Thursday, August 31, 2017

When Worlds Collide

Stretching the boundaries of time, space, and logic is an intriguing challenge for science fiction writers. Whether embarking on a Journey to the Center of the Earth, taking A Trip to the Moon, or aiming to boldly go where no man has gone before, artistic freedom allows a writer to conjure up new vistas, new creatures, and new dimensions with which to entertain audiences.

Just as Close Encounters of the Third Kind shed new light on the power of music as a communicative force, science fiction can make telepathy and teleportation seem commonplace. It can allow children and their imaginary friends to defy gravity in ways Idina Menzel could never have conceived. Most importantly, it can restore intelligence, introspection, and insight to their rightful places of honor for audiences that prefer to be entertained by violence and destruction.

While delusional creationists keep trying to convince people that man co-existed with dinosaurs, Michael Crichton's science fiction adventure, Jurassic Park, gives audiences a bone-chilling demonstration of what could go wrong with attempts to clone prehistoric reptiles.

Although governments worry about hackers bringing down electric grids, several years before corporate giants like HBO, Netflix, and Sony Pictures fell victim to cyber attacks, a full-length feature by Japanese animation studio MADHOUSE inc. showed audiences what could happen if a massive social media platform like Facebook were to be compromised and fall victim to sabotage.

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Prior to its theatrical release, the Japan Film Festival of San Francisco is screening Kenji Kamiyama's newest film. A thoroughly delightful full-length feature from GKIDS, Napping Princess combines the best of Japanese anime with a delicious musical score by Yoko Shimomura and an enchanting origin story. The plot is loaded with sci-fi gadgets, fiery monsters stomping all over Tokyo, and a talking teddy bear named Joi (who plays a pivotal role in the action). While this film is aimed squarely at children, it's quite likely that adults viewing the film will get a much deeper sense of satisfaction from its story.

Set in 2020, the action takes place three days prior to the opening of the Tokyo Summer Olympics. Although there is an easily identifiable villain, the subplot revolves around a piece of software crucial to the deployment of self-driving vehicles by Shijima Motors, a giant corporation.

Rumor has it that a rogue auto mechanic absconded with a critical piece of coding. Without the crucial code, Shijima's planned parade of new vehicles at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics could go horribly wrong. But there's a lot more at stake than the company's international reputation.

Kokone Morikawa is a Japanese schoolgirl who has trouble staying awake in class. Raised by a single (yet darkly mysterious) father who is deeply devoted to her, in her waking state Kokone is a bright-eyed, cheerful adolescent who is adored by her neighbors. As she waits for the bus one morning, she runs into a childhood friend. Together with his sidekick, Morio is excitedly learning how to use his new virtual reality goggles.

Moments prior to his arrest at a local cemetery, Kokone's father (Momotaro) had left Joi resting against the headstone marking his wife's grave. Once Kokone and Morio find the teddy bear, they discover its timely importance and realize they are the only people who can rescue Momotaro.

Although Kokone's smartphone and her father's tablet computer play key roles in moving the plot forward, there seems to be a strange connection between Kokone's fantastically vivid dreams and the way virtual reality has sparked Morio's imagination. When Kokone conks out and starts chasing clues in the alternate universe created in her dreams, Morio is ready to accompany her in the real-time search for her missing father. Together they figure out how Kokone’s dream world might enable them to solve the mystery of the missing software.

As they desperately try to elude the villainous Ichiro Watanabe who has been stalking them, Kokone and Morio realize they must get to Tokyo as quickly as possible. To their astonishment, whenever they vocalize their desires (tickets for the Supertrain, snack boxes), their needs are instantly met by the courteous employees of Japan's high speed rail system.

Not only do Kokone and Morio rescue Momotaro, their adventures reveal the backstory about her mother, Ikumi -- a determined corporate executive with a surprisingly clear vision of the future that no male colleague could possibly comprehend.

I once watched a black-and-white crime film on late-night television in which a detective kept chasing a murderer in his dreams. The clues in his dreams led him closer and closer to solving the crime until one night, while dreaming, he was killed during a shootout with the villain. The next morning (in real life) it was determined that the detective had died in his sleep.

Subtitled "The Story of the Unknown Me," the characters in Napping Princess exist in parallel universes. Thus, the real-life Kokone is the fantasy world's Kokone Ancien; the real-life Momotaro is the fantasy world's action hero, Peach; the real-life Ichiro Watanabe is the fantasy world's villain, Bewan; the real-life policeman, Kijita is the fantasy world's Takiji; and the real-life corporate mogul, Shijima Isshin, is the fantasy world's powerful ruler, Hâtorando-ô.

Rather than give away any spoilers, I'd urge you to watch for Napping Princess when it opens in theatres. This is far and away one of the most delightful and satisfying films I've seen in a long time. Here's the trailer:

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While most people are attracted to science fiction for the suspense and fantastic visuals, the mysteries of math can also inspire some fascinating narrative challenges. Many writers like to toy with the existence of a parallel universe (think about the misadventures of Superman and Bizarro). Rod Serling used to experiment with parallel universes in his television series entitled The Twilight Zone.

Could there be more than two universes? That question lies at the heart of Nick Payne's intriguing love story, Constellations, which is receiving its regional premiere from TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. First staged in January 2012 at the Royal Court's Upstairs Theatre in London, Payne's drama was nominated for the Olivier Award for Best New Play and won The Evening Standard's award for Best Play as well (only 29 years old at the time, Payne was the youngest playwright ever to receive such an honor). Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Roland, Constellations was produced on Broadway by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in 2015.

Carie Kawa (Marianne) and Robert Gilbert (Roland) in
a scene from Constellations (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

If someone tosses a coin in the air, there are two obvious potential outcomes. But what if a multitude of outcomes could ensue? Payne's thinking was deeply influenced by Brian Greene’s research into string theory and the idea of the multiverse (The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory). As the playwright recalls:
“I think I can say with some accuracy that I was seduced by the multiverse because of what it meant for me in light of my father’s death. However maudlin it might now sound, the notion that there might be a universe in which my dad was yet to have died was both curiously unhelpful and quietly consoling. In the quantum universe, chance is our saving grace and our Achilles’ heel. Constellations is a play in which the science at the heart of quantum mechanics is explored through the many and varied possible lives of a single couple. I had written a few plays that were naturalistic in their form and found something unsatisfying about it. [When] I came across the multiverse thing, I thought I could tell a story in a nonlinear way and found that really freeing.”
Carie Kawa (Marianne) and Robert Gilbert (Roland) in
scene from Constellations (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Set in "The Multiverse. Past, Present and Future," the structure of Payne's play is deceptively simple. Two actors participate in more than 40 vignettes in which particular moments play out with slight variations. Following the awkward first meeting of two strangers at a backyard barbecue, Roland (Robert Gilbert) and Marianne (Carie Kawa) are seen taking different approaches to conversations at critical moments in their relationship. Body language changes, tone of voice may be altered, even the pacing of the dialogue can vary. In some scenes, there may be slight variations in inflection; new facts may even be added to the script. One vignette is performed using British sign language.

While the differences may at first seem minor to the audience, the dramatic consequences for Roland and Marianne can be life-changing. Framed by Andrea Bechert's structural sculpture which twinkles with lights resembling the stars in the constellations above us (masterfully engineered by Z. William Bakal, who is credited as associate lighting director and the man in charge of "digital visualization"), each vignette is bracketed by the enchanting sound design and musical score created by Cliff Caruthers. Having struggled to determine whether Caruthers was using a xylophone, marimba, or electronic instruments to create his soundscape, I was delighted to hear from him that "all the music for Constellations is built from one sample of a sine wave -- my way of thinking about the multiverse."

Robert Gilbert (Roland) and Carie Kawa (Marianne) in
a scene from Constellations (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The average moviegoer might draw a blank at any mention of chaos theory (which Edward Lorenz described as "when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future"). However, when referenced to such popular films as 1993's Groundhog Day and 2004's 50 First Dates, chaos theory becomes rife with possibilities and much easier to understand. As director Robert Kelley notes:
“I’m intrigued by the play’s science on a cosmic, quantum, and beehive level. I’m fascinated by the contrast of the vast and the microscopic. I’m daunted by the delicate balance between joy and tragedy. But I’m most inspired by the love that binds two small lives together, despite the unlimited possibilities of the multiverse. In the end, it’s the humanity of Marianne and Roland that convinces me this is a defining play for our times, and all times.”
Robert Gilbert co-stars as Roland in Constellations
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The scenic elements and this production's winning soundscape are reason enough for audiences to flock to a performance of Constellations. Add in two delicately layered performances by Robert Gilbert and Carie Kawa that have been beautifully directed by Robert Kelley and Payne's thoughtful script about possibility, love, and the randomness of life sets off a shower of sparks to fill the stage with the most intimate kinds of shock and awe.

Performances of Constellations continue through September 17 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here for tickets).

Sunday, August 27, 2017

It Only Takes A Moment

Many people are forced into a subculture they never wished to join. Whether due to acts of war, natural phenomena, domestic violence, or substance abuse, they end up mourning for one or more of their children. Some have watched a son or daughter fight a losing battle against a terminal illness or addiction. Others tried to console themselves with the knowledge that their children died in service to their country.

Whether the reality of their child's death was sudden and shocking or a long time coming, the sense of loss stays with the parents for years; possibly until they, too, perish. While far too many people have succumbed to gun violence in recent decades, there is one particularly unfortunate subset of unnecessary deaths due to inexcusable circumstances.

Founded by Candace Lightner on September 5, 1980 in memory of her 13-year-old daughter Cari, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) now has an office in every state of the Union and every province of Canada. Although it claims to have helped halve the number of deaths due to drunk driving since it was launched 37 years ago, MADD has never been able to bring a single victim back to life. Its mission, simply stated, is "to stop drunk driving, support the victims of this violent crime, and prevent underage drinking."

Trying to dramatize the trauma of losing a child to a drunk driver (or a hit-and-run accident) and struggling to cope with the remnants of a shattered life offers a steep challenge for any writer.
  • One could approach death through a flashback.
  • One might let the audience know what happened at the very beginning of the story (on the assumption that there's nowhere to go but up).
  • One can attempt to yank the audience's emotions back and forth, testing their loyalty and patience while making them feel trapped as witnesses to a slow-motion disaster in the making.
  • Or, when all else fails, one can resort to magical realism.

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As part of its Sandbox Series to promote new works, the San Francisco Playhouse is presenting the world premiere of Kirsten Greenidge's play entitled Zenith. Set in New England, the action is divided between two families.

Hazel (Nia Fairweather) and Tim (Khary L. Moye) are two overworked parents who love their young children despite being stretched thin by their responsibilities at work and at home. As carefully as she tries to stay in control of everything, Hazel doesn't seem particularly interested in pampering herself by going for massages or mani-pedis with old friends and colleagues. Nor does she have the stamina to party like she did while in college.

Indiia Wilmott, Atim Udoffia, and Nia Fairweather
in a scene from Zenith (Photo by: Ken Levin)

Tim's sister, Angela (Atim Udoffia), is in a strained marriage with Chuck (Adrian Roberts), who gets a lot more sympathy from his dog than from his wife. Although their son, Charlie, is still at a very innocent stage of life, Charlie's tightly-wound mother is losing her battle with impulsiveness, perfectionism, and a nasty tendency to bully the people she professes to care about.

When Angela suddenly volunteers to take Hazel's daughters on a camping trip to New Hampshire (without giving her sister-in-law prior notice), her hunger to dominate the situation quickly becomes apparent.
  • Despite Hazel's insistence that the drive from Boston to New Hampshire takes three hours in real time, Angela insists that it can be done in one. 
  • Despite Hazel's concern that her daughters might not even want to go camping with Angela, she ends up acquiescing. 
  • Not even Chuck's query about why Angela found it necessary to install two TV screens in the back of their van is enough to make his wife question her need to be seen as everybody's hero.
If Angela frequently get her way, it's because she's the kind of person who always has to be right, has more disposable income than most of her friends, and may very well be trying to compensate for being stuck in an unhappy marriage. Adamant that the occasional pains brought on by a recurrent toothache will not stop her being the perfect aunt, Angela is determined to forge ahead, come hell or high water.

Khary L. Moye as Tim in a scene from Zenith (Photo by: Ken Levin)

When Angela and Tim were children, their father (who was apparently dying of cancer) rowed out toward the middle of a lake one night and never came back. Although his insurance policy left the family with a plenty of financial security, no amount of money could have filled Angela's emotional neediness. The relationship with their estranged mother remains troublesome, at best. Although Chuck has tried to be a good father to their son, Charlie, he has been looking for a way out of his marriage for quite some time.

Sally Dana in a scene from Zenith (Photo by: Ken Levin)

In its present form, Zenith has two obvious problems which need to be rethought. The first is purely physical. The seating in ACT's Costume Shop (which is essentially a black box theatre) was designed to accommodate a floor plan that resembles a highway. Not only does this leave the cast with an extremely narrow playing field, it means that a third of the audience is going to be watching the backs of key players for much of the play's duration. I'm willing to bet that if the seating configuration were changed, Zenith would have a stronger impact.

The larger problem involves the narrative structure chosen by the playwright. Imagine a pendulum that keeps swinging back and forth until it finally lands at the moment of truth in the middle of its arc. This zig-zag approach to laying a dramatic foundation for a story's tragic outcome loses its effectiveness midway through the performance. Why? Angela's overbearing personality requires an actor to sustain intense levels of anger and self-righteousness throughout the evening; a factor which not only makes her an increasingly unpleasant character but grows tiresome for the audience.

Nia Fairweather (Hazel) and Atim Utoffia (Angela)
in a scene from Zenith (Photo by: Ken Levin)

That criticism in no way is meant to disparage the cast, which delivers thoroughly committed performances. Atim Udoffia's Angela burns brightly (and unrelentingly) throughout.While Adrian Roberts and Khary L. Moye seem a lot more stable than their spouses, Nia Fairweather's Hazel manages to keep her emotions under control until a searing confrontation with her guilt-ridden brother-in-law.

Hazel (Nia Fairweather) and Adrian Roberts in
a scene from Zenith (Photo by: Ken Levin)

In his program note, San Francisco Playhouse's artistic director, Bill English, notes that:
"The heart of darkness often hides behind a placid face so carefully disguised that we have no inkling of the turmoil seething within. When someone does something inexplicably terrible, those around them (and all of us, by extension, through the media) are stunned. How could someone with heinous impulses seem so effortlessly benign? How could a destructive impulse burst out of the unconscious without the awareness of the conscious? We wonder if the nice neighbor, brother, or aunt was even aware of what was brewing inside and spilled out against their will?"
Atim Uddofia as Angela in Zenith (Photo by: Ken Levin)
"In Zenith, Kirsten Greenidge works backwards to piece together clues (family background, a difficult childhood, societal pressures), creating a tapestry of what could have led an exemplary woman to commit an uncharacteristically horrible act. Does Ms. Greenidge provide any easy answers? Of course not, because in life as in drama, there are none. We must wrestle with the complexities of human behavior and yearn to understand, even when actions are beset with contradiction and incomprehensibility."
Adrian Roberts, Atim Udoffia, Nia Fairweather, and
Khary L. Moye appear in Zenith (Photo by: Ken Levin)

Directed by Lauren English, the cast of Zenith includes Sally Dana and Indiia Wilmott, who play supporting characters ranging from hospital staff to neighboring mothers (Dana is especially effective in her short yet powerfully poignant cameo appearances). Special credit goes to Madeline Oldham for her excellent sound design. Performances of Zenith continue through September 10 at ACT's Costume Shop (click here for tickets).

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How do filmmakers working on an extremely limited budget take a seemingly mundane story about two retirees moving into a rundown public housing complex in Osaka and transform it into a sleeper hit? They can start by peppering the script with bizarre clues about strange people. They can also use their storytelling skills to guide unsuspecting viewers down an unassuming path toward a surprise ending.

Naomi Fujiyama (Hinako) and Ittoku Kishibe (Seiji) are an elderly
couple living in Osaka's public housing in Dan-chi (The Projects)

Shakespeare provided the witches in Macbeth (1606) with some pretty weird ingredients for their magical stew: a slice of swamp snake, a newt’s eye, a frog’s tongue, fur from a bat, a dog’s tongue, the forked tongue of an adder, the stinger of a burrowing worm, a lizard’s leg, an owl’s wing, and a toad that sat under a cold rock for a month, oozing poison from its pores.

Written and directed by Junji Sakamoto, Danchi (The Projects) contains similar bits of weirdness:
  • A quiet retiree (Ittoku Kishibe) who built a trapdoor in the kitchen floor of his apartment so that he could hide from the world whenever he felt depressed. Thankfully, whenever Seiji Yamashita goes for a walk in the nearby park, he feels young again.
  • Seiji's wife, Hinako (Naomi Fujiyama) who can't find her dead son's umbilical cord when she needs it. Having been fired from her part-time job, she is suspected by a group of local gossips of having murdered her husband without showing the slightest sign of remorse.
  • A quiet, teenage boy who seeks refuge in a public park where he can avoid his abusive father.
  • A crotchety, self-important retiree (Renji Ishibashi) who is having an affair with a younger woman while trying to retain a firm hold on his power as president of the local tenants' association.
  • His lonely wife (Okusu Michiyo) who is constantly sorting everyone's garbage because none of the other tenants are willing to recycle their trash. In order to get back at her husband, Kimiko enters Seiji Yamashita's name on the ballot as a candidate to take over the presidency of the tenants' association.
  • A handsome and extremely respectful young man (Takumi Saito) who looks like he might be Chinese, frequently carries an umbrella, mispronounces words, and gets his hand stuck in doorways. Curiously, Takashi has no nipples and needs frequent doses of herbal medications. He lets very few people see that his chest is covered with fish scales instead of human hair and skin.
Seiji Yamashita (Ittoku Kishibe) tries to revive the mysterious \
Takashi (Takumi Saito) in a scene from Dan-chi (The Projects)

Why did the Yamashitas shutter a successful business and flee their home town? Following the unexpected death of their teenage son, Naoyo, in a hit-and-run accident, they could no longer bear the well-intentioned concern and unending kindness of friends, customers, and neighbors. Instead, they just wanted to be left alone so they could quietly live with their grief. The last thing they ever expected was to land in a fetid microcosm bubbling with intrigue and gossip. Nor could they imagine that a former customer might be able to reunite them with their deceased son.

Naomi Fujiyama (Hinako) and Ittoku Kishibe (Seiji) are
visited by their former customer, Takashi (Takumi Saito)
in a scene from Dan-chi (The Projects)

Danchi (The Projects) is that rare domestic comedy that sneaks up on its audience and takes them for a wild, other-worldly ride. Although many small and intimate moments may be lost on a non-Japanese speaking viewer, there are plenty of comic bits that need no translation whatsoever. The best of these is a scene in which the Yamashitas try to communicate with Kimiko and her husband in a way that gives new meaning to the familiar marketing slogan for Verizon Wireless: "Can you hear me now?"

The Japan Film Festival of San Francisco will screen Danchi (The Projects) on September 3. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

When Bullies Fail

Like many others, I've grown weary of news cycles dominated by A-holes. Recently, I've been dealing with other types of holes. The good news is that they're not K-holes. The bad news it that on some nights I've fallen down Y-holes, hypnotically watching one YouTube clip after another as I savor a menu of operatic arias, bodybuilders pumping iron, clips from The Lion Whisperer, and comedy monologues from late night talk shows.

I've also learned that one of the most dangerous Y-holes to fall into is built by an algorithm that keeps coughing up clips of Judge Judy meting out justice and zinging plaintiffs and defendants with her pearls of wisdom. In between encouraging women to become financially independent (so that they can avoid a cycle of dependence and potential abuse), Judge Judy doesn't hesitate to inform some folks that they are idiots, morons, and/or nincompoops who made the tragically dumb mistake of thinking they could outsmart her. Without any need to dress up like a dominatrix, Judge Judy easily slices and dices these folks before an international audience of millions. In all honesty, they deserve it.

We are now living in the era of Great American Stupidity (GAS), which continues to flourish despite impressive gains in artificial intelligence. Whether showcasing gullible fools who never understood that the Affordable Care Act was the exact same thing as Obamacare or the political naifs who believed that Donald Trump was "just like us," one sad truth keeps coming back to haunt America: "The stupid, it burns!"

Although some people like to believe that crime pays, it now looks as if Robert Mueller will use the same methodology to take down Donald Trump that Frank J. Wilson used to convict Al Capone: follow the money. As is so often the case, the devil is in the details (many criminals learn that they are not as smart as they'd like to think they are).

When one thinks of the most daring robberies and attacks, it's impossible to ignore the amount of advance planning that led to their astonishing success. No matter how painful it is for people to recall the September 11, 2001 attacks, there's no denying that they were carefully plotted, executed, and helped by the element of surprise. Less successful crimes are often impulsively planned and sloppily executed.

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Earlier this year the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered its audience a chance to savor a restored print of 1920's Outside the Law. Set in San Francisco, the screening of Tod Browning's film at the Castro Theatre was accompanied by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius and introduced by film noir historian Eddie Muller, who wasted no time pointing out that:
“One of the most striking aspects of this film is its lawlessness. Vestiges of the infamous Barbary Coast remain in streets and alleyways rife with Irish gangsters and prowling tongs. The local cops are gullible pawns in a scheme by Black Mike Sylva (Lon Chaney) to put railroad gang boss Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis) into jail so Mike will get a crack at becoming the town’s new vice lord. Browning renders this nefarious terrain with the pungent exotica that was his specialty, from the sawdust-strewn saloons to the mysterious maze-like corridors of Chinatown, to the opulence of a Pacific Heights society gala. Oddly, the only thing missing from Outside the Law is a detective. And some competent cops. So many elements of Outside the Law later appear in Dashiell Hammett’sContinental Op” stories that I wonder if the one-time Pinkerton detective didn’t see Browning’s film at a local movie house.”
E.Alyn Warren (Chang Lo) and Priscilla Dean (Molly Madden)
in a scene from 1920's Outside the Law
“But this isn’t just standard underworld stuff. Browning has a few surprises up his sleeve. Before you cringe at white actors playing all the main Asian roles (Chaney’s makeup as the omniscient Ah Wing is, of course, monstrously grotesque), consider that the story posits the Chinese as the stabilizing force in this wide-open seaport town. It’s the sagacious Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren, white as rice) who convinces Silent Madden to cease his criminal ways and go straight; it’s Chang Lo from whom the police seek inside ‘dope’ and guidance; it’s Ah Wing who susses out the motives of the crazy white men.”
Lon Chaney as Ah Wing in 1920's Outside the Law

There are enough plot twists in Outside the Law to keep one's head spinning all the way from Chinatown to Russian Hill and back again. But while the violence is well staged and the action often thrilling, this is also an extremely funny film filled with near-misses, sight gags, and moments of intense suspense. Character actor John George (who easily holds his own while playing opposite Lon Chaney) scores strongly as Humpy, one of Black Mike Sylva's fast-footed henchmen.

John George (Humpy) and Lon Chaney (Black Mike Sylva)
in a scene from 1920's Outside the Law

San Franciscans will have great fun identifying various landmarks and intersections while martial arts fans will be delighted by the extended fight scene within a gift shop in Chinatown. But the scenes that find Molly and Bill holed up in an apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay ricochet back and forth between nail-biters and moments when the audience has no choice but to erupt in laughter. And then there is the kid. As Muller notes:
“The story revolves around Madden’s daughter, Molly (known in the underworld as Silky Moll) whose partner in this daring caper, Dapper Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman), has one tenth her tenacity. Once they’re on the lam, Moll (Priscilla Dean) proves herself the brains and the brawn of this chaste (chased?) pair. Hiding out in a 'Knob’ Hill walk-up (a glaring goof by title writer Gardner Bradford), Bill fights off cabin fever while Moll staves off Bill’s growing ardor. A scene-stealing little boy (Stanley Goethals, credited merely as ‘The Kid Across the Hall’) makes a habit of barging into the apartment and trying, with all his mini-might, to melt Moll’s hardened heart. Dean plays it so frostily you expect her to pitch him out a second-story window.”
Priscilla Dean (Silky Moll) in a scene from 1920's Outside the Law

Outside the Law was conceived as a star vehicle for Priscilla Dean. Although Lon Chaney had previously acted in more than 125 films, many of them were shorts (his big breakthroughs would come as Fagin in 1922's Oliver Twist, Quasimodo in 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Paul Beaumont in 1924's He Who Gets Slapped, and the title role in 1925's The Phantom of the Opera).

Poster art for 1920's Outside the Law

Nevertheless, Outside the Law showcases Chaney's great skill as a character actor and Priscilla Dean's unmistakable appeal to the masses. You can enjoy the entire film in the following video from YouTube.

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On rare occasions, a film can push a viewer's buttons for very personal reasons. I first saw Eliza Hittman's gritty Beach Rats in April, when it was shown during the 2017 San Francisco International Film Festival. Like many gay men, my curiosity was aroused by some titillating publicity shots that promised beefcake by the boardwalk. Because I grew up in Brooklyn (where my family spent many summer mornings at Coney Island and Brighton Beach), I was curious to see what the area looks like today.

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) hangs out with
his "bros" in a scene from Beach Rats

Hittman's film focuses on the misadventures of Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a directionless piece of white trash whose father lies in a hospital bed at home, dying of cancer. Frankie's kid sister, Carla (Nicole Flyus), is the kind of inquisitive little brat who knows exactly how to push Frankie's buttons. Their depressed mother (Kate Hodge) has enough on her hands trying to cope with her dying husband to worry about the seedy types Frankie likes to hang out with.

Like many high school jocks, Frankie has a secret. At night, he's been hanging out on gay videochat platforms where he poses seductively for older men who are likely to proposition him. As much as Frankie keeps telling himself that the only reason he lets guys suck his dick is so that he can score some weed, he knows two things:
  • He doesn't know what he likes.
  • He prefers older men because they won't know any people who know Frankie.
Frankie (Harris Dickinson) hangs out with
his "bros" in a scene from Beach Rats

Far from being a great conversationalist (or having any interests other than getting high), the sullen Frankie lacks social skills whenever he tries to communicate with women. When his mother asks if he's on drugs, he responds "Yeah, I'm on drugs. Really GOOD drugs!" When Simone (Madeline Weinstein) asks Frankie if he thinks she looks pretty, his lack of interest or enthusiasm for such small talk is painfully obvious. When, much to his surprise, Simone informs Frankie that they were not dating and never will be, she tells him that "You're a fixer-upper, you require a lot of work."

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) and Simone (Madeline Weinstein)
go out on a date in Coney Island in a scene from Beach Rats

One night, when he takes Simone to a party on a dinner boat docked along Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, Frankie runs into a former trick, a middle-aged Russian who is working as a bartender that night. When the Russian presents Frankie with a bottle of champagne on the house, Simone gets suspicious about why anyone would want to do that for such a loser.

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) and Simone (Madeline Weinstein)
attend a party on a sightseeing boat in a scene from Beach Rats

Several nights later, Frankie makes the mistake of suggesting to his friends that he hook up with a gay guy as a means of getting enough weed to get them all high. It doesn't take long for things to go horribly wrong after his friends suddenly pile into the man's car. One thing leads to another as the audience watches a vicious fagbashing near the beach, which leaves viewers wondering whether the victim has been left to drown.

A friend who attended another screening of Beach Rats was furious about Hittman's choices, stressing that independent filmmakers should be long past the point of needing to stage a fagbashing in order to sell an independent film. But as news reports keep reminding us, fagbashing remains a favored activity among homophobic middle and high school students, drunk fraternity brothers whose sadistic tendencies come roaring to the surface while hazing pledges, and others whose toxic boredom and latent homophobia prove to be a dangerously volatile combination. Thanks to the viciousness of Donald Trump's base, rolling a queer is making a comeback.

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) hangs out in Coney Island
in a scene from Beach Rats

Horny young men like Frankie are extremely angry at a world that has left them with no marketable skills as they struggle with issues of self-identity and sexual orientation. As recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia have demonstrated, many of them are chest-beating bullies who, once the wind gets taken out of their sails, can become remarkably fragile snowflakes.

Frankie's problem is that he doesn't know who he is, what he wants from life, or how to spend his time. He fulfills the sorry stereotype of a supposedly straight young man who is "young, dumb, and full of cum." The boy's a douchebag without a future and Hittman's film is a pathetic waste of time. Here's the trailer.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pushed to the Brink

Other than shocking historic events like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the untimely deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Princess Diana, and the resignation of President Nixon, August is usually seen as a pretty slow month for news.

Many people take time off in August to head for the beach, travel abroad, attend Burning Man or, in some years, sit back and enjoy Shark Week on television. August 2017, however, seems intent on working everyone's last nerve. From the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia and the sordid spectacle of Donald Trump flushing the American presidency down the toilet, to Barbara Cook's death and the frenzy surrounding a solar eclipse, people are struggling to cope with waves of stress, sadness, serial shocks, and a growing sense of surrealism.

How do people react under such pressure? Some face bitter setbacks with a firm, almost stoic resolve while others crumble. Some erupt in anger while others resort to a twisted sense of humor to get them through the day.

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San Francisco's Left Coast Theatre Company recently premiered three short plays under the umbrella title of Twisted Hitchcock. To make sure that the audience was in on the joke, the usual pre-show announcement about cell phones and emergency exits finished with the following request spoken by an actor imitating Alfred Hitchcock). "And now please sit back and die!"

First up in this three-course meal of suspense and supreme silliness is a spoof of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) entitled Master Bates. Written by LCTC's artistic director, Richard S. Sargent, and directed by Alexia Staniotes, the action commences with the shadow of an attractive woman (Ellen Dunphy) taking a shower. As she lathers herself up, another figure approaches brandishing a kitchen knife. Each time her assailant (AJ Davenport) gets close to the target, the showering woman changes position or does something else to inhibit any rear window action. After a few tries, the attacker can no longer control herself and becomes obsessed with her target's sexy ass. Lights out on the shower scene.

Meanwhile, Norman (Tim Garcia) is a horribly conflicted young pervert who has punched two peepholes in a wall through which he can spy on the guest staying in the next room. The current occupant is a middle-aged gay investigator trying to solve the curious disappearance of one of the Bates Motel's previous guests. After noticing two eyes following him around his room, Milton (Dene Larson) knocks on Norman's door and and starts to question the nervous young man, who desperately craves a father figure.

As Norman becomes increasingly unwound, he starts channeling his hateful mother in ways that could be interpreted as schizophrenia or a twisted form of role-playing. It doesn't take long before Milton is on his hands and knees, begging Norman to really give it to him. The virginal Norman (who obviously doesn't understand how role playing can be a part of sexual foreplay) can't figure out what to do with the kitchen knife in his hand as the horny detective keeps wiggling his ass in the air, eager to be violated.

Dene Larson (Milton) and Tim Garcia (Norman) in
a scene from Master Bates (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

The second offering pays tribute to 1955's The Trouble With Harry. Renamed The Trouble With Mary, James A Martin's play been directed by Debi Durst with care to frame transgenderism in a new light. Mary (Matt Weimer) is a middle-aged man who had a sex change operation, leaving behind his young son, Arnie (Tim Garcia), and his widow, Jennifer (an angry, obnoxious woman who has been on the lam after helping to rob a bank). Sam (Ryan Engstrom) is a local blogger trying to shoot a selfie that can go viral. What better way to accomplish his goal than posing with a dead drag queen?

Ryan Engstrom (Sam), Ellen Dunphy (Jennifer), and Marc Berman
(Calvin Wiggs) in a scene from The Trouble With Mary
(Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

Whenever Mary's spirit has a chance to speak, she tries to communicate with Arnie, who is more than happy to accept his former father as a lady. Jennifer (Ellen Dunphy) may be furious when Arnie disobeys her commands, but when local policeman Calvin Wiggs (Marc Berman) attempts to get in on the action, Sam proves adept at threatening to blackmail the ex-wife and the cop. The play ends with Arnie lovingly applying makeup to Mary's face (as well as his own) while father and son renew their emotional bonds.

Tim Garcia (Arnie) and Matt Weimer (Mary) in a scene
from The Trouble With Mary (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

Birdsploitation is written by Terry Maloney Haley (a frequent contributor to LCTC). Directed by Richard Ryan, it includes a cast of avian actors called to the set for a new movie. As the director's assistant, Aryn Sparrow (Ryan Engstrom), attempts to get various scenes set up for filming, the actors all stand around discussing the problems confronting them.
  • George Seagull (Matt Weimer) is the kind of vain male lead who has no qualms about using his connections and sex appeal to get his hands on an advance copy of the film's script.
  • Cameron Crow (Chris Maltby) is an energetic busybody who is always eager to suggest a threesome with two other actors.
  • Jennifer Lovebird (Erica Andracchio) has been doing scientific research on recurrent toxic algal blooms in Monterey Bay that may trigger a chemical reaction that makes local birds gain weight and go crazy.
  • Darlene Lovebird (AJ Davenport) is Jennifer's patient, devoted, and oft-neglected lesbian lover.
Ryan Engstrom (Aryn Sparrow) and Matt Weimer (George Seagull)
in a scene from Birdsploitation (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

As the birds at hand start grousing about low pay and lousy work conditions (one even boasts of having fucked an emu), global warming emerges as the play's villain. Eventually, the birds realize that the only way they can fight back and stand up for themselves is to make Aryn's job more difficult by finding a way to cost his producer more money.

Erica Andracchio (Jennifer Lovebird), Chris Maltby
(Cameron Crow), and AJ Davenport (Darlene Lovebird)
in a scene from Birdsploitation (Photo by: Ashley Tateo)

By the end of the play, they've come up with the perfect solution. When Aryn announces that the director is ready to film a scene, the birds all sit still instead of flying into action. After all, how long will it take for the producer and director to find and train new birds for their film?

All three plays deliver some wonderfully comic moments, with the best acting coming from Tim Garcia and Ryan Engstrom. Performances of Twisted Hitchcock continue through August 26 at the Shelton Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Earlier this summer, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented a rare screening of 1917's A Man There Was (Terje Vigen) at the Castro Theatre. Directed by Victor Sjöström (who also plays the title character), the screening of a print from the Swedish Film Institute was accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble. The film is based on Henrik Ibsen's poem, Terje Vigen (first published in 1862), which relates the story of a desperate sea pilot who tried to outwit an English blockade.

A scene from 1917's A Man There Was (Terje Vigen)

In August of 1927, an article by Arnt Braathen published in Nationen entitled “In Terje Vigen’s home” described the relationship between Ibsen and Svend Hanssen Haaø. Born on Haaø Island in 1778, Hanssen Haaø is thought to have been Ibsen’s inspiration for Terje Vigen. At the most, 44 citizens (mostly pilots, fishermen, and farmers) lived on Haaø Island. In 1794, severe storms and bad weather claimed the lives of eight pilots. Braathen learned from Hanssen Haaø’s grandson (also named Svend) that, between 1807 and 1814, his grandfather had rowed to Denmark several times to smuggle food back to Grimstad for his family and friends.

In his film, Sjöström portrays a sailor living near Grimstad who risks his life after English ships form a blockade off the Southern coast of Norway. Having managed to get to Denmark in a rowboat to purchase grain and other staples, as he nears the end of his journey home his rowboat is spotted and sunk by a merciless English sea captain. The sailor is subsequently imprisoned in England.

A scene from 1917's A Man There Was (Terje Vigen)

After several years of incarceration, Terje is released in 1814 when the Napoleonic Wars come to an end. Upon returning to Grimstad, he learns that his family (and most of their neighbors) died of starvation. No one recognizes him, nor can they tell him anything about what happened while he was in prison. By that point, Vigen has become a bitter man who can only rely on the one friend he knows: the sea.

In recent years, the SFSFF has brought several silent films set in Arctic and Antarctic waters to its audience. Whether filmed as documentaries or narratives, these relics leave one in awe of the techniques used nearly a century ago to direct and act at sea or on dry land; in fog or in clear sunlight.

A scene from 1917's A Man There Was (Terje Vigen)

In his program essay, Jay Weissberg writes:
“What’s immediately striking about Terje Vigen (released in the U.S. as A Man There Was) is the power of its imagery. Stripped to its bare essence, the film is a visual encomium to the sea, or rather, to a Romantic understanding of the sea’s might as wedded to man’s emotional state. Using a book-ended structure, it tells of a sailor during the Napoleonic Wars who braved the British blockade (Denmark and Norway were allied with the French) to smuggle food to his wife and child on the island of Håøya. Caught by an 18-year-old English captain, Terje is imprisoned for five years. When he returns home he learns his wife and child died of starvation. Some years later, having aged into ‘a remarkably grizzled man,’ Terje rescues an English yacht in distress, only to discover that its owner is the self-same captain who heartlessly imprisoned him earlier.”
A scene from 1917's A Man There Was (Terje Vigen)
“Sjöström was already sensitive to how nature can be used to evoke mood, and an affinity for sea settings may be surmised from his films The Ships that Meet (Skepp som mötas) and Predators of the Sea (Havsgamar), both from 1916. Yet something revolutionary happened during the making of Terje Vigen, when the director’s skills for combining a palpable sense of realism with a refined eye for pictorial effect came together in a way that had a lasting influence on Nordic cinema. While the word “painterly” is frequently used to describe Terje Vigen, it’s painterly only in terms of composition, since its dramatic effects depend on movement, exemplified by the constantly shifting silvery glints on the sea’s choppy surface; there’s nothing static here even though the film is not noted for camera movements. No wonder it is credited with launching the Golden Age of Scandinavian Cinema.”
A scene from 1917's A Man There Was (Terje Vigen)

While watching A Man There Was, the last thing a viewer might expect is a happy ending. But with an opportunity to get a second lease on life, Vigen proves himself to be a better man than the English sea captain who deprived him of his wife and child. Barely 55 minutes long, the entire film can be seen in the following video from YouTube.