American myth-busting in Roxie’s ‘Dark Side of the Dream’

Humphrey Bogart in 'Black Legion'—a film sued by the KKK.

It’s always good news when there’s a revival series at the Roxie, and this week’s four-day “Dark Side of the Dream” is all gold: A mix of classics and rarities that expands outward from the noir and pre-Code showcases that co-producers Elliot Lavine and Don Malcolm have previously brought to the venue. The theme this time is vintage films that offer some critique of the “American Dream”—one myth that just about everybody seems to believe in, yet which has always been out of reach for many. The films range from 1930s Warner Brothers crime dramas to high noir and ’60s exploitation. 

The resonance of these films in our own very peculiar political era is particularly clear in Elia Kazan’s 1957 A Face in the Crowd, a movie that has really regained some traction of late. And no wonder, since TV’s lovable bumpkin Andy Griffith plays a sociopathic slimebag who purveys a pandering populist image into a dangerous sort of quasi-political celebrity. How audiences were able to accept eight innocuous seasons of The Andy Griffith Show after his skin-crawling performance here is something of a mystery. 

Such trenchant social observation was fairly rare onscreen in the 1950s. But a couple decades earlier, Warner Brothers routinely cranked out socially conscious dramas—three of the best (if not best-known) included here. The revelation among them may be William Wellman’s 1933 Heroes for Sale, which is in the running as the most ambitious 71-minute narrative ever. It sprawls 15 years from WW1 foxholes to flophouses to prison to Depression shanty towns, following the hard knocks given a WW1 veteran (Richard Barthemless) whose heroic battlefield deeds get mistakenly attributed to a cowardly comrade. Almost a compendium of the era’s pressing social issues, it’s a compact wonder. 

Hardly lacking ambition either is Archie Mayo’s 1937 Black Legion, in which Humphrey Bogart plays a not-particularly-bright factory worker whose jealousy of a more industrious colleague’s promotion makes him easy prey for a racist vigilante organization. (Trivia note: The KKK actually sued WB for patent infringement in use of one of their symbols. They lost.) It’s a strong portrait of how disgruntled “nice guys” can become little fascists. The same year the studio also featured Bogart in a rare female-driven “gangster film,” Lloyd Bacon’s very tough Marked Woman—one of Bette Davis’ first great roles, as a “nightclub hostess” who turns state’s witness against her mob boss. It’s among the most brutal and shocking movies Hollywood managed to get made shortly after the introduction of the censorious Production Code.

Probably the rarest film in the series is M, a 1951 American remake of Fritz Lang’s famous 1930 German film, which introduced the world to Peter Lorre. This time it’s David Wayne playing the pathetic child murderer—though as with the original, the focus is more on the city population itself, as fear and anger turn even the criminal underworld into police allies as the manhunt goes on. Though not as innovative as Lang’s original, this version is striking on its own terms nonetheless, particularly for the vivid use of downtown Los Angeles locations—this is not at all a studio-soundstage enterprise. The director Joseph Losey is also represented here by The Lawless from the prior year, a prescient movie about a newspaper editor’s exposing miserable conditions thrust upon Mexican immigrant agricultural workers in a central California town. 

Losey was just at the start of a promising directorial career, one shortly derailed by Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt for supposed Communist sympathizers in the film industry. (He ultimately re-settled in England, thoroughly re-inventing himself as the maker of elegant, arty films like The Servant and The Go-Between—to the point where eventually few realized that he was from Wisconsin, not Hyde Park.) Several other films in the series feature blacklisted talents, including the poetical boxing melodrama Body and Soul (1947), whose star John Garfield, director Robert Rossen and writer Abraham Polonsky were all seriously impacted by the “Red Scare.” Ditto Cy Endfield, who had to work under pseudonyms for a while after 1950’s Try and Get Me! aka The Sound of Fury. It’s a modest but harrowing variation on Strangers on a Train terrain, as a chance meeting between a hapless good guy (Frank Lovejoy) and a swaggering very bad guy (Lloyd Bridges) solders their fates together. 

Able to escape the blacklist was John Huston—though he fought vigorously on behalf of its victims—who between famous screen classics made the comparatively little-known We Were Strangers. It is, however, one of his most overtly political films, with the compelling Garfield (and the iffier Jennifer Jones) among unlikely would-be revolutionists against a corrupt, tyrannical Cuban government of 1932. 

Other films in “Dark Side of the Dream” include longtime “A-list” director Mervyn LeRoy’s 1937 sensation They Won’t Forget, which provided a star-making (if brief) role for Lana Turner as a sexy student whose murder sparks a politically-manipulated trial. It was pretty damn shocking for its time—but doubtless no one then could have imagined anything quite so alarming as Samuel Fuller’s 1964 The Naked Kiss, chronologically the last film in “Dark Side of the Dream.” This not-dissimilar screaming expose of small-town hypocrisy features Constance Towers as a prostitute (they weren’t calling them “nightclub hostesses” by then) who flees her big-city degradation in one of the most lurid opening sequences ever. Aiming to start afresh, she lands in pristine, cozy Grantville—but it turns out this seemingly squeaky-clean burg has a whole lotta hidden sleaze going on, too. A cult favorite, The Naked Kiss is quite possibly the idiosyncratic Fuller’s most flamboyant and outlandish film…which is saying a lot. 

Roxie, SF.
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What we saw at Sundance 2018, round two: Women fight back

Assassination Nation

Read part one of Jesse Hawthorne Ficks Sundance 2018 coverage here. 

FICKS’ PICKS Sundance sported some of the best Midnite Movie entries in recent years, which not only found raucous sold out audiences but attracted the distributor NEON, who has purchased the North American theatrical rights for both Coralie Fargeat’s debut feature Revenge and Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation

Both movies explore the theme of female vengeance: There will undoubtedly be many debates and even some serious arguments as to how these films handle such violent and controversial subject matter. Revenge is perhaps the more straightforward of the two, following a tried and true rape-revenge structure—ala Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981).

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.) Utilizing gorgeously saturated cinematography, the film is framed in a fairly protective way towards its victim’s initial violation, which allows audiences to understand the situation as opposed to experience the horror. Director Fargeat then follows Jen (Italian newcomer Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) as she hunts down the three married men who did the act. The audience most definitely cheered at every stabbing or shotgun blast to the culprits, but what I found most intriguing was how the director spent much more time deconstructing and punishing the men’s despicable behavior, rather than focusing on the empowered victim herself.


While Revenge works quite well, I lost my mind and flipped head over heels for Sam Levinson’s prophetically high-strung Assassination Nation. Symbolically set in Salem, Massachusetts, the movie follows a group of high school girls banding together as their town is attacked: A data hack is exposing every person’s internet history. Assuredly self-aware and purposefully provoking (a trigger warning precedes the film), this hyperkinetic social satire has the most eye-popping and overwhelming opening sequence in many a moon. 

During the world premiere’s post-film Q&A, Colman Domingo, who plays the principal of the school, said the film was “a war on toxic masculinity, at all costs.” The film consistently questions the misogynistic world its characters are trapped in, and so plays into the dilemma of the year: Does Assassination Nation become part of the psychotic social media that it set out to satirize? What makes Levinson’s exploitation flick most unique to me is how it never wavers from the perspective of its four female leads and never expects any nudity from the actresses. Controversial and triggering, there is no other film I can recommend higher from this year’s festival. Be warned: Some viewers will (aggressively) disagree.

Night Comes On

Jordana Spiro’s debut feature Night Comes On is a third revenge flick at Sundance, but it most definitely follows the beat of its own drum. Following two young girls (age 17 and 10) as they track down a man from their past, this poetic expedition does a remarkable job at allowing space and time to affect its characters as well as its viewers. Lead actors Dominique Fishback and Tatum Marilyn Hall deliver such moving performances that you will be thinking about them days after. Much like the melancholy movies of the early 1970s, this cinematic experience was a major standout in Sundance’s NEXT category, which is dedicated to “pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling.”

While the trailer for Ari Aster’s Hereditary has already hit the streets, the release date isn’t until June 8, meaning it can build as much anticipation as possible. Already coined “the scariest film of the decade” this absolutely terrifying familial ghost story is led by a jaw-dropping, gut-churning, career-defining performance by Toni Collette. Not since The Babadook have I withstood the kind of uncomfortable silences, followed by glass shattering, high-pitched shrieking from a movie theater audience. In fact, I watched two audience members speed walk out of the film, one whispering to the usher, “This is too scary!” and the other covering the front and back of their pants. Only one of them returned.


The most talked-about and difficult screening to get into this year was the world premiere of Panos Cosmatos’ psychedelic mind-melter Mandy, which boasts a legendary battle-axe performance by Nicolas Cage. The follow-up to the director’s debut cult classic Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) is structured into distinctive sci-fi chapters, loading each sequence with a cluster-fuck of Jim Jones-esque cult leaders and a full-on “Nouveau Shamanistic” turn by Nicolas Cage, who sincerely guzzles a giant bottle of vodka while screaming and battling an army of Hellraiser-like cenobites. Punctuated by a brain-pounding synth score by the legandary Jóhann Jóhannsson, this very personal extravaganza (with a very long running time of 121 minutes) is most definitely recommended, and is still seeking a distributor. 

An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn

Jim Hosking’s extremely divisive, surrealist second feature is An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn. With more audience members walking out of this than any other film in Park City this year, I found this follow-up to Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler (2016) surprisingly romantic and addictively hilarious. Even though the film starts off clunkily, the abstract nature of Aubrey Plaza’s comedy really starts to gel as soon as Jemaine Clement graces the screen. In an unprecedented move, the publicist for the film offered free marijuana to the press, further reinforcing the imminent legacy of this modern day cult classic.

Ficks Picks’ Round Three is up next, covering documentaries.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series at the Castro and Roxie Theater. He is also a member of the San Francisco Critics Circle and writes film festival reviews for 48hills.

What we saw at Sundance 2018: Live from Park City

Sundance acclaim: 'Blindspotting' is a deep look at life, hip-hop, and gentrification in Oakland.

Read part two of Jesse’s Sundance coverage here

FICKS’ PICKS The air felt different to me in Park City this past week. With the lowest snowfall since 1976, the streets seemed seared and the mountains parched. My thoughts often returned to years past. I was lucky enough to grow up in these canyons. My first year of attendance was 1991. I was 15 and my first two films were the world premieres of Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Todd Haynes’ Poison. Now, 27 years later, I attended 30 features and 20 shorts at both Sundance and Slamdance film festivals, showcasing a whole new batch of first time filmmakers. Use this SPOiLER-FREE list of the most memorable movies throughout 2018.


Tamara Jenkins’ latest opus Private Life kicked things off with a bang. The writer and director of Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) and The Savages (2007) explores the ups and downs of a couple attempting to get pregnant in the complex world of fertility alternatives. Both Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti give pitch perfect performances, which should not be taken for granted. This 130-minute anti-Rom-Com is a real standout due to the director’s choice to allow many scenes to just breathe, including the stunning final sequence.

Similarly, Jennifer Fox’s The Tale flips a tried and true genre on its head, baring the brutal complications of the director’s first sexual relationship. Laura Dern’s performance packs an emotional wallop as a woman who has to weave through the dilemmas of what it is to be a victim vs. what agency she had in her past. The difficult subject matter caused many heated discussions in Park City and will surely ignite more when it premieres on HBO later this year. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, it has been announced that The Tale will not be released in movie theaters.

Paul Dano’s gorgeously paced debut feature Wildlife took it’s time to do things right. Based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, this 1960s story of a young boy in Montana watching his parent’s marriage dissolve achieved near perfection for me. Dano’s work with his actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan is especially noteworthy as they ache with the frustrations of not only the era but with a certain timelessness that feels as memorable as Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick.

Desiree Akhavan’s wonderfully poignant The Miseducation of Cameron Post not only took home the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year, it’s the perfect sophomore feature. (Akhavan’s first film Appropriate Behavior, from 2014, has stuck with me over many other recent Sundance debuts.) Following the struggles of three queer teenagers stuck in a gay conversion therapy center for Christians, the movie showcases Chloë Grace Moretz in a heartbreaking performance as the title character. Newcomer Forrest Goodluck stole the show as an androgenous Lakota teen. With only 10 American states officially outlawing these conversion therapy camps, this devastatingly honest film is an immensely crucial voice for these troubled times.

Carlos López Estrada’s universally celebrated debut Blindspotting was one of the festival’s earliest purchases (by Lionsgate!). Written by and featuring striking performances by Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame) and Rafael Casal, the film hilariously confronts the gentrification issues within the Bay Area (Oakland specifically). Brace yourself for some extremely upsetting content handled quite efficiently by a first time filmmaker, with perhaps a debatable misstep in its Paul Haggis-ish roundabout climax (i.e. Crash).

While Spike Lee was filming his 23rd narrative feature Black Klansman (produced by Jordan Peele and due later this year), he secretly filmed Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over play at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. A story of two young men as they attempt to pass from one reality into the next, this updated Waiting For Godot by way of David Mamet-esque writing was as engaging an experience as Lee’s superb 2008 documentation of Stew’s Passing Strange. Don’t let this theatrical gem slip through your cinematic cracks.

By far the biggest surprise in Park City was Joanne Mony Park’s debut feature Fish Bones which premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival. New York-based Korean fashion model Joony Kim plays a model who is disjointedly attempting to piece together her life. Gloriously lo-fi, non-linear, and sporting the best soundtrack of any film in Park City, this uniquely crafted piece is essential viewing for anyone looking for a crispy new voice in cinema.

Joaquin Phoenix starred in two films this year. The first was Gus Van Sant’s return to form Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot based on the memoir of the controversial Portland-based cartoonist John Callahan. Utilizing mockumentary techniques via To Die For (1995) and emphasizing straight forward, Oscar worthy acting ala Milk (2008), Van Sant gets back on solid ground, giving Phoenix and especially Jonah Hill, what surely will be two of the most memorable performances of the year.

But nothing can prepare you for the sheer flawlessness of Lynne Ramsey’s adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here. Sporting a monstrous Joaquin Phoenix performance that not only lingers for days after experiencing it, it won the Best Acting award at Cannes this year. Ramsey’s immaculate filmmaking style is in tip top form here, making each thrilling sequence and every violent cut, a genuine moment of cinematic bliss. Ranking right alongside her previous masterpieces of Ratcatcher (1999), Morvern Caller (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), this psychological thriller is simple in its scope, but magnificent in its execution.    

FICKS PICKS: ROUND 2 is up next, covering Midnite Movies and Documentaries. See last year’s Sundance coverage here

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series at the Castro & Roxie Theater. He is also member of the San Francisco Critics Circle and writes film festival reviews for 48hills.