the distressing yet nonhyperbolic Rillington delivers one credible version of the much-disputed case. Everything about it is astutely controlled, but two performances — Attenborough’s and Hurt’s — push that description into the realm of brilliance, indelibly etching the respective banalities of evil and of innocence.
One might call this sober replay of sordid reality an anomaly for Fleischer, but what film of his isn’t? Like several other major-league commercial directors of the ’60s (Robert Wise, Stanley Donen), he hung on through the ’70s but developed a serious case of irrelevance in the ’80s. Indeed, the embarrassments lined up like ducks: Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer, Brigitte Nielsen in Red Sonja, Amityville 3-D. No doubt he enjoyed the retirement that by then was so richly deserved. It is reported that he liked playing tiddlywinks with his granddaughter, perhaps while seated near his Mickey Mouse head–shaped swimming pool. (This despite his own father being Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer, Walt Disney’s leading early rival.) The director of Boston Strangler and Mandingo must have been a very nice, normal man to accommodate so many contradictions with so little fuss. He may be in the grave now, but it’s we the living who are spinning. SFBG
Thurs/20, 7:30 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room
701 Mission, SF
(415) 978-ARTS

Pride of Frankenstein


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There were macabre and fantastical American films in the silent era, many starring "Man of a Thousand Faces" Lon Chaney. But horror as a Hollywood genre arguably didn’t exist before 1931, when Universal released what may be the two biggest monster franchise titles in cinematic history.

One was Tod Browning’s Dracula, starring Hungarian émigré Bela Lugosi as Bram Stoker’s suave bloodsucker. The other was James Whale’s Frankenstein, which starred, uh, "???? as The Monster." That was the actual on-screen billing, though word soon leaked out that portraying Mary Shelley’s "Modern Prometheus" under grotesque makeup was a certain English actor named Boris Karloff. Well, renamed: Onetime farmhand William Henry Pratt had changed his moniker long before, the better to snatch those multiethnic roles his imposing features could encompass.

Karloff, whose huge film legacy is commemorated in a Balboa Theater retrospective starting this Friday, had labored without much recognition in nearly 80 bit and supporting parts since 1919. Public clamor to identify Frankenstein‘s hulking yet plaintive monster ended that once and for all making Karloff as notorious as the already Broadway-famed Lugosi overnight. Forever after they’d be linked as Hollywood’s twin ghouls. Both were typecast by genre fame, relegated to endless B-, then Z-grade productions. (Unlike Lugosi, Karloff managed to avoid working with legendarily inept Ed "Plan 9 from Outer Space" Wood — but he did end his career laboring on four back-to-back Mexican horror films of almost equally hilarious artistic bankruptcy. Check out the demented Torture Chamber, released well after his 1969 death and most definitely absent from the Balboa slate.)

Heavy on Golden Era classics, very light on the schlockier work that dominated Karloff’s later years, the retrospective is full of rarities and 35 mm restorations. All the Universal Frankenstein films are represented, plus 1932’s The Mummy another primary horror figure Karloff made his own. The series’ surprise is its several gangster flicks a genre that hit the fan just before horror did, affording glower-faced Karloff plenty of employment opportunities. He’s eighty-sixed in a bowling alley in the 1932 Scarface and plays a killer convict in another Howard Hawks film, 1931’s The Criminal Code. You can also see him as a crazed Islamic fundamentalist(!) in 1934’s The Lost Patrol, one rare occasion in which he worked with a "prestige" director like John Ford.

But the bulk of the Balboa’s 26 titles are horror, made by studio talents who never got near an Academy Award though god knows James Whale’s witty The Old Dark House (1932) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) have aged better than whatever won Oscars those years. Ditto The Body Snatcher a decade later, innovative producer Val Lewton’s take on real-life grave robbers Burke and Hare. Body costarred Lugosi, who’d earlier joined Karloff in expat Hungarian director Edgar G. Ulmer’s tardy riot of German expressionism, The Black Cat (1934). Another gem is 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu, a rare horror effort for sniffy MGM that compensated via high art-deco gloss, sexual sadism, and racial stereotypes pushed to the point of absurdist camp. Under such conditions, Karloff often seems as amused as he is sinister, shading his material not with condescension but with delicate irony. He was never undignified, though the films often were. He gladly participated in ridiculing his own image, however — notably in the stage smash Arsenic and Old Lace, in which his thug character confesses, "I killed him because he said I looked like Boris Karloff."

The gentlemanly offscreen Karloff loved children, and had mixed feelings about his professional prowess at scaring the bejesus out of them. His daughter Sara Karloff kicks off the Balboa series with an evening of home movies and live chat. You can safely bet her reminiscences will land at a safe distance from Mommie Dearest territory. SFBG

"As Sure as My Name is Boris Karloff"

June 2–8, June 16–22

Balboa Theater

3630 Balboa, SF


(415) 221-8184

For showtimes, see Rep Clock

Behind the public machine


The sales pitch is "democracy," suggesting national autonomy and individual choice. But the reality here and abroad is free-market corptocracy, which delivers pretty much the opposite. Yet for all their control on government policy and civilian life, corporations largely remain invisible to those not directly involved with them.

So, corporate culture — and the face-lifted culture it exports for public consumption — may be this century’s Esperanto, a language everyone ought to speak but few have bothered to learn. Hoping to bridge that gap is CounterCorp, a new nonprofit that "seeks to document, reduce, and ultimately prevent the corrosive political, economic, and social effects that large corporations have in the United States and around the world."

Other Cinema is hosting a CounterCorp benefit. Programmed by Craig Baldwin, the "Public Image Ltd." program will dig deep into the variably kitschy, ominous, flag-waving, and wallet-depleting propaganda companies of prior eras visited on both consumers and their own employees.

Among the dusty nuggets you’ll glimpse are Avon’s 1960s "The Joy of Living with Fragrance," a groovy 1971 ride down Oscar Mayer’s "hot dog highway," and General Motors’ delirious 1956 "Design for Dreaming," in which a fantasizing housewife-ballerina pirouettes through a Technicolor orgy of luxury wheels, designer gowns, and kitchen superappliances. Then there’s the late-’70s "Caring Is Our Way," a Hilton Hotels recruitment reel wherein African American doormen and chauffeurs (including one "Bo" Jones, perhaps cousin to Mr. Bo Jangles) exalt the joy of bowing and scraping for those "beautiful people" who attend, say, plumbers’ conventions.

Providing a rare in-house flip side to that smiley-face message, Delco Products’ circa 1980 "What’s It All About?" is a guilt-tripping recession extravaganza set to nervous bongo music. Its depressed narrator chides "Somehow … we didn’t put it all together," laying heavy "J’accuse!"s on supposedly lazy-ass American workers for losing jobs and plants to them wily Japanese. That corporate strategy hasn’t changed: When shit hits the fan, a smart CEO still finds ways to blame those damn ingrates further down the ladder.


Sat/13, 8:30 p.m.

Artists’ Television Access

992 Valencia, SF

$5–$20 suggested donation

Singin’ in the watermelon juice


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Imagine being a moviegoer, say, 60 years ago. Then, as now, Hollywood prompted wiseguys and eggheads to complain that the average picture was made by idiots for idiots. In particular, what could be more brain-deadening than yet another 90 minutes spent enduring gaudy production numbers, rickety romance plots, stale patter, throwaway songs, and forced (as they used to put it) gaiety?

Now we are up to our necks in invasions from outer space, fantasy landscapes, mass destruction everything the average 13-year-old imagination and computer-generated imagery can devise. The barriers for physical depiction have collapsed, yet movies seem dumber than ever, with fewer actual ideas. It’s enough to make you wish for a return to relative realism, like say 100 chorus girls dancing around a giant cake. Really: Quit with the dragons. Bring back the musical.

Strangely, this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival does turn back the clock, in that several of the higher-profile features this year are honest-to-god musicals, and original ones too — there isn’t a boring Broadway transfer among them.

The first musical to open the festival in 20 years (1986 had Absolute Beginners) is Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s lavish Hong Kong confection Perhaps Love, a Jacques Demy<\d>meets<\d>Moulin Rouge exercise in decorative, sentimental self-consciousness. Too many bathetic ballads eventually slow things down, but as an exercise in pure stylistic excess, the result looks and feels like you hope the after-party will.

As idiosyncratic and personal as Love is, it seems conventional compared with the two other musicals from lands of the (Far) East. Eighty-four-year-old veteran Japanese wild man Seijun Suzuki’s Princess Raccoon is an anarchic anomaly based on a popular whimsy almost as old as he is, updated to be just as agelessly lunatic. The against-odds love between titular princess (Ziyi Zhang) and prince (Joe Odagiri) occurs amidst a nonstop camp parade of non sequitur delights, visual as well as aural. There’s song (Hawaiian to rap to prog rock), dance (tap to moonwalk), evil Catholicism, Kabuki theatricality, rampant CGI, giant penis sculptures, and a mystical Frog of Paradise. It’s suitable for unhinging viewers of all ages.

That cannot be said for Tsai Ming-liang’s already notorious Thai-French coproduction The Wayward Cloud. In this gorgeous, absurdist cipher, dizzy production numbers alternate with graphic sex scenes in a Taipei where a chronic water shortage has prompted mass consumption of watermelon juice. If Cloud ever finds a US distributor, multiple viewings will be in order — the first may leave you too gobsmacked to know what just befell you.

I’d like to say the home team is holding up its end in the all-singing, all-dancing department. But the two big guns at 2006 — slotted as "centerpiece" and "closing night feature," respectively — left me cold, even if you’ve got to hand their makers a nickel for trying something different. Actor-turned-director-cum-horrible-scenarist John Turturro’s Romance and Cigarettes is a karaoke musical set to a mix tape of his formative faves (Dusty, James Brown, even Engelbert). James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon play a working-class Queens couple who bust up, then meander amidst various wacky characters (Winslet, Walken, Buscemi, etc.) before the inevitable reconciliation and a somber finish the movie doesn’t have the emotional depth to pull off. While nicely designed, the film’s scatological humor and broad performances are painful in that same tone-deaf, infantile way as recent John Waters (A Dirty Shame); the production numbers are as shapeless as the screenplay.

Robert Altman’s take on A Prairie Home Companion may well please fans of the radio show. His woozy fallback style, which kicks in whenever the material doesn’t wake him up (last alert moment: Gosford Park), is apt enough for Garrison Keillor’s cozy, faintly ironic cornball humor and penchant for a fake "authenticity" borne of nostalgia for never-was Americana. Keillor is not, to put it kindly, a natural camera presence. But then Companion doesn’t do the professionals any favors either, rendering even Meryl Streep negligible and giving Virginia Madsen the worst role of her career (yes, worse than being Bobcat’s love interest in Hot to Trot). Everybody onscreen appears to be having a very good time. If you want to enjoy tepid, quasi-folksome chuckles and movie actors singing bluegrass and gospel songs poorly, then you will too.


(Peter Ho-Sun Chan, Hong Kong, 2005)


Thurs/20, 7 p.m., Castro

(Party 9:30 p.m., Regency Center)


(Robert Altman, USA, 2006)


May 4, 7 p.m.

(Party 9:30 p.m., Mezzanine)


(Seijun Suzuki, Japan, 2005)


April 26, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki

April 28, 2:30 p.m., Castro

April 30, 8 p.m., PFA


(John Turturro, USA, 2005)


April 28, 8 p.m., Kabuki


(Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France, 2005)


Sun/23, 9:30 p.m., Castro

Tues/25, 10:15 p.m., Kabuki

April 26, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki

April 28, 9:15 p.m., PFA


Pick: Thank You for Smoking


SATIRE Outfitted with a name that sounds shiny and desirable, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is in the business of eating shit with a smile, then pretending that aforementioned shit is, in fact, a brand! new! renewable! energy source! Such jaw-dropping insincerity is a must when you’ve got his job: chief national public-relations shill for the tobacco industry. There’s no putting a good face on the promotion and sales of "cancer sticks" anymore, is there? Nick is a genius at suggesting otherwise, or at least at weaving such tangles of faux folky, quasi-inspirational "logic" that his many foes are left confusedly tongue-tied. In private moments he’s still ruthless, pragmatic, self-justifying, cynical — yet an everyman nonetheless, trying in his own way to be a good citizen, even a good dad: On his custody days, he inculcates his son Joey (Cameron Bright) with life wisdom while seldom evoking the Golden Rule. Kidnap attempts, death threats, crusading congressmen (William H. Macy), duplicitous investigative journalists (Katie Holmes), living recriminations like a near dead former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott), cold, hard statistics — nothing fazes Nick. A political movie in that it’s about culture-of-spin morality — in which the highest value is placed on the most you can get away with for the sake of the bottom line — Jason Reitman’s film from Christopher Buckley’s novel gives good satire. It’s awfully clever, colorful, and well cast; Eckhart hasn’t been so perfect since he slithered through In the Company of Men. Yet once the moderate dazzle lifts, you might realize that exposing and/or making fun of Big Tobacco is like shooting, er, smoked fish in a barrel. (Dennis Harvey)

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING opens Fri/24 in Bay Area theaters.

Go to for showtimes.

The ‘ol whizbang


Given that the phrase another Vietnam (with or without fucking in the middle) probably passes through lips somewhere every .0000398 seconds at present, it might be a good moment to ponder differences between war-themed movies from the 1960s and today.

Admittedly, the Vietnam War had been going on for a while by the time significant mainstream movieland responses emerged. Among them were John Wayne’s notorious The Green Berets, the morally ambiguous Patton, and myriad antiwar diatribes, of which Catch-22, MASH, Little Big Man, Joe, and Soldier Blue were just the tip