Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Clocking in during the final hours of the last day of the year seems appropriate to post ten of my favorite narrative features of 2015. At this belated juncture my hubris will be tempered by the fact that everyone will have had their fill of lists and I can squeak by dutifully without calling too much attention to myself. I've tried to create a list that reflects commercial achievements mingled with festival triumphs that, hopefully, can someday be seen. Listed in alphabetical order.

The Auction (Le Démantèlement / The Dismantlement, Sébastien Pilote, 2013)—Although a young filmmaker, Sébastien Pilote has an admirable sensitivity towards narrative portraiture of elderly men, demonstrated first with The Salesman (2011), and now again with The Auction (2013), which moved me to the marrow at the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival. Gaby Ganon (Gabriel Arcand) is a laconic hermitic sheepherder who runs the Bouchard & Sons family farm; a misnomer as he has no sons, just two daughters, who have both fled the farm for the city. When one of his daughters asks him for an extravagant loan to keep her city residence, Gaby has to decide whether to sell off the farm and dismantle a family business that no one wants to inherit, thereby giving up a way of life he has always known. His sacrifice is remarkable and poignant. Would this have happened if he'd had sons to take over the operation? Does it matter when a father's love is concerned?

Winner of the SACD Award for Best Screenplay at the 52nd Cannes Film Festival, The Auction offers a quiet, observant script with low-stated but heartfelt characterizations. Arcand was named best lead actor at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards. The film had its North American premiere in the World Cinema sidebar at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was picked up by Film Movement for U.S. distribution, essentially on DVD and streaming platforms, including Netflix Instant Watch. I don't believe it actually achieved theatrical distribution in the U.S.—which is a shame—but, at least it's available for those desiring a keen, subtle tale. Highly recommended.

Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)—Thoroughly enjoyed Iñárritu's Birdman (2014), a welcome maturation of his consequential ensemble pieces. Michael Keaton is a sure shot for Best Actor accolades during Awards season for—as my San Francisco Film Critics Circle colleague Omar Moore phrased it—"playing at least three different characters", at least one of which wryly comments upon Keaton's one-off 1989 portrayal of Batman. Edward Norton and Emma Stone will follow suit with supporting nods. As a foil to Keaton's scene-stealing dominance, Norton handles his own with wit and physicality. With doe-eyed cynicism, Stone gives voice to a skeptical younger generation formed (and informed) by social media at odds with the old-fashioned integrity and artistic aspirations of Keaton, her father. And, of course, the film's technical merits will prove competitive.

Birdman's conceit of the "continuous" take tips a brim to Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and is more seamless in some transitions than others, now and again calling too much attention to itself, and relying now and again on arguably discontinuous tactics (timelapse anyone?) to achieve its conceptual flourish. Iñárritu's grasp of the insular world of backstage antics is compelling, offering the bitchy wit of the wings. My friend Mike Black—who I keep begging to write on film on The Evening Class—offered this winning observation via email: "As in All About Eve, Birdman offers up for our consideration that quaintly enduring tension between stage actors and 'movie stars,' as though it were a Marxist conflict pitting the working artist-proletariat against an economic elite, a conflict in which we all, as human beings, have a personal stake. Which may be true. In any case, despite all the artifice and whimsy, or because of it, the story ends up with a surprising poignancy that was quite satisfying." No doubt due to the script's lapidary dialogue, which is sharp as crystal at points.

Iñárritu's cinematographic tricks, the insular environment within the theater's anatomy, the choreography of his actors within the world he has staged, constitute a "spare no prisoners" mise en scène, reminiscent at times of Charlie Kaufman's exploration of the thin line between dream and waking life, shuffling realities even as imagination invents them.

In an acerbic stroke of reflexivity, I loved the scene where Keaton is bemoaning the loss of integrity in performance, railing that most audiences only want explosions—when suddenly, there are explosions, helicopters being shot out of the sky, and a robotic alien bird creature cawing over the edge of a building—and Keaton rages on that probably at that very moment the spectatorial eye is bulging with excitement and, sure enough, right there in my spectatorial seat, I felt my eyes wide-opened and bulging taking in all those delicious special effects. Busted! A brilliant moment of cinematic innervation taken to task.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)—What more is there to say about the undisputed cinematic achievement of the year? In concept, Boyhood may not be necessarily innovative—one need only recall François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel cycle, Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, Michael Apted's Up Series, or Michael Winterbottom's Everyday (2012)—but in practice, Boyhood emerges as strategically and singularly expressive and, therein perhaps, lies the film's creative strength?

Linklater has already exhibited an incredible grasp of the elasticity of time through his narrative trilogy and character study Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013), let alone his rotoscoped ruminations on same in Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), but his grasp of the theme of how lives are shaped by the passage of time—his sheer genius, I have to say—has achieved a pitch of brilliance in Boyhood, which I caught in a special pre-theatrical version screened in conjunction with the San Francisco Film Society's Founder's Directing Award given Linklater at the San Francisco International Film Festival, surfacing as my favorite movie experience in recent memory. I'm grateful to have been present at that event to ask Linklater an Evening Class question.

I was outright stunned that Linklater had the creative foresight to imagine a film that would take 12 years to make (with all its attendant creative problems and solutions), chronicling the titular boyhood of Mason (in a career-defining performance by Ellar Coltrane). Ranging from Mason's childhood inquiries into the existence of elves to a lovely mind-altered dalliance on his first day of college, Boyhood exudes the majesty of becoming oneself. If I have any regrets about the film, they would mirror Michael Hawley's own notation in his film-415 year-end list: "I'm especially grateful to have seen the 'festival cut' with Linklater's dream soundtrack, which included songs from Outkast, Daft Punk, Weezer and others that were sadly M.I.A. from the theatrical release."

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)—As David Robson wrote in his Evening Class preview for this year's Mill Valley Film Festival: "Writer-director Olivier Assayas has made a career out of examining social shifts through the prism of the creative process; in his newest state-of-the-earth address every exchange is weighted but graceful, with half the movie spent watching Binoche and Stewart in and around the Alps, their conversation taking in life and art, high- and low-brow, age and youth, time and space. The total experience is never less than bracing…."

Still on festival track (next up, the Palm Springs International), Clouds of Sils Maria is a sinuously textured meta-fiction that reveals time as a moebius strip, and art as a Faustian bargan with celebrity. Juliette Binoche offers a rich performance that feels like she is playing multiple roles in sequence; first, a glamorous red carpet darling who, secondly, becomes masculinized in her search for a character. Her gendered range is amazing. And as Robson mentioned in his capsule, Kristin Stewart is a revelation. The film, which premiered at Cannes, has won the prestigious Louis Delluc prize and is being represented by MK2, so expect it at a theater near you soon. Keep an eye out for a particularly affect-drenched dissolve where Stewart is shown driving on curving roads in a dialogue-free sequence that reveals more about her character's struggle for autonomy and independence than words could ever say.

Eastern Boys (Robin Campillo, 2013)—Along with Alain Guiraudie's Stranger By the Lake (2013), it appears that homoerotic thrillers are this year's dark horse darlings. When I viewed Campillo's Eastern Boys at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival, it seemed at first content to track with Guiraudie's Stranger as a cautionary tale against the dangers of compulsive desire—with its not-to-be-missed suspenseful homo home invasion sequence!—but then it opened out into an intriguing, satisfying narrative about immigration and assimilation, with the added queer provocation that having "a Daddy" sometimes awards certain rights of citizenry. Campillo's French erotic fantasy (of sorts) hits all its intense marks and fully entertains as Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin), a middle-aged Parisian, gets more than he bargained for when he takes up with Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), an Eastern European train station hustler.

Winner of the Venice Horizons Award at the 2013 Venice International Film Festival (where Variety critic Guy Lodge deemed the film "sleek, shape-shifting and intermittently stunning") and Best International Feature at the 2014 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Campillo is best known for screenplays co-written with Laurent Cantet (Time Out, The Class). Eastern Boys is the first film he's directed since 2004's Les revenants (They Came Back), which directly inspired Fabrice Gobert's French TV series The Returned, which in turn has curious similarities with the ABC series Resurrection (though Resurrection attributes its premise to Jason Mott's 2013 novel The Returned). As far as I've been able to determine, it was not given a theatrical release but is on queue alerts for DVD rental and on-demand.

Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)—It fascinates me that in the space of two years two completely different films have approached the biblical tale of Job and presented creation's intrinsic violence by way of stunningly distinct approaches. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paraval's experimental documentary Leviathan (2012) converted a fishing trawl into a site of horrific carnage, and now Andrey Zvyagintsev's epic novelistic thriller skewers the Russian Orthodox church for lobbying political advantage by preaching the Old Testament to corrupt officials ("God is power; power is might") and the New Testament to a fleeced flock ("God is love; love is truth").

In contradistinction to North American narratives (Unbroken comes immediately to mind), I applaud Leviathan's eschewal of melodramatic formulas that set up victimized protagonists who triumph over overwhelming forces. Instead, with Leviathan we get a very real story about how you cannot bait Leviathan with a fish hook. In other words, sometimes individuals are not only victimized but brutally and systematically crushed for no good reason other than that they can be. Leviathan is powerful in its indictment of institutional corruption in government and church and I find it close to unbelievable that Russia's Oscar® selection committee—steered by Nikita Mikhalkov, Vladimir Putin's buddy—have chosen Zvyagintsev's film as Russia's official submission to the Academy Awards®.

Along with winning Best Screenplay at the Cannes film Festival for Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin, Leviathan has been awarded by the National Board of Review, won the Critics Prize at the São Paulo International Film Festival, the Golden Frog at Camerimage, Best Film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, Best International Film at the Munich Film Festival, and Best Cinematography at the Seville European Film Festival. It has pending nominations at the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards, the Golden Globes, the London Critics Circle Film Awards, and has been shortlisted for the Academy Awards®. Although still on festival track (next stop: the Palm Springs International Film Festival), Leviathan has been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and will open in the Bay Area and at Boise's The Flicks come February 2015.

Norte: The End of History (Lav Diaz, 2013)—As a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle (SFFCC) I felt compelled to nominate Joel Shepard, Video & Film Curator at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for our annual Marlon Riggs Award (given for courage and vision in the Bay Area community). I was delighted that my SFFCC colleagues agreed. In recent years Shepard has created a diasporic conduit between the rich film culture of the Philippines and San Francisco (whose community is the highest-rising Asian American demographic in the Bay Area). His visionary New Filipino Cinema film series has brought the best of independent Filipino cinema to the U.S., including encore screenings of Norte: The End of History, which premiered earlier at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). When editing EatDrinkFilms, I invited Philippine critic Francis "Oggs" Cruz to map the 2014 edition of New Filipino Cinema and his colleague Richard Bolisay to culturally contextualize Norte.

In his introduction at Norte's SFIFF premiere, Rod Armstrong mentioned that Norte was possibly the longest film at SFIFF (clocking in at 250 minutes), at the same time that it was one of the shortest in Diaz's ouevre. I was swept up by Diaz's epic exploration of Dostevyskian themes regarding the nature of crime and its punishments, and ravaged by Sid Lucero's savage performance as an existential law school dropout. As a Filipino actor, Lucero hasn't received much love from American enthusiasts, but his devastating performance is one of the most heartbreaking and shocking of the year. Several scenes in Norte felt like gliding vessels slowly filling up with grief, guilt, revelation and overwhelming meaning. Elliptical interruptions in the narrative jolted the storyline into startling new trajectories. Profundity and depth earmarked the familiar conceit of the free man imprisoned in his own skin and the incarcerated prisoner achieving freedom through inner peace.

Continuing to win converts on its festival trajectory, Norte: The End of History stops next at the Palm Springs International Film Festival as part of its Awards Buzz sidebar; Norte being the Philippines' official submission to the Academy Awards®. Further highlights include multiple wins at the Gawad Urian Awards (the most prestigious film awards in the Philippines): Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. It's also been honored with the Nuremberg International Human Rights Film Award, and the Best Director prize at the Cinemanila International Film Festival. Included on the short list for the foreign language category at the Academy Awards®, Norte has likewise been nominated for the upcoming London Critics Circle Film Awards.

Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)—Remember when The China Syndrome (1979) opened in theaters and then two weeks later Three Mile Island happened? A similar symbiosis appears to be happening with the release of Ava DuVernay's Selma and the Black Lives Matter protest movement triggered by increased public outrage over the slayings of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in New York. Lending a sense of lineage and historicity to the truth that Black lives have always mattered despite institutionalized racism to the contrary, Selma offers an intimate interpretation of the events surrounding the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting right marches, which resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As righteous melodrama pitched to an elegant degree, Selma achieves its goal and satisfies profoundly. It is an emotionally charged historical fiction, resting largely on the shoulders of David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (a role he was born to play), with solid supporting turns from Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, and Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace.

As much as Selma succeeds as historical melodrama, however, its historical accuracy has proven controversial and come under fire, primarily for the film's representation of President Johnson as an obstructionist. LBJ Library Director Mark Updegrove has stated, "When racial tension is so high, it does no good to suggest that the president of the U.S. himself stood in the way of progress a half-century ago. It flies in the face of history." In his article for the Washington Post, Joseph A. Califano, Jr. has likewise highlighted historical inaccuracies in Johnson's portrayal. On a Facebook entry dated December 28, 2014, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum stated he'd seen Selma and opined: "It isn't terrible overall, but it's historically lazy on many levels—not as much as Spike Lee's Malcolm X is, but still lazier than it had to be."

But, again, as melodrama Selma hits its marks. The hair went up on the back of my neck watching Selma's reenactment of the Bloody Sunday march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And the glimpse into the factious strategizing fueling the movement was welcome insight. If historically lazy, Selma is at the same time inspiring in its contemporary moment, which—with no disrespect to history—might be more important right now. Of particular interest to me was the necessity of DuVernay to write "sound-alike" speeches for King's character since the license to use King's speeches had already been secured by Steven Spielberg and his DreamWorks team and Warner Brothers for their own projected biopic. I'm going to reserve judgment on Selma until I see how that project passes the historical litmus test.

My transcript of the on-stage conversation between Elvis Mitchell, Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey and the film's producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner might be of additional interest.

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, 2014)—One of the cinematographic trademarks of films by the Dardenne Brothers is that of the camera stalking closely behind a subject's shoulders, as if following within their narrative trajectory. Some of that is used here in their latest Two Days, One Night but somehow that spatial sense of identification has tightened even further so that at several times within the film I felt—not behind Sandra (Marion Cottillard)—but within her, experiencing the film through her own heightened anxiety. Ultimately, I found Two Days, One Night one of the most suspenseful films I've seen in some time, a nail biter, bringing me face to face with the most uncertain of scenarios: encounters with unpredictable human beings, driven by necessity and self-interest.

Two Days, One Night feels searingly relevant. Sandra has discovered that she is about to lose her job so that her co-employees can earn a year-end bonus. She seeks to convince each of them to not accept the bonus so she can keep her job. Rationalizations rise like thunderheads as she travels household to household beseeching solidarity. This simple narrative encapsulates the ignobilizing pressures of neoliberal capitalism in a global nutshell.

White Shadow (Noaz Deshi, 2013)—Another discovery from the San Francisco International Film Festival was Noaz Deshi's fevered feature White Shadow (2013), wherein—as Michael Hawley synopsized for The Evening Class—"a Tanzanian albino teen struggles to remain alive in a culture that believes his body parts have restorative properties. …Variety's Guy Lodge praised the film as being 'stylistically reckless in the best possible way,' as it 'veers wildly between earthy verité and near-ecstatic surrealism.' "

At The Hollywood Reporter, Boyd von Hoeij notes: "The film's camera work is agile, occasionally even jumpy, and the colors go back and forth between realistic and heavily de-saturated during the day and almost pitch black at night…. This jumble of different types of footage, shot by German cinematographer Armin Dierolf and the director, infuses the film with an energy that's part bad fever dream, part harsh reality."

Premiering at Venice Critics' Week where it scored the Luigi De Laurentiis Award, White Shadow bolstered its festival pedigree with a Special Jury Mention at the Transylvania International Film Festival, the Grand Prix and Audience Award at the T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival / Poland, the CineVision Award at the Munich Film Festival, Best Feature at the East End Film Festival / UK, Best Director at the Durban International Film Festival, and the New Directors Prize (Special Jury Recognition) at the San Francisco International, where I had the distinct pleasure of taking Deshi out for brunch to discuss his film. I'll reserve further praise until that transcript is posted. As far as I've been able to ascertain, plans for distribution have not been announced.

Friday, December 19, 2014


After the disappointing idiosyncracy of Darren Aronofsky's Noah (2014), my Biblical expectations were lowered walking into Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods & Kings (2014), which is probably a good thing because I relaxed into a straightforward, competent epic that I found as satisfying and entertaining as a DeMille spectacle. Granted, Scott was probably directing CGI technicians in the rendering of thousands of people (in contrast to DeMille who was directing thousands of people), but the special effects were spectacular (a euphemism for miraculous) and—I don't know about you—but I'm always game to see the parting of the Red Sea and, without question, Exodus: Gods & Kings offers the best plagues to be seen at a multiplex this year; my favorite being the crocodile sequence reddening the Nile.

As Moses, Christian Bale may not have had the commanding presence of Charlton Heston, nor Joel Edgerton Yul Brynner's virile grasp of Ramses, but let's face it, none of them hold a candle to Mel Brooks who wins hands-down for tripping while coming down from Mt. Sinai and offering (oops!) 10, instead of 15, commandments.

In terms of eccentricity credits, Aronofsky may have gone a bit too far with his fallen angels lumbering around as rock giants, but there were two off-center flourishes in Exodus: Gods & Kings that intrigued me. First, envisioning God's voice as a petulant, ill-tempered tween was, in my estimation, a bold move for commenting upon the capricious nature of everyone's favorite demiurge. I prefer Job trembling on his palette before a howling whirlwind, myself, but if the cross-browed boy suggests that the Old Testament God hardly feels a need to explain his angers and punishments—the "might means right" motto that cops adopt nowadays as their God-given justification to brutalize the public—then, I "get" it. But can you imagine? Getting older and older and having this entitled brat criticizing everything you do? At least his eyes didn't glow white.

But what interested me most was this: I am of the camp that interprets Moses as a shamanic figure leading his tribal people out of Egypt. Even Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses depicts him with his "horns of light." And then there's the question of his staff, the one named Snake, that parts the Red Sea and draws water from a stone. Once in the aughts, visiting Istanbul for the first time, I went to the Topkapi Palace to see the emerald-encrusted dagger of Sultan Mahmud I that Melina Mercouri and Maximillian Schell set their sights on in Jules Dassin's Topkapi (1964). It was quite beautiful, yes, along with all the other glittering and golden items on display; but, what impressed me most was the museum's boast that they had the staff of Moses in their collection. I scurried on over to see it and was startled to discover a thin piece of wood, not much larger than a conductor's baton. This was the staff of Moses?! This was the staff named Snake?! Weathering that revelation, I was curious to see how the staff would be presented in Exodus: Gods & Kings and—now here's the interesting thing—Scott did away with it altogether and substituted in a sword! If there is one question I could ask the director it would be why this substitution was made and to what narrative end?


In its 26th edition, the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) inflects Palm Spring's reputation as a refuge to the stars by emphasizing the festival's spectacular dimension, which insures that the public has an opportunity to experience star power close up as key representatives of the year's prestige films walk the red carpet and glamorously reinforce Palm Spring's longstanding love affair with Hollywood.

This year at its annual Awards Gala, PSIFF will present two-time Academy Award® nominated filmmaker Richard Linklater with the Sonny Bono Visionary Award for this year's cinematic triumph, Boyhood. Having just been awarded Best Actress by the San Francisco Film Critics Circle for her performance in Still Alice, Julianne Moore will receive PSIFF's Desert Palm Achievement Award (Actress). Likewise, for his career-defining turn in The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne will receive the Desert Palm Achievement Award (Actor). Reese Witherspoon (Wild) will return home with the Chairman's Award and J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) with the Spotlight Award (Actor). Breakthrough Performance Award (Actress) goes to Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), whereas Breakthrough Performance Award (Actor) goes to David Oyelowo (Selma). The Best Ensemble Performance Award goes to the cast of The Imitation Game, and most recently announced, PSIFF will honor Robert Duvall with their Icon Award, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu with Best Director of the Year. Presented by Cartier, and hosted by Mary Hart, the Awards Gala will be held Saturday, January 3 at the Palm Springs Convention Center. The Festival runs January 2-12.

All of that is spectacular, yes, and a strong indicator of how PSIFF has its finger on the pulse of American cinema; but—as prestigious and popular as these studio films and American independents might be—for me the true jewels in the PSIFF crown are the not-as-well-known representatives of world cinema bountifully situated in key sidebar programs throughout the festival's run. This year's festival slogan—"Goodbye, Winter. Hello, World"—seems particularly apt. Along with the annual Awards Buzz sidebar that features a large percentage of the official submissions for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards®—at last count, 50 of the 83 will be at the festival, eligible for the FIPRESCI prize, including eight of the nine films selected to advance in the next round of voting in the Foreign Language Film category—this year PSIFF has curated "Another Europe", a 20-film spotlight on Central and Eastern European filmmaking. As they do every year, PSIFF likewise delivers choice Ibero-American and Latin American titles, films to satisfy their LGBT constituency, and this edition launches a symposium "The Power of Words: Book to Screen" wherein authors will be joined by producers, stars, and screenwriters in sessions moderated by well-known film and literary critics, and other distinguished leaders.

Monday, December 15, 2014


As time goes along, I find myself interviewing less and less and yet, even so, year's end reminds me as I have often said that my world is made up of conversations. Here are my favorites for the year.

Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer (Al Midan / The Square, 2013)—One of documentary's prime imperatives is to reveal the heart of revolution against government oppression. Sadly but surely, there is no shortage of such films year after year. What is often lacking in reportage of such events, however, is a sense of remedy. With The Square, director Noujaim and producer Amer have chronicled the communal conscription of space for political assembly and energized Egypt's historical events with intimate reportage. With the right to political assembly being threatened within our own borders by an increasingly militarized police force, it's important to consider that revolutions don't always occur in other countries.

Adam Bakri and Waleed Zuaiter (Omar, 2013)—Placing political conflicts within narrative contexts can prove problematic, especially if nested within a romance. But even more difficult is to depict the dynamics of manipulated collaboration. It was with great pleasure that I sat down with the lead actors of Hany Abu-Assad's Omar in the Palm Springs International press lounge to discuss their efforts to bring this collaborationist narrative to the screen.

Oskar Alegria (In Search Of Emak Bakia, 2012)—Every now and then I gain a friend through an interview. Such was the case with Oskar Alegria and In Search of Emak Bakia, a film that built itself out of the imaginative sleuthing of its first-time director. Oskar and I have maintained a healthy correspondence since our first conversation about his evocative, poetic film and are striving to bring the first-ever Basque Film Festival to the United States. We thought Boise with its huge Basque population would be the perfect venue but they ignored us (their loss), so now we're wooing San Francisco. Wish us luck.

Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller (The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden, 2014)—San Francisco filmmakers Goldfine and Geller are a personable pair and I much enjoyed getting together with them at a coffeehouse on Divisadero to discuss what I considered one of the most fascinating documentaries of the year for proving that the simplest stories are often the most complex. I'm stunned that they did not receive an Oscar® nod for this heady hybrid of archival excavation and narrative voiceover that spoke to unreliable narrators and self-made mythologies. I'm grateful to my friends at Fandor for publishing my conversation with the duo, and comments on Nathaniel Dorsky's involvement with their earlier project Ballets Russes (2005) were appended here on The Evening Class.

Paolo Cherchi Usai (Too Much Johnson, 1938)—Every now and then I'm asked to do an interview and when the request comes from an institution like the Pacific Film Archive, how can I possibly refuse? And, of course, any opportunity to converse with the erudite Paolo Cherchi Usai is welcome. In the company of such a scholar, I find myself focusing on basic definitions. Again, I'm thankful to Fandor for placing the interview at Keyframe.

Don Malcom—I have two interviews with Malcolm this year, profiling his recent Midcentury Productions programming efforts at San Francisco's Roxie Theatre. The first was for the series "Don Murray: Unsung Hero" from earlier this year, and the second for the more recent (and immensely successful) French Noir series. That latter conversation has yet to be transcribed (but, hopefully, will be accomplished by year's end). Again, here is an instance where I have found a friend within a conversation and—perhaps even more importantly—a professional colleague whose work I hope to monitor in years to come.

Linda Williams—With the publication of her Duke University volume On The Wire, my conversation with this U.C. Berkeley professor has probably affected me more than any other conversation this year. I consider her flat-out brilliant and her accessibility as an academic deeply rewarding. Narrative seriality has become her focus in recent years, which she has applied to HBO's hit TV series The Wire. But she isn't stopping there. I anticipate great results from the upcoming "Serialities 1915/2015" symposium, the third installment in U.C. Berkeley's ongoing International Berkeley Conference on Film and Media. Along with her focus on narrative seriality, Williams enlightened me to subtle perspectives on the melodrama genre.

Peter Von Bagh—Timing is everything. How graced was I to converse with Peter von Bagh before his passing this year? Just to have the chance to sit down with such an important figure in world cinema validates my cinephilia. He was one of a kind and I feel blessed to have had the chance to talk to him.

Fernando Eimbecke (Club Sandwich, 2013)—Over the years my knowledge of Mexican cinema has increased in leaps and bounds, stretching back to the country's golden age as well as providing opportunity to interact with its youngest generation(s). Eimbecke is relatively established at this point, but a conversation with this charming fellow has been long overdue. My thanks to the San Francisco International for setting up the interview, soon to be published (again, hopefully early next year) by my friends at Fandor.

Noaz Deshe (White Shadow, 2013)—Yet another transcription in queue is my conversation with Noaz Deshe, the first-time director of White Shadow, one of my favorite films from this year's San Francisco International. Again, my thanks to Bill Proctor for setting up the interview, Deshe for meeting me for breakfast at Sweet Maple, and Fandor for publishing the interview early next year.

Jonathan Taieb (Stand, 2014)—With the persecution of LGBT in Russia, I was quite taken with Taieb's narrative Stand, which screened at this year's Frameline Film Festival. A lovely young filmmaker, Taieb agreed to meet me at Kate's Kitchen to discuss this important and timely narrative. Soon to be published here on The Evening Class.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

NOIR CITY XMAS 2014: THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLEThe Evening Class Interview With Ann Carter-Newton

Ann Carter-Newton is best remembered for her touching performance in Val Lewton's The Curse of the Cat People (1944). It remains an extraordinary example of a top-quality child performance in terms of sensitivity, natural talent and believability. And Eddie Muller and his crew at Noir City are bringing it to San Francisco's Castro Theatre for this year's Noir City Christmas. "Maybe you can tell me," Eddie asked on Facebook, "why I feel compelled to show this film for our Christmas program?" "Because," I answered, "the heart of the innocent child is the snowflake star of winter."

Ann Carter was born in June 1936 in Syracuse and moved to California with her parents when she was three years old. Once there, a neighbor who worked for one of the film studios introduced her to producer / director Herbert Brenon, who worked to turn her into a fine young actress. A year later, she landed a key—though uncredited—role in The Last of the Duanes (1941).

Because of her resemblance to Veronica Lake, Carter was later cast to play Lake's daughter in I Married A Witch (1942), on which the TV series Bewitched was loosely based (making Carter's character a parallel to Tabitha on the TV series). This led to a number of other films, including The Curse of the Cat People, And Now Tomorrow (1944), Song of Love (1947), Ruthless (1948) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949).

Carter had another high-profile role as daughter of Humphrey Bogart in The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), for which she won the Critics Award for Top Juvenile Performance at age 10. Her last film appearance was in The Member of the Wedding (1952), a film that Val Lewton had originally been developing. It was during the filming of The Member of the Wedding that director Fred Zinnemann looked at Ann Carter and asked, "What's wrong with that child? She's leaning to port." Carter's mother took her to the doctor, who diagnosed the young actress with polio. For an entire year, she had to live in a full body cast weighing 55 pounds. It marked the end of her acting career.

In 2008, on the occasion of the Turner Classic Movies premiere broadcast of the documentary Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows (2007), directed by Kent Jones and produced (and narrated) by Martin Scorsese, I hosted the Val Lewton "blogathon" here at The Evening Class. In anticipation, Turner Classic Movies arranged for me to interview Ann Carter shortly before Christmas in 2007. At that time she was 71, married, and a grandmother living in Washington state. Sadly, Ann passed away earlier this year on January 27, 2014.

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Michael Guillén: Ann, I'm delighted to have a few minutes with you this morning to stroll down Memory Lane in Hollywood. For 10 years you had an incredible run as a child actress in such notable films as, of course, Val Lewton's Curse of the Cat People, but also I Married A Witch (1942, with Veronica Lake), The Virginian (1946), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), and The Boy With Green Hair (1948), just to name a few. Though polio forced you to retire, you must remain proud of this decade of work?

Ann Carter-Newton: I am. Except every time I see one of the movies, I see things I could have done better.

Guillén: As any conscientious artist would! After you retired from acting, you went into teaching?

Carter-Newton: I did. After I had polio and went through a lot of treatment for that with casts and all kinds of things, I finished college and I taught secondary school, high school.

Guillén: General education? Any particular focus?

Carter-Newton: No, but there was English and Drama. At the last of my teaching, I taught continuation high school, which I really loved; in California they called it continuation. It's Special Ed for students who choose to be there by contract and have various problems. You work with them individually and I liked that the best.

Guillén: I was so pleased that you came out of retirement to contribute to the Scorsese / Jones documentary. Your comments were so interesting. Can you speak about working on the set for Curse of the Cat People and what the conditions were like?

Carter-Newton: That was a memorable experience because the set was a very happy set for me. I was eight years old. It was 1944. I was fascinated by the way they dealt with the sound stage, which they changed from Summer to Fall to Winter.

Guillén: That must have been loads of fun as a child to experience.

Carter-Newton: Oh yes. It was beautiful what they did. There were people up in the catwalks throwing the snow—which was gypsum and untoasted cornflakes—out of boxes. All of this was very interesting and exciting to a child. And I am an only child like Amy was in the movie. I grew up around adults. Maybe that makes quite a difference in a child's life.

Guillén: Was Val Lewton ever on the set?

Carter-Newton: Yes, he was. I remember seeing him and knowing who he was but I don't remember any conversations with him. In my mind when I see him, he was always nicely dressed. He had on a suit and tie. He was formally dressed as opposed to some others who were working on different aspects of the production.

Guillén: My understanding is that as a child actress you would work four-hour days, is that correct?

Carter-Newton: I think it was four hours. We had to have three hours of school.

Guillén: And that tutoring was right there on the set?

Carter-Newton: Yes, off in some quiet place. You always had a welfare worker who was a teacher and he was there to look out after your welfare and to teach you. On that set it was pretty much one-on-one. It was an opportunity to learn a lot every time I did that and I loved that part. I believe it was four hours a day and that's why we had stand-ins and support.

Guillén: Curse of the Cat People is unique in that it had two directors: originally Gunther von Fritsch who was then replaced by Robert Wise. Was that odd for you to have two different directors?

Carter-Newton: No, it really wasn't.

Guillén: Can you speak about what you recall about each of them and differentiate how they each directed you differently, if so?

Carter-Newton: Gunther von Fritsch was more intimidating. He was very nice to me—there was no one on that whole picture that was not extremely kind and nice to me as an eight-year-old—but, he was a little more rigid probably and maybe not as easy for me to communicate with as Robert Wise was. Robert Wise was extremely easy for me to understand and I knew exactly what he wanted. It was more comfortable with him.

Guillén: Your performance absolutely commands Curse of the Cat People. You're in nearly every frame. It's astounding for a child actor to have such depth to a role as you exhibited in this one. How did you work at creating the character of Amy Reed? You mentioned that you were an only child, so you had that point of reference, but how did von Fritsch and Wise work with you to develop the character?

Carter-Newton: I would say that probably the most important influence was my mother who worked with me. We had a routine. When I would leave the studio, we'd go home and eat dinner, have a bath and go to bed quite early, as early as possible. We would learn the lines for the next day; but, more importantly, we would talk about the whole scene and the script so that I would know exactly what was going on. Some of it was scary for me and I needed to know exactly what the story was and what was going on. After all, there were quite a lot of people on the set.

Guillén: Curse of the Cat People is so textured and complex and I know it's been used as a textbook study in psychology courses on child development. As a child—with your mother's guidance—I'm sure you had a certain understanding about what the film was about. All these years later, do you have the same understanding, or has time leant a different understanding to the film?

Carter-Newton: I don't have a different understanding of the film. It's the same.

Guillén: So the film's message was simple and steady enough to come across then for you as a child, even as it does now?

Carter-Newton: It was and is, yes. I did mention in the interview piece for the documentary about Irena's dress. Simone Simon was interesting. She was very nice to me. She had that dress with all the stars. I was just fascinated by that dress and went around picking up the stars that had fallen off. That seemed important to me.

Guillén: You thought that was your job on the set?

Carter-Newton: I did. I remember that very clearly, yes.

Guillén: So you say that Simone was very sweet to you but I've read elsewhere that she didn't really want to do this film. None of that came across to you?

Carter-Newton: I didn't know that. That didn't come across to me at all.

Guillén: I've heard a rumor—and please just slap me up alongside the head if you don't want to answer this—but, I've heard a rumor that you had a missing tooth during the shooting of this film and that you were directed not to smile for fear the gap would show. Is that true?

Carter-Newton: No. I don't remember that at all. I remember having a missing tooth during Commandos Strike At Dawn (1942); but, that was an earlier movie and I don't remember being told not to smile. I do remember that—during the time that I did have a missing tooth—it was earlier and I had a bridge made.

Guillén: Well, then we've dispelled that rumor, which was floating around out there.

[Note: On January 3, 2008, I received the following email from TCM's publicist: "Ann would like you to call Michael and tell him he was right about the missing tooth. Ann went back in her photos and it wasn't her front tooth, but the one next to it that was missing. Once Michael mentioned it, she got to thinking and with the photos, the story Michael told her did happen."]

Now that film culture has matured and access to these films are readily available to people through video and DVD, what is it like for you to know audiences are watching this film today?  Did you ever imagine that would happen?

Carter-Newton: No. Never. And I was very surprised when it was colorized as well. Some of those colors were definitely not right because I remember the color of the dresses I wore and they're not right in the colorized version.

Guillén: I think colorizing old black and white films was just a passing phase in American film culture; one which has fortunately seen its day.

Carter-Newton: I don't like it.

Guillén: I don't either. Have you shared your films with your own children and your grandchildren?

Carter-Newton: I have. My grandson saw Curse of the Cat People. He's 11 and he's a very imaginative boy and he appreciated it much more than my own children. My children, when they were young, I would get after them about something and—maybe there'd be one of my movies on TV—and they'd say, "Oh, you just think you're so smart because your name is in the TV Guide." There were a couple of times when my name was in the TV Guide and I remember them saying that.

Guillén: [Laughter.] I wish I could get my name in the TV Guide! Didn't they realize how glamorous that was?

Carter-Newton: [Laughter.] No, I was put down by my own children. But they're different now. They're OK now.

Guillén: Straying away a bit from Curse of the Cat People, there's also a story about how you intimidated your contemporary Margaret O'Brien at an audition by wearing white gloves?

Carter-Newton: My mother told me that story. We went on an interview—I think it might have been for The Last of the Duanes in 1940—I was four. Margaret O'Brien and I were the same age; she was four too. My mom told me that Margaret O'Brien had forgotten to say her lines because she was so fascinated with my gloves. I don't remember it but I heard it from my mother.

Guillén: Your mother sounds like she was a very smart woman.

Carter-Newton: Yes, and she was very interested in drama and anything like that. She had wanted to do that herself and be involved in some way herself; but, that didn't happen because her father wouldn't allow her to even have any lessons. She concentrated on me and I was the only one and that was it.

Guillén: In The Two Mrs. Carrolls you worked with Humphrey Bogart who nicknamed you "Tonsils." Why's that?

Carter-Newton: Because in the very beginning of the film, one of the first scenes, he comes home from his work and I'm sitting on the arm of a couch talking to him. While we were rehearsing, I yawned—evidently a very big yawn—and he looked down my throat and he said, "Oh, tonsils." And that was it from then on.

Guillén: Do you remember anything about Bogie?

Carter-Newton: I do. All good things. I remember how funny and nice he was with me. I also remember that—at that time—Lauren Bacall would visit the set often and I remember seeing her.

Guillén: Have you written down your remembrances, Ann?

Carter-Newton: I have not.

Guillén: Do you intend to?

Carter-Newton: I probably should.

Guillén: Oh yes, I strongly believe you should! You had such a wondrous opportunity as a child actress to meet and mingle with these personalities who are now the acknowledged stars of yesteryear.

Carter-Newton: I have some wonderful pictures autographed by them too and things like that. I should write down all my memories. I should. I remember on the set of The Curse of the Cat People that I used to call Sir Lancelot "Mr." Sir Lancelot.

Guillén: To wrap up then, what a delight it's been to chat with you this morning. I'm so glad that you came out of retirement to offer commentary in the Scorsese / Jones documentary. It adds such a beautiful personal touch.

Carter-Newton: I'm honored to be able to do this. Especially because I've had such a scary time with cancer a couple of years ago. I'm very happy I'm here to do it.

Guillén: So am I, Ann! Because of your recent bout with cancer, I encourage you all the more to share your memories with us by writing them down. Your memories are of value. People love films and what has gone into the making of them.

Carter-Newton: I will. I have a daughter who will help me a great deal with that. She's an organized type of person. I will.

Guillén: Great! Thank you very much, Ann.


At the San Francisco Film Critics Circle (SFFCC) annual voting meeting, we decide on the best—if not our favorite—movies of the year. As laid out in my two previous posts, this is curtailed by theatrical distribution and then extensively worried over in email volleys, Facebook exchanges, tweets on Twitter, telephone calls and one-on-one discussions. By the time we get to the voting meeting (which this year was hosted by the Variety Club), we're informed and ready to argue for or against the final two nominations in each category. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of being a member of SFFCC is this opportunity to hear my colleagues express informed opinions in active debate. I learn so much by listening and, here and again, am convinced to change my vote. What follows are our awards for the 2014 season.

BEST ACTOR: Michael Keaton, Birdman

BEST ACTRESS: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Edward Norton, Birdman

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

BEST SCREENPLAY, Original: Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu; Nicolas Giacobone; Alexander Dinelaris; Armanso Bo

BEST SCREENPLAY, Adapted: Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Ida, Ryszard Lenczewski; Lukasz Zal

PRODUCTION DESIGN: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Adam Stockhausen

EDITING: Boyhood, Sandra Adair



BEST DOCUMENTARY: Laura Poitras, CitizenFour

BEST DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater, Boyhood



MARLON RIGGS AWARD: Joel Shepard, Film/Video Curator for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Saturday, December 13, 2014


With the primary ballots of all the members of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle (SFFCC) tabulated, a secondary ballot has been formulated from which we must each choose and rank three of the five possible nominees. These will, in turn, be tabulated and—when we have our voting meeting on Sunday—we will be asked to choose between two (if there's a tie, three). Hedging towards that fateful day, here are my ranked choices. The final two in each list are those I have rejected.


Michael Keaton, Birdman
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game


Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Essie Davis, The Babadook
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin


Edward Norton, Birdman
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Gene Jones, The Sacrament
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash


Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer
Emma Stone, Birdman
Agata Kulesza, Ida
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year


Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu; Nicolas Giacobone; Alexander Dinelaris; Armanso Bo
Boyhood, Richard Linklater
Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh
A Most Violent Year, J.C. Chandor
Grand Budapest Hotel, Stefan Zweig; Wes Anderson; Hugo Guinness
Whiplash, Damien Chazelle


Snowpiercer, Joon-ho Bong; Kelly Masterson
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Wild, Nick Hornby
Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson
The Imitation Game, Grahame Moore


Ida, Ryszard Lenczewski; Lukasz Zal
Birdman, Emmanuel Lubezki
Mr. Turner, Dick Pope
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Robert D. Yeoman
Under the Skin, Daniel Landin


Snowpiercer, Ondrej Nekvasil
Mr. Turner, Suzie Davies
Birdman, Kevin Thompson
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Adam Stockhausen
Inherent Vice, David Crank


Boyhood, Sandra Adair
Birdman, Douglas Crise; Stephen Mirrione
Under the Skin, Paul Watts
Inherent Vice, Leslie Jones
Whiplash, Tom Cross


How To Train Your Dragon 2
The Box Trolls
Big Hero 6
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
The Lego Movie


Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night
Pawel Pawlikowski, Ida
Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure
Damián Szifrón, Wild Tales
Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Note: Here I have to object to the inclusion of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, despite the fact that it is delivered in Farsi, and despite the fact that I love the movie so much. As I have often argued here on The Evening Class, the concept of a national cinema—originally created to contest the hegemony of Hollywood product—has in recent years become all but obsolete with multi-lingual scripts and multi-national financing. The category will capsize altogether should it be given to a movie made by an American director on American locations, with a stylized use of Farsi. If SFFCC sets the precedent that all an American director has to do is make their film in a foreign language in order for it to be deemed a foreign film, then a valuable cultural distinction is lost and European cinemas, let alone Third World cinemas, will have been wrested of opportunity and fair share on the global stage. I hate to think that SFFCC would support such a hegemonic maneuver.


Laura Poitras, CitizenFour
John Maloof & Charlie Siskel, Finding Vivian Maier
Frank Pavich, Jodorowsky's Dune
Steve James, Life Itself
Jesse Moos, The Overnighters


Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin


Under the Skin
The Imitation Game


The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Blue Ruin
Listen Up Philip
The One I Love