Sunday, December 20, 2009

Jason watches AVATAR in IMAX 3-D

And let me get this out of the way first. I enjoyed it, and from a technical and asthetic standpoint it vastly exceeds anything that came before. The look is breathtaking and the immersive 3-D is unlike anything you've seen before. More thoughts on the 3-D technology later.

Normally I avoid the opening night crowds, and especially the pre-opening midnight crowds, but I wanted to see it in IMAX and I'm spending the holidays in an IMAX-less world (Bellingham, WA and Anchorage, AK) so it was Midnight Thursday or wait until January. Well, the crowd was annoying as expected up until the opening shot (a POV of flying over a forest) and then everyone shut the hell up. I could swear the whole audience held their collective breath for two and a half hours, afraid to miss a thing. And for taming the multiplex rowdies, I give James Cameron a standing ovation.

Now let's get (unfortunately) to the story. Humans are on the planet searching for an arbitrary plot point mineral called Unobtainium for use as fuel (or for building a drill that can drill to the core of the earth, maybe that's in the sequel). The forests of Pandora are full of danger and 10 foot tall blue humanoids called Navi. The Avatar project is led by a scientist named Grace (Sigourney Weaver). They grow Navi/human hybrids that they can transfer human consciousness to (kinda like virtual reality, but the human body is asleep at the time). A crippled Marine joins the program (his twin brother was on the program but died, so they already have an Avatar that matches his DNA), goes native, and within 3 months becomes the baddest-ass Navi ever (apparently the working title was THE LAST SAMURAI DANCES WITH MEGA-SMURFS). So much of the plot is cliche and telegraphed well in advance. The villain is a cartoon in his militaristic brutality. I could go on...

But let me say again, I really liked it. It's only in the post-viewing analysis that I have to admit the plot sucked. In the moment, I was completely transfixed. And that brings me back to the 3-D technology. Back in my review of UP, I claimed I hadn't seen a movie that must be seen in 3-D. I knew AVATAR was coming when I wrote that, and I knew it might change my mind. And I'll give it pretty close to full marks for that. I'm sure it's much better in 3-D, in no small part because it detracts from the plot flaws, but also because the 3-D is so well done. I also said that the real future of 3-D is in getting rid of the glasses. I still stand by that, but I have some extra, pessimistic predictions about that. I mentioned Philips had worked on 3-D monitors that I've seen in action and are/will be amazing. Others are working on this, too. But here's my fear--they seem to be working on the home theater market, building a cinema screen with that technology is way too much (I might be wrong, I'm not that plugged in to the technology). Well, 3-D might rescue cinemas for a few years, and might be a lasting boon to the filmmaking industry, but within ten years we'll (and by "we" I mean people who have the means to drop a few thousand dollars on a giant HDTV today) will have to option to see the latest 3-D spectacle in the cinema with those annoying glasses or at home without them. And that will kill the cinemas. So thanks a lot, Mr. Cameron.

In the meantime, if this is the future of filmmaking then I'm eagerly awaiting a really good movie made with this technology.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Jason Watches A SERIOUS MAN

I've been to two Jewish film festivals this year, and this is the Jewiest movie I've seen in many years (way Jewier than INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, and that was the face of Jewish vengeance).

The Coen brothers might have made the opposite of every other movie they've made before, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg) is physics professor in the Minneapolis suburbs in 1967. His son is a stoner who owes pot money to the school bully. His wife wants a divorce so she can shack up with widower Sy Ableman. His brother is an obnoxious house guest with a gross sebaceous cyst that he's constantly draining. And Larry can't get any useful advice from any rabbi. Meanwhile one of his students is failing and bribes/threatens him for a passing grade (then claims a "cultural misunderstanding" because he's Korean). And here's where it becomes the opposite of a Coen brothers movie. He doesn't take the bribe, he doesn't demand anything from his wife, he's not greedy, he just tries to be an upstanding member of society--a serious man. Coen characters are always done in by greed, but for the first time they built a movie about a man who is done in by his lack of greed, his lack of self-interest.

Don't get me wrong, there's a ton of Coen-isms still in the movie. Odd characters, dark humor, and their new trademark, the abrupt, ambiguous ending. But it's like they self-consciously (and I believe the Coen brothers are two of the most self-conscious filmmakers working today) made a movie that counteracts all their previous anti-greed movies. And I don't know what to make of that. But at least I got to wallow in the delicious Jewiness for a couple of hours.


It's total throwback charm to see such a crudely stop-motion animated movie in these times of CGI galore. Wes Anderson has taken an interesting turn with this story of a fox (voiced by George Clooney) who through his cunning and guile steals from three of the meanest farmers who ever lived. And there's a pretty simple message there about being true to your animal nature--even if you've agreed to give up stealing to raise a family. Even if your antics result in the whole forest being threatened. Even if you're little and not very athletic. We're all different, and there's something really fantastic about that.

Wes Anderson has had an annoying habit of cobbling together a bunch of interesting scenes that don't make up a whole movie (worst offender, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU). He suffers a little bit from that here, although I think using Roald Dahl's source material keeps him in check (confession, I haven't read the book so I don't know how faithfully he sticks to it). FANTASTIC MR FOX is probably close to the level of narrative focus in RUSHMORE or THE DARJEELING LIMITED, i.e., as focused as Wes Anderson ever gets.

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for a Laurel and Hardy Sunday

And even Santa Claus was there! Although...he looked and felt a lot like me in a Santa Suit and white hair paint. But enough about that, on to the movies.

LAUGHING GRAVY (1931): Laurel and Hardy are tenants in a run down apartment, along with their beloved dog Laughing Gravy. Too bad the landlord doesn't allow dogs. Hilarity ensues.

MAMA'S LITTLE PIRATES (1934): Our Gang finds pirate treasure, guarded by a Giant! Pretty funny adventure, and includes a female Buckwheat (apparently this was from a time when Hal Roach was messing with the audience by changing Buckwheat's gender and generating headlines).

Then an intermission, and the feature:

BABES IN TOYLAND (1934): Laurel and Hardy's Christmastime classic, which I confess I'd never seen before (even though it included a cameo by mean Santa Claus). Anyway, Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee live with their mother, the old lady who lives in the shoe, and their (I assume?) sister little Bo Peep. The three little pigs are their neighbors, etc. There's a glorious sense of silly, innocent fun in seeing all the nursery rhymes coming to life (including the cradle in the treetop, which always struck me as bizarre and a little sick). Little Bo Peep loves Tom-Tom the Piper's Son. Unfortunately, evil Silas Barnaby has his eye on Bo Peep, too, and he holds the mortgage to the Shoe. Evil hijinx ensue, and Stan and Ollie have to save the day multiple times. Lots of fun.

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for some early Universal City

Just got back from a business trip to Germany last Friday. I was still badly jet-lagged, but I put in a full afternoon volunteering at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and then came back in the evening for this program.

Big thanks to Bob Birchard for presenting this program, who also did a brief slide show and book signing in the afternoon.

First up was BEHIND THE SCENES (1915): As it suggests, a behind-the-scenes look at work in Universal City. Includes scenes with a crowd that was there for the "official" opening of Universal Studios (it was actually something like the 4th opening, but the one that Universal still claims to this day).

HE MARRIED HER ANYHOW (1914): Okay, so I mentioned I was jet-lagged. Well, I slept through this one. Sucks, because apparently this was long-lost and only discovered recently. But I have no idea what happened in it.

Then an intermission and the feature presenation:

THE GOOSE WOMAN (1925): Louise Dresser stars as Marie de Nardi aka Mary Holmes aka The Goose Woman. In her youth, she was a famous and beloved opera singer. However, when her son was born she lost her voice. Missing the spotlight, she drowns her sorrows in alcohol, which makes her a pretty terrible mother to her now grown son (that and she doesn't hide the fact that she blames him for destroying her fame). But she sees an opportunity to get back in the spotlight when a murder occurs near her home and the police and the news converge on the neighborhood. She decides to become an important witness, but it turns out her story ends up implicating her son. Eventually (finally) maternal instincts do take over. A pretty wild melodrama.

And that was last Saturday in Niles.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees The Great Nickelodeon Show

And it was such a packed event that I, as a volunteer at the Niles Film Museum, did not get my customary front row seat but in fact crowded onto the stairs in the back. And still, it was absolutely awesome!

The Edison Theatre at the Niles Film Museum (one of the rare theatres that plays silent films every week) was originally built in 1913 (and restored to a theater in 2004/2005), and last Saturday was a time machine back to those days. The films were hand-crankes (by our historian/projectionist David Kiehn, whose book makes a great Christmas present) and the whole affair was wrapped into an interactive Vaudeville show packed full of sing-alongs.

The first of those sing-alongs was the opening find-a-seat-and-park-it song, Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly (Kelly From The Emerald Isle. 1909). A recorded piece with accompanying pictures (all songs had accompanying pictures).

Once we were settled in with that, we were ready for Windsor McCay (Greg Tiede) and his fabulous "interactiv" cartoons LITTLE NEMO (thre king of dreamland) and GERTIE THE DINOSAUR. Simple line drawing animation, but made to be paired with a live Vaudeville patter, and Mr. Tiede did a great job, particularly with whipping Gertie into shape.

Then we saw the gorgeously hand-tinted print of THE GOLDEN BEETLE (1907): A magician creates a brightly colored flying man-bug who takes control.

And then WINTER STRAW RIDE (1906): A groups of ladies go on a ride through the snow, but are pelted by the boys with snowballs. Once their sleigh is stopped, they get out, join in, and get a touch of revenge.

Then some more singing while our projectionist took a break and prepared for his next act. "Hello, Hello New York Town" (1912) is a song about an aviator and his best girl who go all around the world but can't find anyplace better than NYC. Performed by Sean Sharp.

Then in "Oh, You Spearmint Kiddo With The Wrigley Eyes" Mr. Sharp was joined by Lori Leigh Gieleghem to sing about a girl who loved chewing gum. And then they passed out gum to the whole audience.

More movies: THE DANCING PIG (1907): a girl and her giant pig (man in a pig suit) did a few dances and freaked me the hell out.

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903): The seminal movie, the first "story" film, and the big break that started our patron saint G M Anderson on his filmmaking career. Awesome!

Another song, "Take Me Out For A Joyride" (1909) sung by Miss Lori Leigh Giegelhem, about a girl who likes to go riding, no matter the risks.

Then the amazing, magnificent Sebastian Boswell III (Mr. Reed Kirk Rahlman) astounded, amazed, and shocked us all by hammering a four inch spike into his head! Sure enough, it went up his nose with a hammer, and back out with pliers, and a great patter and performance all along.

Then another film, SUSPENSE (1913): A man calls his wife to let her know he'll be home late. Meanwhile, the help quits leaving her defenseless and a prowler tries to break in. So she calls her husband, who has to steal a car and outrace the cops to save her. Whew!

And one last song, "At The Rag Time Ball": a husband and wife (Mr. Sharp and Miss Gieleghem) sing about how they'll wow 'em all at the Rag Time Ball.

And the grand finale, Georges Melies' classic A TRIP TO THE MOON played the way it was originally seen, with live narration. That narration was provided by the Barbary Coast Thespians (Miss Gieleghem, Mr. Rahlmann, Mr. Sharp, and Mr. Tiede), and was a mix of funny and informative (with a dig at conservatives). Lots of fun, but I was left wondering a bit how close it was to the original period narration.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jason goes to Bad Movie Night and sees THE WIZARD OF OZ

Wait, what? Bad movie night?! Right, they did a month of "blasphemy," playing good movies while drunkenly ragging on them. And for Thanksgiving weekend they played the Thanksgiving classic WIZARD OF OZ.

It's the story of a stupid little girl who goes skipping through a magical land with a bunch of idiotic queers. We took a vote and determined that the Cowardly Lion is, in fact, the gayest (narrowly beating out the Tin Man). The moral is that you shouldn't seek adventure but learn to be happy in your gray, colorless, Kansas life (presumably marrying the boy next door and having a bunch of kids while never leaving town). Incidentally, that's the exact opposite of the series of books, where eventually Dorothy moves to Oz with her Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. Also, have you ever noticed when approaching the Wicked Witch's castle, the Scarecrow is holding a gun? (FYI, Speilberg has bought the rights to the movie so he can digitally replace it with a walkie-talkie).

Oh yeah, and what sort of retarded city planner builds a road that ends in a fucking spiral? What the hell, this movie does suck!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees THE DUCHESS OF NEW YORK

But first, a couple of shorts in this night of comedy.

THE DUMB-BELL (1922): Snub Pollard stars in this Charles Parrot (aka Charley Chase) directed movie within a movie. When the temperamental director throws a fit, the producers ask actor Snub Pollard to fire him, offering him the directing gig if he's successful. Turns out that was the easy part (the director just quits). The hard part is controlling the actors. Turns out they're all dumb-bells, and the director was right to throw a tantrum. Funny send-up of the film-making process.

LONG FLIV THE KING (1926): Now Charley Chase stars, as a condemned prisoner who marries the visiting princess of Thermosa so she can inherit the throne. But when the governor grants him a pardon, he becomes king. So he travels to Thermosa (with his sidekick Max Davidson) to claim his throne. Hilarious. I love Charley Chase.

Then after the intermission, the feature...

THE DUCHESS OF BUFFALO (1926): In this comedy, Constance Talmadge stars as a dancer who struck out in her native U.S., but becomes a sensation in Russia. So much of a sensation that she catches the eye of both a young, strapping soldier and his father, the Grand Duke. The Duke, of course, has the power to block his sons ambitions, and tries. But there's one thing that can overrule the Grand Duke, and that's the Grand Duchess. And that leads to a typically hilarious bedroom hiding scene. Very funny.

Next weekend two big specials at Niles. First on Saturday there's The Great Nickelodeon Show, with live acts and hand-cranked film, including the classic Melies' THE TRIP TO THE MOON (with live narration) and G. M. Anderson's first break (and the breakthrough in movie story-telling) THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. Due to the added frills, this isn't the normal $5 Saturday night, this is $15 ($12 for museum members)

Then on Sunday at 12:30 there's a special double bill. First a documentary THE LEGEND OF PANCHO BARNES about an early movie aviatrix. Then Howard "the wave of the future" Hughes' classic HELL'S ANGELS, for which Pancho Barnes provided the sound effects by flying around a microphone suspended from a balloon. This show is $10 ($8 members)

Jason watches a rough cut of CORNER STORE

Last week I got an evite out of the blue and learned about a new movie made in the city and a movie cult spot I didn't know before. First, that cult spot--Oddball Film + Video. A cool, kitchy space in the Mission (Capp St. between 17th and 18th) with tons of old film cans. They also do cult screening events Friday and Saturday nights. I haven't been back to one of those, but you can e-mail them (e-mail available on their events page) to get on their mailing list.

Anyway, the reason I was there a week ago was for a rough cut screening of the documentary CORNER STORE. It's the story of Yousef (Joseph) Elhaj, a Palestinian man who moved to San Francisco 10 years ago (with his father, who passed away and was only mentioned briefly in this cut of the film). He's a quiet, cheerful man who has operated a little corner grocery store, saving up money for his family. He even lived and slept in the back of the store (his apartment/office) the whole time (one of my favorite scenes was when he was in the back talking about how much he enjoys the rare times when he has company when he eats back there). Well, in the past year his decade-long dream became reality, and we get to follow him back to Palestine, meet his family, and eventually bring them to the U.S. (where Yousef finally has to move out of the back of the store and into a real home). His family is a pretty interesting mix. His wife is pretty quiet, he has an adorable daughter who plays tour guide, but most interesting is his eldest son who doesn't want to leave. Even living in occupation, he'd prefer to stay there and build a life in his home with his people (BTW, it's neither here nor there but the family are Palestinian Christians, not Muslims).

This is a movie that has a lot going on. There's the whole Palestinian occupation issue, there's community and the people who make neighborhoods special (a few months back I was listening to an NPR story about these so-call "significant strangers"), there's the immigrant story, and there's the touching human drama of the sacrifices Yousef makes for his family's future.

This was definitely still a rough cut, but it's very close to complete (this was supposed to be the last rough cut screening). There are bits that drag--most notably the traveling scenes (although there's one scene in the airport near the end that cuts to the heart of the film). But all in all, it's already pretty good and it's pretty close to ready for prime time.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest South--Closing Night

Last Sunday was the grand finale of the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival. Three movies, and here's the rundown.

First up was ADAM RESURRECTED, directed by Paul Schrader and starring Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe. Rumor I heard was there was quite a bit of debate over whether to play this movie--which is a pretty depressing Holocaust story--in the festival. As it turns out, it was one of my favorites, particularly because it was edgier, so thank you to those who pushed to put it in the program. Jeff Goldblum plays Adam Stein, who was the most famous clown in all of Germany. Now (1961) he's a patient at a mental hospital for Holocaust survivors. His past is told in a series of flashbacks--how he had an enormously popular circus he ran with his wife and daughters; how he was rounded up during the Holocaust; how the camp commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe) recognized him; and how he survived the camp (but failed to rescue his family) by entertaining commandant Klein for a year (by playing a dog). Well, now he's more than a little bit messed up psychologically. And while he's not fit to live in the real world, in his little asylum world he's still the master of ceremonies. The asylum is nominally run by Dr. Nathan Gross (Derek Jacobi), who seems to give Adam quite a lot of leeway, but might be doing just the right thing for him. There's a ton of very dark humor here (Adam is, after all, still a clown; only now he's a permanently sad clown). And the drama is tight, mostly revolving around a mysterious boy in the hospital. The one thing that really bugged me is it indulged one of my little pet peeves--bad accents filling in for foreign languages. There was no reason for Jeff Goldblum or Willem Dafoe to be using thick German accents. If they're supposed to be speaking German, have them speak German and subtitle it. If English is going to fill in for German, go ahead and let it be unaccented English, it's less distracting.

So, from dark comedy and darker drama, we went on to a light, funny as heck documentary, CIRCUMCISE ME: THE COMEDY OF YISRAEL CAMPBELL. Yisrael was raised Catholic (and named Chris, not Yisrael) and has converted to Judaism three times. First Reform, and mostly because he was dating a Jewish girl and couldn't stop thinking about Judaism. Then Conservative and finally Orthodox, as he realized that it wasn't just a passing interest, but the answer to his spiritual seeking. The movie is part stand-up concert (and he's really, really funny) and part interviews with him and his father musing about his conversion. It's a brisk film, at 48 minutes it's in that nebulous region where it's longer than a short but shorter than a feature. It just left me wanting a little more

And that "little more" was a set of stand up comedy by local comedian Jeff Applebaum. He's a pretty funny guy, works clean, and played up to the Jewish crowd. And he does a bit as Joey Bishop (as part of the tribute show "The Rat Pack is Back") that's pretty good--telling a lot of old, kinda corny jokes but delivering them well.

And finally, the festival ended with LOST ISLANDS, which I had previously seen at Jewfest North. Let's see what I wrote about it back then:
Set in the 80's, it's the story of an eccentric tight-knit family. The Levis have 5 sons--the eldest David, teenage twins Ofer and Erev, and two little kids. The story centers mostly on Ofer and Erev (the coming of age story). When they were born, Ofer nearly died, and their mother never lets them forget, doting on Ofer while making Erev fend for himself and help Ofer. This despite the fact that Ofer works out all the time and is easily the stronger brother. But this doesn't really cause problems, it's just a source of comedy. What does cause problems is when Erev and Ofer fall for the same girl, Neta. While she obviously likes Erev more, the twins have a system for sharing everything--whoever calls it first gets it. And Ofer called it first, so that's that. Despite some obvious tension, they go out partying all the time with their wacky friend Boaz (aka Savta, or "Grandma"). But things really get out of hand when their dad Avraham gets into a car accident and is paralyzed. Erev blames himself (and without giving away spoilers, he has reason to). Suddenly the fun, wild days of youth turn into the depression of young adulthood. Ofer becomes the loyal son staying home to take care of his dad. Erev volunteers for the commando unit of the IDF (which used to be Ofer's dream) in a none-too-subtle bid to get himself killed in combat, no matter how ill-equipped he is for the physical rigors of training, much less combat. It's a story of family, love, cheating, and of course, growing up. And it's remarkably funny and has a cool 80's pop soundtrack. It's not hard to see why it was so popular in Israel last year.
Yeah, I'll stick with that review, and I'll reiterate that the soundtrack was a lot of fun. And I'll add that it holds up well to multiple viewings. In fact, I think I liked it more the second time when I already knew how the diverging threads tied together thematically.

And with that, the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival 2009 is over.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


And I liked it. But I don't feel like writing much, except to point out that Ewan McGregor has finally played a Jedi warrior in a good movie.

"More of this is true than you would believe."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for Comedy Shorts Night--Nov 21, 2009

Back at my favorite very local film cult. And Comedy shorts night is always crowded, it was nearly sold out last night. On to the movies:

THE CURE (1916): Charlie Chaplin (shortly after he left Niles) ditches his tramp character for a bit to play an inebriate. He checks into a sanitarium (with a trunk full of liquor) and immediately causes problems. Common Chaplin foil Eric Campbell plays a man suffering from gout, who becomes the target for most of Chaplin's shenanigans. Edna Purviance (whom Chaplin met while working in Niles) plays a girl who convinces him to go sober. Too bad his entire stash of liquor was accidentally dumped into the well of healing water. Very funny.

GET OUT AND GET UNDER (1920): Harold Lloyd is late for his big amateur stage role. No problem, he has his beloved automobile. Problem is, stuff keeps getting in his way. Stuff like arguing with a neighbor, the car stalling, and lots of police chases. But if he doesn't get there in time, his rival will step into the role of the masked prince and he'll lose his girlfriend (Mildred Davis, his future wife).

Then after intermission...

MY WIFE'S RELATIONS (1922): Buster Keaton (rounding out the night of the Big Three) is accidentally married to a rather hefty woman (Kate Price). See, the magistrate in the ethnic part of town only speaks Polish and thought they were the couple coming in to get married. Actually, she was turning him in for breaking a window. But a marriage certificate is issued, and she takes him home to her large, abusive family. Abusive, that is, until they learn he's set to inherit a fortune, and then they have to treat him nice. Pretty funny.

PAS THE GRAVY (1928): A Thanksgiving tradition at the Niles Film Museum, and one of the funniest things I've ever seen (twice now). Neighbors feud, but agree to bury the hatchet for their children's engagement. In fact, they'll have a grand feast. Unfortunately, that feast is accidentally Brigham, one neighbor's prize rooster (BTW, naming the rooster Brigham is an intentional and at the times common dig at famous Mormon polygamist Brigham Young). I've already said too much, you can't describe it you've gotta see it.

And that was last night in Niles.

Jason watches PIRATE RADIO

It was just okay. It has many amusing bits, and obviously lots of cool classic rock (which seems to be the main reason to make the movie). But it literally takes 3/4 of the movie before it even gets moving, and once it does it gets hackneyed and cliche. Especially the villains--government ministers trying to shut them down. Kenneth Branagh, normally a much better actor, is a broad mockery of a minister afraid of rock and roll, and his right hand man Twatt (Jack Davenport) is referred to way too much by name. The joke gets old damn quick.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Jason watches ANTICHRIST

Oh, Lars Von Trier, you nutty cinematic prankster! Could anyone else have so beautifully juxtaposed a couple fucking (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) while their toddler son climbs out of a window and falls to his death? And that's just the opening scene.

Naturally, they're overcome with grief. Or at least she is (Von Trier doesn't give them names, just he and she in the credits). You assume he's hurting, too, but she is so grief-struck she's hospitalized. He, on the other hand, tries to help her--he is, after all, a therapist. That already makes me hate him (but that's my own issue), and more so when he ignores the standard advice against treating his loved ones. And he treats her in a cold, smug manner as if he has all the answers.

Anyway, they move out to their cabin in the woods to get away from everything and she can finish her dissertation on gynocide. They grieve, they fuck, they grieve, they fuck some more. Weird animals show up in the woods, revealed in chapters. There's the deer of grief, fox of pain, and crow of despair (or something like that I know it was deer, fox, and crow, but I don't recall if I got the emotions matched right). Things go from bad to worse, ending with graphic, brutal abuse, torture, and mutilation. Yes, there's a graphic self-clitorectomy, which has been mentioned in just about every review I've read. Yeah, that's a spoiler, but I was so happy to be prepared for it that I'm not going to worry about spoiling it (it's not something I really wanted to be surprised by).

So it's a bleak, despairing movie that really has no uplift in the story. But it's beautifully shot, has a hypnotic soundtrack, and won't leave my brain. I'm sure it's allegorical (especially the parts with the animals), but it seems the allegorical form has been mutated and perverted. Allegory can be used to sidestep and replace the literal and graphic with something more palatable. But here there's no allegory for genital mutilation--the mutilation is literal and graphic. And if that's an allegory for something, you're doing it wrong (but probably on purpose).

I don't know if any of this makes sense. I started by saying Von Trier is a nutty cinematic prankster. I base that on his career, not on this movie alone. I'm not sure this is a prank at all, and I'm not sure if I'd be more afraid of him if it was or if it wasn't. I just don't know what to make of it all.

Chaos reigns.

Jason watches THE BOX

Midway through Richard Kelly's latest mind trip, half-faceless Arlington Steward declares, "I love a good mystery," and that pretty much sums up Kelly's career so far. It would be interesting to explain to someone who hasn't seen DONNIE DARKO (especially the director's cut) or SOUTHLAND TALES that he's really dialing back his indulgent, excessive weirdness in THE BOX. That might be because he's starting with someone else's story (Richard Matheson's "Button, Button").

Arlington Steward delivers a box to Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz, with an annoying accent that I guess is supposed to be Virginian?), and tells her that if she presses the button inside the box then 1) a person somewhere who she doesn't know will die, and b) she will receive $1,000,000 cash. She can't discuss this with anyone except her NASA engineer husband Arthur (James Marsden). That little moral challenge leads to a dizzying plot of aliens, water portals, the NSA, mindless slaves (or "employees" as Steward calls them), and the classic Arthur C. Clarke line about sufficiently advanced science being indistinguishable from magic. And this simple moral challenge might just be part of a greater test for all mankind.

I'm going to repeat what I said after I saw SOUTHLAND TALES. Richard Kelly is an exciting, talented filmmaker who pursues an unlimited vision even when it means leaving the entire audience behind. In that sense, he could be on his way to a career like Lynch or Cronenberg--one where his movies can really only be understood as part of his whole evolving vision. In order to do that he needs to be a little more prolific. It frustrated me that I had to wait 6 years for a follow-up to DONNIE DARKO, and I got an indulgent mess like SOUTHLAND TALES (although I still maintain that once his entire vision is explicated, SOUTHLAND TALES might be revisited as the gestation of every idea in his head). I'm happy I only had to wait 2 years for THE BOX, and if he can keep making movies, perhaps he'll finish his vision in his own lifetime.

Jason goes to Jewfest South--Sunday, Nov. 15

Back at the Camera 12 for two more shows in the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival last Sunday.

First up was the historical drama ALTALENA, exposing a slice of Israeli history I never knew. In 1948, after Israel declared independence, most of the paramilitary groups were absorbed into the IDF. Among them were the Irgun, headed by Menachim Begin (who I only knew was Prime Minister of Israel when I was a kid). The integration was less than smooth, and tensions simmered, culminating in the Altalena incident. The Altalena was a cargo ship smuggling weapons into Israel, organized by the Irgun and Begin. New Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion insisted Begin hand over the weapons to the government, who would distribute them to the IDF. Begin insisted on priority for the former Irgun soldiers, who he thought were being undersupplied. Rather than negotiating, Gurion sent in the IDF to take the weapons by force, leading to the death of 20 Jews. Begin, for his part, held firm but consistently ordered his forces not to fire at the IDF (at least, that's how this movie portrayed it). Not that his orders were always followed.

The movie attempts to take a very objective, almost verite view of the events. And it's a pretty low budget affair--it's hard not to think of how a big-budget Hollywood production would jazz up the story, but I'm happy with this version. It definitely captures the complexity and confusion of the whole incident. And as I said, this was a story I'd never heard before, and I'm glad to know about it now.

And then we followed that up with the next 5 episodes of S'RUGIM. While episodes 1-4 did a good job introducing our main characters, episodes 5-9 really take off. Natti tries to set up Amir with online dating, but ends up stealing his dates. Yifat and Natti finally admit their attraction, but Natti suddenly becomes a jerk and starts avoiding her. Hodaya's on-again, off-again relationship with her non-religious boyfriend comes to a head with her flipping out and desecrating the sabbath in view of everyone. Reut and Amir still don't get together, although he does date her sister until she finds out he's divorced. I really feel sorry for Amir, and some of the scenes with his ex-wife--with whom there's still a spark?--are quite good. Meanwhile Reut wants to learn to read the Torah to lead her all-women prayer group (chanting the Torah is against the most orthodox traditions) and convinces a teacher to train her. That leads to a romance, which is complicated when the girls set her up with another man, leading to her living the cliche sitcom experience of having two dates on the same night (worse yet, inviting two men to the same sabbath dinner).

And then it ends. Problem is, it's something like 17 episodes (and running) and we stopped halfway through. Hopefully SVJFF will finish the series (or at least the first season) in later events.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest South--Thur, Nov. 12

And my first time at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. Nice place they have there.

Anyway, I was there for the first 4 episodes of "S'RUGIM", a popular Israeli television show. The title refers to the knitted kipot...yarmulke...skullcaps worn by religiously observant Jews. "S'RUGIM" the TV show was described as "SEX AND THE CITY" but with orthodox Jews in Jerusalem--which means no sex, not even inappropriate touching, no non-kosher food, and no phone calls on the Sabbath (among other rules).

The main cast are 5 friends who typically have the sabbath meal together. Yifat, Hodaya, and Reut are the women, all dating with a clear goal towards marriage. Natti is a well off young doctor, who would be quite a catch (and a perfect match for Yifat) if he weren't sort of emotionally unbalance. His friend and new roommate Amir is a grammar teacher who (horror of horrors!) is divorced. And he might just be perfect for Reut. At least, they get along well together. So, as I explained above, they meet people, go on dates, celebrate the sabbath, etc. And it's a pretty funny show. Although most of the humor comes from complications balancing their religiosity with dating (especially when Hodaya starts dating a non-religious man who doesn't know he's religious), you don't have to know too much about the religious laws to get the jokes. Most are pretty obvious from context, and you just need to keep a few things in mind: Kosher laws--no pork (of course), but also no mixing meat and cheese (Italian food is pretty much out). Sabbath--the Friday night meal is very important, and after sundown until sundown on Saturday you cannot work or light or extinguish any fires (including turning on or off any electrical appliance. E.g., unscrew the light bulb in the refrigerator so it doesn't go on and off when you open/close the door). And no touching before marriage--a handshake might be okay, but even a goodnight kiss is right out.

Anyway, the first four episodes contain a number of small adventures as we get to know the characters. And that leads us into the episodes 5-9. But that's for another post.

Jason goes to Jewfest South--Wed. Nov 11th

Once again, I've been too busy and fallen too far behind in my updates. Anyway, one show down at the Camera 7 in Campbell just over a week ago. A Holocaust short and feature (what's a Jewish film festival without some Holocaust films?)

The short was TOYLAND, an amusing and touching story of a German boy who sees his Jewish friends packing for a trip. He asks his mom where they're going, so she explains they're moving for Toyland. So of course he wants to go, too. So much so that he tries to sneak away on the train with them. Spoiler alert--they're not really going to Toyland.

That led into the feature documentary, MENACHEM AND FRED (which happens to be the movie I was most disappointed to miss at Jewfest North. That's something I can almost always count on SVJFF to pick up). Menachem Mayer and Fred Raymes (an anagram of Mayer...with an extra S) are brothers. They were born in Germany, but moved to an orphanage in France when their parents were taken away). At the end of the war, Fred was 16 and Menachem was 13. Fred wanted to move to the U.S., where he Anglicized his name (he wasn't born Fred) and scrambled his last name and assimilated well. But Menachem became enraptured with Zionism and moved to Palestine (later Israel) and continued his traditional Jewish life. 60 years later, they reconnected, and that's what the movie is about. It's not necessarily a joyful reunion, they barely know each other anymore and there's a lot of tension. Much of it seems to come from the fact that when their parents left, they told Fred to take care of his little brother, and while they survived the Holocaust, they separated shortly after and Fred is carrying some guilt. The movie also follows them as they visit sites of their ordeal, bringing back painful memories that both had buried long ago. One of the more interesting points was looking at the concentration camp where they were kept in France. There weren't any Germans in charge there, this was run by the French collaborationist government. I always find it interesting that when you look at the individual Holocaust stories there's always so much more than the simple "Germans were all evil" story we always hear. A very interesting and moving story.

Sadly, I attended the wrong screening. If I had seen this the next Sunday (when I was busy anyway) I could've met Fred Raymes himself and heard him speak. But as it is, all I got was this very good movie.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest South--Wednesday, Nov. 4

One movie last week Wednesday, and it was a second chance at the opening night film, LETTERS FOR JENNY. But first we got a second helping of SECOND GUESSING GRANDMA, because it's a pretty awesome short.

LETTERS FOR JENNY, a Spanish language film from Argentina, opens with the titular Jenny at her Bat Mitzvah, praising her father and brother for always being there for her, and tearfully missing her mother who passed away. What she doesn't know is her mother wrote letters for her to help her at important times in her life--her Bat Mitzvah, marriage, first child, etc. And it turns out she needs them, as she gets engaged to a singer who stands her up with an unwanted pregnancy. If that sounds melodramatic, that's because it is. It's basically a South American soap opera, and too emotionally overwrought. I understand Jenny misses her mother, but perhaps she could make it through one letter without crying? Anyway, things pick up quite a bit when (on her mother's written advice), she takes a trip to Israel. A new perspective, a new life, perhaps a new love? And definitely some beautiful scenery. I guess I liked the cinematography the best.

Whew! And now I'm finally caught up with all the movies I've seen. Tonight I'm catching MENACHEM AND FRED at the Camera 7.

Jason goes to Jewfest South--Sunday, Nov. 1

I've been far too busy to blog, and I've been missing more of the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival than I wanted to. Sometimes it's hard to be as awesomely popular as I am.

Anyway, I did attend and saw two programs just over a week ago. It started with the short DOUBLE GUESSING GRANDMA, a funny story of a young Jewish man who comes out of the closet to his grandmother. And on Hanukkah, when the guilt lasts for 8 days, no less.

That led into the feature, FOR MY FATHER, which I had previously seen at Cinequest (where it won the audience award). That means I don't have to write a new review, just look back at what I wrote before:
Tarek is a suicide bomber, preparing for his mission in Tel Aviv. He's doing it for his father's honor. His explosive vest is strapped on, and if he doesn't go through with it there's a cell phone trigger so his handlers can "activate" him remotely. In fact, that trigger is wired through his belt buckle so that if he tries to take off the vest, it'll go off. There's really no turning back. So at 8 am on a Friday he gets himself in position in the middle of a crowded marketplace, pushes the button, and...nothing happens. The switch is defective. He hurries out of the market, finds an electrical repair shop, removes the switch, and asks the repairman if he can fix it (without telling him what it's for). He can't, but he can replace it, but he has no replacement in stock. Tomorrow is the Sabbath, so he won't get a replacement until Sunday morning. Tarek convinces his handlers (over the phone) to not activate him, give him until Sunday morning when the market will be crowded again. And so it looks like he's spending the weekend there in Tel Aviv. With nothing but time on his hands, he helps the electrical repairman fix his roof, and talks with the girl who owns the kiosk across the street. Keren is a bit of a punk with dyed-red hair, but she comes from an orthodox family. Her father refuses to talk to her (you can guess from the title there are a lot of daddy issues in this movie), but her "friends" from the community aren't afraid to come by and harass her, trying to get her to renounce her ways and return home. She and Tarek start a bit of a friendship, and when he defends her it becomes a bit more. It never gets sexual (obviously, he can't take of his jacket and reveal his suicide vest), but it is romantic. Over the course of a Sabbath (which just happens to be her birthday) all the reasons he has for his mission melt away. But he's still trapped. This movie handles a very difficult subject with a surprisingly light and deft sense of humor and romance. One of my favorites of the festival.
Yeah, I'll pretty much stand by that. An interesting thing about this movie. The easiest, pithiest way to describe it is "A Suicide Bomber Romantic Comedy" (or a "SuBoRomCom"). And that's how I described it at Cinequest--to the puzzled, disgusted looks of many--until I was sick of hearing it and doubting my judgement (or sanity) for liking it so much. Well, now that I've seen it again, I can say it's still a SuBoRomCom, and it's still a great movie.

And then I stuck around for the second feature, GRUBER'S JOURNEY. Based on a true story, it really should be called Malaparte's Journey. Curzio Malaparte was an Italian journalist sent to Romania to cover World War II there. Along the way, he is inflicted with a terrible respiratory allergy, to the point where he is nearly unable to breathe. Fortunately his doctor refers him to an excellent specialist in town--Dr. Gruber. Unfortunately, Dr. Gruber is not in his office. More unfortunately, Dr. Gruber is a Jew and was apparently rounded up by the local officials in a German-ordered purge. So Malaparte, a stranger to the ways of Romania, has to navigate the local authorities--police, military, diplomats, etc,--and the lack of accurate, collated records to try to find Dr. Gruber before something terrible happens. Without giving anything away, let me just reiterate that it is based on a true story and Malaparte wrote a book after the war documenting the horrors of the Holocaust in Romania. But as for the movie, it's an odd little film about the people who live in the privileged positions in wartime. At a time when millions are being murdered simply based on their race, it's a little unsettling to watch a story of a man trying to find an allergy treatment. Strange, but that contrast between true horror and a simple allergy is pretty effective.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Jason goes to Docfest--Closing Night

Well, it took me to the penultimate film in the festival, but I finally found one I really didn't like, SPEAKING IN CODE. And I refuse to concede that the problem is I don't like techno music. It's because it lacks focus and is all over the map (literally, jumping from Boston to Europe and back with very little narrative). Director Amy Grill and her husband David are huge techno fans. In fact, they met and fell in love because of the music. And with that solid foundation, you know they're built to last.... Anyway, they're obsessed with techno, but there's really no scene in Boston, where they live. So they travel to Europe--especially Germany, to attend raves and interview their favorite DJ's. Modeselektor is becoming huge, while Wighnomy Brothers (who are already huge) might be breaking up over one members aversion to travel. Meanwhile David is busily working trying to create a techno scene in Boston, even getting some of his favorite bands (like Modeselektor) to play there. And as they're both more involved with their own projects--Amy with her documentary and David with setting up techno gigs--they start to drift apart. Soon the only time they talk is when Amy is interviewing David for the movie. And the conversations become more and more uncomfortable. When the subject of babies (and that David would rather make techno big in Boston than be a father) comes up, I couldn't help but whisper to my friend "this is not the conversation to have on camera." And as I alluded to, it jumps from Boston to various places in Europe so quickly I couldn't follow any sort of narrative. This film desperately needed some judicious editing. It could have gone all out and been the story of their dissolving marriage (the sort of brutally honest glimpses of true life that I love). Or it could have continued focusing on the music and it could have been the type of solid music documentary that Docfest usually specializes in and was sorely missing this year (the one exception in TRIMPIN, which is just as much about the art as the music). By not knowing which way to go--or by trying to have it both ways--it ends up failing on both sides.

By the way, I didn't see THE EARTH IS YOUNG, but I've been told by someone I trust that if I had, that would've been the stinker of the festival. As it is, for me, SPEAKING IN CODE was.

But no matter, the final film, CROPSEY was a perfect pre-Halloween ending. I didn't grow up on the east coast, or apparently I would've heard legends of Cropsey--a boogeyman character who kidnapped and murdered children. An escaped mental patient who had a hook hand or carried an axe (depending on the local version of the legend). Filmmaking couple Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman had both grown up with their own Cropsey legend, one specifically centered around the abandoned Willowbrook Mental Institution on Staten Island. And then in 1987 the legend became true when Jennifer Schweiger went missing. She was thirteen years old, had Down Syndrome, and her body was eventually discovered. Eventually Andre Rand, a former Willowbrook orderly, was found, arrested, and convicted of the crime. And then the story gets really weird. See, it's not such an open and shut case, there are holes in it. Maybe a scared town just needed to find and punish its Cropsey. Maybe he did it and is a monster. Maybe he had accomplices who escaped. Or maybe he is innocent and is just placed in jail as a sacrifice to the fear gods. Oh yeah, and he's still there, he's still alive. The filmmakers try desperately to get an interview, but while waiting for that they interview locals and people involved with the case. And in doing so they weave a mystery that's scarier at each twist. Soon their Cropsey is being accused for all the missing children on the island, whether it makes sense or not. Whether or not he did it, the quickness of people to jump on him and blame him for everything is chilling.

You know, this movie had elements for which I've criticized other Docfest films. The filmmakers put themselves directly in the movie (SPEAKING IN CODE, AMERICAN ARTIFACT). They refuse to come to a firm conclusion one way or the other (WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS). But here it works. I don't know how to explain it other than it was shot and edited in a way that it didn't go off the rails as a result.

And that is the end of Docfest '09 (with a one week delay in finishing these reviews).

Jason goes to Docfest--Day...?

Um. The second to last one. I've lost count.

I once again skipped Tuesday (and you'll never know why!), but I was back in action on Wednesday.

First up, THE GREAT CONTEMPORARY ART BUBBLE, probably the funniest movie in all of Docfest. Director Ben Lewis is an art critic who likes contemporary art (defined as post-WWII) but hates what has become of the business. Wealthy collectors bid outrageous amounts for works that will sit in a warehouse rather than be shown. They're treated as investments more than art. Worse yet, art dealers intentionally bid up works to protect the price point of their featured artists. Lewis tackles this world with anger but humor, starting off getting an artist friend of his to modify his car into a rolling work of art. He travels around the world, observing art auctions, pointing out the absurdity of many pieces of modern art--not just the subjects but how so much of it is mass produced by assistants rather than the big name artists themselves. And he compares the world of real estate, finance, and modern art, arguing that they all had the same flaws and are due to the same fate--art is just delayed. The movie does stall a little bit when he tries to make the connection of how a crash in the art market affects ordinary people. Yes, we don't get ridiculous art in our public museums, and yes, the whole of the economy is interconnected so there are ripple effects. But mostly I care completely out of a sense of schadenfreude. I like watching the ridiculous billionaires lose money buying ridiculous and ridiculously overpriced art. And you know what, I still enjoyed it. You don't have to care two bits about contemporary art to really enjoy this movie.

The next program started with the short, THE PHYSICS TEACHER, which I happen to know won the audience award. And this profile of Sohail Khan deserves it just from the charisma of its character. Originally from Pakistan, he now teaches high school physics in Texas, and is a gruff, sarcastic guy who would come off as a total jerk if it wasn't so clear how much he cares about the students and how much they know it.

And that led into the feature, THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS. Director Patrick Shen travels to the greatest institutions in the world--Princeton, Cornell, Duke, even my alma mater Caltech--to discuss the wisdom of real life rather than the esoteric principles studied there. He meets an immigrant from Haiti working to send money back to his family, and an artist pursuing his dream. A man who lost and arm and suffered brain trauma but was back to work within 10 months. A man who miraculously learned to walk again after injuries suffered in Vietnam and his longtime friend and colleague. A woman whose mother died from a hospital accident (double dose of drugs). A mentor in the Duke chapel, a Berkeley man who puts family above everything (after a history of not doing that). Oh yeah, and all these people are custodians, not professors. The film is an epic poem to the dignity of good honest work, the importance of every person, and the idea that prestige is meaningless and no one can take away your dignity but you.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 11

Docfest is over, but I'm still wrapping up my last half-dozen "reviews"

Last Monday started with the World Wide Shorts program:

EVERYDAY PEOPLE--From the UK, funny interviews with people who have the same names as celebrities. Julia Roberts, Gordon Ramsey, etc. Interesting, funny anecdotes and tips for dealing with the reactions. Reminds me of the hotel clerk I knew in Yuma, AZ named Bill Cosby. He always introduced himself as "the poor white one, not the rich black one."

SWEAT--Another one where the trailer has been bugging me all week. I now finally know how competitive sauna works (whoever stays in longest wins). A real weirdo from Finland, where sauna is like a religion.

THE FLYING SHEPHERD--Romanian shepherds tend their flocks, hang out and chat, and fly their ultralight airplanes. All while keeping an eye out for "the German" who owns the runway an who will be pissed if he catches them.

STORY OF A BUSINESSWOMAN--A young Japanese woman opens a real estate office, mentors up-and-coming businessmen (most of whom are older than her), and does what she must to succeed in the male-dominated Japanese business world. Creepiest moment (possibly a bit lost in translation): when they talk about a high school girl who was gang-raped and she blurts out "silly girl!"

SONGS FROM THE TUNDRA--Life of hunters in the remotest regions of Russia. Interesting mix of the traditional and the modern. One moment they're eating raw elk brains, next moment they're tooling around in tanks and playing video games.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm missing one of the shorts. I just feel there were 6, not 5. But that's all there is in the program and I don't recall an announcement about an added film.

Anyway, the next film was a feature about plastic surgery and the anti-aging industry, YOUTH KNOWS NO PAIN, and it inspired me to want to bring a ton of pain to the artificial youth. That's not fair, that's badly influenced by my personal opinions on cosmetic surgery, and shouldn't be taken as a criticism of the film. Director Mitch McCabe has actually made a fine film, and has a unique viewpoint as a daughter of a cosmetic surgeon and someone who has used face creams, etc. from a young age but hasn't gone under the knife (yet). She does a good job finding and interviewing doctors and patients, especially one woman who is always getting work done (her quiet, smiling husband is an interesting but ignored character. I couldn't help thinking he wanted to say more but didn't want to upset her). I'm sure this movie can find an appreciative audience, and I hate to pan a movie based on the subject rather than the film making, but I just couldn't get into it. And it's all because I didn't think any of the patients looked good (with the exception of patients who fixed actually damage--mastectomy, disfigurement, etc.) Telling point--there's one scene where the surgery-addicted woman gets lip implants, and remarks she looks 5 years younger. I had to lean over to my friend and whisper "because 5 years ago she was a mutated freak?" That's just my opinion, but I'm sticking to it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jason hasn't had time to try Motionbox himself, but you should and let me know

Got this e-mail from Lowell Dempsey at Motionbox. I haven't had time to try this myself (and I'm not a filmmaker, so I don't really have videos to share online). But it looks like something I should give a shout-out. So any of my readers who try this out, leave a comment or send me an e-mail letting me know what you thought.
Now that it's almost Halloween, I wanted to try you one last time and let you know about a great Halloween promotion that our partner Shutterfly is running. From now until November 8th, you and the readers of Jason Watches Movies can get up to 60 free 4x6 prints just for posting and sharing a video! It would be fantastic if you could let your readers know about this.

You can check out the site that I put together which explains everything - feel free to use any of the images or videos on your site:

Motionbox makes it easy to share your videos online and is a great alternative to YouTube; better quality, more privacy settings and even editing features. I've also included a $10 off link to our Premium membership on the site for you to share.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 10

So as I explained in my previous post, I had to split about 15 minutes early from WATCH HORROR FILMS: KEEP AMERICA STRONG to make it to the Roxie for the 7:00 show (thanks for the ride, Ira). What documentary could possibly tear me away from that? Two words: RABBIT FEVER (theme alert--another animal movie). I like bunnies. But there are people who take their bunny love to extremes, competing in rabbit shows and (for the youth) competing to be Rabbit King or Queen. ARBA, the American Rabbit Breeders Association, holds national rabbit conventions, much like the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Judging the rabbits proceeds much like in dog shows, with different breeds, classes, and finally Best in Show (note, my knowledge of Dog Shows comes strictly from the Christopher Guest movie BEST IN SHOW, so I'm assuming a lot here). Joseph Kim is the eccentric star of the movie for that half of the competition. But the really interesting competition is the youths (under 18) competing for Rabbit King and Queen (or, in younger age groups, Lord and Lady or Duke and Duchess). The competition is in several parts, including a written test, oral interview, rabbit judging (comparing the youth scores to the official judges), breed identification, etc. (I feel like I'm missing one part. Whatever). The kids competing for King and Queen are the best (and biggest) part of the movie, with returning champions like Jenna, fierce competitors like Jessica, longtime runner-ups like Jeremy (whom I really felt for, but I think he always blew it in the interview), or newer competitors like Paula or Johnny. Their preparation, focus, and drive makes this movie, and it's interesting to see how a casual affection for the cute fluffy animals turns into a lifelong obsession (in a good way).

This was actually screened as a work in progress, so I don't know when it will be released to a wider audience or how it will change by then, but if you want to learn more about bunnies the ARBA national convention is in San Diego starting next weekend (Nov. 1-5).

Oh yeah, and I got a free set of bunny ears at the screening. Woo hoo, I'm a bunny!

Oh, and one final note about RABBIT FEVER. There's a scene where Joseph Kim is breeding his rabbits. For all their reputation, I've never actually seen rabbits fuck...until now. And it was fascinating to watch. They go at it for a bit as expected, and then at the "magic moment" the male spasms, falls on its back, and twitches for a few seconds. I don't know if this is typical or if this was a particularly special male, but it was a scene of sublime beauty. Just put that clip on Youtube and everyone will want to go see RABBIT FEVER.

Well, now that I've injected a note of lurid sex into this post, I just need to add drugs, Rock 'n Roll, and poster art to lead into the next film, AMERICAN ARTIFACT (Docfest theme alert: art). This movie tells the history of the rock concert poster, done by fans to publicize shows for very little money (at least originally). It's chock full of examples of the art, and is something of a crash course on the art and some of the big names, like Winston Smith, Victor Moscoso, Gary Grimshaw, Jim Sherraden & Hatch Show Print, and Frank Kozic (the man who really went national and made good money at it). Tons more can be found on the films website. It's also a crash course in the history, starting at the Filmore in San Francisco with the brightly colored psychadelia of the 60's and 70's, going through the economical black and white xerox art of the punk days, and finally the current resurgence and the creation of, which has turned it from a few isolated obsessives who built local reputations to a community where you know what artists are doing across the country. There are also brief mentions of the greater community, especially in regards to telephone pole flyers and "post no bills" laws. And I think director Merle Becker loses focus a bit when she talks about her own journey (either insert yourself fully as a character or take yourself out. I don't care that you're ending the movie because you ran out of money). But when it's all about the art, that's impressive enough.

Artists Ron Donovan, Chris Shaw, Dennis Loren, and Paul Imagine were there at the screening and got a bit rowdy for the Q&A (Ron Donovan even donned bunny ears and had the front row pose for pictures with then, so somewhere I'm on video clowning around with him in bunny ears). Meanwhile Dennis Loren actually brought examples of the art and various overlays and instructions he'd send to a printer, and that was fascinating.

Jason watches WATCH HORROR FILMS: KEEP AMERICA STRONG, Watches horror films, keeps America strong.

I haven't been to the Niles Film Museum in a couple of weeks, what with Docfest. But I had to be there last Sunday for this. Not just the documentary about Creature Features, but for the opening act--Ernie Fosselius and his cult classic HARDWARE WARS, George Lucas's personal favorite Star Wars parody. I remember this as a kid, and if you haven't seen it you should just go get the DVD (you can also see it on YouTube, but it should be seen in the best possible format. Big screen is ideal, DVD is second best). I'm now awesome enough to have seen it on the big screen now. And I have to say, for all the times I've seen it previously, I never caught that the C3-PO parody (who was dressed as the Tin Woodsman from THE WIZARD OF OZ) was called 4Q2 (i.e., "Fork" You, Too). Sneaky, Ernie, Sneaky. Oh yeah, and Ernie Fosselius was there to talk about the film, tell stories about how he made it and how everyone told him all the fans would hate him and he'd never work again (well, he wasn't already, so what the hell). And he told about his career in sound effects editing, which included working on SPACEBALLS, which actually stole several gags from another (unproduced) script he had written. He was pretty awesome to meet.

Then the other big celebrity was John Stanley. I didn't grow up in the Bay Area, so I didn't know about Creature Features with Bob Wilkins and later with Stanley until I saw the documentary AMERICAN SCARY about late night local TV horror hosts across the country. Creature Features was the Bay Area one, and it was hosted by the "normal guys" (meaning they weren't ghouls or vampires, not that they were particularly normal). This movie gave me a crash course, and now I wanna see more. Bob Wilkins (who passed away from Alzheimers just in the past year) and his extremely dry sense of humor and ubiquitous cigar. John Stanley and his encyclopedic knowledge (he started out by writing letters to Bob correcting him or adding interesting facts about the movies, which Bob would read on the air). Eventually when Bob retired John was a natural replacement and filled time with cheesy "mini-movies" before the feature. And the guest interviews they got were pretty unique, including Boris Karloff(!), Christopher Lee, Ernie Fosselius (again!), and an extremely young Penn and Teller (why'd you ever trim that Jew-fro, Teller?)

Sadly, I had to leave with about 15 minutes left to get to the city for a 7:00 show at Docfest. So now I have to follow up and get the DVD and anything else about Creature Features.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 9

The second weekend begins, 4 movies on Saturday, and the best day of the festival so far.

First up was NURSERY UNIVERSITY, the story of the cutthroat competition of Manhattan pre-school admissions. I'm going to say that again, emphasizing the important words. It's the story of the cutthroat competition of Manhattan pre-school admissions. If this weren't in a documentary festival, I would believe it's an extremely well made mockumentary. Tuition can run upwards of $20,000, and getting into the right "feeder" school can get you into the best grade schools, etc., all the way up to Harvard. Or so some of these parents think. In fact, the pre-school administrators know that their school doesn't guarantee an Ivy League education in the future, but it can give the kids a small step up. Anyway, assisted by the post-9/11 baby boom, the competition is tighter than ever. On the day after Labor Day, parents call as many of the best pre-schools they can to get applications. Often all they can do is enter a lottery for the chance to fill out an application. They take lessons in how to behave in interviews, they are actually encouraged to call the schools every day just to register interest (but not 17 times a day--that's just annoying). They go to extreme lengths for the opportunity to pay $20,000 a year so their kid can play all day. And then there are scenes with the kids, who What do they know? They can't tell the difference if they got into the 92nd St. Y or the co-op nursery around the corner. It's all a little ridiculous, and the movie is pretty darn funny.

This made me reflect a bit on my younger years. I actually remember my pre-school, out in the countryside of Everson, WA. I remember one day we were playing outside and found some recently poured (and dried) concrete that had marbles in it. Someone dropped marbles in the wet concrete where they were making the sidewalk, and we decided we wanted the marbles. So we were hitting the sidewalk with rocks, trying to break the marbles out. The teacher saw what we were doing, so she told us maybe it would work to get a big bucket of hot soapy water and dump it on there. So she did, and we scrubbed at the sidewalk trying to get the marbles. I remember thinking it wouldn't work, but not wanting to contradict the teacher. The lesson I learned (quite a bit later) is that adults are pretty silly when they're humoring children, but children are even sillier and can get duped into washing sidewalks.

Next up was APOLOGY OF AN ECONOMIC HIT MAN, based on the life of Richard Perkins. As a young man, Richard was very smart, and had some classic weaknesses--desire for money, power, and sex. And so he was recruited by the NSA to become an economic hit man. Basically, he inflated the cost and value of projects funded by the World Bank so that borrower countries would be saddled with untenable debt and have to do whatever the U.S. wants in order to get that debt forgiven (meanwhile, those projects happen to go to U.S. corporations). That's just the first step. As he tells it, when a new leader comes to power in a third world country, he'll get a visit from a man who will make him an offer--play ball and become incredibly wealthy. If he refuses, that's when the covert assassins come in. The movie focuses particular attention on Jaime Roldós Aguilera, the populist President of Ecuador, who refused to deal and then happened to die in a plane crash (his daughter confronts Perkins in the movie). The movie glides between recreations that portray the world of economic hit man as film noir gangsters, monologues by Perkins, and--most compelling--events where he's confronted by his victims in Latin America. Those scenes are by far the most powerful. Without them, it would be easy to look on Perkins fondly as a man who did bad things but repented and is trying to make things better--a character that makes for a compelling character. But when appearing at what is essentially a town hall meeting in a giant theatre, he's confronted by people who are still angry. I suppose they're glad to know exactly how they were made subjects of the stealth U.S. empire, but they're (rightfully) still angry. It really brings home how easy (and shallow) it is to forgive someone who didn't actually hurt you, and how hard (or unnecessary) it is if he actually hurt you.

Let's take a break to review Docfest so far. Some of the emergent themes in this year's Docfest are animals, artists, and reuse/recycle. A common theme that is not so prevalent this year is music, particularly odd or obscure music. Okay, back to the reviews

The next film, TRIMPIN: THE SOUND OF INVENTION, definitely fits in the Artist theme, and adds that missing music. Trimpin is an artist living and working in Seattle. He's a German emigre, and has taken as his art the creation of devices and musical instruments largely from found or scrapped items (reuse/recycle has been another theme). The film mixes old footage; interviews with friends, colleagues, and collaborators; and a 2-year cinema-verite "ride-along" as he collaborates and creates kinetic sculptures, musical instruments, and one remarkable concert with the Kronos Quartet. A fascinating and thrilling look at creativity freed from such limitations as a fear to fail. Interesting side note--Trimpin doesn't like recorded music, so the performances caught on tape by director Peter Esmonde (in Dolby 5.1) are some of the very few recordings of Trimpin's music, making this not just a fun and fascinating ride but an important artifact of art and music history.

And then the art theme continued with the first of two printing movies PROCEED AND BE BOLD, starring Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., a true Maverick in life. He was a successful programmer for AT&T, and was basically living the upper-middle class African-American dream. And then he quit it all to take up the letter press and became a simple negro printer. And he started wearing denim overalls and (more recently) a pink shirt every day. He's been an assistant professor of art (at the University of Indiana in Bloomington), and is occasionally a visiting art professor. But he'd call himself a printer or bookmaker before an artist. At Bloomington, he would speak out against policies or issues that bugged him by producing "nappygrams", rpurposing racist images (aunt Jemima, little black Sambo, etc.) and messages for his own purpose. And that's his sense of humor--straightforward, in your face, with a wink and a smile. Personally, my favorite poster of his is FUCK YOU/I'll Fuck Myself (and yes, if you look at the poster right next to it in the gallery, he's a geek, too!) I might just make that my new motto.

Amos was actually there, along with the director Laura Zinger, and they did a great job entertaining the audience during the Q&A, and then they packed the lobby selling posters, a few of which I bought along with the DVD. Sadly, he had no FUCK YOU/I'll Fuck Myself with him, but hopefully he has some I can order online. That was a fun movie about a great guy whom I'm very happy to have met.

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 8

Two more movies, starting with one of the best of the festival, MINE.

MINE is the story animal lovers, and particularly of pets and owners separated during Hurricane Katrina. Director Geralyn Rae Pezanoski keeps the story very personal, focusing on a handful of evacuees returning home and looking for their animals (she is an animal lover herself, and makes it easy to sympathize). During Katrina, many people had to evacuate without their animals--some were ordered so by the National Guard, some had no room in their vehicles (20 people in 2 cars, no room for a dog), and they all thought they'd be back in a day or two. Well, of course it didn't turn out that way, and many pets suffered. Oddly enough, in the first days after the storm, residents weren't allowed back in but if you slapped an "animal rescue" sign on your van, you could go right past the National Guard checkpoints. So animals were rescued, many in awful shape, and to make room for all the rescuees many were shipped all over the country to shelters where (if the shelter cared about the original owner) they were fostered out or (if the shelter didn't count on the original owner coming back) they were adopted out. As I said, many of the rescued animals were in awful shape, and so it became easy for the shelters to assume all New Orleans residents were awful, neglectful pet owners and didn't deserve their animals back (I remember a lot of awful things being said about the evacuees, seems they got the shaft over and over again in this ordeal). Anyway, this is the point where the movie really comes in. Residents returning home, living in FEMA trailers, and looking for their lost pets. It's sort of a heartbreaking story on both sides, since many of these animals were adopted out to loving families who take great care of them and don't want to give them up (hence the title). But when you see the dogs returned to their original owners, and you see them perk up and jump up and down (Bandit, probably the cutest, jumps up and starts wagging his tail blocks away from home as soon as he recognizes the neighborhood) it's clear whose doggy they are. Well done, very emotional film.

And then I saw OCTOBER COUNTRY, a year (from Halloween to Halloween) in the life of the Mosher family--a walking catalog of PTSD. The Mosher family has a few more ghosts than the average American family--war, teen pregnancy, child abuse, etc. The film simply gives them a voice, lets them talk about their problems, their past, their future in an honest and haunting manner. The cinematography is beautiful, and provides the right counterpoint to their stories. And the stories, though painful and sometimes shocking, are very real and it's important to give them voice. This is the sober counterpoint to THE WILD AND WONDERFUL WHITES OF WEST VIRGINIA.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jason urges you all to put THE END on your Netflix queue

Back in Cinequest 2008, I saw this brilliant little no-budget thriller, and loved it (scroll down for my review). Since then I've been waiting for it to come to DVD. And just a couple days ago I got an e-mail from the director Jeremy Thomas announcing my wait is (almost) over. Cinequest is actually releasing it on their own DVD label (good for Cinequest!) No firm date yet, but could be early December (in time for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Solstice Festival/Festivus/whatever else you celebrate in winter)

But the size of the DVD release depends on pre-orders, and the best way to get pre-orders up is for more people to put it in their Netflix queue. So if you have a Netflix account, click here and click Save.

If you don't have a Netflix queue, then follow these instructions:
  1. Go to (US residents only)
  2. Register for a free-trial.
  3. Pick a plan (one DVD at a time, 2 at a time, unlimited, etc.), and enter billing info.
  4. Click "Get Started"
  5. Click tab reading "Your Queue"
  6. Type "The End" in the Search Box in the upper right corner
  7. Click the second title (the one directed by Jeremy Thomas)
  8. (Optional) It would be great if you gave it a 5 star rating!
  9. Hit "Save" when the confirmation box comes up!
If enough of you do this, it'll get a bigger DVD release. So let's show 'em what my army can do!

Okay, enough of my shilling for others, let me talk a bit about my favorite subject--myself.

In my review I mentioned that I was telling everyone else at Cinequest to go see it. Well, a few of them took my advice and came back to me thanking me for recommending it. That was really cool. In fact, I realized that's what I want to do with this blog and all my movie watching/reviewing. I love it when someone sees a movie on my recommendation and comes back and tells me they liked it. In fact, I realized that is exactly what I want to do with this blog (how to do it is something I haven't figured out yet). So the reason I'm pushing you to see THE END is:
  • If you read my blog regularly I assume you're interested in strange, obscure, independent movies. And if that's the case, I think there's a good chance you'll like THE END.
  • You'll be helping a young independent filmmaker who I want to see succeed so he can make more movies that blow my mind.
  • I hope some of you who see it will let me (and more important, Jeremy Thomas--you can find his contact info at the film's website) know what you thought of it. Even if you hated it, and hate me for telling you to see it, go ahead and let me know (and tell all your enemies to see it out of spite)
Well, that's pretty much all I have to say. Other than re-posting my review from 2008:
...I ended the night with "The End". I am so grateful that I ran into Jeremy at the VIP party [earlier that night, where he convinced me to see his film instead of whatever else I was planning on], because this ended up possibly being my favorite film of Cinequest. Absolutely awesome. In this no-budget existential thriller/comedy Jeremy stars as Joseph Rickman, a schoolteacher with a legendary past. Years ago, he could see what no one else could see, and as a result saved a girl. Now he's got the same feeling again. Pulled by some force, he wanders into the woods and witnesses a shadowy figure lobotomizing lawn gnomes (yeah, and it hasn't gotten weird yet). Perhaps he's going crazy, and if it wasn't for his past, the local detective (and sister of the girl he saved way back when) would have him locked up. But she goes with it, at least for the time. And then...there's a huge freakin' twist, and I won't tell you what it is. This actually put me in a weird position, because for the rest of the festival I was telling people to see this movie and also telling them to not be afraid to walk out. You see, when the twist happens you'll know, and if you're not ready to follow the premise to well beyond it's logical conclusion, this movie will be painful for you. So just go ahead and walk out. And that's all I can tell you of the plot. I'll just tell you it's weird, it's original (although I could name a half dozen movies that employ some part of the twist, I haven't seen it handled quite like this), it's funny, and it's exciting. It keeps you guessing, and just when you think you know the next twist, something even stranger happens.

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 7

Another day, another 2 movies. That's what life is like when you're as awesome as I am.

The first film was WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? I haven't read the provocatively titled book the film is loosely based on, but I understand the premise--the Republican party has convinced much of middle America to vote against its economic interests for culturally divisive reasons (again, I haven't read the book so if I'm off the mark I apologize). Directors Joe Winston and Laura Cohen follow along several Kansans (without much context it's hard to tell if they're typical) through the summer and fall of 2006 (the midterm elections play heavily). There are an assortment of political-religious types, a church that's had to move to an amusement park (now that's a weird story). There is a creepy amount about Dr. George Tiller (abortion doctor who was recently murdered, but was alive and active at the time of the film). And there are surprises, like the ex-Republican farmer who now claims to be a "populist without a party" and who learns about the history of populism in Kansas. It might surprise you (it certainly did me) that much of the New Deal rose from Midwest populism that flourished in Kansas. Going back further, there was a county in the 1910's where nearly every political office was held by socialists. So what changed? I don't know, and the movie wasn't interested in telling me. And that's a major problem. The filmmakers obviously are trying for a hands-off, let-the-audience-decide approach, but they back away so much that the film doesn't even have a point of view. When a film poses the question in it's title "What's the matter with these people?" it should at least make a case that something is the matter. Look, I believe there's something not-too-smart with a lot of these people. Particularly people who lost a lot of money on poor investments from church and chalked it up to "God's will." But if they lose the same money on a religious-inspired cause I believe in, it's called charity and it's a good thing. I'm pro-choice, but I don't begrudge anyone for being pro-life or voting pro-life if that's what they believe. I can chuckle at the implications of a mom being worried that college makes kids less religious, but if you believe your religion is right isn't it right to worry that your child might stop believing? You shouldn't belittle their beliefs, you should vigorously and intelligently debate their beliefs and beat them in the battle of ideas and at the ballot box. This movie's title makes a claim that there's something the matter with Kansas, and then so studiously avoids answering its own question that the only thing a viewer will conclude is the matter with Kansas I what already exists in his or her own mind. So of course the San Francisco audience ate it up.

Then I saw a short and a feature about the art and persistence of the deal. In SELL IT TO THE HEDGE FUNDS, director Haven Pell spends all the time on the phone calling up potential investors just to try to set up a meeting to pitch his software data-crunching solution. Pretty funny.

And in THE ENTREPRENEUR, director Jonathan Bricklin follows around one of the fastest-talking, gamblingest, most persistent businessmen I've ever seen-his dad Malcolm Bricklin. Malcolm has gained and lost a few fortunes (and a few wives) in his life. His main business is cars. He founded Subaru USA, and made his first fortune. Then he founded Bricklin motors, manufactured his own cars, and filed for his first bankruptcy. Later he came back making his name in the cheap-car market by bringing the Yugo to America (joke if you want, he was laughing all the way to the bank). Now, well past middle age, he's looking to economically priced cars again. But now he's looking to luxury--find the best designers and a cheap overseas manufacturer and bring luxury cars to America with a $30,000 price tag. He has a (ahem) unique style that basically amounts to talking and talking until the deal is made. He yells, he gets excited, he insults people, he embraces people, and somehow over and over at the 11th hour he gets the deal done. And he's found his deal this time. He will team up with Chery, a Chinese automaker to bring their cars to the market. After tense negotiations--deal looks certain, then it's off, then back on--he makes yet another miraculous last-minute deal. Only one catch--he has 12 months to make $200M investment in Chery or the deal is off. But he has a plan. His plan is to be the first auto manufacturer who has dealers investing directly in the company. He just need 100's of dealerships to buy in at $2 million each. So now it's more deal after deal after deal as he attempts to meet the deadline. The movie's like a freakin' business thriller, complete with a charismatic, eccentric hero. Of course, if you remember the hype over China entering the US automobile market, you know sort of how it ends. But it sure was thrilling along the way, and given Malcolm's persistence it probably isn't over yet.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 6

You may notice I did not attend day 5. There's a good reason for that, but it's a secret.

Anyway, two more programs on Wednesday, starting with the program of Bay Area Shorts. All these shorts were made locally:

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEARDS--I like my beard, don't think it weird.... Beards of all shapes, for all reasons, with all meanings ranging from religious to lazy. Includes the world beard champion.
ANSONIA HOSTEL--Hilarious look at the Ansonia Hostel at Post St. And Jones. Friends And funny cartoons.
THRIFT TOWN: GET USED--An extended commercial for a cool chain of thrift stores started in San Lorenzo. Thrift is good, reuse and recycle is good.
SHELTER--A fascinating look at the home built by Lloyd Kahn. He was an originator of the geodesic dome movement in the 70's, but eventually abandoned it as impractical. But he's still a fan of building things with his own hands.
LONE WOLF--Josh Wolf was sent to prison for over 200 days for refusing to surrender footage from a G8 protest in San Francisco. An interesting look at the man and the question of what makes a journalist. I just wish this movie had been longer.
SCRAPER BIKE KING--The trailer for this, with the song that's a hit on YouTube, has been annoying me all through the festival. Now the story of kids in Oakland decorating their bikes and riding around finally got to annoy me at full length. Actually, it's a fine movie, I am just really tired of the trailer.
SF MESS--A really interesting look at San Francisco bike messengers. The people, their jobs, the dangers, and the efforts to unionize.

The next program was for animal lovers, starting with the short MOUSE RACE! In a town in Australia, at the local pub, mice are raced for entertainment and gambling (although they get around the law by not betting dollars but fake "Rodent" currency (essentially, Monopoly money. The exchange rate is $1R = $1AU).

And then an examination of feline obsession and stereotypes with CAT LADIES. Through interviews and home footage director Christie Callan-Jones examines what exactly it means to be a "crazy cat lady" (the movie was inspired when she had to go home to feed her cat and someone casually called her a crazy cat lady). Margo has only three cats, but loves them very intensely. Jenny is a young real estate agent and has 16 cats. She acknowledges that's a lot, and of course she'd like to have a boyfriend, but she's not a crazy cat lady--she decides--unless she has more than 30. Diane was a successful banker but has crossed the line to "rescuing" cats and now that's a full-time job. She has over 100, and is constantly exhausted. She never sleeps a full night, just a few hours at a stretch and she realizes she's working herself to death at this and would rather not be doing it but feels compelled anyway. And there's Sigi, the unrepentant cat-rescue crusader. Don't even try to count her kitties, she estimates over 3,000 have passed through her place. But she'll never say she's crazy. Everyone else is crazy. And when she makes the case that she's giving cats a home while the supposedly sane are dumping them on the snowy streets of Toronto not caring if they die, she's at least compelling and sympathetic, if not correct. The filmmakers do a good job of not being judgemental, although everyone but Sigi manages to be at least somewhat of a harsh judge of themselves. The one constant theme is a sense of isolation from normal human relationships, creating a need that is met by a community of cats. An interesting, well-made movie with characters who disturb me even more than the Whites of West Virginia (but then, I'm more of a dog-dude, so what do I know?)