Saturday, February 13, 2016

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 2

Two films last night (Friday) starting with one I somehow missed at Cinequest last year.

SONGS SHE WROTE ABOUT PEOPLE SHE KNOWS is the story of Carole and here unique way of expressing herself. She's quiet, never opens up about...anything. And attended a little musical therapy (in the opening scene) before walking out. But she takes musical therapy to heart and uses it to express herself. If she's just singing, it's not the same as saying it. So she calls up her neighbors and leaves a message singing about how she dreams of killing them. This does not go over well. She calls up her boss and leaves him a song called "Asshole Dave" (which, I'm not kidding, has been nominated for the Canadian equivalent of an Oscar--one of the films three nominations.) And that doesn't have the intended effect either. Come to think of it, I'm not sure what the intended effect is--I think to make her feel better but the subject of her song to not react at all? Instead, Asshole Dave is inspired, remembering how he wanted to be a musician before he gave up and became an asshole boss. So he comes over, sings to her, creeps her out, and then the next day he fires her, quits, and asks her to go away with him to pursue their dream of being musicians. She...does not. At least, not until he's in California, off his meds, and needs some help. Wacky adventures lead up to a climactic concert (hey, just like the opening night film FRANK AND CINDY!) And it's all a glorious celebration of expressing yourself...and how everyone else is horrible and should die in a fire.

And then we switched gears to the documentary/narrative hybrid film BOOGER RED. A while back, the small town of Mineola, TX was rocked by the worst child sex ring scandal in Texas history. And it looks like it was all a fake--a frame up that landed 6 people in jail for several years (they got out on plea deals) and one man in jail for life (he was not so lucky.) Onur Tukel plays Onur Tukel, a journalist looking for the real story. And all the people he interviews are people actually involved in the case. Thing is, he can only get the defendants to talk, the prosecution side and the foster parents won't talk. This was true for the filmmakers as well, and so rather than make a one-sided documentary, they turn their frustration into a part of Onur's story. The rest of his story is how he has become an expert at writing about child sex abuse, and how he wants to write about anything else. And about how he's drinking himself to death. And about his brother's widow showing up to help. The hybrid aspect of it is fascinating, and pretty quickly the "is this real?/is this fake?" questions disappear as you get wrapped up in a fascinating, dramatic, and unfolding story of an ongoing miscarriage of justice.

Total Running Time: 178 minutes
My Total Minutes: 417,075

Friday, February 12, 2016

Jason goes to Indiefest--Opening Night

My first film-fest love kicked off for the 18th time last night (15th with me in the front row.) Jeff still managed to seem like he was winging his opening remarks even when reading from his paper, that's just the punk-rock, DIY aesthetic of the place (something that shouldn't be lost just because they have an actual corporate sponsor.)

So then the movie, FRANK AND CINDY. Based very definitely on director G.J. Echternkamp's family (and looks like a dramatic take on his 2007 documentary of the same name,) it's the story of his mom and step-father. Frank Garcia (Oliver Platt) was the lead singer of OXO, a one-hit wonder in the 80s. Cindy (Renee Russo, completely unrecognizable in character) was his groupie, and married him. And G. J. (Johnny Simmons) is home, ready to go to arts school as a film student, and fucking hates his alcoholic mother and even worse step-father. And when he finds out that A) his mom has (claimed to have) stopped drinking and B) spent all of his savings (intended to send him to film school) on a basement studio for Frank, he gets pretty upset. And decides he's going to film them, every day, to document their horribleness.

The thing is, I didn't understand right away why the audience was roaring with laughter at moments I thought were kinda funny, but mostly uncomfortable. By the end, I was laughing along, because here's the secret--Frank and Cindy are flawed people, but G.J. is a truly horrible person. Not just torturing his parents, but sleeping with any woman who's willing, including cheating on the one girl (Jane Levy) who he might actually feel something for.

There is some resolution by the end, and a nice scene with G.J.'s biological dad (who was a cool surprise, so I won't spoil that.) And the final concert is actually...redemptive, in a way. For everyone, in fact. So G.J. didn't make a movie entirely about what a horrible person he is. That was just my favorite part of it.

Running Time: 100 minutes
My Total Minutes: 416,897

Jason watches HAIL, CAESAR!

The Coen Brothers have gotten really weird recently. I mean, their zany characters and strange antics are no weirder than they've ever been. But it's getting harder and harder for me to say what their movies are about. Not that following the plot is hard, but identifying what they're about had gotten harder. There was a time I could always see what the point was. In fact, there was a time I could reliably say it was about greed making a fool (or a corpse) of someone. And then, starting with A SERIOUS MAN, that was simply no longer the case. It's like they became self-conscious about greed being the major motivation in all their pictures, and decided to make movies about characters who are very explicitly motivated by anything else, just to show us all how weird that is.

So we get our cast of zanies, all circling around Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix, a "fixer" for Capitol Pictures. When the studio has a problem, he fixes it. Or he tries to, often times they all seem to work themselves out (even his son's issue with little league requires nothing on his part.) George Clooney is their big star Baird Whitlock, who has been kidnapped and held for ransom. Meanwhile DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is their water-ballet star, and she has a little trouble fitting into her mermaid tail with her baby bump. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, who is one of the brightest spots) is their singing cowboy star, but the studio wants to change up his image and put him in a costume drama directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes.) Tilda Swinton is a pair of twin gossip columnists hounding Mannix for a story, Channing Tatum is a singing / dancing star, and Jonah Hill is a...person. Literally, that's the joke, he's a person.

So they have all the wackiness, so what does it add up to? That's what I struggled with, and here's what I've come up with. The Coen Bros have made a movie about how making movies is holy work. Mannix goes to confession way too often, but in his own role he's a kind of a priest. People come to him with problems, he tries to help, but most of the time it all works out on its own. He talks daily to a person who is never seen (the studio head) and ultimately gives up his chance for a more lucrative, easier job because...he's found his calling.

Running Time: 106 minutes
My Total Minutes: 416,797

Jason watches BROOKLYN

And it does a great job of evoking time and place (Ireland and Brooklyn in the 1950s.) There's a very nice lead in Saoirse Ronan and she does a great job playing Eilis, a young Irish woman with no future in her home town, so a helpful priest, Father Flood, helps her book passage to New York and sets her up in a boarding house and a job. And she's homesick for a while, but starts to fit in, especially with the help of a handsome Italian suitor Tony (Emory Cohen.) And then for a long, long time I start to worry that there won't be any conflict at all in the movie. Like it really seems like a sweet, innocent story of a woman moving halfway around the world, feeling homesick, and then getting over it. Finally, there is some conflict when she returns home to Ireland for a visit (the exact motivation would give too much away.) But this isn't about drama so much as a sweet but not too sentimental love letter to the American immigrant experience.

Running Time: 111 minutes
My Total Minutes: 416,691

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Jason goes to Noir City--Closing Night

This is a week and a half ago, but still fresh enough in my mind.

We end as we began, with photography. But a week of non-stop art has left us changed forever.

PEEPING TOM (1960): Carl Boehm plays Mark Lewis, an odd young man. He works on a film set, He has an interest in photography, and makes some money selling cheesecake shots to a shop that sells magazines with "girls on the front covers, and no front covers on the girls." He also lives in his parents old house, and makes ends meet by renting out the rooms. But he keeps to himself so much that his boarders don't even know that he's the landlord. He's just the creepy guy who lives upstairs and sometimes peeks in the windows. Oh yeah, and he kills girls and films it, trying to capture the best image of pure terror. See, his father was a psychologist who experimented on him to write his seminal work on childhood fear. But perhaps I've said too much. A wonderfully sleazy yet artistic flick.

BLOW-UP (1966): And then we ended the festival with probably the most important art film of the 60s. Michelangelo Antonioni dresses up a slice-of-life film about what it means to be an artist in the trappings of a murder mystery. But make no mistake, this is about art, not about a dead body. David Hemmings plays Thomas, a successful fashion photographer in London. His life is photography, parties, fashion, drugs, booze, sex. A nice life, but one that has left him somewhat bored. One day, taking some pictures in a park, he catches a couple of lovers (Vanessa Redgrave as Jane, and who cares who the guy is.) Jane insists she gets those photos back. And he promises, but not until he develops them. He keeps the negatives...just because he likes them. It's only later, when he blows them up, that he finds he might have just caught a murder on film. Or maybe it's just illusions in the grain of the film. Nope, it's murder. He goes back to the park and sees the body. But then...the film just refuses to turn into a murder mystery. He's not some super-sleuth who will catch the bad guys. We never even learn who the murderer is. Rather, it's a way to explore art. In particular, is art about discovering what's there, or is it (as the mimes who bookend the film) would have us believe, about seeing what's not there? A brilliant, fascinating film that refuses to answer.

Total Running Time: 212 minutes
My Total Minutes: 416,580

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 9

The last weekend kicks off with a 5 film Saturday. So with little introduction, here they are.

The early triple-bill was about painters.

THE LODGER (1944): Jack the Ripper story with Laird Cregar as the creepy gentleman pathologist who rents rooms in a house. Instead of prostitutes (production code, those don't exist,) he kills actresses. Instead of a maniac he's portrayed as a tortured soul, avenging his artistic brother (the "painter" element of the film) who was done in by his love for an actress. The story, production, cinematography are great. But it's Laird Cregar's perfect balance of menace, pathos, and erudition that makes this movie.

BLUEBEARD (1944): This is almost the same Jack the Ripper story, just moved to France (Jacques the Ripper?) But Bluebeard is a French folk tale, and here Edgar G. Ulmer gives it the low-budget, B-movie treatment. John Carradine stars Gaston Morrell, a charming puppeteer whose business is slow because nobody wants to be outside, what with the murderous Bluebeard out there. Lucille (Jean Parker) takes a liking to them, and they become friends...and maybe more. She volunteers to help him make costumes for his next show. Meanwhile her sister Francine (Teala Loring) comes to town. Her boyfriend (Nils Asther) is the inspector searching for Bluebeard. Clues are pointing to art dealer Jean Lamarte (Ludwig Stossel)--not as the killer but as someone who knows the killer. The killer might just be a mysterious painter whose work Lamarte has sold before. So a trap is set, and...well, everything ends in a very noir manner. A nice little low-budget flick.

SCARLET STREET (1945): And then Fritz Lang's brilliant adaptation of the French novel "The Bitch" (translated into English as "The Poor Sap.") Joan Bennett plays the bitch of the French title, Kitty March. And Edward G. Robinson is really the poor sap, Christopher Cross. He works as a cashier in a bank, and the film opens with him being honored for 25 years of service. On his way home, he sees a girl being roughed up by a guy. Turns out that's Kitty March, and the guy is her boyfriend pimp (okay, kinda both) Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea, at his oiliest best.) Chris "saves" her, and becomes infatuated with her, despite being old enough to be her father. Oh, and also being married, to Adele (Rosalind Ivan) who, come to think of it, might be the real bitch in the story. Kitty leads Chris on, just to get his money. See, he paints on the side, just for fun, and sort of let her believe he's a famous artist whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars in Europe (never appreciated in your own country, of course.) And so begins a long affair of Kitty taking advantage of him, and me silently screaming "Dammit! Why are you such a sap!" Oh, it's a great movie, it just made me very uncomfortable and I kept waiting for him to finally grow a spine, see what's going on, and take his revenge. And when he does, I was the first of many in the audience who burst into applause. But that's not the end, that's not noir enough. The ending is even more brilliantly dark than that.

Then there was a break before the evening shows, long enough for me to grab a little dinner and a beer, and still be back to the mezzanine in time for a cocktail. 

And then the evening show was all about Ballet Noir.

THE RED SHOES (1948): Okay, many times this festival we've stretched the definition of noir. In conversations with other patrons, there's kind of a mixed reaction to that. The "art" theme has taken precedence over the genre, and some people have a problem with that. For the record, I don't. Especially when the outside-the-genre selections are this freakin' great. In the opening scenes, a group of students barge into the balcony as soon as the opera doors open. They're excited to see the opera their professor wrote. But shortly in, one student Julian Craster (Marius Goring) quickly recognizes the score as something he wrote himself. Meanwhile the opera owner Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is cajoled into attending a party where he is supposed to meet the hostess' talented dancer daughter Victoria Page (Moira Shearer, who really is a dancer, not an actress playing one.) While Lermontov doesn't like being bothered like this, he does give both Page and Craster a chance for small parts with the opera. Craster coaches the orchestra, Page...well, hangs around with other young, inexperienced dancers waiting to be noticed. And eventually she is, and eventually Craster's musical genius is recognized, and Lermontov assigns him to write the score to the Hans Andersen story of The Red Shoes--magical shoes that keep on dancing even after the wearer is too tired to go on. And the centerpiece performance of the ballet's opening night is sheer brilliance. Not just a great ballet, but one of the most sublime sequences of cinema ever, as movie magic transforms the stagy ballet into the dream world of the performers (and maybe even the audience.) Seriously, I've spent most of the last night just thinking about that ballet scene. Well, from there Craster and Page are rising stars. And, to the displeasure of Lermontov--lovers. And that's when it turns from a glorious story of the rise of great artists into a tragedy. And dare I say...a little noir-ish. I don't care if you categorize this as noir or not. Arguments over definitions are the purview of small, pointless minds. This is a great movie, and that's all that matters.

SPECTER OF THE ROSE (1946): And then for those who want real noir, and real weirdness, this was a pallet cleanser to the Technicolor brilliance of THE RED SHOES. Good ol' black-and-white is back, and Ben Hecht wrote and directed. But the struggle to make (and finance) great art is still there. Michael Chekhov is Max Polikoff, an opera producer who owes money all over town. Along with Madame La Sylph (Judith Anderson) they will put on the titular opera. A story of a woman who falls asleep with a rose, and dreams that it turns into her lover. All they need is a great dancer, Andre Sanine (Ivan Kirov.) Too bad he's suspected of murdering his wife. Sure, she died of a heart attack...on stage...while performing with him. But in his psychotic delusions he believes he's responsible, and when you can't stop yelling about how you killed her, the police get curious. Eh, it's all just in his head, and young dancer Haidi (Viola Essen) helps him snap out of it...kinda. He's still psychotic, but more often than not he's fine. So the opera will be an artistic triumph...or it might lead to a little bit of death. But one things for certain, Lionel Gans (Lionel Stander) will look like a tough guy but wax floridly poetic through the whole thing. He's awesome. This film is awesome. 

Total Running Time: 482 minutes
My Total Minutes: 416,368

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 8

Last Friday was dedicated to Hollywood's take on Hollywood

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952): Kirk Douglas is Jonathon Shields, Hollywood producer, head of his own studio. In the opening scenes we don't see him, we see his old collaborators--director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan,) actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner,) and writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell.) Shields is on the phone, trying to talk them into making a new picture. Only Bartlow will even answer the phone, and that's just to tell him to go to hell. Seems he has a past with all of them. A past that involves friendship turning sour as he double-crosses each of them in turn. All in the cause of inflating his name...and in making great pictures. And that's the key, he got his start making low-budget pictures for Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) who now works for him. The framing device for the story is a meeting in Pebbel's office. And we learn that while Shields is an arrogant, credit-stealing, back-stabbing, cheating swindler...we also learn that he made great pictures in the past, and made each and every one of them into a star. Their careers were good working with Shields, and have been great since. So what's the big problem about working with him again? This is Hollywood's perverted love letter to itself, admitting it's personal faults while also pointing out that quite often those faults lead to some really great pictures.

THE BIG KNIFE (1955): And then this one is all about Hollywood's faults. Based on a stage play by Clifford Odets, who was not shy about his hatred for Hollywood. Jack Palance plays movie star Charlie Castle, a man living with the tragedy of having a dream, compromising on it, but still holding on to it. He's a big Hollywood star, but his life is managed by the studio, and ultimately the studio head Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger.) His personal life is falling apart, as he's separated from his wife (Ida Lupino, providing some small measure of sanity) and son. And there's a bit of a hidden scandal in his past that makes him susceptible to pressure from all sides. There's not a heroic character in the entire cast (a mark of true noir) and the ending is depressing and perfect. The point couldn't have been clearer if it was 90 minutes of Odets' middle finger with his voice screaming "This is for you, Hollywood!" And I love it.

Total Running Time: 227 minutes
My Total Minutes: 415,886