Japanese Killers and Endangered Theaters

I haven’t talked about the Shohei Imamura series that ran recently at the Castro and is now playing at the Pacific Film Archive. I had a reason: I had never seen one of Imamura’s films.

I fixed that problem last night, going to the Archive to see Vengeance Is Mine. Now I’m impressed. Imamura takes us into the mind of a psychopath in this film, tracking the life of and manhunt for one of Japan’s most notorious serial killers. The result isn’t pretty. Imamura and screenwriter Masaru Baba treat Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) analytically, neither asking for nor receiving any sympathy for a man incapable of feeling sympathy towards others. Yet the film itself is far from cold. For while Enokizu himself fascinates and repels us, Imamura makes us care deeply for the imperfect people whose lives Enokizu touches, ruins, and in some cases cuts short. This one stays with you a long time.

The Archive will screen Vengeance Is Mine again on Saturday, June 23.

Imamura made films about the seamy underbelly of Japanese (and all modern) society. I’m going to have to see more of them. He died last year at the age of 79.

In other news, Marin Primary School is putting on a bake sale Sunday to raise money for saving the Lark. The sale, from noon to 3:00 in front of the theater, isn’t likely to raise the $300,000 they still need to keep the theater from closing, but it should help.


There’s a new icon on my schedules, , for warning.

It’s not to warn you about bad movies. I’ve already got and for that. tells you that there’s something wrong with the presentation–for instance, it’s on DVD, not film.

Hover your mouse cursor over this icon to find out what I’m warning you about.

RiffTrax Report

How was the RiffTrax event at the Rafael? Hilarious.

They presented and commented on a wretched 1987 Sylvester Stallone vehicle called, appropriately enough, Over the Top. Imagine Stallone as a truck driver/professional arm wrestler bonding with the 12-year-old rich and spoiled son he only just met.

Okay, that’s pretty ugly. Now imagine it with Mike Nelson and two other MST3K veterans riffing on it, live, in front of a packed audience. I’m talking laughter at Hot Fuzz levels. All very silly, of course.

MST3K fans are the Deadheads of television comedy. I arrived at the theater more than an hour before the movie started, and line was already growing. I talked to one young man who drove up from Orange County for the event.

The movie was presented off a DVD, which I would object to under normal conditions. But these weren’t normal conditions, and no one was there to enjoy Over the Top’s beautiful photography. I won’t repeat any of the jokes–you truly had to have been there.

After the movie, the performers stayed on stage to answer questions. And proved just as funny doing that–and informative. One person, using Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as an example, asked how they approach riffing on movies that many people love (the RiffTrax site sells downloadable commentaries for several films, not all of them turkeys). Nelson explained that in these cases they joke about the film without actually insulting it.

My one complaint: The film was presented with the volume up too high. Not too high for a normal presentation, but too high for commentary. At times, especially during the action-packed climax (well, arm-wrestling-packed climax), I couldn’t make out what the guys on stage were saying.

Okay, I have one more complaint. They made several jokes about the Stallone character’s last name, which was either Hawk or Hawks depending on who said it. But they didn’t seem to notice that he had the most ridiculous, absurd, and implausible first name that a screenwriter could possibly give a character: Lincoln.

The Duke at 100

We just had a couple of big anniversaries. Friday marked 30 years since the original Star Wars (now renamed Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) premiered and altered the film industry. And Saturday was John Wayne’s 100th birthday. I’ll skip Star Wars and talk about the Duke.

Bay Area cinephiles don’t give John Wayne much respect. How bad is this? Let me put it this way. Last January, Bay Area theaters gave me four opportunities to tell you that I find Vertigo wildly overrated. But in 2½ years of maintaining Bayflicks.net, I’ve only had one such opportunity to criticize The Searchers.

As far as John Wayne films I actually like, in that time no local theater I know of has screened Stagecoach, Red River, Fort Apache, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Pacific Film Archive screened Rio Bravo once.

Yet few stars shined as brightly. When he strode into the frame with that manly-yet-graceful walk, he commanded the camera. He came across as a strong yet fair man, and as both a drinking buddy and a true friend who would watch your back. And on occasion, he could dig down into the dark side of his persona to play a complex and frightening anti-hero.

Why do so many of us hate John Wayne? Three reasons, none of them really fair:

He was a reactionary. Yes, he was a right-wing Republican who enthusiastically supported the anti-Communist blacklist and publicly attacked Viet Nam-era draft dodgers. (The later stance also makes him a hypocrite, what we today call a chicken hawk, as he avoided service during World War II to concentrate on his career.)

But his politics were no more right-wing than James Stewart’s, who we don’t usually vilify. By the 1970’s, Wayne was publicly defending rioting students on the grounds that the college administrators were interfering with the students First Amendment rights. And you can’t dismiss a white man who married three Mexican women as a simple bigot.

Besides, if we judge an artist solely on his politics, are we that different from the blacklisters?

He couldn’t act; he just played himself over and over again. He didn’t actually play himself. Could you imagine any John Wayne character starting every workday putting on makeup? His onscreen persona was a carefully crafted illusion. He had to learn how to ride a horse, fire a gun, and even, by his own admission, say “ain’t.”

But the “couldn’t act” charge is understandable. He was a movie star for nearly 20 years before giving his first complex performance in Red River. And he gave precious few after that, preferring to stick to a persona he was comfortable with. But when the script called for it and the director demanded it, Wayne could shade that persona with variety and complexity, creating real characters who were still “John Wayne.”

He made a lot of bad films. Guilty as charged. He stared in something like 150 features between The Big Trail (1930) and The Shootist (1976). Most of them were dreadful. He spent most of the 1930’s churning out B westerns that inspire more unintentional laughter than intentional thrills. Once he became a big star who could choose his projects, he stuck largely to what was safe and easy.

Luckily, he wasn’t consistent about that. Wayne knew he owed much of his success to directors John Ford (who saved him from B pictures) and Howard Hawks (who made him not just a major star but the major star), and he understood the virtue of loyalty. Even when Ford and Hawks needed Wayne more than he needed them, he would take any part they offered.

Thanks to those relationships, Wayne made a handful of great films, and it’s for these that he should be remembered and celebrated.

If you’re not familiar with Wayne at his best, rent some of these on DVD (or hope they come to a revival house near you): Stagecoach, Fort Apace, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Bravo, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Others would include The Quiet Man and The Searchers on this list,.

Films for the Week of May 25, 2007

Operation Homecoming, Red Vic, Sunday through Tuesday. Coached by professional writers, American soldiers and veterans of the Iraq war tell their stories. That’s the idea behind the National Endowment for the Arts’ Operation Homecoming, and the inspiration for this haunting documentary. Much of the film consists of the usual talking heads–the veterans who are telling their stories and the skilled authors (all war veterans, themselves) who helped them. But the best moments come out of the stories themselves, read by professional actors and illustrated with news footage, dramatic recreations, and even animation. Operation Homecoming doesn’t have an axe to grind; there’s no preaching about how we should or should not be in this particular war. But the vivid sense of what it’s like there stays with you long after the credits fade.

Rifftrax Live!, Rafael, Sunday, 7:30. What’s the best possible way to experience the worst examples of cinematic trash? With people who can crack wise at the screen–especially if those people are professional comedians working from a carefully-written script. Three leading creators of Mystery Science Theater 3000–the long-running (but no longer running) TV show that did more for bad movies than did Roger Corman–will appear onstage at the Rafael to comment on…I don’t know. They’re not telling us in advance exactly what they will be showing.

Woman of the Year, Stanford, Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30. One of only a handful of Hollywood films (Annie Hall is another) that accurately conveys the ups, downs, and sideways motions of romantic love as a long-term commitment. Sexist by today’s standard, this love story between two independently-minded professionals was cutting-edge feminist for its time (or at least as cutting-edge feminist as MGM would allow). And its sense of two people who love each other but can’t easily stay compatible never ages. It also started one of Hollywood’s most famous real-life romances–that of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Directed by George Stevens from a screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. As part of the Stanford’s celebration of Katharine Hepburn’s Centenary, they’re showing Woman of the Year with Song of Love.

From Russia with Love, Castro, Sunday. The James Bond films never got better than the second entry in the long series. Low-budget and rough around the edges by later standards, From Russia with Love benefits from not feeling obliged to stick to formula. It’s simply an exceptionally well-made little espionage triller about a British spy named James Bond. On a double bill with The Spy Who Loved Me as part of the Castro’s 007 weekend.

Jaws, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Steven Spielberg thought this out-of-control production would end his still-new career. Instead, it put him on the top of the Hollywood pyramid; and with good reason. By combining an intelligent story (lifted by novelist Peter Benchley from Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People), brilliant editing, and a handful of effective shocks, Jaws scares the living eyeballs out of you. A Flashback Feature.

A Shot In the Dark, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, and Sunday, 5:00. The first movie based around the character of Inspector Clouseau (a supporting character in the original Pink Panther) supplies more laughs than any three normal characters. Peter Sellers created one of cinema’s great comic characters in this dignified yet idiotic detective who believes himself a crime-solving mastermind, and A Shot In the Dark gives Clouseau his best vehicle. The cast includes George Sanders as a possibly guilty nobleman and a beautiful (if talent-impaired) Elke Sommer as the obvious suspect whom Clouseau refuses to suspect. Another Cerrito Classic.

Shrek the Third, Presidio, ongoing. The second sequel to the original, wonderful computer-animated Shrek isn’t a complete loss. It has enough truly funny jokes to fill a seven-minute Road Runner cartoon. But since the picture runs 92 minutes, there’s a lot of waiting between the laughs. While the first Shrek blew the lid off fairy tale traditions to teach children that conventional good looks were not a requirement for living happily ever after, and the still pretty good Shrek 2 suggested that even fairy godmothers may charge a price that’s too high, what does Shrek the Third have to teach our children? You guessed it: Believe in yourself. Like the theme, the third Shrek outing is guaranteed originality-free.

Hot Fuzz, Parkway and Presidio, opens Friday. Director/co-writer Edgar Wright fills every frame of Hot Fuzz with his love for mindless action movies. More precisely, he fills the splices between the frames, cutting even the scenes of quiet village life in the frantic style of Hollywood violence–accompanied by overloud sound effects, of course. (And yes, he’s smart enough not to overdo it.) This technique, along with a funny story, clever dialog, and charming performances, help make this genre parody the funniest film in years, with the longest sustained laugh I’ve experienced since I first discovered Buster Keaton. If Hot Fuzz doesn’t make my Top Ten list as the funniest film of the year, 2007 will be the best year from comedies in a very long time.

In a Festive Mood

Any independent filmmaker who wants to make a mark in the Bay Area should make a gay-themed animated horror film about the African-American experience. Why? Because such a film would have a good chance at showing up one of the area’s June festivals.

For instance, SF IndieFest’s Another Hole in the Head Festival (as in “The Bay Area needs another film festival like it needs a hole in the head”) opens June 1 at the Roxie for a two-week run (as in running terrified with a gushing wound as something scary and supernatural chases you). Among the edifying works of art to be shown at this sci-fi and horror gathering are Blood Car, Automaton Transfusion, and Zombie Farm.

But this year IndieFest is bringing us two festivals in one. On the theory that horror films are best seen at night, they’re presenting SF IndieFest: Gets Animated as a matinée addition to Hole in the Head. This will include some Plymptoons, Space Battleship Yamato (aka Star Blazers-The Movie), and a collection of politically incorrect Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Meanwhile, on June 7 through the 17 (with a few weekdays off in the middle), the San Francisco Black Film Festival will screen at three locations. The festival opens with The Front Line (this festival doesn’t provide links to film description on its site, so no links here), an Irish thriller involving an African immigrant, and closes with an American love story called Premium. In between is a time travel fantasy called Slave Warrior: the Beginning, the hip-hop documentary Finally Sayin’ What I Really Mean, and a whole lot of other pictures. The festival is also screening a series of children’s shorts on the morning of June 9.

If that’s not enough for you, Frameline presents the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival (that’s LGBT as in Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, and Transgender, in case you’re just off the boat from Kansas) on June 14 through the 24. Among the films that caught my eye are The Bubble, described as a “contemporary, queer Romeo And Juliet [concerning] two young men, one Israeli and one Palestinian” and comedy named Itty Bitty Titty Committee (with a name like that it better be a comedy).

If I’m not telling you about any films I’ve actually seen, it’s because I haven’t seen anything. I’ve been too busy to attend press conferences and screenings, or to request the screener DVDs with which critics get to preview festival films. I’m not sure I’ll make it to any of these festivals.

But it won’t surprise my loyal readers that the one June festival I know I’ll get to is the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival in Niles at the end of the month. But I’ll tell you about that one later.

Come to think of it, our hypothetical independent filmmaker should make a gay-themed animated silent horror film about the African-American experience.

Mystery Science Theater 2007

I devote and dedicate Bayflicks.net to the best possible way to experience great works of the cinematic art: on film, well-projected, with an appreciative and enthusiastic audience.

But what’s the best possible way to experience the worst examples of cinematic trash? With people who can crack wise at the screen–especially if those people are professional comedians working from a carefully-written script. That experience is coming next Sunday to the Rafael as Rifftrax Live–sort of a live, theatrical version of Mystery Science Theater 3000,:

MST3K, as the show is known to its fans, is the funniest television show to ever enjoy an 11-year-run filling a two-hour timeslot. It ran from 1988 through 1999, mostly on the Comedy Channel. The concept was bizarre: Mad scientists have kidnapped a regular guy (originally show creator Joel Hodgson, latter head writer Mike Nelson), and placed him in a satellite with no company except some spirited and immature robots. Every week, the scientists force our hero and his ‘bots to watch bad movies, which they resist with clever observations.

The writers never restricted themselves to jokes everyone would get. An extended woman’s wrestling match from Racket Girls received references to the Lincoln/Douglas debates as well as Ayn Rand and Lillian Hellman. And I once showed the Hercules Against the Moon Men episode to a classical musician I was then dating (and have since married), and she laughed at four notes that one of the –˜bots hummed.

The show went off the air years ago, but you can still see it on DVD. In addition, several of the creative forces behind the show are still riffing on bad movies (and sometimes good movies), selling their alternative comments at their Web-based business, RiffTrax.

And that explains Rifftrax Live, with three of MST3K’s writer/performrs coming to the Rafael next Sunday evening. What movie will they take apart for our entertainment? They’re not telling.

Speaking about bad movies, I saw Shrek the Third today. Not that I wanted to see it, but parenthood has its duties. You’ll find my review here.