Dennis Harvey

Mann up


FILM Anthony Mann was one of those directors only really appreciated in retrospect — during his life he was considered a solid journeyman rather than an artist. It didn’t help that when he finally graduated to big-budget “prestige” films at the dawn of the 1960s, he was unlucky. He left 1960’s Spartacus after clashing with producer-star Kirk Douglas. (Stanley Kubrick famously replaced him.) He left the 1960 Western epic Cimarron mid-shoot after an argument with its producer, though its poor result was still credited to him, as was A Dandy in Aspic, a 1968 spy drama completed by star Laurence Harvey after Mann died of a heart attack very early on.

He had done very well indeed with 1961’s El Cid, a smash considered one of the few truly good movies resulting from Hollywood’s then-obsession with lavish historical spectaculars. The same judgment is now granted 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, to a more qualified degree. But that film was so titanically expensive it would have stood as the decade’s monument to money-losing excess had 1963’s Cleopatra not already claimed that crown.

Today Mann is probably best regarded for the series of Westerns he made in the 1950s, many starring a more tormented, less aw-shucksy James Stewart. They’ve tended to overshadow the film noirs that in turn preceded them. The Pacific Film Archive is doing its bit to correct that imbalance with “Against the Law: The Crime Films of Anthony Mann,” a three-week retrospective spanning a brief but busy period from 1946 to 1950.

Surprisingly for a talent associated more with action than talk, the San Diego-born Mann first made a modest name for himself as a New York stage director and actor. In 1938 he was invited by Gone With the Wind (1939) producer David O. Selznick to come to Hollywood as a casting scout, then moved up to assistant directing at Paramount (including for Preston Sturges). He was soon deemed fit to direct low-budget features, starting in 1942 — cranking out cheap musicals like Moonlight in Havana (1942) and melodramas like Strangers in the Night (1944) for the bottom half of double bills. His craftsmanship was already strong even if the scripts were weak. To compensate, he began early to concentrate on evocative visual storytelling whose impact could cover the flaws of corny dialogue and situations.

Strangers and first PFA title Strange Impersonation (1946) were proto-noirs that allowed him to up his game. But what really altered his career course was the founding of a new company, Eagle-Lion, that he started working for the following year. There, budgets remained “Poverty Row” low, but more creative freedom was allowed — and he gained a key collaborator in now-revered cinematographer John Alton, who famously said “It’s not what you light, it’s what you don’t light.”

Alton’s often highly stylized, chiaroscuro images lent rich atmosphere and suspense to what were then considered “semi-documentary” shoot-’em-ups. Their first collaboration, 1947’s T-Men, was a highly influential sleeper hit that took its realism seriously enough to start with an audience address from an actual former Treasury Department law enforcement official. The “composite case” ensuing has Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder as undercover feds who infiltrate a counterfeiting ring in Detroit — one losing his life in the process.

O’Keefe returned on the other side of the law for the following year’s Raw Deal, playing an escaped con determined to avenge himself on the crime boss (future Ironside Raymond Burr) who betrayed him. He travels with two women, one adoring (Claire Trevor), one unwilling (Marsha Hunt) … at least at first she is. This is the rare noir narrated by a moll, as Trevor’s faithful doormat comes to terms with losing the man she’s always loved to the “nice girl” he’s taken hostage. There’s a bitter romantic fatalism to her perspective that’s as masochistic as it is hard-boiled.

The PFA offers two features from 1949. Even more “documentary” in its procedural focus than T-Men, He Walked by Night (officially credited to Alfred Werker, though Mann directed most of it) “stars” the LAPD as its personnel hunt a sociopath clever enough to disguise his tracks as he goes on a murder spree. Focusing on the minutiae of investigative procedure (“Police work is not all glamour and excitement and glory!” our narrator gushes), yet full of visual atmosphere, it was widely considered the uncredited inspiration for the subsequent radio and TV serial Dragnet. (Jack Webb even plays a forensics expert.) The then-inventive location work culminates in a deadly chase through LA storm drain tunnels. Border Incident, unavailable for preview, anticipated the Native American rights-centered Devil’s Doorway (1950) in its forward-thinking treatment of racial minorities — here Mexicans caught between smugglers, bandits, and US immigration agents. It was originally entitled Wetbacks, a moniker that would have ensured lasting notoriety, albeit at the cost of obscuring the film’s anti-discriminatory theme.

Director and DP soon parted ways, alas. Their third 1949 collaboration (the next year’s Doorway would be their last) is not in the PFA retrospective, although it ought to be: Reign of Terror, aka The Black Book, is set during the French Revolution, yet it’s as thoroughly, baroquely noir as any movie involving powdered wigs could possibly manage. *


Feb. 7-28, $5.50-$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.


Global tension


FILM Though its definition has been stretched hither and yon to accommodate films that might appeal to the same retro-minded audience, film noir is a well you can go to only so many times before risking excess repetition or bottom-scraping. So it’s good news that the latest annual edition of SF-bred Noir City at the Castro Theatre — kicking off Fri/24 — expands its programming to the separate-but-equal terrain of 1940s and ’50s crime melodramas made outside the genre’s traditional home. Dubbed “It’s a Bitter Little World,” Noir City 12 has a smattering of Hollywood titles, but otherwise for the first time ranges far afield, hauling in tough dramas from places like England, Argentina, Germany, and Japan.

The somber post-war mood that spurred noir cinema was, in the US, fomented largely by the trauma and disillusionment suffered by both returning vets and those they came back to. But in many other nations, the damage was more than personal and psychological — people returned to cities reduced to rubble after years of fighting, surviving residents already accustomed to extreme deprivation. Plus, former allies and enemy combatants alike were now regarded with suspicion as they lingered at the war’s end to oversee “reconstruction,” the language and cultural gaps and unfamiliar new lines of authority in turn breeding new avenues of corruption and resistance.

Two films most directly dealing with that atmosphere are double-billed Mon/27. Made in 1946 (though it wasn’t released in some parts of divided, occupied Germany until some time later), The Murderers Are Among Us was the first of the “trümmerfilm,” literally “rubble film” — movies portraying Germans’ struggles with recuperation and loss in the wake of humiliating defeat, not to mention the revelations of heinous Nazi war crimes. Returning home from a concentration camp, Susanne (Hildegard Knef) finds her Berlin apartment already occupied by Hans (Wilhelm Borchert), an embittered, alcoholic physician who no longer practices.

Forced to uneasily cohabit, they try to re-establish some semblance of ordinary life, though that effort is imperiled when former military doctor Hans discovers the superior officer he’d thought dead is in fact alive, well, and prospering — suffering no consequences at all for ordering the massacre of a hundred Polish civilians, including women and children. (Purportedly, occupying Soviet authorities insisted on changing the film’s intended ending, fearing that if Hans actually assassinated the officer, viewers would be tempted toward vigilante justice themselves.)

Duly shot amid a city in ruins, Murderers remains potent stuff, even if it soft-pedals certain aspects: For instance, concentration camp survivor Susanne is as Aryan as can be, the subject of a Jewish Holocaust apparently still being too touchy to mention. Knef (who actually had spent time in a prison camp) became an immediate star, a refreshingly unconventional one who spurned Hollywood offers and shrugged off outrage over a nude sequence (in 1950’s The Sinner) with the memorable observation that such “tumult” was ridiculous coming “five years after Auschwitz!”

Its 1948 co-feature Berlin Express, directed by Jacques Tourneur (of 1942’s Cat People and other horror classics) was a Hollywood production shot on location in Europe, with a multinational cast playing various figures traveling on a train from Paris to the German capital. When one who’d been an important German anti-Nazi resistance figure is killed en route, lingering wartime animosities are overcome to solve the crime — the tentative friendships among them a simple metaphor for the cooperation required among nations to rebuild after catastrophic conflict.

Less politically tilted, but also dealing with a devastated, immediately-postwar landscape, are Akira Kurosawa’s first two collaborations with dynamic star Toshiro Mifune, screening Sun/26. Mifune plays a seriously ill crook in 1948’s Drunken Angel, then crosses over to play a no-less-edgy junior member of the police force in the following year’s Stray Dog. His protagonist in that film is mortified when the revolver he’s issued is stolen on a tram, then used to commit a series of crimes. His obsessive pursuit of the weapon takes him deep into a remarkably seedy makeshift Tokyo of shanty towns, prostitution, and black markets, everyone flop-sweating amid oppressive summer heat.

Other films examine more ordinary, already-entrenched corruption in post-war power structures: Spanish Death of a Cyclist (1955) and Norwegian Death is a Caress (1949) find members of the social elite going to murderous lengths to hide their infidelities; two excellent British dramas from 1947, It Always Rains on Sunday and the Graham Greene-derived Brighton Rock, are bleak slices of lower-class lives driven to crime and desperation; florid Mexican melodrama Victims of Sin (1951) puts its glamorous heroine (blond Cuban Ninon Sevilla) through a mill of sexual hypocrisies and hot “African” dance numbers.

Noir City 12’s US titles, aptly, focus mostly on international criminal and romantic intrigue: Anthony Mann’s 1949 Border Incident involves Mexican immigrant-worker exploitation; the “exotic” settings are billed up front in 1947’s Singapore (Fred MacMurray, Ava Gardner), 1952’s Macao (Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell), and 1942’s The Shanghai Gesture (Gene Tierney, Victor Mature). The latter two films were both directed by Josef von Sternberg, though only willfully camp Gesture fully recaptured the sensuous aesthetic excesses of his 1930s Dietrich vehicles.

Just one title here is strictly all-American, but it’s an important one: Too Late for Tears is an independently produced 1949 “B” potboiler that fell into the public domain and has only been seen for years in inferior prints. The festival’s Film Noir Foundation is premiering its own painstaking 35mm restoration of this little gem by subsequent sci-fi specialist Byron Haskin (1953’s The War of the Worlds, 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars), wherein velvet voiced LA housewife Lizabeth Scott discovers a mighty capacity for greed, deception, and even murder once a bag full of stolen cash accidentally falls into her hands. *


Jan 24-Feb 2, $10 (“Passport” pass, $120)

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF


A tale of two



FILM No one reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin today — Harriet Beecher Stowe’s enormously popular novel that almost single-handedly tilted public opinion against slavery enough to support the Civil War — for anything but historical-footnote interest. Yet fellow 19th-century celebrity author Charles Dickens, who had nearly as direct and significant a reformist influence across the Atlantic, is still ubiquitous.

Dickens fairs and staged versions of A Christmas Carol are annual rituals; even people who’ve never read the books or seen the umpteen movie versions recognize the titles Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. As with (the very different) Jane Austen, Dickens still delights in the realms of rich characterization, absorbing narratives, and re-readability — qualities that are very much the same ones his original readers adored.

The thread of social critique to his work comes through less strongly today, when we’re more accustomed to brute realism. Indeed, Dickens can seem too genteel in his descriptions of squalor and suffering — like Stowe, he wrote in an era when an author could be dismissed as “vulgar” for rendering unpleasant matters too vividly unpleasant. (God forbid he or she should do more than faintly imply the existence of prostitution, for instance.) Dickens was a regular scold of the British class system and its repercussions, particularly the gentry’s general acceptance that poverty was something the bottom rung of society was suited for, perhaps even deserved. Beyond expressing indignation in fiction, he lectured, petitioned Parliament, sponsored charities, and personally co-founded a home for the rehabilitation of “fallen women.”

Given how many in positions of power would have preferred such issues go ignored, it was all the more important their highest-profile advocate be of unimpeachable “moral character” — which in the Victorian era meant a very high standard of conduct indeed. So it remains remarkable that in long married middle-age he heedlessly risked scandal and possible career-ruin by taking on a much younger mistress. Both she and he eventually burned all their mutual correspondence, so Claire Tomalin’s biography The Invisible Woman is partly a speculative work. But it and now Ralph Fiennes’ film of the same name are fascinating glimpses into the clash between public life and private passion in that most judgmentally prudish of epochs.

Framed by scenes of its now-married, still-secretive heroine several years after the central events, the movie introduces us to a Dickens (Fiennes) who at mid-career is already the most famous and popular man in the UK, with an enormous readership well beyond its shores. In his lesser-remembered capacity as a playwright and director, at age 45 (in 1857) he hired 18-year-old actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) for an ingénue role. He was instantly smitten; she was, at the least, awed by this great man’s attention. Their professional association permitted some further contact without generating much gossip. But eventually Dickens chafed at the restraints necessary to avoid scandal — no matter the consequences to himself, let alone his wife, his 10 (!) children, or Ternan herself.

Fiennes, by all accounts an exceptional Shakespearean actor on stage, made a strong directorial debut a couple years ago with that guy’s war play Coriolanus (2011) — a movie that, like this one, wasn’t enough of a conventional prestige film or crowd-pleaser to surf the awards-season waves very long. But they’re both films of straightforward confidence, great intelligence, and unshowy good taste that extends to avoiding any vanity project whiff.

By the standards of most modern movies set in this era, Invisible Woman is perhaps a little too measured, melancholy, not “romantic” or sumptuous enough. It’s not a feel-good costume drama, despite having most of the ingredients for that (famous people, star-crossed love, etc.) Like Coriolanus, it’s a bit somber, thinky, and vigorously unsentimental.

Fiennes (who purportedly only took the role after another actor he’d cast dropped out) is very good as usual. You could put together an extraordinary retrospective of roles he’s played onscreen so far (and a dismaying smaller one of the few he was flat-out wrong in, mostly incongruous mainstream duds like 2002’s Maid in Manhattan and 1998’s non-Marvel Avengers), yet few major actors have done so good a job of circumventing the attention they’ve earned. Jones is also fine, though the jury remains out on whether she’ll turn out an actress as interesting as she is polished (and pretty). She’s a little stiff here, a deliberate choice that nonetheless makes the film a few degrees less emotionally engaging.

The entire cast (also including Kristin Scott Thomas as Ternan’s cautiously approving actress mother, and Tom Hollander as the author Wilkie Collins) is impeccable. But in a quiet way the movie is almost stolen by Joanna Scanlan’s Mrs. Dickens — a great squat, stolid lump of a woman, like Queen Victoria herself, but painfully aware of her social and physical lacks.

One sequence that might seem invented and improbable is based on fact: Dickens cruelly made his by-now-wised-up wife deliver a present to his mistress, a means of asserting his ersatz blamelessness that could only acutely humiliate the two women who best knew otherwise. Even today, large women are so seldom portrayed as anything but nasty and/or comedic that Scanlan makes a striking impression simply for taking an important, non-stereotypical role here. But beyond that, her wounded dignity in the few scenes allowed her is heartbreaking. *

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN opens Fri/10 in San Francisco.

Bad company


FILM Considering the relative infrequency of theater-to-film translations today, it’s a bit of a surprise that Tracy Letts had two movies made from his plays before he even got to Broadway. Bug and Killer Joe proved a snug fit for director William Friedkin (in 2006 and 2011, respectively), who well past age 70 experienced something of a career resurgence from them. Those modern Grand Guignols got around, but were too outré for the kind of mainstream success accorded 2007’s August: Osage County, which won the Pulitzer, ran 18 months on Broadway (an eternity for a non-musical at present), and toured the nation.

As a result, August was destined — perhaps doomed — to be a big movie, the kind that shoehorns a distracting array of stars into an ensemble piece, playing jes’ plain folk. On stage, this Long Day’s Journey Into Fuck All Y’All was a juicy-steak drama meal, chockablock with family dysfunction, colorful cussin’, shocking revelations, and ghoulish as well as broad humor. It was like a vintage Sam Shepard text crossed with an old-school three-act “well-made play.” It was also three and a half hours long.

To his credit, Letts’ own screenplay adaptation clocks in at almost exactly two hours, a considerable reduction that nonetheless doesn’t feel gutted. Whether it feels like a movie, though, is another question. What seemed bracingly rude as well as somewhat traditional under the proscenium lights just looks like a lot of reheated Country Gothic hash, and the possibility of profundity you might’ve been willing to consider before is now completely off the menu. If you haven’t seen August before (or even if you have), there may be sufficient fun watching stellar actors chew the scenery with varying degrees of panache. But the play exposes itself in a medium it might have been most suitable for 50 years before it was written. (Not that the censors would have allowed it then.)

Gorgon matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep, who else) is dying of cancer, albeit not fast enough — she’s still quite capable of driving long-suffering, shot-pounding spouse Beverly (Shepard) to distraction, and all other “loved ones” to a safe geographic distance away. Nonetheless, when Bev simply exits their rambling rural Oklahoma home with no apparent intention of returning, the scattered troops are called in for reinforcement.

Pissed-off prodigal daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) returns in the company of a husband (Ewan McGregor) and teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) she’s well on her way to alienating just like mommy did. Middle child Karen (Juliette Lewis) is a man-crazy ninny entering another bad marriage, this one to a Master of the Universe, Florida-style (Dermot Mulroney). Family doormat Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the third sister, stuck around to masochistically endure Violet’s ingratitude and caustic pity but might be plotting her escape at last. Last and least, there’s Auntie Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), a viperous chatterbox whose husband (Chris Cooper) self-medicates with beer and TV, while their son (Benedict Cumberbatch) is treated like an even bigger loser than he is.

You know the beats: Late-night confessions, drunken hijinks, disastrous dinners, secrets (infidelity, etc.) spilling out everywhere like loose change from moth-eaten trousers. Even at its much greater stage length, August was overstuffed, though what seemed excessive in a mostly good way then now simply plays as a pileup of clichés and contrivances enlivened by some good lines and snappy performances. Of course the dialogue sounds ornately “theatrical” in this more naturalistic presentation. But director John Wells, a veteran TV writer-producer whose prior feature was 2010’s decent corporate-downsizing drama The Company Men, doesn’t make anything seem very natural. (If Nebraska lives and breathes its locations, this movie might as well have been shot on a studio back lot for all the authenticity earned.)

Nor can he magically weld this cast into a credible “family.” Lewis and Martindale get a lot out of their comically vulgar characters, but are ultimately too one-note. Mulroney delivers a very sharp caricature with less visible effort; Cumberbatch and Nicholson are OK as wallflowers amid invasive stinkweeds. Cooper is the kind of actor who can manage a great deal while seemingly doing very little, while McGregor is the type who can sometimes look like he’s working awfully hard to make absolutely no impression whatsoever. The film’s success story, I suppose, is Roberts: She seems very comfortable with her character’s bitter anger, and the four-letter words tumble past those jumbo lips like familiar friends.

On the downside, there’s Streep, who’s a wizard and a wonder as usual yet also in that mode supporting the naysayers’ view that such conspicuous technique prevents our getting lost in her characters. In the national touring stage production, octogenarian Estelle Parsons was manifestly a cranky old lady — you worried for her going up and down those three flights of stairs, and gasped at her not-at-all-cute potty mouth. Streep acts the shit out of being cranky and old; one suspects between takes she’s probably running triathalons and saving whales. She pulls out the stops, but maybe they should have been left in. If Streep can do anything, then logic decrees that include being miscast.

Still, she’s a lucky woman alongside Misty Upham, who plays that eternal most-thankless role: The largely mute, ever-observant “ethnic” (here, Native American) domestic-nurse-helper who graces all these yelling white people with her quiet compassion, swooping in to save the innocent and comfort the comfortless when necessary. (She also cooks so well you half expect magical Like Water for Chocolate-style dishes to heal all wounds.) Among the things August has lost in translation is the pretense of unsentimentality. When Gustavo Santaolalla’s schmaltzy score drips like molasses over Upham’s payoff moments, you know it’s gone way too far in the other direction. *


AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY opens January 10 in San Francisco.

All that glitters


FILM If longer were better, this would be the platinum era of movies. Never before have so many mainstream releases staggered toward or beyond the two-and-a-half-hour mark once reserved for the truly epic — in storytelling breadth, not just in fight scenes, expensive CGI effects, or simple directorial inability to say “when.”

David O. Russell’s American Hustle is about that long, and it’s like a lot of things you’ve seen before — put in a blender, so the results are too smooth to feel blatantly derivative, though here and there you taste a little Boogie Nights (1997), Goodfellas (1990), or whatever. Normally that would not be a particularly promising combination, but in the current climate perhaps no praise could be higher than to say there isn’t a minute among Hustle‘s 138 when it’s safe to run to the bathroom. This isn’t necessarily the best film of the year, let alone the most original, but it’s quite possibly 2013’s most enjoyable major-studio release — at least if you’re over 15 and not over-enamored with superheroes or elves.

Loosely based on the Abscam FBI sting-scandal of the late 1970s and early ’80s (an opening title snarks, “Some of this actually happened”), Hustle is a screwball crime caper almost entirely populated by petty schemers with big ideas almost certain to blow up in their faces. It’s love, or something, at first sight for Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who meet at a Long Island party circa 1977 and instantly fall for each other — or rather for the idealized selves they’ve both strained to concoct.

He’s a none-too-classy but savvy operator who’s built up a mini-empire of variably legal businesses while honing a ’70s swinger suavity à la Bob Guccione. She’s a nobody from nowhere who crawled upward, gave herself a bombshell makeover (Adams is almost exclusively costumed J. Lo-style, inner side boobs on full display), and like Barbara Stanwyck in 1941’s The Lady Eve specializes in posing as British aristocracy — the Lady Edith, to be precise. They’re upwardly mobile con artists who know their limits.

The hiccup in this slightly tacky yet perfect match is Irving’s neglected, crazy wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who’s not about to let him go — nor can he bring himself to leave their son, even if the kid isn’t his biologically. At least she’s their main problem until they meet Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent who entraps the two while posing as a client in desperate need of loan-sharking services. Their only way out of a long prison haul, he says, is to cooperate in an elaborate Atlantic City redevelopment scheme he’s concocted to bring down a slew of mafioso and presumably corrupt politicians. Even if they have to fabricate crimes to hustle the not-yet-guilty into — notably a beloved Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) whose nose is as clean as can be given a constituency riddled with tough customers and backdoor deals.

A male even more aspirationally alpha than Irving, Richie is in over his head with this Machiavellian plan — which eventually ropes in terrifying, seldom-seen mob legend Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro) — as his oft exasperated superiors are well aware. But as the sting rolls heedlessly forward, the conspirators’ Achilles’ heel turns out to be Rosalyn, who can’t be kept entirely out of the loop and certainly can’t be counted on not to blurt exactly the wrong thing at the worst possible time.

Scored to a K-Tel double-album-full of greatest hits from earlier in the Me Decade (these people aren’t on the cutting edge, musically or otherwise), American Hustle is a giddy tale of Horatio Alger-style all-American gumption headed toward a train wreck. Russell’s filmmaking is at a peak of populist confidence it would have been hard to imagine before 2010’s The Fighter, and the casting is perfect down to the smallest roles. But beyond all clever plotting, amusing period trappings, and general high energy, the film’s ace is its four leads, who ingeniously juggle the caricatured surfaces and pathetic depths of self-identified “winners” primarily driven by profound insecurity.

Our first view of Irving (or anything) is a camera spin around his ample middle-aged gut and up to the gaping bald spot he’s in the process of concealing. Bale retains his handsome features, but the physical transformation he’s undertaken here extends to a schlemiel-in-camouflage slouch whose roots you can feel in Irving’s very thought processes. More recognizable despite his curly locks and disco shirts is Cooper, who after this and Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012) has clearly found his niche: playing control-freak rageaholism for manic comedy.

Lawrence’s Judy Holliday-meets-Valerie Perrine turn has justly been praised enough elsewhere. She’s spectacular, but the stealth heart of the movie belongs to Adams in a role that might easily have been played as merely “hot.” Sydney is brighter and more coolly rational than those around her; but life has taught her that a girl’s best bet is to look good and make the man think he’s doing the thinking for both of them.

Adams is a natural comedian, yet here she’s also the presence onscreen most alert to everything that’s going on, making Sydney the most thoughtful character and hers the most subtle performance. Without her, American Hustle would be great fun but a little hollow. With her, it almost seems genius, as if Preston Sturges had remade 1997’s Donnie Brascoe.

Big fantasy films have grown repetitious, yet they grow ever longer despite the fact that short-attention-span cinema really, really benefits from reining in the runtime. Prestige movies, too, seem to be under some sort of pressure to streeeeetch it out. Would Captain Phillips, The Butler, or even (sue me) Blue is the Warmest Color have been better with a tighter length and focus? Of course they would. But the sheer bulk seems to confer importance, like those literary magnum opuses each year that command attention not because they’re an author’s best, but because they weigh as if they ought to be. *


AMERICAN HUSTLE opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.

3-2-1 contact


FILM El Cajon — between balmy coastal San Diego and arid desert mountains to the east — is just the sort of place where the dream of California living came true for a lot of industrious working-class people in the post-World War II boom years. It’s also where their boomer children and generation-next grandkids are currently seeing that dream slowly expire.

It exploded in the original golden age of suburban planning, by 1960 going from podunk burg to major ‘burb with 25 times the population it had had two decades earlier. Such rapid growth is seldom pretty, and today El Cajon mostly looks like a rusty old conglomeration of strip malls, ranch-style homes, and motel-like apartment complexes that probably were a little tacky to begin with. It’s certainly not the first place that might come to mind when pondering where groundwork might be laid for the coming landing of space vessels from the 32 worlds of the Interplanetary Confederation, who will arrive at last to save we holdout “Eartheans” from our endless cycles of self-destruction.

But that is exactly what El Cajon has been for nearly a half century, since Norman and Ruth Norman settled upon this place to headquarter their Unarius Academy of Science. While the Normans are long gone — from this crude mortal plane of existence, at least — their philosophy (or “UFO religion,” as some put it) lives on in a center that still ministers to and teaches an increasingly elderly community of devotees.

It also attracts a certain number of gawkers, as Unarius (Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science) has accidentally generated its own spin-off “cult” of worshippers at the altar of camp. In the 1980s, public access stations across the nation began airing the nonprofit organization’s self-produced films and videos portraying aspects of their mythology, notably the many past incarnations of Uriel née Ruth Norman — female, male, and otherwise. (These include myriad famed emperors, prophets, geniuses, and the Statue of Liberty.) Enacted by Unarius “students” in elaborate costumes with fanciful sets and FX, these are among the most flabbergastingly wonderful “home movies” ever made — crazy narratives with the aging Ruth decked out in enough wigs, chiffon, costume jewelry, and miscellaneous spangles to float an entire convention of drag queens. If you visit the El Cajon facility, expect its keepers to be polite but wary: They’re happy to spread the gospel, but know you’re probably there for the kitsch value.

Everybody can be happy with Bill Perrine’s Children of the Stars, the centerpiece of Other Cinema’s latest “Incredibly Strange Religion” program at Artists’ Television Access this Saturday. It has scads of footage from such Unarius superproductions as A Visit to the Underground City of Mars, which if you haven’t seen such before will make you want to immediately track down their complete original versions. But it also cannily limits itself almost exclusively to interviews only with the remaining faithful. They unfailingly seem very nice, ordinary, good-humored, and not prone to hyperbole (let alone insanity), even as they testify to the occasional outlandish doctrine or personal experience.

Born at the turn of the last century, Ruth Nields was a restless, lively soul who went through a number of professions (and several husbands) before 1954, when she met electrical engineer Ernest Norman, whose past lives apparently included that of Jesus Christ. He passed away in 1971, at which point the church these “two great beings of celestial consciousness” had established started heading in (even) more fanciful directions, to the dismay of some earlier converts but the delight of many new ones. Ruth assumed the primary identity of Uriel, “Queen of Archangels,” a fourth dimension channeler who’d already materialized on as Yuda of Yu, Poseid of Atlantis, Peter the Great, Quetzalcoatl, Zoroaster, King Arthur, and JFK.

Several such lives, and prophesies of imminent extraterrestrial arrivals, were elaborately portrayed in such sci-fi spectaculars as The Arrival and Roots of the Earthmen. There were also historical epics, including one in which Norman — as a Scarlett O’Hara-like belle of the Old South — cavorts on a plantation, surrounded by what appear to be many enthusiastic young white gay men in blackface drag gushing about how beautiful and kind she is. These extravaganzas endeared Unarius to a larger audience via cable airings, though eventually shrinking inspiration or funding curtailed their production.

Unarius hardly lacked drama in its daily operations. A student turned “sub-channeler” named Louis Spiegel was cast as official “fallen angel,” a Lucifer whose bitchy ways and power plays irked many until Uriel pronounced him “totally healed” in 1984, at which point he abruptly turned into “the sweetest man.” Others jostled for the Queen’s favor, recalling their envy and arrogance now as lingering repercussions of past lives in which some presided over Uriel’s beheading in ancient Egypt or led Jews to Nazi gas chambers. Everyone was woven into the ever-evolving narrative, which sometimes closely resembled popular fantasy series like Star Trek or Star Wars. (Perrine cleverly uses old sci-fi clips to illustrate Unarius concepts.)

Ruth Norman died in 1993. The last announced date for the “Space Brothers” to visit, 2001, came and went because clearly Eartheans weren’t ready in the wake of 9/11. But Unarius survives, despite its mythology of negative energy phenomena over millennia remaining a small beacon of utopian benevolence in a world of gloating religious apocalypticists. El Cajon may turn out to be the very portal to paradise yet. *


Sat/14, 8:30pm, $6.66

Artists’ Television Access

La ho-hum vita


FILM Paolo Sorrentino has only been directing features for 12 years, so perhaps it’s premature to expect a masterpiece from him — although he probably doesn’t think so. Amid generally tepid post-millennium Italian cinema, he’s been consistently ambitious and bold, from 2001’s One Man Up onward. That facility has won a lot of acclaim (most notably for 2008’s Il Divo), but also attracted a certain amount of skepticism: Is he more style than substance? What does he have to say?

The Great Beauty, aka La Grande Bellezza, arrives as a high-profile contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, already anointed a masterpiece in some quarters, and duly announcing itself as such in nearly every grandiose, aesthetically engorged moment. Yes, it seems to say, you are in the presence of this auteur’s masterpiece. But it’s somebody else’s, too. The problem isn’t just that Fellini got there first, but that there’s room for doubt whether Sorrentino’s homage actually builds on or simply imitates its model.

La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963) are themselves swaying, jerry-built monuments, exhilaratingly messy and debatably profound rather than “perfect” works of art. But nothing quite like them had been seen before, and they did define a time of cultural upheaval — when traditional ways of life were being plowed under by a loud, moneyed, heedless modernity that for a while chose Rome as its global capital. The mood there was giddy and alienating, magnetizing celebrities (especially as the Italian film industry found itself hosting myriad international productions), virtually creating “paparazzi” — a term introduced in 1960 by Fellini to describe the ambushing photographers buzzing like flies around movie stars and pop idols.

The films were so striking and influential that even (or most of all) Fellini himself couldn’t escape them. For the most part his later works were increasingly pale imitations, risking self-parody even as other artists waxed “Fellini-esque” on their own terms.

Sorrentino announces his intention to out-Fellini Fellini in an opening sequence so strenuously flamboyant it’s like a never-ending pirouette performed by a prima dancer with a hernia. There’s statuary, a women’s choral ensemble, an on-screen audience applauding the director’s baffled muse Toni Servillo, standing in for Marcello Mastroianni — all this and more in manic tracking shots and frantic intercutting, as if sheer speed alone could supply contemporary relevancy. Eventually The Great Beauty calms down a bit, but still its reason for being remains vague behind the heavy curtain of “style.”

Servillo’s dapper Jep Gambardella is turning 65, a never-married playboy who once wrote a well-regarded novel, then ever since has done nothing but interview other famous people and stay at the center of the Eternal City’s uppermost social whirl. Somehow he’s remained rich and famous himself, bearing the bored-with-it-all air that precludes discussion of what (if anything) he ever did to become either. He’s still invited everywhere, still occasionally beds the requisite younger women attracted by power. But it’s all getting old — not that Jep seems like someone to whom it was ever new, or who’d be able to find fulfillment elsewhere now that he’s drunk his fill of privileged excess.

As if to externalize the emptiness he feels, Beauty‘s Rome is all exquisitely framed but (aside from several lavish-party set pieces) underpopulated elegant rooms and grand exteriors. Has he simply forgotten the city’s teeming everyday life, or has Sorrentino? The supporting cast of available (albeit troubled) women, backbiting colleagues, and miscellaneous grotesques are right out of the Fellini handbook of “fabulous” faces. Yet when Jep (let alone the director) was coming of age, the “dolce vita” had already ended, degenerating into the political chaos of the 1970s, the tacky coke binges of the ’80s, then the crass, tawdry conspicuous consumption of Berlusconi and company — a decadence no longer divine but merely depressing. So why does this hangdog-faced protagonist’s world seem so little changed from the ones Mastroianni inhabited half a century ago?

Even the “shocking” novelties Jep is unimpressed by feel old-hat: a child artist whose violent tantrums create Pollock-like action paintings; a Marina Abramovic-type performance artist who solemnly bangs her head against a pillar for suitably worshipful patrons. We grok his superiority to such nonsense, but just what does he have to offer that’s any better? In a notably cruel sequence, Jep demolishes the pride of a prolific, idealistic female writer, calling her a fraud in both private life (she’s married to a closeted homosexual) and artistic endeavors (she’s acclaimed only by fellow Communist Party sympathizers). His smug satisfaction in doing so seems to be shared by the film itself. Yet when the film finally gets around to offering up what Jep can grasp as a core redemptive truth, it’s ye olden mother/whore equation: a sequence cutting between a 104-year-old Mother Teresa-like “modern saint” crawling up a staircase to a Madonna painting, and a flashback to the moment when his first love exposed her boobs to Young Jep. Seriously, 142 minutes of pretentious bravado leads to that?

Servillo is a chameleon, far more than Mastroianni was, but the latter had a soulfulness both contemporary actor and film sorely lack. (Admittedly, some of the latter’s layers may be inaccessible for foreign viewers, just as the equally over-amped but more focused Il Divo required familiarity with the never-ending scandalousness of Italy’s political circus to be fully grasped.) As for Sorrentino, he’s such a natural filmmaker on the surface that at times even the most skeptical will be seduced into The Great Beauty‘s sweeping gestures. But for all their panache, it’s reasonable to worry the movie’s “statement” may be no more than (to quote Jep’s favorite all-purpose dismissal) “Blah, blah, blah.” *


THE GREAT BEAUTY opens Fri/29 in Bay Area theaters.

Life’s work


FILM Beware Canadians — they may walk softly, but they carry a big hockey stick. The country next door has always had a bigger influence on American life than generally thought, especially at the movies. Mary Pickford, the medium’s first superstar, was Canadian; so, a century later, are Ryans Gosling and Reynolds, Jim Carrey, Ellen Page, Rachel McAdams, and Seth Rogen. Canadians have directed a lot of seemingly very American films, from 1982’s Porky’s to this year’s Prisoners.

Now there’s Dallas Buyers Club, the first all-US feature (though not the first English-language one) from Jean-Marc Vallée. He first made a splash in 2005 with C.R.A.Z.Y., which seemed an archetype of the flashy, coming-of-age themed debut feature — even if, in fact, it took him 42 years and three prior features to get there.

Like fellow Quebecker Denis Villeneuve (of Prisoners and 2010’s Incendies), Vallée has evolved beyond flashiness, or maybe since C.R.A.Z.Y. he just hasn’t had a subject that seemed to call for it. Which is not to say Dallas is entirely sober — its characters partake from the gamut of altering substances, over-the-counter and otherwise. But this is a movie about AIDS, so the purely recreational good times must eventually crash to an end.

Which they do pretty quickly. We first meet Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) in 1986, when he’s living one kind of red-blooded American Dream: a Texas good ol’ boy working the rodeo circuit, chasing skirts, partying nonstop. Not feeling quite right, he visits a doctor, who informs him that he is HIV-positive and probably has no more than 30 days left on this mortal plane. His response is “I ain’t no faggot, motherfucker” — and increased partying that he barely survives.

Afterward, he pulls himself together enough to visit somewhere you suspect he’s seldom been before — the public library — and research his options. It appears the only significant treatment drug is AZT, which isn’t even on the market yet; it’s just being tested on patient groups he’d be lucky to be a part of. Being a born hustler disinterested in such formal roadblocks, Ron simply bribes a hospital attendant into raiding its trial supply for him. But Ron discovers the hard way what many first-generation AIDS patients did — that AZT is itself toxic, and in the high doses originally administered could cause much more harm than good to embattled immune systems.

He ends up in a Mexican clinic run by a disgraced American physician (Griffin Dunne) who doesn’t have to bother with the more stringent drug regulations up north, and in any case recommends a regime consisting mostly of vitamins and herbal treatments. Reasonably hale again after three months, Woodroof realizes a commercial opportunity here: He can smuggle such variably legal supplies in bulk to those who’ll pay any price for some hope back home in Texas. Yes, they’re mostly fay-guts. But a buck is a buck.

Finding he’s viewed with high suspicion peddling his wares to a plague-embattled gay community, he acquires as liaison and business partner Rayon (Jared Leto), a willowy cross-dresser in the Candy Darling mode who won’t tolerate his homophobia, but requires considerable tolerance for his/her non medicinal drug usage. When the authorities keep cracking down on their trade, savvy Ron takes a cue from gay activists in Manhattan and creates a law-evading “buyers club,” in which members pay monthly dues rather than paying directly for pharmaceutical goods.

It’s a tale that the scenarists (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) and director steep in deep Texan atmospherics (even if they had to shoot in Louisiana, presumably for tax-break purposes), like 2011’s memorable McConaughey-featuring true story Bernie. Largely through his friendship of necessity with Rayon (and his own shunning by old friends who gay-bait the second his health news gets out), the actor’s character here develops a certain broader-minded tolerance — a softening of prejudice that is the film’s major emotional arc. (There’s also a developing quasi-romance with Jennifer Garner as a sympathetic doc, but that feels somewhat gratuitous, partly because Garner is the kind of not-bad actress who nevertheless seldom brings authenticity to the table.) Much has been made of the extreme weight loss McConaughey and Leto undertook to play their roles. In Leto’s case, the transformation is impressive all around; in the McConaughey’s, he isn’t doing anything he hasn’t done variations on before, though it’s admirable how he refuses to make this protagonist any more charming than needed to get business done. We’re meant to buy that Woodroof eventually redeems himself in heart as well as deeds. But the line that rings truest is when he snaps “We’re not running a goddamn charity!” in turning down desperate HIV-positive men short on their subscription fees. Only self-preservation forces him out of his manly-man’s world of unsafe sex with shady ladies, among other high-risk behaviors. The therapies that save his own skin are shared with others (at least at first) only for the sake of the bottom line.

But then, plenty of innovators and benefactors of mankind have been cutthroat profiteers — look at Edison, for instance. While it takes itself seriously when and where it ought, Dallas Buyers Club is a movie by a Canadian whose frequent, entertaining jauntiness is based in that most American value of get-rich-quick entrepreneurship. *


DALLAS BUYERS CLUB opens Fri/8 in San Francisco.

Exile on Main St. USA


FILM Escape From Tomorrow acquired cachet at Sundance this year as a movie you ought to see because it probably wouldn’t surface again — not because it was that bad, but because any regular release seemed sure to be legally blocked. The reason was its setting, which composites two of the most photographed (and “happiest”) places on Earth. They’re also among the most heavily guarded from any commercial usage not of their own choosing.

That would be Disney World and Disneyland, where Escape was surreptitiously shot — ingeniously so, since you would hardly expect any movie filmed on the sly like this to be so highly polished, or for its actors to get so little apparent attention from the unwitting background players around them. (Let alone from security personnel, since as anyone who’s ever tried to do anything “against the rules” at a Disney park can tell you, those folks are as omnipresently watchful as Big Brother.)

Disney does not have a history of taking perceived affronts to its brand lightly. One movie that never did never make it past its festival bow was 2002’s The Sweatbox, an excellent behind-the-scenes look at the animated feature that eventually emerged as 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove. That was a fun movie, but completely different from the far more ambitious narrative its first round of creators envisioned, only to have years of work curtly dismissed with a “start over from scratch” memo from top executives mid process. Though green-lit by the studio itself, its directors given full warts-and-all access, The Sweatbox turned out so heartbreakingly revealing (and so unflattering toward the aforementioned execs) that the studio shelved the finished product after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere. It hasn’t been seen since … at least not legally.

So there seemed little hope for Escape, which is anything but “authorized.” You don’t have to be a Disney lawyer to imagine how it could be seen as copyright infringement, a slander of sorts, or outright theft. That nobody has pulled the fire alarm, however, suggests Disney realized this movie isn’t going to do it any real harm. And perhaps more importantly, that a lawsuit would provide a publicity gold mine for the naughty filmmakers while hardly keeping viewers away in the long run. (Todd Haynes’ infamous, Barbie-enacted 1988 biopic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story has been “banned” since 1990, thanks to unamused sibling Richard Carpenter. Surely by now he’s aware his actions helped make it perhaps the most widely seen “unseeable” movie in history; as of this writing, there are 10 copies on YouTube alone.)

Anyway, Escape From Tomorrow is here, in improved form even. Nearly 15 minutes cut since Sundance have made all the difference between a clever, albeit slightly overstuffed, stunt and something uncategorizable yet fully realized. While its illicit setting remains near-indispensable (another big family theme park probably would have worked, too), what writer-director Randy Moore has pulled off goes beyond great gimmickry. His movie’s commingled satire, nightmare Americana, cartooniness, pathos, and surrealism recalls a few cult-fabled others — Eraserhead (1977), Parents (1989), even Superstar — mostly alike only in going so far out on their very own twisted limb.

We’re introduced to average, 40-ish Jim (Roy Abramsohn) the morning of the last day of his family vacation. He’s on their hotel room balcony, taking a phone call from his boss — who cheerfully fires him sans explanation. As Jim sputters in disbelief, approximately seven-year-old son Elliot (Jack Dalton) mischievously — or malevolently — locks the sliding door from the inside, then crawls back into bed beside still-sleeping mommy Emily (Elena Schuber), leaving dad stuck outside in his skivvies. Thus the film’s two major paths for interpretation are introduced right away: What follows might either be hallucinated by shell-shocked Jim, or really be a grand, bizarre conspiracy (usurping son included).

This final day is to be spent doing, well, what you do with kids at places like this. Elliot wants to go on certain rides; little sister Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) often wants to do different things. Their parents, when separated by conflicting child demands, stay in touch via cellphone — or don’t, to Emily’s exasperation. Jim has a tendency to get distracted by … things, like whimsical park characters that suddenly grow menacing fangs (thanks to the wonders of digital post-production) only he notices, or the two barely-legal French girls frolicking in short shorts (Danielle Safady, Annet Mahendru) who seem to be deliberately exciting his lascivious interest at every turn.

Then there are the disquieting rumors of a “cat flu” epidemic; the wife’s rebuffing all physical affection; a very weird interlude with a fellow park guest (Alison Lee-Taylor) whom Jim abruptly finds atop his bound, naked self, barking “Fuck me! Feel my vagina!;” and assorted other occurrences either imaginary, or apocalyptic, or both. Emily’s irritated accusation “Did you black out again?” is as intriguing and baffling as the full-blown sci fi-horror plot Jim finds himself the center of — or at least thinks he does.

Lucas Lee Graham’s crisp B&W photography finds the natural noir-slash-Carnival of Souls (1962) grotesquerie lurking in the shadows of parkland imagery. Abel Korzeniowski’s amazing score apes and parodies vintage orchestral Muzak, cloying kiddie themes, and briefly even John Williams at his most Spielbergian. All the actors do fine work, slipping fluidly if not always explicably from grounded real-world behavior to strangeness — clearly they were given the explanatory motivational road map that the audience is denied. But then the real achievement of Escape From Tomorrow, more than its sheer novelty of concept and aesthetic, is that while this paranoid fantasy really makes no immediate sense, Moore’s cockeyed vision is so assured that we assume it must, on some level. He’s created a movie some people will hate but others will watch over and over again, trying to connect its almost subliminal dots. *


ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW opens Fri/11 at the Roxie.

The great divide


FILM Whatever the wisdom of Obama’s strategy for Syria, public response has made it clear that most Americans no longer want the US to meddle in foreign affairs — at least not if it costs money and might embroil our troops in another endless, winless imbroglio. This is a little flummoxing, since not so long ago we gave another president a free pass to invade countries for far more dubious reasons, and are still paying the price for those rubber stamps in many, many ways a decade later.

So why the turnabout? It’s pretty simple. Not only is 9/11 an increasingly distant memory rather than a recent open wound inviting retaliatory action (no matter how reckless or misguided), but the economic downturn has shifted Americans’ attitude toward (an even bigger than usual case of) “The hell with other people’s problems, what about me?” For good or ill, there is no injustice we feel more keenly, or care about more deeply, than that we suffer ourselves.

Yet the explanations proffered as to what happened to make us so enraged (and broke) are utterly contradictory. We’re still the richest country on Earth — richer than ever, in fact — so why do so few citizens feel that fact even remotely relates to their everyday reality?

Jacob Kornbluth’s Inequality for All is the latest and certainly not the last documentary to explore why the American Dream is increasingly out of touch with everyday reality, and how the definition of “middle class” somehow morphed from “comfortable” to “struggling, endangered, and hanging by a thread.” This lively overview has an ace up its sleeve in the form of the director’s friend, collaborator, and principal interviewee Robert Reich — the former Clinton-era secretary of labor, prolific author, political pundit, and UC Berkeley professor of Public Policy. Whether he’s holding forth on TV, going one-on-one with Kornbluth’s camera, talking to disgruntled working class laborers, or engaging students in his Wealth and Poverty class, Inequality is basically a resourcefully illustrated Reich lecture — as the press notes put it, “an Inconvenient Truth for the economy.”

Fortunately, the diminutive Reich is a natural comedian (he’s spent a life honing self-deprecatory height jokes) as well as a superbly cogent communicator, turning yet another summary of how the system has fucked almost everybody (excluding the one percent) into the one you might most want to recommend to the bewildered folks back home. He’s sugar on the pill, making it easier to swallow so much horrible news.

Reich takes us through the gamut of horrible figures: how the US now has the most unequal distribution of wealth among all developed nations (by far); how as adjusted for inflation the average male makes less than he did in 1978 while the average “person at the top” makes two-and-a-half times more (over $1 million annually as opposed to just under $400,000); how general productivity, profits, and costs of living have continued to rise since then, while 99-percenter wages flatlined; how eerily the stats on 1928 and 2007 mirror each other, in terms of peak wealth concentration and unregulated financial-sector speculation. (We all know what happened in 1929 and 2008: ka-boom, or rather, ka-bust.)

Contradicting the “trickle-down theory,” Reich stresses that the very, very wealthy can’t spend enough to uphold their share of a US whose well-being is now 70 percent dependent on consumer purchases — it behooves everyone for that money to be spread around more evenly, because “What makes an economy stable is a strong middle class.” (He also makes the point that contrary to even common liberal wisdom, globalization hasn’t significantly reduced the number of American jobs — only the amount that they pay.)

There are man-and-woman-on-the-street interviews — not just with those on the losing end of this equation, but with one company-owning Richie Rich who freely admits current tax rates, loopholes, and so on mean people like him pull far less than their fair weight society, job creators or no. (On the other hand there’s Mitt Romney, who shifts the silver spoon to the side of his mouth long enough to decry the “envy” and “class warfare” behind all income-inequality debate.)

We also hear from the usual chorus of reactionary hysterics, like the Fox yobbo who swears Reich surely must “secretly worship Karl Marx” to hold the opinions he does. Doesn’t he realize that all government is bad, and all things free market inherently good? Never mind that the “Great Prosperity” — America’s economic golden age from 1947 to 1977 — was precisely the time that unions were strongest, the middle-class flourished, the rich were taxed up the wazoo (and seldom complained about it, at least publicly), and the government kept close watch on Wall Street and corporate hijinks. That so many have come to accept an economic logic blatantly opposing everything that made that period prosperous for almost everyone testifies to decades of brilliant conservative propaganda.

Now we live in an era where duly employed (even doubly employed) people see their homes foreclosed upon, and higher education is a crippling financial burden many can afford only at the price of possibly lifelong debt. Yet we’re told that minimum wage laws are for crybabies and upward mobility remains a matter of, y’know, really wanting it.

Having seen all this coming a long way off (he admits by the end of his post under old college buddy Clinton, “I became a true pain in the ass” to anyone who’d listen), Reich prefers not to say “I told you so” but “Here’s what you can do” — despite Citizens United and other developments that have drastically reduced citizens’ influence on public policy. Depressing as much of what he says is, he’s such a mensch that hearing him say it here is still pretty enjoyable. *


INEQUALITY FOR ALL opens Fri/27 in San Francisco.

Highway to hell


FILM On Oct. 24, 2002, a man and a teenager were arrested upon being found sleeping in their car at a Maryland rest stop. That ended the three-week reign of terror known as the Beltway sniper attacks, in which 13 people were shot (10 fatally) in a wide area surrounding Washington, DC. When facts started coming to light, what seemed most striking about these attacks were their utter randomness — the perps had pre-selected locations but not victims, the latter being just passers-by ranging from age 13 to 72 — as well as the curious relationship between the two shooters.

Forty-one-year-old John Allen Muhammad had met 17-year-old Jamaican Lee Boyd Malvo three years earlier when on a vacation with his three children in Antigua. (He’d actually kidnapped them for this purpose.) Malvo, who was more or less parentless, was sorely in need of guidance and a guardian. Taken back to the US by his new protector, the boy got a perverse dose of both, and was too grateful, gullible, or intimidated to question it.

A former US Army mechanic and driver, Muhammad lived an itinerant lifestyle with his new “son,” moving them from one end of the country to another with very little stability. Meanwhile Malvo was encouraged to steal — shoplifting the Bushmaster XM-15 with which they later committed the Beltway attacks — schooled in expert marksmanship, and inculcated in his “dad’s” bizarre antisocial, paranoid, punitive ideas about “waking people up” to the “evil” in the world. Phase One of the plan was purportedly to kill six white people a day for one month; the final goal was either (according to defense attorneys) to regain possession of Muhammad’s biological children, or (according to Malvo) to extort millions from the government to create a boot camp for other boys, who’d be trained to help trigger some murky downfall of our corrupt society.

Alexandre Moors’ first feature Blue Caprice offers an unsettling if ambiguous take on a case that still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Here, Lee (Tequan Richmond) has been abandoned by his negligent mother when he spies tourist John (Isaiah Washington of Grey’s Anatomy) frolicking with his younger kids; hungry and otherwise needy, he follows them around, eventually making a desperate bid for the older man’s attention.

Taken to the US, Lee accepts whatever strange wisdom his minder has to offer — that the latter’s ex-wife is “a fucking vampire;” that he himself needs brutal “training” that includes his being left tied to a tree deep in a forest; and that if he really loves his “dad,” he needs to complete various tasks as ordered, including shooting a particular woman point-blank in front of her home — even if later it turns out she “might have been the wrong woman.”

All this seems some sort of paramilitaristic preparation. But it’s also an outlet for John’s bottomless, often scarifying anger, and his need to create someone as emotionally disconnected from other humans as himself. For a while they stay with a former Army buddy and fellow weapons enthusiast (Tim Blake Nelson) who’s too much of a good ol’ boy to sense anything wrong about the visitors. But Ray’s wife (Joey Lauren Adams) does, and there’s tension in the way her suspicion might make her the latest woman John regards as an enemy.

The shootings themselves are dealt with very discreetly in Blue Caprice, though it’s chilling enough just watching the two leads arbitrarily pick targets. Moors and scenarist Ronnie Porto aim to conjure an atmosphere of isolation and indoctrination where we’re nearly as blindsided as Lee; the nondescript American settings they temporarily inhabit become hostile environs he and John infiltrate like spies for reasons that understandably wouldn’t make a lick of sense to anyone else. “They don’t realize the house of cards they live in. All it would take it one little push,” Muhammad says ominously, seeing himself as one-man destroying angel of some Great Lie. His delusions are as incoherent to us as they remain in real life.

While its deliberate omissions and psychological gaps are somewhat frustrating, Blue Caprice does cast a spell — aided considerably by Brian O’Carroll’s artful photography (no shaky-cam here) and a fine, unpredictable original score by Sarah Neufeld and Colin Stetson. The real Muhammad tried claiming that no proof could be found that he actually committed any of the shootings. That notion was tossed aside in court, and he died by lethal injection — calling himself an “innocent black man” to the end — in September 2009. Malvo was sentenced to life without parole. He revealed little in his Virginia trial, but by the time of his subsequent prosecution in Maryland, he no longer felt the need to protect Muhammad, and denied he’d been the sole triggerman. Just last year he came forward to say that Muhammad had sexually abused him.

Since the trials, the two have been linked to as many as 12 unsolved additional killings. What’s perhaps most disturbing about their case is that, strange as it is, in today’s US such conspiratorial murder of strangers doesn’t really seem that strange at all. Think of it this way: in 1976, the plot of Taxi Driver seemed improbable. But we now live in a world of well-armed Travis Bickles, prepping themselves to avenge some grave personal injustice they think everybody else must pay for. *


BLUE CAPRICE opens Fri/20 at the Roxie.



FILM It still boggles the mind that perhaps the most important single figure in the socio-religiously conservative Italy’s artistic media of the 1960s through the mid-’70s — an extraordinarily fertile period, particularly for cinema — was an openly queer Marxist atheist and relentless church critic. Pier Paolo Pasolini stirred innumerable controversies during his life, ending prematurely in his alleged 1975 murder by a teenage hustler. (Conspiracy theories still swirl around its actually being a political or organized-crime assassination.)

He was an acclaimed poet, novelist, screenwriter, director, playwright, painter, political commentator, and public intellectual. In several of those roles he was pilloried — and prosecuted — for obscenity. What seemed pornographic to some at the time now, for the most part, looks simply like heightened, gritty social realism, and frank acknowledgement that sexuality (and morality) comes in all shades. Yet one must admit: Arguably no filmmaker outside the realm of actual porn put so much dick (often uncut, and occasionally erect) right there onscreen.

Pasolini’s film work has a lingering rep as being somewhat rough sledding, in both themes and technique. Certainly he was no extravagant cinematic stylist on the level of Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini, and Bertolucci (though he contributed as a writer to films by the latter two), the other leading Italian auteurs of the time. But it’s surprising how pleasurable on many levels his features look today, as showcased in a traveling retrospective getting its Bay Area exposure at the Castro Theatre, Roxie Theater, and Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive through Oct. 31.

The two San Francisco dates highlight the three periods of Pasolini’s cinema; the PFA’s more extensive survey (ending with 1975’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom for Halloween, the kind of programmatic coup de grace that leaves you suspended between “genius!” and “WTF?”) running weeks longer. While there are overlaps, the latter provides berth for his neorealist classic feature debut Accatone (1961), shorts, and several documentaries including 1964’s seldom-revived Love Meetings, in which PPP himself interviews Italians about their sexual attitudes — from asking not-so-young kids how babies are born (“the stork brings them”) to grilling adults about gender double-standards regarding marital virginity. Then there’s 1969’s bizarre Pigsty, which put leading 1960s Euro-art-cine weirdos Pierre Clémenti and Jean-Pierre Léaud in separate threads of a two-pronged experimental narrative. It was weird enough to forgo US release until 1974.

There are also such baffling, shit-stirring features as Hawks and Sparrows (1966), an existential comedy suspended between Beckett and A Hard Day’s Night (1964); plus 1968 shocker Teorema, in which Terence Stamp’s mysterious bisexual visitor liberates and destroys a repressed bourgeoisie Italian family.

This weekend’s Castro-Roxie showcases the extent to which Pasolini was a cinematic populist — however inadvertently for such a radical thinker. His “trilogy of life” brought to the screen bawdy medieval stories by Boccaccio (1971’s The Decameron), Chaucer (1972’s Canterbury Tales) and unknown legend scribers (1974’s Arabian Nights.) All were originally rated X. The first is a bawdy delight; the last is a gorgeously melancholic, serpentine lineup of seriocomic stories-within-stories. Canterbury is a mixed bag, as Pasolini had problems structuring it editorially and was despondent over longtime protégé and lover Ninetto Davoli — who was 15 when they first met — leaving him for a woman. Nonetheless, he gave Davoli a big part in the wonderful Nights, albeit one in which his hapless character is finally castrated by angry women. (Touché.)

With their unprecedented amounts of full nudity, offering up sexuality (and normal, imperfect bodies) as something simply natural rather than prurient, each portion of this “phallocentric” trio was instantly notorious. The films became his greatest commercial successes — though curiously he later abjured them, partly out of guilt that so many actors’ “innocent bodies [had] been violated, manipulated, and enslaved by consumerist power.” Who but Pasolini would be depressed by having hits?

That shift from comparative joie de vivre back to bleak commentary on social injustice resulted in unintended swansong Salò, a grueling depiction of classist sadism that usefully transfers the Marquis de Sade’s infamous Bastille-written 1785 120 Days of Sodom to the bitter end of Italy’s World War II-losing fascist era. While in the literary original aristocratic children were kidnapped to be abused by decadent church and secular power mongers, here it’s pointedly spawn of the anti-fascist peasant underclass (all actors assuredly 18-or-plus to avoid prosecution).

The characters forced into ever-escalating sexual and violent degradations to survive, no mercy is spared. Salò remains banned in several countries, notably Asian and Middle Eastern ones. Its largely naked, helpless “young victim” cast (who apparently thoroughly enjoyed the filming, having no idea just how fucked up the material was) proved Pasolini’s last instance of drafting nonprofessionals who struck his eye. As a showcase for such raw talent, it was second only to a film he’d made a decade earlier: 1964’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a gritty, black-and-white riposte to the garish CinemaScope Biblical epics of the era. Ironically, that film by a Commie atheist fag remains one of the cinematic depictions of Christ most highly regarded by believers.

Nearly all these movies featured his favorite discoveries Davoli and Franco Citti, the former an endearing comic goofball, the latter a smoldering hunk usually cast as amoral evildoer. Both enjoyed long careers after their mentor died. Their very different types of screen charisma remain high among the delights that Pasolini’s cinema offers today. Davoli will be on hand at the Castro and Roxie screenings. Given his guileless, antic persona in the films, it’s a fair bet he’ll be a riot in person. *


Sat/14, $12

Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF

Sun/15, $12

Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF

Sept. 20-Oct. 31, $5.50-$9.50

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.


Blah lust


FILM Despite its intensely collaborative, top-heavy, organizationally complex nature, commercial filmmaking can still be primarily instinctual rather than thoughtful, let alone intellectual. This is not necessarily a good thing. We’re accustomed to displays of corporate group-thinking or sheer willful, proud stupidity (hiya, Michael Bay!) in mainstream movies today. But those are exercises of market conformism, whether the makers recognize them as such or not. What about populist filmmakers who go their own way yet grow increasingly dumb and dumber? Should we applaud their auteurist individuality even as all artfulness, taste, and entertainment value rushes toward the drain?

Of course we’re talking about Brian De Palma, who at age 73 should deserve more respect — if he hadn’t spent decades scuttling it so completely. His new movie is called Passion, and one doubts he thinks its lame third-generation lez-ploitation is any less of a passion project than he’s made in the past. That is so, so sad.

It’s important to remember that this guy once looked like a prince, as promising as Scorsese, through at least the mid-1970s: clever shorts, avant garde flirtations, exceptionally edgy, and inventive indie comedies (1968’s Greetings and 1970’s Hi, Mom!), guaranteed future cult classics (1974 rock musical Phantom of the Paradise), and tentative major-studio efforts that misfired yet were stylistically compelling (1972 absurdist Get to Know Your Rabbit, 1976 mystery thriller Obsession). Sisters (1973) — his first explicit Hitchcock homage — was a black-comedy horror knockout undervalued at the time because it was distributed by a minor studio (American International) that didn’t know how to sell it up-market.

Then came Carrie (1976), a brilliantly cast, shot, and scored improvement on Stephen King’s wobbly debut novel. It’s a succubus movie: no matter how many times you’ve seen it, you can’t watch the opening scenes without getting sucked into the whole thing. Its misanthropy could be excused as cunning satire, undercut by the empathy Sissy Spacek’s titular figure evoked. (De Palma never gave a leading female actor such sympathetic free rein before or since.) A commercial success nonetheless considered disappointing due to cheesy publicity better suited to a drive-in horror flick, Carrie boosted De Palma to the A list … where he wanked.

The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984), and Raising Cain (1992) reprised elements of Carrie and Hitchcock to guiltily-pleasurable but increasingly inane, sexist, baldly derivative ends. He was still capable of pulling off the odd big, splashy action picture — notably 1983’s Scarface and 1987’s The Untouchables, with Carlito’s Way (1993) and Mission: Impossible (1996) enjoyable if distant second-placers — while 1989’s Casualties of War was a decent stab at serious-issue cinema, dealing with Vietnam War atrocities.

But, argh: Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) turned Tom Wolfe’s easily-sussed satirical novel into a full-on embarrassment of overt Hollywood stupidity toward anything faintly literary or complex. After the brief, barely redeeming pause for OK style-over-substance exercise Snake Eyes (1998), De Palma delivered the monumentally dull Mission to Mars (2000), shuddersome old-man-salivating Femme Fatale (2002), starry-dreadful noir mystery The Black Dahlia (2006), and 2007’s Redacted — a fictionalized “found footage” reenactment of actual American war crimes that was one of the most inept and offensive movies ever made by a once-important US director. While similarly themed Casualties communicated just-enough horror at its similarly fact derived misdeeds, here De Palma appeared to take far too much pleasure in the loutishness of our soldiers abroad — not to mention their graphically depicted rape-murder of a teenage Iraqi girl.

I’ve left little space left to discuss Passion because it is so depressingly unworthy of discussion. Even at this late, dire point, the notion of DePalma directing a remake of Alain Corneau’s 2010 hit Love Crime suggested camp guilty pleasure at the very least. The original film was a clever if implausible psychological thriller in which a corporate boss (Kristin Scott Thomas) and junior-executive protegee (Ludivine Sagnier) come to fatal comeuppance blows over a particularly cruel abuse of power in the name of love (or heterosexual lust). It was a stereotypical girlfight par excellance, dressed up via reasonably smart treatment.

You’d expect De Palma to ramp up the lurid and tawdry-violent aspects to delightfully tasteless degrees. (Remember, this is the director whose refined sensibility once showcased a killer’s floor-perforating electrical drill thrusting phallically into Janet-Leigh-in-Psycho substitute Deborah Shelton in Body Double.)

But perhaps what’s most depressing about Passion is that the life has gone out even from his love of violence and sexploitation. It’s a tepid movie, and not even a stylish one. In contrast to Scott Thomas’ formidible strength through-negativity (amplified in the recent Only God Forgives), Rachel McAdams’ villain is just another yuppie princess with a snit fit in store. Sagnier might well be the Gallic answer to Chloe Sevigny, yet her waxy inexpressiveness is still better than another horribly awkward English language performance (see: last year’s Prometheus) by Swedish star Noomi Rapace.

Hilariously, De Palma has opined that Passion lacks his trademark excesses because he targeted it primarily toward female viewers who (market research says) dislike graphic sex or violence. As if most women would enjoy his use of primary female characters as bimbos, prostitutes, bitches, rape victims, backstabbers, and climbers … if toned down a bit.

Passion (which notably took a full year to secure any US release after a festival debut) commits a sin he’s seldom attained previously: it is just dull. It promises titillation. Yet real people and real sex are so plastic and cartooned here they seem the last call of an old-school playboy horndog who can’t get it up anymore. *


Wed/4-Fri/5, 2:45 and 7pm, $8.50-$11

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

Scenes from a marriage


FILM At least since Grey Gardens in 1975 provided a peek at mother-and daughter eccentrics living in squalor — distinguished from your average crazy cat ladies by being closely related to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — there’s been a documentary subgenre devoted to, well, weirdos. Errol Morris and Werner Herzog have devoted a sizable chunk of their output to them, those people who might make you nervous or annoyed if they lived next door but are fascinating to gawk at for 90 minutes or so. Like Cate Blanchett’s fictional wack job in Blue Jasmine, their dysfunctionality is entertaining at a safe distance.

The protagonists in Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer aren’t nuts, but they’ve been together over four decades without their problems really changing or getting any better. Ushio “Gyu-Chan” Shinohara was a somewhat notorious artist in Japan’s fertile avant-garde scene of the 1960s — we see footage of him sporting a Mohawk early in that decade, non-conformity already in full flower. His “neo-Dadaist” work already consisted largely of grotesque pop-art sculptures made out of found junk and large-scale canvases that, in a variation on Pollock’s action painting, he executed by battering paint onto them with boxing gloves. (When he finishes one, he raises his aims in triumph, like Rocky Balboa.)

In 1969 this wild man decided he needed a bigger stage, so he moved to New York. An early 1970s TV documentary excerpted here calls him perhaps “the most famous of the poor and struggling artists in the city,” noting that while his often outsized work gets a lot of attention, people seldom actually want to buy it. This is a situation that, we soon learn, hasn’t altered much since.

Gyu-Chan was 41 when he met wife Noriko, a 19-year-old art student also from Japan. She was swept up in the “purity” of his art and lifestyle; within six months she was pregnant with their only child, Alex (also a talented visual artist). In hindsight, she flatly tells us “I should have married a guy who made a secure living and took responsibility for what he did.”

We first meet the duo on his 80th birthday. It’s hardly a conventionally comfortable old age — in a tone so weary it can hardly be classified as nagging, Noriko reminds him that they’re late with the rent on their fairly large yet cluttered Brooklyn apartment-studio, and the utilities are about to be cut off for lack of payment. You get the feeling all this is business-as usual, and that the cheerful, oblivious, still-energetic Ushio would’ve been out on the street years ago if not for her insistence that he actually make some money once in a while.

It’s a classic dysfunctional-yet-still maintaining marital dynamic: the easygoing, charming, eternal bad boy herded about as successfully as a cat on a leash by the long-suffering wife. He no longer drinks — having stopped on doctor’s orders just a few years ago — but he’s still a manboy making junk-art mock motorcycles and pounding large canvases … and not making much money. His reputation remains incongruously far greater than his means, even if we see a Guggenheim representative ponder making a purchase of one of his “historical” pieces.

Meanwhile Noriko, who one senses has long resented living under the shadow of this larger-than-life figure, feels she’s finally escaped his influence in her own work. (It doesn’t help that, when acknowledging that she’s his occasional, reluctant assistant, Gyu-Chan confides “The average one has to support the genius.”) She’s working on a series of narrative, cartoon-like drawings depicting the titular “Cutie” and “Bullie” — blatant stand-ins for herself and Ushio, chronicling her long saga of disillusionment as a classic “good girl” who married a bad boy, to the detriment of her own art and the child she had to raise with “drunk adults hanging around him all the time.” (It is one of the film’s frustrations that we never really get Alex’s perspective on this, though he’s clearly a wary veteran of his parents’ misbehaviors and judgments.)

If her husband is discomfited by this exposure of their private life — even when the “Cutie” series (which is turned into simple animation throughout the documentary) is exhibited in conjunction with his own latest gallery show — he doesn’t show it. But then, she does the fretting for both of them.

A quiet, almost meditative portrait of messy lives, Cutie and the Boxer doesn’t really answer the question of why these two remained together despite all (her) dissatisfaction. When he accepts an invitation to go to Japan — cramming a couple of small sculptures carelessly in his suitcase to sell while there — she says “suddenly the air clears” whenever he’s gone, and we see her lighten up considerably while showing a fellow Japanese expat friend her latest work. But you get the feeling Noriko, while hardly an emotional open book, loves her burdensome, unruly spouse more than she’d admit. Or at least she’s accepted the “struggle” of life with him as her own goading raison d’être. You know the saying: life is short, art is long. *


CUTIE AND THE BOXER opens Fri/23 in San Francisco.

Reel to real


FILM At a moment when gay people and gay rights have never been more prominent — from the escalating numbers of states and countries permitting gay marriage to the controversy over Olympics-hosting Russia’s murky new anti-gay legislation — it’s hard to imagine the climate in which Portrait of Jason premiered in late 1967. The “new permissiveness” was just beginning to impact American cinema; soon there would be a small vogue of mainstream films addressing homosexuality in one way or another. But they would mostly be condescending, tragic, hostile and/or grotesquely comedic — you could argue there wasn’t a truly sympathetic Hollywood feature about a non-stereotypical gay relationship until 1982’s Making Love. (Which flopped, despite all publicity, and encouraged no imitations.)

Today it’s a common complaint that them perverts are too damn omnipresent in the news, on TV, everywhere — their heightened public profile somehow violating the “rights” of others to ignore or hate on them. But nearly half a century ago, Shirley Clarke’s documentary “portrait” of one rather flaming real-life personality — not just gay, but African American, too — seemed unprecedentedly exotic. No less than then-Supreme God of All Cinema (and supremely heterosexual) Ingmar Bergman called it “the most extraordinary film I’ve ever seen in my life … absolutely fascinating.” He probably found mankind’s first moon landing two years later less startling.

The latest in Milestone Films’ “Project Shirley” series of restored Clarke re-releases, Portrait of Jason can’t be experienced that way now. Any surviving exoticism is now related to the subject’s defining a certain pre-Stonewall camp persona, and the movie’s reflecting a 1960s cinema vérité style of which its director was a major proponent. Perhaps influenced by fellow New Yorker Andy Warhol’s early films, the setup couldn’t be simpler: instead of staring at the Empire State Building or somebody sleeping for X number of hours, we spend 12 hours in the company of Jason Holliday, née Aaron Payne. (He explains someone named Sabu in San Francisco during his “three, four, five years” there “was changing people’s names to suit their personality,” adding “San Francisco is a place to be created, believe me.”)

Or rather Clarke and her then-partner, actor Carl Lee, spend those hours — from 9 pm to 9 am — with Jason, while we get a 107-minute distillation. Nattily attired, waving a cigarette around while downing an epic lineup of cocktails, Jason is a natural performer who relishes this filmic showcase as “my moment.” No matter what, he says, he will now “have one beautiful something that is my own.”

At first Clarke and Lee simply let him riff, prompting him to speak calculated outrages they’ve probably already heard. (“What do you do for a living, Jason?” “I’m a … I’m a stone whore. And I’m not ashamed of it.”) He seems to be trying out material for a nightclub act that’s part Lenny Bruce, part snap diva. “I guess I’m a male bitch, because I have a tendency to go around and unglue people. I’ve spent so much of my time bein’ sexy I haven’t gotten anything else done. I’ve been balling from Maine to Mexico.” He shares anecdotes of working as a “houseboy” for rich white women during his in SF; he dons ladies’ hats and a feather boa to do imitations of Scarlett O’Hara, Miss Prissy, Katharine Hepburn, and Carmen Jones.

He’s indeed the life of his own party — increasingly smashed as wee hours encroach in Clarke’s Chelsea Hotel room — but there’s a certain desperation to this act that she and particularly Lee eventually pounce on. The exact nature of the two men’s relationship intrigues once Lee starts goading Jason to cut the “bullshit” and pony up some truths. “We know you’re a big con artist and you don’t really give a shit about nothin’ and nobody,” the off-camera Lee barks, later referencing some “dirty lies” Jason had allegedly spread about him.

By the time the former is calling the latter a “fuckin’ nasty bitch,” the film has become a queasy mix of exploitation and collusion. “Nervous and guilty and simple as I am,” Jason has a braggadocio that camouflages a self-loathing he’s just as willing to expose. When actual tears-of-a-clown are shed, the filmmakers seem cruel. Still, the “portrait” is incomplete — Clarke and Lee don’t press their subject to explicate the past spousal abuse, suicide attempt, and “nuthouse” and jail stays he drops into conversation as casually as he mentions a friendship with Miles Davis.

Two years later Yoko Ono and John Lennon would film the extremely disturbing Rape — 77 minutes of a camera crew silently, aggressively following an increasingly bewildered and panicked young woman around Manhattan, reducing her to a whimpering wreck. It was a human experiment in the name of art as striking as it was sadistic. While less traumatic, Portrait of Jason also stretches a very 1960s notion of cinema-as-angry-analyst’s-couch to uncomfortable lengths.

Clarke, who died in 1997 — one year before Jason — remains a fascinating, underappreciated figure who suffered all the consequences of being a stubbornly individual filmmaker in an era when women directors were rare and little-respected. (Not that that’s changed greatly since.) Switching from dance to movies in the ’50s, she earned an Oscar nomination for a 1960 short, then won one outright for a 1963 documentary about poet Robert Frost. Yet her career was constantly stymied, finally forcing her into academia. French director Agnès Varda’s 1969 curio Lions Love has her playing herself, a matter-of-fact New Yorker baffled equally by the Hollywood industry she’s trying to enter and by the upscale hippie ménage à trois antics of her hosts, Warhol star Viva and Hair co-creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado.


PORTRAIT OF JASON opens Fri/16 at the Roxie.

Catch a falling star


FILM Now that “train wreck” is an official celebrity category popular media ignores at its peril, certain people and projects are deemed doomed automatically. Lindsay Lohan can’t redeem herself — she’d lose her entertainment value by regaining any respect. Ergo, The Canyons — the first theatrical feature she’s starred in since 2007, the year of triple A-bombs Georgia Rule, Chapter 27, and I Know Who Killed Me — was earmarked as a disaster from the outset.

How could it be otherwise, with the now-disgraced former Disney luminary co-starring opposite porn superstar James Deen in an envelope-pushing screenplay from literary bad boy Bret Eaton Ellis (Less Than Zero, American Psycho)? Its apparent rejection from the Sundance and SXSW festivals, plus Lohan’s widely reported difficulty on set — not to mention Ellis’ dissatisfaction with the “langorous” final results — only heightened a sense that The Canyons would be a pretentious, full-frontal crapfest. Even US distributor IFC has been highly reluctant to let anyone see the film more than a week in advance of its opening dates, as if assuming any reviews would be damning ones.

We live in a reality-TV-dominated world of sharply divided winners and losers now. Now that she’s typecast as an off screen fuckup, Lohan’s professional endeavors must follow suit. They have to be bad, because we enjoy her failing so much.

But The Canyons isn’t exactly bad, despite the gloatingly negative publicity rained on it. (And despite the fact that we do, eventually, catch a glimpse of Deen’s famous johnson.) Instead, it’s a middling exercise in upscale erotic-thrillerdom, beautifully crafted (on a Kickstarter dime), clever yet superficial in terms of psychological depth. Its indictment of jaded LA life centers on glamorous couple Tara (Lohan) and Christian (Deen). The latter is a producer slash trust-fund brat who’s pushed an “open relationship” credo onto his trophy spouse, yet turns pathologically jealous once it’s clear she’s cheating with wannabe actor Ryan (Nolan Funk), the boyfriend of his former assistant Gina (Amanda Brooks).

This isn’t headed anywhere pleasant. Ellis trades on his usual themes of corrosive privilege, sex, and violence to deliver a rather simplistic if sardonic lesson in Hollywood amorality that director Paul Schrader angles toward credibility. His sleek feature is the latest for an important American filmmaker who wrote the scripts for Scorsese milestones Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), as well as writing-directing such less generally heralded yet admired titles as Blue Collar (1978), Hardcore (1979), American Gigolo (1980), and Affliction (1997).

No one would call the serious-minded Schrader a sexploitationist. Yet many of his films cast sexuality in a queasy, predatory light — the runaway daughter sucked into porn in Hardcore, TV star Bob Crane’s sex addiction in Auto Focus (2002), those murderous-when-aroused Cat People (1982), and the decadent wealthy couples preying on younger specimens in both The Comfort of Strangers (1990) and The Canyons. Schrader turns the latter into a stern, chilly, minimalist exercise in psychological suspense. A little underwhelming at first (in part because Lohan’s performance is little wobbly, Deen’s a tad one-note), it actually improves with repeat viewings.

I caught up with Schrader in a recent phone interview. He said the project came about because funding for another Ellis screenplay he was going to direct fell through. “I said, ‘What you do, Bret, writing about beautiful people doing bad things in nice rooms, is something we can do for much less money.'”

So they funded it themselves (with Kickstarter donors). Originally contacted to make a cameo appearance, Lohan wanted in as both lead and co-producer once she’d read the script. Deen was Ellis’ idea, prevailing despite Schrader’s initial skepticism. “These two boldfaced names from porn and celebrity culture — it just became irresistible. You’ve got to find a way to make some noise on a microbudget film like this,” he says, and that casting turned out to be a publicity godsend.

Asked if it was a difficult shoot, he says, “Every shoot is difficult. Sometimes you run out of money, sometimes the weather turns against you. And sometimes you have high-strung performers. Lindsay needs to live in a world of crisis. It’s unnecessary — but that’s what she needs.”

When it’s suggested that The Canyons is like American Gigolo with women now the primary sexual commercial properties, Schrader corrects: “It’s with smart phones as the primary sexual commercial property.” The characters’ obsessive use of social media — they spend dinners barely maintaining conversation as they stare at their phones, and use Grindr-like apps for casual hookups — is one aspect of their alienated state.

Another is that they work in a film business when “the whole notion of theatrical cinema is changing. That was the concept from the beginning: making cinema for the post-theatrical era.” (The Canyons, already available in streaming formats, opens with a montage of shuttered Los Angeles movie houses.) “This was designed to be distributed through the Internet and cable. I saw these kids as not really caring about movies. I told the cast this was about some twentysomething Angelenos who went to see a movie, but the theater closed. And they stayed in line because they had nowhere else to go.” 

THE CANYONS opens Fri/9 at the Roxie.

Downwardly mobile


FILM The good news about Blue Jasmine isn’t that it’s set in San Francisco — more on that later — but that it’s Woody Allen’s best movie in years. Although some familiar characteristics are duly present, it’s not quite like anything he’s done before, and carries its essentially dramatic weight more effectively than he’s managed in at least a couple decades. Yes, Match Point (2005) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007) were “serious” too, but they were basically thrillers (one pretty good, one awful) that, whatever their other qualities, demonstrated that he doesn’t have much feel for suspense.

Blue Jasmine is, in a very different way, full of tension — because its protagonist is uncomfortable in almost any situation, often teetering on the edge of a full-on anxiety attack. Yet these are recent developments. Not long ago Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) was the quintessential Manhattan society hostess, with homes hither and thither (including the Hamptons, naturally), ever-so-busy planning dinner parties, sitting on charity boards, and going to Pilates class. Her immaculately put-together elegance isn’t Brahmin-bred: a natural upscaler, she remade herself from humble roots to suit the role of picture-perfect wife to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a master of the universe type whose questionably legal investment schemes and not-particularly-discreet infidelities she turns a willful blind eye toward. (It helps that he’s a really, really good liar.)

But at the start here, that glittering bubble of money and privilege has burst — exactly how revealed in flashbacks that spring surprises up to the script’s end — with the result that marriage and material comfort are now gone. Penniless, fleeing her husband’s public disgrace (he seems Allen’s belated commentary on the bankster-induced crash of ’08), Jasmine has crawled to the West Coast to “start over” in the sole place available where she won’t be mortified by the pity of erstwhile society friends. That would be the SF apartment of Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a fellow adoptive sister who was always looked down on by comparison to pretty, popular, clever Jasmine.

Theirs is an uneasy alliance — arguably the most discomfiting flashback is to Ginger’s Manhattan visit with now ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), a mini-festival of thinly veiled class snobbery. Ginger has good reason to resent her big sis, whose attempted financial assistance via slippery Hal actually wound up destroying the visitors’ marriage. (Allen’s casting can sometimes seem stunt-like and overdependent on “who’s hot now.” Yet its top to-bottom brilliance here is personified by comedian Clay’s excellence in a small but important role.) Still, she’s too big-hearted to say no.

Ergo, Jasmine arrives at the flat Ginger shares with her two young sons — nose immediately curling at its IKEA/thrift-shop modesty and the boys’ noisy energy — with no clear idea what she’ll do, or how she’ll support herself. She has no marketable skills, and god forbid she’d take something as lowly as Ginger’s supermarket-cashier job. Yet she continues to judge everything by standards she can no longer afford, notably sis’s new beau Chili (a terrific Bobby Cannavale), another working-class stiff who justifiably worries Jasmine will convince her she can “do better.”

Surfacing later in the SF portion of the narrative are three men who might actually fulfill that “bettering” function: Dr. Flicker (Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Stuhlbarg), a grab-handy dentist from whom she reluctantly accepts a receptionist gig. Then at a party she drags Ginger to in order to blatantly find men of the “quality” they both “deserve,” the latter duly meets seemingly good catch Al (Louis C.K.), while the former reels in a much bigger fish in Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a dreamboat diplomat who’s just the ticket for a woman who’s never paid her own way in anything but trophy-wife good taste.

It’s somewhat disappointing that Blue Jasmine doesn’t really do much with San Francisco. Ginger lives in a nondescript neighborhood (near the start of South Van Ness). There are no gay characters, racial diversity is limited to background players, and good as they are, Cannavale and Clay have the kinds of personalities that yell “Jersey!” and “Brooklyn!,” respectively. There are a few shots nodding at the colorful, pretty, touristy side of the city, but that’s not the world Ginger lives or that Jasmine lands in. Really, the film could take place anywhere — although setting it in a non-picture-postcard SF (despite the warm tones of Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography) does bolster the film’s unsettled, unpredictable air.

Without being an outright villain, Jasmine is one of the least likable characters to carry a major US film since Noah Baumbach’s underrated Margot at the Wedding (2007), whose central dynamics (Nicole Kidman as neurotic older sister who destroyed Jennifer Jason Leigh’s prior marriage, and might now destroy her imminent second one) bear an eerie similarity. The general plot shell, moreover, is strongly redolent of A Streetcar Named Desire.

But whatever inspiration Allen took from prior works, Blue Jasmine is still distinctively his own invention. It’s frequently funny in throwaway performance bits, yet disturbing, even devastating in cumulative impact. Like Streetcar (and Margot for that matter), this is a movie as much about undiagnosed mental illness as it is about family (dis-)loyalties and class conflicts.

One of those actors who can do just about anything, Blanchett is fearless here — it’s a great role she burrows into so deeply it’s a wonder she ever came back out. Her Jasmine is cringe-inducing, terrified, superficial, unconsciously cruel. Yet she’s simultaneously so helpless that we can’t help but hope she’ll find her feet again, a rooting interest answered by the most haunting Woody Allen fadeout since 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo

BLUE JASMINE opens Fri/2 in Bay Area theaters.

Hysterical blindness


FILM Mads Mikkelsen has the kind of face that is at once strikingly handsome and unconventional enough to get him typecast in villain roles. (A good Hollywood parallel would be Jack Palance in his prime — they’ve got the same vaguely Slavic features, with sharp cheekbones and narrow eyes.)

He’s certainly known best, if not exclusively, as a villain in countries where Danish cinema has a non-existent or minor presence. (Which is to say, most of the world.) Like so many great foreign-accented actors, he got his big international break playing a bad guy in a James Bond or other blockbuster action series — in his case an actual Bond, as groin-torturing gambler Le Chiffre in 2006 franchise reviver Casino Royale. He was mean again in the big-budget 2011 flop Three Musketeers remake, and is currently creeping TV viewers out as a young Dr. Lecter on Hannibal.

Those roles are pretty much all American viewers know about Mikkelsen. But if you’ve been following Danish movies since 1996, when he debuted in the first of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy — and you should have been, even years before that — you’d know he’s an endlessly charismatic actor who’s played many sympathetic roles. Several have been for leading Danish writer directors Anders Thomas Jensen (2005’s Adam’s Apples), Ole Bornedal (2002’s I Am Dina), Susanne Bier (2002’s Open Hearts, 2006’s After the Wedding) and Lone Scherfig (2002’s Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself). Why he hasn’t made a movie for Lars von Trier, I dunno — though he’s probably a happier person for it.

He’s a very fine actor, the kind whose international profile is eventually assured — even though Hollywood, which invariably magnetizes such actors with its engorged salaries and publicity, has so far found nothing else for him to do than play diabolically intelligent monsters. The Danish movies reveal other sides: the gradual crumbling of his charity-worker’s character’s well guarded emotional defenses in After the Wedding, for instance, or the near farcical yet eventually beatific blind faith of his minister in Adam’s Apples, who holds fast during a blackly comedic avalanche of misfortunes echoing the Book of Job.

His ability to evoke both sympathy and a suspicion of otherness are particularly well deployed in The Hunt, which won him the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year. Strangely, it’s Mikkelsen’s first film with another major Danish writer-director, Thomas Vinterberg — perhaps because the latter spent most of the interim time since 1998’s Dogme triumph The Celebration making weak English-language features.

In the very Danish Hunt, Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a benign lifelong small-town resident recently divorced from his son’s mother (with whom he has ongoing custody disputes), and who currently works at the local kindergarten. One day one of his charges — the youngest child of his best friend, in fact — says something to the principal that suggests Lucas has exposed himself to her. We’ve already seen how the little girl, who has obvious if unexplained psychological issues (symptomized by her superstitious skittishness about stepping on any sidewalk or tiling line), might’ve been led to parrot elders’ statements through sheer infantile confusion and willingness to say what adults apparently want.

Once her misguided “confession” is made, however, Lucas’ boss immediately assumes the worst. She announces her assumptions at a parent-teachers meeting (from which Lucas has already been excluded) even before police can begin their investigation. By the time they have, the viral paranoia and suggestive “questioning” of other potential child victims by all parties has created a full-on, massive pederasty scandal with no basis in truth whatsoever. Lucas is shunned (even beaten) by people he’s known all his life.

The Hunt is a valuable depiction of child-abuse panic, in which there’s a collective jumping to drastic conclusions about one subject where everyone is judged guilty before being proven innocent. (If you doubt that judgment, look on any gay-related Yahoo news comment-board, in which some posters will invariably state the “fact” that all gay people are pedophiles and/or were “turned” gay by being molested as children.) Many parents fervently believe “children don’t lie” — yet they do all the time. Sometimes inadvertently because they don’t understand the complexities of a situation, sometimes blatantly because they’re simply trying to tell adults what they want to hear.

The Hunt‘s emotional engine is Lucas’ horror at the speed and extremity with which he’s ostracized by his own community — and its willingness to believe the worst about him on anecdotal evidence. Mikkelsen’s imperfect yet upstanding father and teacher here is a fine parabolic illustration of such predator-hyperconscious adults’ victims. Engrossing, nuanced, and twisty right up to the fade-out, The Hunt questions one of our era’s defining public hysterias. In our own society, many people believe in entrusting guns to young children whom they wouldn’t dream of thinking mature enough to drive, drink, or absorb basic sex ed. Nonetheless — and this is not to remotely dismiss the existence and prosecution of genuine child sexual abuse cases — they assume children always know what they’re talking about when they’re nose-led into accusing elders of vaguely grapevine-heard behaviors they probably don’t yet understand the actual meaning or consequences of. *


THE HUNT opens July 26 in Bay Area theaters.

Live to tell


FILM The most popular feel-good documentary last year was Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul’s film about the somewhat mysterious Rodriguez — a talented singer-songwriter who recorded two major-label albums in the early 1970s, attracted no notice whatsoever, then disappeared from any public view. Unbeknownst to him (or to his bank account, since the royalties seem to have vanished more completely than he did), the records were a big hit in South Africa, where fans eventually tracked him down and informed him that he was, well, a star. So, decades after falling into obscurity, he was playing before large audiences he’d never known he had, and (via the film) getting new ones.

Sugar Man made you wonder how many other such stories might be waiting to be excavated. We’ve probably all seen or heard acts that deserved some commercial success, but never got close to it. More than ever, the musical mainstream seems more about marketing a package than promoting genuine, idiosyncratic talent. And examples of the latter slip through the cracks all the time, hopefully getting re-discovered later — for instance Nick Drake, sainted godhead of sensitive singer-songwriters, was barely a blip on the public-awareness horizon during his life. It was only after he’d died that the cult, and record sales, began to swell.

A Band Called Death is a similar story of recognition delayed so long that the principal vindicated character was no longer alive to enjoy it. Sons of a Detroit Baptist minister, David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney were enamored with rock music from the time the family sat down to watch the Beatles play The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. By 1971 they were calling themselves Rock Fire Funk Express — but exposure to live hard-rock acts like the Who and Alice Cooper convinced them to ditch the funk part completely. Their father’s tragic death (he was killed by a drunk driver while taking an injured coworker to the hospital) hit all of them hard, but especially guitarist David, who had a spiritual awakening of sorts and insisted their band be named after what he now considered “the ultimate trip:” Death.

It seemed a career-killing moniker if ever there was one. (Though by 1983 Orlando’s death metal pioneers would have no trouble using the same name.) Nor did the trio’s loud, fast, heavy sound — their rehearsals drove the neighbors nuts — make sense for an African American outfit in a city where Motown ruled. Though their parents had always encouraged them, nearly everyone else took a “Why are you playing that white boy music?” stance. Nonetheless, they found a supporter at local studio-music publisher Groovesville Records, recorded some tracks, and shopped them around to every imaginable label here and abroad. After innumerable rejections, they seemingly hit the jackpot with Columbia Records prez Clive Davis, who was eager to sign them … if they’d just change that name. As the band’s “visionary,” however, David Hackney was unwilling to budge on his total “concept.” The offer was withdrawn.

Defeated and exasperated, the brothers accepted a relative’s invite to stay with him in Burlington, Vt., and wound up relocating there — but when they put up Death posters around town, the unamused local cops assumed this was some sort of gang-activity threat. That was the last straw; Dave reluctantly agreed on a name change, to the 4th Movement. In that form they played some gigs and recorded a couple albums — but their new, more overtly spiritual emphasis didn’t play well with rock audiences who really didn’t want to flick their Bics to lyrics about Jesus Christ.

A man with a plan — but no backup plan — Dave eventually slunk back to Detroit, and was dismayed when his brothers moved on musically, experiencing some success with a reggae band called Lambsbread. Death wasn’t just forgotten; it had never really been noticed. Its only material issue was a self-distributed 1974 single of “Politicians in My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knockin'” that had scored just token local radio play. But three decades later some of its 500 pressings started surfacing on underground DJ’s turntables, rare-record collectors’ wish lists, and on eBay (at $800 a pop). What could be a more fascinating enigma and find than an unknown African American group making music that was precociously protopunk (with some psych influences) well before even the Ramones’ first album in ’76?

Eventually the surviving members saw their ancient masters released at last, and toured clubs as a reformed Death with Lambsbread’s guitarist taking cancer-felled Dave’s place. It was all made sweeter by the fact that three of Bobby’s sons now had their own band, named Rough Francis after their late uncle’s last recording pseudonym.

A bit overlong, the documentary nonetheless ingratiates with its surprising wealth of home-movie footage, commentary from the very genial Hackney clan, and testimony from latter-day fans like Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, Kid Rock, and Questlove.


A BAND CALLED DEATH opens Fri/5 at the Roxie Theater.

Father’s day


LIT In late-1980s San Francisco, Steve Abbott hosted a gay writer’s workshop at his small apartment at the fabled corner of Haight and Ashbury. One fleeting but reliable occurrence was an appearance by Alysia, the daughter he’d raised since his wife died in a car accident years earlier.

Each week, the teenager stormed about just long enough so we could feel her wrath before slamming the bedroom door. It was funny, but also understandable: at that age, who wants their personal space regularly invaded by strangers? Let alone gay male adults, reinforcing your separation from the heterosexual family norm?

Steve was a significant presence in SF’s literary scene for nearly two decades, publishing his own adventuresome small-press books in various idioms (poems, essays, fiction). He edited small magazines including the influential Poetry Flash; was first to promote such edgy “postmodernist” voices as Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper; and was an idiosyncratic cultural commentator for local weeklies (including the Bay Guardian). He was unfailingly generous with other fledgling writers, myself included.

He barely kept the rent paid via rote day jobs, while raising a child alone — an awkward match to the carefree gay community he joined upon moving to SF (and coming out) in 1974. As Alysia Abbott writes in her acclaimed new release Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father (W.W. Norton and Company, 352pp., $25.95), there were no role models then for gay single parents. Their very close but turbulent relationship amplified the clash between her often-peevish parental needs and his belated self-discovery in a sexual-artistic bohemia. They found balance as she found her own identity upon leaving for college. But then the AIDS epidemic swept both up in its devastation.

Abbott, now living in Boston with a husband and two children, answered questions in advance of two local appearances this week.

San Francisco Bay Guardian You had an unconventional childhood with an unconventional parent. Has that influenced your own parenting?

Alysia Abbott My father was raised in a strict Catholic household where family members rarely showed affection. He kept his feelings bottled up. By the time he had me, he wanted a completely different family experience, transparent and open. He often shared his romantic and professional woes, sometimes seeking my advice.

I absorbed a lot of my dad’s worry, and sometimes found myself in situations where I had to be more adult than I was ready to be. I want to be my true self with my children. But I also want to protect their innocence to some degree.

SFBG You’re frank about having been an “obnoxious” unhappy teenager. Are there things you or your father could have done differently? Was it a phase you just had to work through?

AA We were trying to create a life with a lot of setbacks, sharing a cramped one-bedroom in the Haight with little money or family help. My father was lonely, and trying to get sober just when I discovered drugs and alternative culture. We did our best under the circumstances. But as often as we clashed, there was a lot of love. This was a period we needed to go through.

SFBG Your father identified so strongly as a writer, but Fairyland doesn’t address how you became one yourself.

AA I’d always wanted to be a writer, or an artist. But after watching him struggle financially, I pursued steady-paycheck work in cushy corporate structures (which I now hate). I also didn’t know if I had his native talent, or could be as intellectually rigorous and pure. I always had our story to tell, but worried I wasn’t worthy of it. The idea of writing Fairyland and having it not meet my own expectations was unbearable. Now I realize perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. To succeed, you have to be willing to fail.

SFBG When Steve was facing mortality, he wrote that you’d probably better appreciate his writing after he’d passed on. What do you think about his literary legacy now?

AA I’m embarrassed to admit I really didn’t read my father’s books until ten years after he died. During his lifetime, the work’s weirdness, its attraction to transgressive figures and ideas threatened me. I accused him of not being a “real writer” because no one had heard of him and he didn’t make any “real money.” What a terrible thing for a daughter to say!

Researching for Fairyland, I came to respect his contributions and integrity. All the writers I know today have to be such master self-promoters. My father was almost embarrassingly naïve in this regard. That may be why few people know his work today. But he was so devoted to writing, and supporting writers that impressed him, even if that effort did nothing for his own career.

I now really love several of his poems and books, especially Lives of the Poets — but some still make me uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it’s because they aren’t good, or still too “out there” for me.

SFBG After so many years, how do you feel about returning to SF? Many of your father’s creative generation are dead. It’s a much yuppie-er burg.

AA San Francisco is very different from the city I knew in 1974, or even 1994. I’ve worried that those who remember the old San Francisco, or appreciate its history, are dwindling — they’ve died or been forced out by Ellis laws. But new residents are attracted by the city’s beauty just as we were. And though much better-heeled, these tech workers and professional types are also trying to reinvent culture, if with much greater odds of profit — and interest in profit.


Wed/19, 7pm, free

City Lights Books

261 Columbus, SF


Thu/20, 6:30pm, free

San Francisco Public Library

100 Larkin, SF

Lives less ordinary


FRAMELINE Each year Frameline’s program vividly reflects issues that of late have seemed most urgent in the LGBT community — for many years, for instance, there was an understandably overwhelming amount of films about AIDS. Most recently, the fights for gay marriage and trans rights have dominated many a dramatic and documentary selection.

It is sometimes nice, therefore, in the fray of pressing public debate and community activism to escape topicality and sink into the achievements and personalities of more distant queer-history eras. Several documentaries at Frameline37 offer just that, as they chronicle the lives and times of five extraordinary men (albeit one normally found in a dress and fright wig).

The most San Francisco-centric of them is Stephen Silha, Eric Slade, and Dawn Logsdon’s Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, about “a golden secret of West Coast bohemia.” The late James Broughton was a poet, prankster, and experimental filmmaker who began making films in the late 1940s “to see what my dreams really looked like.” A significant figure in the pre-Beat San Francisco renaissance of avant-garde art, he won a prize at Cannes for 1953’s typically playful, hedonistic The Pleasure Garden, but declined the commercial directing career offered him — in fact he didn’t make another movie for 15 years, when free-love hymn The Bed became a counterculture smash.

Broughton married and had three children (including one with not-yet-famous local film critic Pauline Kael), but at age 61 found his soulmate in 26-year-old fellow director Joel Singer, thereafter devoting his life and work to celebrations of gay male sexuality. (Interviewed here, his ex-wife Susanna calls this turn of events “a very unwelcome incident from which I never recovered.”) The documentary provides a treasure trove of excerpts from a now little-seen body of cinematic work, as well as much archival footage of SF over the decades.

Bringing joy to a lot of people during his too-brief life was Glenn Milstead, the subject of Jeffrey Schwarz’s I Am Divine. A picked-on sissy fat kid, he blossomed upon discovering Baltimore’s gay underground — and starring in neighbor John Waters’ underground movies, made by and for the local “freak” scene they hung out in.

Yet even their early efforts found a following; when “Divine” appeared in SF to perform at one of the Cockettes’ midnight movie/theater happenings, he was greeted as a star. This was before his greatest roles for Waters, as the fearsome anti-heroines of Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), then the beleaguered hausfraus of Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988). Despite spending nearly his entire career in drag, he wanted to be thought of as a character actor, not a “transvestite” novelty. Sadly, he seemed on the verge of achieving that — having been signed to play an ongoing male role on Married … with Children — when he died of respiratory failure in 1988, at age 42.

A different kind of tragedy is chronicled in Clare Beaven and Nic Stacey’s British Codebreaker, about Alan Turing — perhaps the most brilliant mathematician of his era, who basically came up with the essential concept of the modern-day computer (in 1936!) He played a huge role in breaking the Nazi’s secret Enigma code, thus aiding an Allied victory. But instead of being treated as a national hero, he was convicted of “gross indecency” (i.e. gay sex) in 1952 and hounded by police until he committed suicide two years later. Half conventional documentary and half reenactment drama (with Ed Stoppard, playwright Tom’s son, as Turing), Codebreaker illustrates the cruel price even an upper-class genius could pay for his or her sexuality in the days before Gay Lib.

Two literary lions are remembered in the last of these historical bio-docs. Daniel Young’s Swiss Paul Bowles: The Cage Door is Always Open recalls the curious life of a successful American composer turned famous expat novelist. He and wife Jane Bowles moved to post-World War II Tangiers, where they entertained a parade of visiting artists — and, by all accounts, a succession of same-sex lovers. Clips from Bernardo Bertolucci’s underrated adaptation of Bowles’ literary masterwork The Sheltering Sky (1990) are here alongside input from acquaintances and observers including John Waters and Gore Vidal.

The latter is the whole focus in Nicholas Wrathall’s Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, and what could be better than that? Perhaps undervalued as a frequently very fine novelist because he was so prolific (and popular), he’s considered here primarily as a public intellectual — a term that seems positively antiquated in our climate of pundits and ranters — and fierce lifelong critic of American hypocrisy in all its forms, especially the political. He was a scold (or a “correctionist,” as he put it), albeit of the wittiest, most clear-headed and informed type. Among myriad highlights here are seeing him on TV reduce friend-rival Norman Mailer to sputtering fury, shred the insufferable right-wing toady William F. Buckley, and make poor Jerry Brown squirm under his effortless tongue-lashing.

Endlessly quotable (“We’ve had bad Presidents in the past but we’ve never had a goddam fool,” he said of George W. Bush), obstinately “out” from an early age if never very PC in his views (“Sex destroys relationships … I’m devoted to promiscuity”), Vidal is aptly appreciated here as “a thorn in the American Establishment, of which by birth he is a charter member.” There will never be anyone quite like him — but we sure could use some who are at least in the general ballpark. *


June 20-30, various venues

Wish you weren’t here


FILM Austrian Ulrich Seidl has been making films since the early 1980s, but didn’t get much attention internationally until 2001’s Dog Days, a bleak and nasty ensemble piece about some seemingly ordinary — but all variably pathetic, ugly and/or perverse — Viennese suburbanites sweating through a heat wave. It was the sort of movie that demanded attention, being grotesque, funny, surprising, meticulously crafted, and arguably just plain mean.

Following decades of mostly documentary work, he’d suddenly joined the ranks of what you might call the New (though not necessarily young) Misanthropes: directors like his fellow countryman Michael Haneke, France’s Gaspar Noé, and the Philippines’ Brillante Mendoza. For some their invariably depressing, often upsetting films illuminate the human capacity for cruelty. For others, they wallow in it.

After taking his time making a Dog Days follow-up (2007’s Import/Export, a predictably grim comment on Europe’s immigration inundation), Seidl is back in atypical bulk with his Paradise Trilogy, three lightly interlocking (there’s no real overall arc) features more tightly focused on hapless individual protagonists. Each are observed — and this director is among the most ruthlessly clinical observers around, as if cinema were a laboratory and characters his test subjects — on vacation. But of course the experience of any earthly paradise is a sour joke in the contexts they find themselves in. Striking if unpleasant, the trio gets its Bay Area debut over the next three weekends at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Paradise: Love (2012) makes the pursuit of pleasure look grim indeed, from the rather cheap-shot opening of Teresa (Margaret Tiesel) overseeing mentally handicapped adults as they enjoy an amusement-park outing on bumper cars — a scene whose “grotesquerie” feels exploitative. But once she’s on her holiday in sunny Kenya, it’s Teresa who does the exploiting. At the urging of a cheerfully horny friend (one among many plus-sized, German-speaking women well into middle age holidaying there), she partakes of the local populace of young men who offer gigolo-type services for a price.

But Teresa wants something more — or at least the illusion of it. Ergo she’s thoroughly suckered when the first seemingly non-predatory beach stud she encounters (Peter Kazungu as Munga) starts asking for money — he’s got no end of needy sick relatives, it seems — once they’ve consummated his declared “love.” Similar disappointments ensue. Teresa’s naiveté isn’t exactly sympathetic, however. She unconsciously brings the full weight of class/racial privilege and condescension with her, and is endlessly, petulantly demanding as a sex tourist who insists on being treated as a lover. (The negotiation around how her breasts should be touched by Munga seem to take half an hour alone.) She just wants to be desired. Yet she acts like a pushy colonialist bargain shopper.

In Paradise: Faith (2012), the spotlight is taken by Teresa’s older sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstaetter), who most certainly is not looking for romance, let alone sex — without wearing a cowl, this hospital radiologist has become a fervent bride of Christ. She spends her vacation time alone in her over-large house, scrubbing it spotless, flogging herself clean of impure thoughts before Jesus, and singing hymns at the Casio keyboard. She also goes on daily outings to the homes of strangers, frequently immigrants. She barges in with sizable Virgin Mary statues crying “The Mother of God has come to visit you!,” and tries browbeating them into sin-abjuring prayer. Needless to say, this all seems much more about her needs than theirs.

She returns one day to the unwelcome surprise of husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh), an Egyptian Muslim back after an unexplained two-year absence. They’ve both changed greatly — back then he wasn’t yet paralyzed from the waist down, and she wasn’t a born-again fanatic. He’s nonplussed that her vinegary form of “Christian charity” treats him more as a home-nursing burden than a marital partner, and hostilities between them soon escalate to nightmarish proportions.

Ultimately, faith provides no comfort — and that failure induces a crisis of faith. Rigorously controlled in aesthetic terms, Seidl goes over the top content-wise at times — as when Anna Maria stumbles upon a public park orgy, or uses a crucifix à la Linda Blair — yet this cruel portrait of religious fixation has a certain compulsive, often cringe-inducing tension.

Finally, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel with Paradise: Hope (2013). While Teresa is fucking Africans and Anna Maria proselytizing, the former’s teenage daughter Melanie (Melanie Lenz) has been packed off to fat camp, where she and other pudgy youths endure long days of tortuous exercise and other “improving” programs. But the kids have each other; rather surprisingly, Seidl doesn’t rain gloom on their giddy rapport. Melanie also develops a serious crush on the resident doctor, a handsome, friendly, and flirtatious fellow (Michael Thomas) approximately four times her age.

Convinced she’s overdue to lose her virginity, she’s an avid pursuer — and disturbingly, he’s kinda interested. It is the movie’s major failing that seemingly kind, intelligent, grounded Dr. Arzt remains too much of an enigma for us to grasp why he’d even consider taking up a 13-year-old on the offer of herself. Yes, Melanie is cute, vivacious, and likable … but, well, come on. Of course this won’t end well. Still, Hope is indeed the most hopeful of the Paradise trilogy: its main character’s life isn’t ruined already, and she might well survive the hard knocks she’s given here to experience actual happiness.


June 13-30, $8-$10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF


In search of …


FILM In the 1970s conspiracy-theory culture flourished as never before, an unsurprising development considering the disillusioned malaise that set in after the turbulence of the 1960s and Watergate. In addition to innumerable theories about the “truth” behind JFK’s death (and later Elvis’), there was suddenly a widespread fascination with such questionable phenomena as the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, Bigfoot, extra-sensory perception, the “Amityville Horror,” and so forth. Naturally this interest rapidly spread from cheap paperbacks to television and drive-in screens.

Such obsessions occasionally sparked upscale treatment (i.e. 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but were more often exploited by filmmakers working on the trashier side of the audiovisual entertainment spectrum. Ergo the surfeit of cinematic dumpster-diving that comprises the Vortex’s June series “The Vortex Phenomena,” whose four Thursday evenings are dedicated to exploring the unknown in movies that themselves are largely pretty dang unknown.

There are at least a couple exceptions — and interestingly they’re the ones least relevant to the theme, being traditional supernatural horror. Most prominent is John Carpenter’s 1980 The Fog, his entry into the relative big time after indie Halloween basically invented slasherdom two years prior. Depicting murderous mariner ghosts who attack a coastal town on its centennial, The Fog is an atmospheric classic of sorts that almost became a career-ending bomb. Assembling a rough cut, Carpenter thought the results so flat he did extensive reshoots that ultimately constituted about a third of the final, successful version. The film still has a structural problem, though: we know early on that the ghoulies want to claim six lives, and since right off the bat they take three, there’s no huge sense of peril for the cluttered cast (including Jamie Lee Curtis, her Psycho-shower-victim mom Janet Leigh, bodacious Adrienne Barbeau, and Hal Holbrook). Trivia note: it was partly shot in Point Reyes and Bolinas.

The other moderately well-known film in the Vortex series is The Dunwich Horror, a striking 1970 H.P. Lovecraft adaptation with erstwhile Gidget and all-around perky girl Sandra Dee as a graduate student unknowingly recruited for demonic sacrifice by a superbly creepy Dean Stockwell. Otherwise, “Phenomenon” features movies even the fairly learned horror fan has probably never heard of — though if you were of viewing age in the 1970s you might have actually seen (and forgotten) a couple of them on network TV.

A pilot for an unproduced series, 1973’s Baffled! features Leonard Nimoy in an unusually debonair role as a racecar driver who begins experiencing psychic visions of future mayhem (sometimes, inconveniently, when he’s behind the wheel). They draw him to England, where a visiting movie star (Vera Miles, another veteran of 1960’s Psycho) finds her 12-year-old daughter going through an uber-bratty phase possibly heightened by demonic possession. The slick mix of comedy-mystery and horror doesn’t quite work, but Star Trek aficionados will enjoy the inexplicable wrongness of seeing Nimoy as a conventional suave action hero, saying things like “You’re a great-lookin’ chick!”

A stand-alone, more typical TV “Movie of the Week” of the same era was 1975’s Satan’s Triangle, which offered “one explanation” for the ongoing mystery of disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. Forgotten bo-hunk Doug McClure is part of a Coast Guard rescue team answering a distress signal from a wrecked yacht on which are found various corpses — and one traumatized survivor, Kim Novak (yet another Hitchcock veteran). What happened? A hint: Name-check the title. And expect a very Christian ending. It’s like a fairly clever attenuated Twilight Zone or Night Gallery episode. Those series’ actual mastermind, Rod Serling, narrates the 1973 omnibus horror feature Encounter with the Unknown — something of a ruse, since he neither wrote or produced this amateurish trilogy of dull, dismal horror stories. Also on the yakkety side is 1978 Italian lukewarm mess Eyes Behind the Stars, in which space invaders wearing sparkly hoodies and leotards with motorcycle-helmet-type face visors wreak convoluted havoc on any human who gets wise to their murky global conspiracy.

There’s likewise too much talk and not enough terror in 1979’s The Kirlian Witness, a murder mystery about a dead florist (and telepathic plants) that’s just odd enough to hold interest. The “secret life of plants” was big that year — then-massively popular Stevie Wonder released an album of that same name, one that was soundtrack to a documentary about floral phenomena that played theaters but seems to have been completely removed from the public sphere since.

The hairy mother of all speculative subject matters arrives in the form of Yeti: The Giant of the 20th Century, a 1977 wonder that manages to combine two of the decade’s most disreputable subgenres, the Bigfoot cash-in and the King Kong knockoff. Dino De Laurentiis’ massively publicized, critically mauled 1976 Kong remake inspired a lot of cheap imitations, none sillier than this Italian production which basically copies the entire second half of that revamp, albeit with a muscled bear in a fright wig giganticized via primitive process shots, terrorizing Toronto. He’s like a 100-foot tall, glacier-thawed, million-year-old Wolfman Jack.

The yeti does not appear to have genitals, but gets very excited when the heroine of this otherwise family-targeted entertainment inadvertently rubs one giant nipple. (That is the kind of attention to detail one appreciates in “Un Film di Frank Kramer,” a.k.a. Gianfranco Parolini, a vetern of spaghetti westerns and Hercules movies.) It’s no Shriek of the Mutilated (1974) as yeti movies go, but it does have disco music, super loud wide-lapel men’s sports coats, a heroic Lassie-type dog, and magical leaps of narrative continuity. *


Through June 27

Thu, 9 and 11pm, $10

Vortex Room

1082 Howard, SF

Facebook: The Vortex Room


Assassination character


FILM Starting in the late 1960s, it was noted that Hollywood no longer necessarily required actors who were conventionally handsome. Dustin Hoffman, George Segal, and others were hailed as representatives of a brave new system in which the idiosyncratic character actor of another generation could now be the star. This was an oversimplification, given that the movies had already made room for the likes of Lon Chaney, Humphrey Bogart, and Bette Davis, among others who wouldn’t be considered conventionally beautiful. Nonetheless, the cult of beauty remains a huge factor in movie stardom — even more so now that we live in an era where the principal cinematic heroes are primarily superheroes of one sort or another, defined by their physical perfection.

Nevertheless, sometimes sheer, striking talent forces someone into the front ranks without their having the benefit of looking like a former model. A case in point is Michael Shannon, who has simply been too intense to ignore in movies since at least 2006’s Bug — through indelible performances in Revolutionary Road (2008), Take Shelter (2011), TV’s Boardwalk Empire, last month’s Mud, and more. He’s such a Method-y changeling that it’s hard to believe he’s six-foot-four — he’s so often, so effectively shrunken himself to play flawed men whose souls are in danger of being shrunken further by irresponsible actions.

He’s pretty much the whole show in The Iceman, about a real-life hitman who purportedly killed over 100 people during his career. Despite some scarily violent moments, however, Ariel Vromen’s film doesn’t show much of that body count — he’s more interested in the double life Richard Kuklinski (Shannon) leads as a cold-blooded killer whose profession remains entirely unknown for years to his wife, daughters, and friends. The waitress he marries, Deborah (Winona Ryder), isn’t exactly a brainiac. But surely there’s some willful denial in the way she accepts his every excuse and fake profession, starting with “dubbing Disney movies” when he actually dupes prints of pornos.

It’s in that capacity that he first meets Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), a volatile Newark mobster impressed by Kuklinski’s blasé demeanor at gunpoint. He correctly surmises this guy would make a fine contract killer, and his offer does seem to strike a chord. Telling Deborah he’s now an investment banker, or some such, Kuklinski upgrades their lifestyle to suburban comfort on a mafia salary. When he has a falling out with Demeo, he “freelances” his skill to collaborate with fellow hitman Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), so named because he drives an ice-cream truck — and puts his victims on ice for easier disposal.

For the sake of a basic contrast defined by its ad line — “Loving husband. Devoted father. Ruthless killer.” — The Iceman simplifies Kuklinski’s saga, making him less of a monster. His wife said he frequently beat her, though here the marriage is portrayed as fairly idyllic. You can see why Ryder’s Deborah might choose to overlook so many gaps in her husband’s alibis — Shannon makes Richard someone whose stern dedication to murder can also be applied to the roles of spouse and father. Woe betide anyone who insults his family, as one pool hall loudmouth finds out early on.

The movie only briefly suggests Kuklinski’s abused childhood, and it omits entirely other intriguing aspects of the real-life story. But Shannon creates a convincing whole character whose contradictions don’t seem so to him — or to us. It’s an unflashy performance, everything reined in, very tightly wound, such that you’d never imagine this actor could be loose or funny — though that’s exactly what he is in Mud. Shannon isn’t yet 40, and while there are plenty of actors whose bags of tricks leave little room for surprise, one suspects this guy couldn’t repeat himself if he tried.


THE ICEMAN opens Fri/17 in Bay Area theaters.