Sunday, May 31, 2009

Jason watches UP in 3-D

Let me get this out of the way first--Pixar's unbroken streak of success is safe. Not only have they made a beautiful, exciting, funny adventure flick, for the second movie in a row they have brought tears to my eye. Damn you Pixar, I'm supposed to be a jaded, bitter old soul, stop making me have feelings!

Second, if you haven't seen UP but are planning to, you should run out and rent the 1925 movie THE LOST WORLD. It's one of the seminal adventure flicks, and features stop-motion monster effects by one Willis O'brien. O'brien later practiced his craft on a little movie called KING KONG. Anyway, UP is a direct homage to THE LOST WORLD, to the point that the destination is the same in both movies. Watch THE LOST WORLD, and appreciate that Pixar, despite being on the cutting edge of technology, has really built its success on classic storytelling (I had a similar admiration for the end credits of WALL-E). By the way, if you've already seen UP, you should still go out and watch THE LOST WORLD and then watch UP again. See how much more you appreciate it. And if there's a theater smart enough to do a double feature of THE LOST WORLD and UP, it officially wins the designation of coolest theater in the world.

Now you could get a plot review or any other raves anywhere else, so instead I'll use the rest of this review to talk about the 3-D aspect. This is of particular interest because my beloved Cinequest film festival will be doing a special lineup and panel discussion on 3-D filmmaking next year, and at last Friday's happy hour I happened to (very drunkenly) talk with Cinequest founder Halfdan Hussey about 3-D film. It still feels like a gimmick to me and in particular I told him "I haven't yet seen the film that has to be seen in 3-D". Well...I still haven't. Don't get me wrong, UP is great and a little bit greater in 3-D, but you can still fully appreciate it in 2-D. To it's credit, UP is not full of the 3-D gags that take you out of the story and leave you waiting for the next finger poked in your eye. It's simple a good story, beautifully rendered, that works fine in 3-D.

With 3-D technology getting cheaper (or so I've heard), some independent films can soon get in on the act. After Friday night, I was thinking that as more and more filmmakers can use the technology, one will finally truly create something that makes the best use of it--the mythical movie that must be seen in 3-D. And that will be the breaking point, when 3-D stops being a gimmick. Now, I think it'll be something different--a combination of two factors. First will be 3-D at home. Already a possibility, and there have been a few gimmicks as such. The main problem is that you need glasses for everyone--so you sell/distribute them to everyone (or include them with the DVD). But then maybe not everyone has a pair, so you need to make the program watchable in 2-D as well. Often to overcome 3-D movies are released in 2-D on DVD (interesting to watch what Disney will do with UP--will they include 3-D glasses for the whole family? How many people).

So that's the next break that will revolutionize 3-D. Get rid of the freakin' glasses. Philips had developed an auto-stereoscopic 3-D monitor, that sadly they're shelving due to the economy. I actually saw a demo of this monitor years ago (I work for Philips in the Healthcare division, and they brought it around to demo). It was impressive, although (at the time) not a big screen and you needed your head centered at just the right distance from the screen. I've heard they've overcome these and built prototype large-screen 3-D TVs. This is the future, and when 3-D no longer requires glasses (by the way, those glasses are not friendly to the front row, I had to move 3 rows back to watch UP), that will be the real revolution. In particular, if you can watch 3-D or 2-D shows from the same TV screen, or on the same movie screen, then 3-D vs. 2-D will be like the difference between color vs. black and white (which is to say, certain artists looking to evoke a bygone time will make 2-D movies, but the majority will be shot and viewed in 3-D).

So that's my prediction. Studios (and some indies) will make 3-D movies for a while, but it will remain a gimmick until you can watch them without the glasses. Best minds in the world--get on it!

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for a Wallace Reid double feature

The Edison theater deviated a little bit from its formula last night. Usually they play a couple of shorts and then a feature, and they all feature different stars. But last night was a true double feature, and a showcase of Wallace Reid. For a time at the end of the teens he was one of the most famous movie stars, and certainly the most famous of the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. Sadly, an addiction to morphine (brought on after an on-set train accident and the studio doping him up to continue making films) and alcoholism destroyed his career in his prime and eventually claimed his life when he was only 31 (he died in rehab). But he lives on in his movies, and we enjoyed two of them last night.

First up one of (in fact, the first of) his famous racing daredevil movies, THE ROARING ROAD. Reid play Walter Thomas "Toodles" Walden, a crack salesman for the Darco motor company. But he really wants to be a racecar driver. Darco has won the Santa Monica Grand Prize twice in a row, and no company has one three times in a row. So boss J. D. "The Bear" Ward isn't about to trust one of his cars to an amateur (in a side plot, he's even less likely to entrust the hand of his daughter, Dorothy "The Cub" to the likes of Toodles). All that becomes moot when the express delivery company has an accident and Darco's three racecars show up as heaps of scrap. But the enterprising Toodles buys the scraps and gets Darco's best mechanic Tom Darby to build them into one crack car that he enters himself. Of course, he wins, which wins him a big contract as Darco's west coast manager, but doesn't win permission to marry the Cub. Ultimately that'll take another feat of speed--driving a stock car from Los Angeles all the way to San Francisco in under 14 hours. Hey, I've done that before! But I suppose that was a more impressive feat in 1919.

The second half of the double feature was a mining western, THE GOLDEN FETTER. This time Wallace Reid is James (Jim) Roger Ralston, a mining engineer. Crooked Slade owns a mine that's a total bust, but that doesn't keep him from going back east and selling half of his stake to schoolteacher Faith Miller. Meanwhile back west Jim injures himself hiking in the mountains and ends up relying on the help of a couple of outlaws, getting himself into trouble despite being completely innocent. Faith eventually decides (based on doctor's orders) to head out west, get into the fresh air and sunshine, and check out her mine. She's dismayed to find that A) her mine is useless, and B) the town is really rough. Luckily Jim defends her on the second account, and hatches a plan to "salt" the mine with silver, making Slade think it is worth something so he'll buy back the half share from Faith. Of course, his trouble with mob law gets worse when the outlaws murder the sheriff and he is blamed. His head is in a noose when just in the nick of time the posse catches the real outlaws who confess and exonerate him. Faith has her money back, and presumably they live happily ever after. After all, Reid was known for a time as "The Screen's Most Perfect Lover"

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Jason slips into a Vortex for DEATH IN SMALL DOSES

I missed nearly all of the current (recently ended) series of classic cult films at the Vortex, but I did make it up last Thursday night for drug movie night. I couldn't stay for the late show, THE LONG GOODBYE, but I did catch DEATH IN SMALL DOSES.

Peter Graves stars as a FDA agent who goes undercover as a truck driver to investigate amphetamine abuse--bennies, co-pilots, call 'em what you will. He quickly learns about the world, and when his mentor/driving partner is killed, he partners with Mink Reynolds (Chuck Conners), who's a main source of pills, as well as being a wild man who drives and parties hard (on amphetamines, of course). Classic black and white, ripped from the headlines (based on a true story) crime thriller. Cool. Went down well with 3 martinis and a couple of beers.

Jason watches THE SOLOIST

Great acting, in a movie that...I don't know...should've been better. Maybe. It feels like a movie that's set up for awards season, but then inexplicably dumped in late spring/early summer. And there's some easy tweaks (e.g., a happy ending, a simpler narrative) that would've made it easy Oscar-bait. And I would've dismissed it as just that. Instead it attempts a narrative that more subtle, more difficult, and more realistic. And that gets messy. And it still has Oscar-baiting moments. So I'm left with little to hold on to, other than great performances by Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. It has so much going for it, it's frustrating that it doesn't completely work. And it's even more frustrating that I can't tell if it's a victim of over-ambition or under-achievement.

Jason watches TERMINATOR SALVATION and then rants about time travel for no good reason

If there's one thing McG really wants you to know about this movie, it's that it's called TERMINATOR SALVATION and it's directed by McG. Just to make that clear, it's repeated twice in the opening credits. And that's about the level of this movie--it will not let anything go less than over-explained.

In modern day, a condemned prisoner Marcus Wright is convinced to donate his body to science--specifically to Cyberdyne. Then he wakes up in a future where everything has gotten all blowy-uppy. He meets teenager Kyle Reese, and eventually John Conner--the prophesied savior, but no the commander, of the resistance. Surprise surprise, Marcus turns out to be the protoytpe flesh-and-steel terminator, but doesn't actually know it (he thinks he's human). Then more things blow up, plot holes are ignored (why is John Conner surprised to find a machine who tries to protect him--isn't that what his entire childhood was about?), and Marcus Wright becomes a Christ figure. And there's no time travel, so I'm immediately turned off.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. The first TERMINATOR was a b-movie that was much, much better than a b-movie is supposed to be. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY was a sequel that was much, much better than a sequel to a b-movie is supposed to be. TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES is the third in an action movie series that is exactly as good as it should be. The series no longer rises above its ambitions, and is just a standard action franchise now (I'm ignoring the TV series because it's both more interesting and more frustrating than the movies, and kind of exists in its own world). So as the fourth installment of an average action sci-fi franchise, TERMINATOR SALVATION is probably just as good as I should expect. I just shouldn't expect the franchise to keep exceeding expectations.

And now I want to go an a little pointless rant about the logic of time travel in movies. In short, if you cannot draw a self-consistent space-time (Feynman) diagram with closed time-like loops, it is not a time travel story (examples of consistent time travel movies: TIMECRIMES, 12 MONKEYS, and with some comedic license BILL AND TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE). Many more movies take a "branching universe" view of time travel--when you travel back in time you create a new branch and change everything in the future. However, these are not really time travel stories. More specifically, you can tell the exact same stories without using the concept of time travel--instead you can call it travel to an different possible world (or alternate universe, or whatever you want to call it) that happens to share a history with our universe up until a specific point in time.

There's nothing wrong with travel-to-different-possible-worlds-that-share-a-history-up-to-a-point stories other than:
  1. The unwieldy name
  2. The near-ubiquitous logical error that somehow what happens in the future of the alternate world somehow affects the the future of the original world.
BTW, the new STAR TREK movie deserves some credit for not falling for error number 2. One of the saddest moments of my life was when I realized that BACK TO THE FUTURE did not hold up logically.

I've had a friend argue that perhaps the act of travelling back in time creates a new branch and destroys the timeline of the original world. That just creates far more problems, like where did the time traveller come from if his world doesn't exist. At the very least, he shouldn't retain memories of events that have never and never will happen. His memories should immediately be replaced with memories from the new world. Basically, in order for a story to really be about time travel, both the past and the future have to be consistent.

To bring it back to the TERMINATOR franchise, the first movie was logically consistent (a bit of a mindbender, Kyle Reese being John Conner's father, but Feynman-diagrammable). It did not embrace my view of time travel logic--Reese mentions different possible futures--but it is till diagrammable. T2 is also kinda consistent--if you choose to believe that the attempts to keep Cyberdyne from inventing Terminators completely failed (and if you regard the closing monologue claiming "the future is unwritten" to be bullshit). T3 introduces the "fact" that Judgement Day was not stopped, only delayed. This becomes problematic unless you consider that we only have hearsay about the date of Judgement Day, and the reports might be several years.... Okay, the franchise is definitely embracing a "branching worlds" take on time travel, but I could still diagram T3.

And so we get back to TERMINATOR SALVATION, and one of the main problems I had with it. The main plot point is that John must save Kyle Reese so that he can later send him back in time to be his father. But either this is a self-consistent, Feynman-diagrammable universe--in which case it's a forgone conclusion that Reese will survive; or it's a branching-worlds multi-universe--in which case it doesn't matter if Reese survives, because clearly he survives in at least one possible future and John sends him back in time from there. As a physicist, I wanted Kyle Reese to die so I could see if John would suddenly blink out of existence or something (however they'd try to handle that).

Okay, that was way more writing than that movie deserved. I'm done.

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees REGENERATION plus a couple shorts

First the couple of shorts

FATTY JOINS THE FORCE: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle saves the police chief's daughter from drowning. As a reward, he's given a job on the force. But the darn mischievous kids turn this reward into a nightmare.

KNIGHT OF THE TRAIL: William S. Hart in one of his classic cowboy roles. He used to be an outlaw, but he's fallen in love and ready to settle down. However, his fiance doesn't know about his felonious past. When she finds out, she dumps him and gets engaged to a real crook who's planning to steal her money. So when William S. Hart finds out, he has to race the crook to the train station and stop him before he leaves with her loot.

And then an intermission, and finally REGENERATION. There's a bit of a cops and robbers/rescue and redemption theme to the night. Owen Conway lost his dear old mom when he was only 10. He became an orphan, and learned to live on the mean streets, working his way up to be the leader of a gang. Then he meets Marie Rose Deering (Anna Q. Nilsson), a teacher and social worker. Actually, he rescues her and her class from a burning boat. He falls in love, renounces his criminal past, and under her instructions starts the process of being reborn--regenerated, as it were--as a good man. Unfortunately, that rubs the rest of his gang the wrong way, and soon enough he has to protect her from them. Plus, he's had a history with these guys, one has saved his life before, so he's kind of torn in his loyalties.

And that was last Saturday in Niles. Tonight there's a Wallace Reid double-feature, and tomorrow the Sons of the Desert are doing an all-day Laurel and Hardy party.

Jason watches RUDO Y CURSI

Again, following up on movies I missed at SFIFF. And again, catching up on movies I saw a week ago.

The opening monologue of RUDO Y CURSI repeats the legend that futbol (soccer) was invented when a soldier kicked the severed head of his fallen opponent. And it makes the case that sport is used as a surrogate for war, particularly war between brothers. So the serious deadly business of war is turned into sport, something to play. At least until we start to take the sport so seriously that it turns back into war.

This tension between war and play is what this movie is all about. Not just in it's plot, but in it's making. As for the plot, it's simple--brothers Tato and Beto (nicknamed Cursi and Rudo, roughly translated as "corny" and "rude", and played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna) are local soccer stars--Cursi is a striker and Rudo is a goalkeeper. They're discovered by a scout, who first can only take one of them on. In a scene of brotherly confusion Cursi wins a penalty kick that sends him to the pros, even though he really wants to be a rock star more than a soccer star (oh yeah, he does a very corny, very bad Spanish language cover of "I Want You to Want Me"). Eventually, at Cursi's urging, the scout brings Rudo along and gets him work for a different team. For a while they're both stars, but Cursi has women problems and Rudo has gambling problems, and eventually things kind of fall apart for both of them.

As for the movie making, in many ways it's a trifle--a plaything that disguises a war that might never really be more than a plaything anyway. It's light, it's fun, and it's funny, no matter how much the situations (drug lords, mob fixes, brotherly wars) might call for a darker touch. Really, it's about the giants of contemporary Mexican cinema getting together and playing. The Cuarón brothers (Carlos directs, Alfonso produces) re-team with their Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN stars. Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro come along as producers. And ultimately, the movie might be about no more than some great filmmakers coming together and playing.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Jason watches WINGS

A week ago. Wow, I've been bad at updating. I'm feeling better now, so I shouldn't fall this far behind again.

Anyway, last weekend my favorite local spot, the Niles Film Museum did a special presentation on the 80th anniversary of the very first Academy Awards. On that night 80 years (and one week) ago, William Wellman's WINGS won the first award for "Most Outstanding Production" (next year changed to "Best Picture"). Not only was it the first winner, it's still (and I think safe to assume always will be) the only silent film to win.

So the Niles Film Museum played WINGS. The original aviation picture that spawned a genre, and a story of war, heroism, friendship, and romance. First the romance: Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) are both smitten with Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), but Mary Preston (Clara Bow) is in love with Jack, but to him she's just the girl next door, nothing special.

Now the war: WWI, and Jack and David join the Air Force. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Jack, Mary joins the Women's Motor Corps as an ambulance driver (she knows a lot about cars, helping Jack on his hot rod). In boot camp, Jack harasses David since they're still rivals, but eventually the pressures of war turn them into true friends (with the help of an ill-fated ace, a cameo by then little-known Gary Cooper). Oh yeah, that's the friendship part, and the aviation scenes (which are still thrilling) provide plenty of heroics, in particular saving an entire town from a bombing attack.

But enough of plot summaries, I'll just say I teared up a bit at the end, and I was far from the only one. They don't make 'em like that anymore.

But there was more to the presentation than just the movie. William Wellman, Jr. was there to introduce his father's film. Frederick Hodges played the piano based on what survives of the original score. And Ben Burtt was there to provide sound effects. If you don't recognize the name, you surely recognize the work--he's the sound effects man for the STAR WARS franchise, INDIANA JONES, WALL-E (he's the voice!), and most recently the new STAR TREK movie. For his work, he's taken home 4 Academy Awards, so combined with the 2 that WINGS won (Best Picture and Best Effects), this was a 6 Oscar day in Niles.

So after the movie (I saw the early show, there was an evening show as well), there was a special presentation with Shawna Kelly, author of "Aviators in Early Hollywood" presenting a slide show about aviation history and in particular her great grandfather B. H. "Daredevil" DeLay. Then Ben Burtt got up and spoke for a while about sound effects in general and in particular the sound effects for WINGS. Incidentally, Burtt is a huge WINGS fan and started his career by winning the National Student Film Festival with a WWI aviation film called YANKEE SQUADRON). And then William Wellman, Jr. got up, talked about his father for a bit, and then presented the documentary about his father, WILD BILL: HOLLYWOOD MAVERICK. It's an impressive collection of anecdotes and interviews from people who worked with him (biggest get--Nancy Reagan. He tried to get Ronnie, but didn't realize Ronnie had Alzheimers by the time he was making the film). Wellman was a brilliant director, but also charitably called cantankerous--he had a nasty temper. Despite some huge hits (not just WINGS, he also did A STAR IS BORN, THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, and many others), he never got along with studio executives. Best story--when he was assigned to direct some script he hated, he filled a truck with manure and dumped it on the studio exec's desk.

Anyway, awesome day in Niles. That's it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Jason watches STAR TREK

And it Not perfect, often silly, in many ways wrong. But a lot of fun.

Starting with the first trailer I saw, I knew I shouldn't expect a "real" sci-fi film, but rather an action flick in space (BTW, for real good sci-fi, catch MOON when it comes out in June). Given those low standards, I was at least pleased that it included pretty much my favorite sci-fi staple (spoiler warning: it's time travel). But other than that, yeah it's an action flick in space, not sci-fi (and the physicist side of me wants to point out that it's explicitly not Feynman diagram consistent time travel. Blah blah blah, whatever, that's what insulates them to fanboy gripes of anti-canon history).

Most of the enjoyment comes from watching young versions of your favorite characters (coming next summer: STAR TREK BABIES). Zachary Quinto was perfectly cast as young Spock. Chris Pine was cast as Kirk I think based on his ability to hang from precipices. Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov were there, but mostly uninteresting (the Uhura love triangle tries, but fails, and references to their skills come of more as winks to the fans than anything that moves the story further). Scotty is unfortunately little more than comic relief (and I love Simon Pegg, it's just as a science geek I wish he'd been given more meat). But what I really learned is that Bones is fuckin' cool (a million points to Karl Urban). In fact, it reminded me that I'd forgotten how Dr. McCoy was always my favorite character. Maybe this is revisionist history, but I like to pretend I had the heart of a crotchety old coot even when I was a kid.

So yeah, it probably falls short of what it could've been (at it's best, Star Trek is a thrill ride of the mind, not of the gut), but it's a few notches above what I was afraid it would be.


Because I needed a break from festival films, and I needed to enjoy a mindless Hollywood action flick. Well, it was certainly a break from festival fare, but fell well short of enjoyment.

This movie belongs to a rare inauspicious club of films where the opening credits are more interesting than everything else. At first I thought that I was just being jaded and elitist, pointing out all the ridiculous cliches (and I'll leave it to the fanboys to nitpick the history in relationship to the comics). Then my brother-in-law (no pushover, but definitely in the target demographic) confirmed that yes, it did suck hugely. Even if this wasn't an "origins" story (i.e., I know Wolverine survives, I know he'll lose his memory, I know what other mutants are guaranteed to survive, etc.) I could still predict just about everything. So it was a big ho-hum, with some flashy effects and 'splosions. Whatever.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Jason watches TULPAN

Because after SFIFF, I just had to go see a movie that I missed there.

Like Asa, the main character, we never get to actually see the mysterious title character. Asa has just finished a tour with the Russian navy, and returns to his Kazakh steppe home still wearing his snappy soldier's uniform. He has a dream of getting married and settling down with a little farm/ranch. Well, the "getting married" part is complicated, since the only marriage age girl in town is the neighbor's daughter, Tulpan. She's allegedly beautiful, although she stays hidden, and in a message through her parents she turns him down because of his big ears (even though he carries a picture of Prince Charles--whom he describes as "the Prince of America"--to prove that big ears are not a bad thing). Well, he doesn't give up, and still pursues her over the objections of her mother (who attacks him) and his father (who thinks he's worthless because he's lousy at raising cattle). He spends time with his best friend who drives around in his water truck and looks at porn. Or he hangs out with his little brother and vainly tries to help his dad with the herd. The herd is dying of starvation (and there's some pretty grueling scenes of attempts at mouth to snout resuscitation on stillborn calves). Throughout, he hangs on to his dream that seems at once ridiculously modest and agonizingly beyond reach. It's a story about the harsh, empty beauty of the Kazakh steppes, and the difficulty of chasing your dream, no matter what it is. Oh yeah, and it's surprisingly funny.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for Comedy Shorts Night

Gotta love comedy shorts night in Niles. And that reminds me, next weekend is a special presentation of the first Best Picture Academy Award winner (and only silent winner) WINGS. More info here.

On to the movies:

THE PAWNSHOP: Chaplin in one of his sillier, more slapstick/less pathos role. He's an assistant in a pawnshop. He messes up the shop a lot, with painful repercussions for the owner and the other employee. But eventually, he foils a thief's plot.

THE BLACKSMITH: A workplace theme, with Keaton as a blacksmith's (way too weak) assistant. He shoes a horse, gets filth all over it, and destroys a beautiful white Rolls Royce. A bit of trivia--the car he destroys is his own, given to him by in-laws with whom he was no longer on speaking terms. A bit of on-screen real life revenge.

NEVER WEAKEN: Harold Lloyd as the always love-struck glasses character. For half the film, he saves his beloved's job by drumming up business for her employer. But then he overhears her planning to marry another, and becomes suicidal. That's right, suicide comedy--leading to some high-rise hi-jinks.

And finally, we always end with the boys...

LEAVE 'EM LAUGHING: Laurel and Hardy go to the dentist's office, get a little loopy on laughing gas, then have a run-in with a police officer. Awesome.

And that also reminds me, the Niles Film Museum is now home to the Midnight Patrol tent (San Jose) of the Sons of the Desert--the Laurel and Hardy official film appreciation society. And they're having a big to-do on May 31st. Details here.

Jason goes to SFIFF--Closing Night

One final movie, UNMADE BEDS by Argentinian director Alexis Dos Santos, by way of London. It showcases a world of restless and reckless international youth in London, getting drunk, rocking out, and waking up in strange beds. In parallel stories, Axl drinks himself into amnesia every night, and Vera does a really bad job in her bookstore job. She discourages people from buying crap books, and mocks them for buying relationship advice books (even talking one out of a sale). She quits her job and starts dating a customer (or did that happen in reverse order). The aimless restlessness is underscored by her sincere ability to fall in love, and his desire to meet his real father (a desire that leads him to touring numerous flats before deciding he won't find what he wants). The whole time, you know they will meet eventually, and when they's surprisingly anti-climactic. Yet it works well for this movie where having a bed of your own is more important than any amount of fireworks.

And then, for the first time ever, I went to the SFIFF closing night after party. It was pretty cool, if crowded, and only two drink tickets. So after chatting with some film friends, I wandered over to the Vortex (which was nearby and hosting its own party) for one last drink before BARTing home.

And that, finally, puts SFIFF 2009 in the books (blog).

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 14

Unless I lost count. Anyway, it was last Wednesday, the penultimate night of the festival.

Many apologies for not updating sooner. I've been (and still am) a bit ill.

First up, TROUBLED WATERS, a Norwegian story of crime, punishment, and rehabilitation. 8 years ago, Thomas killed a young boy. In prison, he became a model Christian and learned to play the church organ. Now he's released from prison and he gets a job as an organist in a church with the hottest freakin' female pastor ever (seriously, this atheist nearly found religion. Those were the nicest set of tits I've seen on any member of clergy ever). He becomes an institution in the church, starts dating the pastor, and becomes the default babysitter for her son (who adores him). This development is a shock to the mother of the child he killed, who spots him as she leads her school class on a field trip to the church. While the first half is his story, the second half is her story, and that dynamic--looking at certain events from different points of view--is really interesting and exciting. This movie throws a lot of clever tricks and cool ideas at you, so much so that rather than trust my memory I had to note them down on my phone's memo application. So here are some notes I took immediately after the movie when all the ideas are swirling around (with my current expansions on those notes):

Which way is up?--there are a lot of scenes that confuse the sense of gravity. Really cool.
Baptism--there are several of these in the movie
Organ music didn't sound like church music--more like Phantom of the Opera. Either that reflects his internal turmoil, or Norwegian church music is kinda messed up.
Forgiveness vs. Atonement--Yeah, that's an important distinction in the movie. One that struck me for some reason.
There are so many ways to end it, it really kept me guessing--and I'll add that all my endings were way darker and kind of fucked up. I liked the ending they used, though, and it once again proves to me I shouldn't make movies, because I'd make movies to piss people off.

And then I saw a French film, 35 SHOTS OF RUM. It seems like every festival has one of these--a challenging film, with fully real and complex characters, which challenge your preconceived notion...and which plays way too late in the festival for me to keep my attention up. I remember there was lots of drinking, and a guy got run over by a train. Or rather, a headless body was found on the train tracks (one main character is the train conductor), an apparent suicide (or maybe I'm making that up). Mostly I dozed off and was completely lost. Sorry for the cop-out, but that's the honest truth.

Jason goes to SFIFF for THE LOST WORLD with Dengue Fever

Just one movie last Tuesday, it was silent-film-with-live-musical-accompaniment night.

The movie was the stop-motion animated breakthrough THE LOST WORLD. Willis O'brien (who went on to make a little movie called KING KONG) did the effects for this story of explorers and a lost world populated by dinosaurs and ape-men, based on the book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Danger, action, romance, Wallace Beery as a crazy scientist! Awesome.

Would've been awesome enough, but this night was also about the music. And that was provided by Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles based Cambodian pop/psychedelic band. They were the subject of the documentary SLEEPWALKING THROUGH THE MEKONG, which I saw at Indiefest last year. Their soundtrack gave the perfect exciting, other-worldly touch to the movie, and seeing them live gives me a new appreciation for their music. Awesome.

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 12

Okay, the film festival is over, but I have my last half-dozen movies to write up, starting with last Monday, and a pair of fascinating documentaries.

First up was a rare glimpse into the most isolated nation on earth. KIMJONGILIA is a movie about North Korean leader and charter "Axis of Evil" member, Kim Jong-il (and the title comes from the name of a flower created in his honor). Director N.C. Heikin interviews a number of escapees from the totalitarian regime, who tell of horror stories there--imprisonment for questioning the leader, or being the grandchild of someone who questioned the leader, starvation, execution (in front of their family). She even interviews a rather well off and popular musician who left for ideological reasons (among them, artistic freedom). The most fascinating part for me is there's no mentions of nukes, there's very little talk about the relative merits of communism vs. capitalism. This is not a political story, it's a story of human suffering. Kim Jong-il's regime isn't presented as evil because it's communist or because it threatens it's neighbors. As on interviewee says, “If the person who created such a place isn’t a criminal, I don’t know who is.”--and that's all because of the suffering brought on his own people, not on his threats to the outside world. Heikin keeps it entertaining, and even has a bit of humor by mixing in North Korean propaganda newsreels and clips from movie musicals (Kim Jong-il is a notorious movie fan), but never takes the focus off the human suffering.

In the Q&A, she admitted that because of the totally isolated nature of the country, she doesn't have a complete picture of what's going on. She cannot interview anyone but escapees, and that will naturally paint a bleak picture (not necessarily an untrue one). As for the charge that this is just propaganda and she didn't make any effort to tell Kim Jong-il's side of the story, she simply said "I have no interest in defending Kim Jong-il." Might I add, Berkeley is just about the only city in the U. S. where someone can be attacked for not defending Kim Jong-il. And Berkeley, that is why the rest of America makes fun of you.

So next we moved to another world hotspot, Israel, for Z32. Avi Mograbi tells a confession and a tragedy, set to music. The confession part is easy to explain--an Israeli, while serving in the military, is sent on a revenge mission after the killing of 6 of his fellow soldiers. They go on the mission and end up killing two innocent Palestinian policeman. Just telling that story and exploring the moral and philosophical implications would make a pretty short film. So Mograbi uses devices to put some distance up and also draw us in. First off, he has the soldier confessing to his girlfriend, who has to deal with the fact that the man she loves is a murderer. Second, he masks their faces through a series of digital effects (if nothing else, the visuals are interesting even if the 10th repetition of the confession gets a little old). Third, he inserts himself in the story, first with a stocking on his head, and cutting holes showing how more and more identity is needed to tell the story (something he then mimics in the decreasing obfuscation of the digital masks). And finally, he writes a song which he sings about it (first by himself, then with a small orchestra). All through it, rather than a simple this-was-so-wrong confession, he unveils a national psyche that is torn between doing the right thing and protecting itself. Something that resonates in America today (torture debate, anyone?) Oh yeah, and just to explain, Z32 refers to the file number of this confession filed by Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli veterans who collect and archive testimonies from soldiers who have served in the IDF.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 11

A light day last Sunday, only 4 films (and one party), starting with the SFFS members screening. They do this every year--play a movie just for film society members. It's not in the festival, and it's something that will be released later in the year. Another recent tradition is that Graham Leggat makes the audience play 20 questions to determine what the movie is. This year, someone got it in 2 questions--it's Iranian, and it's Majid Majidi's new film THE SONG OF SPARROWS. Graham was so shocked he dropped an epithet (calling the guesser a "fucking savant"). Awesome.

Oh, and THE SONG OF SPARROWS was awesome too. I've been notoriously lukewarm on Iranian film, never quite embracing their slice-of-life aesthetic, no matter how beautiful the cinematography is. Well, I'm slowly becoming more of a convert, and THE SONG OF SPARROWS helped me take a giant step to becoming an Iranian film fan. It's the story of Karim, a ostrich-farm hand with a loving wife and three children--a little girl, a wild boy, and an eldest daughter who is deaf. As the movie opens he's catching his son playing in a filthy water pit. Worse yet, they've lost the eldest daughter's hearing aid. Now he's got serious money troubles, because he can't fix the hearing aid so he needs to go to Tehran to buy a new one. To make matters worse, an ostrich escapes on his watch and so he's fired. He finally catches a break when he goes to Tehran and since he's riding a motorcycle someone mistakes him for a motorcycle taxi. So he goes with it. This is an fascinating, light-hearted but heartfelt film, with a lot going on. There's family life and the joy and frustration of raising children. There's contrast between the simple rural life and fast-paced and complicated (technically and ethically) city life. There's a lesson about slowing down and learning to appreciate the good things you have. And there's a fantastic performance by lead actor Reza Najie. Oh yeah, and there's an ostrich.

Next I rejoined the festival proper with a trip to Argentina for THE PARANOIDS. In the Q&A, director Gabrial Medina was asked if the main character was based on himself. The answer was comically yes (except that he's actually made his movie). Luciano is a loser and a coward. He makes a living playing a fuzzy purple alien at kids birthday parties. Outside of work, he pretends to write his screenplay, plays video games, smokes a little dope, and lives in fear of everyone and everything (including his doorman who will harass him for having "parties" if he has a couple of friends over late). His best friend Manuel is a successful TV producer, and tries to get Luciano a meeting with a producer who can get his script made. There are a few cool twists--a love triangle and the reveal that the main character of Manuel's show (LOS PARANOICOS) is based on Luciano (even named Luciano). It's a funny film about the youthful combination of energy and fear.

Then I moved from the Kabuki to the Clay theater and from Argentina to Switzerland for HOME. Director Ursula Meier has created one of the most thought provoking family dramas in a long time, and a visually and (especially) aurally rich world. Dysfunctional families are a staple of film (or art in general), so it's important to note that this family is completely functional. They're extremely close knit (even bathing together) and live peacefully in a remote home next to an abandoned stretch of highway. They play in the street, they laugh, they enjoy dinners outside. The kids (two daughters, one young son) go to school, and everyone's happy. That happiness is reflected in a lively, often jazzy soundtrack. And then the highway re-opens. The soundtrack to their life (and the music in the movie) is replaced by the constant stream of cars. And then we learn the strength and fragility of this family. For some not quite explained reason the mother (Isabell Huppert) refuses to move, even though the kids now have to dodge traffic to cross the highway and get to their school bus. As sleep deprivation takes its toll, they hunker down inside their home (except for the eldest daughter, who simply leaves), becoming closer, but transforming the home into a tomb. An absurdist drama about family, paranoia, and the intrusion of modern society. And beautifully shot, acted, and scored.

I'm so glad I enjoyed HOME, because afterwards I went to a VIP cocktail party with Swiss Consulate General, in honor of HOME in particular and the longtime friendship and partnership of the Swiss Consulate General with the Film Society, bringing lots of Swiss films to the bay ares (including NOMAD'S LAND, also in this festival). I had a little free wine, some tasty snacks, and left with a tiny Swiss flag hors d'oeuvres toothpick (which I proudly display in my "I'm Sorry" pin from LITTLE DIZZLE). Good times.

Over the course of the whole day I physically traveled from Fremont to the Kabuki theater to the Clay to the Swiss Consulate General's home to the Castro theater via public transit and walking. And through the magic of film I went from Iran to Argentina to Switzerland and finally to the moon.

MOON is the smartest, coolest sci-fi film I've seen in years (I'd guess at least since CHILDREN OF MEN). It stars Sam Rockwell and Sam Rockwell (that's not a typo). Sam Rockwell is Sam Bell, a lone astronaut on the moon serving a 3 year contract at a base that harvests helium for the earth's energy needs. He's nearing the end of his contract, and looking forward to returning home. He's been there alone with no company but the base's computer, GERTY (voice of Kevin Spacey). He's going a little crazy, starting to have visions of a young woman in the base. Out on a collection mission, he crashes his rover. Then he wakes up in the infirmary, slightly injured and with amnesia. And then it gets weird. I don't want to spoil anything else. I already said it's very smart. It's a character story first, and explores ideas like personal identity, family responsibility, and ethics through a futuristic setting, but it doesn't exist just because building moon bases is cool. Oh yeah, the moon bases are really cool. Hooray for model miniatures over CGI! It's full of references to character based sci-fi classics--SILENT RUNNING, OUTLAND, 2001, even a little BLADE RUNNER, but still keeps you surprised. Oh yeah, and Sam Rockwell is excellent carrying everything as the only person on screen for nearly all the movie (in fact, the only one save for video monitors).

I have to add that if Sony Pictures Classics doesn't give this at least a semi-wide release and promote it like crazy, I will be very disappointed. It comes out in LA and NY in June, and elsewhere in...? I don't know, but if there's a sci-fi fan in the country who isn't informed when it comes to his town, I cannot be held responsible for what I might do to Sony in a fit of rage. We need more smart sci-fi, not more effects driven action movies in space.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 10

My biggest day of the festival, 6 movies. So let's not screw around, here are the reviews

First up I saw a special added screening, the Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, DEPARTURES. I have to steal the two word description I overheard from another fan afterwards--"beautifully manipulative". In a way, the title is ironic, because DEPARTURES is often about returning. Kobayashi is an accomplished cellist, but financial problems cause the symphony to close. With no good prospects, he decides to return home, live in his old family home (his father left when he was young, and his mother passed away a few years back), and just get a regular job. He finds an ad for "Departures"--good salary and no experience necessary. He figures it's a travel agency or something. Turns out, it's a mortuary. Or rather, it's a business that performs highly ritualized preparations of bodies for encoffinment. At first he's mortified (more so when he his first task is to star as a corpse in a training video). But gradually he sees what his boss does and learns to appreciate it. He takes families at their weakest moment, and by treating their loved one's body with great care, he comforts them. It's not just preparing a body for proper encoffinment, it's preparing the family (often families with unresolved issues) to properly say goodbye to them. Unfortunately, as Kobayashi grows to love his job (and takes up music again with his small childhood cello), his wife discovers exactly what he does and is horrified. That, and the reappearance of his father, fuel the final act of the movie. All along, it's shot beautifully and the story unfolds with with a deep sense of human tenderness. Oh yeah, and just as important, it's really, really funny, and a little twisted.

Next up was a very, very Swedish film, HEAVEN'S HEART. We start with Lars and Susanna getting their divorce finalized. Flash back 9 months prior, when they're having dinner with their friends Ulf and Ann. Over dinner and much wine, they talk about a friend who was unfaithful and now going through a divorce. Although none of them would be unfaithful, the discussion takes some surprising turns--most notably Susanna plays devil's advocate and suggests maybe the infidelity was a case of true love. Ulf jokingly agrees with her, and the whole discussion unnerves Lars and Ann. Of course, talk and nerves will, months later, lead to infidelity, heartbreak, secrets, and the divorce preordained in the opening scene. It's all done with very rational, sensible conversations that boil over into explosions of passion or anger. Great performances by all in the 4 person cast, and it even milks some laughter and gasps from the audience. Proof that 4 people talking can make for a gripping story.

Next up I moved slightly over in Europe--this time the Netherlands--for CAN GO THROUGH SKIN, one of the more challenging films I've seen in the festival. Marieke is a young woman getting drunk on wine and bemoaning her boyfriend who dumped her. She invites a friend over and orders a pizza. But the pizza guy is a maniac who attacks her in a brutal scene that ends with her running naked through the streets on a cold Amsterdam night. After the trial, she leaves to live in the country and get away from it all. And then it gets weird, as she sort of loses her mind. She meets the neighbors and will be pleasant one minute and angry the next. Her house is filthy and decaying, and she makes fitful but unsuccessful attempts to clean it and fix it up. She has long chats with a confidante on the Internet, who advises her to take matters into her own hands. And maybe she does. She either has her attacker tied up in the attic where she can torture him, or she's imagining it all. Actually, it's pretty clear that's a hallucination. Everything else is up for interpretation, though. Did she really save a bag of sick kittens just to shoot them later? I don't know, and that's kind of the point. After an act of extreme violence, the whole world falls apart.

So then I returned to the U. S., in particular Oakland, for a cheerier film (although still a film with drug use, insanity and death), EVERYTHING STRANGE AND NEW. It's a story of three guys, their wives, their children, their mortgages, and everything else they live for that sucks the life from them. Wayne is the main character, and peppers the movie with comic ponderings of malaise (e.g., his mortgage has left him with too little money to do anything but sit around his stupid house). He loves his wife (although they fight sometimes) and his two sons (although he's still amazed he's really a father). In that much, he's doing better than his drinking buddies Manny (who's got a good wife and kid, but also a drug problem) and Leo (who's got a crazy wife who is divorcing him). Visually stylish, turning a few miles of Oakland into anywhere in the U. S., using comedy and sadness (Wayne spends bits walking around as a sad birthday clown), reality and absurdity, it creates a picture of family life that's recognizable and fantastical at the same time. Even the title comes from a line from "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", evoking promises of great fantasies that never materialize.

Next up was the ultimate road movie, starting in Switzerland, NOMAD'S LAND. I admit I'd never heard of Swiss travel write Nicolas Bouvier before, but he wrote a book called "The Way of the World", documenting his travels from Switzerland through (what was then) Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and ending in Sri Lanka. Filmmaker Gaël Métroz sets off to recreate Bouvier's journey, and film himself doing it. But of course things have changed a lot since then, and his journey will be more dangerous. From the start, early on he falls from a rickety wooden bridge and wakes up on the back of a horse after being rescued by villagers. This becomes the recurring theme of the journey--as much as he's an outsider (and he's definitely always an outsider), he's constantly being rescued by friendly strangers. A movie not about point A or point B, or even really the path in between. It's a story about putting oneself in an unfamiliar place, trusting in the locals, and letting that completely change you. Also, some pretty remarkable camerawork, considering there was zero crew, Métroz shot it all himself.

And finally, the night ended with the very strange THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF LITTLE DIZZLE. Religion...corporate malfeasance...janitorial services...male (theme of the festival)...rock and roll...contrition...and cookies. That's about half the topics in this wide-ranging mind-fuck comedy. Dory is the Datameister, a religious seeker and office drone. After blowing up at an annoying co-worker, he finds himself out of a job. A friend hooks him up with a janitorial services company Spiffy Jiffy, where a band of crazies clean offices at night when no one can see them. Chief crazy is Oliver, who considers himself an artist. Their favorite office to clean is a market research firm because A) they always have great samples in the trash, and B) one of the researchers is a total hottie. The new product under test is a self-heating cookie (mimics the fresh-from-the-oven taste). They become the new unwitting test subject, and experience a side effect unique to males--cramps, constipation, and finally a bright blue fish shooting out of your ass, flopping around for a bit, and then dying. I loved it, it was hilarious, and if you find that description disgusting, all I can say is "I'm Sorry."

And that was last Saturday, day 10 of SFIFF.

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 9

Starting another marathon weekend. If this post is up before Monday I'll be amazed.

Three movies last Friday night, starting with my new favorite thing ever, MY SUICIDE. Archie (I may have witnessed the emergence of a great star in Gabriel Sunday) is a self-proclaimed fucked-up teen. He lives in a detached guest house (not too subtle--he's detached from his family) where he obsesses over and makes movies. He excels in his high school film class, but is pretty much an awkward loser elsewhere. And he has a grand plan for his film class project--he's going to commit suicide on camera. Well, this earns him a lot of attention (perhaps that's the point. It's hard to tell if he's serious when he jokes about everything) from school officials, the cops, psychiatrists, (eventually) his parents, and (most importantly) the hot girl at school with whom he's obsessed. The fallout from his threat fuels a romance and a suicide pact (turns out she's a fucked-up teen, too).

But that's just the story, and I don't want to give away more. The amazing thing about the movie is the style. Or rather, styles. It's a pastiche of fast edits, movie references, genre jokes, and ironic winks to the audience that kept me enthralled and laughing through the whole movie, despite the somber subject. It is billed (as all of his short films) as "An Archie Mindfuck", and that's pretty appropriate. Off the top of my head, I recall references to DEER HUNTER, STAR WARS, THE MATRIX, APOCALYPSE NOW, TAXI DRIVER, ALICE IN WONDERLAND...and tons more I forget. This is a movie to watch and rewatch over and over and over again (when's the freakin' DVD out?)

All this is not to say it makes light of suicide. This was made very clear in the Q&A (BTW, it also stars Mariel Hemingway, who due to family history is a passionate suicide prevention advocate). At one point, director David Lee Miller had to point out that besides talking about suicide he also just wanted to make a "kick-ass movie." (I was the guy in the front cheering that comment). So although I don't know for sure if anyone has criticized the movie for making light of suicide, allow me to pre-defend against that claim. For me, a key scene is a montage of people echoing the line "suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." The point is obvious--give the same ardent message over and over again, and your audience will tune you out or mock you (especially the cooler-than-thou youngsters). So you have to approach the audience first in a way that will engage them, otherwise you have no chance.

So then I moved (or actually stayed in the same theater) from a comedy about a kid who wants to die to a documentary about a guy trying desperately to stay alive. Pat Spurgeon, the subject of D TOUR, is the drummer for the indie rock band Rogue Wave (and he and director Jim Granato could compete for the Best White Guy's Afro award. I could compete too, but mine's more of a caveman mess than an afro). He's a musician to his core, steadfastly refusing his parent's advice to have a back up plan. And he only has one kidney, and it's failing. He's on a six year waiting list, and in the meantime he's on dialysis, specifically peritoneal (sp?) dialysis, which can be done at home through a tube inserted into his abdomen (wow! There's some footage there). No problem as long as he has a clean sterile environment. Then he insists on touring with the band. It's everything he's ever wanted, and his never give up, never die (even if the face of death) attitude and good humor dominates their D(ialysis) Tour (there are many jokes about his "d" bags). Jim Granato, a friend of Pat Spurgeon, had excellent access not just to the tour and interviews, but to attempts (ultimately successful) to find a donor for Pat directly (the first one, the wife of a bandmate, comes down to the last minute before a kidney stone prevents donation--a heartbreaking scene). An excellent movie of a man who's not only unafraid to face life, but unafraid to open his life for us to appreciate.

And then after a short Q&A, we had a mini-concert performance by Rogue Wave. Very cool.

And then the midnight movie was GRACE. Last year, I saw the short it's based on back at Another Hole in the Head last year. That short was really just a promo reel to get the feature made. The story of a stillborn baby coming to life and nursing has really been fleshed out. Madeline is 8 months pregnant. She and her husband have been trying for a while, with fertility drugs leading to a couple of miscarriages. She's a vegan who wants a natural birth with a midwife, but her mother-in-law is a big fan of hospitals. Driving home from a particularly tense dinner they get in an accident leaving Madeline alive but her husband and fetus dead. But she takes the baby to term anyway (director Paul Solet claims this really happens, which is fucked up), and a strange thing happens. After a horrible, traumatic bloody birth, the baby comes to life and starts nursing. Grace, her name is Grace. But Madeline is ill-equipped to be a single mom. Particularly when the baby prefers blood to milk and stinks so bad (even with a clean diaper) that she attracts flies. Add a meddling doctor and the mother-in-law, and things get pretty gross. Like a funny bone to the gut, there's some very dark humor that makes you want to wash yourself off after. It fulfilled all the promise of the short, and more.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 8

It just keeps going. Slightly past the halfway point, two more movies last night:

First up was a Guatemalan film, GASOLINA (GASOLINE). Opening with several failed attempts at siphoning (before finally some success), it's immediately clear that the hero is kinda a loser. And for much of the film he and his friends find new comical ways to be losers. Stealing gas is just the start. They threaten each other with (unloaded) guns, do pushups as an act of machismo/repentance (skipping numbers on the way to 50), crash into pared cars, get chased by angry fathers, pick fights with security guards, etc. This is one long night, and gasoline not only fuels their car, but their adolescent escape fantasies (obsession with airplanes--the ultimate escape fantasy--is a recurring theme). I don't want to give away the ending, but suffice to say there's a huge, disturbing shift in tone that's pretty shocking (followed by a brightly lit ending that goes at least one scene too long). Guatemala hasn't really had much of a film scene to speak of (especially compared to Latin American giants Argentina and Brazil), but director Julio Hernandez Cordon has taken a big, bold step towards putting it on the map.

And then I saw an Afghan film, KABULI KID. A sweetly comic movie that brings out various aspects of modern Kabuli life and centers it all around one of the cutest babies ever. Khaled is a taxi driver, sarcastically telling his passengers how nothing works right and his country has "danced" with the Russians, the Taliban, and now the Americans. And then one day a burkha clad woman enters his cab carrying a beautiful baby boy (he sarcastically tells her to remove the burkha, it's not in fashion anymore). After a short ride, she gets out and he picks up another passenger, who comments about the baby in the back seat. Uh oh, he's got an extra little burden on his hands (on the plus side, after so many daughters he at least has a temporary son). It's nearly curfew, and the police station is closed. Nothing to do tonight but get some milk and a bottle (when the pharmacy's out of bottles, a coke bottle and a rubber nipple will do) and take care of the baby for one night. Tomorrow, the search for the mother starts, with announcements on the radio and enlisting help from an NGO orphanage. The baby is something no one seems to want and no one can quite abandon (perhaps a metaphor for Afghanistan?), and if you look in his eyes you can't help falling in love. A nice balance of slapstick comedy, social satire, drama, pathos, and humanity.