Wednesday, March 29


The Bad, the Good and the Ugly

First the bad news: I just learned that the Act 1 & 2 in Berkeley closed the other night. Sunday, to be exact. After 35 years of film screenings, the last show there was C.S.A.: the Confederate States of America (which, as an aside, I tried to watch at the Roxie, but had to walk out of after twenty minutes of feeling uncomfortable about the audience's laughter, something that had never happened to me before. Am I becoming more sensitive or is it that this movie pushing buttons I'd never seen pushed before?) I don't have too much to say about the theatre as I only ever saw a few films there, the best of which was undoubtedly (speaking of walkouts, in this case other people's) Audition in 2001. The tradition of Midnight Movies will be passed to the California Theatre starting this Friday and Saturday with a Clockwork Orange. The 10-screen Shattuck Theatre a block or so away will continue the calendared programs that had in the past few years distinguished the Act 1 & 2 as the artsiest twinned theatre in the East Bay. So look to the Shattuck for Kekexili: Mountain Patrol starting April 21 and, in case you missed its recent Balboa engagement or are already eager for another shot, the Conformist starting April 28.

That is, if you're not overwhelmingly busy with the SFIFF during those weeks, which if you're like me you probably will be. Which brings me to the good news: they just released the complete selection of films for the 49th edition of the festival. I'd already composed an anticipatory write-up covering some preliminarily revealed titles and was excited enough, but with the full slate on display there's no denying I'll be attending as much as I can.

On a quick glance through the lineup, these are some of the films that I'd hoped the festival would bring and am thrilled they are:

Bashing, the 2005 Cannes selection from Japanese director Masahiro Kobayashi
Gabrielle, the latest from Patrice Chereau, based on a Joseph Conrad story
How to Pray, a short film offering from found-footage filmmaker Bill Morrison
the Lost Domain from Chilean-born Parisian director Raul Ruiz
Princess Raccoon, a bizarre-sounding musical from Seijun Suzuki starring Ziyi Zhang
the Regular Lovers, a three-hour epic from Frenchman Philippe Garrel
the Sun, Alexander Sokurov's dramatization of a post-war Emporer Hirohito
Three Times, the latest Hou Hsiao-Hsien film, a three-parter from this SFIFF mainstay
the Wayward Cloud, the new Tsai Ming-Liang film that follows the Lee Kang-Sheng character found in most of his previous films into the world Taipei pornography. And it's a musical too.

Those last five titles, along with Herzog's the Wild Blue Yonder, consitute 6 of the 20 items on the 2006 wishlist I drew up a few months ago. Add them to the three brought by CAAM's excellent festival that wrapped last weekend, and I should be nearly half-satisfied by the year already.

Except that I try not to evaluate festivals primarily on their ability to bring the films I'm already aware of and eagerly anticipating, but equally on the quality of the unknown quantities in their lineups. It's tempting upon the announcement of a festival program to immediately commence with the second-guessing of the programming staff, counting up the numbers of films from East Asia (up this year) or directed by women (down this year). I can't pretend I wasn't hoping the festival would bring at least one Thai film, for example. They didn't. But I'd still rather see them program a good film from a country whose cinema I'm less familiar with, like Cuba or Hungary, than a mediocre one that happens to be from a country I once lived in. I've learned that it's foolish for me to let my opinion of the program start to solidify until after actually seeing at least some of the films. Over the next few weeks press screenings (starting with this morning's first press screening of the German film Eden) will help turn some of the unfamiliar titles into more than just another page of data in the thicker-than-ever program guide. Films whose existence I was previously unaware of greatly outnumber those I'd been anticipating, and that's as it should be. I've already had my eye caught by a few unknowns, like the Japanese late night movie (they moved up the midnight movies to a 10:30-11:30 starting slot this year) Executive Koala and the one Iranian feature selected, Iron Island.

I'm encouraged by something else I noticed, though. This year's festival seems much less obsessed with premieres than recent years. Oh sure, there are plenty of premieres; the festival list 11 North American Premieres, 13 U.S. Premieres, and 38 West Coast Premieres (though that list includes at least one film that I know played in Seattle last November; keeping track of this is obviously not an exact science). I haven't compared those numbers to previous festivals' numbers. But I do know that the last couple of years the festival brought a half-dozen World Premieres and International Premieres, compared to one World Premiere (Runners High) this year. Why is this encouraging? Because I believe that the best film festivals should primarily be for the residents of the cities that host them. The overwhelming majority of potential SFIFF attendees have never heard of almost any of the titles anyway, so why should they care whether or not a given film has shown outside its home country? This year I even recognized a few items on the program that I know have recently shown in the Frisco area; whether it's because I've been paying better attention since starting this blog I do not know, but I don't remember that happening recently. I assume it means an especially strong endorsement for the films in question: the Chilean film Play and the Spanish Obaba, which showed at the Rafael in January, the Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, which was among the Oscar-nominated animated shorts shown at Landmark Theatres for a few weeks, and Instructions For a Light and Sound Machine, a short which Peter Tscherkassky brought to a PFA audience including yours truly in February. I'd love to see it again, along with new films by Jay Rosenblatt, Cathy Begien and others in the Circles of Confusion shorts program.

As for the ugly news: just that I'm planning to tweak the look of this blog a bit in the near future. The first victim will almost certainly be the font you're reading right now. It will hopefully become something a little less strenuous to look at, and definitely something that won't turn special characters like tildes and umlauts into garbage. It may, in fact, become a boring font. If you have any font tips or suggestions, please e-mail me or leave a comment below. Thanks.

Monday, March 27


The Worst Police Officer New York's Ever Had

I'm something of a late bloomer when it comes to my cinephilia. My family never had cable television, we didn't have a VCR until well into the 1980s, and throughout high school I only went to a few movies a year, usually of the sci-fi blockbuster variety. I was much more interested in computer games and music during my teen years, and I was practically oblivious to Frisco's diverse and thriving film culture. Ironically, this city boy had seen precious few non-Hollywood films until attending a small liberal arts college that offered free film and video screenings to students as partial compensation for living in a small Midwestern town with few cultural offerings attractive to its would-be-sophisticated student body. Suddenly I had easy access to screenings of films totally of my radar screen: Drugstore Cowboy, L'Enfant Sauvage, My Twentieth Century, Alice in the Cities, etc. I enjoyed going to see films I knew nothing about beforehand, but to be honest few of them floored me. I was still much more interested in music, including the healthy campus band scene.

Every weekend could be counted on to provide at least dorm party or house party featuring one or more of the many rock (or punk, metal, noise, funk, or jazz) bands made up of students. It seemed as if there were almost as many bands as there were students, but my favorite was the Shepherd Kings. What they lacked in traditional charisma or virtuoso musicianship, they more than made up for in creativity and eagerness to do absolutely anything to make their shows entertaining. Every show was an event that culminated in a whirlwind of purgative screaming, insane robots, amplified feedback, mass chaos and destruction and some kind of material, whether animal or vegetable or mineral, interacting with (okay, usually "thrown at") the audience. But along the way the Kings played a selection of well-crafted songs with titles like "Radiation" and "Jacques Cousteau". I always looked forward to a driving death march called "Lieutenant Bad", clearly inspired by the Abel Ferrara film Bad Lieutenant. Here's a link to an mp3 of a live recording of the song, which in 1997 was released on CD by Gourmandizer, a now-defunct indie label:

"Lieutenant Bad"

I suspect I get more out of listening to that than people who've never seen a Shepherd Kings live show might. I've probably heard the song a hundred times and I still can't make out a good portion of the lyrics being shouted in tag-team fashion by Jason Elbogen and Mike Kraus. I've pieced together that each line ticks off another debased transgression of "a corrupta police officera" (I want to say that bassist Jack Simpson was in my Latin class, but I could be misremembering, as I never knew any of the band members very well personally), including "breeding disease", "dealing angel dust", and being "dirtier than the streets". It's true that Johnny Breitzer's drumming is anything but metronomic, and it may help to be able to visualize what his playing style actually looked like. I'm sorry I'm unable to provide that image.

I'm not sorry, however, that today's Ferrarathon finally prodded me to see my first Abel Ferrara film, a decade after the Shepherd Kings played their last note, and after seeing the likes of Ed Gonzalez and Zach Campbell praise the director almost from the beginning of my entry into full-fledged cinephilia in the late 1990's. In writing about Bad Lieutenant it's tempting to model my form on that of the song, and list the countless transgressions of the Harvey Keitel character (referred to in the film only as "LT") in the approximate order they appear in the film. First: when he drops his kids of at school, he snorts some coke as soon as they've gotten out of the car. Then: we see him run into a fire trap apartment building, perhaps to chase down a perp? No, it's to score drugs from one of his regular dealers. Next: he stops a convenience store hold-up, but only to order the shopkeeper out the door and submit the robbers to a shakedown. Etc. Is there a single shot of LT in the film in which he isn't pictured doing something immoral, illegal, or at least grossly irresponsible?

It was an intensely disturbing film for me to watch. This is really a genre I try to avoid: an absolutely humorless character study, in which the character is inexorably descending into a drug-filled pit of Stygian torment. I usually just find them depressing, and compounded with my squeamishness around images of graphic self-destruction through substances (a reaction that kicked into high gear quite often during this film), it's really no wonder I'd put off seeing this for so long. The lead character's unchecked misogyny was extremely uncomfortable, too. If it wasn't for Ferrara's extremely stylish (though never over-stylized) direction, I wouldn't have been able to bear the film and its subject matter at all. Shot after shot won me over with its conjuring of a heightened reality. And some scenes conveyed a drugged-out unreality; at one point LT tenderly kisses his dealer's mamá after receiving a cash bribe big enough to make his gambling debts seem potentially far less disastrous. It feels for a moment like it might be a turning point for LT; the woman speaks only Spanish to him but exudes a maternal grace that seems like it could spark his salvation. But no, the very next scene is an expressionist nightmare; strung out on something clearly taken just after leaving the dealer's apartment, he staggers down the stairwell like Cesare let out of Caligari's cabinet.

The other aspect of the film that made it all worthwhile was, strangely, the ending. Yes, MAJOR SPOILERS are on their way. I've never been a Catholic or an especially religious person, but I found something very moving and beautiful about LT's nihilistic "redemption". The key scenes are the ones between LT and his fellow cops; at a grisly crime scene they're more interested in talking about their National League pennant bets than in doing their jobs or really dealing with the death and lawlessness surrounding them. Later, LT shows that he's spiraled much further out of reality than his fellow officers have, when he accuses the Catholic Church and Major League Baseball of being "a racket" in practically the same breath. First the Church is corrupt and a nun's rapists unworthy of the high bounty placed on their heads, then baseball is so fixed that the Mets must keep winning in order to force a game seven and raise more advertising revenue. It makes perfect sense that such a corrupt cop would see everything as a racket. So why does he keep putting his money on the Dodgers? Two possible reasons: either he is in such a self-destructive cycle that he wants to lose his bets and ultimately his life. Or, he doesn't really believe in the fix after all and wants his fellow substance abuser and traitor to New York, Darryl Strawberry, to hand him salvation with a Dodger victory. Either interpretation has fascinating repercussions for the end of the film; if it's self-destruction LT wants, it's self-destruction LT gets by mainlining heroin and parking his car in front of Trump Tower after sending his lifeline on the next bus out of town. But if the baseball Championship isn't fixed, then perhaps neither is Catholicism, something LT finally seems to admit just before the famous appearance of Jesus at the end of the film.

Whether LT is motivated by faith or by a suicidal urge, or by a twisted combination of the two (I tend to think it's this third option), I found something appealing about the neatness of the ending that I don't usually get out of most films of this genre. It works because LT is so clearly a fictional creation, where so many substance abuser movies focus on real or reality-based people. Somehow it's cathartic for this character who was never really portrayed as fully human but more as a personification of the most selfishly depraved human tendencies, to be able to be released from his abject existence. I won't go so far as to say I found the end uplifting, but at least it was a kind of relief. I really don't expect I'll ever want to see Bad Lieutenant again, but I'm very glad I saw it this once.

And I'm excited to try out more of Ferrara's work. Like Michael Guillen I hope Mary is among the titles announced as part of the 49th SFIFF tomorrow. And I definitely plan to explore more of the director's filmography with aid of this Blog-a-Thon. Ms. 45 and New Rose Hotel seem like the most likely next candidates for me to track down.

One last note: in one scene of Bad Lieutenant two children are watching a cartoon on television. A song plays: "We Did It Before and We Can Do It Again." The cartoon is the Fifth Column Mouse and it was directed by the most underrated of the great Warner Brothers cartoon directors, Friz Freleng, creator of Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, the Tweety and Sylvester team-up, Bugsy and Mugsy, the Pink Panther and a huge animated legacy. Despite sources to the contrary, I understand 2006 is Freleng's centennial year, and I haven't heard a peep about it from anywhere other than my mouth. Would anyone be up for a Friz Freleng Blog-a-Thon sometime between now and Freleng's August 21 birthday?

Thursday, March 23



The Arabic word for "fate" is the title of at least sixteen different movies. I haven't seen any of them. Not William Dieterle's Kismet starring Ronald Colman and Marlene Dietrich and nominated for four 1944 Oscars. Nor Vincent Minnelli's cinemascope Kismet starring Howard Keel, Ann Blyth and an Alexander Borodin-infused musical score. Frisco Bay audiences should get a shot to check out both of them this June at the Stanford Theatre where, by fate or by design or by sheer coincidence, they're planned to play as part of twin tributes being held there this spring: one for director Vincente Minnelli, one for British-born actor Ronald Colman. The two men never worked together, as Colman was signed up with Samuel Goldwyn while Minnelli was practically synonymous with MGM.

The Minnelli tribute begins March 31 with a week-long pairing of my two favorites of his films, Meet Me in St. Louis and the Band Wagon. Meet Me in St. Louis is a wartime ode to American nostalgia, and the first film in which Minnelli directed his soon-to-be wife Judy Garland. The Band Wagon, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, is a Broadway-set backstage musical that tops even Singin' in the Rain for me and many others who see it. Minnelli twofers will play the Stanford every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday starting April 16-18 with two more musicals Cabin in the Sky and Yolanda and the Thief. But Minnelli didn't just stick to Arthur Freed-produced musicals, and the Stanford will also be showing a number of his comedies (like the Long, Long Trailer June 11-13 and the original Father of the Bride May 7-9) dramas (including Lust For Life May 21-23 and Some Came Running May 28-30) and of course his two celebrated films about filmmaking, the Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town.

Colman is a figure I'm far less familiar with; I must confess I've only seen a single one of his films: he plays a dashing would-be adulterer in the Ernst Lubitsch silent film of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan (it plays the Stanford May 27-28 with Jim Riggs at the organ). As good as that film is, I suspect it's not even the best among the 14 silent films and 26 talkies scheduled for Wednesdays through Sundays in the series. Colman's Oscar-winning performance is in George Cukor's a Double Life, and he earned nominations for performances in Bulldog Drummond (Apr. 19-21), Condemned (Apr. 26-28) and Random Harvest (April 12-14). He made films with auteurs like Frank Capra (Lost Horizon, Apr. 12-14) John Ford (Arrowsmith, May 10-12), William Wellman (the Light That Failed, May 17-20) and King Vidor (Cynara, Apr. 26-29). The biggest draw for me is perhaps his starring role in a Preston Sturges-scripted film from 1938, If I Were King, which plays May 3-6. That, and the organ-accompanied series of Colman's silent films (most of which I've never heard of before) that change weekly after a Saturday evening show with a Sunday matinee reprise.

And speaking of silent films, I'm already psyched about the four (out of the nine that will play July 14-16) film programs the Silent Film Festival has announced in a recent mailing: Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven starring Janet Gaynor, King Vidor's Show People starring Marion Davies, William Beaudine's Sparrows starring Mary Pickford, and Tod Browning's the Unholy Three starring Lon Chaney as Professor Echo, head of a gang of thieves including (and here I quote from the mailer):
Hercules the Strongman, Tweedledee the Midget, a reluctant moll, a vicious gorilla and talking parrots. You've never seen anything like it!
I believe it, even though I've seen the talkie remake directed by Jack Conway. There's just something totally unique about Browning's silent film direction.

Other upcoming screenings worth mentioning while I'm at it: the Clay's midnight series begins this weekend with the Goonies and ends May 19-20 with Kung Fu Hustle. Next Tuesday, Mar. 28 the Roxie hosts a Noise Pop Film Festival screening of a film I saw a pre-final-cut version of at last year's Noise Pop Film Festival: the Fearless Freaks Featuring the Flaming Lips. As a fan of the band I must say I was very disturbed (though not exactly surprised) by the graphic images of hard drug use in the film, so be prepared if you think you might want to see it. The Roxie has also signed up to show Battle in Heaven starting March 31, and has the schedule up for its James Toback retrospective. And the Sonoma Valley Film Festival is running April 5-9 and includes screenings of Danis Tanovic's L'Enfer on the 8th and 9th.

Friday, March 17


24th SFIAAFF Preview, Part II

Every film is a cultural document, packed with signals that reflect the identity of those involved in its creation. Arguably, it's these signals that make films interesting to watch, though sometimes we can lose sight of this and get caught up in the mechanics of narrative or filmmaking technology, as if these are elements that can be wholly extracted from issues of cultural identity. A festival with a geographic, cultural, and cross-cultural focus like the SF International Asian American Film Festival (which opened last night with a sold-out screening of Eric Byler's Award-winning AMERICANese) can help remind those of us who might otherwise wear cultural blinders to look at film through a different lens. No wonder it's such a popular festival in a city like Frisco, where so many residents have traditionally had roots in more than one identity group that it's as if the whole city is a cross-cultural experience.

I couldn't help but use this lens to view a film like Grain in Ear (playing Saturday Mar. 18 at the Kabuki and Sunday Mar. 19 at the Pacific Film Archive) as a portrayal of immigrants, in this case a Korean woman and her young son trying to survive as outsiders in a Chinese coal mining town. Certainly the feelings of isolation and anguish the film portrays are not unique to immigrants, and director Zhang Lu's framing of the film as one about "terrorism" works. It's not what came to my mind while watching the film, though. Rather I watched how the kimchee peddler protagonist Soon-hee's attitude toward her Korean identity and the stereotyping it provokes in her neighbors (not so much her literal neighbors, the genial prostitutes who befriend her young son, but the closed-off larger community) shifts in the film. Early on she meets another Korean-Chinese who seems like a rare opportunity for human connection in an unfriendly town. But this connection only sets off a chain reaction of downwardly-spiraling calamities that culminate in the film's remarkable final shot. This shot has been mentioned in every review of the film I've encountered as notable because it's the only tracking shot in a film filled with static-camera shots. After the building feeling of being held back by a camera lens proscenium, we finally move forward into the action and for me it triggered a strong emotional response. Zhang is almost as sparing in his use of close-ups on the actors' faces; the few that appear are reaction shots to off-screen violent acts, and their presence is crucial. I get the feeling he understands how Brecht's "distancing effect" works a lot better than I do.

Two other films recalled my own limited experience living in an unfamiliar country and dealing with my own cultural baggage. In 1999-2000, while I was working at a high school in Northern Thailand, I took the opportunity to play budget tourist in as many nearby countries as my teaching schedule allowed. I only spent a few days apiece in Phnom Penh and Singapore, so I particularly value the deeper inquiries into life in two very different capital cities provided by the Burnt Theatre and Be With Me, respectively. Both films straddle the line between fiction and documentary. Be With Me (playing Saturday Mar. 18 and Tuesday Mar. 21 at the Kabuki) is categorized by the SFIAAF with the fiction films in the International Showcase, and somewhat resembles the deceptively placid narrative filmmaking style of Tsai Ming-Liang. But unlike some of the films made by Tsai's imitators, Be With Me is unforced in its taciturn motivations. At the nexus of the film's three interlocking stories is a real Singaporean, Theresa Chan, a blind and deaf teacher doing some of the same kind of work we see Fini Strauberger do in Herzog's Land of Silence and Darkness. She's devoted to her work and to typing her autobiography, expressed through subtitles representing an inaudible "voiceover". Her typewriter, the letter a security guard sends writes to a woman he's shy to meet, and the text messages sent between a pair of teenagers discovering their sexuality, make for a tidy set of nonverbal communication motifs.

The Burnt Theatre (playing Tuesday Mar. 21 at the PFA and Wednesday Mar. 22 at the Kabuki), on the other hand, was placed in the SFIAAFF's Documentary Features category. It shows the struggle Cambodian actors are faced with daily in light of the irony that the Bassac National Theatre survived the Khmer Rouge that singled out artists in its horrific genocide, but the structure fell victim to a 1994 fire that has left the artform's few surviving practitioners without a proper place to perform. Still, the theatre's wreckage remains a destination for the artists, many of whom live nearby in one of Phnom Penh's most impoverished shantytowns. The three films I've seen by director Rithy Panh have increasingly blurred the documentary-fiction distinction. S21: the Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which played the 2004 edition of the festival, eschewed documentary conventions like the talking head, the omniscient voiceover, and archival footage. Yet it was most disturbingly memorable for the way it utilized re-enactments: Panh asked former prison guard interviewees to demonstrate the practices they used to terrorize political prisoners. He uses his actor subjects in the Burnt Theatre to go a step or two further, mixing "fly-on-the-wall" documentary footage with dramatized scenes. This sometimes creates a disorienting effect, as in a scene in which one of the actors returns to the theatre triumphant that he'd found work, only to be shunned by his colleagues, disheartened by his willingness to sully his craft by acting in a karaoke video. Is this scene drama or documentary, or perhaps a combination? And how about one of the final moments, in which one of the troupe calls a radio station to request a song and tells the DJ his profession: "early retired actor." It's clear that a number of the film's scenes are staged but as the film progressed I grew less certain which ones. One documentary aspect of the film remained, however: the nearly ubiquitous pounding sound of a Malaysian corporation constructing a humungous casino near the theatre is a reminder that in a globalizing economy, commerce easily trumps aesthetics.

I hope reading these descriptions doesn't make the SFIAAFF seem overly concerned with serious films about serious subjects. My previous preview post highlighted a pair of films that are as close to pure fun as cinematically possible: Citizen Dog and Linda Linda Linda. And tomorrow afternoon's James Shigeta tribute film the Crimson Kimono (3PM at the Castro), while it breaks ground rarely sown subsequently in regard to certain American racial issues, is also purely entertaining as a noir-ish detective movie. Though I'm perhaps most excited about the Heroic Grace II films wrapping up the Berkeley run of the festival with a nice sample of work from four different influential martial arts directors. Chor Yuen's Clans of Intrigue and Korean director Chung Chang-wha's King Boxer play March 24th, while Chang Cheh's the Boxer From Shantung (assistant-directed by John Woo) and Lau Kar Leung's Dirty Ho play March 25th. If the four ShawScope prints look nearly as good as the print of King Hu's Come Drink With Me shown at the SFIAAFF two years ago, the PFA is going to have some happy audiences next weekend.

Wednesday, March 8


Sorry, Oscar talk

Bet you didn't know this: Crash is the first Academy Award for Best Picture winner to have premiered at a film festival since Titanic, which opened the Tokyo International Film Festival in 1997. But while Titanic's appearance in Tokyo was purely for publicity's sake, Crash went to Toronto in 2004 with the hopes of being sold. Indeed, Lion's Gate bought the film within a day or so of its public screening and developed a release strategy that included a wide window for the Awards Season campaign of another Paul Haggis-written film on the horizon (Million Dollar Baby), and for another Lion's Gate film with Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda). Then, hot off Million Dollar Baby's Oscar win, Crash was sent to a few film festivals in the weeks before its May 6, 2005 release: Newport Beach, the USA Film Festival in Dallas, and Frisco's loveable little festival, where Haggis was bestowed with a newly inaugurated screenwriting award. I was busy the day of the screening anyway, but to be honest it was one of the least appealing options at last year's festival for me. Not that I knew then that the film would be such a poor one, but simply because I felt its appearance at the festival was, though not on the same scale as Titanic's showing in Tokyo, little more than a publicity stunt. The Crash brand would benefit from the cachet of having been screened at this hemisphere's oldest film festival, and the film festival would seem more important to Hollywood-centric movie lovers who otherwise would have trouble recognizing very many familiar names in the festival catalog. And I could see the film anytime during its sure-to-be-long theatrical run (Indeed I finally caught it a couple weeks ago at the Roxie, and it opens up at the Balboa on Friday.)

All this was percolating in my head yesterday as I read two contrasting reactions to the Crash win in the Chronicle. One was in the front-page(!!) article dissecting Brokeback Mountain's surprising (to many, including me) upset. It was new Film Society director Graham Leggat, impartially noting that all five Best Picture nominees were "smart, good, intelligent and sometimes politically aware films." I suspect he senses Frisco is a Brokeback Mountain town, but has a politician's instinct for hedging his bets. Still, I wonder why he slipped in that "sometimes"? All five films try to tackle pretty serious political themes (Well, at least four of the five; I still haven't gotten around to Capote but I understand it's about the death penalty). Could he, like me, think that Crash is for the most part unaware of how simplistic its political outlook is, or is he thinking of another of the nominees?

The other reaction was in Leah Garchik's gossipy column: Roxanne Captor, the previous occupant of Leggat's position, who was probably instrumental in bringing Crash and Haggis to the festival last year. Garchik's column unveils Captor as a true Crash partisan (she too may sense that Frisco's a Brokeback Mountain town and want to gloat a little now that her ties to the local film scene are, shall we say, not quite as strong as they once were). Garchik: "She said Haggis' screenwriting award from the festival in May had started his roll." This runs counter to the fact that the Film Society's award recipients were announced before the Oscar ceremony where Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's Sideways won the prize Haggis had been up for. And that the festival's directing award was going to Taylor Hackford, when announced still a potential Oscar winner for Ray. It seemed to me that the Film Society in selecting these two recipients was gambling on the Oscars like one might at Vegas, but had lost.

Well, the Film Society announced the Award recipients just before the Oscars this year too, but took care not to have the appearance of capitalizing on the ceremony and its afterglow, thankfully. Instead they picked two of the most egregiously snubbed figures from the past year: actor Ed Harris, who should have been nominated for his menacing performance in a History of Violence, and Werner Herzog, whose Grizzly Man was pointedly absent from the Best Documentary Oscar shortlist. Harris is great for the Peter J. Owens acting award and one of his own favorite films, a Flash of Green, will play April 28 at the Castro Theatre. But I really can't express how encouraging a sign I feel it is that they chose Herzog for the directing award. His selection finally breaks the streak of American citizens with Best Director Oscar nominations to their credit that began after Abbas Kiarostami received the award in 2000. On top of that, he's just about my favorite filmmaker right now. Aguirre: Wrath of God and his Nosferatu remake are among the few films I loved as a teenager that still retain every ounce of their power for me. Over the years I've added the likes of Stroszek and Little Dieter Needs to Fly to my list of cherished films. And I've really been on a Herzog kick in the past year or so, thanks in part to the stepped up release of his films on DVD, in part to the 2005 SFIFF screening of the amazing the White Diamond. But in addition to complete gaps like Scream of Stone, there are very few Herzogs I've seen a decent 35mm print of, so I hope for as broad and deep a retrospective as possible to go along with the April 26 interview and screening of the Wild Blue Yonder already promised. Last year the festival turned its back on the tradition of accompanying this award with a mini-retro, and showed only one Taylor Hackford film. I thought this only exacerbated the problem with that selection; if a director doesn't have a strong reputation among cinephiles, you ought to at least try to make a case for him. Herzog's reputation is quite secure by contrast but I admit I'll be disappointed if that tradition remains defunct.

Ms. Captor didn't take the Kanbar Award for Screenwriting with her when clearing out her desk, though. This year the recipient is the French writer Jean-Claude Carriere, who has worked with Luis Bunuel, Volker Schloendorff, Louis Malle and Milos Forman, with whom he most recently co-wrote Goya's Ghosts.

The announced opening film (April 20 at the Castro) is the musical Perhaps Love by Peter Chan, whose 1996 romance Comrades: Almost a Love Story was one of the last crucial films made in Hong Kong before the British lease on the island ended. His Coming Home was simultaneously the sweetest and by far the scariest segment of the Asian horror omnibus Three. Alloy Orchestra will make its third straight appearance at the festival, this time playing scores to a set of silent short films and to a restored print of the Eagle on April 23rd (in case you missed it when it was digitally presented at the Balboa last week). Frisco indie rock band Deerhoof will premiere a new score to animator Harry Smith's Heaven and Earth Magic on April 27th. And the closing night film (May 4 at the Castro) is Robert Altman's Prairie Home Companion which has my pulse pounding too. I was originally hoping to dovetail this post into a belated entry in the recent Altman Blog-a-Thon, but I've gone on long enough already. More on Altman another day.

Thursday, March 2


24th SFIAAFF Preview

The blog-friendly publicity department of the SF International Asian American Film Festival, which runs from March 16-26, kindly let me attend its press screenings over the past couple weeks. I was able to fit four into my schedule.

Wisit Sasanatieng has just been named one of the "three most important Thai directors" in a poll on His new film Citizen Dog, like his directing debut (still shelved from any US release) Tears of the Black Tiger, takes its gaudy color palette from the film posters, programs, hand-painted promotional stills and other ephemera that remain from the 16mm film production era of the Thai movie industry which lasted until the early 1970s. But instead of the genre pastiche that Wisit's previous film was, Citizen Dog is loosely structured through the cast of eccentric Bangkok characters country bumpkin Pod encounters while stumbling through a series of jobs hoping to defy the prediction his toothless grandma cackles at him as he leaves the family farm: "If you get a job in Bangkok, you will surely grow a tail!"

Luckily Pod (played by Mahasamuth Boonyarak, who I was not surprised to learn is actually a bass player in a rock band; he's got something of a pop star look) is quite unlike the rest of Bangkok's citizens. He's set apart from the crowd in an early sequence in which he's shown moving about town in crowds of people all singing the film's theme song, some quite soulfully, while he glances around at them quizzically. (Another memorable musical sequence comes in the form of a recitative rap song explaining Granny's reincarnation as a gecko clinging to Pod's lamp.) He also has a singular, unrequited devotion to Jin (Saengthong Gate-Uthong) a quirky cleaning woman he meets while employed as a security guard. I suspect this romance thread in the film, along with Pen-ek Ratanaruang's dryly bemused voice-over, is the origin of the many comparisons to Amelie Wisit's film has garnered. The time we spend with Jin reveals her to have an instinct for romantic self-sabotage similar to Amelie's. But from Pod's point of view, his romantic goals are thwarted not by his own lack of confidence but by the craziness of Bangkok and its absolutely bizarre residents. And indeed the unexpectable flourishes of the writer/director's imagination are the real selling point of Citizen Dog. Read all the plot synopses of this film you want beforehand, but I'm certain there will still be plenty of surprises for you when you actually see it. There's just so much crammed into the running time that no synopsis could cover it all without practically rewriting the screenplay. As of yet without a US distributor, Citizen Dog plays the Castro Theatre March 17 and the PFA March 18.

Linda Linda Linda is perhaps even more fun. It's another in the current cycle of films exploring Japan's teenage subcultures, but unlike my experience watching Kamikaze Girls, Go or All About Lilly Chou-Chou, my interest never flagged and I never sensed director Nobuhiro Yamashita reaching for a sentimental or "shocking" cliche. He drops the audience into the very richly detailed galaxy that is Shibazaki High School counting the days to the upcoming school festival and the accompanying rock and roll talent showcase held in a gymnasium-cum-stage. It took a few scenes for me to find my bearings, but soon after I did I was completely won over by these characters. Kyoko, Nozomi, and Kei need to find a vocalist for their Blue Hearts cover band, and to spite a former bandmate they pick the Korean exchange student, Son. They're not exactly striving against all odds to learn catchy Ramones-esque songs like "Linda, Linda", but rather there's a realness to their struggles competing for practice time at the school's pop music club room, dealing with hopeful and ex-boyfriends, and, for Son especially, figuring out how to fit in. By the end of the film you may just have to struggle not to get up and dance along in the aisles (not only is it a fire hazard as we've all been reminded by Sarah Vowell, but it also blocks the view of your fellow moviegoers. So restrain yourself.) Linda Linda Linda plays Friday, March 17 at the PFA and Wednesday, March 22 at the Kabuki.

The other two I saw were among the films passed over by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television in its selection of China's latest Oscar submission in favor of the Promise, which failed to be nominated.

Despite uprooting the setting from Austria to pre-Communist China, Xu Jinglei's Letter From an Unknown Woman is actually more faithful to Stefan Zweig's 1922 tale of romantic obsession than Max Ophuls' revered 1948 version. But perhaps it's most interesting to read Xu's film politically, as Jiang Wen's intellectual playboy character is surrounded by symbols of Westernization, transforming the heroine's infatuation into a manifestation of what might have been called "capitalist thought" after 1949.

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol tells the grippingly true story of a Beijing journalist who travels to the remotest corner of Tibet where the chiru, or Tibetan antelope, is being wiped out by poaching. The film's plot is filled with ethical ambiguities that hooked me in as tightly as a classic Hollywood noir or Western can. It's refreshing to see increasingly layered films like this one coming out of mainland China's film industry.

Though both films are set for US distribution, only Kekexili: Mountain Patrol has its Frisco theatrical release dates: April 21-27, right in the middle of the Film Society's film festival. If you're like me and you tend to be locked into festival mode at that time, avoiding the arthouses like the Lumiere and Act I/II, make an effort to see the film at its March 20th Kabuki screening.

Of course, Landmark would schedule its most enticing calendared programs for the weeks when another major festival, the SFIFF, will be running. Following Kekexili: Mountain Patrol at the Lumiere will be Carol Reed's 1948 the Fallen Idol April 28-May 4. The Act I/II will get the Confomist that week instead. The rest of the current Landmark calendar, I have to say, doesn't inspire me much. I've already seen the Devil and Daniel Johnston (at IndieFest 2005) and though I'd definitely recommend it to people who wish they knew a bit more about this Daniel Johnston guy they keep hearing about, I'm unlikely to prioritize a repeat viewing.

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