Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

IndieFest 11 Brings a Cornucopia of Indie Film to 16th Street & Beyond


[R to L: festival poster, Super Happy Fun Monkeybash!, and Abraham Obama.]

It’s hard to know where to start with an event as huge and as rich as the 11th Annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival, better known as IndieFest, which brings 15 days of first-rate independent film to the Roxie & the Victoria on 16th Street here, and the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley. Over one hundred features and shorts are on offer, and every single one of them was independently produced. And if that’s not enough for you, there are at least four official parties you can attend as well (see below).

The festival opens at the Victoria tonight with Somers Town (at 7:15), a gritty but humorous black-and-white drama from acclaimed British director Shane Meadows. It’s a story about Tomo (played by Thomas Turgoose), a 16-year old runaway from the Midlands who ends up in the London suburb the film is named for. There he encounters another equally lonely boy, Marek (Piotr Jagiello): a Polish transplant who has just arrived in town with his hard-drinking father. The film is about the bond these two boys form, and the acting is such that both kids won Best Actor prizes at last year’s Tribeca film festival.

No opening night would be complete without a good party after the screening, and this one is being held at CellSpace (Bryant at 18th) with live performances from the Extra Action Marching Band and Live Evil. Admission is free with your ticket stub. Otherwise it’s $10 — $5 in costume. While you’re on that page, check out the other IndieFest parties CellSpace will be hosting, including the Grease-themed wrap party — it’s a sock hop! — a Big Lebowski party, and a Roller Disco party.

But if all that partying sounds too exhausting for you, tonight you can stay put at the Victoria for another film: Fanboys, a madcap story about a group of friends who hatch a plot to break into Skywalker Ranch in order to steal a print of the (then-unreleased) Star Wars: Episode 1. It features cameos by Carrie Fisher, The Shatner, and many, many others. Check out the trailer behind that link for a good idea of what the film’s like.

Closing night, which is on February 22nd at the Shattuck Cinema, features the Cronenberg-eqsue Deadgirl, which proves that no coming-of-age story should be considered complete without a gorgeous undead babe to shake things up. Actually, it looks pretty creepy; watch the trailer behind that link!

In between there are many other highlights, some of which I’ll be writing more about in the days to come: Abraham Obama, the story of Ron English’s famous wheatpaste; Let Them Know, the story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records; Harrison Montgomery, a drama set in the Tenderloin; Super Happy Fun Monkeybash!, a 90–minute compilation of Japanese TV zaniness; and The Achievers, which does for fans of The Big Lebowski what Trekkies did for — well — Trekkies.

And I expect to write about some films that I haven’t even mentioned yet. The festival is just that packed.


Festival website here. Ticket prices: opening night $20 (including party); most events $10 in advance, $11 at the box office. Five-film passes $45, ten-film passes $85. Festival pass good for all films and parties, $200. Most shows are at either the Roxie or Victoria Theatres, each within two blocks of the 16 Street Mission BART station; the Shattuck Cinema is one block south of the Downtown Berkeley BART station.

Dean & Britta + Warhol = Thirteen Most Beautiful…

13 Most B Performance Edie Sedgwick 1

Tomorrow night, the San Francisco Film Society presents a special program at the Palace of Fine Arts: 13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.

As might be expected from that title and the picture above, the show consists of pop duo Dean and Britta performing original songs with a 4-piece band while a selection of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests are projected in large scale behind them. (The New York Times reviewed the show here a couple weeks ago.)

Warhol created his Screen Tests from 1964 to 1966 as part of his ongoing exploration of the transient nature of celebrity. Whenever a visitor with potential star quality visited the Factory — a potential judged by Warhol, of course — he would ask his visitor to sit in front of a tripod-mounted 16mm Bolex camera. A strong key light would be set up and the camera would be loaded with a 100-foot roll of black and white film. Often the visitor was instructed to sit as still as possible, or to perform some other action (like toothbrushing), and to stare into the camera without blinking while the camera was running. The resulting films were 2.75 minutes long, but when shown they are invariably slowed down such that each one lasts exactly 4 minutes.

From the 300 or so that Warhol filmed in those three years, he made several compilations for public exhibition, including two called The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys and The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women. The title of this show is an homage to those compilations, but the thirteen Screen Tests featured are drawn from the totality. The featured stars include Edie Sedgwick (of course), Nico (but of course!), Ann Buchanan, Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper, and eight others famous and otherwise.

And if you’re interested in learning a bit more, you might check out the trailer here, or Alex Barkett’s interview with Dean Wareham over here at SFist!

Advance tickets can be purchased here.

Disposable Film Festival a Showcase for Experimentation

Not long ago, you could only make a film if you had access to money for expensive equipment and other resources. But today, high-quality digital video cameras are inexpensive enough for almost anybody to purchase, and beyond that, video-capture technology is getting better on devices many people already own, like cell phones and point-and-shoot camera.

In other words, you can be a filmmaker, starting today, with nothing more than your cell phone.

That’s the message that Eric Slatkin and Carlton Evans want to get out with their Disposable Film Festival, which opens tonight at the Roxie with a competitive program of shorts, and continues with a single program each day through the weekend. Each program showcases film made with “disposable media,” which, according to Slatkin, is “video footage captured on these new alternative devices — the cell phone, the web cam, the point-and-shoot camera,” as well as a whole new generation of inexpensive video cameras, such as the Creative Vado, the Flip Video Ultra, and the Kodak Zi6.

All these devices were originally made for personal documentary purposes, but together they have “opened up the floodgates” by enabling anyone to make a film. In a joint phone interview conducted last week, Evans pointed out that now, “everybody has access to these devices. Five years ago, if you had a casual impulse to make a film, you really wouldn’t have been able to do it” for lack of equipment and finances. “It’s getting so cheap,” Evans said. “For example, the Kodak Zi6 [which can record 10 hours of high-definition video] is in the $180 range.” 

However, Slatkin and Evans see more than just a change in the technology of filmmaking; they believe that these technological changes are driving an aesthetic shift. “It’s not just that people are making films with these devices,” Evans said. “They’re actually transforming the way that films are being made. A new aesthetic is emerging.”

Because the media is “disposable” — footage costs nothing more than a little battery power, and can be thrown out instantly — Slatkin and Evans see a strong shift towards experimentation. Filmmakers are doing things one could never do with expensive equipment, such as on-the-fly shooting and kinetic filming. They believe that all this experimentation will inevitably influence mainstream filmmaking. In fact, it already has. Evans cited Cloverfield, which was presented as found footage from a camcorder, as an example of this influence. “This is an aesthetic that everybody understands right away,” he said.

Some people are already masterful in the form, such as Fritz Donnelly, who will have an evening devoted to his work Saturday night at ATA. “He was a disposable filmmaker before it was even a ‘thing,’ ” Evans said. “I first saw his work in the Hi/Lo Festival,” which is a festival devoted to high-concept-low-budget films. Later on, Evans met him at SXSW, and in November Donnelly showed Evans and Slatkin the films he’d recently been making with his cell phone. A lot of Donnelly’s films are quick sketches created on the spot whenever he has an idea. “He had been carrying around this DV cam, but now he just uses his phone,” Evans said.

On Friday night, also at ATA, the festival features Buttons, by Red Bucket Films, which is a feature-length collection of tiny vignettes from real life, a kind of impressionistic sketchbook portrait of New York City. “These guys are true filmmakers,” Slatkin said, “and sometimes there’s a magic poignancy they reach” in these moments.

Tonight’s program, at the Roxie, consists of twenty-five short films shown over an hour and twenty minutes. (The first screening has already sold out, but they have added a screening at 10:00.) These films were selected from about 300 submissions. “The thing that was most amazing about it,” Evans said, “is that about 30 different countries were represented in that.” In the final program, there are films from Poland, Ukraine, Brazil, Portugal, and other countries in addition to the US and Canada.

In case you can’t make it, all the shorts will eventually be featured on the DFF website, but Slatkin says they have continued to put on shows at traditional venues because “there are real limitations in viewing a creative work online.” According to Slatkin, films shown in a theater tend to have more of an emotional impact on the viewer, because of the large screen, the darkened room, and the communal nature of the experience.

Finally, on Sunday at noon, the festival will present a panel hosted at Oddball Films at 275 Capp Street. The panel will discuss how you can get into disposable filmmaking yourself, addressing all the basic details of equipment and editing software.

And if you happen to take that information and make a film you’d like to enter in the festival for next year, submissions will open in March or April. Watch their website for details.

Film: The Owl and the Sparrow


The Owl and the Sparrow, which opens tonight in San Jose and on February 13th in San Francisco, tells a simple story: Thuy, an orphaned 10-year-old girl, runs away from her overbearing uncle in the countryside and tries to make a new life for herself in Saigon. While selling postcards and flowers, she meets and befriends a zookeeper whose fiance has left him, and a beautiful flight attendant who is about to break off her affair with a married pilot. Eventually she gets the idea of bringing these two lonely hearts together, creating a makeshift family of her own, which will soon collide with the authorities and with her uncle, who has been searching the city for her.

It sounds like a recipe for unbearable sentimentality, but the film has a gritty element: what with the handheld cameras, the naturalistic performances, and the street scenes, the sweetness was offset just enough that hard-boiled cynics like me could enjoy it too. “For me, Saigon is the fourth character in the film,” director Stephane Gauger said, in a joint interview with his executive producer, Timothy Linh Bui, in San Francisco on Monday. “You feel the city, but at the core, it’s really about the kindness of strangers and humanity,” Gauger said. “And I hope that’s the message that a lot of people come away with.”

Bui and Gauger (pronounced GOW-ger) have known one another for many years now, ever since Gauger’s student days at Cal State Fullerton. Since then they’ve worked together on five feature films, but The Owl and the Sparrow is Gauger’s first stint as director. This weekend marks its first theatrical release in the United States, but on the festival circuit it has won about ten awards — including the award for Best Narrative Feature at last year’s International Asian American Film Festival — and it has had a few screenings overseas as well, including in Vietnam. I asked how it played there.

“They liked it,” Gauger said, “but there, it’s more for an art house crowd. The public tends to like things a little more broad, a little glossier, and this one is a little more real. A little more slice of life.”

“It wasn’t escapism for them,” Bui interjected. “Here, you’re transported in a way to a foreign land.”

“You have elephants and third-world street kids in this,” Gauger added, “so it has a little bit of exotic appeal to it.”

There are a lot of kids in Saigon just like Thuy, who are selling things just to survive. Most of them have family in the countryside, often rice farmers, who don’t make much money. It’s common for kids to stay with relatives in the city, and while they sometimes go to school during the day, they always work at night, selling jewelry beads or postcards or flowers, and then send a little money back home when they can, to try and help out.

Of course, a lot of these kids, never end up getting to school. Bui said that it’s not so much that they fall through the cracks as that “school becomes a lot less important when you’re just trying to eat.” He elaborated: “It’s a sad situation. They should be in school, if they’re not, they should be in bed by 9 PM, but you see them at 2 in the morning when you’re at a club. But they have to survive.”

Thuy is played by Pham Thi Han (pictured above at center), who was one of only ten girls that Gauger auditioned. Gauger compared this to his experience with Bui on Three Seasons, where they auditioned about 500 children. “Normally,” Gauger said, “you cast a wide net, but I kind of streamlined everything to meet our guerilla schedule.”

Guerrilla is just the right word to describe it. Gauger only had fifteen days to shoot in thirty locations, and he had five days to do the casting — casting which included an elephant and an orangutan. Gauger said that originally, he had envisioned a tiger instead of an elephant. I asked him whether he made the change because the tiger was too dangerous to work with. Actually, it was just the opposite. The problem with tigers, Gauger said, is that a tiger is really a big cat, “so they just sleep all day. It’s so uncinematic — they’re just laying there. But with elephants, there is a lot of interaction with the zookeepers.” Out of five, they chose the youngest and the tamest. It seems that elephants are very easy to direct: “If you want the elephant to get closer to the camera,” Gauger said, “just wave sugar cane at it. t comes right over!”

Orangutans, on the other hand, are not so simple to work with. “We had three scenes in the script with the monkey, but we shot the first scene and then he didn’t stay still.” That was a problem because of continuity concerns. “If the orangutan is here in one shot, and there in another shot, it’s just a lot harder to get good continuity. You can’t really tell an orangutan to stay out of your shot. So we did one scene and had to let it go.”

The production was guerrilla in other ways, too. With a self-financed budget of $50,000, a minimal crew, and a small cast, they were able to stay mobile and easily move from location to location. There was no need for large vans: all they had to do was grab a couple taxis, load up the gear, and go. And with such a tight shooting schedule, there was never any downtime. “It was liberating,” Gauger said. “The actors have fun, they feel the energy, because they’re never waiting around. They’re always on, always in character. Sometimes we’d just do four takes and move right on to rehearsing the next scene.”

The only actor who was not auditioned at the time was Cat Ly, who plays the flight attendant. Cat Ly is American-Vietnamese, and she’s actually a known singer in the community. Bui said that she acted in his first student film, 15 years ago, and then he lost track of her for ten years until she appeared in Journey from the Fall. “I was a gaffer on that film,” Gauger said, “and we hung out. I liked her acting style in that film.” So, back in Orange County, he asked her out to grab some pho, and he described his project to her: fast, with no time to rehearse, and he couldn’t pay her much, but it would be an adventure. Why did she say yes? Gauger thinks that it was the opportunity to do a “nice role” and work with “somebody who is a little bit not the norm, who’s not going to play it safe,” offering her a chance to express herself. “It’s a good challenge,” he said.

Many of the people who appear in the film were non-pros or first-time actors. Some of them were just people who had noticed that they were shooting a film and joked that Gauger should put them in a film someday. So in many cases, he went ahead and did just that: “a lot of the background, bit-part people were just girls who worked at hotels or restaurants. They would just be hanging out, greeting guests all day, so they’d have time to slip over for an hour and do a scene.” I asked what was it like working with non-pros. “It’s nice, because sometimes you get a little more of a naturalistic performance. They don’t overthink it too much.” He also found that when he placed a non-pro in the frame with a trained actor, “they’d meet in the middle. The pro is more grounded in reality, and the non-pros have to up their game a little.”

Gauger and Bui intend to collaborate on another film once they have finished with The Owl and the Sparrow. It’ll be a film about the Vietnamese national soccer team and their English coach. “Storytelling-wise it will be emotionally in the same line as this, but bigger,” Bui said. By way of explanation, Gauger added that “we’ve got a couple of soccer matches in it, so we’re going to have to fill up a stadium.”

In the meantime, enjoy the Owl and the Sparrow, which opens tonight at the Camera 3 in San Jose, and on February 13th at the Sundance Kabuki.

Wenders tribute, appearance Tuesday at Castro Theatre

Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders

The highlight of the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival, now playing through the 24th, has to be the Jan. 20 tribute to director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, The American Friend) which will include a new documentary about the German filmmaker, a live interview with him on stage, and a showing of his new film Palermo Shooting. Read an interview with Wenders from Sunday’s SF Chronicle.

Wenders’ connections to San Francisco are many. Francis Ford Coppola supported his work during the 1980s, even renaming the Zim’s Diner on the first level of the Zoetrope Building “Wim’s” (still owned by Coppola, it’s now the fancy Cafe Zoetrope) and producing Wenders’ 1982 film Hammet, which was shot here. Wenders also has connections to Bay Area actor and playwright Sam Shepard, collaborating with him on 1984’s Paris, Texas and 2005’s Don’t Come Knocking.

During the 1980s, Wenders often appeared for premieres of his films in San Francisco at the Castro, the Roxie and, I think, the old Surf Theatre.

Berlin & Beyond Festival: Recommended Weekend Films, 1/16-18


[Phillipe Graber as Emil in The Friend.]

Of the films playing in the Berlin and Beyond festival tonight and over the weekend, I’ve only had a chance to screen a few. But among them were a couple of genuine gems:

First, The Friend, which screens at 6:30 PM tonight, was an innovative and interesting film with a very unconventional premise: Emil (played by Phillipe Graber, pictured above) has a crush on Larissa, who sings in a local bar. Soon after they meet, Larissa asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend for her parents’ sake. He agrees, perhaps because he thinks it might lead somewhere. But after a few days of silence, he calls her number only to reach Larissa’s sister Nora. She tells him that Larissa has died. “Were you her boyfriend?” Nora asks. Emil gulps, and not knowing what to do, says yes, he was. Soon he is invited to meet the family and finds himself helping to plan the funeral and memorials for this girl he only met once — all the while pretending to everybody that he was Larissa’s boyfriend. That’s messy enough, but things get even messier when he begins to fall in love with Nora. It’s really pretty wonderful. The film was selected for the festival’s Maurice Kanbar Award for Best First Feature, and it’s easy to see why they chose it. It starts with a delightful, unpredictable story, and then that story is told with real subtlety and emotional range. All the actors are good, but Phillipe Graber is really good — he reminds me strongly of Michael Cera, and it was easy to imagine an English-language remake starring him. Let’s hope some indie producer picks it up and does it right.

The other great film I had a chance to see was Bird’s Nest, which screens at 4:15 PM on Saturday. It’s a documentary about the five-year process of the design and construction of Herzog & de Meuron’s beautiful Bejing National Stadium. (In case you didn’t know, the architects also designed the De Young in conjunction with Fong & Chan Architects.) It’s really a must-see for anybody with an interest in architecture, urban planning, China, or Herzog & de Meuron.

Actually, the title is a little misleading, because it’s not so much about the stadium as it is an exploration of all the things the firm was working on over this period (including an entire urban development near Shanghai), with the progress of the stadium serving as a narrative to pull you through the whole film. Along the way, we have a chance to become familiar with the architects as individuals and learn a great deal about their sensibilities, plus the film explores the nature of business and construction in China, the promise of urban planning, the vagaries of cross-cultural exchange, much about the artist Ai Weiwei (who advised the architects on cultural matters), and more.

Don’t expect an expose, though. Bird’s Nest largely avoids the dark side of this subject, addressing it only in asides and allusions, and stays positive, mostly exploring how the architects themselves made peace with the contradictions inherent in their position. “To tell them that they have to do their homework first,” Herzog says, alluding mostly to the PRC’s undemocratic nature, “and only then we will build for them, would be incredibly arrogant of us.” De Meuron seems to find a more aesthetic reconciliation: “We didn’t want to practice monumentalism, to glorify a system” with the stadium. Similar to the Eiffel Tower, which was built for a single event but has continued to function as public space and public sculpture ever since, they tried to make “a stadium that was anti-monumental, something for people, with a human dimension.”

But in the end, those are probably just rationalizations to cover their real motive: to create beauty in a prominent construction that will endure. At one point in the film, Herzog says to a television reporter: “What is beautiful? … I don’t speak of taste, but of something that attracts you. It has a magic that you cannot always explain. Some projects do have that, other projects do not have that. So in a very strange way, we do not always know what we do.” And then he goes on to cite the Forbidden City itself as a supreme example of architecture that has this mysterious beauty.

There are twelve other films playing this weekend (schedule here), and though I’m sure many of them are awesome as well, I’ve heard especially good things about A Hero’s Welcome, which plays at 9:00 tonight after The Friend, Cloud 9 (check out Nicole Gluckstern’s review of it in the SFBG) and Revanche on Saturday night, and Evet, I Do! on Sunday afternoon. The weekend rounds out on Sunday night with the Wim Wenders classic, Kings of the Road, which was a great inspiration for Jim Jarmusch.

[This post is second in a series about the Berlin and Beyond Festival. The next installment will be published Sunday.]

Berlin & Beyond Film Festival at the Castro 1/15 – 21


[Above: Wim Wenders in One Who Set Forth.] 

The 14th Annual Berlin & Beyond Film Festival, which is a showcase for new films from Germany, Austria and Switzerland curated by the Goethe-Institut, opens at the Castro Theatre tomorrow night. Altogether, the festival features twenty-five full-length films and a program of ten shorts, along with several special events.

One of these events is the presentation of an award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing to Wim Wenders, right after the US Premiere of his latest film, Shooting Palermo, about which I’ll write more later in the week. Brief review: it’s not as crisp as it might have been, but good watching all the same. Wim Wenders is the acclaimed director of such films as Kings of the Road (which will be shown Sunday), Buena Vista Social Club, and Paris, Texas.

Another special event is an extraordinary screening of the Marlene Dietrich classic, The Blue Angel. Extraordinary, because this is not the film you know! It turns out that German directors in the early sound era made a practice of shooting in German for the home market, and then shooting the same scenes in English for the international market. This print is of the English-language version, which was recently discovered in the Berlin Archives and restored.

Opening night begins on January 15th at 6:30 with a party (special admission required) followed by an open screening at 8:00 of Cherry Blossoms, which is being co-presented with Frameline. The story follows a middle-aged German-Japanese couple. When the wife unexpectedly dies on a journey from Berlin to Tokyo, where they had planned to visit their son, the husband continues on and on the way “discovers a new understanding of both his late wife and himself.” The director, Doris Dörrie, says that she drew heavily upon Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story for inspiration. The lead actress, Hannelore Elsner, will be present at the screening.

There are too many great films and events to highlight in a single article, so this will be the first of many posts covering the festival. Check back here for daily updates; in the meantime, here is the full schedule and the tickets page.

SF doctor’s book released; film to star DiCaprio; interview

A year ago I blogged about Josh Bazell, a doctor at UCSF who had just gotten a million dollar book deal. Well, the book, Beat the Reaper, has just been released, and Leonardo DiCaprio has just been signed to star in a film of the comic thriller. I’ll let that E! Online article give the one-line summary of the book: it’s “a comic suspense tale about a former hit man hiding out as a Manhattan emergency room doctor whose cover is blown after a mobster recognizes him.” The main character is also a martial arts expert who kills people with his hands, as well as with — not to give away the ending — a particularly unique weapon.

I caught up with author Josh Bazell on Thursday and talked to him about his book and his work as a newly minted M.D.

How did you decide to write a novel about a hit man who has become a brilliant doctor?

I was interested in writing a book about the extent to which people can change their own identities. I was focused on that issue at the time because I was doing my medical training, and I was probably curious — and maybe fearful — about how it might change me.

Much more after the jump

YBCA to Host Benefit for GroundSpark Educational Campaign "Straightlaced"

Next Wednesday night, GroundSpark — a nonprofit that creates film-based education campaigns to raise awareness about social issues in schools and communities — is holding a benefit to launch the latest phase of their ongoing Respect for All Project with a screening of the new film and reception afterwards at the YBCA’s Novella Theater.

The new film and educational program is called Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up, and it’s about the extraordinary pressure to conform to gender stereotypes — and the pressure to accept anti-gay attitudes — that teens face from their peers and guardians. Sounds like a downer? Actually, it isn’t even remotely depressing. I went into this film with the fear it would consist solely of tragedies — yet another closeted teen driven to suicide, yet another horrible beating of another — but while Straightlaced takes the time to directly discuss one such tragedy, the film stays positive throughout.

In fact, I’m certain that the program will be a huge success largely because the documentary is so inclusive and upbeat. It features about fifty extremely intelligent and well-spoken teens, who speak out about their relationship to gender roles and homophobia in our society: that is, how they feel pressured to conform to certain notions of masculinity or femininity, to conform to certain notions of what sexual behaviors are appropriate for them, and how they accept or resist these pressures. Some hide, and others — often, wonderfully — flaunt their true selves.

Unlike other films about gender issues among youth, which tend to focus on teens who identify as LGBT, this film includes interviews with teens who identify all across the gender spectrum. There is at least one individual in the film for any viewer to identify with. The most remarkable thing to me is how self-possessed and seemingly unconflicted these teens are. Perhaps the greatest thing about this documentary is the way it provides dozens of models of self-acceptance and healthy attitudes towards the ways others express themselves in behavior and dress. It makes some pretty basic points — everybody deserves respect (including you), “gay” is not an insult, and your sexuality and sex life are your own — but for kids still enduring the soul-crushing absurdity of high school social life, where wearing the wrong garment too often can get you permanently ostracized, it can only be good to have a film making these points so forcefully.

As with GroundSpark’s other programs, the film is intended as a starting point to foment discussion in classrooms and community meeting places, and it will be provided to educators and activists with a packet of print materials. The proceeds from the benefit will go to launch this campaign and get these materials out into the hands of educators and activists.

The benefit will be held on Wednesday, Jan 14th at 6:00. Tickets are $40 for General Admission and $175 for VIP Sponsor, which includes a reception. Tickets and more information are available at this page.

Tonight at the Castro: ‘Touch of Evil’

One of the landmarks of American cinema, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) plays tonight at the Castro Theatre at 7:00 pm.

Justly celebrated for the ways it combines the ridiculous — Welles’ grotesquely rotund figure, Charlton Heston in dark makeup as a Mexican detective, and Dennis Weaver’s bugging-out night shift motel manager — with the sublime — Welles’ direction, including the famous three and a half minute long opening tracking shot running under the titles — the film inspired a generation of filmmakers by making great cinema on a tiny budget and a two-bit script.

The opening tracking shot itself is a cultural reference point — remember Robert Altman’s homage in “The Player” even as the characters themselves refer to it? (“He set up the whole picture with that one tracking shot… My father was key grip on that shoot.”) But the whole film is stuffed full of delights: Heston in brownface exclaiming about an explosion on the border, “This could be very bad for us… for Mexico!” Janet Leigh as his wife, menaced by a drug-dealing biker gang. Marlene Dietrich as the faded proprietess of a bordertown speakeasy. Weaver frantically protesting, “I’m the night man!!” And Welles himself, grumbling, shuffling, sneering, waddling his way through the film. This is a great chance to see it on the big screen.

Touch of Evil plays at 7:00 pm at the Castro; the tone companion Wait Until Dark plays at 4:50 and 9:10.

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