Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Jason goes to Niles for a little jazz-age fun with CHICAGO

Not the recent musical, the silent classic, of course. But first a couple of shorts:

THE BIG SWIM (1926): Mutt and Jeff swim across the Atlantic, with the sort of wacky hijinx only possible in cartoons. Very funny.

THE BALLOONATIC (1923): Buster Keaton...also with the sort of wacky hijinx only possible in cartoons (or in Buster Keaton's world.) Surprisingly, very little ballooning occurs in the movie, mostly serving to transport Buster from his crazy mishaps in an amusement park to the wilderness where he tries to survive and romance Phyllis Haver. Then it shows up again in a gag at the very end. It's not a very coherent story, even by silent short comedy standards, but it's a good collection of gags that makes your head spin.

Then a brief intermission, and on with the feature.

CHICAGO (1927): Hey, remember Phyllis Haver from THE BALLOONATIC. Well know she stars as the infamous Roxie Hart in the first film version based on the true-life story (from 1924, it had already been made into a stage play.) In this version her doting husband Amos (Victor Varconi) is much more of a sympathetic, driving force. First trying to take the blame for murder, claiming self-defense, even though Roxie shot the sugar-daddy she was cheating with. Then when the prosecutor tricks her into a confession, he contracts the shadiest, most expensive defense lawyer he can, even committing a bit of larceny to pay him. And for all his trouble...well [SPOILER ALERT: He actually does get a happy ending, while Roxie has to suffer the humiliation of being yesterday's news.] A really good, fun story. And there's something weirdly comforting in knowing that tabloid "trial of the century" trash was going on 90 years ago pretty much the same as tody.

Total Running Time: 138 minutes
My Total Minutes: 369,907



Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Jason watches GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Well that was fun. In fact, I suspect Marvel Studios engineers their films to be as fun as possible, so people don't notice plot holes or things that just make no sense. And that's a good thing, these films are supposed to be fun.

That's it. I've got nothing else to say. If you want more details, look at any of the thousands of reviews on the Internet.

Running Time: 121 minutes
My Total Minutes:369,769

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Jason experiences the madness of William Lustig with a 2-day, 6 movie marathon

This weekend deserves a better write-up than I can give it, but I'm still crawling back to only being a month behind on my blog. 2 days, 6 crazy fucking movies, and Mr. Lustig himself to talk about all of them (even the one he hates!) So let's jump right in.

MANIAC: Joe Spinell (who also wrote) stars as the titular maniac. And it's an ultra-low-budget, ultra sleazy story of a crazy man who both misses and despises his whore (literally, she was an abusive prostitute) mother who died in a car crash. So he kills beautiful young women, scalps them, and makes wigs for his mannequins. It's a pretty fucked-up premise, with grisly execution (pun intended) including an infamous Tom Savini exploding head scene (which caused Gene Siskel to walk out of the movie and declare it "unredeemable.") Low budget exploitation Grand Guignol guerrilla film-making at its best/worst. Also, apparently the actual original inspiration behind the song "Maniac" from FLASHDANCE.

VIGILANTE: A classic "take back the streets" story of a vigilante group led by Nick (Fred Williamson) who is ridding their town of pimps, gangs, and drug dealers.) His co-worker Eddie (Robert Forster) is sympathetic but doesn't want any part of it. Even when his wife and kid are murdered by a gang, he prefers to let the justice system do its work...but it doesn't. The gang leader is let off lightly by a corrupt cop, and Eddie snaps, leading to jail time for himself. And when he gets out, Eddie is the vigilantiest vigilante ever, killing everyone in the entire fucking gang. Robert Forster does an excellent descent-into-hell slow burn, and his revenge is as satisfying as it is gruesome.

HIT LIST: Rip Torn as a mob boss, Lance Henriksen as a deadly hit man, and Jan-Michael Vincent as...well, to hear Lustig tell it, as a drunk who could barely stand up straight. Seriously, when you watch it notice how many times Vincent is leaning on something. Anyway, Rip Torn's character is being brought up on charges, so he has Lance Henriksen kill all the witnesses the feds have lined up. Except on the last one, he gets the wrong house and kills Jan-Michael Vincent's wife and kidnaps his kid instead. The cops actually think this is good--Luca doesn't know he has the wrong kid--which is kind of fucked up because they're sacrificing an innocent kid to put this mobster away. But JMV escapes custody and goes after the bad guys on his own. Unfortunately, the film ran long so I had to run off and catch the last BART out of the city before it ended, so I missed the last 10 minutes or so of the ending. But it was getting pretty damn exciting before then (and Lance Henriksen appears to be unkillable.)


Then the next day was the world premiere of the MANIAC COP trilogy back-to-back-to-back.

MANIAC COP: Shot between VIGILANTE and HIT LIST, a story of a muscular giant in a police uniform who is killing random people in New York. Bruce Campbell stars as a young officer who is having an affair, and in true film noir style his dalliance gets him into untold trouble when he is framed as the Maniac Cop. But eventually the truth comes out and he has to find and defeat the real killer--an ex-cop, a legend on the force who was disgraced by charges of abuse and allegedly killed in prison by all the criminals he put away. Turns out he's alive...and badly brain damaged.

MANIAC COP 2: William Lustig claims this is his favorite film of his. The Maniac Cop is back from the grave and deadlier than ever. This time he's supernatural, not just brain-damaged. He's also far deadlier, and the stunts are bigger and badder than before. And you have to remember this is 1990, back when people did actual stunts, it wasn't all CGI. If there's one thing you should take away from this trilogy, it's the amazing work of stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos (who has had quite a career, which is still going strong.) Everything about this film is bigger, better, and more awesome than the original (even if Bruce Campbell dies early on...oops, spoiler!)

MANIAC COP 3: BADGE OF SILENCE: And this final film of the trilogy (although there's allegedly a prequel in the works) is one that William Lustig hates. And having heard about that--how the entire story had to be badly re-written to get funding from Japanese investors who didn't like the original racial-tinged voodoo story, how he was disgusted with the romantic subplot, etc...I can understand his point of view. What intrigued me the most was how it completely changed the Maniac Cop's backstory--instead of a "supercop" who actually was too abusive, now evidence emerges that he was actually framed for the abuses and was a good guy all along (at least until the maniac-creating brain damage.) That...changes everything in the previous movies. It's no longer about criminally abusive police behavior (by coincidence, I saw this trilogy right when Ferguson, MO was blowing up over the Michael Brown shooting) but about good cops being accused of brutality and railroaded by a corrupt system. And that is...unsettling. Or maybe I'm thinking too much. The stunts are still fantastic. Allegedly Lustig turned the entire last reel over to Spiro Razatos to direct, and he once again takes it even further over-the-top. That, at least, is awesome, even if Lustig himself hates this film.

Total Running Time: 524 minutes
My Total Minutes: 369,648

Jason goes to Niles for a Laurel and Hardy Afternoon

So...I said for a while that I will not fall more than a month behind in my blog. Turns out that was a lie. This is from August 10th, and so with no fanfare:

PUPS IS PUPS (1930): An Our Gang short, after Farina gets a job as a page for a local pet show, all the kids have dreams of their pets winning. Except for Dorothy, she just keeps jumping in a mud puddle and ruining her clean dress. Kids, animals, and mud...that's funny.

THEM THAR HILLS (1934): Laurel and Hardy take a vacation in the mountains. Little do they know that bootleggers have dumped their moonshine down the well. And when Charley Hall shows up with his wife (Mae Busch) he figures it's safe to leave her with them while he re-fuels his car. A little bit of what they think is water from the well turns it into a rather rowdy, chaotic affair and Mr. Hall is none too happy when he returns.

Then a brief intermission and we continued.

THE REAL MCCOY (1930): Charley Chase (have I mentioned how I love that they've added Charley Chase to the schedule?) is a city slicker who poses as a country man (the last of the McCoys) to win the heart of the country schoolteacher. When he's mistaken for an undercover cop and the moonshiners are after him, hilarious hijinx ensue.

TIT FOR TAT (1935): In Laurel and Hardy's only sequel, they have opened an electrical appliance store, coincidentally right next to Mr. Hall's (from THEM THAR HILLS) grocery store. Other than one mention, and Mr. Hall being suspicious that Ollie is having an affair with his wife, there's very little connection. In classic L&H style ("tit for tat" could easily be the title of dozens of their films) they take turns destroying each other's businesses out of petty--and funny--revenge.

Total Running Time: 80 minutes
My Total Minutes: 369,124

Friday, August 22, 2014

Jason goes to Jewfest North--August 3rd

My one day at the Castro, and my last day at the festival. There were a lot of good movies at Jewfest this year, and I managed to see a fair number, but nowhere near the amount I usually see.

SALOMEA'S NOSE: This autobiograph-ish short tells the story of a family's "day of tragedy" when baby Salomea's brothers were playing around and accidentally broke her nose. And then in hiding from it, ended up injuring themselves as well. Life-long injuries to everyone all on the same day.

THE STURGEON QUEENS: That short was the lead in to this delightful documentary about multiple generations of famed New York smoked fish shop Russ & Daughters. Now I'm not a New Yorker, so I didn't know about this place in advance. But when the opening shot of the movie is Justice Ginsberg talking about her favorite fish from Russ & Daughters, I sit up and take notice. This place is apparently an institution there, surviving all the changes to the neighborhood. What in retrospect might seem like a forward thinking progressive step in naming the fish shop after the daughters (when everyone else was bringing their sons into the business and naming their shops as such) was really just a pragmatic business choice. Russ had no sons, and his daughters cut fish well (the standard, of course, is if you can read the New York Times through the lox.) That pragmatism carries through to the days where they hire a Latino to cut fish for their still predominantly Jewish customers. Two of the original daughters--100-year-old Hattie Russ Gold and 92-year-old Anne Russ Federman, the original "Sturgeon Queens"--are still alive and are absolutely adorable in the movie, as their grandchildren are now running the shop (and expanding into a cafe.) It seems every generation of Russes tries their hand at something else--lawyer, businessman, whatever--but they always seem to be drawn back to the store by some genetic magnet. And that continuity, even as the world changes, and they change along with it, is pretty cool. Although it's unthinkable that the original store would sell something called a Heebster Sandwich, I gotta say it sounds pretty damn delicious and the next time I'm in New York I'll have to try it out.

SOME VACATION: The next show started with this short, a funny, animated, autobiographical story of a father who combines a family vacation with his traveling salesman job.

HAVANA CURVEBALL: And the feature was a cool movie about charity, a mitzvah, and learning about other cultures and international politics. Bar Mitzvah boy Mica has a great idea. He heard about how poor Cubans were, and how much they loved baseball. He loves baseball too, and is dismayed to hear they don't have proper baseball gear there. So he organizes a drive to collect gear--bats, balls, gloves, etc.--and send them to a charity in Cuba. But he quickly learns it's not that easy. It's illegal to mail anything to Cuba from the United States. So his family takes a roadtrip to Canada. And he ships out the package...and he hears nothing from it. Now I have to stop and say his parents are filmmakers and this is their film, so maybe all of this doesn't happen if he didn't have such engaged parents who could recognize a great story. Anyway, it's a struggle to get any news from the Canadian mail, but he sticks with it. This is his project, and he'll see it through even if it means going to Cuba himself. Spoiler alert, he goes to Cuba. He meets his baseball-loving contemporaries there. He sees how they fight over the gear he brings. And it's beautiful...and confusing...and sometimes difficult. It's a great story of cross-cultural learning and coming-of-age at the same time.

EL CRITICO: Then it was time for a little clever light comedy. VĂ­ctor Tellez is a jaded film critic who especially despises the cliches of romantic comedy. So of course he falls in love and starts living all those ridiculous rom-com cliches--even a ridiculous run through the rain in a pretty hilarious climax. I also particularly liked how his reviews start going soft and he praises things that his colleagues would never like and so they tease him horribly. That's maybe a little too on the nose, but I can attest it's absolutely true.

LITTLE HORRIBLES: MINIBAR: And the final show started with this short, wherein our heroine has no self-control and bribes her little sister into taking blame for ransacking the minibar at the hotel where they're staying on vacation.

LITTLE WHITE LIE: And then the day ended with a really remarkable true-life oddity. Lacey Schwartz never questioned her identity growing up. She was a white, Jewish daughter of white, Jewish parents. It didn't really matter that her skin was dark. That was just because of her Sicilian great-grandfather, right? The thing is...she's pretty obviously black to look at her. And everyone treated her as black. And when she applied to Georgetown she was questioning it enough that she didn't check a box next to any race but sent a picture...so they admitted her as a black student. Sure enough, when she confronts her mom (after she and her father were divorced) she admitted to an affair with a black family friend who was undoubtedly her father. That's a good 45 minutes into the movie (ummm...I guess I should've said SPOILER ALERT!) Anyway, it's a fascinating story of race, identity, and most of all a family that really, really, has a hard time communicating.

Total Running Time: 302 minutes
My Total Minutes: 369,044

Jason watches HAPPY CHRISTMAS

Indie cinema luminary and longtime Roxie/Indiefest favorite Joe Swanberg has a new film out. And it's a sweet, loving story of siblings, love, family, and growing up. Joe plays Jeff, an independent filmmaker (if he's not careful, he might get typecast) with a lovely writer wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and a young son Jude (played by Joe's real-life son Jude.) When his sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) breaks up with her boyfriend, she moves in temporarily, at least long enough to spend the holidays with them. But she's also kind of a drunken fuck-up party girl who puts a bit of strain on Joe and Kelly's quiet family life. Swanberg's movies are often not so much about story as about creating some sort of emotional truth to his scenes. And he's definitely got that here, not just emotional truth but emotional maturity which is very nice (not that I didn't like his more gonzo early films, but it's just cool to see this guy consistently mature as both a filmmaker and human being.)

And afterwards, we had a brief Q&A with Joe via Skype, and then next door to the bar for a fond farewell to Mike Keegan at the Roxie (Keegan will still be a vital part of the SF Cinema scene, just not as a member of the Roxie staff.)

Running Time: 88 minutes
My Total Minutes: 368,742

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Thursday, July 31st

A LIFE IN DIRTY MOVIES. Ah, yeah, some good old porn made by a nice Jewish boy. Joe Sarno is sometimes called the Ingmar Bergman of porn. Switching between archival footage of his early films and a contemporary story of him trying to get a new film off the ground, it takes a very sympathetic view of this Sarno as a serious filmmaker who happened to have an interest in making movies about sex. Particularly interesting is how he focuses on female desires in his films--something that porn nowadays almost totally ignores. I haven't seen his films, and I'm not about to rush out to get them, but this film makes a solid and compelling case for their artistic merit.

COMEDY WARRIORS. Now this was kind of a treat. Injured Iraq/Afghanistan veterans who deal with their pain through comedy and are trained by standup comedians (Bob Saget, Louis Black, and others are featured) to be standup comedians for a show. This is therapy, but it's also genuinely funny. A common refrain from the professional comedians is how easily these guys have stage presence and make them look stupid for spending so many years honing their craft when these "amateurs" take to it right away. Of course they joke about their injuries (most of them dealt with their injuries through humor from the beginning, which is how they were picked for the program) and in the live show that is the climax of the movie, they all--to borrow an inappropriate term--kill. No pity laughs from the audience, they were genuine, and same goes for the movie.

MAGIC MEN. And finally I ended the night with a comedy about an atheist Holocaust survivor and his devout orthodox rapper son who travel to Greece for an important business trip. It's not quite the screwball comedy it sounds like, but it is very funny and poignant. See, the dad is not just there for business, he also wants to look up the man who hid him from the Nazis, and taught him magic tricks (which he, in turn, taught his son.) And so we take a journey through a beautiful Greece (with its crumbling economy) along with a nice...woman of the evening...who he meets in the hotel. And a good time is had.

Total Running Time: 255 minutes
My Total Minutes: 368,654