Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 7

It's only half over. Two more movies last night.

First off was a great and important documentary, CRUDE. Dating back decades, Texaco developed and exploited the oil resources of wide swaths of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. They had horrible environmental controls, giant pits of crude and sludge which washed into the streams and poisoned the indigenous people. The rates of cancer, skin rashes, premature death went through the roof. It's estimated that they've spilled 17 million gallons of oil, nearly twice that of the Exxon Valdez. Texaco was bought out by Chevron, who disavows all responsibility (alternately claiming there is no mess and that the mess is the fault of state-owned partner PetroEcuador). In the 90's a class action suit was brought against Chevron on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadoreans endangered by the environmental damage. Chevron has delayed for years (the movie presumes their goal is to simply outlast the plaintiffs rather than win the trial). Several times in the film the "David and Goliath" nature of the case is referenced, and rookie lawyer Pablo Fajardo, representing the Ecuadoreans, is in the role of David. Filmmaker Filmmaker Joe Berlinger (METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER, BROTHER'S KEEPER) travelled to Ecuador to document a segment of the trial (obviously with how long the trial has dragged on, in particular, if he tried to document the whole trial he'd still be there for many more years. But he was there for the judicial inspections of the contaminated sites). He tries to give Chevron it's fair chance to speak (his website includes a link to Chevron's site), although I wasn't the only one in the San Francisco audience who thought their arguments were full of crap (and one of their Latin American officers is now under indictment for fraud). He is also there as Pablo Fajardo begins to become something of a star in activist human rights circles, winning the Goldman Prize (the environmentalist's Nobel Prize) and winning a CNN's Hero's award. His fight wins the attention of the Rainforest Foundation (founded by Sting and his wife Trudie Styler), and Trudie travels to Ecuador to survey the damage. Pablo is even featured at their 2008 benefit concert in Giants Stadium (where in a wonderful piece of humble good humor that reminds us what's important, he admits he's never heard of The Police or their music). Great movie, and an important subject. Unfortunately, it doesn't end with much hope for a speedy resolution, as judges in Ecuador for some reason are forced to switch cases every few years, and a new judge has to read everything (not just boxes, but a room full of evidence) before he could even think of ruling. In the meantime, it was a frustratingly long time before anyone implemented a temporary workaround of collecting and filtering rainwater for drinking (credit the Rainforest Foundation and UNICEF for that). As a physicist, I couldn't help but watch the movie thinking, 'they're in the freakin' rainforest, there's got to be a way to be an engineering solution to get them clean water!' I know, it's a stop-gap solution, but when we're talking about preserving life, temporary and now is better than permanent and 20 years from now.

Anyway, after that film I needed A: a drink, and B: a comedy. "A" was provided by a Chimay and then a Speakeasy Prohibition Ale at the Kabuki bar. "B" was provided by SMALL CRIME, a cheerful little film from Greece. Rookie cop Leonidas is bored by life on his small island. Nothing ever happens, and it's the kind of small community where driving without a license, or registration, or license plate, or brake lights, is dealt with by a not-very-stern warning. About the only excitement on the whole island is watching a popular morning talk show, hosted by the Angeliki, the (formerly) local girl who made it big. He gets some real excitement when an old man, Zacharias, is found dead at the bottom of a cliff. The chief assumes Zacharias was drunk (he had a reputation) and fell to his death, but Leonidas (possibly just for something to do) launches a full investigation, puttering around the island, interviewing locals, and picking up clues (shoes at the top of the cliff...?). Each resident has his own (often comical) take on Zacharias' demise, and when Angeliki returns to the island, the investigation takes a strange (and romantic) turn. Even with my exhaustion and a couple beers making it hard to stay awake, it was still a very enjoyable, light, and funny movie.

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 6

I started the evening with the world premiere of FERLINGHETTI, the new definitive documentary on the life, work, and influence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti is a poet (possibly the most read poet alive today), a bookstore owner (co-founder of the SF institution City Lights), a publisher (City Lights is a publisher as well as a bookstore), a free speech icon (he won a famous case after publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl). And director Chris Felver shows us he's a funny guy, a painter, a friend, an icon, and a huge influence on art, culture, and politics not just in San Francisco but far beyond. The movie mines decades of footage (news, interviews and private home movies dating back to the 50's) and includes loving testimonials by tons of creative types (probably the biggest name is Dennis Hopper). Tellingly, Chris Felver explicitly stated in the Q&A that his goal was to show Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the best possible light. So don't look for anyone offering a counterpoint that he was a dangerous guy or a jerk or a hypocrite. I don't think that's true anyway, but if the argument can be made, it can be made in a different movie.

Ferlinghetti himself was there for the screening (and I sat next to his grandchildren), and he came out to say just a few words before turning it over to Felver for the Q&A, which turned interesting. There were some interesting questions, and then others asking about his dark side or drug use (Ferlinghetti's or Felver's was never really specified). And finally, a bizarre question about how Timothy Leary was a CIA stooge that had nothing to do with Ferlinghetti. What the heck was that about?

Anyway, I had a little time to kill so I made my way to the hospitality lounge, where I learned that for 1 night only happy hour was extended until 8:30. So I had a few beers and met a few cool filmmakers (really excited for D TOUR now) before catching my second film.

Peter Greenaway nearly made it to town for his art history doc, but has a project he needs to finish. Still, REMBRANDT'S J'ACCUSE gave me the distinct feel of spending an hour and a half with Greenaway (as he lectures me). It's an essay on Rembrandt's most famous work, The Night Watch, and the mysteries hidden in plain sight. Sometimes it's hard to take Greenaway seriously, like when he opens his film with a diatribe about how nobody knows how to read an image anymore. Information is all in text, not pictures anymore (even film communicates through dialogue more than pictures). He then proceeds to paste his talking head over his images for the entirety of the film, something I have to take as a practical joke. But taking him at face value, he employs his love of enumeration (see DROWNING BY NUMBERS) to list and explicate in turn 30 (+1) mysteries in The Night Watch. Pointing out its unconventional pose, it's theatricality, artificial light, phallic symbols, costume, architecture, etc. (even the title, which was not the original) Greenaway lectures that it's an indictment of the power struggles of Holland in general and an accusation of murder (and homosexuality) in specific. He also brings in fascinating asides like contemporary advances in candle making technology and wraps it all up with a bitter tale of how backlash from the painting actually destroyed Rembrandt's career and he died in poverty. Fascinating work, that's a little too much to read in one sitting. I loved it, and will revisit it.

By the way, I've noted before a theme of investigating art in this festival (ART & COPY, (UNTITLED), etc.). I think it's safe to say this movie counts as well.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 5

Two more movies last Monday, and my first night at the Pacific Film Archives.

First up was Atom Egoyan's ADORATION. And I have to start with a confession. Atom Egoyan is a director I've always heard of, but I've never actually seen any of his films. In the introduction, we were told that his last few movies were sub-par, but this is something of a return to his earlier form. I can't judge that, but I can say I enjoyed it, and am curious to see more of his (good) earlier movies. ADORATION is an elliptical story of Simon and his French teacher Sabine. One day he tells his class a story of how before he was born his father, a Palestinian terrorist, put his pregnant mother on a plane to Israel and snuck a bomb into her luggage. The bomb didn't explode, and was found by security officers after landing in Tel Aviv. This was all in the news at the time, and we learn that the news story was a translation exercise in French class the week before. The story takes off on the Internet chat rooms, and grows beyond control before we learn (if we haven't guessed before) that it wasn't true, and that his French teacher is also a drama teacher and encouraged him to tell the story as a drama exercise (even though he isn't in the class). In an evolving story, layers of meaning are added, stripped away, replaced with new truths, and then added back in to the mix. Simon's parents really are dead, and there's a reason he automatically associated himself with the story. As the rumor grows beyond control (inviting a wider discussion of terrorism that brings in Holocaust survivors and skinheads on the Internet), more people know him and speak to him online, but he becomes more and more isolated, until he has to leave for a solo journey of resolution. One twist with the French teacher's past was a little too much for me, but other than that it was engaging, funny, cleverly constructed, and an all-around great movie.

Then we took a very different turn to the tribal regions of Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border, for SON OF A LION, and the combination of the making-of story and the end product itself might just make this the greatest achievement in the whole festival. First a quick note about the making of: Benjamin Gilmour is/was an Australian ambulance paramedic who had travelled to the Pashtun region of Pakistan before, and had an appreciation for how their lives are so different than how they're depicted on TV (i.e., as terrorist extremists). Without speaking a word of Pashto, and in disguise (although he grew his own beard), he let the Pashtuns write their own story and shot it with an often hidden camera (which makes the clear, evocative shots he got all the more amazing). He put himself in danger a lot of the time, although that's more about not knowing the local customs (i.e., twirling your mustache is a challenge to a duel) or not having permission from the authorities. His book of the ordeal, Warrior Poets, is available on and is looking for a US publisher.

Now as for the story. Niaz and his father live in a remote village, where the local economy is based on the manufacture of firearms. His father teaches Niaz about firearms, and assumes he'll continue the family business. Niaz would rather listen to music. Niaz's uncle lives in Peshawar, and when Niaz goes to visit and sees the children going to school, he knows that's what he wants. But his father forbids him, forcing him to stay home and work. The uncle works at convincing the father, but in the meantime Niaz strikes out on his own. It's a simple story which evokes a poorly understood but tragically important part of the world. One of the most striking elements is how gunfire constantly rings out. It's not because they're fighting battles, they're just testing the weapons they manufacture. In fact, the only firearm injury is an accident with a bullet shot in the air (dropping and hitting someone). That, and the casual conversations about Bin Laden and the Americans make it clear that this is a part of the world that we've never looked at with objective eyes (in an oversimplified nutshell, they don't agree with Bin Laden, but consider hospitality and the protection of a guest to be vitally important. That's true whether the guest is a terrorist mastermind or an Australian first-time filmmaker).

Monday, April 27, 2009

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 4

5 more shows on Sunday, to cap the opening weekend of the festival.

First up was ART & COPY, a documentary about the hectic, creative world of advertising. There's already perhaps an interesting theme creeping up in this festival, with this and (UNTITLED) there's are some interesting statements about what is art. While the characters of (UNTITLED) would quickly dismiss anything the least bit commercial as "not art", ART & COPY makes a powerful case that good advertising ("good" being a key word) is art, and is a vital part of our culture. While it would be easy to talk about all the insipid, brain-dead and brain-deadening advertisements that bombard us, director Doug Pray makes the counterpoint. By only profiling the hall-of-fame advertisers, the film argues that the answer to bad advertising isn't reducing advertising (good luck doing that even if it were the preferred solution), but making good advertising. It starts with a bit of a primer on advertising history, starting from around the 1950's when advertising was an old boys club and the writers just sent their copy to the artists to stick some pretty pictures on it. And then some revolutionaries broke off and started putting the writers and the artists in the same room, and told them to be creative. Common themes running through the success stories are 1) creative people coming up with something new, and b) clients being scared. Apples "1984" commercial only made it on the air because Jobs and Wozniak put up their own money over their board's objections. They tried to pull "Where's the Beef?" the night before it aired. Tommy Hilfiger was catapulted to stardom with an ad campaign that compared him to the greats like Klein and Armani, and the ad campaign gave him many sleepless nights. The personalities in the movies are not household names unless you're in the industry. But on screen, they become vibrant, vital personalities. No more so than the cantankerous George Lois, the mind behind the Tommy Hilfiger campaign and most notable "I Want My MTV". And there are others, Lee Clow is the man behind Apple's "1984" ad (and may I say, seeing that on the big screen was awesome). Dan Wieden and David Kennedy, the guys behind Nike's "Just Do It" (I forgot how great that campaign was). Hal Riney, the pleasant, wistful voice behind so many ads, including Reagan's "Morning in America" (great comment, Ed Rollins says when Reagan first saw that ad, he commented "I wish I was that good of a President". My only thought was, 'me, too'). Rich Silverstein and Jeff Goodby are the minds behind the intentionally ungrammatical "Got Milk?" campaign (that Aaron Burr commercial is still one of my favorites). Anyway, I could go on, but yeah, that movie surprised me with how good, and how reverent it was. I wonder who's doing their ad campaign.

Next up was the documentary, NEW MUSLIM COOL. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Hamza (Jason) PĂ©rez had two recurring nightmares--that he'd be dead, and/or that he'd be spending lots of time in jail. When he found Islam, his old gang life died, and now he spends a lot of time ministering in prisons. This movie follows him over a few years, moving from Massachusetts with a group of Muslims to form a community in a crime-riddled Pittsburgh neighborhood. He goes from a firebrand rapper (literally waving a flaming machete on stage) to a more thoughtful minister of peace, even working with an elderly Jewish woman on a collaboration book of poetry. He becomes a target of government surveillance, and for a time his permission to minister in prison is revoked (it takes a while to get an explanation, but the reason put forth is related to anti-government quotes from his earlier rapper years--the flaming machete time period). He's an interesting, charismatic, and likable hero, and the movie convincingly makes the case that Muslims, like all people, come in all forms. This old atheist nerd dug NEW MUSLIM COOL.

And then I saw, and more importantly heard, SOUL POWER. In 1974, Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in "The Rumble in the Jungle", which was documented in the movie WHEN WE WERE KINGS (which I'm embarrassed to admit I've never seen). In conjunction with the fight, a 3 day music festival was planned, bringing African American musicians (James Brown, B. B. King, etc.) together with African musicians. Although the fight was ultimately delayed for a few weeks, the concert went on as originally scheduled. Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte took cutting room floor footage from WHEN WE WERE KINGS to document the backstage trials and on stage triumphs of the music festival. There's not a single modern talking head in this film, it's all contemporary footage, and immediately transports you back to that time. Okay, full disclosure, at the time I was still stewing in my mommy's tummy, I was born the day after the Rumble in the Jungle, so I can't really say it transported me back to the time. But it's cool as hell to see a young James Brown, B. B. King, Muhammad Ali, and others. And the concert footage is awesome. It really is a concert film, allowing full time for the performances, which were universally greeted with applause by the movie audience (yeah, we know that they can't hear us all the way over in Zaire and 35 years in the past, but we were still moved to applause). Really, really, cool.

I only regret that I didn't have time to see the Q&A after SOUL POWER. That regret became all the more acute as the next film, BULLET IN THE HEAD, unspooled. I thought Alejandro Adams was ballsy starting CANARY with 10 minutes of Russian (very banal Russian) with no subtitles. At least he didn't shoot a 90 minute movie and completely remove the dialogue track. There are background noises, and all the characters converse with each other, we just don't get to hear it. Banality of evil crosses over into the crushing tedium of evil. It's based on a true incident of the assassination of two French policemen by Basque terrorists. And, as advertised, there is eventually a bullet in the head. But to give you an idea of how frustrating it is to watch a movie with the dialogue track intentionally removed, I'm going to type the rest of my comments with the keyboard disconnected.

and that's what I thought of BULLET IN THE HEAD.

So finally I ended the night with the animated shorts program, "A Thousand Pictures". Here's the rundown/lineup:
AANNAATT: Shapes appear, disappear, move around, move through walls. All in a window? Or from beneath a glass table? Or on top? Wait, which way's up?
FAR AWAY FROM URAL: Stop motion story of a Russian horse/suitcase/officer, his boy-toy, and his wife. Awesomely weird and wicked.
THE HEART OF AMOS KLEIN: An old officer remembers the history of Israel. Beautiful, sad hand-drawn animation.
KANIZSA HILL: Head, meet body. Body, meet head. When mind and body are separated, it's tragi-hilarious.
LIES: I'd already seen this at Cinequest. A Swedish film about lies and confessions. A conman is caught posing as an auditor and stealing from a company. A little kid steals from his mom's purse to buy toys for his friends. And a woman grows up always lying about her gypsy heritage, to the point where she doesn't know who she is, even after having a husband, children, and a drug problem.
PHOTOGRAPH OF JESUS: People ask for really weird things from archivists. How to politely tell them there are no pictures of Jesus, or Hitler at the 1948 Olympics, or the Yeti....
SLAVES: I'd also already seen this one at Cinequest, where it won the best animated short award. An interview with two Sudanese children rescued from slavery.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 3

Jumping right in for a 5 movie day. First off was the computer animated THE BATTLE FOR TERRA, a labor of passion, if not quite talent. Okay, to be fair it's a kid's movie and I probably have no business expecting great moral complexity. But I'd think I could get more than the simplistic 'can't we all just get along' of this story. And there's more. I know I shouldn't rag on a film that's obviously an indie labor of love, but since they went for CGI (and 3D, when it's released May 1), I have to say that the animation is only impressive if you've never seen Pixar (or even Dreamworks). They also run afoul of one of my big animation pet peeves--casting famous names instead of real voice talent. Luke Wilson, Brian Cox, Danny Glover, and Rachael Evan Wood are all fine actors, but voice acting is a different skill and if you cast career voice talent you get a better performance for much less cost. In the Q&A, they made a big deal about a short Mark Hamill cameo, but didn't seem to realize he's built an impressive voice acting career in the years since STAR WARS. I'd much rather listen to him star and limit Luke Wilson to a cameo. I do have to mention that David Cross was a bright spot as far as named talent. Beyond that the story is kind of cliche (earth is uninhabitable, humans find a suitable planet for terraforming but that would involve killing the local (intelligent but peaceful) inhabitants. When a stranded human is saved by a local, he is tries to stop the war and find a solution for peaceful coexistence. As cliche as the story is, the dialogue is even more so, and clunky to boot. I have to say, as an animation fan and a secret fan of children's films (and someone who shed tears at WALL-E) THE BATTLE FOR TERRA was a major disappointment. But what do I know?

So then I saw a kid's movie (or at least a movie about kids) that's more my style. IT'S NOT ME, I SWEAR! is the wacky adventures of a 10 year old suicidal hellraiser. As the movie opens, Leon is hanging from a tree--by his neck, tangled in the ropes of gymnastics rings. His brother and mom cut him down in time, but this is the sort of thing that happens to him. When he's not almost dying, he raising hell, egging the neighbor's house, breaking into another neighbor's and trashing the place, falling for a strange girl, and pining for his mom. Oh yeah, his protective mother has left to live in Greece, and his father is so wrapped up in political causes he can't see his nose in front of his face (to the point that when Leon fakes poor vision to explain his poor grades, he can't see that Leon is too blind to eat when wearing his ridiculously thick glasses). Oh, and this is all a comedy. Not just comic relief, comic and dramatic (even scary) at the same time. There's a saying (I think credited to Woody Allen) that 'comedy is tragedy plus time.' Well, this is a movie that presupposes that time and lets the comedy come out at the same time as the tragedy. Awesome. And director Philippe Falardeau was so funny in the Q&A that I have to look up his previous movies.

Next up was a Mexican movie, and the most formally challenging film of the day. LAKE TAHOE (which has nothing to do with it's title) is told entirely in static shots, with long dark transitions (sound, but no image). Juan is driving along the outskirts of a sleepy seaside town in the Yucatan when he crashes into a pole (the crash is not shown onscreen). He's fine, but his car won't start, so he has to walk into town to find a mechanic who can fix it. Instead he meets a town of eccentrics. The first auto shop is closed (although the owner is there, it's just his day to sit and watch the world rather than work). He finds an old mechanic, but he's paranoid, thinks Juan is there to rob him, and holds him (under doggy-threat) until he can call the cops. But when the phone doesn't work, he decides to go ahead and help. Juan needs a new part, and in his search he finds a young mother who wants him to babysit so she can go to a concert, and a hotshot young mechanic who's big into kung-fu movies. Meanwhile, we learn why he was driving to this town anyway, and about a significant loss in his family. The static, very neutral shots and the dark interludes invite/challenge the audience to fill in the gaps themselves. And the languid pace (no one ever hurries) reminds us that being around is more important than getting anywhere. After all, we all have the same destination eventually.

And then a lighter, crowd-pleasing comedy, the art and music send-up (UNTITLED). Adam Goldberg stars as atonal (i.e., noise) music composer Adrian. He plays noise concert (banging on pianos, crumpling paper, kicking a bucket) to a small group of grad students, his parents, and his brother Josh. His brother is actually a successful painter--that is if you measure success by sales and not by critical acclaim. His swaths of calming colors with circles are popular in hotel lobbies, but he can't get a gallery show, even if he's dating a gallery owner. That would be Madeline, whom Adrian first dismisses as way to trendy until she starts raving about his concert. Now there's an attraction, and she brazenly seduces him (turns out at least she didn't think she was dating Josh). Adrian goes along, both for the sex and because her savvy convinces a collector to commission a piece from him. Every character in the film overflows with pretension (Vinnie Jones is great as a wild taxidermy-art provocateur who "reinvents" himself every day). Everyone gets an equal skewering--artists, gallery owners, dealers, atonal musicians, collectors, critics. But director Jonathan Parker does it from a place of insider's affection (he has dabbled in atonal music and collected abstract art, and assured us that there are parts of the art scene even stranger than what he showed). This movie does have a distributor, the Samuel Goldwyn Company will give it a limited theatrical release in the fall, starting in New York and San Francisco. So if you live there, keep your eyes out for it.

And finally, I ended the night with a Bulgarian communism noir comedy, ZIFT. Using classic noir voice over to pull diverse comic tangents (fecal humor, urban legends, fond reminiscences of a glass-eyed cellmate) it tells the story of Moth, imprisoned in 1940 for a murder he didn't commit. Now it's a couple decades later, and he's being released early as a model reformed prisoner (he started a communist movement in prison). But no sooner is he out than he's abducted by Slug, his ex-accomplice and now police officer who wants to know where the diamond they stole is hidden. Wacky hijinks ensue--torture, bathhouse chases, poison, etc. An action noir that goes everywhere and nowhere, and kept me surprised and laughing the whole way (at least, as long as I could stay awake. It was late at night and the 5th movie of the day, so I did have to fight off drowsiness).

And that's day 3 at SFIFF.

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 2

3 movies to kick off the first weekend of the festival, but first I got there a bit early to visit--for the first time--the SFIFF hospitality lounge. It's good to be the press. They have a nice, big lounge, with a media center full of screeners (I'll probably be too busy with movies on the big screen to check out any feature length screeners, but it might be a good way to catch any buzzworthy shorts I miss). But the big advantage to the lounge is that the alcohol sponsors--Stella Artois, Blue Angel Vodka, and Ukiah Cellars--represent there. So the advantage of being press at Cinequest is an all-access pass (at SFIFF, if I didn't have the CineVisa I'd have to compete for a small number of press tickets to each show). The advantage of being press at SFIFF is free alcohol every day (from 5:30-7:30 pm). By coincidence, Stella Artois stopped providing free beer before all the Late Show screenings this year, so I picked the right year to start being press.

Anyway, on to the movies.

I started the night with BLUEBEARD, French provacatrix Catherine Breillat's new film, and perhaps her strangest. Her penchant for frank sexuality is pushed (barely) below the surface (no naked bodies in the closest thing she's made to a kid's movie). Bluebeard is a brief (original text is only ~3 pages) fairy tale by Charles Perrault about an ugly, ogreish lord who can't seem to keep a wife too long without murdering her. Catherine Breillat's BLUEBEARD frames that story with two little sisters who sneak up into the attic to read the fairy tale for the Nth time. As the little sister reads, and they both comment in their naive way (best laugh line: Marriage is when two people love each other so much, they decide to be homosexuals), the action unfolds on screen. And this is where it gets weird. The story within the story is ridiculously fake, to the point of appearing incompetent. The father's corpse is clearly breathing. But he's buried anyway. Bluebeard's search for a new bride encompasses the dead father's now impoverished daughters. Bluebeard's beard is actually (obviously painted) blue. He chooses the younger sister (in part because her frankness disarms him), and marries her. And of course this can't end well. But still, it's very fake. The bloody gold key actually gushes blood. The spiral staircase to the tower is quite intentionally the same shot repeated multiple times. All of this serves to jar the audience out of the film, and I'm not sure if the effect really "works". I can say, this is the first Catherine Breillat movie I've seen that I have to ponder for a while before I know if I liked it.

One final note, after I drafted this review but before posted it I happened to check out Brian's writeup at HellOnFriscoBay. He's right, it's an odd framing device that starts after and ends before the story it's framing, and perhaps it's better termed an "unframing device" and is a statement on the nature of the story (as, perhaps, is the extreme artificiality).

From French fairy tales I skipped over to Hong Kong action with Dante Lam's THE BEAST STALKER. It opens with a bang--a raid gone (partially) wrong, but the bad guy ultimately caught. Tough sergeant Tong (Nicholas Tse) is shouting down the officer who pounded through the back door late when a call goes out that the car taking the suspect in was hijacked by his associates and he's on the run again. Tong catches sight of the fugitive and starts an excellent, amazing car chase. It ends poorly, with the death of an innocent little girl. Three month's later the girl's mother, Ann, is prosecuting a mob case when her other daughter is kidnapped and held to extort her into throwing the trial. Tong has become friends with her (or at least her daughter) and feels compelled to redeem himself by tracking down the kidnapper. But Ann is afraid his rash temper will leave her with a second dead daughter. It's a clever cat and mouse game with perhaps a few too many intersecting coincidences (typical of Asian action flicks). In general, I can sum up the audience reactions as this: if you haven't seen a lot of Asian action flicks, this is pretty good. If you have seen a lot, you've seen better (e.g., South Korea's THE CHASER at SFIAAFF just this year).

And finally, after a fairy tale and an Asian flick, I ended with the late night screening of an Asian fairy tale, HANSEL AND GRETEL from South Korea. Not a straightforward telling of the Hansel and Gretel story, but a horror/fairy tale inspired by the brothers Grimm. Lee Eun-Soo (Chun Jeong-Myoung) is driving along talking on the phone to his pregnant wife, when he loses control of the car and crashes. He wakes up lost deep in the woods where a little girl in a red cloak leads him to The House of Happy Children. There three siblings (an eldest brother nearly 13 and two little sisters) live surrounded by colorful toys and with incredibly cheerful parents. Eun-Soo rests the night, eats breakfast (cupcakes) with them, and tries to make his way out of the woods. Only he can't he keeps getting lost and returning to the house. Of course, that's by design. The angelic children aren't so nice as they appear. They have the ability to make anything happen, if they only imagine it. Their only problem is they can't seem to keep any parents. Adults always want to leave eventually, and that makes them sad. It's a beautiful mix of gorgeous production design and classic elements of Grimm fairy tales and Asian horror--e.g., spooky supernatural children. All together it makes a clever cautionary tale of what happens when children get everything they want. When a really creepy priest shows up and becomes their new candidate for a parent, things take a very strange turn, and perhaps drags a few minutes too long. But it was still pretty awesome. Oh yeah, and as someone who's a little OCD about finding bunnies in movies (I don't mention it much because it's a boring topic to write about), I have to say that bunnies feature to a ridiculous extent in the production design. This may be the bunniest movie I've ever seen (at least since WATERSHIP DOWN). Bunnies!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Jason ruminates on the vagaries of film festivals and indie (self-)distribution

Yesterday I was inspired/coaxed to comment and add my fan's perspective to this roundtable discussion on indie film self-distribution. I encourage you all to read all the filmmakers' opinions, and then find my comment for my perspective.

A couple things happened when I started writing my thoughts on film distribution. First, I "broke the seal" and lots more ideas and opinions started flowing out. Second, I realized that my goals are not quite as aligned to the filmmaker's goals as I thought they were. This led to a few new filmmaker followers on Twitter, and some lively 140 character (or less) discussions that identified some common enemies/frustrations, but also some divergent goals. In a nutshell, what I prefer in a film watching experience is:

  1. A good movie
  2. On a large screen
  3. With a good audience (enthusiastic, adventurous, risk-takers)
  4. And a social event (have a drink or two with fans and filmmakers while talking about the movie)

I don't want to watch movies on my computer (at best I can only get point 1 there). I don't really like watching movies on DVD (again, at best I only get 1, but maybe I can improve my home theater to get close to 2). If I'm really lucky, seeing a film in general release I might get 1-3. If I get a few friends together, maybe I can get all 4 (like I did for BEER WARS or MILK), but that's actually a rare occurrence. Often I'm left with a boring/nonexistent audience (when I see films on weeknights) or obnoxious audiences (like the loud, drunk couple sitting next to me when I saw THE DEPARTED. Fuckers ruined the movie for me!) At least I sit up front where I nearly completely miss the scourge of cell phone users texting through the movie.

Anyway, the point is my best bet to get all 4 points is a film festival (or the close cousin, the film club. I keep thinking of joining the Camera Cinemas Club, my excuse is always that I'm too busy going to film festivals anyway). Sure, you can never guarantee a film will be good, but at least at a film festival I'm seeing a film that some programmer thought was good enough to show me (rather than a studio dumping garbage into the theaters with a big ad campaign trying to take my money). Not all film festivals have the biggest screens, but even the small screen at the Little Roxie is better than my TV. You can never guarantee a good audience either (I've been at some pretty empty festival screenings), but 999 times out of 1000 a festival audience will be better than a general movie audience. And hopefully that audience will be friendly, some filmmakers will be there, and there will be a bar nearby.

Now, if I were to hazard a guess, I'd estimate that filmmaker priorities are:

  1. Make a good movie
  2. Make enough money to make another good movie
  3. Get your movie in front of an audience that appreciates it

I suspect many filmmakers would claim to reverse points 2 and 3. That reminds me a lot of politicians claiming they're taking a principled stand and not just trying to get elected. I don't buy it. The first lesson in the only Poli Sci class I ever took was that no matter how lofty their goals are, politicians can't do squat without getting elected. Therefore you have to assume they act in a manner that maximizes their chances of getting elected. Same thing with filmmakers, if you assume they're rational actors (huuuuuge assumption), they'd have the act in the manner most likely to enable them to do what they do--make movies. Ultimately all the money in the industry comes from the audience, so there will be a lot of overlap in our goals, but if streaming a movie online makes them more money (and probably a larger audience) than playing at festivals or chasing distribution, then they'd be insane not to go that route. So when filmmakers sell the remake rights to their film (which in my experience guarantees the original will be buried and doesn't guarantee the remake will ever happen), I lament the fact but understand their motivation and don't begrudge them for making a living (even if I think it's an awful decision).

You'll also get a wide variety of opinions on point 3. For some filmmakers, putting their work online, even for free, is good enough (good luck fulfilling point 2, though). Others (most I've met) will argue that it's important for their film to be seen on the big screen with a full audience. I've never met a filmmaker who insisted his film can only be seen on a cell phone, for example (although with all the crazy auteurs out there, I'm sure there's someone). But again, in the real world whatever allows you to fulfill point 2 is what wins. This came up again just last night at the opening night of SFIFF. At the Q&A for LA MISSION, director Peter Bratt mentioned how great it was to screen at the Castro and how some people speculate that in 10 years movies will all be streamed online and actually going out to the movies will be a cultural elitist event like going out to the opera (Graham Leggat quickly chimed in that in 10 years SFIFF will still be going strong and showing a hundred or so films on the big screen).

By the way, I'm actually optimistic that even if the general movie watching experience migrates online, the film festival experience is still growing. While the digital revolution democratized indie filmmaking, I believe that digital projection has democratized film exhibition (at least at the small, local film festival level). Just looking through where I've lived in my life, my childhood home of Bellingham, WA has a film festival (that was last weekend, next weekend they have a children's film festival). My high school hometown (where my folks still live) of Anchorage, AK also has a film festival. It started in 2001, 8 years after I left for college. Growing up, there were no local film festivals where I lived. Now if you grew up where I did, there's at least one film festival. And if you're in a sizable metropolitan area, there are several to choose from. Maybe this is just a film festival bubble. But just maybe the audience will become more like a selective opera audience, but every small town will have at least one opera company.

Anyway, that's a small aside. The point is that filmmakers and the audience (at least the segment of the audience I can represent, which might be no more than myself) sometimes have divergent goals. And so I started exploring those forces that keep films from playing at the film festivals I attend.

One thing that came up (that I didn't address in my comments) was that unless you're discovered, film festivals are generally losing propositions for filmmakers. They don't get a take of the box office, they usually have to pay a fee to even submit their film (with no guarantee it'll be shown). If they choose to attend, they might (usually?) have to pay for their own travel, hotel, etc. Festivals are a giant hole for filmmakers to throw money into, with a small chance at a financial reward and perhaps a bigger chance at the psychological reward of seeing people enjoy their film. I don't know how to fix this. Eradicate all submission fees? Force all festivals to pay to fly filmmakers into town and put them up in a hotel? Unrealistic. Festivals struggle to survive financially, too (my earlier paragraph about how many festivals have sprung up notwithstanding). It seems that most filmmakers (at least, the ones I meet at festivals) go to festivals because they actually are that passionate about seeing their film the way I want to see it. Even if it means they lose money, and therefore increases the obstacles to making their next film. I love those irrational, passionate filmmakers.

BTW, as another aside in one tweet I flippantly said I only tangentially give a crap if filmmakers make any money (i.e., I only care that they can make more movies that I might enjoy). That's actually fairly facetious, and I was exaggerating to highlight the differences in our goals. The fact is, I love film and I revere filmmakers (at least the good ones) and I wish them all gobs and gobs of success. However, if the road to that success leads to the films never playing on the big screen in my area, than fuck that! No offense intended to the filmmakers who are only doing what's required to make a living and make their next movie. Fuck the system that leads to that scenario.

Another point--that sparked most of the discussion on twitter--is the exclusivity of the Premiere status at festivals. Jarrod Whaley spoke about this in his section of the roundtable. A filmmaker has finally finished his film, and wants to show it at one of the "big" festivals (e.g., Sundance). Sundance might like the film, but only have interest in showing it if it's a World Premiere (or at least a U.S. Premiere). So filmmakers have to hold off on showing it at all the other festivals (I guess that means HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE won't even be submitted to Mill Valley? Not that I've been back to that festival in a few years). In an ideal world, Sundance wouldn't care whether they had any premieres, just that it had great movies (and preferably ones that are looking for distribution). But I don't know how to force that world on them. And for that matter, I don't know if that would be the best world for Sundance. I love film festivals, and I have no interest in a solution that kills them off. If World Premieres more than Great Movies bring the crowds to a festival, I don't know how to convince them to take the latter.

Can one possible route be to level the importance of the festivals? If filmmakers had no reason to care if they played Sundance, they'd be free to present their films at any number of festivals. What if there was no more prestige to the Sundance label than, say, the Indiefest label? Or rather (since Indiefest is shortly after Sundance, and hence not stealing their premieres), what if Indiefest had as much prestige as SXSW (which takes place shortly afterwards, and I actually do know of films that have skipped Indiefest to premiere there). Or maybe "prestige" is the wrong term. Maybe it's simply the chance to sell their movie to a good distributor at a fair price. What would it take to get a moderate sized distributor to come to Indiefest to buy? If, in some dream world, there was a huge success discovered and signed at Indiefest,would that be a step towards levelling the playing field, or would it just be a step towards lifting Indiefest into the ranks of the "big" fests? Or would it just be seen as a fluke and life goes back to normal? Can this be something that the Internet can help with? Can social networking (Twitter, Facebook, MySpace) promote a film to the point that distributors notice? Can amateur writers--the all-volunteer blogging army--proselytize a film enough? To raise a very scary question, is the future of indie film in my hands?!

Or can we break up the exclusivity of Premiere status? Amir Motlagh summed it up pithily in this tweet. I already know that a certain amount of the premieres are BS. I've seen films listed as "sneak previews" so they could "premiere" at a later festival. I've seen Cinequest list films as California (or Northern California, or Bay Area) Premieres after they played at Indiefest just a week prior (in fairness, I assume maybe they were premieres when they booked them and went to print with the guide, and Cinequest is too classy to force them out of Indiefest). Are there success stories of films that played at a half dozen festivals before striking it big at a Sundance-sized festival? I assume it's usually not the filmmakers who are saying they don't want to play small local festivals before the big one(s). It's that Sundance won't play their film unless they get to call it a premiere. Jarrod Whaley had a nice analogy about the indie film world being a huge lot of rusted out Pintos with a few Cadillacs hidden there (the idea being that without dealers--i.e., festivals--weeding out the inventory the consumer has a hard time finding the Caddies). I extended it to say that too many of the festivals would rather be the first one to drive off in a rusted Pinto than be the third to drive a shiny new Cadillac. I don't know how to change that, it takes a paradigm shift in the big festivals, and I don't think they have an incentive to change. Or maybe it takes a gutsy/naive filmmaker to just take it to all the small festivals, not care if he gets into the big ones, and hope that the blogger army will promote the hell out of him. That seems like a one in a million shot, not a good bet. I don't have a solution, I just wanted to repeat that analogy, because I really like it.

Maybe some film festivals are already finding solutions. Is Cinequest doing the right thing having their own DVD label? If you play at Cinequest, and never get distribution elsewhere, you at least already have a relationship with someone who already likes your work enough to put it on the big screen. I don't know if any filmmaker makes much money of it, but it's something, isn't it? I'd think it's especially good for their short film collections, without which there are practically no distribution channels for shorts. Not only that, but they're also playing ALL ABOUT DAD (the Cinequest Audience Award Winner) for a second week a the Camera 3 cinema. I don't know how much of a dent they're making in the overall industry, but it certainly seems like Cinequest is doing the right thing. Can other festivals follow? Also, since last year, the San Francisco Film Society (presenters of the SF International Film Festival) program one of the screens at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. As the film watching experience becomes more of a highbrow "opera" audience, will more film festivals pick up the charge of programming theaters year round?

And finally let me touch on some of my biggest frustrations--the traditional distributors. Now don't get me wrong, I generally like anyone who takes a chance and puts movies on a big screen. But the complications of the business side of it often gets in the way. In a nutshell, it seems like distributors are always trying to find the "best" way (date, number of theaters, which markets, etc.) to release a film, and that can mean sitting on it for a while. Maybe even forever, as Mirimax was infamous for (they'd test screen the heck out of their acquisitions, then bury the ones that tested poorly so as not to hurt their brand). But the worst scourge I've seen is the so-called "remake rights". Studios buy up films so they can remake them. The original disappears, by design, so as not to compete with the remake. And then the remake never happens. This has happened at least twice to films I saw and loved. First to SIDEKICK (Indiefest 2006, was never remade and eventually released on DVD through Warner Home and Lightyear Entertainment, with very little fanfare). Then to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (Indiefest 2008. As yet, not remade, and was pulled from festivals that had already programmed it, like Cinequest). If I can give one piece of advice to filmmakers, if someone offers to buy your movie and remake it, please say no. For my sake, at least.

So is there a solution for a more democratic distribution system? I don't know. I don't really think so, at least not for the big screen. On the Internet, sure. Anyone who really doesn't care about money can put their movie online for free. You can even solicit donations, although I don't think you'll get enough to survive. A little prediction (and I don't pretend to be an expert here). For a while some brave/idealistic/naive filmmakers will put their movies online for free with a donation button on their site. And a few of them will get enough to maybe make it seem like a good idea. And it will either never succeed or it will nearly succeed up until the point that it does succeed. And then it will fail. As soon as someone makes money by giving away a movie on the Internet, everyone will do it. And then you aren't asking your audience to support an innovator and an idealist, you're asking them to support a copycat. And they'll tune out.

Or I might be wrong.

And finally, just a few comments about self-distribution. First, it's a poorly defined term that can apply to an unknown giving away his film online or to David Lynch programming his own theatrical tour of INLAND EMPIRE. In general, I'm ambivalent towards it. If it fulfills the 4 criteria I mentioned at the beginning, I'm all for it. In general, I think the boundaries to sub-optimal self-distribution (streaming online, selling DVDs off your website) are low, but the boundaries to ideal (theatrical) self-distribution are high (something only a big name like David Lynch can pull off). So go ahead and do it as a last resort. I want filmmakers to survive. But I hope you can also work in some festival and/or theatrical screenings. That's where you'll find my eyes.

And one final note. I might not be the eyes you should be targeting. I watch over 400 movies a year (feature length programs, on the big screen). There's not a lot of audience members like me, and the ones that are out there are often in the industry and watch movies for free. To make money, it seems like you at least need to reach the ~50 movies or less crowd (the <>1 movie/day people). There's a lot more of them.

Okay, this post has grown far out of hand, and so I'm stopping it right now.

Jason goes to the SF International Film Festival--opening night

Well, the granddaddy of the American film festivals opened last night, the 52nd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival. I've only been to opening night twice (this year and last year), but stepping into the Castro last night, I could immediately tell the energy was much higher, the crowd was much more excited this year. Obviously having a local film opening the fest added something.

Festival director Graham Leggat got up and started going through the obligatory thanking of the sponsors (we love them all, especially the booze sponsors), and then started talking about an interesting development which I didn't know about (apparently because I wasn't paying attention last August). Last year, the San Francisco Film Society, which presents SFIFF every year, took over much of the work of the Film Arts Foundation, and is now giving more support in terms of classes and (some) financing to local filmmakers. Graham had a great analogy where previously SFFS was a florist, picking the best film flowers they could find and presenting them in the bouquet that is SFIFF. Now they've added the role of nursery, cultivating more flowers from the local seeds. And that really makes the opening night film perfect not just for the festival but for the Film Society's new, increased local role.

So on to the film, LA MISSION, which takes place in San Francisco's Mission district, is directed by Peter Bratt, who grew up in the Mission, and stars his brother Benjamin Bratt. Peter and Benjamin ("Los Hermanos") got up and said a few words, then invited a Mission elder on stage to say a few words and give the event a traditional blessing, complete with costumed drummers, incense, etc. Now that was an introduction!

Okay, on to the movie itself. Benjamin Bratt stars as Che Rivera, a Mission local, a bus driver, a father, and a guy with a bit of a violent past (including some jail time). He's cleaned himself up, and is a solid citizen. He buys groceries for his elderly neighbor. He stays sober (with a little help from his AA sponsor). His only vice, if you can even call it that, is his lowrider and the crew he cruises with every Friday night (it's not about getting anywhere, it's just about taking it low and slow). And he's got a good son, a straight-A student Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez) who's finishing up high school and will be starting college at UCLA in the fall. So he's a tough guy, living in a tough neighborhood, but he's trying hard to do right, and for the most part his life is pretty good now. And then he learns that Jesse is gay. Here's an interesting thing about San Francisco--from the outside it looks like a big pile of queers and queer-loving liberals, but from the inside there are a multitude of cultures, and sometimes those clash. The Mission and the Castro are literally neighbors, but that doesn't mean there's no homophobia in the Mission. Che is a homophobe, and with his struggles with violence, his first impulse is to beat up Jesse and kick him out of the house. And of course now Jesse is out to the whole neighborhood, which leads to bullying at school. But the story doesn't end there. Che doesn't stop loving his son. He's conflicted--he wants to have a relationship with him, but he doesn't want to know about the gay stuff (or rather, he wants to believe it's not happening). Benjamin Bratt does an excellent job of being more than just the homophobic father stereotype, but also doesn't pull any punches. There's a key line in the movie when Che tells Jesse he must come back home because "I'm all you got!" It's immediately and painfully clear that Che has that backwards--Jesse has his life, his future at UCLA, his boyfriend. All Che has is his son, and he's losing him. A powerful, touching movie that skirts up alongside possible cliches, but then keeps his absolutely real. Most definitely.

Well then it was a short walk from the Castro to the Mission for the after party at Bruno's. A few drinks, a few tasty treats (lesson of the night: Bacon Bon Bons are awesome). And true to the local flavor, the party was actually more crowded when I left to catch the BART home (~11:30) than when I got there. I love the Mission, and I love LA MISSION. What a way to start the festival.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Jason watches ALL ABOUT DAD

Well, I finally caught the Cinequest Audience Award Winner (tied with FOR MY FATHER), playing through this April 30th (the run was just extended!) at the Camera 3.

It's a locally made film (undoubtedly that helped it's popularity at Cinequest) about a Vietnamese-American family. A comedy about the impossible journey of raising the perfect family. Mr. Do has raised 4 kids--2 sons and 2 daughters. His daughter Linh is engaged to a kind, wonderful man. Only problem is, he's Buddhist (they're Catholic, and dad won't let her marry anyone hell-bound). Okay, bigger problem, she's afraid to tell dad, so everyone thinks he's Catholic.

Meanwhile his son Ty is just back from his first semester at college, studying biology. Or rather, planning to drop biology and take up filmmaking (methinks this may be obliquely autobiographical?) And again, he's afraid to tell dad. So meanwhile, Ty sneaks off and shoots movies with his old pal Daniel, who has a crush on Ty's other sister Xuan. Xuan is a mostly underused character, sort of the voice of calm reason. Basically the good daughter who's only secret is that she kinda sorta wants to get back into music (she plays guitar).

And finally, while Ty is back he has to share a room with his brother Dinh. They roughhouse like brothers do, and Dinh's secret is that he has a girlfriend. Or maybe just a friend who happens to be a girl. In any case, she's white (unclear whether or not that's worse than being non-Catholic).

Secrets are played off each other with a mix of humor and pathos, and eventually dad learns that he can't make his children grow exactly the way he wants to. In fact, he learns some valuable lessons from an unlikely source--his lazy slob of a neighbor (and to make things worse, he's a Vietnam Vet).

In all, a very fun movie. I'm glad I saw it, I wish I had actually seen it at Cinequest with a bigger, more enthusiastic audience.

Jason watches CRANK 2: HIGH VOLTAGE

Okay, I have a confession, CRANK was actually one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Dumb, but all the action with a minimum of setup. And this sequel gets about 75% of the way there. Maybe I just wasn't in the same dumb action mood, or maybe (I suspect) the artificial heart/must get shocked to keep it going setup is even stupider than the poison/must keep heart rate up setup. In any case, this is one I'm saying I don't have to review. That's 3

Friday, April 17, 2009

Jason watches BEER WARS: LIVE (on a 3 hour tape delay because I'm on the west coast), the cause of--and solution to--all of life's problems.

So last night I met some friends in Hayward to down a few brews at Buffalo Bill's and then watch the one-night only (courtesy of Fathom Events) screening of BEER WARS, followed by a panel discussion with the director and a few of the craft brewers from the film (moderated by Ben Stein). Everywhere else in the country this was simulcast live with their world premiere in LA, but on the west coast it was on a 3 hour tape delay so it would start at a more appropriate time (8 pm instead of 5 pm).

The movie sets up a classic David vs. Goliath scenario, small craft brewers trying to survive and even thrive in a world controlled by the big 3 (Anheiser Busch, Miller, and Coors). So of course it's a compelling story with heroes who are easy to like. And the audience had a good time cheering for their favorite beers (that guying whooping it up for Stone Brew and especially Arrogant Bastard Ale

I suppose a more balance critique would point out flaws in the movie. I didn't really get a good sense of what the 3 tier system is (how exactly are brewers, distributors, and retailers kept separate?). And I think it would be interesting to look at some of small craft brewers who failed. Given ~1,500 different breweries in the U.S., it's surprising that nearly all the craft brewers they mentioned were ones I knew about, and they're ones that are at least surviving the Beer Wars and finding their little niche. But overall, it was a fun movie, and I was way too drunk to be making critical observations like that.

The panel discussion afterwards was...okay. I probably could've skipped it, but it was nice to spend a little extra time with some of the more entertaining personalities from the movie. The guy from Dogfish Head brewery was pretty funny, and I got to hear Ben Stein talk about Arrogant Bastard ale. Oh yeah, Ben Stein was an odd choice to lead the panel, and it was weird at times to see Richard Nixon's speechwriter challenge craft brewers on their views of success (essentially, isn't their ultimate goal to be bigger and have more market share? So why should they be so dismissive of the big 3?) But that's just part of Stein's charm, that he can live in so many worlds.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees PATHS TO PARADISE and a couple of shorts.

Last weekend I was back at my favorite local theater that plays silent films every week.

First up was a Harold Lloyd short, CHOP SUEY AND CO. Harold Lloyd is a young cop assigned to Chinatown (if I'm not mistaken, a Chinatown where the "writing" on the signs is just random scribbles and not Chinese). Some of the racist elements make me cringe, but Harold Lloyd is always cool.

Next up was CHASING CHOO-CHOOS. In 1927 Monty Banks made a feature film called PLAY SAFE, which was a flop. So they took out all best parts and turned it into a non-stop action short. Monty works in a factory, and woos the heiress, meaning he'll soon be on easy street and the men managing the factory will be out on their asses. So they hatch a plan to kidnap her and frame Monty, but little old Monty (who's too much of a shrimp to be a believable action hero) comes to the rescue, culminating in a long and exciting fight/chase on a train.

Then, after intermission, we got to the feature program, PATHS TO PARADISE. Raymond Griffith and Betty Compson star as dueling thieves. Betty plays Molly, who runs a little club that fleeces wealthy tourists looking for a genuine "underground" experience (includes a quick change to make their place look like a Chinatown gambling den--what is this, racist Chinese stereotypes night?) Griffith shows up as an unnamed man (or rather a man with a name for every occasion), who triple-crosses Molly and her gang. The duel heightens when they both go after the same diamond necklace that a wealthy plutocrat has bought for his daughter's wedding. Eventually, they have to work together to escape with the necklace to Mexico (from San Francisco, attracting the cops from Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego along the way). Rumor has it that there's a missing final reel where they grow a conscious, return to America, and return the necklace. But I kind of like where it ends in this version.

Jason goes to the Hypnodrome for some AUDACIOUS ARTEFACTS

The Thrillpeddlers are at it again, with their spring revival of Parisian Grand Guignol running until May 2. And this show is actually a bit kinkier than they've done in the past (ooh la la!)

First up was a grade school play based on a 1940's grade school first aid manual and the fact that 4th grade kids were traditionally made to do a skit on first aid at the end of the course. Pretty funny, with a weird obsession on splints.

Next up was PRIVATE ROOM NUMBER 6: A drunk, lecherous Russian General reserves a room in Paris to cavort with a lady of the evening. Too bad his legs don't work when he gets too drunk. Why, he'd have no way to defend himself!

Then there was TICS, or DOING THE DEED, a slapstick sex farce about tics certain gentleman have after...being intimate. Tics like stuttering, or twitching legs. Why, those sorts of tics could easily give away a secret infidelity!

Then intermission, time to drink a few more beers.

THE HEAD HUNTERS was the scary show of the night (part of the hot/cold/hot "Scottish Shower" style of Grand Guignol). An ethnologist is lost in the Amazon. His father and his fiancee search for him, while his guide turns on him. Hope they don't run into the really nasty tribe of natives.

And finally, the night ended with THE DISCIPLINE, based on an anonymous French play from 1788. Two nuns in the convent need to be punished, and the rugged, handsome gardener is just the guy to "discipline" them...with his cock! Yeah, porno plots really haven't changed in over 220 years (and I assume, later).


It was pretty good. I liked the acting, and I still think Amy Adams is one of the most underrated young actresses out there (although getting more deserved recognition all the time). But I'll take this as one of the movies I see and don't have to write about. That's 2.

Monday, April 6, 2009

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

The Niles Film Museum is the new official home of the San Jose Chapter of the Laurel and Hardy Film Appreciation Society (aka, the MIDNIGHT PATROL oasis of SONS OF THE DESERT). Incidentally, there is no Laurel and Hardy fan club, it's a Film Appreciation Society, at the express wishes of Stan Laurel.

The Niles Film Museum has been showing Sundays with The Boys about once a month for quite a while now, and I finally made it to one last night. It was most definitely worth it. Oh, and by the way, these were talkies (futuristical!)

First up was THE HOOSE-GOW: Stan and Oliver claim they were innocent bystanders of a police raid, but they're thrown in jail anyway, and of course hilarity ensues, culminating with a car radiator full of rice exploding and a giant rice-throwing fight.

Next another short, this time Our Gang in FREE EATS: A couple of thieving midgets (or "fidgets") crash a kids party looking to rob the place. Our Gang has to foil them. Features the very first appearance of Spanky (barely 3 years old, so it's hard to understand what he says).

Then an intermission, then the feature:

PARDON US continues with a crime and punishment theme. Their first feature length (56 minutes) has them sent to prison for trying to sell home brewed beer to a policeman during Prohibition. They make "friends" with a tough thug named Tiger. They escape. They hide out in black face picking cotton for a while (Yikes! a product of its time...oh, well). They get caught and sent back to jail, and then get involved in a prison riot that they accidentally subdue, earning their full pardon from the warden. And of course, along the way lots of wacky hijinx ensue. Awesome.

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees Hitchcock's BLACKMAIL plus a couple of shorts

It's been a while since I've been back to my local silent film theater, and it felt good to be back.

First up were a couple of comedy shorts, starting with MAGGIE'S FIRST FALSE STEP (aka THE OILY SCHEMER): A Keystone short directed by Mack Sennett. Maggie, the farmer's daughter, is seduced by the oily schemer Wallace Beery, who steals her money and dumps her in town as soon as his wife is in view. But after a bit of slapstick in a department store, she gets her revenge.

Then we saw, THE CARETAKER'S DAUGHTER: Good old Charley Chase, of course in marriage troubles. His old junker car breaks down, and then his boss asks him to take his girlfriend up to his mountain cabin, where he'll rendezvous later. Problem is, the boss' girlfriend's husband is just out of jail, and looking for revenge. And then Charley Chase's wife sees them driving, and she wants revenge. They all get mixed up with (and impersonate) the cabin's caretaker (James Parrott, who is Chase's real life brother). Very funny.

And then, after the intermission, we saw an early Hitchcock film, BLACKMAIL. This was actually filmed in a silent version and a sound version, as it was produced right at the time that THE JAZZ SINGER was doing such great business and sound was really taking off. We, of course, watched the silent version. It's a tense story of infidelity, attempted rape, murder/self-defense, and of course, blackmail. Although this is very, very early Hitchcock, you can actually see a lot of his story techniques (including his cameo) early on. Very cool.

And that was last Saturday at Niles. Next weekend is PATHS TO PARADISE with CHOP SUEY & CO. and CHASING CHOO-CHOOS. But first, there was a Sunday program yesterday in Niles, but that's for another post.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Jason watches WATCHMEN

Yeah, it's about time. Anyway, based on Zack Snyder's previous effort, 300, I expected this to be a very faithful adaptation, lifting visuals directly from the graphic novel and placing them directly on screen with very little adaptation. I was right, and given the great source material, it makes a pretty good movie (although condensing it to 2.5 minutes probably confuses a lot of people who aren't familiar with the graphic novel).

What did surprise me was how much I liked it. Yeah, I knew just about everything that was going to happen (other than a big change to the ending that seems to have been chosen to avoid wedging in another major subplot about genetic engineering). But seeing stuff like how people move (especially Rorschach) was a nice treat. Mostly, I was impressed with the soundtrack (the only part that really added something beyond the graphic novel).

So yeah, I'm sure all the fanboys have already seen it, and they're probably the only ones who will really love it. A lot of people who haven't read the novel will probably be lost or bored.

I want to end with some thoughts on the ending. As I said, it's the only major element that was changed (yeah, the TALES OF THE BLACK FREIGHTER was removed, but is actually released on a separate DVD extra). I will do my best to avoid spoilers for the remaining 3 people out there who have interest but haven't read the novel or watched the movie yet.

The thing about the ending is that the graphic novel was written in the mid 80's, fully in the midst of the Cold War. It's very much a Cold War ending, to solve a Cold War problem. Reading it for the first time earlier this decade, I couldn't help but think how different the ending reads in a post Cold War world (when the resolution is unnecessary), and especially in a post 9/11 (and mid Iraq War) world (when the resolution isn't necessarily guaranteed to work). As I said before, I think the change Zack Snyder made to the ending is largely immaterial and just used cut out an extra subplot. But given today's world, I kind of wish he either a) kept the original ending (which in a way might've been more brave), or b) completely reworked it to resonate more fully with today's world situation. In fact, there's more than just a streamlining change. There's also a major change that I think is kind of a cop-out. But that's all I can say without spoiling it.