Monday, December 22, 2008

Jason watches "Slumdog Millionaire"

So I'm a victim of the storms in the Pacific Northwest. I should be in Anchorage with my family right now, but my flight was canceled. Now I fly out tomorrow morning (I hope). But I took advantage of my time home in the bay area to catch a really good movie.

Danny Boyle goes to Bollywood to make his best movies since "Trainspotting". Jamal is a poor, uneducated "slumdog" from Mumbai who somehow got onto the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and won it all. After winning 10M rupees his first day, he's apprehended by the police who believe he's cheating and try to beat a confession out of him. But instead he spins his life story--a story of unbelievable hardship, trouble, and narrow escapes that just happened to coincide with all the answers he needs. Like it was fate for him to be on the show. It's also a powerful life-long love story, as he pursues the poor girl he met as a child. In fact, he doesn't even care about the money, he's only on the show because he knows she watches.

Danny Boyle, to my knowledge, has made one great movie ("Trainspotting"), and a few movies that were ~80-90% great, with some silliness thrown in. To be fair, I haven't seen "The Beach" or "Millions", but "28 Days Later" was mostly good except for "They're infected...with rage!!!" and other silliness. "Sunshine" was nearly the best sci-fi movie in a decade or so until it turned into a horror movie in space. Well, finally he's made another movie that keeps up the quality all the way through. No scene made me cringe or shake my head. It's a great movie all the way through.

As a final note, I was a bit surprised by how powerful and well done the love story was. I heard that it was about a poor kid from the slums winning millions on the game show, but nothing about the love story. So it was a great movie, and a surprising one. Well done all around.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Jason watches a special preview screening of "Fruit Fly"

Sponsored by the Center for Asian American Media, this is the directorial debut of H. P. Mendoza (writer/star of "Colma: The Musical"). It was held in the Poleng Lounge, a bar/performance space which is featured in the movie.

L. A. Renigen (Maribel in "Colma") stars as Bethesda, a Filipina performance artist who does works based on her identity as an adoptee and her search for her parents. She's just moved to San Francisco to do a show. She moves into a house with a wacky array of artistic tenants--Windham, the gay set designer; a pair of lesbian artists who live together; the runaway who's just; and the mysterious Dirty Judy who lives upstairs. She spends most every night partying with Windham and every morning trying to remember what she did last night. This earns her the title of Windham's "fag hag" (in a very memorable musical number...oh yeah, like "Colma" this is a musical and features Mendoza's particular brand of fast paced musical comedy. The soundtrack alone is worth the movie).

So yeah, the movie follows Bethesda comic, musical misadventures as she tries to find her place in the world, and particularly the art world of San Francisco. It's funny, sometimes a little cheesy (you can tell some of the actors are just local friends and non-actors). In the intro, they said they hoped it would get into SFIAAFF next March. Considering that CAAM also produces the SFIAAFF, I'd say it's a sure bet. So look for it there (festival is March 12-22, 2009).

Jason is Santa Claus?

Ho ho ho...

Yeah, I was conscripted to play Santa at work for the kid's party. I bleached the heck out of my hair, but still couldn't quite get it white (and the white colored hair spray at Party City is pretty worthless). But the kids didn't seem to care, and a good time was had by all.

Yeah, you better freakin' watch out. I'm coming to town!
More pictures later. Possibly much later.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jason watches "My Name is Bruce"

As in, Bruce freakin' Campbell, the B-movie god who was there to introduce the movie and chat with SF drag queen/cult movie icon Peaches Christ. Oh yeah, it was a hell of a great night.
First Peaches and her horde of zombie dancers did a little show:
Then a montage of Bruce Campbell highlights, and then the man himself sat down with Peaches for an interview and some questions from the audience:
This is actually the third time I've seen Bruce Campbell live. If you've never seen him live, his "interviews" are more like interactive stand-up comedy. He'll joke with/on the audience (this is the first time I haven't seen him grab someone's cell phone and make a prank call). He likes to repeat every question sarcastically, harangue star-struck fans, hit on the hot girls (even if his wife is in the audience, we all know it's a joke, wink wink), etc. And the combination of the San Francisco audience, Peaches, and the late night really put him at the top of his game, keeping the crowd laughing for a good 45 minutes or so.
Then finally the movie. Bruce Campbell stars as Bruce Campbell, arrogant, drunken b-movie star (I assume an exaggerated version of himself). Some kids in a small Oregon town of Gold Lick desecrate a Chinese-American graveyard, unleashing the Taoist war god Guan Di, who starts killing everyone. The one kid who escapes is a huge Bruce Campbell fan, and assumes based on his cinematic monster-slaying he can save the town. At first Bruce wants nothing to do with it (he wants to stay home and drunk-dial his ex-wife...what a Birthday!). So the kid kidnaps him and drags him to town. Once there, Bruce assumes it's all make believe, a birthday present set up by his agent (played by the ultimate ham Ted Raimi, who is usually hilarious but only gets starring roles in Bruce Campbell productions). So he leads the town on a monster hunt, until he finds out that the monster is real, and he runs the hell away. Hilarity ensues.
It really is a very fun movie, and absolutely full of splatstick comedy and inside jokes for Bruce Campbell fans. As an interesting aside, Guan Di is a real god in Chinese folklore, the spirit of Guan Yu aka Lord Guan of The Three Kingdoms, which I'm almost done reading (this makes the "Guan You, Guan Me, Guan Di" refrain an extra pun). And a little googling revealed that apparently he is the protector of bean curd and bean curd sellers, which is really played up in the movie (his early life as a bean curd seller is not mentioned in The Three Kingdoms). So that was really amusing.
I guess to be a real reviewer I have to mention a couple of things that bug me. First, I have a little pet peeve about scenes where a character is locked in a car trunk. As someone who has ridden in many car trunks (ah, my college years...) I can guarantee the latch mechanism is always easily accessible from inside, and it's never taken me longer than about a minute to find it and let myself out. I know this is just my hang-up, but there's no reason for any character to ever be locked in a car trunk...unless maybe you tie up his hands first.
But the real painful scenes are the ones of Ted Raimi under heavy makeup as an old Chinese man. It's a horrible, horrible stereotype, and I know it's meant as satire and I could try to defend it but the fact is it went over like a lead balloon with this audience and some of the biggest cheers were when he got killed. For people who are sensitive to such racist stereotypes, this could easily kill the movie. For me, it only killed all the scenes he was in (when he isn't on screen, the movie still rocks).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Jason goes to the Hypnodrome Holiday party and sees "A Junky's Christmas" and "Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny"

So I spent last Sunday afternoon in one of my favorite spots, the Hypnodrome. Despite the light rain, they had the BBQ going and lots of food and drink. I was driving, so I stuck to a couple of glasses of wine and then switched over to soda. But it was cool hanging out with all the great people there.

Then, as the afternoon moved into evening, Dead Channels provided some cinematic entertainment. First up was an excellent short, a claymation version of William S. Burrough's "A Junky's Christmas". The story of a junky let out of lockup on Christmas day, and his wanderings through NY City trying to score a fix. A story of the kind of people who are out at that time, and how for a Junky trying to score, Christmas is any other day, just harder to find a dealer. And a surprisingly sincere ending that might just show the true meaning of Christmas.

And then there was the feature, "Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny". An example (a bad example) of regional cinema, this was made in Florida by Barry Mahon, who specialized in two things--cheap soft-core skin flicks and kid's stories for the "Pirate World" amusement park. Santa Claus gets his sleigh stuck in the sand in Florida, and the reindeer all flew away because it was too hot. Unless he extricates himself, Christmas will be cancelled. Local kids show up and try to help with all sorts of animals--horses, sheep, pigs, a gorilla? Nothing seems to work, and they're about to give up. So Santa tells them the story of Thumbelina (insert Barry Mahon's "Thumbelina") to teach them the power of believing in yourself and never giving up or some such crap. So they run off and find a giant bunny rabbit who drives some sort of fire engine--ish truck. He rescues Santa and Christmas is saved. There's singing, the dialogue all sounds like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons, and there's absolutely no ice cream in this movie. The end.

Oh yeah, and the version we watched actually didn't have "Thumbelina" inserted into the right place, it was tacked on to the end. Hopefully they'll have that fixed for next year, as this will obviously become a tradition. Next year I'll be sure not to drive so I can be completely shit-faced.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for Comedy Shorts Night (December 2008)

Always the most popular night of the month in the nation's only (as far as I know) theater that shows silent movies on a weekly basis.

Comedy night has to include Chaplin, and we started the night with the mostly restored (it's still in the process of restoration) "Police". Charlie plays an ex-con released back into the cruel world. He's swindled by a fake parson, fired by a cook, nearly robbed in a flophouse, and finally runs into his old cellmate, who convinces him to help him rob a house. The house happens to be home to the hard-working girl from the kitchen where he worked briefly (Edna Purviance, longtime Chaplin leading lady). She recognizes him, and after convincing him to go straight and chasing off his cellmate, she helps him out with the police. This was the last film Chaplin made with Essanay, and showcases his little tramp character (created here in Niles) and his developing directing style.

Next up, keeping with a law enforcement theme, was "Cops" starring Buster Keaton. Keaton, in the course of trying to become a big businessman, accidentally runs afoul of many policemen, who chase him all over Los Angeles in one of the most impressive extended chase gags ever (still). A Keaton classic.

Next an intermission, and then on to Harold Lloyd in "Bumping into Broadway". Lloyd is a struggling playwright, living in the apartment next door to a struggling actress (Bebe Daniels). Although he can't make rent, he pretends he's rich and pays her rent for her. So now he has to escape the building without the landlady and her hired muscle catching him. Once there, he can't get a producer to look at his musical comedy script. But he's become more interested in the girl, and follows her (in the arms of a high-rolling playboy) into a secret gambling club. He accidentally wins big at roulette, but just as he's raking in all the money, the cops break the club doors down. More running from the cops (a definite theme of the night). But one thing you have to know about all Harold Lloyd movies--he always gets the girl.

And finally, the boys Laurel and Hardy in "Big Business". They play Christmas tree salesmen... in Los Angeles... in July. Obviously not a good business model, and when they encounter a truly irate customer a war of destruction ensues--they destroy his house while he destroys their trees and car. Hilarious. On a side note, when making the movie producer Hal Roach secured a house they could destroy while the owner was away so long as they fixed everything when they were done. However, when they arrived at the spot the cast and crew mistakenly destroyed the house next door--apparently not realizing anything was wrong when the key didn't work, they just broke in through a window. So not only did they have to pay rent for the house they didn't destroy, they had to pay to fix the house they did.

Jason watches "JCVD"

As in, Jean-Claude Van Damme. And he's a total trouper in this self-mocking movie where he plays himself, struggling with aging, divorce, custody, and legal debt. So he takes a little vacation to his native Belgium, where he's still a hero. He goes to the post office to pick up a wire money transfer, and stumbles onto a robbery/hostage situation. Worse yet, when the robbers force him to help move a cabinet to block a window, the cops mistakenly think he's the robber, the news gets word of this, and legions of his fans show up outside. He has some ideas from his movies to help (help the robbers, so they won't make a bad situation worse), but mostly he's as powerless as any hostage. It's really a long joke about the difference between movies and reality, and at times it gets surprisingly bitter (there's a breaking-the-fourth-wall monologue that's the heart of the movie and seems shockingly sincere and angry). Yeah, I have new respect for the Muscles from Brussels. Maybe not enough to look forward to "Universal Soldiers III", but enough to enjoy this movie.

Jason watches "The Day the Earth Stood Still"

And it sucks.

Okay, I've come to terms with the fact that Hollywood feels it has to remake everything. I don't like it, but I accept that these things happen, and they happen for a good reason ($$$). And if you're going to remake a movie, you might as well have a different take on it, bring something new to the table. So I'm not going to rant about the differences from the original.

However, if you're going to remake a movie (or for that matter, make any movie), you might as well make it good. All "The Day the Earth Stood Still" has going for it are special effects that would impress anyone who hasn't seen a blockbuster SFX movie in 10 years. Things dun git dee-stroyed reel good! And I guess there's something poetic about Keanu Reeves playing someone who doesn't know how to be human--finally a use for his "I don't even know how to stand around and talk" acting style. But the moral is all wrong. We don't need to destroy all humans to save the planet, just the guy who wrote this crappy dialogue. They even made Jennifer Connelly sound stupid.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Jason watches "Rachel Getting Married"

The point of this movie is that not everything revolves around Anne Hathaway's character, and she has to learn that. However, this movie totally revolves around Anne Hathaway. She's no longer the little girl in "The Princess Diaries" (which I never saw). And she's not just the pair of tits that straight men used to justify watching "Brokeback Mountain". Now she's a great actress, and pretty damn cool.

She plays Kym, who gets out of rehab for the weekend to attend her sister Rachel's wedding. Of course, everything should revolve around Rachel, but that just doesn't work for Kym, and hilarious dysfunctional family antics ensue. Okay, maybe not always so hilarious--the description of how she drove off a bridge and killed her little brother is not played for laughs (how the hell could you?), and there's a hell of a lot of pathos and fighting. What's really interesting is the depiction of how addiction and the horror it wrought continues to tear the family apart, even though she never goes back to using. The movie leans on a great many cliches, but thankfully doesn't fall back on that one. Anne Hathaway is the star, but it really is an all-around excellent cast that mostly overcomes the cliches of the story. Even the supporting players are interesting, especially the groom and his odd assortment of friends and family. And the wedding itself was very inventive, with a musical mix of all sorts of styles (African American, Indian, Jewish, etc.). It's a bit overrated (87% on the tomatometer), but still pretty good.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Jason watches "W"

And the acting is great, it's very well made. W's daddy issues are pretty obvious, and I suspect a bit of fiction. His young wild days are well known, and therefore not too interesting. Probably the most interesting side story is Colin Powell, and particularly his relationship with Dick Cheney (how the architects of the first gulf war split over strategy in the second gulf war).

But ultimately, I found out I don't care about W, in the movie or in real life. This guy is still leader of the free world, and he's been rendered irrelevant. So no matter how well made it is, my response is still "so what".

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Jason watches "Milk" and drinks martinis

A small group of my friends from work decided to go up and see "Milk" at the best possible venue for it--the Castro. So we got there early, had a few drinks and dinner before the movie, and lots more drinks after, ending with my passing out on a bus and waking home! Woo hoo, my blotto-pilot works! But that's another story, let's just talk about the movie.

Gus Van Sant starts the movie with the assassination of Harvey Milk (mixing in archival news footage of Dianne Feinstein, who was then president of the SF Board of Supervisors, announcing the tragic news). This is a very good move, starting with getting us past his death so we can celebrate his life. Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn, in a role that will probably win at least an Oscar nomination) was a gay man, business owner, and activist, known as the "Mayor of Castro Street" in 1970's. He ran for the SF board of supervisors many times, finally winning in 1977 (after redistricting put the Castro together with the Haight, so he only had to win the gays and the hippies to get elected). In office he passed a strong gay rights law, and quickly became friends with most of the board and mayor George Moscone. Dan White (Josh Brolin, who also deserves award consideration for his great job humanizing the villain) was another supervisor, an ex-cop and a conservative Irish Catholic. Milk tried to work with him (and there's speculation in the movie that he was a closeted homosexual himself), but ultimately the working relationship soured. In November of 1978 Dan White resigned from the board, only to reverse his decision days later. Too late, mayor Moscone was not going to give him his job back, so Dan White snuck into city hall (prying open a basement window to bypass the metal detectors at the front doors), emptied his gun into mayor Moscone, reloaded, went to Milk's office, called Milk into his office, and emptied his gun a second time into Milk. He was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder on a plea of temporary insanity.

The movie only mentions the trial in a brief postscript, in which is mischaracterizes the famed "Twinkie defense" (Snopes has a good article about it, and there could be a complete movie just about the trial). For the record, I'm not saying it's right that Dan White wasn't convicted of murder, I'm just saying that the story of the case is a lot more complicated than "jurors bought this ridiculous twinkie defense".

Anyway, the movie is fantastic, and there's no better place to see it than the Castro (which is featured in the movie), and of course there was a big, enthusiastic crowd there. In fact, it was a sell-out even though it's been out for more than a week (although I can attest that there were a few empty seats left in the corners up front. I've still only ever seen one completely full I-can't-find-an-empty-seat-anywhere sellout at the Castro).

Jason watches "Australia"

Baz Luhrmann is probably the most highly regarded director who consistently frustrates me. His first film, "Strictly Ballroom", was a masterpiece. And since then he's failed to match it, despite all the promise. His movies always look beautiful, stunning even, but the story has consistently let me down. His "Romeo + Juliet" was visually great, but shoe-horning it into a modern setting (while staying strictly faithful to Shakespeare's text) came off as silly more often than clever. "Moulin Rouge" amped the visuals up even more, but there were barely even characters, just larger-than-life emotional archetypes and the modern pop songs in a musical was silly (again). But still, I have enough hope that when I hear of a new Baz Luhrmann movie, I want it to be great.

And "Australia" is...not great. But I'd call it his second best after "Strictly Ballroom". The visuals are still there, of course. But now he again has a story that almost matches. The story is still rife with silliness, but if you look at it as an homage to movies of the late 30's/early 40's ("The Wizard of Oz" plays a prominent role in the movie), the silliness almost works in context. Nicole Kidman plays and Hugh Jackman break the monopoly on Australian beef by droving their herd to Darwin. David Wenham is the baddy (and quite a bit over the top in the role). And it's all told through the eyes of a half-breed boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), ridiculed as a "creamy" and not welcome in either world (except, of course, by Nicole Kidman). Aboriginal magic (e.g, the magic of song) plays prominently. BTW, this is one of my pet peeves, assuming that native people are more magical or spiritual than the white invaders. It's just so freakin' cliche. And that's really what holds this movie back--storywise it's a string of giant cliches. But as I said, if I think of it as a 30's or 40's movie, it works better. Oh yeah, and the bombing of Darwin that's featured so prominently in the trailers--that's really just the final act. It's far more a cattle drive movie than a WWII movie.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Jason watches "Repo! The Genetic Opera"

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Last night I went to the fabulous Parkway Theater, the original Oakland speakeasy theater where you can get a pitcher of beer and a pizza (or nachos, sammiches, etc) to enjoy during the movie. And this was a movie that goes very well with beer.

It's very, very difficult to intentionally make a cult classic film. Cult film fans can tell when you're pandering to them, and they don't respect it. In fact, most cult classics are films that are so far out there that you can't imagine the filmmakers thinking about an audience at all--they make the film for themselves and if a cult finds it, good for them.

With that said, "Repo! The Genetic Opera" is still perfectly primed to become a cult classic (and judging by the members of the N. Cal Repo Army singing along last night, it already is). Sometime in the near future, organ failures have become an epidemic. In steps Geneco, the corporate answer for organ transplants. You can even finance your transplant at a reasonable rate. However, if you can't keep up the payments they send in a Repo Man to take back their property (organs with ubiquitous bar codes, gotta love it). There's also a powerful (and powerfully addictive) painkiller harvested from corpses. And the founder of Geneco, Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) has a terminal disease. Problem is his two sons (Bill Mosely and Nivek Ogre of Skinny Puppy) are either obnoxious or hideous, and his daughter (played by Paris Hilton) is a total skank (big stretch for her, but I actually have more respect after her self-mocking role). There's a battle for his inheritance, and there's a love triangle from 17 years back, with murder, revenge, and a poor imprisoned daughter who might just be the perfect heir (and her father, Anthony Head, as the ultimate secret Repo Man). There's also Blind Mag, the voice of Geneco and recipient of their first eye transplant. And as if the plot wasn't operatic enough, it's an actual opera, so it's all sung. And it's directed Darren Lynn Bousman who also directed Saws II through IV, so you know the set design is appropriately gory and creepy. But it moves along at comic-book pace (in fact, with comic book intertitles to move it along faster) so that the gore is presented as comedy more than horror. Think a sensibility more akin to Peter Jackson's "Braindead" (or "Dead Alive" as the US version is called) than any of the Saw movies.

So yeah, it was perfect to watch while drinking beer, but I assume I would've enjoyed it sober, too ('cuz I'm that kinda guy). So maybe it doesn't have a beerequisite, but there's certainly beer-hancement to be had.

Oh, and if I happen to have any readers who live in the Anchorage area and have nothing to do after say, the end of this month, "Repo!" will be playing at the Anchorage Film Festival. It plays December 6 at 10:15 at the Bear Tooth Theater. Coincidentally, that's another theater where you can get beer and pizza during the movie. I think this film has found it's type of venue.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum to see "Election Day", "Pass the Gravy", and "The Lost Express"

Another Saturday night, another good time at the Niles Film Museum.

The night started with a couple of Hal Roach shorts. First up was Our Gang in "Election Day". Apropos to recent history (or to show how far we've gone), it's election day and the kids are bullying Farina (the black kid) not to go to town until election day is over. Never mind the logic that kids can't vote, there's a pretty clear racial element to it--suppress the black vote. Trouble is, Farina and his sister need to deliver the laundry to their customers. So they come up with wacky schemes and costumes, scare the crap out of a bunch of people, and end up breaking up a gangland plot to steal the election.

Of course, election day is history, but Thanksgiving is coming up. So in a Niles Film Museum tradition, they played the hilarious Max Davidson short "Pass the Gravy". Max plays the head of a household. His neighbor Schultz is a chicken farmer with a prize winning rooster Brigham (a poke at Mormon leader and infamous polygamist Brigham Young). Max's daughter and Shultz's son are engaged, and so Max sends his son Ignatz to get a chicken for a feast. But Ignatz pockets the $2 and grabs whatever chicken he can find running around...and you can guess which one he grabs. One of the funniest things I've ever seen.

Then an intermission, and then Helen Holmes in "The Lost Express" (with her great-granddaughter in attendance). Helen Holmes was a famous actress/stuntwoman who starred in the "Hazards of Helen" series (a competitor of the more famous "Perils of Pauline"). This is a few years after her height of fame, and not a "Hazards of Helen" movie. But it is an exciting railroad action flick, based around a millionaire named Morgan inheritance. He doesn't like his son-in-law Arthur Standish, so he cut him out of his will, bestowing his inheritance on his granddaughter Alice, who's travelling to meet him by train (he's on his own train). However, the Standish tracks her down and tries to steal her back. Meanwhile robbers hijack Morgan's train, Morgan's daughter (Standish's wife) and her brother are travelling to find Morgan and convince him to reconsider. And finally, Helen Holmes appears as a railroad employee who tracks down the robbers and (along with everyone else) saves the day using her trademark jumps onto trains (Holmes did most of her own stunts). Pretty cool.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Jason goes to the last night of the SVJFF--Nov 19, 2008

So I didn't go all-out at the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival like I have in previous years, but I still caught five movies there, and had a good time. One last movie last Wednesday, a drama of orthodoxy, rabbinical studies, and lesbianism--"The Secrets".

Naomi is the daughter of a famous rabbi, and an excellent student. She's arranged to be married, but begs her father to study for a year in an all-girls seminary first (which is frivolous, since women can't become rabbis, but she always loved studying so much). There she meets Michelle, a french student who's a bit of a rebel. As part of their duties, they bring groceries to a secretive shut-in woman named Anouk. Anouk is very sick, and can barely walk. But Naomi has been secretly studying Kabala (the seminary is in Safed, which was an ancient Kabalistic city), and devises a cleansing ritual for Anouk. All they have to do is sneak into the (male only) baths after hours. During this ritual they have to bathe naked together, and that awakens a little something in Naomi and Michelle. Okay, this will always be pitched as a "lesbian" movie but really the lesbianism is very brief and handled very sensitively. It's more a movie about overcoming fears and being true to yourself and to your faith. From that point of view it's a very well made, and extremely well acted movie. The story is sort of slow ("deliberate" is the polite word), and the ending is a bit ambiguous. I'd give it high marks for production design, very high marks for acting, and middling marks for story.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Jason goes to the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival--Nov 16

I only had time to fit in one movie yesterday, but it was a good one. "I Have Never Forgotten You" is the definitive documentary of the life and legacy of Simon Wiesenthal.

Wiesenthal was, of course, best known as the world's biggest "Nazi Hunter", and the center that bears his name created the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (it also produced this film through Moriah Films). I learned about Simon Wiesenthal mostly in the 80's and 90's, when he was an old man receiving many awards for a life of great work. But I had never really heard his whole story. I knew he was a Holocaust survivor. I didn't know he was an architect (the two of his buildings that still survive are shown in the film). I didn't know about how he became a Nazi hunter, working with the American officers investigating war crimes. I didn't know about how his testimony was invaluable because he took such detailed notes (and drew pictures of it all). I didn't know how after the American office closed, he opened his own office. I didn't know about his struggles to keep his office open, I'd figured who wouldn't fund an office of Nazi hunters? I didn't know how he struggled in anonymity until the famous arrest of Adolf Eichmann. I especially didn't know (and was disturbed by) how he was a controversial character in Vienna, Austria, where he settled with his wife (who also miraculously survived the Holocaust) and opened his office. Politicians vilified him (even to the point where a Jewish politician questioned how he could've survived the Holocaust, implying he might've been a conspirator), and alternatively he got in trouble for not attacking a politician who had been a low level Nazi foot soldier but not a war criminal. The most illuminating point was that Nazi-hunting was not widely respected or revered. When the majority wanted to forget, he refused to. And it was decades of struggle before he was widely recognized as a hero. Well, after watching this I will never forget him.

After the film, we had a discussion with a pair of special guests. The producer/director Richard Trank and local businessman Jack Tramiel, who survived the Holocaust, moved to America, learned to fix typewriters, and eventually founded Commodore Computers and now is the majority owner of Atari. Here are Jack and Richard talking with the audience:

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for Comedy Shorts Night

Always the most popular night of the month at the Edison Theater. But tonight it was bittersweet, as Niles Film Museum board member and emcee Tommy Andrew passed away over the last week. I've only started going to the Niles Film Museum this year, so I didn't have a chance to get to know Tommy very well. But one thing I noticed about him right away is he always liked a good joke. Or a bad joke (like the one about the Olympic athlete who was so excited to win a gold medal he went out and had it bronzed). So on the one hand it seems appropriate to remember him with a comedy night. On the other hand, it seems like such a shame that if he held on just a few more days he could've seen one more comedy night.

Anyway, enough of remembering Tommy, lets get to the movies, starting with a little Chaplin in "The Adventurer". Chaplin is an escaped convict running from the police. After a wacky chase, he ends up in the water where he rescues a beautiful lady (Chaplin's longtime leading lady Edna Purviance), her mother (Marta Golden), and her suitor (common Chaplin heavy, the gigantic Eric Campbell. They take him into their home, not knowing he's a wanted criminal, and a lot more wacky hijinx ensue during a fancy party.

Next up was Buster Keaton in "Convict 13". Keaton is an inept golfer who knocks himself out with a ricochet ball. An escaped convict sees him lying there and switches clothes with him. The police chase Keaton, ending with him in jail first as a prisoner, then a guard, then assistant warden (obviously it took an extreme series of wacky hijinx to pull off that transition).

Then an intermission, and then back with Keaton and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in "Coney Island" (shot on location in Coney Island). Fatty's trying to escape from his wife and pick up another girl. Keaton is one of his rivals (specifically, the one with no money). By the way, this is so early in Keaton's career that (according to IMDb) he was uncredited in the role (and the role of the mustachioed policeman). But not only that, this was so early that "The Great Stone Face" actually cracked a smile and laughed. That was a little freaky. Oh, by the way, at various moments people end up in jail--because that's the theme of the night.

And then "The Second Hundred Years" starts with Laurel and Hardy in (surprise) jail! They escape, and the first thing they do is steal clothes from a pair of visiting dignitaries. Those dignitaries happen to be visiting french policemen, who are there to visit the prison. So after some high society hijinx, they end up right back in prison.

And finally, one last movie was added in honor of Tommy Andrew. I didn't know that Tommy was an avid roller skater, both a professional in his younger days and a volunteer and a judge in his later day. In honor of that, they played Charlie Chaplin's "The Rink". Charlie's a waiter, but passes himself off as Sir Cecil Seltzer (C.O.D.), and causes quite a bit of havoc in a roller skating rink--almost as much havoc as he creates in the restaurant. The leading lady is once again Edna Purviance and the heavy again is Eric Campbell.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Jason watches "Quantum of Solace"

I'm still getting used to this "gritty" James Bond, even though I really liked "Casino Royale". Daniel Craig is a great actor, and does fine work here, but the movie felt flat. You have to remember and care what happened in the last movie for much of this to make sense. There's a lot about trust between Bond and M. And a plot about water supply that was neither a surprise nor really resolved--I expect it to continue in the next movie, so I'll have to try not to forget what happened here. Unfortunately, that might be kind of difficult.

Also, along with the "gritty" look the Bond franchise has officially fallen pray to the "shaky-cam" action scene cliche. I miss action movies where you could actually follow the action. A good filmmaker can convey that a scene is exciting without shaking the camera around like a drunk baboon.

Jason watches "Changeling"

And it's a big meaty slice of Oscar-bait, including a reference to the Academy Awards of 1935. And if there's one man I'd pay to Oscar-bait in front of me, it's Clint Eastwood. Still, this is not his best work. It's just so over-the-top emotional Lifetime movie material blown up on the big screen. Sure, it's based on a true story, but somehow it still doesn't seem realistic. Mostly because the mannerisms of 1930's Los Angeles seem unreal. And also because Angelina Jolie still can't act. She's pretty and all, and makes a valiant effort here, but lost whatever she had when she won the award for best supporting actress in "Girl, Interrupted".

Or maybe I'm just jaded. They say actresses win awards for crying and actors win awards for not crying. She does both at various times, so maybe she's a shoe-in. Or maybe it looks so much like asking for an award that she and the whole movie come off as desperate. Anyway, John Malkovich was cool as the radio preacher/anti-corruption crusader who takes up her cause. Oh yeah, I guess I should mention the plot. Angelina Jolie's son is kidnapped, the police bring her one who looks kind of like him, and throw her in the psycho ward when she insists he's not her son. Again, based on a true story.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jason watches "Max Payne"

Dude, I've got this great idea for a movie--a good cop is haunted by the murder of his wife and baby, and searches for the killer even as his career has suffered! Wait, there's more--there's a super-soldier serum! But wait, there's more! The super-serum is flawed, so that while it makes the villain nigh-invulnerable, it makes 99% of the users insane! Plus, it was created by a corrupt corporation that tried to cover up its existence! Ummm...there's some junior high level Norse mythology? The hero's name is a pun? It's based on a video game? Is there anything that would make you want to see this movie?

I snuck into this movie after "Rock n Rolla", and I still want my money back. Add this to the list of lines I never thought I'd type: "Mark Wahlberg, this is beneath you".

Jason watches "Rock n Rolla"

I never saw "Swept Away", I'll take the world's word that it sucked. Given that, Guy Ritchie seems to be the definition of a one-trick pony. His trick--needlessly showy, needlessly complicated, nonsensical gangster flicks. And when it comes to that kind of movie...this is one of them. There's over-the-top style, pace, humor, and characters that are interchangeable with anyone in "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" or "Snatch". In fact, the only thing I can think of that distinguishes this movie from his previous efforts is that the ending promises a sequel ("The Real Rock n Rolla"). Too bad his shtick is so tired I don't care.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Jason goes to the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival--Nov 9

Formerly called the San Jose Jewish Film Festival, it's expanded. I've missed the first half because I was at Docfest, but I'm there for the last two weekends.

Last Sunday I saw three shows (the fourth one scheduled was one I'd already seen at the SF Jewish Film Festival). First up was the family program "Sixty Six", based on "true-ish" story. Bernie Reubens is an unathletic little nerd, picked for sports after the kid with polio. His brother is a bit of a bully, and he's doomed to a life of miserable anonymity. Then he learns about the Bar Mitzvah--the day you become a man and when all your friends and relatives throw a big party where you're the center of attention. So he throws all his effort into planning the greatest Bar Mitzvah--nay, the greatest party of any kind--ever! And things are going along okay, despite some financial setbacks from his dad. That is, until he finds out that his Bar Mitzvah is scheduled the exact same day as the World Cup Finals. Oh yeah, the title comes from the year--1966, when the World Cup was held in England. Oh yeah, the movie's British. So yeah, everyone is nuts about the English team--heavy underdogs, but they're playing at home. So if England makes the finals, no one will be at his party. So he throws himself into becoming the ultimate football (soccer, for us Americans) expert, and is the only Englishman cheering against England. Well, if you're at all a soccer fan (or know how to look stuff up online), you know how it ends. But the trip there is a funny story of finally learning to grow the hell up, even if it's a bloody miserable experience.

The next show started with a short, "A Trip to Prague". Neil Needleman tells the story of how he goes to visit Prague after his parents die (they loved Prague). He meets a nice couple who tells him "You know what a good Jewish boy like you needs? A good Jewish girl!" Too bad he's not into girls....

Then the haunting historical epic "Villa Jasmine", about a young Jewish man named Serge travels to Tunisia with his pregnant wife. His father (also named Serge) lived and died in Tunisia, in a home he dubbed "Villa Jasmine". He was a newspaper writer and a communist organizer (decrying at night with a pen name what he celebrated in the social column during the day). As a young man in Tunisia in the 1920's he was a well-known part of the Jewish community, and life was good. But the 20's became the 30's, and that became a time when it was not good to be a Jew. Tunisia was a French colony, and soon became a Vichy French colony, and soon became a Nazi stronghold in North Africa. The movie glides back and forth from modern day with Serge the son looking for stories of his father and Serge the father speaking up for his Tunisia. Parallel love stories develop as young Serge all but ignores his wife in his obsessive quest, the same way his father did for his cause. It took me a little while to get into the story and understand what the movie was doing, but it was ultimately rewarding.

The theme of the day--and I suppose a theme of a great deal of Jewish film, as well as film in general--was family, specifically how your dysfunctional family messes you the hell up. And in no movie was that more clear than the hilarious, "My Mexican Shiva". Moishe Tartakovsky dies of a heart attack, and all his family and friends gather for the traditional 7 days of mourning and remembrance. And that's when we learn how messed up they all are, starting with his gentile mistress. His daughter is so stressed out she flips out over a loose tooth. His grandson returns from Israel as a devout Jewish scholar, but is picked up for an outstanding drug rap. Meanwhile his granddaughter has a crush on the grandson (her cousin) and flirts with him. His son is looking for a doctor for a rather delicate favor. And the guy giving the toast feels like the family is treating him criminally (for getting distracted and never letting him finish the toast). And then there's some craziness. Over all of it, the angels Aleph and Bet watch and count his good qualities (light angels) and bad qualities (dark angels), kind of like a Greek chorus. Hilarious and all over the place, but it somehow all ties together in a funny little package. And an interesting look at Judaism in Mexico (and the Catholic maids who don't understand what the heck is going on).

Jason celebrates Baby Peggy's 90th Birthday

This weekend the Niles Silent Film Museum hosted a birthday party for the original child star (and pre-cursor to stars such as Shirley Temple), Baby Peggy--now known as Diana Sera Carey (and the writer of many Hollywood histories, including her own autobiography).

Here's the 90-year young Diana Carey, still spry, still beautiful, still very funny, and still with dimples when she smiles:

Yesterday there were three programs of her movies. First up in the morning program was a documentary "Baby Peggy in the Vaults", made for her 90th birthday party (and, BTW, they were still shooting the documentary at her party, as well as new silent film footage. So yours truly is a silent film extra!) Fascinating look at film preservation in a vault in the Netherlands. A strange thing about silent film preservation, often Europe was the end of the line for silent distribution, and the films stayed there because either the studios didn't want them back or the exhibitors in Europe didn't care to ship them back. Luckily, Europeans were typically much better at storing and archiving the films, so a good many of the films I saw yesterday were intertitled in Danish, or Czech, or French and German. And translating 1920's American slang into Czech and back into modern American English is pretty tough, so we had some interesting translations. Anyway, it was fascinating to watch footage from the original stored nitrate prints. And every time the nitrate broke, my heart froze up for a second.

Then we saw a couple Baby Peggy shorts, "Circus Clowns" and "A Muddy Bride". "Circus Clowns" was missing the beginning, where Peggy was apparently kidnapped and forced to work in the Circus with her trained dog Brownie (a common co-star of hers). "A Muddy Bride" was missing even more, but what was there was still pretty funny.

Then a break for lunch, and then the afternoon program, starting with the short "Miles of Smiles". It starts with twin babies, one sneaks off and is almost run over by a train. The train conductor adopts her, and in a few years she becomes Baby Peggy and is taught to drive a train (a lot of the Baby Peggy humor is based on her doing adult things). However, she gets mistaken for her twin, and wacky hijinx ensue (with some pretty cool trick photography to allow Peggy to play both twin parts).

Oh yeah, did I mention that Diana Carey herself introduced each movie and told funny stories about it? Well, she did.

Then the afternoon feature was "Helen's Babies", which is famous for being one of Clara Bow's earliest works. And Carey had funny stories about how Clara was making so many other movies and didn't really know what she was doing so she'd come in with different colored hair every day. Anyway, Peggy plays the youngest of two girls. Their uncle Harry (played by Edward Everett Horton) is a famous child psychologist who has written a book on child-rearing that their parents live by. Funny how he can know so much, being a bachelor who has never spent any time with children. So when he comes for a rest at their place, the parents decide it's safe for them to take a little vacation and leave the girls in his care. Oops! Clara Bow is the neighbor, and love interest for Uncle Harry. Very, very funny.

And then another break, go get dinner, run some errands, and then back for the evening show. Oh, but first I bought her autobiography Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy? and got her to sign it. Cool!

First short of the evening was "Peg 'O the Mounted". Shot in Yosemite (standing in for Canada), she's in camp when a Mountie comes in badly wounded. Seems he's overcome by the fumes as he was chasing some moonshiners. Well, Peggy's daddy made her a little Mountie uniform, so she puts it on, runs off, and catches the moonshiners herself. By the way, I should mention how many gags in all her movies involve her (obviously a dummy model) being thrown around. Nowadays, these scenes get a gasp and then a chuckle. I assume violence against babies used to be much, much funnier.

Next up was a truly bizarre short (possibly missing half the footage, or maybe just a bizarre movie). "Carmen, Jr." is sort of a children's version of the opera Carmen. In that it has the characters--the toreador, the beautiful lady, etc. And it has the beautiful costumes. But it doesn't have the story. The story is that Baby Peggy is a tough, butch girl who beats up the boys. Then she decides to be a beautiful lady and enter into romance. She dances a tango, then passes out and dreams she's a bullfighter. That captures pretty much all the characters, and none of the story. And it was hilarious (especially the bullfight scene)!

And the final short was "The Kid Reporter". Peggy is the secretary to a mean editor at a newspaper. A woman comes in with a story of a stolen pearl necklace. The editor offers a reward to the first reporter who solves the case--he will be made chief editor. Peggy's just a little girl, but if she dresses up as a man (complete with mustache and monocle--which is hard to keep on while being thrown upside-down) she can crack the case. Not just a funny movie, but a sly take on women's lib (that what's keeping her down isn't that she's 4 years old, it's that she's a girl).

Then we took a brief intermission to sing Happy Birthday to her and eat some birthday cake. That's right, a day full of movies--and cake! What could be better?

And finally, the feature was the heartwarming story of "Captain January" (remade a decade later by Shirley Temple). Peggy plays the title character, the ward of the old lighthouse keeper Daddy Judkins. She washed up from a storm 5 years ago, and has been the light of his life (and an able and strong helper) ever since. Busybodies in town think that's no way for a girl to grow up, and want to take her away to an orphanage. They fight them, with the help of the town preacher, who is a decent, honorable, and honest man. But when a yacht runs aground and a passenger recognizes Peggy as her niece, she's taken away to live in a Boston mansion. Both her and Judkins are heartbroken, so she sneaks away to come back to him. A beautiful, charming tearjerker.

And then more cake. And that was the end.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Jason looks at all the movie events happening around the Bay Area

And then his head explodes.

So now that Docfest is finally over, I thought I'd look and see what movies to watch this weekend. Maybe catch a few general release movies, but also check out what's going on in film fests.

Well, both the American Indian Film Festival and the Latino Film Festival opened today (Friday). I've wanted to go to the AIFF for several years. Maybe I'll make it up a night or two next week, but I can't this weekend. I finally made it to some of the Latino Film Festival last year (when it came down to San Jose). Hopefully I'll make a little more of it this year. But I do want to tell all of my readers to go see my favorite movie of the year. Sunday night, 8:30 at the Brava Theater is "La Antena (The Aerial)", which I saw at Cinequest (scroll to the bottom of the page) and is brilliant.

Right in my backyard, the Niles Silent Film Museum is holding a 90th Birthday Bash for Baby Peggy. That's all day Saturday and a matinee show on Sunday. I'm planning on doing that Saturday.

Then I've already missed half of the Silicon Valley (formerly San Jose) Jewish Film Festival. But I plan to make up for that by seeing a few films on Sunday and maybe a couple more next weekend.

I'm sure I've missed some. I haven't even looked at the new schedule for the PFA. And I still have general release movies I want to see. And I might just want to get some rest. I remember what rest feels like.

Anyway, happy movie watching and good night!

Jason watches "Christmas on Mars"

And it's weird, really weird. Existential doubt, a magical green man, lots of vaginal symbols, created by The Flaming Lips. Things are falling apart, so Major Syrtis decides to hold a Christmas pageant. And then things just get worse. Psychosis, suicides, malfunctions, etc. Fred Armisen singing "Silent Night".

I propose a new contest. Go on IMDb and find the movie with the strangest pair of recommendations. "Christmas on Mars" gives you "Elf" and "Eraserhead". Beat that. Ummm...I have nothing to give away. So whoever wins thousand Internet points?

Jason watches "Zack and Miri Make a Porno"

Two words: Fucking funny.

Jason has a magic suit that makes him immune to radiation!

You know what the difference is between me and you? I make this look good:

This suit is made out of Demron, which as near as I can tell is a complicated mix of science (they use words like "polymer" and "nano") and magic (they won't publish the specs_. But it's been tested by the military, so it must be good!
The goggles and gloves are 0.5 mm Pb equivalent. That's good. Not shown are the neck and gonad shields, since their still on order. It's sort of flattering to know that someone, somewhere, is specially constructing a product to protect my balls.

Jason goes to the final night of Docfest

Finally. This really was the festival that never ended. But when it did, it ended on a really good note.

First up was the short "With a Stroke of the Chaveta". A chaveta is the knife used in cigar making to cut the tobacco leaf. But this movie is only partly about cigar rollers. Really, it's about a profession I've never heard of--professional reader (or "lectora"). Dating back over a century ago, the cigar rolling houses would have rows and rows of tables where workers roll cigars. And they'd have one person sitting above them and reading to them. Classic literature, novels, newspapers, whatever. This was standard from Cuba to New York. Now, it's really only done in Cuba, but they are holding on tightly to this tradition. The movie interviews a handful of readers and the cigar makers, who talk about the democratic process they use to select a reader and the reading material. Very interesting.

And finally, the last feature I saw at Docfest was "The Rich Have Their Own Photographers". For the rest of us, we have Milton Rogovin. Milton was an optometrist in Buffalo, NY. He was also a radical organizer in the 40's and 50's, and the HUAC fingered him as "the top red in Buffalo". He was blacklisted and his optometry business folded. His wife Annie supported them as a teacher (she passed away recently, but had won awards for pioneering work in sepcial education techniques), and he took up photography. There's a balance in his work of art and social documentary. He started with social documentary photography, capturing the poor people of Buffalo's lower west side (In a series which he just called lower west side, making it Every City, U. S. A.). He photographed the working class, especially miners. There's a brilliant series he did of miners at work and then at home, showing the contrast between work and home life, and also showing why they worked as hard as they did. There's an amazing quality to his photographs, one that's best shown than described. My favorite is the little angry looking girl in Appalachia (third row down, second from the right). I can't really express why it moves me so much. I think there's a mix of poverty and dignity, pride despite hard times, a bent but not broken spirit. There are quite a few interviews in the film, but for the most part they let Rogovin and his photographs speak for themselves. Rogovin is probably the best at explaining and describing why he took the pictures, so most of the interview time is spent on him. BTW, Rogovin is still alive (but not working), and looking forward to his 99th birthday next month.

And here's a really lousy, unlit cell-phone snapshot of director Ezra Bookstein:

And that was Docfest, 2008.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 17

Or at least Day some big number.  The important thing is I saw another pile of movies last Sunday, and I have one more day of the festival to go (one final movie Thursday night).  Let's go.

The day started with a short film, "Peter and Ben" about a lonely farmer living in a remote valley in Wales, and the little sheep he loves.  But not that way...get your mind out of the freakin' gutter!  Actually, it's really sweet.

Then the feature, "The Linguists", about a pair of linguists who travel the world recording a few of the thousands of nearly extinct languages left.  It's as much an anthropological story as a story of language, and it plays out as a weird sort of race-against-time action movie.  They travel to Siberia to find Chulym speakers (in one weird scene, a Chulym curse word is actually bleeped out, which I thought was hilarious).  They travel to a boarding school in India.  Typically boarding schools are death camps for native languages--native speakers are forced to speak a common language (in this case either Hindi or English).  But they arrive and document the languages the students speak at home.  They travel to Bolivia and actually record for the first time ever Kallawaya, a language that has lived with just dozens of speakers for generations.  The speakers are all healers, and the language is key to their native medicine (and conversely the medicine could also be responsible for keeping their language alive).  Even in the U.S., they interview a man in the Southwest who may be the last speaker of his native American language.  You might not think there's anything interesting about obscure foreign languages, but this movie will prove you wrong.  And I'm saying that as someone who's been frustrated with foreign languages and has no facility for picking it up.

Okay, I've said this many times in this festival, but next up was possibly the weirdest movie in Docfest.  "In a Dream" is the life and art of Isaiah Zagar, a mosaic artist who has documented his life and love of his wife and family for decades on the walls of his South Philly neighborhood.  He's a narcissist, a nut, a great artist, a cheat, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and a loving father.  In fact, it was his son Jeremiah--at the urging of Julia Zagar (Isaiah's wife and Jeremiah's mother)--who made this movie.  It's a portrait of a brilliant, tortured workaholic, who managed to forge a monument to his life and love.  A life that comes crashing down when he confesses to an affair with his assistant.  This is made even worse by the fact that his other son Ezekial has come home to live (and get off of a drug addiction) after divorcing his wife.  Suddenly the testament to a great but odd family turns into a document of a family dissolving in front of our eyes.  But in all of's still absolutely beautiful, for which credit should be shared by both Isaiah for his art and Jeremiah for his filmmaking.  Very, very strange.

Next up was "Dear Zachary".  I saw it at Cinequest, and it was very traumatic there.  Still traumatic.  In fact, not only can I not write about it again, I can't even re-read my previous review.  However, this did remind me to write a letter both to the Canadian justice minister (regarding bail reform) and to my senators (regarding extradition protocols with Canada).  I'll do that...soon.

Then there was a locally made movie about ethnic minority girls growing up in the East Bay.  "Going on 13" stars 4 girls from the age of 8-9 to 13.  Ariana is African American, and goes from wanting to be a basketball to wanting to be a lawyer (after the movie, she's moved on to wanting to be a teacher).  Esmerelda is Mexican-American.  A good student, and the first girl to have a secret boyfriend.  Isha is Indian, and returns to India every summer to visit family.  She's in a very traditional family, and respects that as much as she can, although she also gets drawn into American culture and posts on Internet chat rooms as "ghetto girl" or "cutie pie".  And finally, Rosie is a mixed race Latina (Anglo-American mother with Nicaraguan father).  She might be the smartest of the four (has nearly straight A's, likes to read books), but also might have the most difficult home life (mother suffers from PTSD).  But I shouldn't imply that the other girls aren't smart (frankly, I'm not even sure Rosie is the best student, or that such a comparison is meaningful).  They're all good students, they all have pretty ordinary problems both at home and at school.  But they're all handling it in their own way with their own source of strength.  This isn't a movie about how difficult it is growing up minority.  Or growing up more lower-middle class, or growing up in East SF Bay (where some neighborhoods are tough, but most really are okay).  Rather, it's an antidote to those stereotypical stories.  These are young girls making their way through real life.  And it's refreshing.  Here's a pic of directors Dawn Valadez and Kristy Guevera-Flanagan, with Isha in the background.

And here's another pic with (from left to right) Kristy, Isha, her mother, Ariana, and her mother:

And, by the way, this was my 365th feature-length movie program in theaters this year.  For the second year in a row, I've topped a movie a day for the full year.


And that is that.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Jason has a birthday Shocktoberfest at the Hypnodrome

It's that time of year for the Thrillpeddlers big Grand Guignol show, Shocktoberfest!  And this year, I chose to see it on my birthday (Halloween), with as many of my friends who could make it.  So thank you Cynthia, Ira, Alan, Keith, Gerry, and everyone else there!  

The show runs through Nov 22, and it's a good one.  So all my SF Bay readers, check it out.

For those of you who don't know what Grand Guignol is...go learn about it here.  But, in a nutshell, it was a small theater in Paris, now a style of theater specializing in gory special effects and appealing to the baser instincts of mankind.  A typical evening is a series of short plays, some funny (often sex farces), and some scary (and very bloody).  

Oh yeah, and you can get a beer or wine there to help calm your nerves (or just make everything more fun)

The show started with "A Difficult Passage", a tale of danger and sadism in the frozen Yukon.  A group of Yale chums (Bonesmen both, named Bush and Prescott) are on their way to a mining camp where they're promised office jobs (family connections, of course).  But they've fallen into a hole, they're starving, and they've eaten the last of their sled dogs.  If only a Royal Canadian Mounted Police would save them.  Yes..."save" them....

Next was the comedy "A Slight Tingling" (which I had seen them perform before, but is still funny).  A sci-fi blood comedy based on the single line synopsis "Dr. Verdier has lost his scissors, and brings his last three patients back to try to find them."  Add a little imagination, a little wicked humor, and some magnetism, and a good time is had by all--even the confused transsexual.

Then it was intermission, allowing me to drain a little beer from my bladder, pour a little more beer down my throat, and do one of my favoritest things--help lead a sing-along to "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the player piano.  Woo hoo!

And then they even played Happy Birthday to me on the player piano.

And finally, the last play and the big, scary dramatic finish was "The Kindest Thing".  Set in the French embassy in China during the Boxer Rebellion.  The few remaining soldiers keep watch as cannons fire all about.  The ambassador keeps a brave face for his daughter, as the soldiers whisper about how if things get desperate they should kill her--it'd be the kindest thing, compared to the rumors they've heard of what the Chinese would do to her.  Particularly powerful in the staging is how the scene is facing the audience, implicating us in the horrors they witness.  And it all ends with lights out, glow-in-the-dark scares.  Lots of fun.

And finally, let me just give my congratulations to Thrillpeddler masters Russell Blackwood and James Toczyl on getting married last Saturday!  

And in my one act of political advocacy in this blog for this election season, I want to urge all my California readers to go out and vote No on 8 tomorrow!

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 16

I think it's day 16, I've lost count.  The important thing is I skipped Friday (so I could party at the Hypnodrome with my friends) and was back for a couple of movies on Saturday.

The first film I saw was "Chasing the Devil", an exposé into the world of the ex-gay movement.  Reparative therapy..."curing" homosexuality...whatever they call it.  The film explores--in as balanced a manner as possible--the different organizations and programs that claim they can cure gayness.  The most famous and controversial being Richard Cohen, who is really taken to task and shown contradicting himself over and over again (comparatively, everyone else gets off lightly).  Sometimes it seems silly (can you really cure homosexuality by singing show tunes and just changing the lyrics?), sometimes scary.  I say it's as balanced as possible, but it's impossible to go into this movie without your own personal or political biases.  So to me, it showed how ridiculous and misguided these programs are (some more than others, but all misguided).  And it interviews several people who would back up my point.  I suppose for others their experience might vary.  I will allow that it interviews multiple people who claim to be cured (or at least no longer practicing homosexuals, some of them still won't use the word "cured"), and they claim to be happier in their lives now.  As I say, people will find whatever evidence they want to find in this movie. 

Once again, the only direct political advocacy this election cycle on this blog (and then only on the night before the election)--CA readers, vote NO on 8.

So the next show started with a short about 'the hair down there.'  "Why We Wax" is a painfully funny movie.  Ya know, I can laugh at women torturing themselves to try and look appealing as much as any man does (and oh yes, we laugh).  But when infection sets in and the pronunciation of "pussy" changes, that's gone a little too far.  Gross.

Speaking of going too far, the feature "I Think We're Alone Now" is about...believe it or not...guys who are obsessed with 80's pop start Tiffany.  Jeff Turner of Santa Cruz, CA has Asperger's Syndrome, so he can remember every little fact about Tiffany but is a little weird to listen to and relate with.  But he's amusing and funny compared to the tragic story of Kelly McCormack, an intersex individual (she identifies as a woman) from Denver, Colorado and her life is sad enough I believe her when she says she'd probably kill herself if not for Tiffany.  Both have been called stalkers, although on that count Jeff is definitely more successful.  He'd also quickly point out that "stalker" is a word invented by the security industry, and something about plots by fascist world organizations to program people into becoming stalkers and actually attacking people.  No, he's not a stalker, he's a fan and a friend.  And that's the weird part (beyond the claims of fighting secret fascist organizations) is that it might be true.  Tiffany appears in the movie, and seems to know Jeff, talk to him, pose for pictures with him, and not be afraid of him (apparently the restraining order is a thing of the past...or her signature was faked to begin with).  I've never seen this kind of story from the stalker's superfan's point of view, and there's an interesting question of reliable narration.  I don't know what I can believe in this movie, but I know it was fun to watch.

Jeff Turner and his friend Doug Hawes (who is also in the movie) were there for a Q&A, where they expanded on the story quite a bit (including the claim above that Tiffany's signature on the restraining order was forged--that's not actually in the movie).  An interesting talk about Tiffany, Alyssa Milano (who is his current obsession), and fascist organizations.  That's still the biggest surprise of the film and the Q&A, and I don't know enough to know what's true.  In the Q&A Jeff explained how there are three secret fascist organizations trying to control the world.  They're fighting each other, and we better hope they keep fighting and don't team up against us.  He even claimed that a certain famous actress died some time ago secretly protecting him from threats from one of the fascist organizations.  I hope I'm being vague enough there that I'm not endangering him.  Anyway, here's a pic of Jeff and Doug talking to the audience:

Friday, October 31, 2008

Jason wins the Halloween costume contest at work

Not that I had the winning, I was the winning costume. The winner was the guy who came dressed up as me. He got the hair, beard, lab coat (stolen from me), he even made a San Jose Earthquakes shirt (when he couldn't find any in the stores). It's that attention to detail that is simultaneously flattering and scary. Thank you Robert!

BTW, in the above picture I'm the guy in the orange prison jumpsuit.

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 14

It finally San Francisco! Just a week left in Berkeley.

The closing night special film was "Operation Filmmaker", by Nina Davenport.  In 2004, MTV did a show about young people living in Iraq, and showed Muthana Mohmed, a film student whose school was bombed.  He talked about wanting to go to America, become a filmmaker, and meet Angelina Jolie.  Actor Liev Schreiber saw this while he was putting together a crew for his directorial debut, "Everything is Illuminated" (starring Elijah Wood, based on the book by Jonathon Safron Foer).  He decides it would be a great thing to invite Muthana to Prague, where they're shooting the movie, and make him an intern on the movie.  And it would be even better to have Nina Davenport follow him around and document his first experience on a major motion picture set.  Well, things start out well, but it turns out Muthana doesn't really have the discipline or temperament to work on a film crew.  He hates getting coffee, he doesn't make himself useful to much of anyone, he stays out late partying with friends, and doesn't get his work done.  Muthana has his dreams, but he came from an upper class family where he was used to having things done for him, and I get the sense that he doesn't like (or doesn't know how) to be the servant now.  Beyond his professional life, he doesn't even know how to take care of his personal life.  As "Everything Is Illuminated" is wrapping up, his visa is also expiring.  He wants to stay and work on "Doom", but he doesn't even know how to extend his visa.  He gets a lot of help (and a lot of money) from the filmmakers, and eventually does stay on and work on "Doom" (BTW, there's a brilliant shot of carnage in the streets of Baghdad transitioning seamlessly into the fake carnage on the "Doom" set that actually fooled me for a few seconds).  He even makes friends with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who even gives him money to attend a film school in London.  I mentioned a few posts back about a running theme in this festival--the theme of people trying to change their lives.  Particularly, there's a theme that when people try to consciously change their lives (or in this case, the life of someone else), they tend to fail--it's the small changes, not the big changes that work.  This film fits humorously, tragically, and perfectly into that theme.

And finally, the last movie in San Francisco was "When Clouds Clear", a touching look at the small Ecuadorean mountain town of Junin.  They've lived peacefully in the clouds for generations, but recently valuable minerals (particularly, copper) have been found in the mountains, and various foreign mining companies are moving in.  This creates opportunities for a few, and tragedies for many.  It destroys their land and their way of life (and polluted their river), so this small village fought back and burned down the mining camp.  That is, after they tried and failed to bring their plight to the attention of Ecuadorean authorities.  Now they're a radical band of fighters, doing whatever it takes to keep The Company out (whichever company is now trying to drive them out).  It's obviously a pretty biased film, told totally from the point of view of the villagers, but it's hard to imagine an unbiased version of the story that wouldn't sympathize with them.  Here's a case where sympathizing with one side is clearly correct.

And that's the end of the festival in San Francisco.  But it continues until next Thursday in Berkeley.

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 13

Two more shows...when was this...last Wednesday?

First up was a pretty strange movie, an Israeli documentary thriller "Over My Dad's Body".  Taliya Finkel grew up not knowing if her uncle really was her uncle, or a look-alike planted by the KGB to spy on her father.  That was her father's theory.  He swore his brother wasn't the same man when he came out of prison.  He was always asking strange questions that he should know, his birthmark was gone, etc.  But then again, he was also diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Five years afther her father died (murdered?) she decided to investigate her own uncle, hiring private eyes and documenting the whole journey.  She travels back to the Ukraine to find prison records from when her uncle was in prison, but the records have long been lost or destroyed.  She searches for evidence of the KGB program in the prison, but no luck.  It's a fascinating movie, a fascinating story, but I don't know what to make of it.  I'm pretty convinced that her father was just schizophrenic and was telling wild stories.  She seems to lean towards believing her father, but is very skeptical and doesn't really know what to believe.  This movie may end up haunting me for a while.

Then we moved on to something I'm far more familiar with--arsonists from Cal Tech (full disclosure, I'm from Cal Tech, and was a member of Ricketts Hovse, which were famous for playing with fire up until a guy got burned--after I had left--and fire was essentially banned).  Anyway, that's not really party of the short film "Standard Deviation".  Rather it's about Billy Cottrell, who by all accounts was a brilliant young physicist.  He didn't do well in grade school or high school, because he was often bored, acted out, and pulled all sorts of capers (spray painting a wall with "Fight vandalism in your school" was particularly funny).  But he managed to get into the University of Chicago, where he excelled at physics (he talked as a kid about there being only 9 truly great physicists in the world at any time, and he would be one of them).  And so he won a top doctoral spot in theoretical physics (string theory) at Cal Tech.  And there he became an eco-terrorist, joining (or co-opting the name) of the ELF (Earth Liberation Front), and vandalized and burned a bunch of Hummers.  Then when the police picked up someone else for the crime, he started e-mailing them taunting notes until they did catch him.  I've known quite a few Cal Tech crazyfuckers in my time (I've even been called one myself), but this guy is in a whole different league.  

And that was just the short leading into "The People's Advocate: The Life and Times of Charles R. Garry".  Charles Garry was possibly the most notorious defense attorney of the civil rights movement.  He defended Black Panthers Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.  He pioneered the practice of jury selection, often spending days eliminating prospective jurors from trials.  He was aggressive at challenging the testimony of policemen and other authorities, who up to that point had been given a free ride on their testimony.  Later in life, he represented The People's Temple (of Jim Jones fame), and was actually locked inside a house in Jonestown as the members drank the infamous poisoned Kool-Aid outside (he could hear but didn't know exactly what was going on).  Afterwards, he was never the same, and in 1991 he died of a stroke.  This movie does a good job of introducing the man--faults and virtues--and showing his profound contributions to the legal, political, and social world we live in today.

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 12

Just one movie last Tuesday, that was my easy night, when I actually got home at a reasonable hour and got some sleep.

So I need to explain the theme I've found in this festival.  I'm not sure if it's intentional or not, maybe it's just a common theme for documentaries in general, but there's been a theme of people trying to accomplish that one thing that will change their life.  The interesting thing, though, is that when people consciously try to change their life it doesn't really work.  Stuff like 'If I could only walk across the country, or win one Elvis impersonation contest, everything will be alright' fails.  When you do the small things, like practice jump rope or learn to twist balloon animals, they really are changing their lives.  I find that very interesting.

So the Tuesday movie was perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon.  In "Enlighten Up", director Kate Churchill has been doing yoga nearly as long as she's been making documentaries (which is nearly 10 years).  She believes that finding the right yoga practice can change anyone's life.  So she looks for a willing volunteer, and finds Nick Rosen, a skeptical journalist who's between jobs and therefore has a lot of free time.  He's game, but as I said, skeptical.  He's not a spiritual man, so he has a very strong inclination to approach it purely from a workout perspective and ignore or question the spiritual aspects.  He also visits several different studios and meets several different yogis, from masters like BKS Iyengar and Pattahbi Jois to former wrestler Diamond Dallas Page (inventor of Yoga for regular guys, and who's unabashedly not in it for "Namaste" as much as for "T&A").  He travels from New York to LA, to Hawaii, and finally India.  He finds practices so disparate that he questions what Yoga means at all (which is interesting, because the contemporary practice of yoga is only ~100 years old, and historically a yogi was an wizard who was to be feared when he came to town).  Practices range from hard-core twisting yourself into a pretzel to a guy who teaches a class of people just standing around laughing.  Of course, his skepticism is causing Kate's experiment to fail, and sooner or later that friction becomes the conflict of the movie, which just makes it funnier.  There are some weird dream sequences that maybe point to yoga breaking through his skepticism, and by the end maybe there's a little movement, but it's certainly not the transformation that is looked for in the film.  But it was fun.  Here's director Kate Churchill and star/subject Nick Rosen at the Q&A: