Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Jason goes to a Midnites for Maniacs tribute to Penelope Spheeris

As soon as I was done with SFIFF, the very next night I was back at the Castro for a triple-feature, because I'm a movie masochist!

Penelope Spheeris--along with her daughter--was in the house for a Midnites for Maniacs very special evening. I had first seen her way back in 2002 when her Ozzfest documentary WE SOLD OUR SOULS FOR ROCK 'N ROLL played at Indiefest. That was, believe it or not, my first time at a film festival. So in a way my film-watching career has been connected to Spheeris from the get go. So it was a treat to see her and hear the discussion. Particularly moving when Jesse Ficks credited Spheeris with saving his life through her movies (although we didn't get into personal details of why.) And equally moving when Penelope credited her daughter with saving her life, because she gave up drugs when she found out she was pregnant (after passing out on set and waking up to Richard Pryor saying, "This bitch is pregnant!" She's had an interesting life.)

Anyway, on to the films!

DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981): Opening with a montage of performers at the microphone reading her release statement, mocking it, and tearing it up, the audience is immediately thrown into the 1980 L.A. punk scene. With bands like Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, Fear, Germs, and X (some of those I heard of before, I swear.) We get the feel of the performances, the danger in the venues, the boozing and hard-living life of everybody involved. Remember back when movies could actually spark riots? Well, I'm not sure if you can blame the film itself or just the fact that screening it in L.A. got so many punks together that fights were bound to break out. But the riot at the L.A. premiere forced the chief of police to swear it would never be played in L.A. again. It recently got a 30th anniversary gala screening there. Stick to your artistic vision, kids.

WAYNE'S WORLD (1992): Still the best SNL movie ever. And the movie that transformed Spheeris from a struggling independent director (with some friends like Lorne Michaels) into a millionaire. And it's still fuckin' hilarious. And I don't think that's just because I was at the right age when it came out and I'm now watching it ironically. It still fucking works. Perhaps some of the meta-humor has aged, but the jokes about movie cliches and the plot about corrupting influences in the entertainment business are still perfectly relevant. Maybe even more so.

DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART 2: THE METAL YEARS (1988): Here's a little trivia for you, Penelope Spheeris turned down an opportunity to direct THIS IS SPINAL TAP to make this movie. She's a rock 'n roll gal, and rock music has been an important part of her life forever. So rather than make a movie mocking heavy metal music, she made one celebrating it. And in retrospect...it kinda looks like it's mocking it anyway. She starts in the same way, with people reading and trashing the release papers, and then we get to the acts--KISS, Alice Cooper, Poison, Ozzy Osbourne, Megadeath...and Odin? Okay, a lot of those were the soundtrack to my youth, so I was much more interested than in part 1. But also...these acts were a lot sillier. With part 1, you felt there was something real in the anger in the music. With part 2, it's about sex, drugs (alcohol is a drug, right?) and rock 'n roll...in that order. Okay, put showmanship on top, because that's what this time in music was about--big, garish, outlandish stuff that you can look back at 27 years later and point and laugh. But also remember how important it was back at the time...and how we kids took it a lot more seriously than a lot of the artists. Damn, that was fun.

Total Running Time: 287 minutes
My Total Minutes: 396,812


P.S. Back in 2002, Penelope also had the greatest Q and A exchange I've ever seen, but I didn't want to clutter the start of this post. WE SOLD OUR SOULS FOR ROCK 'N ROLL featured a sideshow act called The Reverend B. Dangerous, who is (or was) an Oakland-based performance artist who would do stuff like stick skewers though his cheeks. He was there for the Q and A as well. So a woman got up in the audience afterwards and praised Penelope and the film, and then said, "As a mother I have to ask--how do you avoid infection?" The thing is, nobody in the theater could tell she was addressing the Reverend B. Dangerous, everyone though she was addressing Penelope. So she answered, "How do I avoid infection? I don't sleep with the roadies!" Wise words from an incredible woman!

Jason goes to SFIFF--Closing Night

Okay, finally it's finished. The closing night gala, after numerous thank-yous and congratulations, was EXPERIMENTER. It's a playful and engaging take on Stanley Milgram, of the infamous obedience experiments. In brief, it's an experiment where one person is chosen as a "teacher" and one as a "learner." The experiment is supposed to be about using pain (in the form of electric shocks) to increase learning. The learner is in a different room, and as the "teacher" quizzes him from a set of simple memory questions, if the learner gets it wrong the teacher shocks him. The thing is, there is no actual shock. The learner is a researcher, and the teacher is the subject of the experiment. Almost always, the teacher will increase the strength of the shocks beyond a marked dangerous line and while hearing the learner scream in pain. Not because he's a psychopath, not because he's mean. But because a man in a lab coat asked politely.

Obviously the elephant in the room (literally visualized as an elephant walking around the room behind Milgram) is that this is how the Nazis committed such horrors. But the movie goes beyond that to explore the man Milgram himself. While he's most famous for the obedience study (and gives a thorough defense of his methods in many of the breaking-the-fourth-wall interludes) it's really the portrait of a clever and inventive experimenter. Before the obedience study, he did envelope-drop studies. Drop envelopes with postage paid and addressed to either random names or places like the Communist Party of America. People will mail the random named ones, but not the communist ones...proving that Americans don't like commies. He expanded that to include dropping ones addressed to Black organizations in white neighborhoods and white supremacist ones in black neighborhoods. No surprise, people were not eager to help out their perceived opponents. And that's the thing about the obedience experiments. It follows in a line of interesting and clever experiments he performed, but all of the others had the expected results. This one was thoroughly unexpected and dramatically changed how we understand how humans respond to authority.

Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as Milgram, and Winona Ryder likewise as his wife. And director Michael Almereyda keeps it all moving along briskly with surprising moves (like the literal manifestation of the elephant in the room, along with other clever formal tricks.) In a way, I feel like Almereyda sees something of a kindred spirit in Milgram--a man who uses clever tricks to reveal something about humanity. And in a way EXPERIMENTER is an experimental film. But just as importantly, it's a fantastically entertaining look at a fascinating man.

And then it was all over except the drinking at the after party. And there was plenty of that, but I don't think I need to get into that.

Woo hoo, SFIFF 2015 is finally over!!!

Running Time: 98 minutes
My Total Minutes: 396,526

Jason goes to SFIFF--The Penultimate Day

Two more movies three weeks ago Wednesday, starting with what ended up being my favorite film of SFIFF 2015, WHEN ANIMALS DREAM. A Danish film that has been picked up by The Weinstein Company (so hopefully it will get a release soon) it will be described by everyone as a werewolf film. And it has all the genre trappings of one. Except...it's not really a werewolf film. Sure, it's a monstrous transformation film. But she's not a werewolf. Marie has a sick mother and a job in a male-dominated fish processing plant. There her co-workers (except for one nice guy) play cruel pranks on her and basically make her life hell. Until eventually she transforms into a monster--becoming a hairy killer. But this isn't full body fur like a wolf, it's wispy hair on her arms, chest, back, and face. She's a were-male. The lead actress, Sonia Suhl, is even somewhat androgynous with small breasts. And knowing it's all a big metaphor for women being powerful enough to take on a traditional male role--and how that frightens most men--it's just perfect. Especially the scene where we see her mother, horribly "ill" to the point that she can barely walk, speak, or keep her head up...but all because of the tranquilizers the doctor has her on because of the fear of a powerful woman. Let it be said, powerful women are awesome, and male fear of powerful women is hilarious (unfortunately, it's also destructive.)

And then I saw QUITTERS, a locally made film about a teenager with a drug-addicted mother. And...now I have to admit I don't remember much else. Shoot. Well, it was three weeks ago and I was pretty exhausted at the time. So...swing and a miss. Maybe I'll get a chance to see it again.

Total Running Time: 179 minutes
My Total Minutes: 396,428

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 13

It was an evening of shorts last three weeks ago Tuesday.

Shorts 2:
BIG HEAD: An artist and his big ol' doggie.
CAILLEACH: Morag, 86 years young...okay, let's admit it, she's old. After all the, title means "old woman" in Gaelic. Morag reflects on her life and connection to her remote island home.
DAVID HOCKNEY IN THE NOW: A portrait of the artist as a...man who lives "in the now."
OF THE UNKNOWN: A look at the neglected poor in the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong.
RAIN: I see this is as the best metaphor for depression ever. A woman spends her day with a rain cloud literally pouring on her, but she tries to pretend like nothing is happening, even as she is getting drenched.
TERRITORY: A sheepherder finds there are things more worrisome than wolves...like paratroopers.
TRADESMAN’S EXIT: Damn...I really wish I remembered this one (I think I might've dozed off.) Oh well, looks like it's playing at Frameline, maybe I can catch it there.

Shorts 1:
ART: Alternate title--how to convince 19-year-old girls to get naked for your film.
THE BAD BOY OF BOWLING: A portrait of Pete Weber, the legendary (“Who do you think you are? I am!”) bad boy bowler. Particularly interesting is his relationship with his father, who was a legendary (and legendarily nice) bowler.
THE CHICKEN: A little girl and her chicken.
HOTEL 22: I saw this before at Cinequest. The VTA bus route 22 is the only 24 hour bus service in the Silicon Valley. And at night, for $2, the homeless and destitute can sleep for an hour or two. A sad look at the poorest people living in one of the richest parts of the world.
PLAMEN: A portrait of construction worker/artist/activist Plamen Goranov, who drew attention to Bulgaria's political corruption by taking drastic actions. Don't click on this link if you don't want to know what the action was.
SORMEH: During the 1979 revolution, a woman has to make a quick decision regarding a rebel hiding in her building.
TIME QUEST: Don't fuck with the past. Literally.

Total Running Time: 200 minutes
My Total Minutes: 396,249

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 12

SFIFF is all over but the writing. And after a weekend three weeks of catching up on sleep, two more shows on Monday, May 4, starting with the boxing documentary T-REX. That's the nickname of Claressa Shields from Flint, Michigan (finally they can boast of a celebrity other than Michael Moore) who became the first Olympic Gold Medalist in women's boxing. That was 2012, and the movie had unprecedented access to her quest. But it's what happens afterwards that's even more interesting. Namely, that she doesn't get the fame and endorsements that she expected. Sure, she gets a big welcome bag in Flint, but she doesn't find herself doing commercials or getting sponsorships. Instead she finds herself pondering whether to go pro (she hasn't, specifically so she can defend her gold medal in 2016) and whether to stay with her coach or with her boyfriend (yeah, that's actually a f'ed up decision she has to make.) Claressa was actually there for the screening, and she was a cool, personable, likeable hero, which comes through both in the movie and in real life. So I might be cheering for her in the Olympics in 2016.

And then Shorts 4: New Visions, the program of experimental shorts. You will simply have to forgive me if I can't quite remember all of these.
ARROWED: A swinging light illuminates one side and then another of a role-play/dance.
ATLANTIS: A meditation on watery utopia.
BLACKOUT: JOHN BURRIS SPEAKS: Turning racist police brutality into an evocative type of modern dance with a powerful speech over it.
THE BOOMBOX COLLECTION: BOOTS RILEY: The philosophy and activism of one of the OGs of hip hop.
BUS NUT: A recreation based on the actual words of a press conference by the most famous bus rider in history--Rosa Pars.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: The funniest Power Point presentation I've ever seen.
A LONG WAY FROM HOME: Jesus, on distressed and degraded celluloid.
NO ID: Okay, I had to look up its website. Too bad I don't remember it, because it looks pretty awesome.
PICTURE PARTICLES: Literally scraps of film. Watch it here.
SOUNDPRINT: The visualization of sound, in many forms. Or heck, I don't know. Watch it yourself.
THE STREAM 5: Water flowing with algae. Beautiful?

Total Running Time: 169 minutes
My Total Minutes: 396,049

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 11

Only three movies on Sunday, but that started with a 3 hour, 40 minute silent film, so that was cool.

The lead in to that was the presentation of the Mel Novikoff Award--named after the legendary San Francisco exhibitor and bestowed upon an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema--to Lenny Borger. Mr. Borger is a film translator, historian, scholar, and hunter of "lost" films. He's also a funny man, who tells stories about how difficult most archivists are to work with. Or about how he learned French because he watched French movies with subtitles and wanted to know what the songs said too (now I'm paying attention to songs in foreign films and whether or not they are subtitled.) And my favorite part, where he talked about film translation bloopers, like in a war film where an American soldiers points to an advancing battalion on the horizon and yells "Tanks!" and the French subtitle reads "Merci!" Awesome.

So on to the movie, MONTE CRISTO (1929): I have to confess, I've never actually read the Dumas story, nor (now that I think about it) have I seen any of the screen adaptations. Yet somehow it's just such a part of the ether that it feels familiar. Man is wrongly imprisoned. In prison he learns of a fortune. He escapes, finds the fortune, and returns under a different identity to aid his friends and get revenge on his enemies. And this adaptation is full of grandiose splendor from the apex of the silent era. Massive sets, great acting (Jean Angelo as the hero, Gaston Modot as the villain, Lil Dagover as the love interest...at least at first) and a lavish running time split with an intermission. Director Henri Fescourt had previously made LES MISERABLES as a ~6 hour serial, and the intention was to do the same with this story, but public tastes required it be "cut down" to a two parter, 218 minutes in total. And it was awesome (although to be honest, if I were to watch it all in one sitting, it would be a bit exhausting. It's not quite the masterpiece of NAPOLEON)

As Lenny Borger is still working on the subtitles for an eventual English language release, we got to see this with French intertitles and him reading his English translations from offstage. Which for the most part worked pretty well. But he is getting up there in years, and by the end it was clear he was pretty tired. And just as his voice was fading, the score was reaching the triumphant climax and drowned out his voice. Kind of a shame, but it was still easy to follow the action and I enjoyed it nonetheless. Looking forward to owning this one with English subtitles.

Then after a beer or two, I made my way up to the Clay theater for ADVANTAGEOUS. Made with local talent and set in the near future, it's an exploration of advantage, who has it, and what they're willing to do to keep it. Jacqueline Kim plays Gwen Koh, a single mother and the face of Center for Advanced Health and Living, a company specializing in "safe" and "non-invasive" alternatives to plastic surgery. She's been a huge asset to the company and is looking for a raise, but she is getting on in years (I checked Kim's IMDb page and was shocked to learn she had just turned 50, I would've guessed she was in her 30s) and marketing is looking for a new, younger face to attract a more desirable demographic. This causes major problems in getting her daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) into the best school. That's the main thrust of the film, and a risky procedure might give her the chance to get everything for her girl. And while that's a great story in and of itself, it's the smaller parts of world-building that I really enjoyed. Jules casual knowledge that due to...I forget what in the atmosphere, her eggs will die before she's 20 and she'll be infertile. No problem, she can just adopt from a less advantaged region. Or the homeless person lying in the bushes and urging her to take whatever opportunity she can--clearly the back story is she was once successful herself. Or the occasional bomb explosion in one of the corporate mega-structures. This is a dystopian future hellscape, but shown from the point of view of someone living at the top. Or rather, near enough to the top to be comfortable, but no high up enough to be secure. I.e., like the entire freakin' middle class right now.

And then I ended the night, and the weekend, with a very, very strange film (I seem to be saying that a lot this festival,) MAGICAL GIRL. It's an intricate, multi-layered story, but focuses on a little Spanish girl who is suffering from leukemia. She and her friends are into anime, and one of her great wishes is to have a Magical Girl dress from her favorite show. But it's too expensive for her father, who is desperate to get the money to give his dying girl her wish. Meanwhile, a disturbed married woman is torturing herself, cracking a mirror with her forehead, and making her husband (if I recall correctly, he's a psychiatrist) miserable. And then there's an older man who...looks after her, in his own way. Their paths cross, and dark, violent, sexual twists ensue. I've made it seem like there's a linear narrative here, and there is. But it's an incredibly complex and surprising one. This really is a movie where I can say I couldn't guess what would happen next. And even when I didn't agree with some of the twists, I could say the constant surprises were engaging and beautiful.

And that's the last of the final weekend of SFIFF. Just four days left to go.

Total Running Time: 442 minutes
My Total Minutes: 395,880

Monday, May 4, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 10

Saturday was a big day, starting with the Members surprise screening at 10:00 am. That movie was I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, starring Blythe Danner in an absolutely terrific role. In the opening scenes, her old dog is ailing and has to be put down (and he looks way too much like a male version of Amber, our dog we had to put down a year and a half ago. So that was kind of a freaky start.) Blythe plays Carol, an older woman who lives her independent life with not much going on except for playing cards with her friends (June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, and Mary Kay Place.) They're trying to convince her to move into the retirement home where they all live, but she likes having her own place. She does strike up a friendship with the pool boy, over an attempt to catch a rat that's taken up residence in her home. That and wine...this movie was made on a shoestring budget, but it had to have a healthy wine budget. Then when a gentleman Bill (Sam Elliott) takes a shine to her she gets back into a romantic life. There is a point near the end where it's obvious how a Hollywood happy ending would play out, but thankfully that's not this movie. There's still a happy ending of a sort, but one that is more realistic and ultimately more rewarding. Perfect for a smart, charming, funny film that pulls on your emotions without resorting to sappy sentimentality. Compared to the last couple of members screenings, which did get into unbelievably sappy territory, this was a refreshing improvement. I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS will be coming out later this month, so keep an eye out for it.

The next program was a double-bill of short-ish documentaries about local Bay Area film legends. ED AND PAULINE celebrates the partnership (romantic and otherwise) of Cinema Guild founder Ed Landberg and iconic film critic (and daughter of Jewish Petaluma chicken farmers) Pauline Kael. Featuring reminiscences from current Bay Area film exhibition icons, it's a cinematic ode to a couple of people that created the local film culture, by the people who are working to keep it alive and vibrant.

Then it was HOW TO SMELL A ROSE: A VISIT WITH RICKY LEACOCK IN NORMANDY. Recently deceased Les Blank, another Bay Area icon, had left this love letter to his friend Ricky Leacock unfinished, and it was up to Gina Leibrecht, his his associate and partner, to finish it. In Blank's beautifully human style, talking about cooking is as important as talking about food (and only slightly less important than the twin acts of preparing and enjoying delicious food.) Leacock was a filmmaker with a career that spanned working with the father of documentary film Robert J. Flaherty to working with handheld digital video. From his parents Canary Island banana plantation to documenting the 1960 Presidential primaries to interviewing Louise Brooks to...well, his resume is on IMDb. He was a giant, and his career connected generations of filmmakers, and he was a master of them all. But again, since it's a Les Blank film, enjoying a good meal is more important than any of that.

And then the bleakest film in the festival, THE TRIBE. There has been a lot of talk at the festival about how utterly remarkable this film is. It takes place in a boarding school for deaf Ukrainian youth. There's no spoken dialogue--only sign language. And it's Ukrainian sign language, so knowing ASL won't help. So it's a triumph of visual storytelling that you can understand what's going on at all. And that's without the film resorting to broad pantomime. And all the talk of how technically innovative it is and how it broadens the visual storytelling language of cinema...not a lot of people are talking about how fucking brutal it is. At best they'll talk about social Darwinism and the violent system and then get back to talking about how brilliant the filmmaking is. In a way, it reminds me of reviews of Nabokov's "Lolita" that talk about the beauty of the prose and how he pushes the boundaries of literature while skirting around the fact that it's a book about fucking a child! Well, THE TRIBE is a movie about violent gangs, prostitution, death, abortion, and murder. And because it's told all visually there can't be any off-screen suggestion of what's happening or explanations through expository dialogue. It is all shown. It's like this film creates something that has to be watched, then punishes the audience for watching. And it's fucking brilliant.

So then I decided to catch something a little closer to mainstream entertainment, with THE END OF THE TOUR. Jason Segal stars (and impresses) as acclaimed author David Foster Wallace. Jesse Eisenberg plays journalist David Lipsky, who convinces his bosses at Rolling Stone to let him follow Wallace on the final leg of his book tour and write a profile on him. Wallace seems affable enough at first, inviting Lipsky to stay in his guest room rather than in a cheap motel. They subsist on junk food, watch awful TV (something Wallace claims is his only real addiction) and talk. In some ways it's the most awkward road movie ever, as Lipsky has a job to do and Wallace...well he's Wallace. Now I have to confess...I've never read and David Foster Wallace. I'm tempted to try to tackle his 1,000+ page novel (for which he was touring in the film) "Infinite Jest." Maybe, someday. As for the movie, the acting is the best part. Jason Segal becomes a friendly but gruff and vaguely wounded everyman (it's no secret that Wallace killed himself in 2008.) The narrative really belongs to Eisenberg as Lipsky, who approaches Wallace with a mix of admiration and professional jealousy. And in their friendly moments it seems like he's living the dream of becoming pals with his idol. But he never quite makes it. His attempts to get some juicy dirt on Wallace sours their friendship (or maybe it was never there to begin with.) And his failure to get anything juicy on him leaves him with no story that Rolling Stone would actually publish. 

Oh, and in the opening scene Lipsky also has a dog that looks just like Amber. It was a weird day.

And finally I headed over to the Roxie for more free beer (I forgot to mention, much free beer in the lounge every day at 5:00, plus at all of the Dark Wave shows at the Roxie) and THE WORLD OF KANAKO. Uh...that mention of free beer is a way of apologizing for not remembering everything in the film...it was a long fucking day. Akikazu Fujishima is a drunk and a former police detective (hey, that sounds like BLACK COAL, THIN ICE) whose estranged wife has called him telling him their daughter is missing. So he thinks if he can just find her he can get his life back in order. And so a bloody, twisted, confusing journey commences. And I can't get into the details, because I can't remember well enough. What I do remember was the style, which was wild and jumped insanely between comedy, tragedy, and...anime? It's a weird ass movie, quite a thing to experience while only half aware. It's probably even better if I watch it when I'm well rested and know what's going on.

And that was Saturday.

Total Running Time: 530 minutes
My Total Minutes: 395,438