Thursday, May 31, 2007

Jason watches "Hostel: Part II"

[update added June 8, 2007: Welcome to everyone coming here to read my "Hostel: Part II" review. You just drove my site traffic through the roof. I hope you enjoy my review. If you're looking for spoilers, however, there's not much here. But please enjoy my little ol' blog, anyway. And if you're in the SF Bay Area (and I assume you're horror fans), check out my ongoing reviews of Another Hole in the Head festival. It's continuing through next Friday, and most movies still play again. Also, in August check out Dead Channels. Okay, now read my review, below.]

That's right, I got invited to a sneak preview, courtesy of my friends at Indiefest. Not only that, but Eli Roth was there and assured us we were the first audience to see this movie. Woo hoo!

Okay, to let you know where I'm coming from, I loved "Hostel", and see it as much more than just "torture porn". Particularly, I see it as primarily a political film that's simultaneously about the fear of Americans and the fear of being American (what greater allegory for our foreign policy than a bunch of rich Americans tromping across the world looking to get laid. And notice how nearly all the gore comes after the line "Mission Accomplished" is delivered). I also loved it for it's skill and risk-taking in breaking the genre conventions. I loved that the stereotypical straight-laced guy doesn't survive, and the wild man (who specifically says he's not the responsible one) does. And I love the tonal shift halfway through, where it goes from a sex romp to horror and torture (and draws parallels between the two).

But enough about part I. Right off the bat I'll say, as far as explicit gore, if you're a fan of the original you will not be disappointed with the sequel. I'm struggling a bit with spoilers, since so much of getting fans to this movie will be based on statements like, "Dude, you gotta see this movie, they actually...[spoiler deleted]. And you really see it!" I think I'll trust in that to happen naturally, I'll just guarantee there are scenes that will make you say that (at least to your sickest friends). Eli totally pushed the limits of an R rating (it's kinda hard to believe he got away with it, but in the Q&A he actually talked about how reasonable the MPAA was when he explained he's making a sequel to "Hostel", not "Happy Feet". No kids are going to walk into it accidentally). So enough about that, trust me the gore delivers.

As far as the story, first off there's no need for a tonal shift. Everyone in the audience knows what's going on, so there's no need for the Hostel or the factory to be a secret. As a result, the gore is spread throughout the movie instead of loaded all into the back 20 minutes like part I.

It actually starts off with Paxton (Jay Hernandez) on the train where we left him at the end of part I. But it quickly switches to the story of three women: Beth (Lauren German), Whitney (Bijou Phillips) and incredibly annoying nerd Lorna (Heather Matarazzo, who as an aside will always have a special place in my heart for "Welcome to the Dollhouse", a movie all about how much Junior High sucks when your name is Wiener). Parallelling their victim story is the story of two clients: Stuart (Roger Bart) and Todd (Richard Burgi).

Yes, you get to see more of how Elite Hunting works, but mainly from a clients point of view. You do meet the apparent leader (CEO?) of the company, and get walked through the process, but the machinery is still somewhat clouded in secrecy. Which is good, since I think it's important to the horror that the company have some mystery (and the more you get into the logistics, the less plausible it all seems). What is important is meeting the clients and going through their journey. These aren't total off-the-wall sickos, these are businessman with wives and kids. Stuart in fact isn't really sure he wants to do this, but is goaded into it by Todd, who talks of how you can tell when a guy has that edge that only comes from having killed someone. He seems to be treating it almost as a retreat workshop in how to get ahead in business. And that to me is really the soul of the movie. While the first one is global, political, about America and it's relation to the world (and itself), this one is more personal. It's about the fear of money--both the fear of people with too much money, and the fear of what you might do to get more money. This is a film that implicates everyone who has ever put on a suit and pretended to be someone they're not just to further their career (interestingly enough, Todd actually shows up to the factory in a suit, Stuart in a sweater). One major departure from the original that highlights this difference is the "purchasing" process. Gone is the fixed price that valued Americans so highly above all others. Now price is set by an online bidding system.

Alright, enough of the clients' story, back to the girls. They're art students in Rome, on holiday to Prague. On the train, after being harassed by some men, they're talked into going to Slovakia by art model Axelle (who of course is part of the conspiracy). There they stay at the same Hostel as in part I, with the same creepy desk clerk (Milda Jedi Havlas, who originally got the job on part I when he was a PA and the actor playing the desk clerk didn't show up). Although they're lured there by promises of a natural hot springs health spa, once there they're invited to a harvest festival (sexy good times!) where people dress up in "scary" costumes, drink, dance and have a good time. I mention the harvest festival only because I love the juxtaposition of the goofy monsters with the horror we know is about to unfold. It's like Eli Roth is throwing down the gauntlet and saying, "this is what it's like to be fake scared--it's laughable and not scary at all. Now I'm going to scare you for real!"

I should say something about violence against women in this movie. It's there, but it pales in comparison to the violence against men. There is a sexual tension to some of the violence (particularly one particularly fetishistic kill), but mostly it's more about power than sex. Honestly, I think part I is a far more sexual movie.

Finally, I should mention Ruggero Deodato's cameo. He's the director of one of the all time greats, "Cannibal Holocaust", and shows up credited at the Italian Cannibal, much as Takashi Miike showed up as a client in part I. In fact, Eli talked about how "Hostel" was inspired visually and tonally by recent Asian horror movies, but part II is inspired more by 1970's Italian giallo films (giallo is Italian for yellow, and describes a particular style of movies inspired by trashy thriller novels that were printed with plain yellow covers). I'd say that style is most apparent in the fetishistic kill I referenced above.

Damn...just thinking about Deodato's cameo makes me want to reveal a huge spoiler. Okay, I'll try to do this carefully. Film/horror geeks should get this, but casual movie goers shouldn't. There's a particular act of violence that takes place in "Cannibal Holocaust" that I'm a huge fan of. Other movies that feature this form of violence include "El Topo", "Cannibal Ferox", "Desperate Living", "In the Realm of the Senses", and "Bloodsucking Freaks". I could go on, but that should be enough for the geeks to know what I'm talking about. Anyway, "Cannibal Holocaust" is one of my favorite examples of this, and was arguably the best in terms of explicit special effects. Well, there's a new king, "Hostel II" has surpassed anything I've seen in terms of graphic explicitness. And just for those who know what I'm talking about--and then they feed it to the dogs!

Okay, I think I've said enough now.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Jason watches "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"

And it was big, loud, somewhat confusing, and yet somehow a lot of fun. Chow Yun-Fat is underused, but at least the movie had a beginning, middle, and an end--as opposed to "Dead Man's Chest", which had a beginning, middle, and set-up to the next movie.

Oh, and when you see it, sit through all the credits until the very end.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Jason watches "Spider-man 3"

aka "Spider-Jesus". More on that in a bit.

Okay, general release movie rules apply, I don't feel a need to write much unless I have something most reviewers haven't mentioned. First the obligatory points: it looks awesome on IMAX, definitely worth it. There are too many villains, but Sam Raimi handles it rather nimbly, giving them each barely enough screen time. Perhaps Venom could have been saved for part 4, but whatever. Oddly enough, in "Spider-man 2" I was left wishing Doc Ock had more screen time, and I perked up in this one when I saw a framed Daily Bugle headline claiming the police are still looking for Doc Ock. It could be an old paper, of course, but it tickled my fantasy that somehow he survived drowning while holding on to a runaway fusion reaction and he'll return in a later episode.

I generally like Kirsten Dunst, but I've never really gotten into her as Mary Jane. In the first movie, it was totally worth it to see her standing in the rain. In the second, her closing line of "Go get'em tiger" finally made her look like Mary Jane. (As an aside, it must be kinda embarrassing putting on a skin-tight suit after finally making out with the girl of your dreams--the danger of pitching a spider-tent is great). In part 3, there's nothing that really made her stand out. I guess she's obligatory as the love interest, and Mary Jane is certainly integral in the Spider-man story, but there could have been a lot less of her.

Okay, and finally to the religious aspect. Making Christ figures out of heroes--especially superheroes--has a pretty long tradition. But it seemed to me like the religious symbolism was pretty important (if perhaps a little subtle) in this movie. Early on, Spider-man gets the key to the city for saving the police chief's daughter Gwen Stacy, who gives a glowing speech describing him as "the one you turn to when all hope is lost" (paraphrased) in terms I've only ever heard used to describe one man--Jesus. Later he tells Eddie Brock "If you want forgiveness, go to church", which Eddie Brock does, but without giving anything away, he neither seeks nor finds forgiveness. Forgiveness itself is the main theme of the movie.

So here's the question I turned over in my mind on the way home. Is Spider-man set up as a Christ figure, or is he set up as a false icon (he even describes himself as an icon), ready for a Beatles-esque "I'm more popular than Jesus" fall? More importantly, does the movie affirm religion, or mock it? Certainly forgiveness is the theme, but Eddie Brock goes to church for revenge, not forgiveness. In the end, it's friends working together who defeat the villains, not prayer. And the other main theme besides forgiveness is personal choice, which can be antithetical to what many Christians have preached to me about turning your choices over to Jesus. Most importantly, in terms of Spider-man not being a Christ figure, is that (spoiler alert) he doesn't die at the end. Now that would've been a gutsy movie--kill off Spider-man, then make Harry into an apostle Paul character. Spider-man 4 could be the gospel according to the new Green Goblin, and Spider-man could even be resurrected after 3 days.

Okay, now I'm just getting silly....

[update--Apparently I'm not the first to notice the religious symbolism in this movie. A Google search for "Spider-man 3 religious symbolism" has a ton of results, but at first glance they all appear to be from Christian websites. So I might not be the first to notice this, but I might be the first non-religious nut to notice.

Also, I never meant to say that personal choice is antithetical to Christianity or all Christians, just a specific subset I've met (and who've evangelized to me). As a matter of fact, I like many Christians who incorporate a strong sense of personal responsibility in their faith. So if this movie is promoting Christianity (or religion in general), it's promoting a specific flavor that I approve of.

Finally, I forgot to mention the scourging and crucifixion symbolism in the final battle scene. Parts of it played like "The Passion of the Spider-Man". Which now makes me want to see a re-make of "Passion of the Christ" as a superhero movie, just so I can hear Pontius Pilate in his best evil villain cackle shrieking "why won't you stay dead!"]

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Jason goes to the Hypnodrome and has a head trip

I've enjoyed the work of the Thrillpeddlers for many years now, and I have only one regret about their newest show--that I didn't see it sooner! Specifically, I regret that I didn't blog about it sooner because there's only one weekend left--next Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and it's so awesome I want to tell everyone to see it.

Ever since moving into their dedicated Hypnodrome theater, there shows have gotten bigger and better every year. Their thing is reviving the 1920's Paris Grand Guignol tradition, and mixing classic Grand Guignol plays with new ones written themselves. It's a series of short plays, featuring the guillotine, heads kept alive in glass jars, sex, perversion, drag queens, and Jack Chick. And a sing-along of "Bohemian Rhapsody" on a player piano--yeah!

To say more would spoil so much of the fun. If you're in town, just go, only three more nights left. Details at

Jason watches "The Prodigy", again

As I explained in my previous post, I saw "The Prodigy" two years ago at Another Hole in the Head festival. Now Dead Channels is promoting a 1-week theatrical run, in advance of the DVD release. This is a slightly new cut from what I saw before (deleted scenes and director's commentary are on the DVD). Without rehashing everything, here's my impression the second time around:

First, the two parts that bugged me before: 1) Nobody gets the Claude Rains reference. That's explained quicker, so I only have to wonder why a half-dozen gangsters don't know Claude Rains played the invisible man. Once you meet Ash (the hacker chick, played by Diana Lee Inosanto), she immediately explains the reference and mocks Truman for not getting it. 2) the scene where Ash watches Claude Rains sneak up on her via a webcam on his site. Actually, I don't know if that's changed or if I just knew it was coming, but it didn't bug me this time.

Other things I've noticed. This version is 7 minutes shorter, but plays much tighter. I fully approve of the new running time. As far as the violence, I noticed more how important the sound was to making the punches believable. The Dolby 5.1 mix on the DVD should be even better, if only I had a great sound system to play it on (must upgrade my home theater experience, but I'm too busy going out to the theater). No surprise, sound designer/editor Russel White was there and explained that for the foley sessions, he and Holt Boggs (Truman) actually hit each other. Finally, I saw it more as a father/son story. Truman became a fighter because of his father, now Claude Rains is becoming a new (and equally crappy) father figure. I also picked up more on the friendship between Truman and his gang partner Pat Doyle (Matt Beckham, also co-writer with Holt and director William Kaufman)

So bottom line is, it was even better than I remember it, whether that's from the new cut or just because of my memory. All my San Francisco readers, catch it at the Roxie before it leaves Thursday. And to my readers anywhere, catch it on DVD, coming soon.

Afterwards, there was a brief Q&A and goodie handout, where I got a DVD and a t-shirt. Then we all went to the bar (Delirium, just up the block from the Roxie). And since an anonymous poster asked, I don't remember what William Kaufman was drinking. People were drinking beer (in my case Sierra Nevada) or mixed drinks, looked like whiskey and soda. I believe William might have been in the latter group.

Anyway, here's a picture of director/co-writer William Kaufman:

Here's star/co-writer Holt Boggs (Truman Fisher):

Here's co-star/associate producer Diana Lee Inosanto (Ash) and co-star/co-writer Matt Beckham (Pat Doyle):

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Jason digs back in his archives and finds "The Prodigy"

Which, coincidentally, is playing at the Roxie for one week starting this weekend, brought to you by the good people at Dead Channels.

I saw "The Prodigy" at Another Hole in the Head 2 years ago. What's playing at the Roxie is the new Director's Cut, so it's a version I haven't actually seen. It's also interesting looking back at my old reviews and seeing how movies have changed in my mind compared to what I originally wrote. I can't believe I didn't mention the excellent stunt work and fight choreography in my review. It's not elegant, it's brutal. The punches, kicks, throws, etc. look like they really hurt.

Anyway, I won't try to re-review it based on my memory of 2 years ago. I'll just post my old review (with some grammatical/typo fixes), then see it this weekend, and amend my review as I see fit. Let me just say, I recommend all my SF Bay Area readers see "The Prodigy", but go rent the original "Invisible Man" first, so you can get the Claude Rains reference.

We're now going back in time 2 years.....


The Prodigy", [is] a solid and stylish crime action-thriller with just enough blood to justify its inclusion in a horror festival. It starts with the classic 'drug deal gone bad', or rather, 'drug deal about to go bad before a mysterious assassin cloaked in black bursts in and starts killing everyone.' The hero, a gang enforcer named Truman Fisher fights off the assassin and drowns him in the bathtub--or so he thinks. Some time later a mysterious assassin cloaked in black breaks into Truman's crime boss' house and goes nuts with a .45 and a baseball bat, kidnapping the boss' beloved nephew. He leaves behind a note signed 'Claude Rains'. Actually, one of the least believable points (but I suppose one necessary to educate some of the audience) is that [nobody knew that] Claude Rains is the name of the actor who played the lead in "The Invisible Man" (also, as an absolutely useless aside, Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault is the reason I keep rewatching"Casablanca"). So begins a battle of wits between Truman and Claude Rains. The movie can't quite avoid some cliches (surprisingly, the opening drug deal gone bad doesn't come off as too cliche, but the scene with the hacker girl watching a live webcam feed from Claude Rains as he sneaks up on her belongs in a different--and dumber--movie). But that's picking on an isolated scene here or there. Overall it's a well crafted, well written, well acted movie with good action and an engaging plot. I liked it.

Jason watches "Shrek the Third"

Shut up, everyone watched it this weekend. Anyway, it was inconsequential, intermittently funny, and okay. Nothing to get upset about, or to get excited about. All in all, I'm just bored with Far Far Away land, so while I wish this third helping all the success it deserves, here's hoping there's no Shrek 4.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Jason watches "28 Weeks Later"

Not much to say. "28 Days Later" was a genuinely scary horror movie marred by a few silly moments ("They're infected...with raaaage!") "28 Weeks Later" keeps mostly the same scary level, cuts out a lot of the silliness, and expands the world. I should've liked it a lot more, and I did like it and I'll give it all sorts of credit for still wanting to really scare the audience. But it just doesn't feel like a revelation anymore. ""28 Days Later" launched a new wave of zombie horror movies, introduced fast zombies (I'm not a particular fan of them in the "Dawn of the Dead" remake, but at least in the "28" movies they're not Romero zombies, they're just infected people, so it's okay.) Now they've been popular, they've become cliche, and they've been mocked (thank you, "Shaun of the Dead"!) I think in time this movie will hopefully be better remembered. For now it's just a fine entry in a sub-genre that's unfortunately already glutted.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Jason watches "Black Book"

And I'm kinda having trouble writing about it. If it was about a different war, or done by a different director, it would just be a very good movie. As it is, it's WWII, the heroine is a Jew, and it's directed by Paul Verhoeven--the director of "Showgirls".

Now Paul Verhoeven has done more than just "Showgirls", obviously. In his early career, he made a lot of movies in his native Holland (I haven't seen these). Then his Hollywood career has been up and down, although I must admit that "Robocop" is a guilty pleasure of mine. If I had to sum up his work in two words, that would be "subversive pervert". This is the guy who set "Robocop" in a future so bleak the only character who has a heart is literally a robot. This is the guy who made "Starship Troopers" allegedly without telling his cast it was actually an anti-war satire. This is the guy who famously sneaked that famous Sharon Stone leg-cross shot into "Basic Instinct" without her knowing (although personally, I believe she was in on it, and complained to drum up publicity. If you've only seen the director's cut like I have, she's naked so much the leg cross scene is a big piece of "so what"). This is the guy who made Kevin Bacon's penis a recurring joke in "Hollow Man". And finally, he's the guy who made "Showgirls", apparently without telling the cast he was making crap.

So now he makes a rather exploitative WWII action movie starring a Jewess who joins the Dutch resistance and goes undercover as a whore for a local Nazi official. Carice van Houten is an absolute trooper as the oft-naked star Rachel Stein/Ellis de Vries (including an early scene of her becoming very convincingly blond and a late scene of her being showered with feces). Verhoeven maintains his record of having a rather low opinion of mankind. His bit of subversion is breaking the Nazis are bad/Allies are good formula. In his world, everyone is bad. Rachel/Ellis is actually abused more by the victors, who think she really is a Nazi whore. Nazis are bad, liberators are bad, only Israel is good (and in these days, that's not exactly a popular statement). In fact, I don't know what the most subversive statement is: The fact that the most sympathetic character is a whore for the Nazis, or the fact that moving to a land where she's bordered on one side by the sea and three sides by people who want to drive her into the sea is a happy ending .

But ultimately, it's an exciting movie that emotionally engaged me with the characters. As I said, any other war or any other director it would just be a very good movie. As it is, it's a great movie, but a troubling one. The real question it raises is are we ready for a semi-exploitative movie about the Nazis? Cult audiences have always had "Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS" and its ilk (and sequels), but this isn't that. It's not straight exploitation, but it's putting a titillating, honky-tonk vibe on a story that would traditionally be very somber. Before, I would have said "absolutely not", Verhoeven has changed that answer to "maybe", and in doing so he's made another movie that's one of my guilty pleasures, made all the more disturbing by the fact that it's been so critically well-received (75% on the tomatometer) that I wonder if my question has already been answered "hell yes" by the rest of the world.

In any case, I sort of hope it's nominated for best foreign picture, and that it wins. Just so we can actually use the phrase, "The Oscar-winning director of 'Showgirls'...."

Friday, May 11, 2007

Jason goes to the last night of SFIFF

But not actually to the closing night gala. My pass doesn't get me in there, but it did get me into the movie I actually wanted to see, the most expensive Egyptian movie ever made, "The Yacoubian Building". Based on a popular (and controversial, as is the movie) novel, it's nearly 3 hours (2 hours, 50 minutes) but retains more of a personal, intimate feel (at first I wanted to call it a "sprawling epic" just based on the length, but that's not right). It does start with an epic feel, as it recaps the grand history of the titular building commissioned by Mr. Yacoubian in the 1930's. It's a place where a wide cross-section of Egyptian culture has lived (even Jews, at one point), and the opening scenes take us through it's history, updating the filming style to the times each step of the way, until were at modern times. But what starts out grand becomes very close very quickly, as the intertwining stories of various tenants unfolds. It truly covers every strata of Egyptian society, from the rich Pasha living in a grand apartment with his sister to the poor workers living in shacks on the roof. It also tackles some pretty taboo subjects--homosexuality, drugs, political corruption militant fundamentalist Islam, etc. But what really makes it work is that every character gets his or her own narrative, it's not just the meandering slice-of-life that so many of these movies become. It'd be hard to sum up the narrative quickly (as I said, the movie's nearly 3 hours, and it's a pretty dense 3 hours), so I won't even try. I'll just say it's a wonderfully made film, full of colorful and ultimately surprising characters. Director Marwan Hamed was in town, but chose to see the closing night gala Edith Piaf biopic, "La Vie en Rose", a song which happened to be featured in his movie, so it's understandable (in fact, the audience started chuckling when it first played).

And that's SFIFF 2007. For those keeping score at home, I saw 39 films in this festival and two on-stage interviews. My total for the year is up to 227. Now I have to get back into general released movies. First on my list is "Black Book", then I guess probably "Spiderman 3"

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Jason goes to the penultimate day of SFIFF

Yay, I got to use the word "penultimate!" Anyway, again I went to Palo Alto, for two more movies last night.

First up was "Fabricating Tom ", a documentary on the cult Brazilian musician in the title. Obscure musician documentaries have long been a staple of Indiefest more than the International Film Festival, that and the fact that Indiefest staple Alicia Perre-Dowd was the house manager and introduced the films in Palo Alto almost made me feel like I was in another festival (and my favorite festival at that, so it was pretty cool).

Anyway, the movie opens with an old, grubby man (Tom ) getting up on stage, at which point I asked myself, 'is this about a homeless guy who's a famous cult musician'. Well, it's not, but it is about a pretty crazy character. Instrumental in the "Tropicalismo" movement of political music in Brazil in the 60's, he lapsed into semi-obscurity, only to resurface more inventive than ever. Specifically, he's the kind of manic genius who will go on stage with no play list, improvise a concert based on the audience's reactions, compose new songs between encores and force the audience to sing along. Director Décio Matos Jr., a friend of Tom, followed him around for a recent European tour, playing to full stadiums and mostly positive reactions (there was one major failure, and the danger of his method is that sometimes he just never gets anything from the audience). Some highlights--a rhythmic piece performed with a partner by hitting each other on the head (wearing hard hats, of course) with hammers, and a piece performed on grinders, shooting sparks for an audio and visual spectacle (Einsterzende Neubaten has done the same thing, but his performance was far more musical). Anyway, it was a cool, swinging movie about a really inventive musician and some great music. Rumor has it that after the first screening in San Francisco, all Tom CD's in the local music stores had been bought out. Here's a picture of director Décio Matos Jr.:

And next up was a real mind trip, "amour-LEGENDE" (and that capitilization is correct, that's how it was shown in the credits). A Taiwanese movie, in a mix of Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, and English. This is the kind of crazy non-linear non-sensical movie where the more it frustrates everyone else, the more I love it. Another prime example would be "Naisu No Mori", but while that movie is so obviously free-associating that it can be dismissed as a sketch show (sort of Monty Python goes for confusing instead of just funny), "amour-LEGENDE" has enough of a hint of a plot that it's all the more frustrating when it's insistently non-sensical. The movie opens with Oshima waking up on a remote South American desert island, suffering from memory loss and next to a mysterious woman named Coco. Apparently he's married (to a woman named April) and ran away from the high-rises of Taipei with his mistress (May, who is not the woman he wakes up with at the beginning). Now he's trapped on a strange island, where he meets strange underground royalty, suicidal squirrels, and a lot more nonsense. Coco offers to help him find May, and they embark on a journey to Snow Mountain, which makes no sense because a) they're in a desert--no snow anywhere, and b) everyone warns them that couples who think they have a future together won't if they go to Snow Mountain. Anyway, it's a real mind-fuck, and to my thinking a sort of comic riff on the pointlessness of chasing elusive love. Or perhaps, not any love, but legendary love is so elusive that the pursuit of it is just comic nonsense.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Jason goes to SFIFF in Palo Alto--day end minus 2

Which I think makes it day 13. Anyway, last Tuesday. The festival is also at the Aquarius Theater in Palo Alto now, so it's closer to my work and home. Two movies last night, let's jump right in.

First up was an Algerian movie, "Rome Rather Than You". Described as a "slow motion road trip", it's also a slice-of-life in Algreria story. The narrative is about Kamel and Zina, living in Algeria but wanting to emigrate. Kamel used to live in Italy where he worked in a pizzeria, and wishes to return. Zina wants to go with him, but neither have the proper papers. So they go on a trip to meet the guy who can get them false papers, along the way running into the authorities, friends, fundamentalists, etc. Actually, the narrative was kind of hard to follow, and it was deliberately slow. But there were certain scenes that were very striking, for the use of sound (bringing the background noise to the same level as the dialogue), visual (there's one scene where they're driving in the car and they come out of a shadow and the windshield is suddenly bathed in bright sunlight. It looks like they're driving directly into the sun), and editing (very long takes of many scenes, which stretches or breaks the patience of audiences that are used to more standard fare). All in all, it was intermittently interesting, and one of those movies that would've played better if I was more rested (i.e., at the beginning of the festival). Here's a picture of director Tariq Teguia (left) with his translator:

Next up was "Reprise", a movie that continues Norway's recent explosion of great cinema. Director Joachim Trier is a Norwegian skateboarding champion as well as a great filmmaker, and although there's no skating to speak of in it, there is a sort of rebellious youth feel to it. Specifically, it's about reconciling your rebellious youthful dreams with growing up and realizing your dreams, but losing your rebellion. It opens with the imaginary hopeful future account of the writing careers of good friends Phillip and Erik--where they both become successful, have widely popular books, leave literature for various reasons, then make triumphant returns to literature. However, in real life Phillip's first novel is a huge hit while Erik's is rejected. No problem, they're still good friends, and Erik is happy for his success. Problems really come when the situation reverses. Erik's novel is accepted by a different publisher, meanwhile Phillip has a nervous breakdown brought on not only by his success but his obsession with his girlfriend Kari. Hilarious and kinetic, powered by a punk rock soundtrack and some inventive visual and storytelling techniques. Ultimately it's a touching story of two friends' divergent paths, and reconciling who you are with who you dreamt of being.

Jason goes to SFIFF and gets branded upon his brain.

Last Monday I saw what I can call without hyperbole:

The greatest cinematic spectacle ever!

Specifically, it's Guy Maddin's ("The Saddest Music in the World") newest film "Brand Upon the Brain". A new Guy Maddin movie would be enough to get me excited, but this was more than a movie, it was a huge theatrical event. For those who don't know, Guy Maddin is a Canadian director who's still making movies using techniques from the silent (or early talkie) black-and-white (or early color) times. Well, for "Brand Upon the Brain", he brought in a 13 piece orchestra, an on-stage team of Foley artists (people who manipulate objects to make sounds for the movies), an on-stage narrator (Joan Chen of "Twin Peaks"), and a contralto singer (the best gag, more on that later). As for the story itself, it's a semi-ostensibly-autobiographical piece about Guy Maddin, a house painter returning home to paint the lighthouse/orphanage where he grew up. He's not an orphan, his parents ran the place and he explored the island with his sister Sis. He returns because his mother's wish is that the lighthouse gets a fresh coat of paint before she dies. Once there, his thoughts drift back to his childhood, full of first love, a domineering mother, an inventor father, gender ambiguity, and delicious nectar sucked from the bases of the skulls of the orphans.

Okay, that's it for what the movie is about, I can't explain it better than that. Now for the whole experience. The orchestra was excellent. I've seen silent films with live music before, and it's always very cool. The Foley artists were incredible, although from my seat behind the conductor I couldn't see them that well. Oh yeah, that reminds me, with all that stuff on stage a lot of the movie was obscured, but I was sitting close enough that if I couldn't see an important element on screen, I could glance at the conductor's monitor and catch it. Where was I? Joan Chen was excellent, and hammed up her role well. There was even a moment near the end when she broke into what sounded like Chinese, but I could see the English version on the conductor's monitor. But the best gag was the contralto. Guy Maddin introduced him as the "Winnipeg Whippoorwill" or something like that, and claimed that he met him in a bathhouse. He only performed twice for a few minutes during the movie. So for most of the 95 minutes, he's just sitting on the stage in an ornate chair wearing his fancy suit. Then he gets up, adjusts his old-timey microphone, pulls out a handkerchief, and...lip syncs. You're not supposed to know, but I was close enough to see the little boy (with the voice of an angel) singing in the orchestra. In fact, I sat next to the boy's deservedly proud father. Then after his "singing", the on stage contralto makes a big fuss of putting his microphone down, sitting back in his ornate chair, and dabbing himself off with his handkerchief. Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant!

"Brand Upon the Brain" is still playing with live performances in New York, and is coming soon to Chicago and Los Angeles (one weekend of live shows each). It'll also be opening in a few places as a regular theatrical run. More information here.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Jason goes to SFIFF--day N

I don't know how many days it's been now. I think 11? Anyway, this is last Sunday, May 6th, 2007, and quite possibly my best total day at the festival this year.

After my 7 movie marathon on Saturday, I was up again bright and early at 10 am for a free breakfast (bagels and coffee) and a secret members-only screening. No one knew what the movie was going to be, and it turned out to be Lars Von Trier's latest film, "The Boss of it All". An intentionally trifling comedy from Denmark's premiere cinematic practical joker. He even introduces it with a voiceover and a reflection of his camera in a window, explaining that while you can see his reflection, you shouldn't reflect on the movie, you should go ahead and forget it when it's done. Well, from what I can remember, it's about an actor who is hired to play the boss of an IT company. You see, the company owner is a sort of ruthless businessman, whose lawyering skills are to be feared. However, he's desperate to be liked by his employees, so for years he's been posing as the company lawyer who reports to the boss of it all who's back in America. However, he has a great deal to sell to an Icelandic company (which will make him rich but put all his employees out of work) but the Icelandic boss won't deal with anyone but the Danish boss. So he hires an actor to play the boss of it all (i.e., a patsy), and of course wacky hijinx ensue as the actor finds out that he's alternately hated or loved (or even lusted after) by his various "employees". He also comically knows nothing about their business. An entertaining trifle, in some ways more fun that Lars Von Trier's "important" movies. Even his more serious movies have a huge degree of playful practical joking in them, so it's actually a bit refreshing to see him make a movie that's intentionally nothing more than a joke.

Well, then I ran up to the Clay theater, but that's the last time I ran that day since I just stayed at the Clay all day. First up was "Vitus", which director Fredi Murer (pictured below) described as the opposite of autobiographical. As opposed to his life, it's a movie about a genius little boy who wishes he were normal. The title character a chess master, amortizes interest in his head, and most of all is a piano prodigy. His parents (especially his mother) put a lot of pressure on him to nurture his gift, even planning to send him away to a conservatory. His only escape is spending time with his wonderfully eccentric grandfather (the excellent veteran actor Bruno Ganz). That is, until he comes up with a better escape--jump out of a window and give himself brain damage. Okay, despite how that sounds, it really is a very sweet movie, very funny, and has more surprises than I am willing to give away.

Next up was a Czech comedy, "Grandhotel", a story of love, awkwardness, fear of leaving your hometown, and weather. Lots and lots of weather. Fleischman (last name only) is a mechanic and amateur (but very skilled) meteorologist at the Hotel Jested, a magnificent architectural marvel in the mountains of Liberec (it's a real place, check it out here). He's also a 30 year old virgin who has never left Liberec and is deathly afraid to do so. He also loves Ilya, the hotel's maid. But she's dating Patka, a total jerk who's a waiter at the hotel. Meanwhile Zuzana, who also works in the hotel, has her eyes on Fleischman. Meanwhile Mr. Franz, an old Luftwaffe pilot sends Fleischman on missions related to scattering his old war buddy's ashes. To that purpose, and to finally escape Liberec, Fleischman is building a makeshift weather balloon, and waiting for the winds to be absolutely right. Funny, touching, with a remarkable range in scope, from the small shabby town with its slightly fractured characters, to breathtaking scenery of the mountains and the hotel (honestly, it's beautiful there. I want to go there just to stay in that hotel for a few days). Here's a snapshot of director David Ondricek, writer/translator Pavel Jech, and star Klára Issová (Ilya):

Then next up was the French adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's erotic classic, "Lady Chatterley". What can I say when my least favorite movie of the day was the César (French Oscar) winner (for best film, best adapted screenplay, best actress, best cinematography, and best costume design)? And seriously, my only complaint would be that it's too long. It's 2 hours, 48 minutes, and it could have gotten by with just 2 hours, 40 minutes. Okay, an American studio would cut it to less than 2 hours, but according to IMDb there's also a French TV version that's 3 hours, 40 minutes long. Anyway, that's all beside the point. Except for my exhaustion (which probably had something to do with seeing 7 movies the day before and 3 movies prior to it that day), it was a beautifully and intimately shot, deliberately paced, and highly erotic story of love, lust, and class barriers. I'll assume everyone knows the story, if not--Lady Chatterley sleeps with a servant (the gamekeeper) because her husband is a cripple. The story's not about the action, it's about the internal emotional lives of the characters, particularly Lady Chatterley, and the movie gets that very well. Oh, one other minor point, since this is something that bugs me in American movies. While it was performed in French, they left the setting in England, but had British characters speaking French. This tends to bug me in American movies, especially when they substitute a ridiculous accent for a foreign language. See "Shadow of the Vampire" for a prime example, or Mel Brooks "History of the World: Part I" for an example of mocking this ("We French don't even have our own language, all we have is this ridiculous accent!"). Anyway, I don't know if they put on a British accent or not, but personally if you're going to substitute one language for another, it might as well be unaccented. Okay, that was off topic, but I still liked the movie, even though it was just a tad long.

And finally, there was a charming Irish musical romantic comedy, "Once". Actually, to classify it as a musical is wrong. Although there's music all throughout it, it's organic to the story as the male lead Glenn Hansard (credited as "Guy", and lead singer of Irish band the Frames--director John Carney was bass player for the Frames) is an aspiring musician (his battered, worn guitar speaks of how long he's been struggling), currently performing on the street and working in his father's vacuum repair shop. He meets beautiful Markéta Irglová (credited as "Girl"), a fan of his music and of him. A simple romance blooms, as they make music together, first in a little music store where the owner lets her play the pianos, and finally in a studio, as she convinces him to record a demo tape to take to London in hopes of fame and fortune. Everything unfolds on such a small, intimate scale (with non-professional actors) that it feels very real and immediate. And the Irish folk-rock music sets just the right tone (both in Hansard's plaintive wailing early on, and later in the much sweeter love songs they sing).
And that was last Sunday.

Jason goes to SFIFF day 10

By the way, I haven't had time to watch the online Scoop du Jour, but I've heard rumors that there's some footage of me from the festival. If you go to, and click on "watch scoop du jour clips", I know there's at least footage of me drinking (not my first) beer in the Stella Artois lounge the first Friday night (I believe that's in the Monday, 30 April clip).

So I got home are 3:30 am Friday night/Saturday morning. Then I dragged myself out of bed nice and early just to get up to the Kabuki theater by 10 am for a special 70th anniversary screening of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", because why the heck not?

Okay, I'm going to assume you've all seen the Disney classic and first ever (American) animated feature film. Some things I'd forgotten: how often the dwarfs say "Jiminy Cricket!" three years before "Pinocchio". How little sense it made for the queen to turn into an ugly hag in order to kill Snow White, when her ultimate goal was to be the fairest in the land (perhaps that's the moral there). And most importantly, it opens and closes with a storybook. Okay, the ending is just "...and they lived happily ever after." But the beginning is a couple of pages with no voiceover summary or anything. It's not hard to read, but it's surprising to realize that 70 years ago they expected the audience--even an audience of children--to be smart enough to read without being annoyed. Along the same lines, it's odd nowadays to see a kid's movie that isn't full of creepy double-entendres to keep the parents amused. They didn't pander to anyone back then, they just made a great movie. Cool.

So then I had a good hour long break, and then began a marathon of movies with barely minutes in between. First up was "The Key of G" with the short (25 minute) film "Outsider: The Life and Art of Judith Scott". First the short, a fascinating look at the elaborate fiber art sculpture of Judith Scott, a deaf woman with down syndrome who can't communicate in any other way (and her sculptures, while extraordinary, are pretty mysterious as to their meaning). She livery with her (completely healthy) twin sister Joyce, who brought her to the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland. There she tried to paint and draw a little, but really came to life with fiber art (elaborate sculptures made of yarn), and has since had her art exhibited all over the world. Here's a pic of director Betsy Bayha (right) during the Q&A.

Then the feature film was "The Key of G", a documentary about Gannet Hosa-Betonte, a 22-year old man who is afflicted with a condition in which the two sides of his brain don't communicate normally. So while his vision, hearing, etc. are all fine, his brain never learned to process visual information correctly. At 22, he's finally moving out of his mom's house to an apartment just down the street where he'll live with a team of caregivers (some of the most amazing people I've ever seen, all of whom are also artists of some sort). His condition is fascinating, but the movie doesn't really delve into the science of it. It's really about the connections between Gannet and his caregivers/roommates/friends, and on that level it's fantastically moving. One interesting thing, Gannet was in the audience and although he can't speak he will laugh and exclaim at times. He was doing that on screen and in the audience, so it was sort of a bonus experience. Here's director Robert Arnold with some of his crew and Gannet's friends at the Q&A:

I also snapped a picture of Gannet but a) it didn't really come out well, and b) in retrospect, it seems like it'd sort of be in bad taste to post it.

Then I walked right out of the theater and into the one next door for "Singapore Dreaming". A charming little tale of a middle class family trying to be something better. Specifically, the father Loh Poh Huat daydreams of moving out of public housing and into a beautiful new condo. His hopes are pinned on his son, returning from America with a degree from a not-too-prestigious polytechnic university in Idaho. Problem is, he's still a loser and can't get an IT job because...he doesn't know anything about IT. He also has a pregnant daughter married to a hapless insurance salesman who'd rather be a rock star. Suddenly, their dreams all come true with the father wins the lottery. But then it becomes a "be careful what you wish for" story. Well acted and very funny. In the Q&A, co-directors (and co-everythings) Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo (pictured below, with SFIFF associate programmer Sean Uyehara) talked about how they intended to a make a very specifically Singaporean movie, but found out in taking it to festivals that they had accidentally made a very universal movie.

So then I ran upstairs to see "Eagle vs. Shark". This is actually going to be released very soon, I've seen trailers for it at Landmark Theaters, but it fit well into my schedule and looked like fun. Afterwards, I heard the perfect description for this movie--Napoleon Dynamite grown up, and meets Mrs. Napoleon Dynamite. There's only one problem with that description. I didn't actually like "Napoleon Dynamite" (gasp!) I know, this puts me not only in a distinct minority, but also puts me in the group with old fogeys who 'just don't get it'. I don't mean to get off on a tangent, but let me explain. "Napoleon Dynamite" is not as sympathetic to it's title character as it thinks it is. Or, if it's sympathetic, either things have changed in the past 15 years or it's completely and insultingly unrealistic. I was that nerd in high school that everyone picked on, and I'm certain that dancing at an assembly wouldn't win me any friends. Bottom line is, in real life (or at least real life ~15 years ago), nobody votes for Pedro! And what really bugged me is that it mocked its main character(s) for the entire movie, then slapped on a redemption that was completely bogus. It just bugged the hell out of me.

Okay, now back to "Eagle vs. Shark". I actually loved this movie. It gets not just what made "Napoleon Dynamite" work, but more importantly what didn't work--and it fixes that. It's from New Zealand (source of a couple of great movies at this years festival) and is the nerds-in-love story of Lily and Jarrod. Lily has a crush on Jarrod, who pretends to be cool but is really a total loser (except when it comes to the video game "Fight Man", which Lily is also quite good at). She goes to his party, ends up sleeping with him, then gets her brother to give him a ride back to his hometown so he can beat up the bully who picked on him in school (who's just returning home). Needles to say, wacky hijinx ensue. But here's the big difference between this and "Napoleon Dynamite". Instead of the loser secretly having great skills, he remains a nerd and a loser, but as Lily says, "it doesn't matter". To put it another way, "Napoleon Dynamite" never felt to me like it was made by nerds. It felt like it was made by bullies who had grown up and felt guilty and so made a movie to assuage their guilt (this probably isn't actually true, but that's what it felt like). "Eagle vs. Shark" felt like it was really made by and for nerds.

So then I skipped out during the credits to see the Centerpiece presentation of "Delirious". I was too late to get my kick-ass front row center seat, so I had to settle for front row off-center, right where the director and star spoke before and after the movie. Here's a picture of director Tom DiCillo and star Alison Lohman, who played pop star K'Harma Leeds:

The movie is really a vehicle for Steve Buscemi to shine as paparazzo (excuse me, "licensed professional") Les Galantine. Michael Pitt is also fantastic as Toby Grace, an aspiring actor, currently homeless, and obsessed with K'Harma Leeds. Les takes him on as an unpaid assistant, giving him a roof over his head (and a closet to sleep in), and more importantly getting him into parties with celebrities. For the most part Les keeps Toby under his thumb, and Toby is kind of awkward and makes a lot of mistakes, but eventually comes into his own, both in the photojournalism business and in the celebrity business, as he accidentally becomes a desperate K'Harma's boytoy at a party (which really pisses Les off, because he didn't get to tag along). Wacky hijinx most definitely ensue. Hilarious, but still in a way very real, and manages to be very sympathetic towards some very shallow characters. It straddles the line between satire and drama very well. Certainly it's satire, but it's satire that works because the characters desires, no matter how shallow or despicable, are still very real.

Then I actually had enough time for a few fee beers (thank you Stella Artois) before the late show screening of "Signal", an excellently trippy and gory film about a mysterious TV signal that makes everyone paranoid and violent ( Fox News?). Okay, that was a cheap shot, it's really more like "Videodrome" than anything, but certainly has some sharp satire of mass media culture and passive entertainment (says the man who has seen 200+ movies in under half a year). A few things really impressed me. First, the idea was very clever. Second, the gore and violence was well done and palpable. Third, it was shot in three segment, each by a different director. What's notable about that is it's actually pretty hard to tell. They have a remarkably identical look in each segment (perhaps the same DP for all?). Anyway, I was mightily impressed.

In fact, I have to say I've been impressed with the late show selection for the past couple of years. I believe ever since Rod Armstrong took over, the late show selections have been the best ever, so kudos to him for that. But I do have one little bone to pick. What's up with starting a "late show" at 10 pm? Hell, it's a midnight movie that ends before midnight! More importantly, I don't care if the late show starts at midnight or 11:30 or even 10 pm. What bugs me is that other movies are still playing (or have just started) when the late show starts. The late show should be a no-brainer for me. Of course I'm going to see it, not just because it's the genre I like, but because nothing's playing opposite it! And that hasn't been the case the past couple of years. So please, I'm begging you to move the midnight movies back to midnight.

Luckily, I had just enough time to jog over to the Clay Theater for a real midnight movie, and got in free thanks to the good people at Indiefest. So I saw "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension". I'm going to go ahead and assume you've all seen it, it's a classic cult movie. I know you love the quotable lines ("Laugh it up, monkey boy!" or "Why is there a watermelon there?"/"I'll tell you later") and the feeling like you're watching a sequel to a movie you've never seen. Okay, maybe some of you love it, and some of you don't, and some of you haven't seen it, but who cares. One final point, like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", it also opens with text for you to read with no voiceover. So there, it all came full circle today, and it's all about movies that treat you with some sort of intelligence.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Jason goes to SFIFF--day 9

Okay, it's been a long weekend, 14 movies and one special event to write up. So let's jump right into last Friday, starting with that special event:

Robin Williams was at the Castro to receive an award for acting like a lunatic. He was sort of interviewed by local writer Armistead Maupin ("Tales of the City"), who really didn't have to do more than say a few words and Robin would run around and riff like a manic comic idiot savant. It was awesome. Here's a pic of Robin and Armistead on screen, towering over Robin and Armistead on stage:

So then they showed "The Fisher King" by Terry Gilliam and starring Robin Williams, but I've seen that movie about a dozen times, it's one of my favorites, I own the DVD, and if I stayed it would've been really tight for me to make it to the Kabuki theater to see the midnight movie (more importantly, it would leave me zero time for free beer). So instead I just took off and went to the Kabuki right away, where I actually got there in time to see an extra movie before the free beer and midnight movie. So, here's a movie I saw just because it was there: "Love For Sale: Suely in the Sky". Surprisingly charming and uplifting given the subject, this Brazilian movie is the story of Hermila, a young woman who moves from São Paulo back to the village where she grew up, taking with her a newborn son. She moves in with her grandmother and aunt, and waits for her boyfriend (and father of her baby) to come join her. Slowly it becomes clear that he's not coming, but rather than give up she decides to make her own living. She makes some money to live on by raffling off a bottle of whiskey (and, of course, getting much more than if she just sold it). Following the same model, she follows that up by auctioning off herself. Or rather, "one night in paradise" with her. Yeah, it's about prostitution, but on the level of a human choice rather than a moral question. It's never really depicted as a smart choice, but she's depicted as a strong, independent, nonconformist and the movie respects her for her choice (even if no one in the movie does).

So then it was time for a few free Stella Artois and then the midnight movie, "Cold Prey". A horror film made in Norway, full of beautiful Norwegian winter mountain scenery. At the trivia contest before the movie, I won a free poster by correctly identifying a line (cut out of the movie) that referenced "Evil Dead II". Which was awesome, but also kind of colored the whole movie for me--while I watched I kept looking for "Evil Dead" references. Anyway, the movie starts with a shot of a little boy running terrified through the snow as something evil chases him (POV of an unseen evil--there's an "Evil Dead" reference right off the bat). Then cut to modern times, as a group of teenagers head up the mountain for a ski vacation. One of them gets injured, so they hole up in an abandoned ski lodge (really more of a "Shining" reference, but I connected it with the Evil Dead cabin first). They picked the wrong freaking lodge, as the unseen evil (that POV returns) starts picking them off. Eventually clues are found in the hotel register (which at first I mistook for the Necronomicon, but that might be kind of a stretch). Great setup, awesome scenery, good acting with well-rounded characters. And most importantly, it's got absolutely genuine scares with a good dose of humor in it as well. Excellent.
Here's a pic of director Roar Uthaug introducing the film (it ended too late for a Q&A that night) with SFIFF associate programmer (in charge of the late shows) Rod Armstrong off to the side.

And that was last Friday. Just 12 more films to write up from the weekend.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Jason previews Hole in the Head

The past few years the good people at Indiefest have put on my favorite film festival/week long party of the year--Another Hole in the Head (as in, SF needs another film festival like it needs....) Details will be up soon at, but since I'm extra-cool I got a preview of the schedule. Some quick impressions.

The rumors are true, holehead is 2 weeks this year, June 1-14! However, they have about as many films as before. There are no weekday matinee shows, and the weekends start at 3 pm instead of noon (more on that in a moment). There are also more repetitions of each movie (most play 3 times). All this means it's really easy to be like me and see everything.

This is particularly good for me because back when it was penciled in for June 7-14th, I already planned another event on June 2 (soccer, USA vs. China in San Jose). Now I can go to that and still see everything. I just have to be up at the Roxie for the midnight show that night, since it's one of the rare shows that only plays once.

Other than that, I'll plan to try to see everything at it's first show, so as I blog I can alert my local readers of subsequent screenings. No more reading here about an awesome movie that you'll never get a chance to see. This time, most of my reviews will be for movies that still play another time or two.

"Blood Car", one of my favorites from Cinequest, plays 3 times. Everyone should see it. Hell, everyone should see it all three times. I plan/hope to. I know nothing in advance of how good the other movies are, but the lineup looks like it'll be fun (and I don't want to give away things that aren't already up on their site).

The other big new wrinkle this year is Indiefest Gets Animated. The early shows on the weekends and some weekdays will be animated movies instead of genre fare (although it looks like there will be some overlap). I know the economics of this--holehead never had good attendance at the matinees, and so lost money. This is an attempt to try something different and see if it'll work. I don't know if it will, but it'll be interesting. SFFS (the organization that does the SF International Film Fest) puts on their own animation festival in October (starting last year, and they've been pushing it as a membership benefit at the festival this year), so it'll also be interesting to see the differences and if SF can sustain 2 (or 1.5) animation festivals.

Finally, the Primitive Screwheads are putting on another show, "Night of the Living Dead--Live", which is concurrent with the final two nights of holehead and continues the following weekend. Primitive Screwheads are always freakin' cool!

That is all.

Jason goes to SFIFF--day 8

Two movies last night, and I was joined by friend Misun. Good luck on you law school exams, Misun.

First up was the excellent documentary "Ghosts of Cité Soleil", a documentary about Haiti made by a Danish director Asger Leth. Asger's father Jørgen Leth, star of "The Five Obstructions" (with Lars Von Trier, it played at SFIFF a few years back). Anyway, Jørgen moved to Haiti and lives there still, so it's not really that weird that a Danish director made a Haitian movie. The movie follows the final days of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, before he fled the country and disappeared. Cité Soleil is a slum neighborhood in Port-au-Prince run by the Chimeres (roughly translated, "ghosts"), gangs who are loyal to Aristide and allegedly were used as his unofficial thug squads. Specifically, it follows brothers and rival gang leaders Bily and 2pac (yeah, a lot of them are named after American gangsta rappers). 2pac actually plans to get out of the gang life by making it in rapping, and has the help of Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean (who also co-produced and scored the film). It's a great movie, that really humanizes the people in Cité Soleil, even the gang members and gang leaders. But what struck me the most was actually the strong narrative feel of it. I actually had to look up afterwards whether it was a real documentary or if it was a narrative that was just expertly constructed to look like a documentary. Turns out it was a documentary, but either way it's an incredible accomplishment.

Next up was one of the movies I was most looking forward to in the festival, "Fay Grim" by Hal Hartley. It's a sequel of sorts to Hartley's earlier film, "Henry Fool". If you haven't seen it yet, go rent or buy it, watch it, and come back here. Go ahead, I'll wait.


There, wasn't that an awesome movie! Okay, "Fay Grim" follows some of the same main characters. Specifically, Simon Grim, his sister Fay (Parker Posey, awesome!) and Henry Fool himself. However, it pretty much obliterates the world of Henry Fool. Get ready for this--Henry wasn't just an awful, self-absorbed writer, he was a spy and/or terrorist. And his "Confessions" weren't just self-absorbed masturbatory crap, they were a coded message. Fay is stopped one day by CIA agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum, in a hilarious role), who explains that Henry is dead, and they need her help recovering the volumes of his confessions. She's immediately whisked into a thoroughly ridiculous world of intrigue and nonsense. Apparently Hal Hartley has said he was watching the news and thinking about how ridiculous the world was, particularly the world of international espionage, and decided to write this story. I could try to go into what happens, but it'd be difficult and kind of beside the point. I just loved sitting back, watching the absurd plot twists fly by, and laughing the whole time. And I think that's pretty much the point. I loved it. "Henry Fool" and this are the only Hal Hartley movies I've seen, so now I want to go watch the rest of his stuff. I'll go add it to my Netflix queue.

Jason goes to SFIFF--day 7

One big event last Wednesday, Spike Lee received the festival's directing award, and was at the Castro for an on-stage interview, Q&A, and the screening of parts 2 and 3 of "When the Levees Broke", his documentary about hurricane Katrina.

Like always, I was front-row center. Although for these interviews as opposed to the movies, lots of people want to be in the front row, so I actually had competition. Thank you, Cinevisa (still not really worth the $650, but I like having it). Anyway, here's a pic from front row center, taken on my cell phone, showing a projected Spike Lee looming above the real Spike Lee and his interviewer, film critic Wesley Morris. Sorry their faces are so washed out, my cell phone doesn't deal with harsh light conditions well:

Anyway, Spike was a very cool interview. Like so many of these events, it made me realize how much of his earlier work I've missed. So I've added a bunch of them to my Netflix queue, and I'll catch up on my Spike Lee knowledge in good time.

As for the interview himself, let me first answer the question everyone has asked me when I tell them I saw Spike Lee--yes, he is short in person. In fact, "short" would be a good way to describe how he answered most questions, too. And I don't mean that in a bad way, usually he could satisfy the audience and make them laugh in just a few words. It's just a striking difference, since in most of these types of interviews that I've seen the guest panders to the audience a lot more, and will launch into elaborate (probably preplanned) stories to entertain us. Spike came off as less interested in telling us what he thinks we'd like than in telling us what he thinks. And I think it's fair to say that comes through in his movies as well.

So then we watched "When the Levees Broke: Acts II and III". I have to confess a few things. First, when the documentary first showed on HBO, I only had basic cable and I missed it. Second, I chose to see Spike Lee at sort of the last minute. Not quite, but only a few days ago, once I had already started going to the festival. Basically this meant I had no time to buy or rent the DVDs and watch part I before I saw the next two. It's not really required, but I wanted to. So I committed a sin--I downloaded it. But as soon as I watched it, I deleted it and I swear I've ordered my own DVD set from, so I'll make myself honest soon.

In any case, Act I is mostly about the intitial shock and horror of the storm. Told through interviews with the survivors and some sparse news footage, it seems like the natural (possibly the only) way to tell this story right. But what's really striking is that it's not really political--not yet. Given how much the aftermath has spun up into a huge political issue, it's important to realize that a) it didn't start that way, it started out as just a tragedy, and b) there are real people, not just political pawns, who lived through this and lost everything.

Act II and III is where it gets political. Or, more to the point, is where people get fucking pissed off. Slow, inadequate response, neighboring towns refusing to let them come in, rumors flying that everyone remaining in New Orleans are baby-raping looters (rumors that, of course, turned out to be completely untrue). This is where everything just broke (not just the levees, here it's like our collective national sanity broke). It still focuses on the interviews with people, but the news footage and analysis takes a larger role. In the proudly liberal SF audience, of course the major political players/events get cheers or (more often) hisses (we don't boo in SF, we hiss). But for me, those moments play well with the interviews as touchstones to remind me that while the news focused on, for example, Condi Rice buying shoes, this is what people were going through. Or when the media had fun with the "Go fuck yourself, Cheney!" caught on tape, what was going on with the guy who yelled that (he lived next door to the press conference, and when he was trying to get home he was detoured miles out of his way so Cheney could sit there and talk about how much he cared about the people there). Those touchstones (Kanye West saying "George Bush doesn't care about black people") serve to remind us where we were, and the interviews show us where the victims were at the same time. Powerful stuff, that breaks through all the extreme bullshit that surrounded the aftermath. Can't wait to get the DVDs and re-watch I-III and finally see act IV (and apparently the DVD included a bonus act V which wasn't on HBO).

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Jason goes to SFIFF--day 6

Tuesday, two more movies:

First up was "Private Fears in Public Places" a French movie of intersecting lives. Beautifully shot, flawlessly acted, and effortlessly flowing, it's a story of the connections people make, and all too often break. In this charming ensemble, some of the most interesting relationships are actually between people who never meet. Soon-to-be-wed Nicole is looking for an apartment to share with her fiance, Dan, a somewhat worthless bum of an ex-soldier. Thierry is showing her apartments (all of which are too small), then goes back to the office and semi-flirts with his associate Charlotte, a devout christian who spends her nights volunteering to look after the bedridden (and violently bitter and obnoxious) father of Lionel. Lionel works nights as a bartender at a hotel where Dan (the ex-soldier bum) hangs out and confesses his problems communicating with Nicole. Meanwhile Thierry goes home every night to his sister Gaelle, who goes out every night looking for Mr. Right (and eventually meets Dan--wacky hijinx ensue). Meanwhile Charlotte has loaned Thierry a videotape of her favorite program, an interview show of people talking about music that changed their life. But at the end, it turns into footage of Charlotte (possibly, her head is out of frame) in lingerie doing a seductive dance. Thierry doesn't know if she left it there on purpose for him to see or not, but either way wacky hijinx are bound to ensue. Whew! I'm actually surprised I could sum up the relationships that easily. Written out, it seems kind of forced, but over the course of 2 hours it unfolds as naturally as anything. A wonderfully charming, funny, and pretty film from director Alain Resnais based on a play by Alan Ayckbourn.

And then I saw a German film, "Emma's Bliss" by Sven Taddiken, who directed "My Brother the Vampire" which was one of my favorite films at the festival a few years back. I didn't know that going in, so needless to say when it was introduced as by the guy who did "My Brother the Vampire" I was immediately excited, and I'm pleased to say my immediately heightened expectations were totally fulfilled. Based on 2 feature films, here in a nutshell is what I love about Sven Taddiken: Extreme characters, who are nevertheless very likeable, to the point where when they shatter taboos at the end, you find yourself cheering them on. In the "My Brother the Vampire" that taboo was sexuality of the developmentally disabled and incest (the alternate English title is "Getting My Brother Laid"). In "Emma's Bliss", without giving anything away, that taboo is about death. Emma owns a farm (barely, she's deeply in debt) where she lives alone. Although the local policeman Henner offers to marry her and support her, she'd rather stay on her farm alone. Meanwhile Max (Jürgen Vogel) is dying of pancreatic cancer, so he steals some ill-gotten funds from the car dealership where he works, steals a Jaguar, speeds away, and--in a bit of suicidal evasion from his boss Hans--crashes into Emma's farm. Emma finds him there in his car, and his money (which is sort of a gift from god) and rescues him, steals the money, and torches the Jag. Since this is a comedy, of course they end up falling in love (and it plays out less forced than you might think, ultimately they're both just very likable but deeply broken people who fit well together). Of course, since Max is terminal, their romance is doomed to be short-lived. From the opening scene of Emma lovingly slaughtering a pig (which caused the woman behind me to walk out in disgust), it's clearly a movie about dying, and about dying well. Needless to say, I loved it. One other note, I spent most of the movie looking at Max (Jürgen Vogel) and thinking 'Where have I seen him before?' Turns out, the answer is the Berlin and Beyond festival earlier this year. In "A Friend of Mine" he played carefree Hans, and in "The Free Will" he played released mental patient and multiple rapist Theo. He's an incredibly talented actor, and I think it's safe to count me as a Jürgen Vogel fan now (as well as a Sven Taddiken fan).

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Jason goes to SFIFF--day 5

Easy night yesterday, just two movies, so let's jump right in. First up was "Broken English" starring Parker Posey. It's a not-very-romantic romantic comedy (for that matter, although it was funny, it really plays more like real life than the guided laughter of a regular comedy). Parker Posey is a natural as Nora, a mid-30's single woman with a good job as a hospitality manager of an upscale hotel. Although she's successful, that "single" label gives her problems. She's supposed to be married and have children (or at least a plan to have children) by now, as everyone reminds her. Instead she makes her way through one disastrous date after another, in a haze of alcohol and pills. For the first 20 minutes or so, it was actually kind of annoying just watching the self-indulgent pettiness of the depression of a successful, upper-middle class woman. There's a part of me that wanted to scream out, "Get over yourself! Stop worrying about what you're supposed to be by now, and just be cool with who you are!" Luckily, the movie somehow heard my thoughts and eventually went that direction. In a moment of desperation, she goes to her nerdy co-workers party, where she meets Julian, a charming (although at first kinda sleazy) Frenchman who she ends up seeing for a few days, until he has to return to Paris. Finally, on a whim she goes to Paris with her girlfriend Audrey to try and find him, then promptly loses his phone number, so instead spends the time in Paris finding herself. Funny and real, with some excellent acting by not just Parker Posey but the whole cast (including Gena Rowlands, director Zoe Cassavetes's real mother, playing Parker Posey's mother). Very well done. Here's a pretty blurry, washed-out pic of Parker Posey and Zoe Cassavetes walking up on stage for the Q&A afterwards:

By the way, they were both very charming in person (and Zoe Cassavetes mentioned she didn't think of the movie as a romantic comedy, so that justifies my comments in the beginning saying it's not that romantic nor is it strictly a comedy)

Then I caught a Malaysian movie, "Mukhsin". Apparently the third (and a prequel) in the trilogy of Orked, a Malaysian Muslim woman based somewhat on director Yasmin Ahmad. In this one she's a 10 year old tomboy. Orked's relaxed, easy-going, English-speaking family (her mother was educated abroad) works well, despite the scorn of the more traditional neighbors. And Orked is growing into a strong, self-reliant young girl who is smart and strong enough to confront bullies. Mukhsin is a twelve year old boy from a much less functional family. His mother has run away from his abusive father, and his older brother is a drunk. So, of course, he prefers Orked and her much cooler family, and they become good friends. It's a story of young friendship, young love, and how the latter can threaten the former. All in a lyrical, poetic, sweet package.

And that was the end of Monday. Two more movies on Tuesday.