Saturday, December 31


Looking ahead to 2006, part I: Film Festivals

Though sometimes it feels like there are always film festivals in town, it's not true. For example, I'm not aware of any running this week (no wonder I feel sort of deprived). Frisco's unofficial "festival season" starts up again January 12 when Berlin and Beyond: New Films From Germany, Austria & Switzerland opens at the Castro with Sophie Scholl - the Final Days. Noir City kicks off the next evening at the Palace of Fine Arts with a double bill of Strangers on a Train and They Live By Night, both starring festival guest Farley Granger, and moves to the Balboa on January 23rd with 60th anniversary celebrations of eight pitch-dark post-war crime films from 1946. Then smaller festivals like the Ocean Film Festival (Jan. 14-15) start appearing on the scene. The Pacific Film Archive's African Film Festival opens January 27th and continues for two subsequent weekends. The dependably maverick-minded Indie Fest runs February 2-14. The Korean American Film Festival returns Feb. 7-12 after more than two years on hiatus. Human Rights Watch International comes to the PFA Feb. 19-26 with a slate of new documentaries plus the Winterfilm Collective's 1972 record of Vietnam veteran testimony, Winter Soldier. San Jose's Cinequest Film Festival runs March 1-12 and The Center for Asian American Media (formerly NAATA) brings its annual Asian-American Film Festival March 16-26.

I'm very excited to see what Frisco's first and biggest International Film Festival might have in store for its 49th edition now that it's being run by a new Executive Director, Graham Leggat. I notice that the programming staff has been investigating new avenues for possible film selection, including a recent call for wireless-media related content. This could be interesting. The festival runs April 20-May 4.

Shortly after the SFIFF is over, the Black Film Festival and Frameline's festival, which has been dubbed the "Sundance and Cannes of queer film," are right around the corner, followed by the Silent Film Fest, the Jewish Film Fest, and others which haven't announced dates yet. I'm sure I've left others off too, so let me know and I'll make sure to make a link.

Saturday, December 24


A New Mission for the Roxie; More on the Four Star

I don't know where I first heard the rumor this summer, but I noticed the announcement on the Roxie website earlier this week, and now Lincoln Spector of the indispensable Bayflicks has posted the interview with Roxie management that I was hoping somebody might do. Anyway, it's official: the Roxie has found a great way to stay open: by morphing into the non-profit Roxie Film Center with help from a partnership with New College of California. The Bayflicks link has all the major details, but I just wanted to add that it seems like a great turn of events for all parties. For the Roxie, of course, because despite the addition of the nice and cozy "Little Roxie" a couple doors down from the main house, it's been struggling. But also for New College, which will hold film classes in the theatre, and I'm guessing will also be able to use the Roxie for certain film & media events it hosts. I remember once trying to go to a video screening at New College (I can't remember if it was something in their Activism and Social Change series, or if a film festival like LaborFest that was using the venue) and being frustrated trying to find the right room, only to find it was standing room only. The Roxie seems like an excellent way for New College to become better connected to the greater Frisco community. I hope the match is as good as it appears to be, and that we can all look forward to the Roxie's 100th anniversary in 2012 instead of worrying about another theatre closure.

Speaking of which, I attended last weekend's benefit to save the Four Star Theatre and had a grand time, watching the incredible
Deaf and Mute Heroine for the first time ever and a Chinese Ghost Story for the first time on the big screen. Though the theatre was not as jam-packed as I'd hoped it might be, apparently lots of people had braved the bad weather to come and drop off kind wishes and donations. As I understand it, the convention in the Hong Kong film industry, at least for some time, was for theatres that exhibited prints to buy them outright rather than rent them, which means that Frank Lee has a stockpile of films from which to help program the annual Asian Film Festival and other classic film showcases like the one last week. Seeing the Lee family's print of Deaf and Mute Heroine was truly a treat, despite a few bad splices. Clearly a major influence on future Hong Kong filmmakers as well as Westerners like Quentin Tarantino, the film chronicles Helen Ma's title character's unsuccessful attempt to escape from the life of a wuxia warrior to one of domesticity, with violently tragic results. The fight scenes are truly spectacular, with an early one set in a muddy swamp being particularly memorable, though even it is topped by the epic finale. And the screening felt particularly precious after I read this article suggesting that this print, as patched-together as it is in parts, might be the only one in the world surviving. All the more reason to support the Four Star in its upcoming legal battle and hope that its landlord can find another solution for its needs. If the Four Star is indeed forced to close I'd hope the Lees would still occasionally exhibit the prints in their collection at one of their Marina District theatres (the Presidio or, once its renovation is complete, the Cinema 21), but in a neighborhood without quite the same Asian flavor as the Four Star's Richmond District, I doubt the fit would be as natural. The Presido has been re-opened under the Lees' management for exactly a year now and the only times I've noticed it playing Asian films were during the Asian Film Festival and just after when One Night in Mongkok had a week-long run.

Monday, December 19


"What happened to the theatre?"

"We're closed."

That was the exchange I witnessed Friday night on my way home from work as I decided to stop by the UA Galaxy Theatre, which had shown its last films the previous evening. Though most of the street-level glass panels on the building had been covered with butcher paper, one could spy theatre staff dismantling the concession stand and preparing for the inevitable lockdown now that the place is closed to the public. A man in a wool beanie signaled one of these workers, approached the box office as if to buy a ticket, and asked his question. With the ticket window's speaker decommissioned, I had to lip-read the response.

When the four-screen Galaxy was erected in 1984 Herb Caen called it a "glassbackward brickhouse" and others likened it to stacks of legos or telephone booths. Though it's true that the building, which looks like something Q-Bert might want to hop around on top of, represents just the kind of building this city's armchair architects love to hate, I always thought it maintained a certain oddball dignity. Upon opening it was billed as the most expensive movie theatre ever built in Frisco, and I guess it felt state-of-the-art at the time, though it was soon topped by the octoplex Kabuki Theatre less than a mile away. By the time I entered high school the Kabuki was the cool place for my peers to go see a movie and the Galaxy had begun its long but inevitable journey on the path toward its perceived obsolescence made official in 1998 when the AMC 1000 Van Ness unveiled a fourteen-screen addition to a former auto showroom just down the street.

I'm pretty sure the first time I went to the Galaxy it was with my parents and the film was a busy matinee of Stand and Deliver. Since then I've been about a dozen or so times, mostly to unremarkable films: Philadelphia, Star Trek: Generations, a Life Less Ordinary. During the past two or three years, when the theatre's fate seemed sealed but it still remained in operation, it began booking the occasional under-the-radar independent or foreign film that wasn't always graced with a review in the local papers. The place also briefly became a valve for films after they played a single week at the Castro, Lumiere or Opera Plaza. This is how stuff like 15 and Warriors of Heaven and Earth, and even revivals of Kurosawa's the Seven Samurai and Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast ended up at a theatre that also opened the Passion of the Christ as a first-run film. The Galaxy was the only theatre in town to play the 2003 re-release of DePalma's Scarface for a full week. They even tried out a midnight movie series with really strange choices like Hook (I tried to convince a few friends to go but was met with much resistance), and rented screens to film festivals like the American Indian Film Festival and IndieFest. But though I was tempted more often, to be honest I still didn't go much. Without an on-line presence or a marquee near my regular routes, I found I often learned about an intriguing selection only a day or two before its run was up, or even after it was over. A pair of exceptions were a bill of Academy-Award nominated short films (the highlight of which was the amazing Das Rad) and Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold, each of which I saw with only a couple other patrons in the theatre. The last film I saw in the main house was a House of Flying Daggers matinee during its opening week which was nearly as empty. The last film I saw there, period, was a Frisco-shot film about graffiti writers called Quality of Life. The filmmakers actually four-walled one of the houses for a couple weeks, executed a guerilla marketing campaign, and delivered filmmaker Q&A sessions after evening shows. Though Quality of Life seemed a better fit for the Roxie near where most of it was filmed (and where it later played as well), in retrospect I'm glad my last Galaxy memory is of this flawed but heartfelt film with a knockout ending that seems to elevate all of what had gone before.

The best film I ever saw there was Terence Malick's the Thin Red Line in early 1999. It was actually my second viewing of the film, and I was already thinking of it as the year's, heck maybe the decade's best film. The house was close to capacity and I sat near the back of the theatre this time, probably trying to achieve some more objective distance from the film than I'd had sitting in the first few rows of the Coronet on my first go-round. It didn't work; I was still totally enveloped by the immersive audiovisual experience and found the film's themes at least as compelling as they had been on first pass. When the end credits began to roll, I got out of my seat and stood at the back of the room to watch the audience file out, as I used to like to do. One of the first people to walk by was an elderly gentleman who before exiting turned to me and said something I have no reason to disbelieve, "That's exactly the way it was in the Pacific. I was there."

What's next for this building? Who knows? The Coronet and Alexandria were also shut by Regal/UA many months ago and nothing but vandalism has happened to the buildings in the meantime. And of course I don't feel nearly as sentimental about the Galaxy as I do those theatres and half a dozen others that have shut in recent memory. But then again I'm a diehard movie theatre enthusiast who thinks the city's public bus lines shouldn't accept cinema-bashing advertising slogans ("Sneak in food. You own the theatre.") from Comcast on the fleet, and I'd be thrilled if any of the boarded-up theatres in town could somehow be made viable venues again. The Galaxy included.

I'll end this reflection with the words the beanie-capped man tried to shout through the glass to the worker, or perhaps it was to the glass and the theatre itself, before he dashed off into the night:

"Thank you for everything!"

Wednesday, December 14


Haven't you heard?

I definitely picked the wrong week to be too busy to blog. By now you may already know about all this days-old news, but in case you didn't:

1. Sad to say, the Four Star Theatre is in trouble again. One of the oldest movie houses in town (in 1919 it was owned by the Pathe company and called La Bonita) and the only remaining vestige of the once-thriving Chinese-language movie circuit in this country (though it didn't play Hong Kong films regularly until Frank and Lida Lee took over the theatre in 1992; I still remember seeing the Wizard of Oz and The Band Concert there as a kid on some day that it wasn't showing La Cage aux folles). As a benefit to help keep the theatre open in the face of legal action by its landlord Canaan Lutheran Church, this Saturday December 17 will feature a mini-festival of the kinds of films the Lees have become famous for bringing to Frisco: stuff like Jackie Chan's Supercop (also starring Michelle Yeoh) at 1PM, Gong Li in La Pientre at 5:30, and the martial arts / special effects spectacular A Chinese Ghost Story starring Leslie Cheung at 9:30 PM. The one I'm personally most excited about is the 1971 Helen Ma film Deaf and Mute Heroine, since I've been feeling kung fu deprived of late and have never seen it before.

2. Better news comes from the Film Noir Foundation, which released the final slate of titles for the Fourth Annual Noir City Film Festival last week. A few films (such as the Big Sleep) they'd teased us with previously are missing from this line-up; perhaps they'll show up in future editions. Anyway, it will be hard to spend any energy missing them with so many excellent newly-announced titles taking their place. If you've never experienced the tightly-wound suspense of the Frisco-set Thieves' Highway, it plays the Palace of Fine Arts January 18th on a bill with another locally-shot film The Man Who Cheated Himself. Tons of other rarities are spread over the program, as well as a healthy dose of guest appearances. For example, writer James Ellroy appears January 15th with Split Second and on January 21 Sean Penn introduces the neo-noir he directed in 2001, the Pledge, as well as a surprise "director's choice" classic. The festival runs January 13-26.

3. If you're into both film noir and early Japanese cinema you're going to have some trouble deciding what to do in January, at least on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays when the Mikio Naruse retrospective takes over the Pacific Film Archive. The schedule runs through February 18th and includes all the films that played at New York's Film Forum except for the three the PFA showed as part of its Taisho Chic on Screen series. The series kicks off January 12th with silent films: Nightly Dreams and the affecting short Flunky, Work Hard!, and on January 19 shows Hideko the Bus Conductress, which bypassed New York.

4. The Castro Theatre has revealed more of its Winter calendar, most notably the 11th Berlin and Beyond Film Festival, which will feature a tribute to Michael Verhoeven and a Dennis James-accompanied screening of the 1929 People on Sunday which was co-directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and Robert Siodmak and written by Billy Wilder before they all emigrated to Hollywood.

5. Amidst the flurry of critics' groups announcing their picks for the year's best filmic achievements, Frisco's own Critics Circle has released its selections. I haven't seen most of the films yet, but I won't argue against Amy Adams in Junebug or Grizzly Man as best documentary (except on the grounds that the underdistributed the White Diamond was even better). Their Marlon Riggs Award (always bestowed upon a member of the local film community) went to Jenni Olson for her inspirational the Joy of Life.

6. I was recently honored to receive an invitation to join the extremely lively group of film critics and writers known as Cinemarati. I humbly accepted and have already added two posts to the group's blog, one on Frank Borzage's a Farewell to Arms, the other on Bruce Conner's Crossroads. I don't expect my participation in another blog will greatly affect the direction of the one you're reading right now. But please keep me honest and tell me what you think of the direction it's going. For example, are newsy items like the ones in this post worth doing or should I save myself up for more substantial pieces? Let me know.

Wednesday, December 7


The big, Big, BIG Screen

Though I haven't seen paper copies yet, I was alerted by Jeff's Pre-Coded Messages site that the Castro Theatre has announced the first month or so of its Winter schedule. After a series of Christmas-themed films including the Nightmare Before Christmas (Dec. 12) and It's a Wonderful Life (Dec. 16), the Oscar-tie-in season launches with a week of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (Dec. 17-23) and soon after, a pair of Great Big Ape movies just perfect for their screen, Mighty Joe Young (Jan. 3) and the original King Kong (Jan. 4-11). How to resist the opportunity to compare Willis O'Brien's groundbreaking effects with the Weta Workshop's new versions? And I can't help but wonder if a series of Westerns featuring Rock Hudson might be around the corner too?

If the Castro's booking team is getting better at selecting tempting offerings, I have to say I'm getting increasingly frustrated with whoever writes the program notes. I suppose there's pressure to just get something out there so people can start marking up their calendars, so I can excuse typos and grammatical problems (I'm certainly not immune to them on this site!), but there's just no excuse for obnoxious arrogance. Under the notes for It's a Wonderful Life they claim in bright red letters that
The Castro is the ONLY theatre in San Francisco to view classic films the way they were meant to be seen!
I can see where they're coming from with such a boast, as there's nothing quite like a grand hall with a really big, tall screen, but it's really quite rude to other theatres around town to imply that they can't properly show classic films. Places like the Bridge and the Roxie were built in the era of "classic films" and are essentially architecturally unchanged. It's true they don't show older films so often, but whenever they have (last year I saw a Howard Hawks gem in each venue) it's always felt perfectly appropriate. As for the Balboa, which does show a lot of older films these days, I've grown increasingly pleased with their presentation quality. Last night I saw a gorgeous print of 1962's Harakiri there that, while perhaps framed not quite at the TohoScope ideal, was close enough to make the film feel like even more of a masterpiece than it seemed on DVD.

Still, now that Oakland's Paramount Theatre seems to have stopped running classic films (they've even shut down their poll about them) I can't possibly think of a better venue than the Castro to watch films like the 1933 King Kong or Busby Berkeley musicals. Yes, Busby Berkeley; a week of these eye-popping films will begin at the Castro the day after Christmas and last through the day before New Year's Eve (when they keep the musical theme with a showing of Saturday Night Fever followed by Moulin Rouge on New Year's Day.) The line-up includes rarities like Roman Scandals (Dec. 30), films he directed on his own like the Gang's All Here (Dec. 29), and tried-and-true classics like Footlight Parade (Dec. 28, also playing the Stanford Dec. 15-16) The most mandatory big screen double-bill being December 27th's pairing of the quintessential Depression musical Gold Diggers of 1933 and Gold Diggers of 1935 (the latter including the incredible "Lullaby of Broadway" sequence).

Saturday, December 3


Which Samurai film should I see?

If you've been paying attention to the calendar for the Balboa Theatre, which launched a 16-title Samurai film series yesterday, perhaps you've been asking yourself this question as I have. Perhaps unlike me, you don't live in the Richmond District, so you want to be sure that any trips you make out here are certain to be rewarding. I'm no sensei when it comes to these movies; I've only seen half the titles the Balboa is showing. But let's see what I can do to help you make a decision anyway.

Don't like Samurai films? Think they tend to glamorize violence and patriarchal power? You need to see Harakiri (now playing through Dec. 6), Masaki Kobayashi's evisceration of feudalistic structure of Samurai society. Not really an action film (Kobayashi insisted his actors use real swords, which certainly deglamorizes the few fight scenes), it is really a political film, highly critical of the corruption Kobayashi saw as both inherent in feudalism and still dangerous in 1962 when he made the film. A perfect anti-Samurai film.

Or perhaps pure entertainment is your first concern. Well, you can't go wrong with Yojimbo (Dec. 15-16), can you? Between Toshiro Mifune's snarling and stalking around, a bizarre atmosphere set by Masaru Sato's cool sixties score, and a plot so delightful it's been nicked by at least a half-dozen other films starting with a Fistful of Dollars, this is one of the most fun "foreign films" I've seen, and I can't wait to see it again. If you're more East Bay inclined it looks like the Parkway is playing it too, on the 13th.

Wait, you say you've never even seen a Samurai film before? That you resemble an intimidated peasant in the face of a series like this one? Well, make sure you at least make it to the seminal Seven Samurai (Dec. 17-18), the only film I can think of to have won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and to be the basis for an anime series and video game. If you haven't seen Akira Kurosawa's talents applied to this most ambitious and gratifying undertaking, you've missed a big piece of cinema.

What does any of this have to do with art, though, you might ask. The best way to convince the inveterate high-brows among you is probably yet another Kurosawa film, Throne of Blood (Dec. 7-8), which is a combination of such discerning sources as Macbeth and the traditions of Japanese Noh theatre, but is also much more.

Perhaps names of famous directors and cultural references don't impress you at all, though. You want to see something completely unassuming and straightforward, a pure look into the essence of the genre. My best guess is to try one of the films about Zatoichi, the blind swordsman; of the three being shown I've seen the New Tale of Zatoichi (Dec. 7-8) and found it to be a modest but still rewarding film. It made me curious to see the other two being shown, Zatoichi the Fugitive (Dec. 13-14) and Zatoichi on the Road (Dec. 21-22).

Or maybe you're like your genres in their "apocalyptic phase" as Robin Wood has put it. If the Wild Bunch is your favorite Western and Rosemary's Baby your favorite horror film, you might just think the Sword of Doom (Dec. 19-20) the best entry in this series. I don't know if Wood has seen the film or would agree with my lumping it in with these two "apocalyptic" titles, but I actually like it better than either one; the director Kihachi Okamoto uses an extremely modern style in portraying a ronin (masterless samurai) on a path toward becoming a force of utter chaos. The hallucinatory, climactic battle sequence is spectacular.

Then again, maybe you knew all this already. As I said, I'm no Samurai film expert, just a budding enthusiast. And so I turn the question back on myself, and hope a kind reader might answer in the comments below or an e-mail: of the many titles I'm unfamiliar with, which Samurai film(s) should I see? Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion (Dec. 15-16)? Shinoda's Assassination or Inagaki's Samurai Saga (both Dec. 11-12)? Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai (Dec. 9-10) or Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron (Dec. 13-14)? Okamoto's Kill! (Dec. 21-22)? Please let me know.

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