Wednesday, April 30, 2008
First the Russian movie, "Travelling with Pets". As the movie opens, a young woman is being treated gruffly by and older man (we later learn that's her husband, although at first she refers to him as her "master", but that might have been a subtitle translation thing). They live at a remote train station, tend his prize cow, and sell the milk to the people on the train. Suddenly, he drops dead from a heart attack. While this is something she's secretly wanted, she's now faced with what to do with A) his body, and B) the rest of her life. Turns out, she's an orphan, who was taken from the orphanage when she was 16 to be married to this man, who has mistreated her for 19 years. Well, she solves problem A by putting his body on a hand rail cart and taking him into town. She guesses she'll take his body to the hospital, although she's not sure if that's right. And she finds help with problem A and a possible solution for problem B when she meets Sergei. He helpfully tells her the morgue is the place to take the body, and even loads the body in his truck and takes her there. And then they start a little romance, although she's a bit to socially maladjusted for it to work right the first time. The real story is how she, through increasing flashes of artistic creativity, works out from the hole 19 years of abuse has dug for her. To me, that's what this movie is all about. A life--a beautiful, creative, funny, loving life--that's been stomped down for over half of her 35 years, and finally having a chance to come out of the darkness, live, and express herself. And that's a beautiful thing to watch.
And then there was the near-future Mexica sci-fi "Sleep Dealer". In the near future, America has solved it's immigration crisis. Of course, we want immigrant labor without the messy human problems (you know--food, shelter, health, etc) that comes with having actual immigrants. So there's a huge Cybracero facility in Tijuana where thousands of Mexicans are hooked up, Matrix-style, to a virtual reality world where they control robots in America (and elsewhere, I seem to recall there's at least a passing reference to driving a cab in London). These robots pick our fruit, build our skyscrapers, etc., while the controllers in Tijuana slowly lose their sense of reality and drop into comas. It's win-win! (that was sarcastic, don't write me angry letters). A lot of the American infrastructure is built around protecting their water assets, as Mexican rivers are now "owned" by American corporations, who charge local villagers an arm and a leg for water. Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Peña) is one of those villagers, and with his dad he goes to get water on a regular basis. In his free time, he's an amateur hacker who likes to eavesdrop on conversations. However, when he eavesdrops on the security firm talking about "aqua terrorism", his signal is detected, he's mistaken for a terrorist, and his satellite dish is taken out by a drone (piloted virtually by a Hispanic American, and broadcast live on TV). This destroys his setup, and kills his father, and sets him off alone to Tijuana to make whatever living he can as one of these cybraceros. There's also a subplot with a love interest there in Tijuana and people selling their own memories online (both for entertainment and for surveillance). It's an amazing, inventive sci-fi thriller that's chock-full of topical satire and bizarre visuals. I loved it.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
It was all a hoax! No one named Dalia was murdered in an honor killing in 1996. In fact, many of the places in the book didn't exist in 1996. And Norma Khouri is a conwoman from Chicago who is wanted by the FBI. Or is she? Actually, she was born in Jordan. She grew up in Chicago, but returned to Jordan regularly. She claims she changed names, places, dates in order to protect herself, but the general story is based on an honor killing of a friend of hers. The filmmakers got nearly unfettered access to her (it seems like she went along with the movie in an attempt to clear her name), as she spins story after story (trying to explain, for example, why despite passing herself off as a virginal refugee from an oppressive culture, she has a husband and children back in America). She even takes them back to Jordan to find proof of her friend's murder. Proof she finds, until it's pointed out that she got this from a newspaper story that happened after she at least had a deal to write the book. Okay, well then that was a test, a test the filmmakers failed, as they revealed her data to independent sources. It seems every step of the way, she has an explanation, some spin that makes you almost ready to believe her, and then the bottom falls out again. Absolutely amazing, by the end I didn't know which way was up. End spoilers.
Next up was a more straightforward documentary, "Latent Argentina" ("Argentina latente", it's translated "Latent Argentina" in the program guide, but "Dormant Argentina" in the film). Apparently this is the second in a documentary trilogy by director Fernando E. Solana. The first in the trilogy, "The Dignity of Nobodies", I missed when it played at SFIFF two years ago. I say this only to note that I'm coming to this movie from perhaps a different perspective than a lot of the audience (or the intended audience). The premise, which is argued convincingly, is that Argentina should be an economic powerhouse. It has vast natural resources and a history of scientific and technological prowess. The fact that Argentina is impoverished with runaway inflation Solanas blames initially on economic colonialism, with groups like the trilateral commission deciding on their own that Argentina should be a source of cheap raw materials instead of having a manufacturing industry. But he goes on to say that it's more the fault of "mental colonialism", where Argentinians don't know what great resources--mineral, agricultural, mental, etc.--they have. So he showcases example after example of people who are trying to "wake up" the dormant Argentina. In doing so, he's unapologetically socialist, extolling for example the virtues of a factory where the workers took over after the owners ran out of money for wages. He also heavily stresses the promise of science and technology in Argentina, which makes me happy as a scientist. The argument is convincingly made, but the endless parade of examples gets a bit tedious. As one man I spoke with afterwards said, there's not much information in it that you couldn't get out of pamphlet describing these examples. I wouldn't go quite that far, but it's a fair point. I can see, however, the virtue in Solanas giving these people more time and hopefully turning them into heroes for their country.
Next up was a restoration screening of the classic 1945 Gene Tierney Technicolor film-noir (I know that shouldn't make sense, but it does) "Leave Her to Heaven". The restoration was done by 20th Century Fox and the Film Foundation, an organization founded by Martin Scorsese and others to protect, restore, and exhibit classic and lost films. Schawn Belston, Vice President of Asset Management & Film Preservation at Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, who oversaw the reconstruction of this film, was there to speak a little bit about the film and the process of restoring it. A short clip of the best archive print pre-restoration (which looked pretty bad) and the various levels of correction used to make the final product (which looked gorgeous!) was pretty interesting. As best I can remember, it was first scanned to digital, then they digitally fixed the 3-strip technicolor hues, then the color timing, removed artifacts and scratches, and clear up some of the graininess. Finally, they struck a new film print from that digital output. Not exactly the same process in which it was shot, but a good approximation. Here's a picture of Schawn Belston talking about the process:
Oh yeah, and as for the film itself, I described it as a "technicolor film-noir" above (actually, not my words, I was quoting the speaker who introduced the film). Essentially I mean it has all the plot elements of a film noir (femme fatale, murder, intrigue) but in glorious bright technicolor.
Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney, nominated for an Oscar for this role) is beautiful heiress with a nasty habit of becoming overpossessive of everything (and everyone) she loves. Too bad for Richard, a novelist whom she meets on the train (she doesn't know she's reading his novel), since she falls in love with him. And what starts out grand, quickly turns sinister, as anyone getting between them is in danger--his crippled brother, her sister, her mother.... As I said, the colors and cinematography are gorgeous (setting ranges from New Mexico to Maine, although Maine looks a lot like Malibu). And the story holds up very well after 60+ years (except for the final courtroom scene, that seems quaint and laughable after so many TV courtroom dramas). An excellent movie experience, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the Film Foundation will restore and exhibit next.
And finally, I ended the night on a bit of bizarre Swedish dark comedy "You, the Living". With almost no traditional narrative, it's an odd series of vignettes about depressed people (Sweden routinely has among the highest suicide rate in the world). The vignettes are semi-related, as they all seem to take place in the same town at the same time, and occasionally overlap. And they're very related by the sense of comic melancholy that pervades it. There's the guy with the nightmare about bombers, there's the girl who dumps her boyfriend in a public park and spends the whole movie screaming about how no one understands her. There's the Louisiana Brass Band, playing Dixieland tunes to a dirge beat (and literally becoming a dirge, when they're hired to play a funeral). And then it gets weird. There's a rock star and an apartment building moving through town. I have no idea what to make of it, but it made me laugh. So I'll just end it there.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
First up was "Just Like Home", which I chose because I'm a sucker for Danish dark comedy, and this one was by Lone Scherfig, the director of "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself" (and "Italian for Beginners", but I actually haven't seen that). It's about a small town, where everybody knows everyone else but everyone also has their little secrets. We start with Margrethe, who's just moving to the town after running away from an extremist Christian cult. She provides the outside eyes for the town (although very biased, as she's still stuck to the high moral purity of her cult, and must have a cold drink of water whenever she has an impure thought). She starts cleaning house for a local lecturer, and volunteers at the Silent Ear, a sort of help hotline for the town. But the town erupts in scandal with reports of a late-night streaker--a naked man, and you could see everything! Construction on the town center stops, and everyone turns against each other as the town grinds to a paranoid halt. The Silent Ear becomes a hotline for gossip, accusations, and even confessions. The movie is pretty funny at times, but suffers a bit of unevenness because it's mostly improvised, with scenes sketched out the day of shooting. It still works reasonably well, and if I didn't know how good Scherfig was at scripted stories like "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself", I'd probably praise the improvised style. As it is, there's a bit of a letdown from inflated expectations.
Yes, expectations can kill a movie, and having no expectations can make a movie even better. That was the case for "The Toe Tactic" which I think I just chose because it sounded like an interesting mix of animation and live action. If I'd known director Emily Hubley was also the animator on "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" as well as the animator of several award winning films, my expectations might have been higher, but I think I would've still been pleased with the results. It's a relentlessly sweet film, with a somewhat convoluted live-action story. Mona Peek (Lily Rabe) loses her wallet. It's found by a young boy who steals $60 for piano lessons. Mona goes to work for an old woman cataloguing the notes of her old flame. In the building, she meets the charming "Elevator Man". He suggests they go for drinks at a local restaurant/bar/open mic stage. At first she was unsure, but when the mother of the boy who found the wallet calls her and tells her to meet at the same restaurant/bar to pick it up, she figures it's fate. And so on (I won't spoil all the story). Also, there's something about Mona's dead father, and a fragment of his bone (form the cremation), that she carries with her. If it seems like too many coincidences in the narrative, it's because the whole thing is a game played by some animated dogs, who serve as instigators (by stealing her wallet and dropping it in front of the boy, for example), and as commentators on both the action and the movie itself ('e.g., 'hey! Can you introduce a new character here'). I'm afraid I'm not doing this movie justice, because it's not an easy thing to summarize. It's charming and playful, and although there are plenty of movies that mix animation and live-action, I don't think I've seen any that do it quite like this.
Here's a pic of director Emily Hubley answering questions (and fielding compliments) at the Q&A.
So then I went to the world premiere of "Ice People", a fascinating documentary about Antarctic geologists. Anne Aghion has apparently made many documentaries (I don't believe I've seen any of them, though), and she certainly shows a steady hand here. There are great landscape shots, that really capture the scope of the terrain, and there are interesting, funny interviews with the scientists and support staff at McMurdo base. There was a really interesting interplay of wide open lonely places and the claustrophobic cramped quarters of the tents and the base. It's funny that when you're 100 km away from any sign of civilization--and not much civilization at that--you can still resent the only three colleagues out there with you and really crave some "alone time". My only complaint would be that it's a little light on the science, but that's sort of my personal taste and I understand why that is. Besides, 3 of the 4 scientists (2 doctors, 2 undergrads) were there for the Q&A and gave us a bit more of the science (including a sneak peek of not-yet-published papers). Pretty cool. Here's a pic of Dr. Adam Lewis, Kelly Gorz (undergrad researcher), cameraman Sylvestre Guidi (hidden behind the mic), director Anne Aghion (that white glow in the middle), and Dr. Allan Ashworth:
And then there was "Water Lilies", a mildly funny/dramatic French film about teen girl angst, budding sexuality (and lesbianism), and synchronized swimming. Marie is a shy girl who's a fan of synchronized swimming, or at least a fan of team captain Floriane, an unabashed flirt. Anne is a portly, iconoclastic swimmer with a crush on the male swim coach--she routinely changes after all the other girls leave in hopes that he'll walk in while she's naked. Marie tries to buddy up to Floriane, who at first uses her as an excuse to meet her boyfriend, but eventually confesses that she's not the slut everyone thinks she is--she's actually still a virgin, and she doesn't much like guys, but she likes the reputation. In fact, she really likes Marie, but they're both very afraid. Meanwhile their friendship drives a wedge between Marie and Anne (oh yeah, did I mention they were best friends for like, forever? They were). Anyway, it's a very sensitive examination of budding teen girl sexuality, and synchronized swimming becomes a perfect metaphor as it involves frantic effort being made to look easy, with a compulsory smile plastered on their faces. Director Céline Sciamma has created a pretty well made film for her debut.
And finally, this night I had plenty of time to pound a few free Stella Artois before the late show. That show was "Go Go Tales", Abel Ferrara's attempt to channel Robert Altman making a movie about a strip club. Personally I think Altman wouldn't have gone so far over the top (particularly with the shrill landlady), but this was still a fun screwball let's-throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks comedy. Willem Dafoe is a struggling club owner, the Ray Ruby of Ray Ruby's Paradise Lounge. The club is going under, and he's addicted to gambling, with lotto tickets stashed all over the club. A cavalcade of wacky characters come in and out of the club, both on stage and off, in the audience and in the back rooms. Asia Argento is underused as a veteran showgirl with a giant dog that disrupts the club. Ray hasn't paid the girls in 48 hours, and they're getting restless. Ray and his crew (including Bob Hoskins) placate the girls, and make the show go on until he can "get back from the bank" (what bank is open at midnight?). Meanwhile Ray isn't really a scumbag, he believes in the Paradise Lounge as a family (at least, I believe he believes, and isn't just blowing smoke to buy time). Really late at night the club actually turns into a talent show, with talent agents coming in to watch singing and magic tricks instead of stripping. As I said, it's a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach, and it really captures the Ray's frantic desperation as he tries to save his club without showing anyone that it's in trouble. Wild and weird, I'm glad I had a few drinks before this.
And then I took two buses home, which gave me time to draft this post. So if it makes no sense, it's because it was drafted on a bumpy bus at 3 am, and edited in a hurry before I ran off to more movies. That's it.
Saturday, April 26, 2008
First up, as soon as I could get up to the city after work, was the Russian war-less war movie, "Alexandra". The title refers to an old woman, introduced in the film's beginning being ushered on and off trains, escorted by a phalanx of soldiers. Funny, she doesn't look like a typical prisoner. But all is made clear when she's finally reunited with her soldier grandson. Turns out, she's just going to live on the base in Chechnya with her grandson and the other soldiers for a while. As the only female on base, and the only non-military perspective, she's a refreshing change of pace and reminder of home comforts to the restless soldiers, waiting for orders to either attack or redeploy. She's the only on unafraid to go to market and befriend the occupied ostensible enemy. As such, she provides an elegant figure to point out the banality and ridiculousness of war. It's a slow movie--much of the point is about how little happens. But patience is rewarded.
Next up was the Japanese karate movie, "Black Belt" ("Kuro Obi"). Director Shunichi Nagasaki claims his goal was to make a realistic movie about real karate. I'd give him average marks in that goal but excellent marks in making a kick-ass, serious dramatic film. It's certainly a huge step above the average chop-socky cheese, but it's still extremely melodramatic--which I wouldn't even count against it were it not billed as a more serious, intelligent karate movie. In 1932, Japan invaded Manchuria, and the military police started annexing dojos for their own purpose. When they try to annex a small dojo with only three students they are rebuffed. The weaker (but possibly wiser and more faithful) student Choei is injured by a sword, but aggressive, attacking Taikan and smart, defending (as per the sensei's teaching) Giryu successfully defend the dojo. However, the next day many important things happen. First their aging sensei passes away, and passes on his black belt (kuro obi) to Choei, to decide who will carry on his teaching. Second, the military police return with two pieces of news--that their chief committed suicide after Giryu humiliated him, and they have a new edict. They aren't to close the dojo, they are to bring them to headquarters where they'll teach karate to the military. On the way, their ambushed by the dead chief's children, and Giryu--guilt-ridden and refusing to defend himself--is stabbed and falls over a cliff into the water. However, he survives when he's found by a little boy who's impoverished family nurses him back to health. Meanwhile, Kaitan relishes his role and power as a teacher, taking over more dojos on behalf of the emperor. However, when the military captain's side pursuits threaten the daughter of Giryu's new family, things come to a head, even though Giryu is dead set against fighting anymore. What really brings this movie to a higher level is the fact that the main characters are played by real karate experts. There are no wires or special effects, and at times it appears no choreography. So while the drama is melodramatic and above average, the fight scenes are excellent.
And finally, the late show was Dario Argento's long-awaited Third Mother movie, "Mother of Tears". 30 years ago Argento made a masterpiece of color and dream-logic imagination called "Suspiria", about a witch haunting a dance academy in Freiburg, Germany. A few years later, he made "Inferno", about another witch in New York, in which he inserted passing references both to the witch in "Suspiria" and to a third "Mother", Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears, who lived in Rome. Ever since then, his fans have patiently waited for his third mother trilogy. Now it's finally out, and I was there for the U.S. premiere. Story in a nutshell--a box is found chained to a coffin in a cemetery that's being relocated. It's opened and translated, awakening Mater Lachrymarum who turns all Rome into crazy psychos and calls witches from around the world to her. Sarah Mandy (my pretend girlfriend Asia Argento) has to fight them by discovering her latent white witch powers and listening to the spirit of her dead mother (Asia's real life mother Daria Nicoladi). Ever since its premiere at the Toronto film festival, there's been a debate over whether it's a return to form or a continuation of Dario's recent disappointments. I'd put forth the thesis that it isn't a return to form so much as blatant pandering to his fans--and I'm on record saying I like being pandered to! This is possibly Dario Argento at his bloodiest, sexiest, most perverse, most over-the-top, funniest, and even most misogynistic (although having Asia as the heroine blunts that charge somewhat). I loved it, that's all I can say.
BTW, Dario was very close to attending this screening, but he just got Adrien Brody to star in his next film, "Giallo", and that accelerated production so he couldn't make it.
Friday, April 25, 2008
But in truth, I was almost as excited to see the opening night film, "The Last Mistress" ("Une vieille maîtresse") for the director, Catherine Breillat. Breillat has made a career out of frank, explicit, somewhat shocking and humorous explorations of female sexuality ("Romance", "Fat Girl", "Brief Crossing", "Sex is Comedy", etc.) This time she goes back to the turn-of-a-couple-centuries-ago (the 18th century turning into the 19th century) and makes a stately, aristocratic period piece. Ryno de Marigny (impressive newcomer Fu'ad Ait Aattou) has had a 10 year off-on-off-on relationship with his Spanish mistress Vellini (my pretend girlfriend Asia Argento). They've both had other lovers, but they keep coming back to each other. But now Marigny is getting married to the lovely, virtuous, and wealthy aristocrat Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), and so he must stop seeing Vellini--both for propriety and because he claims he no longer loves her (and hasn't for years). Their history is told--from his perspective--during an all-night inquisition by Hermangarde's feisty, scene-stealing, grandmother, La marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute). Meanwhile the action is commented on by the catty gossiping couple Le vicomte de Prony and La comtesse d'Artelles (Michael Lonsdale and Yolande Moreau). Without these framing devices, the story would be much less interesting, as there's only so much 'I hate you, I love you, I hate you, I love you...' I can take. Of course, if it's punctuated by Asia Argento drinking the blood from your bullet wound, that makes it a lot more exciting.
Catherine Breillat was there for the screening. Here's a pic of her (in the middle) with her translator Robert Gray (left) and SFIFF executive director Graham Leggat (right):
Oh, and since I have one left--Asia Argento is my pretend girlfriend. Here's looking forward to the rest of the festival!
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
That's the nice thing about getting a pass, I don't have to know what I'm doing beyond tomorrow. But I've pretty well settled on the first week.
Thursday, April 24
7:00 pm at the Castro: The Last Mistress (starring Asia Argento!) followed by the opening night party
Friday, April 25
at the Kabuki
7:00 pm: Alexandra
8:45 pm: Black Belt
10:30 pm: Mother of Tears (woo hoo! Dario Argento, and starring Asia! My only concern, the short turnaround between Black Belt and Mother of Tears means I won't have time to drink much free Stella Artois)
Saturday, April 26
at the Kabuki all day
1:00 pm: Just Like Home
3:45 pm: The Toe Tactic
6:45 pm: Ice People
9:00 pm: Water Lilies
11:45 pm: Go Go Tales (more Asia Argento!)
Sunday, April 27
I'm moving to the PFA for this day
1:30 pm: Forbidden Lie$
3:45 pm: Latent Argentina
6:00 pm: Leave Her to Heaven
8:30 pm: You, the Living
Monday, April 28
I'm staying at the PFA
6:30 pm: Traveling with Pets
9:00 pm: Sleep Dealer
Tuesday, April 29
Back to the Kabuki, just one show
7:30 pm: The POV Award: Errol Morris, with Standard Operating Procedure
Wednesday, April 30
Back to the PFA
6:30 pm: Vasermil
8:55 pm: Mock up on Mu
Thursday, May 1
At the Kabuki
6:00 pm: Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed in the Mountains
9:30 pm: My Winnipeg (woo hoo! Guy Maddin!)
Friday, May 2
Still at the Kabuki
7:00 pm: Shadows in the Palace
9:00 pm: In the City of Sylvia
11:00 pm: Big Man Japan
Saturday, May 3
I don't know, then more I don't know, then...
7:00 pm: The Wackness (some confusion here, because the printed mini-guide shows this at 7:30, but the website and the thicker program guide says 7:00. I hope 7:00 is right, because otherwise I'll be a little late for the next show)
9:15 pm: A Journey with Peter Sellars
11:00 pm: Timecrimes
Sunday, May 4
Starting at the Kabuki
10:15 am: Stay Tooned, Kids! (yeah, I like cartoons, wanna fight about it!?)
then I don't know, then...
3:45 pm: The Art of Negative Thinking
then walk up the street to the Clay Theater
6:00 pm: A Girl Cut in Two
9:00 pm: Secret
And then I really don't know the rest of my schedule. And, of course, all the above is subject to change. I know I want to see David Mamet's "Redbelt" on Tuesday, May 6 at 9:15, but also "Evolution: The Musical" looks interesting, and I know "Redbelt" is coming to general theaters soon. I already made the wrenching decision to miss "Mongol" based on the same logic.
I also know that I'll miss Wednesday, May 7, because I'm going to the Hypnodrome to see "Starslyderz" instead. And I want to see the closing night gala "Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson", as much because it's directed by Alex Gibney ("Taxi to the Dark Side") as because it's about Hunter S. Thompson.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
...it was visually arresting, seemed to jump around a lot, and ended with a woman stuck in a cave. Possibly all that jumping around was her life flashing before her eyes. It looked pretty awesome.Turns out I was right. But now I know why she was in the cave. She and her boyfriend (or husband?) like to go spelunking. In the beginning of the film, they're arguing about something, and he realizes he lost his watch back in the cave. They both leave it, go back to work. But the next day she, fearing their relationship is dying, goes back alone and tries to retrieve the watch, and she gets stuck. Good movie.
So I have to emphasize, I watched this on DVD, not in the theaters, and as such it's not really the same. It's not fair to the movie, but it's better than nothing. With that said, "A Better Life" is a powerful drama that blows right past the statistics and politics and tells very personal human stories about immigration--obviously a big issue in California. The title is somewhat ironic, as a better life is the goal of the three families, but it appears to be an unattainable goal. It opens with an illegal border crossing, where Javier, Maria, and their young daughter are abandoned by their guide 100 miles from the California border. They make it, and eventually get work on a farm and eke out a living. Already in America, Omar and Sofia are also illegal immigrants, but having more trouble getting by. Omar has trouble finding work, so he turns to crime with his buddy. Their target is the only white couple in the whole neighborhood (based on the faulty premise that if their white, they must be rich). That couple is Sam and Nancy. He's a social worker (and has become too jaded for his job), she's a nurse on the night shift. Things move forwards to the inevitable tragic conclusion, but it's the journey there--the characters and their struggles--that is more important than than the ending. All in all, a powerful film.
Oh, and I also have to mention it made great use of black and white cinematography, and the soundtrack was really good. I mention the soundtrack because A) it was effective at establishing a dreamlike but tragic tone throughout the movie, and B) it was producer/composer Mike Reynolds who gave me the screener. Thank you!
Noel Lawrence, curator of half of the J. X. Williams Archive (the half that exists in his apartment), was there to introduce the films and explain who J. X. Williams is. J. X. Williams is a cult film director, currently unknown to more than a small, rabid fan base. But those fans believe he will someday be recognized as a genius, and they pay thousands of dollars for 3-minute film reels of his work on Ebay. That's how Lawrence originally found out about him. And that was essentially the introduction to three of J. X.'s short films. "Psych-Burn" is the 3-minute film that introduced Noel to J. X., and is essentially a 3-minute distillation of the 60's--no titles, no credits, just a garish, colorful trip. Then there was "Satan Claus", which is exactly what it sounds like, and "The Virgin Sacrifice" which was originally a feature length film. The original was lost and this short was cobbled together mostly from cutting-room scraps.
Then there was the feature "Peep Show". But first a little more introduction. J. X. got his start in the film business during the early years when the mob had interests in Hollywood. As a young assistant, he unwittingly crossed a mob representative, who fortunately thought it was pretty funny and offered him a job making movies. Of course, the real mob-produced films were pornos, so J. X. started out his career directing porn. As a reward for his work, the mob also let him shoot concert footage of their most popular singers--Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Fast forward several decades. J. X. has left the country and is living as an ex-pat in Switzerland (I think, it was definitely Europe somewhere). He sees the Rat Pack on TV, misses the guys, and decides to make a movie about them. He's got some of his footage, plus public domain and "found" footage, so he edits it together into a pseudo-documentary intrigue about Frank Sinatra, Sam Giancana, J. Edgar Hoover, and others. Unfortunately, I had to split to catch the BART home before it ended.
Monday, April 21, 2008
So I mentioned this movie is playing as a special engagement at the Lumiere Theater. It's actually doing a platform release hoping for word-of-mouth to pick up so it'll play in more theaters before going to DVD. Well, here's some good word-of-mouth. Yes, it has zombies, yes, it has strippers, but it's also a zombie movie where the brains aren't just for eating. Jay Lee is a director who's as comfortable making Nietzsche jokes as he is turning the 'ping-pong ball trick' into a weapon. In fact, knowing him he's significantly more comfortable with the former. This takes place in the near future, when George W Bush is elected to a fourth term after the Florida JebCo voting machines malfunction and only cast one vote for President. The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Jenna Bush, declares the vote valid and then declares a Supreme kegger. And then it gets weird. The military has created a virus that brings the dead back to life so they'll be unkillable, fearless soldiers. Things go wrong (even after they declare "Mission Accomplished"). Yeah, there's politics, philosophy, and heaping loads of satire. But for a movie with so much nudity, the jokes come from the philosophy. This is the movie for anyone who's ever wanted to watch a freshly undead Jenna Jameson read Nietzsche and say, "Oh, this makes so much more sense now!" And the line I'm sure I'm misquoting--and will continue to misquote--"Say something human, now! And make it fuckin' ontological!"
So yeah, if you're in one of the lucky cities playing this, go see it!
Cities where it's playing now:
New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Madison, Lexington, Charlotte, Austin, Columbus, San Diego, Miami.
Cities where it opens April 25th:
Atlanta, Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington D.C.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
So last Friday night I hung out in my favorite little movie lounge, the Vortex. A few drinks, and a couple of weird movies. First there was the poorly-dubbed Italian/Canadian flick, "Yeti: The Giant of the 20th Century". An industrialist discovers something in a giant chunk of glacier ice. He calls his scientist friend out of retirement to take a look, and he identifies it as a Yeti. He attaches giant electrodes and tries to shock it just enough to "hear its final heartbeat"--he has no idea that the Yeti will actually come to life, kidnap the industrialist's granddaughter, romance her by combing her hair with a comically oversized fish skeleton, and generally run amok. But like all giant pre-human monsters with size-related continuity problems (as near as I can tell, he's somewhere between 15 and 200 feet tall), he's just looking to be loved. Best part, he's got some awesome hair!
And then, Alejandro Jodorowsky's masterpiece of religious symbolism and mumbo-jumbo, "The Holy Mountain". His follow-up to "El Topo" (both of which are finally available on DVD, now that Allen Klein is too feeble to object), it's a weird, colorful mash of symbols about a group of seekers following Jodorowsky up the Holy Mountain in search of enlightenment. I can't summarize this movie, other than it's a brilliant, kinda silly treat. Go see it, dammit!
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
In my previous post, I mentioned "Body of War" is opening tomorrow (April 18), and Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue will be at the 4:45 show at the Clay on Saturday, and the 4:50 show at the Shattuck on Sunday.
But I can tell some of you aren't interested in a moving anti-war documentary. I hear a deafening roar of people crying out for a horror-comedy about zombie strippers--based on a classic French existential Theatre of the Absurd play Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco--starring Robert Englund and Jenna Jameson. If your voice is part of that roar, boy are you in luck! Starting tomorrow (really tonight at midnight), Jay Lee's "Zombie Strippers" makes a limited run at the Lumiere Theater. And if you want to meet Jay Lee ("Noon Blue Apples", "The Affairs of God", "The Slaughter"), he'll be at the Saturday 7:30 and 9:45 shows. Important, some of you might've heard that he'll be there Friday night, this is a last minute change, he'll be there Saturday.
Of course, the Hypnodrome is always cool, and their "Flaming Sin" show plays Fridays and Saturdays through at least the first two weekends of May. But I know there are people out there demanding to see something, anything, at the Hypnodrome on a Wednesday. Well, you're in luck, too! "Starslyderz", from the 2006 Another Hole in the Head Festival, is playing as a special "experience" on Wednesday, May 7 only. Directors/writers/stars Garrin Vincent and Mike Budde and their "randy alien puppet pals" are scheduled to be there. This is actually a very, very important screening for me. In 2006 I missed nearly all of Holehead so that I could go to the FIFA World Cup in Germany (which was awesome!) I since, in one form or another (screener, purchased DVD, crappy ex-rental VHS), have seen everything from the festival, except "Starslyderz". In fact, this is the movie that keeps me from being able to say I've seen everything that has ever played at Holehead--in its entire history. Come May 7, I'll have a clean sheet again! (oh yeah, that reminds me, Holehead is coming up June 6-22, trailers are up at their MySpace page, but that's too far off for me to write about yet).
In fact, I'm so excited about "Starslyderz" I'm going to miss a day of the SF International Film Festival for it. That starts next Thursday, April 24th, and it's the granddaddy festival of the bay area (and the country, it's celebrating its 51st year). I've splurged for a pass, again, and my task for the weekend is to plan out at least my first few days of the festival. All I know so far is I'm gonna get a lot of Asia Argento (she's my pretend girlfriend!). Not only is she in two of the Late Show movies--her father's "Mother of Tears" on April 25th and Abel Ferrara's "Go Go Tales" on April 26th (with extra screenings on the 28th and 30th), but she's also in the opening night film, "The Last Mistress". This is so much Asia, it's like the festival is just pandering to me. And let me tell you something about pandering to me--I like it, keep it coming!
Now the pass doesn't get me into opening night, so I splurged extra on a high-level membership that got me a pass, a VIP opening night film and party ticket, and 10-movie Cinevoucher. I suppose I could give these 10 free movies to my friends, but screw them (actually, most of them are either South Bay losers who don't like going up to the city every night just to watch movies, or they've already bought their festival tickets). I'd rather give them away to a loyal viewer, as a reward for reading through this entire post.
So here's the deal. You get the entire 10-movie voucher, I'm not dealing with splitting them up for several people. But you have to answer this trivia question: This blog's tagline is "the cinematic equivalent of trepanning a mermaid". That is because early in its life I was looking at my traffic to see how people got here, and someone had found it by googling "trepanning a mermaid", and I was the number one result (I'm also the number one result for "Richard Elfman's taint", but that's another story). I decided right then and there that I always wanted to be able to tell people they could find my blog by googling "trepanning a mermaid". So, for the 10 movie cinevoucher, answer this: What movie or movies did I blog about that originally made a search for "trepanning a mermaid" find my site, and during what festival or festivals did I see the movie(s)? The first person to leave a comment to this post (don't write me an e-mail) with the correct answer wins. Then we'll have to figure out how I deliver it to you, but we'll worry about that later.
And I suppose if, as I kinda fear, I don't actually have loyal readers, I guess if it gets to the start of the festival and we don't have a winner, I'll divvy the vouchers up among my friends.
On September 13, 2001, Thomas Young, inspired by patriotism called his army recruiter and enlisted to go smoke out the evil-doers in the caves of Afghanistan. However, after his training it became pretty clear that he wasn't going to Afghanistan, he was going to Iraq, even though that didn't make much sense to him. After just 5 days in Iraq, his (un-armored) truck was ambushed and he took a bullet in the back just below his left collarbone. It severed his spinal cord and left him paralyzed from his torso down. This movie jumps back and forth between the story of his homecoming (and wedding, recuperation, frustrations, and anti-war activism) and the historic debate in 2002 authorizing the war, where Robert Byrd becomes the hero of the anti-war side and the leader of what he calls "The Immortal 23" senators who voted against the war (I don't say this lightly, but Mr. Byrd, you are forgiven for once being a member of the KKK).
The film deftly moves between the two stories, but it's really Thomas Young's story that's the heart of the movie (you could make the case that Robert Byrd's story is then the brain of the
movie). His story is tragic and moving, but he's still a charming guy (he gets big laughs addressing a church and apologizing for all the "umms" and "ahs" he uses. "I'm sorry if I might sound presidential"), and the Iraq Veterans Against the War gave him a voice (and he's now a political blogger for Billboard magazine). And I should note, this is not about a guy or a family who is afraid to sacrifice more--his little brother is in Iraq now, on his second tour after being stop-lossed.
The audience was full of members of various anti-war organizations--Code Pink, Iraq Veteran Against the War, etc. I might've actually been the only person in the theater who was there as a movie fan first and an anti-war activist second (in fact, it's not fair to call myself an activist. I support anti-war activities, but not very actively. I mostly live my life, do my job, and watch movies). So I'll take the task of saying that besides having a very powerful story to tell about a very good character, it's also a well-made movie. A movie that jumps from the personal story to the political debate could've ended up a lot more scatter-shot, and there were countless temptations to get off on tangents (the coffins not being photographed, poor medical treatment of wounded vets, etc.). But they do a good job of keeping it on Thomas Young, and when he finally meets Robert Byrd and they honor the Immortal 23, there's a scene of them walking down the hallway in Congress that's among the best shots ever (and not just because it reminded me of "Bubba Ho-Tep", it's a powerful scene in and of itself).
Here's a pic of the co-directors, Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue (making his feature co-directing debut):
That's right, Phil freakin' Donahue! I met him and shook his hand last night. And let me tell you, in the Q&A he's still masterful at working an audience. Of course, this was a very friendly, receptive audience. The one exception being the issue of impeachment. Some in the audience still want to impeach Bush (and Cheney) rather than just wait out the final months of their term. Phil disagreed, saying (and I hope I got this 90+% right), "If you try to impeach Bush now, you'll be accused of undermining the President in a time of war, and you will elect John McCain. And you can quote me on that!" (so I did, and for the record I agree). I also agree that trying to impeach Bush will a) be a failure, because there are enough Republicans in Congress to block it, and b) just come off as a political show of sour grapes and will make you look bitter (sorry for using such a political hot-potato word).
"Body of War" opens this Friday, April 18, at the Landmark Clay in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley. Unless I have this wrong or they've changed plans, Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue will be at the 4:45 show at the Clay on Saturday, and the 4:50 show at the Shattuck on Sunday. It's playing now or soon in select theaters across the country, check out their website for more information.
This is, of course, in reference to my post from Indiefest when I saw the movie "The Urim and Thummim" (scroll down near the end). As a throwaway joke I mentioned I wanted to look into the Urim and Thummim, since the movie never did, and then I joked that I wanted to steal it. This response, I don't know if I should take as a joke or as a real threat (fact is, I'm probably not taking a road trip to Kentucky anytime soon so I'll probably never even see the Urim and Thummim). But the interesting thing is I can't really strongly disagree with anything in this response.
Jason, I wanted to tell you if you think your bad enough to steal the UT come and try it. I can tell you that you will not be a happy camper. I will take your face off and stick it up your fat stinking, ugly ass! Now thats probably something your weird self would enjoy. I am glad you seen the show, although I don't like your bullshit comments. I challenge you to try to steal anything from me. You will not leave on your own feet. If you ever get serious you might enjoy life a little bit better. Life is short, and even shorter for people like you who overlook the best things in this life. I hope you get help for yourself. Everything you say reflects your person. Be careful of what you say, it might come back to haunt you
Come Get Some
- I am in pretty bad shape, and if I tried to steal it I'm sure I'd get my ass kicked.
- I do, in fact, have a fat, stinking, ugly ass.
- Although I probably wouldn't enjoy having my face ripped off and shoved up said fat, stinking, ugly ass, I must admit there's a bit of the scientific part of my mind that's curious what it would look like. Although I'd rather be an objective observer watching it happen to someone else. I guess that could confirm I have a "weird self"
- My comments--like most of my comments--had a high degree of bullshit. But I should emphasize that I truly did enjoy this movie and found the characters likable (in the movie, not in this response)
- If I tried to steal anything, I probably wouldn't leave on my own two feet (even if I were successful, it's a long walk back from Kentucky so I'd probably take a car or airplane)
- I have considered, in fact, that my inability to take anything truly seriously does in fact negatively impact my life. Luckily, I don't take such worries very seriously.
- This is not the first time someone has told me I should seek help, but my fear of psychiatrists is the only thing keeping me sane.
- I agree that everything you say reflects on you as a person
- I especially agree that you should be careful what you say, as it might come back to haunt you.
So thank you, Tinita Walker, for highlighting all my faults based on one throwaway joke in a movie about your artifact. You've changed my fucking life!
Monday, April 14, 2008
Yeah, that's semi-permanent (3-6 weeks).
And the Quakes lost, 1-0, I don't want to talk about it. But they looked okay out there, controlling the game for a lot of the time. They'll break through soon and go on a winning streak. I'm letting them play like an expansion team this year. Then next year compete fiercely. Then they're on notice that we demand a championship by 2010. Of course, if they'd rather win one earlier, I wouldn't object.
Big thanks to the Thrillpeddlers and their ringleader Russell Blackwood for squeezing us in despite not buying tickets in advance. They even held the show for 5 minutes as one of my friends arrived late (ummm...sorry Maria, if I'd known you weren't already inside, I would've had them wait for you, too).
It starts with--get this--the U.S. premiere of a long-lost Noel Coward play. How's that for legitimate theater? "The Better Half" is an oh-so-proper sex farce (very British) about a bored wife and a servant girl who's in love with the way-too-noble husband. Upper crust absurdity, just ripe for satire.
Next up was "The Old Women" aka "A Crime in the Madhouse". Get this, I've been seeing their shows for so long I remember when they performed this back at the Odeon Bar (in the pre-Hypnodrome days). This is allegedly the play that killed the London Grand Guignol, as it was sneaked past the censors. It's better in the Hypnodrome, but as I recall the ending was slightly different, and I prefer the original ending (I believe that was the translated French version, not the English version). Anyway, a couple of crazy old hags torture a young lady whose about to be released from an asylum. Nice and nasty!
Next the pace and absurdity picked up with "The Blue Hour", a little nudie-cutie movies, a little knife-throwing (movies still), a little guillotine (now we're into the live stuff on stage!), a little Scheisse, Scheisse, Scheisse! A little spanking, and a little Oom-pah-pah! (And some other stuff, this was a selection of really brief skits, to end the night with a good laugh).
And finally, as a last treat before the show ended, they popped in the DVD of Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd. Not for the movie, for the special feature 20 minute documentary on Grand Guignol, starring the Thrillpeddlers, about half of which was shot in the Hypnodrome! Cool!
So this show plays Friday and Saturday for about another month. Go check it out!
Friday, April 11, 2008
It's odd enough that they've never teamed up to make a movie. Despite the contrasts in their styles, they're both huge action stars who (as this movie shows) can complement each other very well. Odder still, when they finally do unite, it's in an American movie? At least, that's what was going through my mind as I waited for the movie to start--'They're gonna Americanize this too much, they need an obligatory American hero to sell it domestically, and that's going to ruin it.' Fortunately, as the movie rolled I quickly realized that this isn't a movie that belongs to America, nor is it a movie that really belongs to China, it's a movie that belongs to the international legions of Shaw Brothers fans.
Michael Angarano nominally "stars" as Jason Tripitikas, a Boston teen obsessed with kung fu movies he gets from Old Hop's (Jackie Chan, under tons of old man makeup) pawn shop. He finds a magic staff, and when cornered by bullies it transports him to ancient China where he's suddenly a monk. He runs into Jackie Chan as (Drunken Master) Lu Yan and eventually Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu, in a variation of Pei-Pei Cheng's character from "Come Drink With Me") and the (nearly) Silent Monk (Jet Li). They join on a mission to return the staff to its rightful owner, the Monkey King (also Jet Li), imprisoned in stone by the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). Loads of crazy fighting ensues, and a good time is had by all. Even the Bride with White Hair shows up. The whole thing plays like a cross of "The Neverending Story" (geeky kid gets drawn into the world of his dreams), "Big Trouble in Little China" (white guy is helpless as Chinese kick ass around him) and a gleeful mash-up of more Shaw Brothers and Kung Fu movies than I could identify.
"The Forbidden Kingdom" opens next Friday (April 18) in theaters nationwide. Go see it!
Oh, and as for the white guy being the hero in China, if you want to get hung up on that, I suppose you can. But at least it's played with appropriate humility and humor. It's nowhere near as annoying as Tom Cruise going to Japan and becoming the greatest samurai ever in one year. What the hell was that?
[Additional Note: I forgot to mention, director Rob Minkoff, screenwriterJohn Fusco, and stars Collin Chou and Yifei Liu (making her American movie debut) were in attendance and introduced the film. However, they were really strict about anti-piracy measures (which I applaud) so I didn't risk pulling out my cellphone and trying to snap a picture of them. Still, it was cool to see the creative people behind this, and my congratulations to them]
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Anyway...so I'm a huge George Romero fan. To the point that I understand the zeitgeist of the decades by looking at the "* of the Dead" movies:
- 60's--"Night of the Living Dead" = Race issues (first horror movie with a black hero)
- 70's--"Dawn of the Dead" = Rampant consumerism
- 80's--"Day of the Dead" = Military buildup
- 00's--"Land of the Dead" = Class warfare, the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens (also the one where "the zombies are us" is most telling)
- 00's, part 2--"Diary of the Dead" = New media, and distrust of all media.
So I want to say something to all the people who compare this to "Cloverfield" with zombies. You guys are completely missing the point. In "Cloverfield" (which was technologically impressive), the hand-held effect is meant to make it feel more immediate and real, like a home movie (the fact that there were such ridiculous plot holes sort of destroyed that effect, but that was definitely the intention). In "Diary of the Dead", Romero isn't going for realism, he wants you to question what you see--not just in this movie but in everything. In the beginning, the character named Debra tells you that she's the editor (i.e., this was edited!), what the movie was shot on, even that she added music to intentionally try to scare you (incidentally, this faux-documentarian inserting herself into a movie would be unheard of pre-Michael Moore). And it doesn't just use the student's footage, there's security cameras and news stories, too. So it's wrong to compare it to the home-video style of "Cloverfield". It's more akin to Brian DePalma's "Redacted", which makes similar statements about mistrusting news reports. Rather than using a home video style to make you believe in the reality more, George Romero uses a variety of footage--mixed media, if you will--to point out the unreality of everything you've ever seen, including this movie.
George Romero has long had a reputation as the nicest guy working in horror. With this movie, I wonder if he's final become a cynical, misanthropic bastard who actual believes humanity doesn't deserve to survive. As for me, as long as humanity can make movies like this, I'll let it keep going.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Now I know I'm a homer, but in my humble opinion it should've been 1-1. In the 4th minute, with no score, the EQ scored a beautiful goal off a free kick assist. Called off on a veeeery borderline offsides call. I could man up and say "close call, I can see it either way, fair enough that the ref judged against us", but even the ESPN2 commentator said it shouldn't have been called (not at the time, later in the halftime recap). So "shouldabeen" score = 1-0 good guys.
The other goal, by
Still, I'm just so happy to have a team back that I'll suffer them sucking a bit. They're an expansion team, they have a two year grace period. But I expect a championship by 2010, dammit!
More importantly, just sitting at home, watching the (road) game on TV, and drinking beer, I sweat buckets from jumping around and yelling so much. After 2 years off, I'm not sure if I'm in good enough shape to watch this season. I've gotta get into game shape by April 12, our home opener against the Chicago Fire.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
"Backseat" is a bit of deadpan road-trip absurdity. Two friends drive from New York to Montreal to a) meet Donald Sutherland, and b) deliver a brick of coke to a friend of a friend (of a friend? I forget how long that chain). Along the way, they hook up with a psychotic cousin and his friend who only communicates via text messaging. Yeah, it's pretty weird, but they play it totally straight (even the showdown where everyone starts pulling out guns). Pretty cool.
"Backseat" opens Friday at Landmark Theaters in San Francisco and Berkeley. Friday night two of the filmmakers will be at the San Francisco shows. Saturday night they'll be in Berkeley. Check it out!
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Reminds me of the joy of watching "Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation". Also reminds me of the trailer to "Son of Rambow" (coming soon, about kids making their own Rambo movie). There seems to be (at least in the indie film community) a bit of an explicit backlash against overly-polished movies in favor of the DIY, let-the-strings-show charm. And if there's anyone to lead that aesthetic movement, Michel Gondry's the man. Go back and look at his collection of music videos. Check out the director's commentary and special features on "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (he had Jim Carrey running and doing quick-changes behind the camera to have him play himself and his subconscious in one unbroken scene--no CGI), or look at "The Science of Sleep". This is almost a manifesto he's been building to his entire career, and I'm fully in support.
Anyway, I consider myself a casual Stephen Chow fan. His movies at their best ("Kung Fu Hustle") are goofy live-action cartoons. Same holds true for "CJ7". Not as go-everywhere wild as "Kung Fu Hustle", but at least it has a magic kung-fu space puppy!
Magic kung-fu space puppy!
Magic kung-fu space puppy!
Magic kung-fu space puppy!
Magic kung-fu space puppy!
Magic kung-fu space puppy!
Magic kung-fu space puppy!
Magic kung-fu space puppy!
Magic kung-fu space puppy!