Dennis Harvey

Man up


FILM While frequently spiced by dames alluring and sometimes deadly, film noir has always been intrinsically a manly-man’s world. Elliot Lavine’s latest Roxie noir retrospective, offering 30 features over two weeks, seems particularly heavy on vintage male charisma. Whether showcasing the seldom-noted comic chops of Humphrey Bogart, the seldom-appreciated star swagger of Victor Mature, or Cliff Robertson having an unusually credible (for the era) mental breakdown, the range of familiar and ultra-rare titles in “I Wake Up Dreaming 2013” offers a compendium of variably tough guys in tougher situations.

If you’re wondering where the series’ title comes from, the answer kicks things off: 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming is a most enjoyable murder mystery in which Manhattan sports promoter and all-around hustler Frankie Christopher (Mature) decides on a whim to play Pygmalion and make a pretty but coarse waitress (Carole Landis) his Galatea. Once she’s successfully launched as a “glamour girl,” however, she proves quite the little ingrate — “Why should I go on slinging hash when I can sling other things?” she leers, preparing to bolt for Hollywood. There’s no lack of suspects (including reliable sleazeballs Elisha Cook, Jr. and Laird Cregar) once she’s found knocked off.

The publicity at the time focused on 20th Century Fox’s big wartime pin-up and musical star Betty Grable making her dramatic debut as Landis’ “sourpuss sister” (meaning she’s a nice girl who disapproves of her trampy sib). But the movie belongs to Mature, a big strapping lunk who became a punch line about looks-but-no-brains Hollywood he-men. (Later career highlights include playing opposite Hedy Lamarr in Cecil B. DeMille’s vapid 1949 megahit Samson and Delilah, then getting mocked two decades later in the Monkees’ 1968 Head.) But he’s charming, confident, and surprisingly nuanced here. Oddly, Screaming‘s orchestral score heavily features unaccredited lifts from “Over the Rainbow” — a standard now, but then just a song from a two-year-old movie that everybody had already forgotten.

Similarly playing a semi-respectable Big Apple man-about-town, Bogart gives a master course in magnetizing viewer attention while seeming to do very little in the next year’s All Through the Night. “Gloves” Donahue is a gambler — surrounded by memorable flunkies including Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, and William Demerest — reluctantly sucked by his busybody mom (Jane Darwell from 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath) into investigating the death of her beloved local immigrant baker-neighbor. This being 1942, the path leads directly to Nazis — Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, and Judith “Mrs. Danvers” Anderson chief among them. Packed with priceless snappy patter, this comedy action hybrid may lack the “classic” cache of the star’s other ’40s vehicles. But it’s enormous fun, even if it goes off the rails a bit toward the end.

Another revelation in the program is Screaming‘s co-feature Blues in the Night, a strikingly ambitious sort of jazz musical melodrama written by Robert Rossen (director and co-writer of 1961’s The Hustler) and directed by another intriguing, now-neglected talent, Anatole Litvak. Following the very rocky road traveled by a combo of white musicians seriously dedicated to “real low-down New Orleans blues,” this starless effort is one of those rare B movies that packs an incredible amount of incident and depth into a relatively short runtime without ever feeling cluttered.

Some of “Screaming”‘s bills are themed by director or performer. May 19 brings a double dose of 1950s Joan Crawford, with her eerie resemblance at the time to Mrs. Potatohead. Female on the Beach (1955) is a fun thriller in which she’s a widow seduced and possibly menaced by Jeff Chandler, one of the era’s several leading blond pin-up boys. But Robert Aldrich’s 1956 Autumn Leaves is something else: a May-December romance that turns into a serious treatment of mental illness, as much-younger suitor Robertson turns out to be unstable in ways less conventionally scary than credibly pathetic. Unusually vulnerable — her nervously babbling curtain speech might be the finest acting she ever did — Crawford knew this was one of her best movies, and later paid due credit to Robertson’s “stupendous” performance.

Another evening pays tribute to the fascinatingly odd oeuvre of longtime industry fringe-dweller Arch Obeler, who famously made the first 3D feature (1952’s Bwana Devil), but is found in more intriguing form here with two earlier black and white cheapies. Bewitched (1945) is an offbeat thriller from the POV of a pretty schizophrenic (Phyllis Thaxter), though that term is never used. Its primitive psychoanalysis is bettered by the post-apocalyptic psychodrama of 1951’s Five, whose titular quartet — including a pregnant woman, a kind African American war veteran, and a fascistic white supremacist — mysteriously survive nuclear disaster but may not survive each other’s personalities. Politically progressive if sometimes dramaturgically simple, it’s a fascinating obscurity.

Other highlights include quintessential cult object The Monster and The Girl (1941), in which a giant gorilla takes out various corrupt underworld types whilst “Skipper the Terrier” follows its trail; ultra-low-budget 1957 Mickey Spillane adaptation My Gun is Quick, with Robert Bray as a marginally less cretinous Mike Hammer than usual; the very cool 1961 British drama All Night Long, which transposes Othello into a jazzbo context (complete with Brubeck and Mingus); and last but possibly least, a double bill devoted to short-lived blonde bombshell Beverly Michaels. A hammer-voiced minor challenge to Monroe, Mansfield, and Van Doren, she was invariably cast as destructive man bait. But like Victor Mature, her performances in Pickup (1951) and Wicked Woman (1953) suggest a more alert, modern intelligence than she was given credit for.


May 10-23, $10

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St, SF


Nordic track


SFIFF “The greatest Finnish movie ever made” — drop that phrase on someone (at least a non-Finn) and they will most likely make some crack suggesting there can’t possibly be enough of them for the distinction to matter. But Finland has had a rich and idiosyncratic filmmaking history stretching back to 1907. It hardly begins and ends with Aki Kaurismäki, the droll minimalist who was the first (and still only) Finnish director to regularly win international distribution.

Evidence of that isn’t so easy to find, or especially to watch, however. When a few years ago the Pacific Film Archive hosted a retrospective of fascinating 1930s-40s melodramas by Teuvo Tulio, it was like finding a time capsule left by a forgotten civilization — contents strange, exotic, and sort of wonderful. One yearned for more. But chances to see classic Finnish cinema haven’t exactly flourished since.

So it’s no great surprise that “the greatest Finnish movie” — so say many folk, including Kaurismäki — should turn out to be one that you’ve very likely never heard of. Mikko Niskanen’s Eight Deadly Shots, which the San Francisco International Film Festival is showing in conjunction with Finnish film scholar-director-programmer Peter von Bagh’s receipt of this year’s Mel Novikoff Award, is a five-and-one-quarter-hour rural tragedy starring Niskanen himself as a poor farmer doomed by both self-destruction and a ruthless social system. It’s not an “epic” in the usual sense of narrative expansiveness. Rather, it’s an intimate, deliberately rough-hewn drama that simply takes a very long—but never dull—time to run its course. The SFIFF catalog aptly compares it to Zola. A modern literary comparison would be to the Canadian novelist David Adams Richards, whose bucolic New Brunswick characters likewise stumble drunkenly from one bad decision to another, hemmed in by poverty and despair, yet ultimately achieving a kind of grandeur in their haplessness.

Niskanen was himself from a poor rural background, and such a handful that his father threw him out at age 13. Nonetheless he retained a strong connection to the culture of small farms that typified Finnish life in his youth but was nearly extinct by his death at age 61 in 1990.

Growing into strapping adulthood, he had some success as a 1950s stage and film actor. A man prone to have a hand in everything, he naturally progressed to operating behind as well as in front of the camera. His 1962 feature directorial debut The Boys was widely praised, and commenced a pattern in which his projects almost invariably (even when they were based on someone else’s life or fiction) contained elements of autobiography: in this case portraying a childhood lived partly under wartime privations.

Youth and country life were two of his major ongoing themes. They reached their combined popular apex in his 1967 Skin, Skin, whose sexy young protagonists on rural holiday reflected the era’s rapidly evolving mores to unprecedented box-office success.

Very different was Eight Deadly Shots, directly drawn from a true crime: After serial scrapes with the law (mostly over his illegal brewing of moonshine), an impoverished small farmer had a standoff in which he shot to death several police officers before turning himself in. Niskanen poured a great deal of himself into the story, supposedly going a bit berserk for real when the climactic sequences were filmed.

With its portrait of a well-intentioned but reckless, none-too-bright, alcoholic, eventually suicidal and family-endangering character — one that, by the way, the imprisoned real-life model found painfully accurate when Niskanen showed him the film — the black and white film finds pathos in protagonist Pasi’s steady march toward disaster. He’s too weak to save himself, yet a society in which a small-time farmer can no longer support his loved ones is as much to blame for his downfall as the hooch brewed in a tub in the forest.

The supporting performances (many cast with nonprofessional residents from the shooting locations) can be amateurish at times, but Niskanen’s own central turn is pretty epic. So is the drama he ekes from the minutiae of rural life — a scene of Pasi coaxing his stuck horse out of a snow drift takes on an urgency that could only be earned by a movie that’s made clear just how few resources (animal, vegetable or mineral) this family has.

Expected to be an 80-minute feature, Shots instead wound up being a TV miniseries. (It was later edited down to a two and a half hour feature that’s considered inferior.) It was wildly praised by everyone, even the country’s president. But the much-married, restless Niskanen never experienced such success again, gradually falling into depression and self-pity as various ventures failed to put him back on top. As von Bagh’s own three-hour TV documentary about the late artist makes clear, he was a very complicated man. But no doubt in Finland, like everywhere else, the really creative people are usually a little bit mad.


May 4, 3pm, $14–$15

Sundance Kabuki


May 5, noon; May 7, 12:15pm (includes 10-minute intermission), $10–$15

Sundance Kabuki

1881 Post, SF


April 25-May 9, most shows $10-15

Various venues


Able fables


FILM The weak recent likes of Jack the Giant Slayer and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters revealed the extent of expensive, formulaic action-movie lameness with which Hollywood is now determined to treat every story of universal familiarity (and conveniently, no pesky copyright). No doubt there will be a Cinderella: Bitch is Goin’ Postal somewhere in our future before the cycle spins out, if it ever does.

But fairy tales have such appeal that it’s hard not to want filmmakers to do interesting things with them, as opposed to the things they generally are doing with them. Two new European movies for grown-ups take elements of such tales — one a very familiar story template, the other just the tenor of a shiny, hyper real fable — and while they haven’t a great deal else in common, they both happen to be among the most delightful entertainments we’re likely to see this year.

Mikael Buch’s French first feature Let My People Go! is a fairy tale in the sense of something like Ma vie en rose (1997) or Potiche (2010) — it’s a warmhearted social satire stylized as if everyday life were constantly poised to break into a production number. Also, its protagonist is such a fairy: in what’s possibly the most inspired physical comedy performance by a French (or maybe any) actor since Jean Dujardin was last sighted, Nicolas Maury plays Ruben, a Parisian who came to Finland to pursue a masters in “comparative sauna studies” but stayed on for perfect boyfriend Teemu (Jarkko Niemi). With his skinny body language so floppy it’s like a master class in theatrical nelliness, Ruben gives off an air of someone ready at any moment to deliver a shrill hissy fit or world-class sulk. Not that he has occasion to, however, in this northern paradise of friendly moose, candy-colored villages, and postal delivery customers (the sauna thing didn’t pan out) who invariably greet him at the door with tasty snacks.

Of course, it’s a paradise he must be cast out of, after an inexplicably violent altercation with a customer on his route results in Teemu calling Ruben a “thieving murderer” and sending him back to (as the BF’s mother puts it) “that horrible country.” There, torn from the political correctitude of the great white north, he’s forced to deal with his ever-dysfunctional family: Mom (Carmen Maura) still thinks he just needs to meet “a nice Jewish girl,” Dad (Jean-François Stevénin) is cheating on her, sis (Amira Casar) is probably divorcing her “asshole goy husband,” and bro (Clément Sibony) is fed up with having to hold their hands through every new crisis.

Written by Buch and Christophe Honoré (not a guy usually associated with levity), Let My People Go! wends its way toward the predictable reconciliations all around with a certain sweetness and a great deal of inspired silliness. None more inspired than everything done by Maury, whose extreme stereotype might be offensive in another context — but in this endearing fable of tolerance, Ruben is as lovable as he is haplessly funny.

Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves is something else — Snow White, to be exact, transplanted to 1920s Spain and told (à la 2011’s The Artist) in the dialogue-free B&W style of that era’s silent cinema. If you saw the two crappy overblown Hollywood takes on that fairy tale last year, my condolences, but this is probably its best cinematic incarnation ever not made by someone called Walt.

Here, Snow is the daughter of a famous bullfighter (a beautiful performance by Daniel Giménez Cacho) who’s paralyzed physically in the ring, then emotionally by the death of his flamenco star wife (Inma Cuesta) in childbirth. He can’t bring himself to see his daughter until a grandmother’s death brings little Carmencita (the marvelous Sofía Oria) to the isolated ranch he now shares with nurse-turned-second-wife Encarna — Maribel Verdú as a very Jazz Age evil stepmother, whose vanity expresses itself in outrageous fashion spreads for the socialite columns. Once the girl matures (now played by the ingratiating, slightly androgynous Macarena García), Encarna senses a rival, and to save her life Carmen literally runs away with the circus — at which point the narrative slumps a bit. But only a bit.

Where The Artist was essentially a cleverly sustained gimmick elevated by a wonderful central performance, Blancanieves transcends its ingenious retro trappings to offer something both charming and substantiative. Berger doesn’t treat the story template as a joke — he’s fully adapted it to a culture, place, and time, and treats its inherent pathos — you didn’t see much of that in last year’s Mirror Mirror or Snow White and the Huntsman, did you? — with great delicacy. It’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t enjoy Blancanieves — well, excepting the audience for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.

LET MY PEOPLE GO! and BLANCANIEVES open Fri/19 in Bay Area theaters.

Rambling man


FILM Terrence Malick has had an extraordinary career for a Hollywood hermit making art-house films in an industry that finds him commercially irrelevant and artistically erratic at best. Even his consensus-agreed best movies are the kind that alienate many potential Oscar voters — too abstract, too ambiguous, too poetical, too “European” — so the potential prestige involved is of a marginal critical- and cineaste-appealing stripe no sane US producer would hitch his or her wagon to at this point. Yet Malick’s movies cost money — a lot of money — and it doesn’t all come from international companies willing to take a loss if they can take home some modest returns and major cred toward their next artistic investments.

In a way, it should be a source of joy that Malick keeps getting to make large, personal, indulgent, un-commercial movies when almost no one else does. Other mainstream US filmmakers have had their intellectually or artistically ambitious follies (see: 2006’s Southland Tales and The Fountain, or 1980’s Heaven’s Gate), but they’re generally allowed just one. No one else has had the long ride Malick has. He is indeed a poet, a visionary — but has he ever had more than passages of brilliance? Are the actors and producers who treat him with awe as some exotic shaman actually enabling art, or mostly high-flown pretensions toward the same?

To the Wonder does provide some answers to those thorny questions. But they’re not the answers you’ll probably want to hear if you thought 2011’s The Tree of Life was a masterpiece. If, on the other hand, you found it a largely exasperating movie with great sequences, you may be happy to be warned that Wonder is an entirely excruciating movie with pretty photography. For all but the diehards, it could be a deal-breaker — the experience that makes you think you might very possibly never want to see another by this filmmaker again.

The one movie in which Malick’s variably over-the-top compassion, philosophy, idolatry of nature, and generally spellbound-by-beauty instincts were best supported was 1998’s The Thin Red Line, an abrupt return to activity after two decades’ complete absence. No matter that the reeling narrative bore limited resemblance to James Jones’ novel, or that Adrien Brody’s leading role got almost entirely cut out — he wouldn’t be first or last to cry foul at a Malick edit drastically altered from the original screenplay. To the Wonder apparently employed the talents of Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, and Rachel Weisz — all of whom ended up on the cutting room floor. To make room for … what? A movie that could have been wholly shot by the second unit, for all its interest in actual character, narrative, insight, and acting.

Instead, we get handsome shots of Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko (or sometimes Affleck and Rachel McAdams) wandering around picturesque settings either beaming beatifically at each other or looking “troubled” because “something is missing,” as one character puts it in a rare moment of actual dialogue. (Generally we get the usual Malick wall-to-wall whispered voiceover musings like “What is this love that loves us?” delivered by all lead actors in different languages for maximum annoyance.)

Just what is missing? Who the hell knows. Apparently it is too vulgar to spell out or even hint at what’s actually going on in these figures’ heads, not when you can instead show them endlessly mooning about as the camera follows them in a lyrical daze. The “plot” goes like this: Neil (Affleck) meets Parisienne Marina (Kurylenko) and her 10-year-old daughter from a failed marriage. They swan about Europe making goo-goo eyes at each other, then mother and child accompany him back to Oklahoma, but it doesn’t work out. Which allows him an interlude to get involved with old flame Jane (McAdams), but that doesn’t work out. Then Olga returns and … just guess. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem turns up as a Catholic priest, playing the Sean Penn Tree of Life role of a peripheral figure that does absolutely nothing but walk around looking bummed.

These people aren’t enigmas, they’re just blanks the actors can’t fill in because the writer-director won’t let them. He wants to express pure emotion, but emotions have contexts, too, much as Malick might like to think that women are all organic instinct. When Sissy Spacek spoke vacant “poetry” and ignored her (murderous) man Martin Sheen’s faults in 1973’s Badlands, it seemed her youthful inexperience was meant to be humorous. But since his career restarted, Malick has suggested dumb ‘n’ ethereal is his feminine ideal. Kurylenko is the apotheosis of that image: she’s part naked sex puppet; part indulged toddler who knows the adults think everything she does is adorable; part twirly-dancing girl at a Dead show; part family dog that only wants to be loved and played with.

Apparently, Malick thinks he’s celebrating femininity, but his appreciation omits the possibility of intelligence. He thinks women are marvelous, instinctual animals, while men bear the burden of emotional and intellectual complexity, even if they can’t articulate it. Could anything be more condescending? (To the Wonder was autobiographically inspired by his own failed marriage to a Frenchwoman; I’d rather see the movie she’d have made about it.)

No doubt some will find all this profound, because they’re primed to and the film certainly acts as though it is. But at some point you have to ask: if the artist can’t express his deep thoughts, just indicate that he’s having them, how do we know he’s a deep thinker at all? 


TO THE WONDER opens Fri/12 in Bay Area theaters.

Alternative medicine


FILM No country exports mainstream films to the extensive success that the US does. To the frequent chagrin of local filmmakers and cultural watchdogs, Hollywood dominates many nations’ box offices, non-English-speaking ones included. Nor do we reciprocate much — there remains a wide separation between what are perceived as commercial entertainments and “art house” films, with foreign-language (or even just British) ones almost invariably limited to the latter category.

We’ve all rolled our eyes at otherwise sophisticated people moaning that they can’t be bothered with even the most accessible movie in another language because subtitles are too much trouble. As a result, ‘murricans seldom hazard big-screen exposure to anything but the most rarefied, prize-winning, serious, or conceptually novel features from other nations. While we feed them plenty of our mall flicks, their less-than-exceptional homegrown genre movies are considered to have little marketable value here. (Save as fodder for remakes, of course.)

So it’s a tiny bit unusual when one week brings openings of two movies unalike in every aspect save their being solid if unremarkable examples of mainstream hits abroad. French-Canadian comedy Starbuck and German crime thriller The Silence are both an uptick or two above “decent,” but they hardly sport the thematic-stylistic edginess or other qualities that usually win US distribution. They’re just kinda fun.

Maybe “fun” is a tasteless way to describe The Silence, which hinges on pederasty and child murder — though in the end this is more an intelligent pulp thriller than serious address of those issues, uneasily as it straddles both at times. In 1986 two men abduct an 11-year-old girl — one the initially excited, then horrified observer to the second’s murderous sexual assault. Twenty-three years later, another young girl disappears in the same place under disturbingly identical circumstances.

This event gradually pulls together a large cast of characters, many initial strangers — including the original victim’s mother (Katrin Sass) and the just-retired detective (Burghart Klaubner) who failed to solve that crime; parents (Karoline Eichhorn, Roeland Wiesnekker) of the newly disappeared teen, who experience full-on mental meltdown; a solidly bourgeoisie husband and father of two girls (Wotan Wilke Möhring), inordinately distressed by this repeat of history; and the erstwhile friend he hasn’t contacted in decades, an apartment-complex handyman with a secret life (Ulrich Thomsen).

Part procedural, part psychological thriller, part small-town-community portrait, director-scenarist (from Jan Costin Wagner’s novel) Baran bo Odar’s The Silence is just juicy and artful enough to get away with occasional stylistic hyperbole. Let alone having enough subplot intrigue and weirdo characterizations — Sebastian Blomberg’s spazzy grieving-widower police detective is a bit much, in the Anthony Perkins tradition — to float a miniseries. It’s a conflicted movie, albeit handled with such engrossing confidence that you might not notice the credibility gaps. At least until thinking it over later. Which, don’t.

There’s no complicated narrative brain-teasing in Starbuck, which has a great (if not entirely original) comedic concept it chooses to play seriocomedically — i.e., less for the laughs it seldom earns than for the heart-tugging it eventually pretty much does. An ingratiatingly rumpled Patrick Huard (a major Quebec star best known for the mega-hit Les Boys series and 2006’s Good Cop, Bad Cop) plays David, erstwhile stellar contributor to a Montreal sperm bank in his salad days. Now older but no wiser, he finds himself confronted by the reality of 533 biologically fathered, now-grown offspring who’ve filed a class action lawsuit to discover his identity even as he deals with mob debt and an exasperated, pregnant semi-ex-girlfriend (Julie LeBreton).

This is one of those “loser man-boy must semi-grow up fast amid crisis, finding family values en route” scenarios tailor-fit for Adam Sandler. That said, the overlong, stubbornly endearing Starbuck is so much less insufferable than anything Sandler has made since … um, ever? Halfway through, this agreeable movie gets clever — as David stumbles into a meeting of his prodigious anonymous progeny — and remains reasonably so to the satisfyingly hard-won happy ending.

It’s still got moments of contrivance, editorial fat (too many montages, for one thing), and more climactic hugs than any self-respecting dramedy needs to get the redemptive point across. Yet it’s also got something few comedies of any national origin have today: a lovely, distinctive, bright yet non-cartoonish wide screen look.

THE SILENCE opens Fri/29 in Bay Area theaters; STARBUCK opens Fri/29 in San Francisco.

The Nonconformist


FILM Most observers of last week’s Oscar telecast assumed elegant 86-year-old Emmanuelle Riva was the star of the movie she’d gotten a Best Actress nomination for. Conspicuously absent — from that and most other awards events — was Amour‘s real performing lead, who’d gotten crowded out of the field by the usual surplus of major English-language roles for men. As the dignified elderly husband decreasingly able to care for a longtime spouse’s dignity-robbing failing health, Jean-Louis Trintignant grows more dominant in his character’s helplessness as Riva’s recedes into illness. It’s a powerful performance made all the more so by the simple shock of seeing him. Hasn’t he been, er, away a while? Or to put it bluntly: he’s still alive?!

The last time wide audiences would have seen him was in the large ensemble of Patrice Chéreau’s 1998 Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. Already nearing 70 then, he remained somewhat active in theater while staying mostly off screen for the next 14 years. In honor of his return, the Pacific Film Archive is providing a retrospective that runs through April 21.

“And God Created Jean-Louis Trintignant” offers a mix of popular hits, agreed-upon masterpieces, and rarities that give fair measure of a long, prolific yet discriminating career. It’s surprising to see the wide range of films he’s played in, since Trintignant is so often the still center of them — he communicates such reserve, thoughtfulness, and economy of craft that it takes seeing numerous roles back-to-back like this to realize how very different his performances are. They’re just not flamboyantly different, in the way of a Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep. He’s said “The best actors in the world are those who feel the most and show the least,” a rule one could argue with — but it’s certainly true in his case.

Short, slight, handsome in a slightly nondescript way, he couldn’t have struck anyone at first as natural movie star material. But he did intrigue Roger Vadim, when the latter was looking for a newcomer to play off his female discovery in 1956’s …And God Created Woman. The woman was Brigitte Bardot, introduced completely nude (albeit laying on her stomach); it was Bardot and Vadim’s shared gift that though she spent the rest of the story clothed, one imagined with an indolent shrug those rags might tumble at any moment and she’d be starkers again. As the village lad who marries “that little slut” lest she be sent back to the orphanage (!), while she exerts a siren pull toward every other man around, Trintignant sounded a modest note in one of the most garishly silly yet influential films ever made. Yet the global sensation Bardot caused cast a public glare on anyone with a connection, let alone a purported inamorato. He voluntarily fled for military service.

When he returned — with rather less fanfare than Army-sprung Elvis — he set about building a serious actor’s resume with diverse projects and interesting directors. He was suddenly blond and uncharacteristically glamorous as a golden youth of Italy’s fascist elite in Valerio Zurlini’s Violent Summer (1959), so in love with an older woman (Eleanora Rossi Drago) they’re barely aware there’s a World War going on. But more typically he was creating anti-romantic characters typical of the 1960s — variably neurotic, eccentric, conflicted, always with more going on under the surface than one could fully grasp. One lesser-remembered PFA selection is Alain Cavalier’s 1962 New Wave triangle Le combat dans l’ile, in which his marital discord with Romy Schneider is eventually explained by his secretly belonging to a far-right terrorist cell.

Trintignant was in two of the most wildly popular “art” export hits of the decade, Claude Lelouch’s gauzy swoonfest A Man and a Woman (1966) and Costa Gavras’ political thriller Z (1969). Yet his race-car driver in the former tempers its Eurokitsch atmosphere with impenetrable cool, while in the hyperbolic latter he’s almost monastically austere as the investigator who patiently picks apart an assassination cover-up. Perhaps his ultimate role as a man of decisive inaction was as The Conformist (1970), again as a Mussolini-era fascist — one who betrays his friends as ruthlessly and usefully as director Bertolucci does the original Moravia novel. Amid that film’s ravishing baroque excesses, he’s as reptilian, quease-making, and pitiable as a Gollum, if better-dressed.

While he continued to make the odd all-star purely commercial project — a good one being rare 1973 American foray The Outside Man — he usually chose riskier fare. Thus he was the first major star to work with Eric Rohmer (as the Catholic fussbudget sorta-seeking romance in 1969’s My Night at Maud’s), and an early ally to figures as disparate as Jacques Demy, Claude Chabrol, Tinto Brass, Umberto Lenzi, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and André Téchiné.

Barely slowing despite the transition to character support, he’d found perhaps a definitive pre-Amour farewell role (and chronological end to the PFA series) as the retired judge busy bending laws for his personal amusement in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy (and career) finale Red (1994). It might have served as a perfect capper — but you’ve got to hand it to any 83-year-old savvy enough to realize Michael Haneke was worth coming out of retirement for. *


Through April 21

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.


If you’re nasty


FILM The current hand-wringing over whether an irresponsible entertainment industry corrupts our youth is notable for being such a blatant diversionary tactic by gun-control foes — their argument being a little beside the point, of course, since incidents are rather few of people being shot dead by a copy of Grand Theft Auto or a Saw flick.

The case against Hollywood as corruptor of morality and youth is otherwise nothing new. On several occasions outrage has risen enough to actually force changes (however modest or temporary), such as when unprecedented late-1960s levels of violent and sexual content instigated the creation of the current MPAA ratings system, now considered wildly out-of date.

But the biggest such fracas reached its zenith with the 1934 enforcement of the Production Code, which levied drastic new limitations on screen content. It introduced a bland new era, and orphaned the one just past — the one we’ve come to celebrate as “pre-Code,” and which is back once again in Elliot Lavine’s latest Roxie series, the week-long “Hollywood Before the Code: Deeper, Darker, Nastier!”

Hollywood had already been building — rightly or wrongly — a rep as the “modern Sodom” for some time. High-profile scandals during the silent era involving drug abuse, wrongful death, and unsavory sexual revelations prompted many a pulpit denunciation. When sound arrived, old talent was replaced by new imports from “blue” Broadway, where racy patter was de rigueur; so once the movies learned to talk, they quickly learned to talk … well, unclean, if not exactly legally dirty.

The Depression had brought harsh new social realities, and while audiences craved escapism, they didn’t mind if it was also vicariously rude and raw. (At least urban ones did — rural patrons had more conservative tastes, and in an era well before “wide” simultaneous openings on umpteen screens, the studios provided selective product accordingly.)

Violence was indeed a major issue: The original “gangster” cycle kicked off by The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932) horrified many, with mayhem that barely registers by today’s standards censored on a state-by-state basis. But the main thing was allegedly pervasive and pernicious “smut,” as represented by everything from Betty Boop’s skirt length to the average prude’s Satanic Majesty Herself, Mae West. (The Code’s impact could be most directly measured in the speed with which a toned-down and thus nearly irrelevant West went from box-office titan to has been.)

In the brave new world of the Code, such threats to national sanity went away because sex no longer existed. Even married couples were to be depicted as having separate double beds, one spouse keeping always keeping a foot on the floor during any kisses (of less than three seconds in duration) in their vicinity.

But on the pre-Code screen, everybody was doing everybody, often for sweet cold cash — though of course the world’s oldest profession was never exactly named. This latest Roxie series features plenty of its practitioners, dames at once hard-boiled and over-easy but ready to go soft for an upstanding guy. The most famous is dubiously employed Marlene Dietrich in von Sternberg’s 1932 exotica masterpiece Shanghai Express, wherein she husks “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Then there’s Miriam Hopkins as Ivy the barmaid in Rouben Mamoulian’s classic Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), with Frederic March in the lead role(s).

Most of the current program’s titles are variably obscure ones with glittering Golden Age stars in scenarios that further tarnish legally challenged ladies before romance buffs them shiny again — most in “four hanky” soap operas targeted toward a working-class female audience later represented by Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Paramount’s glossy 1933 Torch Song has the next year’s Best Actress Oscar winner (for It Happened One Night), Claudette Colbert, as a nice girl turned dirty-blues chanteuse. Further down the totem pole, there’s pre-screwball Carole Lombard as the heroine of Virtue (1932), introduced while being escorted out of New York by the vice squad. Her past won’t quit her when she redeems herself via marriage to cynical cabbie Pat O’Brien. It’s an archetypal pre-Code rediscovery, no doubt thrown together at the time yet wonderfully snappy, saucy, and even poignant now.

Its themes are taken even further by films set in the era’s reliably lawless “tropical” locales, fictive or otherwise. Nothing’s quite so filthy by implication as brief near-star (“The Girl with the Naughty Twinkle in Her Eye!”) Dorothy Mackaill’s 1931 William Wellman-directed Safe in Hell, wherein she’s the runaway goodtime-girl “only white woman on the island.” Save perhaps 1934’s pre-Code last huzzah Black Moon, a voodoo potboiler that puts King Kong’s girlfriend Fay Wray in yea worse peril.

Other notable highlights include Waterloo Bridge, the rarely-revived 1931 first version of Robert Sherwood’s play by Frankenstein director James Whale; quasi-Sapphic, proto-Petrified Forest melodrama Heat Lightning (1934); and a tribute to staple Hollywood character actor Lyle Talbot, whose author daughter Margaret will appear before screenings March 7.


“Hollywood Before the Code: Deeper, Darkier, Nastier!”

March 1-7, $11 (double and triple features)

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St, SF

Heat of the moment


FILM The late 1950s saw Japanese film production and attendance at all-time highs. Soon the expanding television market would steadily draw audiences away, but in the meantime the industry was robust enough to encourage the promotion of assistant directors and other next-generation talents influenced by the era’s various artistic avant-gardes to make their own features. This resulted in a flowering of bold new voices parallel to France’s New Wave and other radical filmmaking shifts around the globe. As elsewhere, ideas and influences from the underground began bubbling up to the mainstream surface.

Unlike other places, however, Japan had its own conglomerate means of importing, producing, and exhibiting (in a micro-chain of specially designated theaters) more experimental work in direct if modest competition with commercial product. That means would be the Art Theater Guild of Japan, which a group of cineastes, filmmakers, and critics launched in 1961; by spring of the next year they’d secured 10 venues across the nation to showcase the work ATG distributed and, eventually, created in-house.

Two concurrent local retrospectives highlight the Art Theater Guild’s important but (at least in the West) underseen contributions. The organization is tangentially related to the roster of experimental shorts (plus Michio Okabe’s mondo-like 1968 feature counterculture overview Crazy Love) in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and San Francisco Cinematheque’s two-week “Fragments of Japanese Underground Cinema 1960-1974” series, which begins this week. But it’s central to the Pacific Film Archive’s already in-progress “Chronicles of Inferno: Japan’s Art Theater Guild,” continuing through month’s end.

Raised in a society whose rigid codes for behavior and loyalty enabled a remarkable post-World War II economic recovery, but which could also stifle individual expression, Japanese filmmakers emerging in the 1960s were if anything even more eager than young Americans and Europeans to tear apart inherited thematic, stylistic, and commercial conventions. Whether advocating for full-on revolution, critiquing the status quo, or playing with form, ATG’s productions pushed both medium and audiences out of the comfort zone.

That aim couldn’t have been more apparent in the company’s first original feature (co-produced with Nikkatsu Corp.), 1967’s A Man Vanishes by the celebrated Shohei Imamura (1963’s The Insect Woman, 1966’s The Pornographers, 1983’s The Ballad of Narayama). Ostensibly an investigative documentary about a salaryman who’s gone missing for two years, it’s a poker-faced prank that slowly grows more convoluted and bizarre until the film becomes a chronicle of its own unmaking, and an accusation directed at any notion of truth in cinema.

More traditional subjects are turned inside out in Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide (1969) and Toshio Matsumoto’s Shura (1971). The former is drawn from a 300-year-old tragic romance written for bunraku (puppet) theater; mixing abstraction and naturalism, actors human and otherwise, it’s a jewel that questions artifice itself. In contrast to the prolific Shinoda, Matsumoto made very few features, most famously 1969’s pop art-camp extravaganza Funeral Parade of Roses, which transplants Oedipus Rex to the Tokyo gay underground with cross-dressing singer-actor “Peter” as its ruthless glamazon protagonist.

Shura (a.k.a. Demons) is as cramped as that film is extravagant. Turning its extreme physical and budgetary limitations into the stuff of claustrophobic nightmare à la Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) or Roger Corman’s Teenage Doll (1957), it’s the tale of a samurai who gives everything up for love of a geisha — you know that’s a bad idea when early on she asks the question that needs no answer, “How dare you call me a vixen?” Once he realizes he’s been betrayed, all hell breaks loose in bursts of over-the-top violence that might be real or imaginary, given the film’s penchant for showing us successive alternate versions of the same scenes.

Arguably the series’ wildest stylistic leap is Shuji Terayama’s 1974 Pastoral: Hide and Seek, a bracing phantasmagorical chronicle of a very troubled mother-child relationship that reels from circus surrealism and mime makeup to porno sex and quiet lyricism. Perhaps its bitterest statement comes in the form of 1971’s The Ceremony from a pre-In the Realm of the Senses (1976) Nagisa Oshima. Rigorously formal in presentation (and taking place almost exclusively during public rituals), it traces the gradual soul crushing of a protagonist whose forced lifelong hewing to the model of a “pure and perfect Japanese” sacrifices any possibility of happiness. One of the ultimate “You think you hate your family?” horror films, it features multiple suicides and gruesomely joyless sexual interludes testifying to the suffocation of bourgeoisie conformity.

While its stature and role changed over time, ATG hung on through the mid 1980s, its final releases including such memorable ones as Yoshimitsu Morita’s anarchic social satire The Family Game (1983), an international hit. *


Through Feb. 27

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.


Feb. 14-28

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF


My campy Valentine


FILM Love is the drug, or so sang somebody once. Yet violent conflict has always been a more predominatingly addicting factor in movies — which is why it seems both natural and despairing that the Vortex Room‘s “For Your Vortex Only” celebration of “Love…Vortex Style” (please guys, only one title per series), every Thursday in February, features eight vintage movies in which “love” is less a matter of romantic fulfillment than a titular selling point.

Which is not to say the Vortex programmers have not ranged far and extra wide to find 16mm prints (when available) of the most obscure and eccentric among odes to St. Valentine, though several weren’t remotely obscure at the time. That would include the kick-off double bill, which starts off with 1979’s Love at First Bite — a post-Young Frankenstein knockoff farce whose selling point was aging Old Hollywood himbo George Hamilton as a Count Dracula exported via coffin-encased necessity to disco-era Manhattan. He’s funny; Richard Benjamin as Jewish-shrink Van Helsing is funnier. Not so much: the tiresome racial stereotypes or clutter of TV sitcom faces.

That movie was a sleeper hit. A shameful semi-success, by contrast, was its Vortex co-feature The Love Machine (1971) — second adaptation of a Jacqueline Susann bestseller after 1967 camp classic Valley of the Dolls, and by far the best. Of course it’s still a glossy, ridiculous swamp of lurid melodrama and degraded “name” actors. John Phillip Law (1968’s Barbarella and Skidoo) probably locked himself out of the mainstream stardom by playing Susann’s soulless, indiscriminately sexually satisfying TV-executive climber. He’s actually very good — more than one can say for the fellow thespians (notably Dyan Cannon, Robert Ryan, Jackie Cooper, and David Hemmings as a particularly mean homosexual caricature) in what was only director Jack Haley Jr.’s second stab at narrative directing before he turned exclusively to celebrating his son-of-Tin-Man Old Hollywood heritage via documentaries like 1974’s That’s Entertainment!

Actual Valentine’s Day programming at the Vortex is certifiably insane: 1935’s Mad Love has Peter Lorre as a mad scientist in the daddy of all severed-transplanted-hands-of-a-murderer thrillers; while 1987’s Love is a Dog From Hell, a.k.a. Crazy Love, channels the Skid Row poetics of Charles Bukowski into a dazzling Belgian demonstration of art house bravado. It’s fatiguingly great.

The last two Vortex Thursdays in February wade into genuinely forgotten cinematic chapters. Least (forgotten, but also worthy) among them is The Love-Ins, an inadvertently hilarious 1967 highlight in hippiesploitation with Peyton Place regular Susan Oliver and future Hawaii Five-O star James MacArthur as vulnerable university students roped into the dangerous radicalism of a Timothy Leary-like prof (Richard Todd). When she’s dosed on acid, the ensuing polite Alice in Wonderland “freak-out” ballet is perhaps Hollywood’s dumbest counterculture indictment ever.

Yea more obscure are this amorous series’ final selections. The Love War (1970) is a TV movie sci-fi with Lloyd Bridges and Angie Dickinson as combatants on an interplanetary-games war using Earth as its playing field. It’s gimmicky but stupid alongside the next year’s Quest for Love, a clever parallel-time fantasy perhaps beyond the capabilities of director Ralph Thomas (1974’s It’s Not the Size That Counts) and star Joan Collins (whose earnest efforts suggest she never had a naturalistic acting moment in her life).

Unavailable for preview was that Quest‘s Vortex co-feature Love Slaves of the Amazon, a 1957 Universal International exploitation film of which surely more should be known, if only to preserve our fragile balance between the sexes against so much perverted input. Including, of course, camp retrospectives like the Vortex’s. *


Thu/7, Feb 14, 21, and 28, 9 and 11pm, $10

Vortex Room

1082 Howard, SF

Facebook: The Vortex Room


Smith happens


FILM Every year there’s at least one: the adorable-old-coot fest, usually British, that proves harmless and reassuring and lightly tear/laughter producing enough to convince a certain demographic that it’s safe to go to the movies again, just this once. The last months have seen two, both starring Maggie Smith (who’s also queen of that audience’s home viewing via Downton Abbey), and in this case more is probably less.

Last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which Smith played a bitchy old spinster appalled to find herself in India (hip replacement operations being cheaper there), has already filled the slot. It was formulaic, cute, and sentimental, yes, but it also practiced more restraint than one expected, delivering a certain amount of emotional payoff you didn’t have to cringe over the next day. (Particularly if you forgot how one-dimensional the Indian characters were — and they certainly were forgettable.)

Now here’s Quartet, which is basically the same flower arrangement with quite a bit more dust on it. Smith plays a bitchy old spinster — complete with hip problems — appalled to find herself forced into spending her twilight years at a home for the elderly. It’s not just any such home, however, but Beecham House (actually Hedsor House, a much-filmed estate in Buckinghamshire), whose residents are retired professional musicians.

Gingerly peeking out from her room after a few days’ retreat from public gaze, Smith’s Jean Horton — a famed English soprano — spies a roomful of codgers rolling their hips to Afropop in a dance class. “This is not a retirement home — this is a madhouse!” she pronounces. Oh, the shitty lines that lazy writers have long depended on Smith to make sparkle. Well, even she’s not that much of a magician.

Quartet is full of such bunk, adapted with loving fidelity, no doubt, from his own 1999 play by Ronald Harwood, who as a scenarist has done some good adaptations of other people’s work (2002’s The Pianist, 2007’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). But as a generator of original material for about a half-century, he’s mostly proven that it is possible to prosper that long while being in entirely the wrong half-century. The highlight was The Dresser, a play (later filmed, in 1983) of that type which throws bouquets at theater itself while handing an enormous slice of ready-cooked ham to the actors playing theatrical archetypes. The lowlight has been 2008’s Australia — for which Baz Luhrmann shoulders the primary blame, but anyone associated with that script should have had their Writers Guild membership suspended at least until the screams of unprepared ticket buyers stopped.

This play, too, seems to have inspired enthusiasm only for its performers in its original West End run. (Oddly, however, it’s been a long-running hit in a Finnish adaptation.) It seems doubtful anyone was chomping at the bit to make a movie version. But then in one of those periodic reminders that the ways of show biz (when not strictly commercial) can be unfathomable, it has found new life as the directorial debut of … 75-year-old American actor Dustin Hoffman.

Which ought to be more interesting than it turns out — with its workmanlike gloss and head-on take on the script’s very predictable beats, Quartet could as well have been directed by any BBC veteran of no particular distinction. The English countryside can be counted on to look pretty; this cast and its hundreds of years of experience (including those members identified at the end as former classical musicians) need hardly break a sweat realizing such soft material.

So, Maggie Smith arrives at Beecham House to the varying delight of former operatic colleagues Pauline Collins (comic ditherer), Billy Connelly (randy old goat), and Michael Gambon (nasty old queen), as well as the initial dismay of Tom Courtenay as the ex-husband whose heart she carelessly broke. Naturally, the joint is in danger of closure and can only be saved by the starry new arrival’s participation in an annual charity performance. Yes, it’s just like the plot of Roller Boogie (1979), and every other hoary “Let’s put on a show to save the [blank]” exercise. You know just what’s going to happen — “How dare you!” turns to “Oh, all right then” turns to triumph, although the film (like the play) cheats by declining to actually show us that triumph — and it does, on cue, for 98 digestion-easing minutes.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with providing vehicles for beloved older actors — but why does it always have to be this kind of vehicle, bland as toast and no more nutritious? Even Dame Maggie Smith doesn’t seem particularly interested; no doubt she’d like to play someone to whom the adjective “bitchy” doesn’t apply once in a while. The classical canon is full of great roles for fully mature actors. But for the movies, it seems, after a certain point you only get to play silly old dears or bitter crones. There’s got to be room for something between condescending trifles like Quartet and the bleak staring-death-in-the-face of Amour


QUARTET opens Fri/25 in Bay Area theaters.

Damnation investigation


FILM It’s a peculiarity of our moment that the worse things get, the more people seem inclined to think everyone else is going to hell. Their interpretation of the Bible (or Quran, or whatever) is seemingly absolute, yet God seems to stay on their side no matter which way the worldly wind might blow. Righteous judgment of others has practically become the American way, not that we were ever less than an opinionated bunch.

There is much talk of “God’s love,” but in popular and pious discourse these days it seems exclusively to be tough love — the emphasis on cautionary corrective smack downs and threats of everlasting hellfire rather than comfort and salvation, to an often lunatic degree. Just when did so many get so interested in, even quite eager about, waggling a finger at those presumed to be headed Down There?

Documentarian Kevin Miller has an answer: 9/11. At least that provides an easy and dramatic turning point, from which a great many Americans seemed to become experts in who should be doomed to sizzle in that never-ending frying pan. As one political pundit put it on CNN soon after the Twin Towers tragedy, America now had a license to “Blow them all away in the name of the Lord.” A national desire for revenge was understandable. But that event did seem to trigger a fundamental shift in our society, and the public discourse hasn’t much calmed down since.

Miller’s Hellbound? uses reactions to 9/11 as one recurrent measure of why the “eternal conscious torment” theory of hell — as opposed to annihilationism, in which only the righteous experience immortality (the rest are simply destroyed), let alone namby-pamby, forgiveness-based universalism — holds such sway today. All three concepts are equally supported by Biblical passages; various historians and theologians here note how hesitantly Judaism first accepted the notion of a punitive afterlife (apparently inherited from Zoroastrianism), and how debate of such slippery ideas was often — not always, but often — considered a healthy part of religious devotion through the history of Christianity. After all, so many events and messages in the Bible are open to interpretation — not to mention the drastic changes in understanding that can occur when you take into consideration the linguistic, historical, political, and social contexts in which they were originally written (then frequently revised).

Yet as everyone knows, today a great number of people — some loud and influential — overlook all that in the hard certainty that they understand exactly what the Bible means and what God is saying. Particularly what and whom he doesn’t like, which inevitably points fingers at others (the gays, the welfare cheaters, the Muslims, Piers Morgan) rather than oneself. Miller spends a fair amount of time chatting up the hate-a-holics of Westboro Baptist Church, and while you might groan anytime they get a public forum, he actually engages with them sufficiently to avoid a yelling contest — and to demonstrate how “Not only do I damn you but God damns you too” bile is a cartoon masquerading as evangelical faith.

After all, as one calmer voice puts it, playing “paper Pope” as a smug individual interpreter of Biblical condemnation runs counter to a vast majority of what’s actually in that book.

“The irony is that you have this teacher named Jesus and then you essentially side with his enemies in [your] behavior,” says Crazy for God author Frank Schaeffer. “Evangelicism is for America what the Pharisees were in ancient Israel. These guys wreak vengeance on the people who bring the good news about a loving god … because that message puts the gatekeepers out of a job.”

Why would God create enormous numbers of folk — say, all those non-Christian ones — just to send them to Hades? If you’re a Buddhist or a Sikh raised in religious isolation, how have you exercised a personal “choice” against the true God that justifies sending you there? Don’t ask, just shut up, feel the fear, and hate who I hate — or such seems to be the message of many prominent “Christians” of late. But: “If you have a paradigm that doesn’t allow you to ask questions, there’s something wrong with your paradigm,” as another scholar puts it here.

In fact, Jesus was all about the loving enemies, plenty of the Bible suggests ultimate reconciliation and “washing of sins” for all, and isn’t making God hateful just a way of justifying the hate we feel ourselves? Maybe hell was merely meant to be “your condition, not a place … the malice we feel within our own conscience that ‘burns’ us,” an Orthodox rabbi says. God’s justice as restorative and healing, embracing all — the dread word is not heard in Hellbound?, but one could easily imagine many fervent believers of today feeling that that long-running yet currently unfashionable interpretation is dangerously close to, y’know, Socialism. *


Thu/17-Sat/19, 7:30pm (also Sat/19, 4pm); Sun/20, 2 and 4pm

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF


Nero worship


FILM Though it’s much more a Southern than a Western — closer to Mandingo (1975) than Red River (1948), that’s for sure — Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained nonetheless pays specific homage to spaghetti westerns in its title and some stylistic fillips.

The subgenre of Euro-westerns that briefly revived the flagging American genre in the mid-to-late 1960s, spaghettis remain defined by their most famous creator, Sergio Leone. He kickstarted the vogue with 1964’s sleeper hit A Fistful of Dollars — a stark, nihilistic tale of greed and revenge that borrowed heavily from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo and turned Clint Eastwood into an international idol. It wasn’t strictly the first of its type, but the unexpected splash it made, plus its director’s singular cinematic voice, would continue to define spaghettis long after their heyday had passed. The huge close-ups, austere widescreen vistas, sparse dialogue, and cynical and violent content were Leone signatures that would be widely imitated — not just because these films were highly commercial for a time, but because their essences were ones that could be mimicked effectively enough by the lowliest fly-by-night production company.

Before it breathed its last, the genre had coughed up about 600 such knockoffs, the vast majority between 1965 and 1972 or so. Most of them were made in haste, interchangeable in flavor and story, and tedious to all but the diehard fan. As with many Italian-born film export waves, this one ensured its quick demise by cranking out so much crap.

Of course, there were exceptions beyond Leone’s, probably the most beloved and certainly the most influential of them being the original Django. Playing a rare theatrical revival, Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 bloodbath took the morbidity and weirdness of spaghettis — at least compared to their generally wholesome American forebears — and ran amuck, pushing gallows humor to the edge of black comedy. While not nearly as well remembered in the US as the Eastwood films, it was huge at the time, so much so that at least 30 features with “Django” in the title followed, even when no character with that name appeared on-screen.

The reason for all this is that Django, and his movie, remain dead cool. At least you couldn’t get any cooler than that most alarmingly handsome of Italian actors Franco Nero in black floor-length duster and leather hat, dragging a coffin around the desert, striking a stylishly sinister balance between Eastwood’s Man With No Name and José Mojica Marins’ Coffin Joe. His Django was a sardonic figure of mystery seeking revenge on bandits led by a corrupt military officer. Umpteen unpleasant altercations later, there’s a great climactic shootout in a graveyard, cementing Django’s vaguely evangelical air with some outright blasphemy.

Just what was in that box? Death, natch, but not in the way you might think — Django used his coffin as a plus-sized version of the way a movie gangster uses a violin case. The film was so violent for its era, what with ears sliced off and a body count of nearly 150, that it was banned for many years in various countries. The multilingual, far-left-leaning Nero preferred to pursue artistic adventure rather than genre success, making few other westerns. He does, however, duly make a cameo appearance in Django Unchained, sans coffin but still looking mighty fine for 71.


Fri/18, 11pm, $8.50-$11

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF


The damage done


FILM Robert Carlyle is the kind of actor who usually elicits a slow-dawning response in realm of “Oh, right … that guy. What was he in again?” Well, a lot, but if you’re not British (let alone Scottish), his visibility has probably been erratic and infrequent — plus he does that exasperating English thing of taking TV assignments like they’re perfectly OK, as opposed to the US approach of doing series work only when your big-screen career is in the toilet.

His persona, to simplify a bit, is usually that of the aging boy-man sad sack whose self-deprecation and pleading eyes are attractive until you realize he’s as likely to slide out of any commitment with a muttered excuse as easily as he’ll slide off that bar stool. In other words, a long-odds but redeemable loser. In that vein his quintessential role was as the main guy trying not to disappointment everyone yet again in The Full Monty (1997), an unusually bleak and satisfying “feel good” movie that spawned umpteen softer ones. He’s played variants on that part enough times that you might forget just one year earlier he was the terrifyingly vivid psychotic Begbie in Trainspotting.

Indeed, he’s played a Bond villain (albeit in 1999’s The World Is Not Enough), a cannibal (in 1999’s Ravenous), an evil wizard (2006’s Eragon), even Hitler (in a little-seen 2003 TV film), and if you get BBC America you might well think he’s the most versatile actor on the planet. But the projects in which he most frequently surfaces here — discounting American broadcast money gigs like SGU Stargate Universe — are little UK art house dramas. Often directed by people such as Ken Loach or Shane McMeadows, they customarily find him as protagonists who’d have been Angry Young Men a generation or two earlier. But now they’re not even angry; defeat has been bred in since the cradle, and there’s likely to be a good deal of pathos in any attempts to buck the odds.

Bruised losers going down — albeit not without one last noble act or effort — can be a beautiful line for an actor to make his own, from Jean Gabin to Liam Neeson (before he abruptly turned geriatric action hero). If the shabby shoe fits, might as well wear it. So Carlyle is a producer on California Solo, the kind of movie that often prompts critics to evoke ones from an earlier era (1972’s Fat City, 1981’s Cutter’s Way, 1975’s Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, etc.) No one went to those, either. But they were good, small, “personal” films with a genuine fondness for gritty characters and milieus.

Writer-director Marshall Lewy’s drama revolves around Lachlan MacAldonich, a lanky fortysomething Scotsman who’s somehow found himself managing an organic farm for its cranky but loyal owner (A Martinez) in that deep SoCal nowhere rendered agricultural only by the contortions of water-rights trafficking politicians.

He lives alone, he drinks alone; whatever past he’s got is one he’s cut himself off from. He does have an interesting “hobby” that might provide a clue: boozily hosting a weekly podcast from his kitchen table called Flameouts, “the show where we discuss the tragic and sometimes spectacular deaths of the world’s greatest musicians.” If anybody actually listens, we aren’t told, and he probably doesn’t care.

But Lachlan’s genial not caring much about anything, it seems, when he’s stopped careening home down the highway after bar-time. The resulting DUI charge, even its four-month drivers’ license suspension, wouldn’t be such a big deal if it didn’t turn out that a long-prior pot conviction makes him eligible for deportation despite his green card. And Lachlan really, really does not want to go back to the UK He’s buried himself here precisely to avoid the massive fuckup that no one there would be likely to have forgotten — that he was once the guitarist in “Britain’s biggest band” (at least for one NME minute), and that the major casualty of his stupid rock-star antics was the “British Kurt Cobain,” his brother Jed. When he crawls to the Beverly Hills manse of erstwhile music biz associate Wendell (Michael Des Barres, disturbingly well cast as an oily industry survivor) to beg for immigration lawyer money, the latter snaps “I was never your manager. I was never your friend. Jed was the band.”

Cue further self-destructive impulses, not at all eased by the pleading cow eyes Lachlan makes at sympathetic Beau (Alexia Rasmussen), a much younger customer he chats up at the farmer’s market each Sunday. (It’s even more embarrassing when Danny Masterson as her age-appropriate DJ boyfriend realizes “who he is,” and pours on the hero worship.) Even more painful are Lachlan’s attempts to re-establish some relationship with the bitter mother (Kathleen Wilhoite) of his now-teenaged daughter (Savannah Lathern) so he can claim his deportation would be a hardship to them.

Those last sequences are truly squirm-inducing, because the gap between Lachlan’s desire to do something right for a change and his haplessness at actually doing it is so palpable — we know it’s unfair he’s looking like a “reet eedyut,” but we also know he’s entirely brought it on himself. This is where an actor like Caryle knows how to go for the throat without seeming to reach for effect at all. He makes the depth of Lachlan’s self-loathing so palpable you want to hug him. After you’ve slapped him … but still.

Lewy also wrote and directed the very astute indie drama Blue State (2007), and if he didn’t craft Solo specifically for its Carlyle’s floppy-haired, ever-apologetic charm — well, didn’t he? This is the kind of very good movie that surprises when it actually turns up in theaters, however few. No matter that whoever actually sees the undeniably depressing-sounding California Solo will likely find it — and its star — endearing, poignant, ultimately upbeat. It’s even sort of a perfect early-date movie, softening up the emotions with male fragility redeemable by female generosity and forgiveness.


CALIFORNIA SOLO opens Fri/11 in Bay Area theaters.

Still the fairest


FILM One of the few upbeat by-products of the increasing infantilization of popular movies is that the same impulse to dumb down live action for permanently adolescent tastes also raises the bar for animation, which no longer has to target grade schoolers as its primary audience. Even not-so-special 2012 had more sophisticated and interesting animated features than you’d find in any given year a couple decades or more ago. Wreck-It Ralph won’t win the Best Picture Oscar. But it will almost certainly be better than whatever movie does.

The notion that adults actually want to see full-length cartoons, however, seemed preposterous to myriad soon-to-be-crow-eating people 75 years ago. That was when Walt Disney unleashed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the public — to an enormous success no one had predicted. In fact, all bets were placed on “Disney’s folly” sinking the studio that had foolishly invested all its resources (and a lot of borrowed money) in a venture whose cost overruns and dim prospects had been the talk of Hollywood. (No doubt a few studio heads were happily anticipating hiring Walt’s newly at-liberty talent at cut rates for their own animation divisions.)

Of course, the naysayers were proven wrong — opening up the floodgates to more cartoon features, then Disney live-action films, nature documentaries, TV series, theme parks … a whole empire of “brand” that for better and worse has shaped American culture (and its perception abroad) ever since. The double-disc 2009 DVD release of Snow White features, among its extras, one latter-day observer calling the film “one of the great American success stories of all time.” (The official Disney history offered up in such self promotional products is relentlessly hyperbolic. The same package also offers an “all-new music video” rendition of “Someday My Prince Will Come” by one Tiffany Thornton that is so horrifyingly kitsch you can be sure it will be erased from the official Disney history forthwith.) Snow White would set a record for being the highest-grossing film of all time — but not for long, since a little thing called Gone with the Wind came out in 1939 and stole that title for another quarter-century.

I doubt Mr. Disney could have imagined the world in which his Snow White — which plays the Castro in a newly restored digital print this week, by the way — would be celebrating that septuagenarian anniversary. One in which prevailing tastes decreed two big-budget live-action spins on that same Bavarian fairy tale would be among 2012’s major releases for grown-ups; a mass murder of his target demographic would dominate year-end news; and the unions he famously opposed would be popularly vilified.

That ripple effect is more than this movie should have to bear — let alone that it was apparently Hitler’s favorite. Because Snow White is still a charmer, gorgeous in the depth and detail of its backgrounds, seamless in traversing the bridge between score and song, and timelessly adorable (to use the heroine’s favorite adjective).

It seems less dated than just about any other movie from 1937, even if Snow White herself remains an insipid blank with the voice of Betty Boop doing operetta. (Subsequent Disney cartoon heroines would be feistier, though heroes would remain problematic — Walt’s animators found Snow’s Prince Charming so difficult to depict they wound up simply cutting his screen time to the bone.) The most one can say for her is that she seems to have majored in Home Ec, though the evil queen hooked on being “fairest of them all” kick-started a fine legacy of excellent Disney villains. (Notably absent were such grisly original fairy-tale details as the step mum’s death from dancing in red-hot iron shoes at Snow’s wedding.)

You can blame Snow White for cementing Disney’s transition from the rambunctious to the harmless. But 75 years later that formula still works — in this instance, at least. The art itself remains near-timeless, even if the subsequent Pinocchio (1940) and Bambi (1942) are arguably much better films. Few movies had anywhere near the same impact, on the medium’s development or life in general.

It had a more direct impact on the Radio City Music Hall, whose seats had to be replaced after a record-breaking run because children kept wetting themselves during the scarier sequences. Adorable! 


Wed/2-Sun/6, 1:30, 3:45, 6, and 8:15pm

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF


Harvey’s list



Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, US)

Bernie (Richard Linklater, US, 2011)

The Eye of the Storm (Fred Schepisi, Australia)

Fat Kid Rules the World (Matthew Lillard, US)

Footnote (Joseph Cedar, Israel, 2011)

Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick, US)

Hermano (Marcel Rasquin, Venezuela, 2010)

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France/Germany)

The Hunter (David Nettheim, Australia, 2011)

In Darkness (Agnieszka Holland, Poland/Germany/Canada, 2011)

Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs, US)

Klown (Mikkel Norgaard, Denmark, 2010)

Life of Pi (Ang Lee, US/China)

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, US/India)

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)

Michael (Markus Schleinzer, Austria, 2011)

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, US)

Natural Selection (Robbie Pickering, US, 2011)

Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, Norway, 2011)

Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, US)

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, US)

Sister (Ursula Meier, France/Switzerland)

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, UK/US)

21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, US)

Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore, US)


Gypsy Davy (Rachel Leah Jones, Israel/US/Spain, 2011)

The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki, various)

How to Survive a Plague (David France, US)

Informant (Jamie Meltzer, US)
The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, US)
The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, US/Netherlands/UK/Denmark)
Pink Ribbons, Inc. (Léa Pool, Canada, 2011)
Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, US)
Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/U.K.)
Surviving Progress (Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, Canada, 2011)
The Waiting Room (Peter Nicks, US)

Dirty jokes


TRASH It has been noted that most people didn’t experience “the Sixties” until the Seventies, at least in terms of all that Free Love and chemical entertainment. But even at the latter decade’s most indulgent junctures, many people’s minds remained stuck in the Fifties — sniggering about the very idea of sex, using terms like “boobies,” insisting women be gorgeous idiots and men perma-adolescent clods.

The 1970s may have begun with 1971’s Carnal Knowledge — a bitter goodbye to the fucked-up-edness of pre-Sexual Revolution life — but the ’80s began with 1982’s Porky’s, which signaled a return to sex as dirty joke when it wasn’t harrowing in a vagina-dentata way (see: 1987’s Fatal Attraction). The apex and nadir of anything-goes Me Decade public sexual expression was the existence of Al Goldstein’s zine Screw, which pushed the frontiers of the new permissiveness while indulging infantile humor and fearful-hostile misogyny.

The most puerile if also most harmless expression of this was in comedic porn movies, which set a juvenile Borscht Belt tenor early on with Deep Throat (1972) and seldom aimed any higher thereafter. This ka-boom-cha! humor dominated the never-ending cycle of movie spoofs that probably started with 1970 softcore jungle send-up Trader Hornee, but they also spawned a short-lived subgenre that ever-adventurous Joel Shepard of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is celebrating with a retrospective this month. Reviving three features from our nation’s bicentennial year of 1976, “Honk If You’re Horny: Retro Sex Musicals” definitely proves that if you were born too late for that era, you missed some very, very strange experiences.


Where today’s trend toward “darker” versions of fairy tales on the big and small screen — Grimm, all those Snow Whites, the upcoming Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters — perhaps indicates how childish adult tastes have grown, in the Seventies those fables were used and abused to measure just how far from innocence we’d come. As early as 1963, no less than Herschell Gordon Lewis was presiding over “nudie-cutie” Goldilocks and the Three Bares, after which followed The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried (1971), the same year’s The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio (“It’s Not His Nose That Grows!”), and so forth. But the zenith, such as it is, of this trend was YBCA series kickoff Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy (1976), whose opening credits feature the unique attribution “Underwater Nude Volleyball sequences shot by …”

In director Bud Townsend and scenarist-composer Bucky Searles’ very free adaptation of Lewis Carroll, Alice (Playboy centerfold and future Jackie Chan co-star Kristine DeBell, making her film debut) is a repressed librarian led down a rabbit hole of sexual exploration and liberation. Before returning to the real world (and real delivery-guy cock), she’s given a tongue bath by creatures whose costumes anticipate furry fandom; enjoys good vibrations from a talking rock; fellates the Mad Hatter; and watches unisex couple Tweedledee and Tweedledum 69 each other (what else are they going to do?) One doesn’t remember stripping lesbian nurses in the original, or topless slo-mo horseback riding. The women dance like Vegas showgirls and the men seem kinda queeny; don’t even ask about the “songs.” Nonetheless this cheap cheesefest was picked up for release by 20th Century Fox, which cut it to an R and made a small mint.

Ergo it is perhaps not that surprising that YBCA’s second feature, 1976’s The First Nudie Musical, got its own mainstream release from Paramount, tacky and horribly dated as it is. Made just before star Cindy Williams began Laverne and Shirley (though after she’d appeared in 1973’s American Graffiti and on Happy Days with Ron Howard, who does a cameo here), this wheezing yokfest has her as secretary to a porn producer (Stephen Nathan). It’s his big idea to counter flagging box office by shooting a porno musical, though that effort is nearly derailed by his being forced to put a studio boss’ idiot son (writer and co-director Bruce Kimmel) behind the camera. The kind of unfunny that for 97 minutes may make you want to kill yourself, Nudie duly has some full-frontal shots and a not-bad dancing dildos number. Otherwise — oy.

Last and possibly least even in this context is 1976’s Let My Puppets Come, one of those films that must be witnessed just to confirm that it exists — no matter how much you may regret doing so afterward. Late Bronx-bred Deep Throat auteur Gerard Damiano made some of the era’s most famous and most interesting porn features (usually not the same ones), but here he indulged a self-parodic whim by satirizing his own crazy career in singing, dancing, fucking felt ersatz-Muppet form.

Puppets‘ protagonists are a group of schmoes indebted to the mob and forced to make a porno to pay it off. (In the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, the director alluded to his erstwhile mob benefactors-bosses while his still-fearful wife keeps vehemently trying to shush him in the background.) Their resulting masterpiece stars the likes of “Anthony Quimm” and “Clitorus Leachman,” features a bit of make-believe bestiality (a none-too-subtle reference to Throat star Linda Lovelace’s canine thrill reel), has fake commercials (vaginal deodorant, etc.), and a cameo by Al Goldstein himself.

Evidently Damiano’s backers didn’t appreciate the joke, since the film was released at just 40-odd minutes’ length, with most of its songs cut. But Shepard promises an ultra-rare screening of the full, intended hour-and-a quarter edit. Swallow at your own risk. *


Thu/6, Dec. 13, and 20, 7:30pm, $8-$10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF


Le grand career


FILM In the 1950s and ’60s silent comedy — which had hitherto seemed as extinct and useless as the dodo — experienced a popular revival, sparked by a Walter Kerr article in Life magazine and sustained by television broadcasts, compilation documentaries, the general rise of a cineaste culture, and the still-breathing status of a few old favorites. (Buster Keaton, for one, spent a very busy last 15 years making guest appearances on both the big and small screen.) That nostalgic interest didn’t greatly effect new Hollywood movies of the era, however, apart from a brief vogue for bloated homages like It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), The Great Race (1965), and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), exercises in slapstick elephantiasis that placed mistaken belief in the notion that bigger is always better.

In France, by contrast, at least a couple notable careers emerged devoted to honoring and elaborating on the tropes of silent comedy. The obvious one belonged to Jacques Tati, whose elegant orchestration of the clash between progress and fallible humanity made the modern world its subject while pretty much dispensing with sound (or at least dialogue) cinema altogether.

But Tati also had a protégé of sorts, Pierre Étaix, who had his own similar yet distinct run of films that made comparatively little impact outside France. If they’re almost entirely unknown to us today, that’s in large part because legal complications kept them unavailable for many long years. It’s only recently that they’ve been restored and re-released, reaching the US in a traveling retrospective that lands at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center this weekend and next. “Pierre Étaix: Lost and Found” is well worth crossing the bridge for — the five features and three shorts it encompasses represent a decade of work for the most part so delightful it seems downright perverse we’re just now making their acquaintance.

Smitten by circus clowning at an early age but also developing considerable skills as a musician and designer, Étaix began a stage career in his late teens. But it was his talent as an illustrator that caught the eye of Tati, for whom he became an assistant during the four years of preproduction on the writer-director-actor’s third feature Mon Oncle (1958). After that Étaix returned to live performance with considerable success, his comedy act at one point opening for quintessential Gallic pop idol Johnny Halladay. It was suggested he try making short films, and the elaborate second such effort, Happy Anniversary, wound up winning the 1963 Oscar for Best Live Action Short.

Still, his producer was reluctant to commit to a feature, so Étaix and his writing partner Jean-Claude Carriere wrote a script episodic enough that it could be released as several separate shorts if necessary. The Suitor (1962) put the star’s flexible prior character — an approximate cross between Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Steve Carrell — into a series of awkward courtships in response to his exasperated parents’ concern that he will never marry. (The funniest involves his wrangling an extremely drunk woman home from a nightclub.)

It was a success, prompting the much more ambitious Yo Yo (1965), an absurdist microcosm of 20th century history with his titular protagonist reeling from Roaring Twenties to World War II to the gray flannel suit corporate era. The next year’s As Long as You’re Healthy retrenched a bit — it really was three separate shorts strung together (a fifth was rather inexplicably cut and released separately as Feeling Good). Three were amusing; the fourth, involving a farmer, a hunter, and two picnickers creating havoc for each other on a rural day out, is a masterpiece of slapstick intricacy.

After a circus tour, he made his first color feature, 1969’s Le Grand Amour. It had just a wisp of plot (involving the specter of infidelity threatening hero Pierre’s marriage to Florence, played by Étaix’s actual spouse Annie Fratellini), but a surfeit of exquisitely realized gags including a marvelous, surreal dream sequence with locomotive beds.

But then he made an apparently fatal mistake: taking an interesting gamble on 1971’s Land of Milk and Honey, a caustic documentary (and, to an extent, parody of documentaries) that starts out as deliberately clichéd ode to La France then rapidly turns into a prolonged sneer at its citizens. Dwelling on talentless would-be singers in some Gong Show-like forum and ordinary, unattractive bodies on full display at the beach, no more impressed by the hippies than the bourgeoise, its portrait of a vapidly complacent populace struck a nerve when the 1969-shot film was finally released in 1971. It was the wrong nerve — the movie was loathed, and feels mean-spirited even today. Still, it hardly should have ended Étaix’s entire screen career as star and director.

Somehow it did, though, more or less. Étaix found financing for just one more feature of his own (1987’s autumnal Monsieur is Getting Older, not in the Rafael series), otherwise occupying himself with more stage work and TV. He also acted for an interesting mix of directors including Nagisa Oshima, Philip Kaufman, Otar Iosseliani, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Aki Kaurismäki — in addition to having earlier worked with Robert Bresson, Louis Malle, and (in the notorious, unreleased The Day the Clown Cried) Jerry Lewis. Now in his mid-80s, he’s stuck around long enough to enjoy his prime work being rediscovered and celebrated for its sometimes hilarious, often near-balletic ingenuity.


Dec. 7-13, $10.50

Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center

1118 Fourth St., San Rafael


A hello to arms


FILM The results of the wee election that happened a couple weeks ago were generally a good thing, needless to say, but just as light also causes shadow, so the light bulb that went off for a majority of voters cast into deeper darkness a certain minority. Oh, you’ve heard the wailings and lamentations: the death of “traditional” America (read: white people, “they” are coming to take your women and steal your home entertainment center), brutal new taxations designed to funnel your hard-earned money to whole communities of professional freeloaders, the national anthem to be translated into Communist (it’s a language, like speaking in demonic tongues), etc.

Some patriots, no longer loving it, are leaving it — mostly to inexpensive warmer retirement magnets whose natives aren’t too uppity yet to avoid calling you “Sir” or “Boss.” Others are planning to secede, one state at a time. (Yes, definitely including the ones you were already hoping would somehow cut ties. Can they take Fox News with them?) Mentally and politically, they seceded a while ago. But now it is on — Elvis is leaving the building, because he didn’t get his way so fuck y’all.

What’s bad about this is that, as with any psychotic break, bystanders may suffer for not sharing or getting in the way of the sufferer’s particular symptoms — in this case likely to primarily consist of depression, violent outbursts, substance abuse, weapons stockpiling, paranoid delusions, paranoid delusions, and reckless home schooling. How many basement man caves have been fertilizing plans for what we might term “assassination,” “domestic terrorism” or “going postal” since November 6, imaging personal heroism and national salvation their eventual reward? It’s like a significant section of the populace has turned into our crazy uncle, off his meds, muttering apocalyptically in the corner and sure to remember where we live sooner or later.

So it is with mixed emotions, to say the least, that one greets the alarmingly timely arrival of Red Dawn. A remake of a 1984 movie that seemed a pretty nutty ideological throwback even during the Reagan Era’s revived Cold War air conditioning (and even alongside such crazy Satan-is-Soviet competition as 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV), it is a movie that should have come out a couple years ago, having been shot late 2009. But in the meantime MGM was undergoing yet another seismic financial rupture, and as the film sat around for lack of the means needed for distribution and marketing, it occurred that perhaps it already had a fatal, internal flaw. You see, this update re-cast our invaders from Russkies to People’s Republicans, tapping into the modern fear of China as debtor and international bully. But: China is also a huge fledgling market for Hollywood product, despite censorship, import quotas, and whatnot. China heard about Red Dawn and was not happy, endangering the foreign profit margins for future MGM product.

So a tortured makeover of the remake ensued; scenes were added, re-shot, and digitally altered to impose a drastic narrative change. China now goes unmentioned, replaced as villain by the country which is nobody’s film market, even if that choice is so absurd it gets acknowledged as such by dialogue: “North Korea? It doesn’t make any sense!” someone says here. It’s a query that goes unanswered.

Yup, in the new Red Dawn a coastal Washington state burg — mom, apple pie and flag figuring large in the opening montage — is the first attack point in a wholesale invasion of the U.S. (pop. 315 million) by the Democratic People’s Republic (pop. 25 million). It’s football season, so a Spokane suburb’s team — Wolverines!! — lends its name as battle cry and its revved up healthy young flesh as guerilla martyrs to the fight for, ohm yeah, freedom. Do they drink beer? Do they rescue cheerleader girlfriends from concentration camps? Do they kick North Korean ass? Do you really need to ask?

Of course this Red Dawn is ridiculous, though as a pulp action fantasy it’s actually fairly entertainingly well-crafted by veteran stunt coordinator-second unit director Dan Bradley. The actors maintain straight faces with variable degrees of success — on the upside pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth, (whose other 2009-shot MGM film The Cabin in the Woods also got released this year) as ex-Marine alpha male, on the downside an irksome Josh Peck as his little bro and an inexplicable Connor Cruise as a teammate. The adopted son of a certain really famous Scientologist, the latter surely got this role on merit alone; otherwise we’d be forced to believe he made up in nepotism what he amply lacks in looks, voice, and presence.

So what does this silly movie have to do with the election, you ask? Just this: its production travails mean this rah-rah, just-credibly-gritty-enough (but still mostly video-game-like) tale of fighting the power has arrived just in time to become a training manual (or at least recruitment video) for revolutionist reactionary rednecks. It’s ready-made for an audience so deprived of air, irony, and other key elements to reality that they’re probably in a hundred or more basements right now, plotting the overthrow of our Socialist Islamophilic oligarchy. 

RED DAWN opens Wed/21 in Bay Area theaters.

Goth-hmm city


FILM It is a rare but often hugely enlightening thing to know just how and why a particular movie got made, especially when the answer is something more complicated than “to make money.” In the case of This Must Be the Place, Sean Penn apparently saw Paolo Sorrentino’s third feature, 2008’s Il divo — a whirlwind dramatization of pint-sized lifelong Italian politician Giulio Andreotti’s rather contemptible career, during which he was suspected of nearly every possible corruption — and admired it very much, a reasonable response. He let the director know he would he interested in future collaboration. Sorrentino saw an opportunity not only to work with an Oscar-winning actor but also to make his English-language debut, so he set about writing a script. He had also wanted to make a movie about the hunt for surviving Nazi war criminals. Two birds, one stone, all very reasonable.

What resulted, though, is pretty unreasonable on any level, such that it might as well be called Cart: The Horse Movie for the way in which Penn’s role has been allowed (conceptually even more than in performance) to completely overshadow and even render somewhat irrelevant the whole hunting-Nazi-war-criminals angle. And because hunting Nazi war criminals is not something anyone in their right mind would use as a climactic yet ultimately disposable mere plot device for a quirky seriocomic road movie, This Must Be the Place becomes a movie whose perversity is sorta benign yet near-complete. Only making things weirder is the fact that it’s not the debacle you might expect as a result, but something not-bad — not quite good, but still.

Penn plays Cheyenne, a 1980s American rock star who apparently hasn’t performed or otherwise been in the spotlight for 20 years. He trundles around his mansion in Dublin — why, indeed, Dublin? did the high taxes appeal? or was filming there cheap? — doing practically nothing, occasionally taking a wheelie cart into town to go shopping and be stared at. And stare they do, not only because he’s famous but because he looks completely ridiculous: a middle-aged man in floppy black clothes, pancake makeup, lipstick and mascara, topped by a vast fright wig of ratted black hair. (He looks like Robert Smith of the Cure with even more of a drag angle.) His voice is a frail, high breathy thing that seems to apologize for itself save when it occasionally erupts in a loud but quickly doused rage. He is as mincy and peculiar and masochistically odd as Quentin Crisp, without being gay — he even has a wife (Frances McDormand), though she seems more a kind of paid best pal than anything else.

Cheyenne shows he’s good-hearted under all that gook by clumsily trying to get two youths of his acquaintance (Eve Hewson, Sam Keely) together, and worrying about a haunted woman (Olwen Fouere) who spends all day staring out her window, waiting for someone who may never return. This latter business remains pretty obscure, though it may have something to do with the “depressed songs for depressed kids” he once wrote, and which were actually cited as inspiration by a few suicidally depressed teens.

Though we’ve no indication he was ever anything else, Cheyenne now recognizes that he himself is perhaps “a tad” depressed. “There are too many things I don’t do anymore,” he says. One of them is flying, though he has to take that up again after 30 years in order to attend the New York funeral of the father he’d been estranged from for at least that long. It is there, amid many Orthodox Jewish relations, he discovers his late concentration-camp survivor dad had unfinished business with an Auschwitz “tormentor.” American heartland, here comes the world’s most conspicuous amateur investigator.

En route he meets an assortment of types played by Judd Hirsch, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce Van Patten, and David Byrne as David Byrne. Place recalls in some respects the strained, condescendingly quirky Americana Exotica representation of Byrne’s only directorial feature, 1986’s True Stories. It, too, is one big private art project, with gratuitous “surreal” moments that Sorrentino’s undeniable skill as a filmmaker (and Luca Bigazzi’s as his inventive cinematographer) somehow render less sore-thumb inorganic than they ought to be.

But why are we watching this character, in this scenario? Both grab attention, but they never really connect. You could explain the irrelevancy and at least partial injustice in the ancient Nazi quarry’s final appearance if this movie turned out to be about forgiveness rather than vengeance — but then it isn’t really about either. In the end Penn’s character goes through a transformation that works as a final visual grace note, but doesn’t make any deeper sense given a couple seconds’ thought. Was being Cheyenne just a phase our hero had to go through? For 35 years or so?

This Must Be the Place is also an inexplicable digression, all the more so for costing 28 million dollars it will never remotely make back. Penn and Sorrentino bring all their considerable dedication to it, but wandering lost between poignance and oddity, their movie never locates the “home” of the titular Talking Heads song. It’s a deluxe but strange, pointless vacation they didn’t need to go on, let alone share.


THIS MUST BE THE PLACE opens Fri/9 in Bay Area theaters.

Black-belt Sabbath


FILM In the 1970s, movies like Dirty Harry (1971) and Death Wish (1974) surprised and raised a certain amount of controversy for being quite so blatantly pro-law enforcement, and anti-scum of the earth — viewing good and bad in such simplistic terms was no longer fashionable, it being more typical to see films about corrupt cops or saintly criminals. With the arrival of the Reagan era, however, it became all black and white again. There was a certain amount of eye-rolling in liberal quarters when Rocky fought communism (1985’s Rocky IV), Brat Pack teens did likewise (1984’s Red Dawn), Rambo fought practically everybody (in films spanning 1982-88), and in 1986, Top Gun‘s Maverick and Iceman played “Who’s got the biggest balls?” like they wanted to do a taste test.

But times had changed very rapidly, and hardly anyone else — certainly no one filling those seats — questioned this cartooned new ultra-machismo as being a little, uh, stupidsville. We seem to be coming full circle back to that era, given recent re-launches of the above franchises, the Expendables movies (an anti-rest home for still-ready-to-‘roid 80s action stars), and a Red Dawn remake suggesting a whole lot of people are ready to find not-funny what they rather astonishingly didn’t find funny the first time around.

But this stuff is funny, at least if you don’t check your brain like a coat before entering the theater. Probably the world’s greatest as-yet-underappreciated treasure trove of cinematic camp lies in the umpteen cheaper knockoffs that were made of those original major-studio hits for the grindhouse, cable, and VHS rental markets.

OK, many of these machine-gunning-patriotism-set-to-power-ballads exercises were just formulaic dreck. But a surprising number (especially anything from the Cannon Group) were hilarious formulaic dreck, like the MacGruber (2010) movie but meaning it. They starred not Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Norris, or Van Damme but people like Cynthia Rothrock, Lorenzo Lamas, Leo Fong, and a whole lot of people who’d won some martial-arts prize or other but couldn’t touch “acting” with a ten-foot barbell. The likes of Cage II: The Arena of Death (1994), Ted V. Mikels’ War Cat (1987), Low Blow (1986), McBain (1991), American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989), and 1986’s Hell Squad (Vegas showgirls vs. terrorists!) are among the best drinking-game movies ever made.

These movies likely have their tiny fan bases. But until recently absolutely no one was a fan of 1986’s Miami Connection — let us just establish the tone by noting this movie takes place in Orlando — because no one had seen it. In the mid-1980s Richard (a.k.a. Woo-sang) Park, an established Korean director who’d recently transitioned to US marital arts movies, saw fellow émigré and taekwondo teacher Y.K. Kim doing a demonstration on TV. He proposed making an action flick together. So the two cooked up a jaw-dropping story, hired a never-to-be-heard-from-again scenarist, cast Kim’s students in most roles, and co-directed what was originally called American Streetfighters. When they were finished, they expected the world to take notice.

The world declined — sales agents and distributors laughed the filmmakers out of their offices. Kim finally arranged Florida bookings himself, yet still Connection died, albeit not before one local critic called it “the worst film of the year.” Even its self-made co-director/star finally had to admit it was at best a big write-off.

But two decades or so later, a curator for Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema bought a $50 35mm print off eBay, having no idea what it was. It instantly became an object of cult adoration by patrons, and the Drafthouse’s distribution arm now has a midnight phenomenon that’s growing nationwide.

Miami Connection is like 2003’s The Room, in that it’s one of those rare flabbergasting movies which seems to approach its medium as if no one involved had ever seen (let alone worked on) a film before, starring a multi-talent whose performance must be seen to be disbelieved. And who, like Tommy Wiseau, now basks in the belated appreciation of his sole screen vehicle, seemingly oblivious to the precise nature of that appreciation.

The film really is All That. Suffice it to say that Mark (Kim) is one hell of a taekwondo instructor as well as a member of an electro-rock band called Dragon Sound, a “new dimension in rock ‘n’ roll.” This is due to ideas like (actual line here) “We could write another taekwondo song, then after Tom does one of his guitar solos we can all break boards!” When Jane (Kathy Collier) is caught going out with bassist John (Vincent Hirsch) by her creepily possessive drug lord brother Tom (Angelo Janotti), it’s black belt taekwondo rockers versus kickboxing motorcycle-riding bad guys. Before Good triumphs, there is an “International Programming Contest,” spring break-type comedy, a gym full of people making those show-off weightlifting sounds that announce “I am a giant tool,” gratuitous biker-chick toplessness, terrible songs with power-of-positive-thinking lyrics, and much yelled dialogue leading to countless fights, shootings, and stabbings. There is also the parting onscreen message “Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace.” A bit late, that.

Miami Connection‘s clash between low-end but professional basic craftsmanship and batshit-crazy amateur everything else is a never-ending delight. Kim still operates a taekwondo studio in Florida, and has since also become a “philosopher/author/inspirational speaker.” He will not be attending the Roxie’s screenings this week. But as with Mr. Wiseau’s magnum opus, his movie can only snowball in terms of repeat viewers and fresh converts — so eventually, he’s bound to show up in the flesh to be worshipped.

And worship we will. 


Fri/2-Sat/3, 10:45pm, $6.50-$10

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF



TRASH “Obsessed” is a term not infrequently bandied about when talking about film directors, particularly those with particular, distinctive thematic or stylistic trademarks that are clearly more a matter of personal than commercial instinct. It applies well enough to now 82-year-old Spaniard Jess Franco, who’s been making movies for 55 years — he’d already clocked time as a philosophy student, earned a law degree, written pulp novels, and flirted with becoming a jazz musician before turning to the medium — and doubtless won’t stop till he keels over dead with a Red One in his hand.

But in his case, the more relevant term might be “addicted.” What can you say about a man who’s made a number of features probably unknowable to himself, let alone anyone else (let’s just say somewhere not far below 200), often working under dozens of pseudonyms? Their funding cobbled together from umpteen international sources (not excluding Liechtenstein), distributed under hundreds of titles and in myriad edits for specific markets (i.e. more sex where allowed, more violence where not)? You can’t say he’s in it for the money, since chronic lack of it has helped shape his aesthetic, not to mention the composition of loyal colleagues willing to work now and get paid (maybe) later.

You can say he’s an admitted voyeur whose peephole is the camera, and that this particular addiction must be satisfied no matter what the obstacles, or how sub par the results. Hence, who knows how many hours of frequently lurid, strange, usually shoestring filmmaking that would probably drive any wannabe completist mad, particularly since so much of it shows every boring and/or depressing sign of having been thrown together just because it could be. Yet the House of Franco provokes wary fascination — like the contents of a hoarder’s home, it may seem a reeking pile of junk at first glance, but with gas mask and gloves on you will eventually uncover interesting artifacts of a unique life lived deep in the nether-realms of Eurotrash genre cinema.

Several vintage Francos have come out on Blu-ray and DVD lately, offering movies that, depending on your tolerance, will fall into the “good to know” or “too much information” category. If you’re a newbie, it’s best to start with the 1960s hits that briefly made him look like a global contender. He struck pay dirt with 1961’s The Awful Dr. Orloff, Spain’s first horror movie and a pretty shocking one to have gotten away with during the censorious Francisco Franco regime. He was always pushing the envelope further than the censors liked, particularly with such sexy surrealisms later in the decade as Succubus (1967), Venus in Furs (1969), and Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1968). Dreamlike in imagery and narrative, their arty psychedelic kitsch still casts a certain spell.

For good or ill, they also typed Franco as a man who could work in any language (he speaks a half-dozen), anywhere, with any cranky B-level international star (Klaus Kinski, Christopher Lee, etc.) imported for marquee value, and make something exploitable out of any slim means. Thus the means steadily got slimmer — though he’d still get an occasional bump in production values on titles like 1975’s Jack the Ripper (a curiously flat enterprise despite the genius casting of Kinski), 1980 slasher Bloody Moon, and 1988 gorefest Faceless. Who knows where his career might have gone if he’d held out for better projects? Probably he wouldn’t have increasingly crossed over from softcore to porn, let alone made 15 features in one not-so-exceptional year (1983).

But then, neither would he likely have made numerous movies that seem driven by insatiability alone — like 1972’s Sinner (a.k.a. Diary of a Nymphomaniac, a surprisingly moralistic corruption-of-youth tale; 1973’s Countess Perverse, succinctly described on IMBD as “Two wealthy aristocrats lure a virginal girl to a Spanish island for a night of sex, death, and cannibalism;” 1973’s Female Vampire, the first starring vehicle for waifish, exhibitionist muse Lina Romay, his spouse and collaborator until her death earlier this year; and 1974’s Exorcism, with the short, squat director himself as a murderously crazy ex-priest who mistakes swingers’ mock “black masses” for the real thing. These four were recently issued for home viewing. The latter two (on Kino Lorber) come complete with alternate versions emphasizing bloody mayhem over naked frisking.

They are, of course, a mixed bag, sometimes winningly eccentric or even poetical, sometimes just sleazy and dull. For every decent to genuinely good Franco opus (among the latter, improbably, 1976’s quite serious Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun), a dozen or more are likely better off unseen when they’re not outright unseeable. (He’s left behind many films unfinished, lost or in legal limbo). What are we missing in the likes of 1980’s Two Female Spies With Flowered Panties, 1981’s Bloodsucking Nazi Zombies, 1984’s The Night Has a Thousand Sexes, 1986’s Lulu’s Talking Ass, 1986’s Tribulations of a Cross-Eyed Buddha, or this year’s Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Women? Maybe they’re best kept suspended somewhere between Franco’s imagination and our own.

Darker than dark


FILM It is one of those hard truths one must learn to live with: Quentin Tarantino will always have seen more obscure exploitation movies than you. His new Django Unchained will arrive just in time for Christmas like a gift wrapped severed limb, leaving dedicated fanboy/fangirl types just weeks yet to immerse themselves in the world of spaghetti westerns to which it pays homage.

That makes two features in a row he’s made inspired by 1960s and 70s Euro trash cinema, following 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, which tipped hat to the era’s myriad international-coproduction war flicks. If you saw the obscure 1978 Italian film that was based on (and named after), you also probably already know who and what a Django is, how to pronounce him, and maybe even the factoid that countless (seriously, no one knows how many) ersatz Django “sequels” were made to cash in on the 1966 original’s success.

If not, join the more innocent multitudes at the multiplex come December, many of whom will no doubt be asking for one ticket to “Duh-jango,” please. There’s no shame in knowing nothing about such cultural marginalia. But what even faintly hipster-identifying person would admit to not knowing everything there is to know — even being bored with that knowledge — behind Reservoir Dogs (1992), the now 20-year-old Citizen Kane of indie meta guy flicks? How many people can not only quote its every line, but quote the every line of at least a few amongst its own umpteen mostly lousy imitations (yep, that includes you, 1999’s Boondock Saints)?

In the gradual groundswell of attention that greeted Dogs back then, viewers confidently cited Tarantino’s inspirations (as did he himself), noting the imprint of everything from classic noir titles to Kurosawa. Yet one movie that had a very direct influence was almost completely absent from those discussions, failing to rise from its prior two decades of complete obscurity even in the two decades post-Dogs.

Together at last in one canine-throwdown double bill is Day of the Wolves, that forgotten 1971 thriller — thanks of course to the Roxie Cinema and Elliot Lavine, themselves reunited for the latest installment in “Not Necessarily Noir,” that catch-all occasional series encompassing all things cool and (mostly) celluloid which don’t fit the loose strictures of their long-running actual noir retrospectives. Wolves and Dogs tussle to kick off the two-week schedule this weekend.

Day of the Wolves‘ low profile is somewhat explicable: it was never released theatrically in the US, and for years withheld from legal exhibition due to copyright issues. Still, one marvels how such a flamboyant relic of pure Seventies-ness could have remained under the radar for so long. TV and Vegas comedian Jan Murray is improbably cast as the mastermind who orchestrates the assembly of six career criminals in a secret desert location. All strangers, they’re instructed to call one another only by assigned number, wear identical outfits, and sport full facial hair (some obviously glued-on). Their mission is to “hit a whole town and peel it like an orange” — sealing off a “model community” in the Southwest, emptying every till, then scramming via private plane.

It’s an ingenious plan that counts on the complacent vulnerability of such burgs. In fact, Wellerton’s city council has just demonstrated ideal small-mindedness by firing its police chief (late, SF-born Richard Egan, a second tier 1950s star gone to flab) for the crime of actually enforcing laws on some of its more irresponsible A-list citizens. Thus the population of 7,000 or so is woefully under prepared when they find the power cut off, exit routes blocked, and seven armed desperados in charge.

The early going bears closest resemblance to Reservoir Dogs, and is the most inspired. (Later when the film gets to its prolonged actual climax, it devolves into a more ordinary Western-style shoot-’em-up between the raiders and Egan’s cop-turned vigilante, though there’s a doozy of a final twist.) Writer-director Ferde Grofe Jr., whose career in features sprawled sparsely from the early 60s to the late 80s, demonstrates a real flair for memorable idiosyncrasy, if less so for action. In style and content, Wolves is a perfect time capsule: groovy rock score (with “acid” guitar, bongos, and flute), very wide lapels, and a dune buggy chase. This near-classic B movie will be shown in one mightily color-faded, “pinked-out” 35mm print, an ostensible flaw that plays more like a finishing touch.

“Not Necessarily Noir III” mixes more such rediscoveries with fairly well known cult faves of the last decades, from neo-noirs to Hong Kong action to 70s New Hollywood questing (exceptional 1978 drama Who’ll Stop the Rain with Nick Nolte and Tuesday Weld; the seldom-seen ’71 Cisco Pike with Kris Kristofferson, Gene Hackman, and Warhol superstar Viva). Among its more rarefied titles are two Me Decade Franco-noirs with Jean-Paul Belmondo (who performs some amazing stunts himself in 1971’s The Burglars); 1968’s very disturbing crime thriller Night of the Following Day (wherein white-blond Marlon Brando is the good guy), and a supernatural blaxploitation double bill of very odd, arty 1973 vampire tale Ganja and Hess and the next year’s wacky, tacky voodoo revenge saga Sugar Hill.

Particularly worth checking out is Darker Than Amber, an attempt to launch a James Bond-style series featuring John D. MacDonald’s best-selling Florida sleuth Travis McGee. Unfortunately this 1970 maiden effort flopped, and the film has seldom been seen — especially without cuts — since. Admittedly it has pedestrian TV-style direction from Robert Clouse (who’d hit his sole career peak later with Bruce Lee’s 1973 Enter the Dragon), and the production values are just B-plus. But it’s an ideal vehicle for Rod Taylor, the brawny, wry, relaxed Aussie who should have been a huge star in the 60s and 70s, but despite a couple memorable films (1963’s The Birds, 1960’s The Time Machine) never got the right break. He’s surrounded by a memorable gallery of MacDonald characters, with two body-builder villains (William Smith, Robert Philips) in addition to the frequently shirtless star making this an notably homoerotic entry for the era in a macho action genre.


Oct. 19-31, $6.50-$10

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF


Dark and stormy


FILM In Ira Sachs’ intensely discomfiting Keep the Lights On, Erik (Thure Lindhardt) is a Danish documentarian in late-1990s New York City, prodding his career along, spending time with friends, having casual sex with strangers. One of the latter is Paul (Zachary Booth), a publishing-house lawyer who first tells him “I have a girlfriend, so don’t get your hopes up.” Yet some time later they’ve become a tentative couple, then a live-in one.

Erik is patient and easygoing, but Paul has secrets and problems all the more difficult to deal with because he denies, hides, or lies about them. He disappears for days at a time, then turns up wrecked. Crack is just the addiction we see; there are evidently others. Erik tries everything — group interventions, rehab, endless attempts at frank conversation that invariably turn into Paul accusing him of being unreasonable — but nothing sticks. On some level, Paul doesn’t want to be saved; drugs are like a bad old boyfriend he can’t help keep going back to, when not crawling back to the current one for forgiveness.

It takes Erik a decade to come to terms with, and extricate himself from, a relationship in which all his best efforts only bring torment, grief, and exasperation. “I have no idea who you are, I have no idea what you’re doing,” he cries during one argument. “I don’t know why you’re focusing on me,” Paul snaps, instinctively trying to shift the blame. Near the end, he questions out loud if Erik ever loved him — the fact that he isn’t doing what Paul wants that very second somehow negating years of sacrifice and worry that could only have been sustained by love.

Keep the Lights On is the kind of excellent movie a lot of people don’t like: it’s not just depressing in the sense of having downbeat, difficult subject matter, it actually sets out to be unpleasant and succeeds. There is a point to that. Leaping forward a couple years at a time, leaving us to figure out how things have shifted in the interim, Sachs’ script (co-written with Mauricio Zacharias) induces in the viewer the disoriented helplessness of dealing with a loved one who can’t or won’t tell the full truth — it’s his best defense.

The film’s somewhat squirm-inducing intimacy comes naturally, as the writer-director lived this story, however much it’s been tweaked into fictive dramatic form. “Paul” is a stand-in for a long-term boyfriend who wrestled with similar demons while somehow sustaining a high-profile career in the publishing industry. (He’s also since written a couple of memoirs about his addiction struggles, though despite that public self-exposure, the film still “created a wedge” between them, according to Sachs.)

“I think all of my films are autobiographical — I only feel excited to tell a story when I’ve lived an experience and have some analytical understanding of what took place,” Sachs said while in San Francisco for the movie’s screening at Frameline 2012.

Still, Lights is clearly a more jarringly personal project than his unsettling coming-out tale debut The Delta (1996) or the Sundance prize winner Forty Shades of Blue (2005), let alone 1950s heterosexual infidelity seriocomedy Married Life (2007). Nonetheless he now “sees them all as the same film — they’re all about people arriving at a point where they’re comfortable with who they are.”

Saying that he himself was “uncomfortable with who I [was, up] until the events in this film,” he now lives “an open life” with husband Boris Torres, a painter whose work is seen under the opening titles. “That’s a consequence of work I’ve done on my own,” Sachs said. “I really feel that secrets almost killed me. It’s very empowering to claim your secrets. I intended to make a film about shame and to do so shamelessly.”

In some ways, “this film is less about addiction than obsession, which is a very comfortable place for many of us to be — it cuts out the rest of the world and narrows the challenges. It’s very addicting to engage in this kind of relationship.” Some nonexploitative but explicit sexual content made Lights hard to cast (one major agency told him not a single one of their actors were “available”), but wound up with bilingual rising star Lindhardt. It’s an extraordinary performance that carries the whole film; by contrast Booth, to the frustration of some reviewers, plays a character deliberately kept somewhat furtive and unknowable.

While making Keep the Lights On afforded Sachs a cathartic way to “free myself from inhibitions around the story itself,” the consequence has been that “in the aftermath of these events I chose to live an honest life, and the result is that the dishonest and illicit is less interesting to me. So having made four films about deceit within a romantic relationship, that is no longer how I live or a story I’m interested in telling.”

He says his next project will be “about a 30-year relationship based on love and complexity between two men who decide to get married at ages 60 and 70.” Lights also pays homage to gay elders: Erik is working on a documentary about real-life photographer and filmmaker Avery Willard (whose still little-known work comprises “a visual anthropology of gay life in New York from the ’40s to the ’90s”), and the score consists of slippery songs by Arthur Russell, the enigmatic cult cellist-composer who died of AIDS 20 years ago. *


KEEP THE LIGHTS ON opens Fri/14 in Bay Area theaters.

Doc ‘Girl Model’ investigates the dark side of the catwalk


The recent outcry over a “Team Supermodel” strut showing off British fashion during the Olympics’ closing ceremony underlined a dichotomy: as much as people want the conventional glamour of the moment, they don’t want to feel guilty about it, i.e. have it exposed by direct comparison to the purportedly natural physical beauty of athletes.

Yet there are parallels between these two groups, particularly in the realm of concerns about weight and drugs. Plus, being a sports star and a model are both roles that allow the performer to actually merit being “entitled.” Everyone wants to be special — though of course that only works if other people aren’t.

The disturbingly instructive new documentary Girl Model (opening Fri/14) makes a good case for not encouraging such desires in your child, because the likelihood is that someone will come along to exploit that desire, convincingly promise them fame, then leave them worse off than before, with debts accrued from the dream that didn’t come true. “The first secret to a successful modeling career is to start modeling at five or ten years old,” says an emcee at a cattle-call showcase early on in David Redmond and Ashley Sabin’s film. It’s Russia, where the relatively new capitalism trickles down even less than here, so the families are even more eager to turn little Svetlana into a moneymaker. But that way lies madness, or at least deceit and disappointment.

Plucked from a couple hundred pretty, rail-thin girls — the lucky ones are reassuringly told, “We’ll put you on a diet” — 13-year-old wide-eyed blonde Nadya Vall is yanked from her rural Siberian village and mother and sent to Japan, where she fits a general type sought there. One that is willowy, “innocent,” but mostly just plain young. The younger the better, as talent scout Ashley Arbaugh tells us, qualifying that it’s not her taste, but she’s learned to see through the clients’ eyes. An ex-model herself (who “hated it,” and is seen in footage she videotaped of that career years earlier when she was 18), Ashley gives off disillusioned, compromised vibes. She constantly seems on the verge of confessing some horrible truth about the business, but is held back by good taste or the Russian mafia or her own maternal instincts toward her charges. It takes a while for us to realize that she’s a user and a hypocrite — not a buffer between the girls and harsh reality but a key part of the problem herself.

Nadya has never traveled abroad and speaks no languages but her own. She arrives in Tokyo (an overwhelming place for even the best-prepared visitor) alone; no one shows up to meet her. Of course she’s homesick — she’s a child. But worse than her fast, unkind education and personal sacrifice is that there appears to be no reward. A Japanese agency admits that there’s little use for such “new faces” sans portfolio here, even though he and the Russian agency (whose flamboyant chief simpers “Just like Noah saved all the animals, I’m trying to save these girls … in a way for me it’s a religious matter,” sounding about as convincing as a Fox pundit) promise their young recruits exactly the opposite.

Needless to say, Nadya ends up owing rather than making money. Meanwhile Ashley lounges around the immaculate, expansive, coldly all-white house her job as middleman has earned (and which she’s about to sell at a profit). She has two plastic baby dolls she keeps around, and shows off snapshots she’s surreptitiously taken of models’ extremities. She is creepy, never more so than when she visits Nadya and a roommate at their flat and is as uneasy playing the best-friend-slash-minder as they are having her there. At one point we learn she has two stomach growths that must be operated on, and rather than feeling sympathy, we wonder if this is some cancerous manifestation of her having exchanged the role of exploited for exploiter.

At the end she’s straight-facedly telling a new group of parents “Every model has success in Japan, unlike other markets where they might go into debt. They never do in Japan.” She’s even picked another 13-year-old protegee from the crowd — one that, like Nadya, will probably be fired once she’s been snagged in debt for gaining as little as a centimeter in waist, hips, or bust. This is the point in a Harry Potter movie or other fantasy where the wicked witch would be surrounded by tell-tale black smoke, or reveal her true ugly face. But this is the real world, and Ashley stays pretty on the outside.

GIRL MODEL opens Fri/14 in Bay Area theaters.