‘Dark Money’ explores the terrible consequences of Citizens United

Journalist John S. Adams tracks the effects of dark money.

MOVIES When Kimberly Reed first heard about Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that determined corporations were people and money was speech, allowing huge amounts of money to be spent on election campaigns, she was stunned and horrified. Since she’s a documentary filmmaker, she wanted to make a movie about it. But she wasn’t sure of a way into a story about corporate control of politics.

Reed is from Montana, a place where people take transparency in campaign finance seriously. More importantly, she says, they feel they can do something about it. This was the insight from which her documentary Dark Money, opening this weekend, was born.

Many people wouldn’t expect such deep distrust of corporate influence in a state like Moantana, which Trump won by 20 points. But Reed says Montana has a progressive history, with important labor and organizing movements starting in the mines there. And transparency in campaign donations is a big issue due to the history of the so-called Copper Kings, who blatantly bought political influence.

“These three rich guys from the East Coast came in and vied for control of what at the time was known as the richest hill on earth,” she said, “which was where the Anaconda Mining Company started.”

In 2012, Reed heard that Montana’s attorney general—and now governor—Steve Bullock (she knew him from high school) had a case challenging Citizens United that looked like it would go to the Supreme Court. She decided to follow that story. She ended up spending more than five years there, making her new documentary, Dark Money, which premiered at Sundance this year.

“I didn’t quite know how to tell the story, but I knew that Montana was going to be a battleground for it,” she said. “It’s an issue everywhere, but I think telling the story with Montana as a case study gave me opportunities to visualize as a filmmaker and to wrap it around human beings.”

In the beginning of Dark Money, we see Republican politicians targeted just days before their primaries, with fliers contained falsehoods going out to voters. 

“It’s not red vs. blue: This is a nonpartisan issue and this happens intraparty,” Reed said. “The goal of those dark money attacks is not about getting a Republican into office instead of a Democrat—it’s about which Republican you’re going to get into office. It’s about purifying, from the point of view of the dark money group, the Republican party and pulling it to a more extreme position. And they’re trying to do that anonymously. What you saw is a rapid polarization of the political dialogue in Montana, and I think that’s emblematic of what we’re seeing across the country.”

A journalist, John S. Adams, keeps following the money and trying to find out who is behind the attacks. Reed met Adams a few years into her filming. He was one of the few reporters in the state covering money and politics, and she says initially they were commiserating. Reed knew she wanted to interview him for the movie. But then he became a sort of the narrator of the story. 

Kimberly Reed, director of ‘Dark Money’

“I realized that he would be the lens through which we could see story,” she said. “It was a narrative device to have him carry us through the story, and he becomes emblematic of the pressures daily newspapers face.”

Both Reed and Adams keep trying to trace the nearly untraceable corporate cash flowing into the elections. The characters in the documentary are engaging and Reed says they were “straight out of Central Casting.” She gets access to politicians, lawyers, meetings, and into court to see a tense trial at the end of the movie. All this leads to a documentary about campaign finance that Entertainment Weekly calls as “damning, clear-eyed, and as gripping as any John Grisham thriller.”

Montana has the strongest finance laws in the country after California, Reed says, and that makes her hopeful. 

“I find that very heartening because if you can do it there, you can do it anywhere and that’s how this is going to move,” she said. “It’s going to be city council after city council, municipality after municipality, state after state, from the bottom up.”

Opens on July 27 in San Francisco
More info here.

‘Black Powers: Reframing Hollywood’ at SFMOMA celebrates plucky cinematic classics

Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 'Watermelon Man' (and Cheryl Dunye's 1996 'Watermelon Woman') plays in the 'Black Powers' series.

MOVIES We’re currently in a moment of black film director fierceness: Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and anything by Ava DuVernay grabbed America’s attention, while Boots Riley’s debut Sorry To Bother You (yay, Oakland!), Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men, and a raft of other works by African American directors ride up from the festival circuit through waves of acclaim. Spike Lee is still going strong (cannot wait to catch his film of Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Antoinette Nwandu’s play “Pass Over”) and Lee Daniels is, too, although he’s moved into the realm of television, which is experiencing its own black golden age.  

It’s a great time to look back on the history of black directors who built the foundation for our blockbuster (and art house) age, and a three week Modern Cinema program at SFMOMA, presented with SFFilm, called “Black Powers: Reframing Hollywood,” (Thu/12-July 29) promises “a decades-spanning program exploring African American filmmakers navigating inside the Hollywood machine and operating outside its boundaries.” A fantastic re-introduction to some film classics (or opportunity to acquaint yourself with unfamiliar ones), the series features 28 films, some with the directors themselves presenting. 

Lee is here (with 1989’s Do the Right Thing, of course, the film that provided my wardrobe for years), as is Peele’s ingenious horror-deconstruction Get Out and Jenkins’ breakthrough, SF-based indie Medicine for Melancholy. But it’s a rare chance to see Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 boundary-breaking Body and Soul, James Burnett’s breathtaking 1978 mix of impressionism and social realism Killer of Sheep, Gordon Parks’ 1969 prairie epic The Learning Tree, Julie Dash’s sensual 1991 Gullah period tale Daughters of the Dust, Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 New Queer Cinema landmark Watermelon Woman, Kasi Lemmons’ hothouse Southern drama, and so many more on a big screen. 

It all starts tonight, Thu/12, with something that will tickle nightlife fans like me: cerebral audio experimentalist DJ Spooky aka paul D. Miller introduces Body and Soul. (Also for nightlife and music geeks: 1990 rave-up House Party plays Fri/20. Below are some more highlights — for the full program, click here.

Thu/12-July 29
Phyllis Watts Theater, SFMOMA,
Tickets and more info here.

In classic doc ‘Sing Faster,’ stagehands tackle epic ‘Ring Cycle’

Filmmaker Jon Else,whose 2000 documentary, Sing Faster, about the stagehands working on Richard Wagner’s epic The Ring Cycle at the San Francisco Opera, didn’t used to be an opera fan. In fact, he sort of hated it. But when his kids were young, he and his wife decided to take them to see a family matinee of La Traviata. At the intermission, they left the curtain open, so the audience could see the set change. Else liked that.

“All of a sudden there were 100 construction workers on stage, and it was much more interesting than anything in the opera,” he said. “I used to work construction, so I could relate to that.”

(Sing Faster screens Thu/14, Thu/21, and Thu/28 at the War Memorial Opera House, celebrating the return of The Ring to the SF Opera beginning June 14.)

Else, an Emmy winner and recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, who has produced and directed many award-winning documentaries, including “Cadillac Desert” and “Eyes on the Prize,” thought it would make a great four-minute movie. He proposed it to officials at the San Francisco Opera, they said yes, and everyone forgot about it for six months. Then they called him to ask if he’d want to do something on The Ring. Else said sure, not knowing anything about The Ring– including its length, which is about 17 hours.

Stagehands in ‘Sing Faster’

“I went down to the late, lamented Tower Records at Columbus and Broadway, and got about two feet of a boxed set and spent 100 bucks,” he said. “I went home and put on the first cassette, and I thought, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’ It reinforced my disbelief that anyone would listen to this in the dark.”

Now Else describes himself as an “opera maniac” who drives his officemates crazy playing Wagner. A couple things happened to effect this transformation Else says, including taking a class in Wagner at Stanford University.

“Wagner is famously known for terrible half hours and magnificent minutes,” he said. “I kept stumbling across magnificent minutes. You can’t sample at random and say, ‘That’s great.’ You kind of have to commit to listening and there are all these incredible nuggets.”

His four-minute movie turned into a half hour and then a full hour, focusing on the stagehands on The Ring. It took about 10 years to make and 137 funding applications, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000.


Filmmaker Jon Else

The San Francisco Opera will do three screenings Sing Faster when they present The Ringthis month. Else will be present at two of the screeners—one of the producers of his movie will be at the other one.

The movie starts with some behind-the-scenes work and shows a time lapse of the sets being built. It ends with another time lapse—all 17 hours of the opera condensed into one minute.

Else decided to have the stagehands tell a stripped-down plot of The Ring Cycle, about the quest for gold. The full four parts of the opera involve gods, mortals, giants, dwarves, a magic sword, some odd family relationships, a giant who becomes a dragon, and a corrupting Ring of Power.

“It’s preposterous—it’s famously complicated,” Else said. “The one thing that an ordinary person can follow is this mad chase of the gold.”

Sing Faster is part of the Ring Festival held during each of the three cycles of the opera, to help Wagner neophytes as well as Wagnerites, learn all they can, with forums, symposiums, and chorus concerts of Wagner’s music.

June 14, 21, and 28
2–3:30pm, $5
Taube Atrium Theater
Tickets and more info here

Ficks’ Picks: A guide to the CROSSROADS 2018 experimental film festival

Simon Liu’s 'High View'

FICKS’ PICKS San Francisco Cinematheque’s annual experimental film festival CROSSROADS 2018 is celebrating its ninth year at SFMOMA this weekend, Thu/7-Sun/10. With 84 ​works of film, video and performance cinema by ​72 artists representing ​20 countries ​and 6 continents​ with nearly 30 artists anticipated to be in attendance.

For newcomers to experimental cinema, perhaps overwhelmed by the sheer amount of films and filmmakers, I have put together a simple visual list of the fest’s most exciting experiences. For connoisseurs of the avant-garde, I have put a spoiler-free emotional response to a film from each of the jam-packed programs. Also listed are all of the tribute screenings to the Bay Area’s beloved projectionist/filmmaker/inspirer Paul Clipson (R.I.P.)

Jonathan Schwartz’s The Crack Up (18 minutes)
My favorite film of the entire festival and named after a collection of essays by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this stunning creation seeped into the glaciers of my anxiety-ridden stomach.  Plays in Program 8, Sunday, June 10 at 2:15pm

Talena Sanders’ Reasonable Watchfulness (6 minutes) 
This “diary/collage film” kept me up all night long as it pulled me down. Plays in Program 4, Saturday, June 9 at 1:45pm. Filmmaker IN PERSON!

Richard Tuohy’s Blinding and Blending (11 minutes)
Calmly superimposing the interiors of space, this Australian is an absolute revelation, with four films being showcased in this year’s festival. Plays in Program 8, Sunday, June 10 at 2:15pm. Filmmaker IN PERSON!

Peggy Ahwesh’s The Falling Sky (10 minutes) 
Cryptic refashioning of footage lifted from an online animated new outlet. Fans of Ahwesh’s She Puppet (2001) be excited. Plays in Program 10, Sunday, June 10 at 6:30pm

Karen Yasinsky’s Vera (6 minutes)
With glorious music by Andrew Bernstein, this found footage/animated masterpiece takes so many twists and turns that you’ll be wanting to watch it again as soon as it ends.  Plays in Program 2, Friday, June 8 at 9:15pm

Simon Liu & Warren Ng’s High View (24 minutes)
This year’s definite main event is this a quadruple 16mm-projected extravaganza. Hand printed & processed, this breathtaking new film layers its participants, taking these home movies to a truly otherly world. Combined with Warren Ng’s haunting live musical accompaniment. Plays in Program 6, Saturday, June 9 at 8:00pm. Filmmakers IN PERSON!

Kerry Laitala’s Astro Trilogy: Velvet of Night, Chromatic Wheels, Kali of Technology  (33 minutes)
Exploring stunning new designs and utilizing her trichotomous tri-projector, these three separate patterned patchworks have to be experienced in a theater to achieve maximum hypnotic bliss. With live accompaniment by the band Wobbly! Plays in Program 2, Friday, June 8 at 9:15pm. Filmmaker IN PERSON!

Paul Clipson’s Another Void (11 minutes)
Filmed in the Tenderloin nights of San Francisco, Paul Clipson found absolute cosmic magic with his in camera collaging. This one reaches the glorious heights of Blade Runner (1982) and even 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for me. Plays in Program 10, Sunday, June 10 at 6:30pm

Dianne Barrie & Richard Tuohy’s China Not China (14 minutes) 
With close to a dozen layers in some sequences, this parade through the late night streets is absolute medicine for insomniacs. Plays in Program 10, Sunday, June 10 at 6:30pm. Filmmakers IN PERSON!

Jessica Bardaley’s The Making and Unmaking of the Earth (17 minutes)
Extremely emotional exploration, combining archival footage of the earth’s processes with personal accounts of the self. A truly special film. Plays in Program 1, Friday, June 8 at 7:00pm

Kevin Jerome Emerson’s IFO: Identified Flying Object (10 minutes) and Ears, Nose and Throat (10 minutes)
Interviews of real life UFO sightings along with an uncomfortable trip to the doctor’s office, KJE has delivered two more mindful movies to his ever-growing oeuvre.  Both play in Program 7, Sunday, June 10 at Noon

Alexandre Larose’s Saint Bathans Repetitions (20 minutes)
Screened in glorious 35mm and filmed in a town of New Zealand, this meditative multiplication of minor moments helped pace my breathing for its full 20 minutes.   Plays in Program 6, Saturday, June 9 at 8:00pm

Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Mahogany Too (3 minutes)
Inspired by Nollywood’s remakes and sequels of American films, this tiny trek revives Diana Ross’ iconic role in Barry Gordy’s Mahogany (1975). Program 3, Saturday, June 9 at Noon. Filmmaker IN PERSON!

Dianna Barrie & Richard Tuohy’s Pancoran (9 minutes)
Filmed in 16mm within the busy streets of Jakarta, this explosive exercise in movement mixed up my sense of direction masterfully.  Plays in Program 3, Saturday, June 9 at Noon. Filmmakers IN PERSON!

Paul Clipson’s Absteigend (2012, 6 minutes)
Showcasing Evan Caminiti’s haunting music (from his Dreamless Sleep album), this was one of the first films of Paul Clipson that changed the way I saw light, shadow and reflections. Program 5, Saturday, June 9 at 4:30pm

Alison Nguyen’s you can’t plan a perfect day sometimes it just happens (9 minutes)
The irony of this collage of blown-out, re-appropriated footage from contemporary White American commercials will linger long after the screening.  Program 10, Sunday, June 10 at 6:30pm. Filmmaker IN PERSON!

Dianna Barrie & Richard Tuohy’s Inside the Machine (12 minutes)
Dual Super 8 projection crisscross their ways through sight and sound. Humans and machines converge, the world is never the same.  Plays in Program 5, Saturday, June 9 at 4:30pm. Filmmakers IN PERSON!

Paul Clipson’s Union (2011, 14 minutes)
This defining Super 8 film of Paul Clipson has the haunting music of Jefre Cantu-Ledesma. Plays in Program 4, Saturday, June 9 at 1:45pm. NOTE: There will also be  “A Tribute to Paul Clipson” on Thursday, June 21, 2018 at 6:00pm at SFMOMA. The FREE event will include a slide show of illustrated film changeover notes from his book REEL, and a screening of his films and others he curated for the museum. The program includes a special musical performance by Paul’s collaborators and friends, Liz Harris (Grouper) and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.

Tickets and more info here

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

Docfest: We’re giving away 60 pairs of tickets! Here’s how to win.

"Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story"

We’ve got 10 pairs of tickets to give away to the following six shows, playing next weekend at Docfest.

HOW TO WIN: Email [email protected] by 5pm Wednesday/6 with “Docfest” in the subject line, and your full name and choice of film in the body. We’ll email winners by midnight on Wednesday. 

Good luck! And sign up for the 48 Hills newsletter for more great giveaways — and the latest in culture and politics. 

June 9, 12:15pm Unfractured, New People Cinema
For the past 35 years, biologist Sandra Steingraber has tried to protect people’s health by safeguarding the environment. Branded a ‘toxic avenger’ by Rolling Stone, Steingraber emerges as a leader of one of the biggest grassroots movement in decades. Shot over the last year of the historic fight against fracking in New York state, Unfractured offers a raw, intimate look at the commitment of this steadfast advocate, and the sacrifices made for the struggle. More info here

June 9, 9:15pm Mole Man, New People Cinema
For nearly his entire life, Ron, a 66-year-old autistic man under the care of his parents, has been building an extraordinary 50-room maze-like structure in his backyard. With his nonagenarian mother in increasingly fragile condition, the fate of Ron’s world becomes uncertain. As his friends and family try to determine what’s best for him, Ron believes an abandoned treasure in the neighboring woods might be the key to saving the only home he has ever known. More info here.

June 9, 9:30pm AHOY! The Yacht Rock Sing A Long Show, Roxie Cinema
Remember a simpler time in music history, back when the dulcet tones of Seals and Crofts engulfed the airwaves and Michael McDonald was the backing vocalist on every hot new single? If not, we’re commandeering the good ship Roxie to help you recall the songs you never realized you knew. Join your host Lulu Cachoo as she transports you on a voyage through the salty, sultry sounds of the smoothest soft rock from the late ’70s and early ’80s (with lyrics off the starboard bow to help you sing along). And don’t forget to don a captain’s hat atop your feathered hair to participate in the costume contest for special prizes! More info here.

June 10, 12:15pm Silicone Soul, New People Cinema
Love comes in many forms, and in former SF DocFest Vanguard Award recipient Melody Gilbert’s Silicone Soul, the need for companionship and understanding is shown in the bond between humans and their synthetic companions. Tenderly captured by Gilbert, the bonds shown in the film are diverse and layered: from romantic relationships, to friendships, to a recreation of the love between mother and child. Silicone Soul does not allow for its subjects to be easily labeled or judged. Instead, the film is a collection of resoundingly human stories that reflect universal themes—the desire for love, compassion and communication. What does this all mean for the future of human relationships? Ultimately, this is an observation about love, loneliness, secrets and, perhaps, acceptance. Who are we to judge who…or what…people choose to love? More info here

June 10, 5pm A Shot in the Dark, Roxie Cinema
Despite a lifetime of adversity, a blind high school wrestler attempts to win a State Championship before the end of his senior year. As he entered junior high, Anthony decided to try his luck at wrestling. After a dismal first season, he begged his father to enroll him in a local wrestling club. His father obliged and found a gym, led by a former New Jersey state place winner, who was willing to take on the task of teaching a blind kid to wrestle. The following year, despite the obvious disadvantage his condition left him when wrestling against his non-impaired peers, Anthony went 24-1 and won the tri-county championship. More info here.

June 10, 930p Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story, Roxie Cinema
Getting Naked tells the story of current-day burlesque in New York City through the on and off-stage lives of several performers including Hazel Honeysuckle who says “When I do burlesque I can be sexy, I can be stupid, I can be gorgeous, or ugly, or funny. I can do anything I want when I get out on stage, and that’s pretty magical.” More info here

Flying high with ‘The Seagull’ (and a few other things, beside)

Saoirse Ronan and Coery Stoll in 'The Seagull'

Michael Mayer, who won a Tony for Broadway rock musical/teenage hormone eruption “Spring Awakening,” has directed TV shows, operas, and movies, along with theater. He recently directed “Head over Heels” with the music of the Go-Go’s at San Francisco’s Curran, and on May 18, his movie version of Anton Chekhov’s classic play The Seagull comes out. Mayer didn’t set out to be such a multidisciplinarian—but he thinks it works for him. 

“It does something good to my brain,” said Mayer, drinking coffee in the lobby of San Francisco’s Clift Hotel. “We’re talking about The Seagull now and in an hour and a half I’m going next door to direct a rehearsal of ‘Head over Heels.’ It gives me a fresh look.”

Mayer first read Chekhov in high school when he was home sick one day. In grad school at New York University, Olympia Dukakis was his teacher, and she loved to talk about subtext. There’s a whole lot of subtext in Chekhov, Mayer says, so they often discussed the Russian writer’s work. Mayer remembers feeling like he had a breakthrough doing a scene from the end of The Seagull, where he was playing Konstantin, the frustrated playwright talking to Nina, the woman he loves. 

The idea of doing a movie came up when Mayer was walking down Broadway with his friend, producer Tom Hulce (of Amadeus fame). Hulce suggested setting it in the period, 19th century Russia, but doing it in a modern cinematic style—like a movie, that is, rather than a piece of theater. Mayer said yes immediately to directing the story of a group of friends and family at a lakeside estate embroiled in romance and drama. And both he and Hulce thought of Annette Bening for the role of Irina, the beautiful, vain, funny, imperious, legendary actress who owns the estate with her brother. 

“The next thing I know, I’m at their house in L.A., having Chinese food in their kitchen,” Mayer said about Bening and Warren Beatty. “She said she did that role at A.C. T. as a young girl and always wanted to revisit it. She had done Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ at Mark Taper, and she’s classically trained in theater.”

The movie probably wouldn’t have happened without Bening, Mayer says. 

“She believes strongly in taking risks, and that’s how things happen – you say yes,” Mayer said. “I’m not going to kid myself these actors showed up for no money in 100 degree heat in upstate New York because of me—they did it to work with her. She was the ipso facto producer on this.”

Annette Bening in ‘The Seagull’

There have been other movies made of The Seagull, but Mayer thinks they feel staid and more like theater than a movie. So he hired Tony-winning playwright Steven Karam to adapt Chekhov’s classic work set at a house in the Russian countryside, with everyone in love with someone who’s in love with someone else. 

It’s an impressive group of actors, including Saorise Ronan as Nina, who wants to be an actress; Elisabeth Moss as Masha, the snuff-taking, hard-drinking daughter of the estate’s caretakers (who gets the best lines: In response to a question about why she always wears black, she says, “I’m in mourning. For my life.”); and Corey Stoll, as Boris Trigorin, a famous writer who has come to the estate with Irina.

A critic wrote to Chekhov when the play premiered: “It is life itself onstage with all its tragic alliances eloquent thoughtlessness and silent sufferings.” That’s what makes The Seagull just as relevant now as it was when Chekhov wrote it in 1895, Mayer thinks.

“It’s worked so well through the ages because he’s interested in humanity and it’s not black and white—there are no heroes or villains and that’s what we all are—in the grey area,” Mayer said. “It transcends time and place. The story takes place in Russia but these human beings could exist any time or any place. They’re flawed and imperfect, and they’re all chasing something unattainable whether it’s money or success or love or security. These are all concepts and concepts are never attainable.” 

The Seagull opens in Bay Area theaters this weekend.

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.
More info here

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.