Like You Know It All --Camera Cinemas tonight (Mar 20, 7:45)


There was one feature that’s a real standout at today’s two-day seance by the 28th Annual SF International Asian American Film Festival at the Camera Cinemas in San Jose. And what a subject: The angst of someone surviving a film festival, cast away on the Island of Misfit Movies…it’s about time someone addressed this all-important issue.
Happily, the ever-talented Hong Sangsoo handles it beautifully in Like You Know It All (Mar 20, 7:45 at the Camera 12) a film with vinegar wit and sensuality, and with perhaps the most alluring title since You Can Count On Me. Hong’s comedy concerns the misadventures of a film director in a milieu of personal spinelessness and forlorn love.
40 year old Ku (Kim Tae-Woo), is a hitless art house director.

He’s in the Korean hinterlands, judging a film festival. The humidity is killing, the films aren’t up to snuff, and the people are being too nice to him. Like anyone who has been petted too much, Ku starts to grow the fangs and exude the scent of a weasel.
The partying gets out of control. Sometimes a friend, trying to teach personal responsibility to a hangover sufferer, will remind them solicitously: “No one poured those drinks down your throat, you know.” In South Korea, though, they sort of do. And amid the hurt feelings, and days drowsing through screenings, Ku runs into an old friend, Boo (Gong Hyeung-Jim).
Now running the family restaurant, Boo the old buddy has left the capitol for good; his life has turned around since the days when he was guzzling himself to death in Seoul. In voice-over Ku notes: “Boo had high ideals and a drinking problem.” (That’s what killed F. Scott Fitzgerald). Now married, Boo boasts of wife as his angel, his soul-mate. This happiness, too, Ku mucks up before he has to get out of town.
The film’s second half takes place on a seaside resort where Ku has gone to address a college class. In this more pleasing spot, the director reconnects with Ko (Ko Hyung-jang) a woman he once loved when he was going to college. Ku promptly tangles himself again with angry locals, a boorish professor, and Ko’s husband, an aged painter who is a local legend.
Director Hong (Woman on the Beach, The Day A Pig Fell Into the Well) does what Henry Jaglom would do if he were more comically adroit, or what Woody Allen would do if he could sustain his insights, instead of being drawn into the gags. Sometimes a no-comment glance is the best punchline of all; sometimes the hint at the possibility of wisdom, is better than an underlined life-lesson.
Hong’s gifted use of the small, single camera ought to become a new standard. It’s so old it’s refreshing: steady with measured zooms to take in inflections, secrets and lies. It’s opposite of the depressing zoomarama of indie film.
And Hong has a point beyond mere self-castigation here (though the self-castigation will keep you grinning). He records those late-night conversations where when one shares the space of a simple great idea, embraces it for a second, lets it go, and watches it wander off to reveal itself as a platitude.
Likely you’ve never seen a less exotic movie from the far East. Hong’s crabby, one-upping, decadent power drinkers, and self-deluders are as near to you as your closest art-ghetto. The one night only screening here gives us the universality always promised, but not always delivered, by film festivals.

Charmed, I'm sure

Obscure Jack Kirby villainness Granny Goodness…

…meet attack-ad fomenting gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman.

Playland Documentary

Remembering Playland at the Beach

(Unrated) Laffing Sal’s place in local pop-culture history is assured, even if the mechanical harridan did traumatize at least some of the young visitors to San Francisco’s long-gone and much-missed amusement park Playland at the Beach. Several of the subjects interviewed in Tom Wyrsch’s wonderful documentary recall how terrifying her banshee howl could be. Not as terrifying, however, as the Diving Bell ride, which plunged thrill seekers into a tank of water and then shot them up a hydraulic shaft. Seems that in its later years, the diving chamber leaked copiously and its windows were covered with a sinister layer of algae. Whitney’s Playland, located at the farthest western verge of San Francisco by Ocean Beach and just below the Sutro Baths, opened in 1928 and lasted until 1972. Wyrsch’s film lovingly re-creates some of the spectacle of this 365-day-a-year carnival with old pictures and film footage plus lots of interviews, many of them with members of a group dedicated to maintaining a museum of Playland relics. Among many bits of fascinating trivia is the revelation that some of Playland’s best minds were whisked away by a guy named Disney to build an even bigger and better place called Disneyland. The only oversight is the failure to mention that at the end of The Lady From Shanghai, Orson Welles’ character is seen walking past the Funhouse at Playland. (Plays Mar 17 at 7 and 9:15pm and Mar 20 at noon at the Balboa Theater in San Francisco; (MSG)

Note, some shows are selling out, and shows are being added, so be sure to check the website.)

We have all the time in the world

(above: the coat of arms of the Bleauchamps; like Richard III, Blofeld has a swine on his shield.)

Charles Helftenstein of just did a book (with some trace amounts of source material from me) about the 007 movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969); remembered by the public as the one with that Australian git in it. Rather than make the case for it once more (I know Steve P. thinks it’s a bummer), or repeat the story that seeing it on New Year’s Day 1970 at the Academy Theater in Pasadena was the single most formative thing that made me a film critic…let me just run down its good qualities fast:
Diana Riggs’ performance as a Antioniesque rich girl awakened by adventure and the right kind of man;
Peter Hunt’s brilliantly edited, lens-flare rich snow sequences, including the first and last use of a bobsled run for a deadly chase;
John Barry’s soundtrack, featuring what is reportedly the first use of the Moog Synthesizer in a film score, containing the last recording by Louis Armstrong;
and the emphasis on romance, which makes it a Bond film one doesn’t have to apologize for when watching it with ladies present.
OHMSS, as its friends call it, has more movie (and more Ian Fleming) in it than any of the other Bonds. Even the inexperience of George Lazenby, the git in question, means less over the years. Was there ever a moment in the Bonds as soulful as the instance where Bond, run to earth at an ice rink, basically gives up and waits to be killed until he’s rescued by Tracy?

Gun Crazy Redux

Anthony Lane of The New Yorker isn’t the only one to have rewatched Gun Crazy recently. As Lane commented appropos 3-D movies in the March 8 issue, Joseph H. Lewis’ “bad-couple thriller” “felt considerably more dangerous and less dated than most of the new releases.” He was lucky enough to see a new print on the big screen, but the existing DVD is of sufficiently high quality to cement the film’s reputation as a high point of film noir.

In addition to some sizzling dialogue (distraught over his love interest/partner in crime’s fatal way with a gun, John Dall laments: “Two people dead, just so we can live without working. Annie, why do you have to kill people?”)—the film features underrated Peggy Cummins looking better in a cowgirl outfit than anyone before or since. (Whatever happened to Cummins? She was indelible in this and Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon and that’s about it.)

The long unbroken take from the backseat of a getaway car remains kinetically daring and anticipates a later wild ride in a convertible in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Easily available on DVD and essential viewing.

Important Showgirls Update

I’m always glad to be on the receiving end of breaking-news press releases from forgotten movie actresses. Hence my extreme pleasure in learning that Rena Riffel, who played Penny Hope in the one-and-only Showgirls has stepped forward to set the record straight on the various long-hoped-for sequels to the Joe Eszterhas/Paul Verhoeven ecdysiastic classic.

Riffel warns that “some media outlets” (not this one—we have our standards) have been propagating false information about her participation in a follow-up called Showgirls 2 under development by a “German Showgirls fan-turned-Hollywood director.” Ms. Riffel was indeed contacted about lending her star power to Showgirls 2 but declined because it was “horrifically graphic.”

Riffel (whose recent credits include Trasharella in Space, Caligula’s Spawn and The Making of Gnome Killer 2) is writing and directing her own Showgirls sequel in a more, we trust, tasteful vein. A brief teaser can be seen on YouTube. It includes such sure-to-be-immortal dialogue as “Gold digging is swell, but fool’s gold is the kiss of death” and “If you want a big tip, then bitch-slap this bitch.” (The latter line delivered by none other than Michael J. Anderson, the little man from the dream sequences in Twin Peaks, a considerable boost in credibility for a film whose other co-star is a guy in red-wig drag.) As for the plot: “It’s sort of a ‘Whatever happened to Penny Hope? 15 years later story. … my take on what becomes of a 30-something stripper who is still obsessed with dancing and fame.” For the record, Ms. Riffel is now officially 41-something.

Critics on Film

Do I remind you of Pauline Kael?

Not, mind you, critics talking about films (or TV) but representations of film critics in films.

I finally caught up with the (to me overwrought) two-part finale of Monk (on DVD, spared the endless commercials). One of the characters (played by Alona Tal) turns out to be a gorgeous young (maybe 26) film critic for the “East Bay Chronicle.” She reviews movies for the paper even though she lives in Monterey (which the TV show laughingly mentions is a mere 30 minutes away). No word on exactly what screenings she’s getting in Monterey that allow her to meet an “East Bay Chronicle” deadline. Is she competing for Mick LaSalle’s job? Did she call “The Blind Side” a must-see for guilty white liberals? Alas, none of these hard-core questions is answered.

Oscar Weeners

The parade of the dead is one of the main reasons I watch the Oscars, and they muffed that proper, first by deep-sixing Farah, second by getting Demi Moore to be Charon’s Girlfriend, thirdly by filming the whole thing from ultra-long lens perspective so you couldn’t see who from whom. Closeups on sobbing faces of widows, children, former drug dealers: that’s what we really needed. Though the order of the dead seemed right, with Karl Malden headlining: he was the biggest loss…not saying anything about Michael Jackson’s cinema-acting career).

As for the John Hughes tribute: not that I’m a baby boomer by any means, but that five minutes of Reagan-era slosh now strips the children of the 1980s from ever again criticizing baby-boomer navel gazing. And also it seems in dubious taste to keep repeating “When you get older, your heart dies” in the context of an obituary for a film director who passed on because of a coronary.

Jeff Bridges should have shown up in a Armani bathrobe with a vodka Caucasian in his hand. If there’s anything I want to live for, it’s to see him in the Coen’s take on True Grit.

The robbed: QT (congrats Christoph Waltz), Woody Harrelson (despite Christoph Waltz), the short film Miracle Fish, George Clooney, Lou Jacobi (whose tranny moment in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex...wasn’t visible in the above mentioned “Ferry Across the Styx” section).

As for the ceremony itself: dignity, always dignity: Neil Patrick Harris’ song comes out of the gate with a joke about  prison sodomy and Dolly Parton’s fun-pillows; it set the tone for the image of Alec Baldwin and Steven Martin snuggying and high-fiving of their double-teaming Meryl Streep on the set of It’s Complicated; to Sandra Bullock’s heartfelt reference to her own lesbian affair with Streep. (The reason why Streep can play anything is that she’s quite a player, apparently.)

Somehow, more dismaying was the use of “As Time Goes By” as the theme for a group of aging actresses on stage. While I’m fairly lukewarm about Alice in Wonderland, its huge box office opening goes along with the woman’s day triumph. When does Agnes Varda get her Oscar?

And despite the win for Up, The Cove, and Sandra Bullock—whom I’ve liked ever since she gave the girl’s self-defense lesson in the middle of Miss Congeniality, my favorite win of the night was the win for Logorama (above) a triumph of Situationalism.

Kathryn Bigelow's Big Adventure

Look at it! It's a once in a lifetime opportunity, man! Let me go out there and let me get one wave, just one wave before you take me in. I mean, come on man, where I am I gonna go? Cliffs on both sides! I'm not gonna paddle my way to New Zealand! Come on, compadre. Come on!

Now that Kathryn Bigelow has won an Oscar for best directing for Hurt Locker, let’s recall that she made her name with a vampire movie—Near Dark—and, wait for it, a Keanu Reeves cop movie: Point Break.

I feel vindicated. I was an early and enthusiastic believer in Near Dark, the best vampire movie of the last quarter century, with key roles for Bill Paxton and Lance Henrikson. I also defended, against the slings and arrows of my campadres and the satirical thrusts of Hot Fuzz, the virtues of Point Break, which isn’t just a wildly entertaining movie but an exceptional piece of filmmaking craft: consider the amazing hand-held-camera chase through various suburban backyards, which is one of the best pieces of pure kineticism put on film.

Not that blogs are really the best place to settle old scores (but if not here, where?). But I would like, in the wake of Bigelow’s Oscar, to remind one critic his ill-considered dig at PB in his review of Simon Pegg’s Hot Fuzz:

“Although Hot Fuzz is a parody, Wright and his team aren’t part of the current wave of satire that makes a film reference and calls it a day. I was astonished that Wright found inspiration in Bad Boys II and Point Break—the latter, a movie so mannered that even hardened ironists can’t tell if they like it ironically or not. Frost’s pantomiming of Keanu Reeves’ famous moment of emotional turmoil in Point Break goes beyond a joke. Love redeems all, and Frost’s love makes even Point Break look better.”

Who’s ironic now, I ask?

Cinequest Mar 6: Oh, Mother, can this really be the end

When hanging out, pre-Zwigoff dogging, at the press lounge, heard a really, really young filmmaker talking about how he’d closed down the Cinebar the night before: glad to hear Cinebar is hosting a one year anniversary screening of Whiskey Tears tonight at 4:30pm.

As for Zwigoff: talked to him at Sabor afterwards, and felt slightly better about being called out as “emblematic of the low state of journalism”. Afterwards, he told me he was just “having some fun.” Interestingly, Zwigoff noted that his involvement on the comic book Funny Aminals–the beginning of his involvement with PETA– began by reading “A Mother’s Tale” by James Agee. “A film critic, you know,” he added.

Enjoyed the story that Billy Bob played Bad Santa very authentically (under the influence from morn until night, despite Z’s urgings to him that he was a better actor sober); that Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson had been in the running for the part of the evil Santy; that Howard Armstrong’s “whorehouse Bible” may be in print someday, but that Armstrong’s widow isn’t going to permit that right now.

And that Criterion will be re-releasing this excellent first documentary by Zwigoff next year.

Attended a small part of the Day of the Writer fest, saw Alex Simon win first place in the scriptwriting award, then n watched Marley Sims and Fred Rubin interviewed by Barak Goldman of DeAnza about the essence of what’s humorous. Sims is pitching a new TV series called “Life After Beth”. The two long-time sit com writers claimed that Jewishness and dysfunctional families were the essence of comedy writing, and got down to cases of words in particular. Take the well-known funny-k sound (it’s been said that the last word in a punchline ought to be “kayak”); they listed internal organs that are funny (“`Liver’ has an implied `k’ sound,” said Rubin). The word “moist” is funny, because it’s a porn word,” said Sims…I would suggest also that “oi” itself is a funny dipthong. (And “dipthong” is a funny word.)

Laughing on the inside if not the outside, I cut out for Andrew Drazek’s Cummings Farm and was so very glad I did. This comedy about an orgy that goes south had more audacity and more integrity than many of the serious movies at Cinequest. It was ball-shrivellingly raunchy and at the same time not simple-minded or depressingly bourgois; while it was often as funny as The Hangover, the complicated power plays among six dreadful people reminded me of Bruce Beresford’s Don’s Party.

Cinequest should have sounded the alert to Sarah Silverman fans. Playing the depressed self-described “cow” Tina is Ms. Sarah’s sister Laura (her put-upon sister Jane on the Silverman show; if you love the show, you’ll love Cummings Farm). Laura S. plays a dim low-self-esteemed mommy with no taste for group sex. Scriptwriter Ted Beck is Todd, her lecherous spouse, the orgy’s ringmaster (think Rupert Pupkin with a boner). The quaking, quacking nice Jewish boy Alan (Adam Busch) turns out to be as close to a moral center as the film gets despite his spinelessness; Lee Harvey Oswald-look alike Gordon (Jordan Kessler) is a pitiful drunk squiring the sweet-faced bawdy blonde (Aimee-Lynn Chadwick, terrific in an Alice Faye kind of way) and the very up-for-it Yasmine (Yasmine Kittles) keeps the negative energy flowing.

Putting a bunch of people in a room all night and making it so you don’t want to kill them is no easy task; filming in Louisiana (I’m going to go way out on a limb and suggest that’s because of tax breaks and incentives), this obviously well-rehearsed troop make the best of a shambly lakeside cottage with a lake view. The light off the water helps give a Midsummer Night’s Dream vibe to this low rent comedy.

Way too offensive for a few viewers, this mean-for-the-fun of it comedy deserves viewers who are sick of comedies that start off brash and throbbing and end up soft, sticky and limp.

As for today: the Adobe Forum at 11 am goes head to head with Complaints Choir, a documentary about people who turn one’s complaints into song.

Outsourced (left; 4pm Cam 12) gives you a big view of India, and it has lots of charm, even if it’s none too deep;and Shorts Program 3 is recommended as previously.

The closing night is Mother at 8pm, but a day of encores tomorrow along with the Oscars at 5pm.

Big day–