Friday, July 31, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 7

A.K.A. The San Francisco closing night. Something is weird when a film fest has it's "Closing Night" gala less than halfway through the festival, but that's how Jewfest rolls. Let's get to the film. Yeah, that's right, I only saw one film because A) I have a job and B) I've gotta save something for Berkeley and Palo Alto (and if I'm really crazy, San Rafael).

That one film, however, was excellent. THE WEDDING SONG is a story of two young women in Tunisia during the 6 months when it was Nazi-occupied. Myriam and Nour have been best friends their whole lives, and their religious differences mean nothing to them (in case you can't tell by the names, Myriam is Jewish, Nour is Muslim). Since they were little girls, they've talked about getting married. Now Nour is engaged to Khaled, a handsome but poor man. Myriam, while not engaged (and not happy with her prospect of Raoul--a wealthy but not too pleasant doctor) has the advantage of an education. That is until she's expelled and the Germans march into town. The Germans come not just with rifles and heavy boots, but with propaganda promising to liberate Muslim Tunisia of both the French and the Jews. Though most see through it (they've been friends with their Jewish neighbors for a long time) the Nazi propaganda starts infecting the community. And when Khaled takes a job helping the German occupiers, Myriam and Nour's friendship gets strained, to say the least. And lest you suspect that this movie links Muslims and Nazis, I should be quick to point out that Raoul conspires too (and is spat on as a traitor) and that Nour's father points out Koran verses praising Jews, Christians, and all worshippers of the one true god. It's a beautiful movie, with some remarkably frank but ambiguous sexuality (Myriam's wedding preparation waxing is a bit much to watch), and a thoughtful and ultimately hopeful look at kinship between Arab and Jewish culture.

And that's all for the Castro. But as I said, the festival rolls on at the Rhoda theater in Berkeley and the Cinearts Palo Alto, before heading back to San Francisco to play at the Jewish Cultural Center and to San Rafael at the Rafael Film Center.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 6

You may notice there is no day 5. I skipped Tuesday night because both movies play again at times that are more convenient for me.

But I was back up Wednesday night for another pair of films, starting with the short JOSHUA by Dani Levy (SFJFF fave from ALLES AUF ZUCKER, MEIN FUHRER: THE TRULY TRUEST TRUTH ABOUT ADOLF HITLER). As part of a series from many German filmmakers called Deutschland 09, he made a film about a crazy, neurotic filmmaker named Dani Levy who worries about what Germany will be like when his little son Joshua is grown up. So his therapist gives him medicine that cures pessimism--and makes Joshua fly...right into Angela Merkel's lap. And eventually baby Joshua becomes the new baby Fuhrer to a town of neo-Nazis. Have I mentioned lately how awesome Dani Levy is?

That led into the centerpiece presentation of A MATTER OF SIZE. Co-presented by CAAM (who put on Asianfest), it's an Israeli comedy (or drama, or dramedy) about sumo wrestling. Or rather, it's about overweight people learning to be proud of themselves (through sumo wrestling). Herzl is having a hard time losing any weight, and the insufferable bitch running his support group is no help at all. To top it off, although he's a great chef, he's forced to work out of sight in the kitchen because he's "not presentable". So he quits, but his mother forces him to take a job. It's her idea for him to work at a Japanese restaurant, because the food's so terrible he won't be tempted by it. Desperate, he starts out as a dishwasher there, and that's where he learns about sumo. In Japan, he has the body of a revered athlete. He makes one more try at the diet group, but leaves in a huff after more abuse, and announces he's starting a sumo club, to be coached by his boss Kitano, an ex-sumo referee. He gets a few friends to join him, including a woman who becomes his girlfriend. I've already hinted that it's not about sumo (although there's plenty of it) as much as overcoming their self-hate. And it's not just hate over their weight (although that's a large part of it--no pun intended). Gidi finally finds the strength to come out of closet, and is pleased to learn that gay men with his body type--"bears"--are popular. Arahon struggles with his anger and the suspicion that his wife is cheating on him. And although he started the group, Herzl struggles the most--with his mother and girlfriend. His girlfriend (from the diet group) is not allowed to practice sumo (sumo is simply not for women, even though she's good at judo and could kick all of their abundant asses). So he tells her that if she can't do it, he won't either--he'd rather be with her. So now he has to practice sumo behind her back, despite the fact that she's already said her first two marriages ended because her husbands were liars. Meanwhile, his mother is driving him crazy in a typically Jewish way (Eat, eat! You're too fat, why can't you stick to a diet?). Put all this together, and you get a beautiful, hilarious movie that was just nominated for a boatload of Ofirs (Israeli Oscars), has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for distribution (no date yet), and has been nabbed by the Weinsteins (both pretty chubby themselves) for the American remake rights (which worries me, but good for them).

Well, after that there couldn't be a more different movie for the late show than SKIN. Set in the Netherlands in 1979, it's the story of Frankie, a free-wheeling, fast living Jewish youth, who's best friend is a black kid with whom he listens to punk music mocking skinheads. But he's got some family problems. Specifically a father who routinely runs away because of Holocaust flashbacks (he thinks he's fleeing the concentration camp) and a mother slowly dying of cancer. As his mother wastes away, so does his fragile psyche. Eventually he shaves his long hair is sympathy as she's losing hers. This symbolically starts him down a path to becoming a skinhead, and eventually to prison for a horrible racist crime. We know his life won't end well, as it's told through a parallel narrative jumping back and forth between before and after he's in prison. The movie actually opens with him being put in prison. This skinny, shaved kid is stripped by the authorities and forced into the shower (there's even a gas-like hiss before the water comes out). Were it not for a skull-and-swastika tattoo, that opening scene would have a very different meaning. As it is, it says all you can say about becoming the victim of your own hate.

You know, I started by saying the two films tonight were as different as can be, and they are. But there is a thread of similarity, which could be the theme of festival: self-hatred, and either conquering it or being destroyed by it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 4

A light Monday night at the Castro. And I even got off work early enough to go home, empty my mailbox, and then catch the BART up to the city. But enough about me, on to the movies.

The first program started with the very cool and slick short TEN FOR GRANDPA. Doug Karr has ten questions for his grandfather David, died under mysterious circumstances just before David was born. Questions like why did he need 4 wives? How did he become so rich and powerful coming from such a poor Eastern European family? And was he really a Soviet agent, or was he murdered by them?

This led into the feature, VICTORIA DAY. Set in 1980's Toronto, and you would have to look pretty closely to notice that the characters are Jewish. That's part of the point director David Bezmozgis tried to make, that Jews (especially Eastern European Jews who immigrated to North America) are secular people with secular interests like hockey and Bob Dylan music. Those are certainly the passions for Ben Spektor, star of the high school hockey team and apple of his Russian father's eye (who's always comparing him to Wayne Gretzky). Well, hockey, Dylan, and Cayla, the girl he's had his eye on for quite a while. Trouble is, her brother Jordan is kind of a jerk (although a teammate in hockey). They used to be friends back in fifth grade, but now Jordan is his main antagonist. But everything changes when Jordan goes missing after a concert, and it might have something to do with the $5 Ben loaned him to buy drugs. This has happened before, he disappeared for 3 days a while back (turned out he went to a Grateful Dead concert in New York without telling anyone). So while people are concerned, there's no panic. It takes a few days for the cops to organize a search party, etc. Meanwhile, Ben feels like more should change, like it's wrong to play hockey while a teammate is missing. A part of his reckless childhood is disappearing, while his goofball friends are as reckless and childlike as ever. The title is a perfect reflection of that. It's a holiday complete with fireworks, but his friends have a tradition of reenacting PLATOON in the park with roman candles. This is the reckless behavior that Ben is torn between not wanting to let go and feeling like he must. Ultimately, something as simple as staying home and watching the Stanley Cup playoffs while your friends party can be a coming-of-age event.

The second film of the night, SEVEN MINUTES IN HEAVEN, was a surprising, multi-genre film that totally snuck up on me. Galia is a survivor of a terrorist bus bombing, and a year later she's still covered with horrible burns and her boyfriend Orem is still on life support. She still suffers vomit inducing panic attacks, but a helpful stranger named Boaz comes to her aid. For a while, the story moves pretty slowly (I nearly dozed off), as it appears to be about her and Boaz falling in love and her letting go of Orem and taking him off life support. But there's still a mystery around a necklace (possibly hers, she can't remember) that someone mailed to her. And then a strange thing happens. Boaz reveals that A) he mailed her the necklace and B) he was the paramedic who rescued her. And slowly the past unfolds in many layers, either disjointed memories or something a bit supernatural. Maybe in fact Boaz and she had met even before that. Maybe Boaz and Orem were actually friends. Or maybe Boaz is a sort of guardian angel. After all, she was legally pronounced dead at the scene for seven minutes before she woke up. This ends up being a thriller and a puzzle movie, that I might have to watch again to fully appreciate (it plays three more times in the festival, so I have a good chance).

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 3

Sunday was another long day in the Castro. Let's do this thing.

First up was a program celebrating the Ma'aleh Film School's 20th Anniversary. Ma'aleh is a film school in Jerusalem for (mostly) orthodox Jewish students. That is, it's set up to practice orthodox Judaism there, although there are secular students there, too (and recently, ultra-orthodox as well). The important thing is it encourages the students
to make films exploring their Jewish identity.

The program was a selection of 4 longish shorts as sort of a highlight reel from the school. And I'd add that I know that 20-30 minute shorts are often hard to program in a festival. They're too short to program alone, but a little long to play with an 80 minute feature. So it's nice to see a program giving space to these "mini movies".

SEPARATION: A portrait of a family falling apart, shown from the child's point of view. They keep bringing "weekday talk" to the sabbath dinner table. Mom and dad fight. The daughter tries to bring them together by using her little brother, but his asthma is a tragic complication.

A SHABBOS MOTHER: This is certainly not a very restful Sabbath. A chaotic family gets a new member on Shabbos.

ROSENZWEIG--BORN TO DANCE: A beautiful, fascinating documentary about an old man (Avigdor Rosenzweig) who as a twenty year old survived the Holocaust by dancing to entertain the Germans. And he still dances today.

AND THOU SHALT LOVE: A gripping drama of a Yeshiva student trying to "cure" his homosexuality. He's doing well (40 days gay-free), until the object of his affection returns from the army.

Next up was the first half of a social justice double bill, WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE. So far, my surprise hit of the festival. Co-directing sisters Emily and Sarah can be excused for having a bit of hero worship for Bill Kunstler--he is, after all, their dad. But they take an interesting approach to this activist lawyer's career, starting at the end, when they remember him defending some pretty nasty people (John Gotti, the first World Trade Center Bombers, a guy who murdered a racist rabbi, the Central Park "wolfpack" rapist/killers, etc.) He had been a man of great conscience, but had he become just a notoriety hound? Did he relish defending the worst just to stand up with the most hated? It's a difficult question, but used as a jumping off point to go back to his earlier career. When he defended the Chicago 7 (or 8, if you count right. BTW, Bobby Seale is supposed to be at the Berkeley screening on August 2). When he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate an end to the standoff at Attica (a failure he seemed to take very personally), or his success at defusing the standoff at Wounded Knee (a success that he also seemed to take personally, and was a very close friend and ally of the American Indian community). The film has some amazing archival footage, including some very sweet home movies of the directors as children. It shows Bill Kunstler as a driven, idealistic workaholic and as a merry prankster who turned the courtroom into a comic theatre (and who was very engaging and loving in his home life, too). Reconciling his 60's and 70's career with his later life defending scum is the big challenge of the movie, and one I'm tempted to say is only partly met. But with a man as complicated as him, perhaps a partial understanding is all we'll ever get, even members of his own family.

Afterwards, rather than a traditional Q&A, there was a panel discussion on Social Justice in Jewish culture with Emily and Sarah Kunstler, Andy Bichlbaum (from the next movie), and spokespeople for various bay area social justice organizations. It was an interesting, engaging discussion that's been going on for thousands of years, so of course it wasn't all solve last night. But I did learn my favorite new factoid--in apartheid South Africa, Jews were voted as white by just one vote is the legislature.

The next film was a hilarious take on social activism, THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD. I really need to go rewatch the first YES MEN movie (from back in 2004 or so). Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are up to their tricks, setting up fake websites and posing as corporate spokesman to mock and disrupt their targets with outrageous stunts. They open as Dow Chemical spokesman, first at a trade show on risk explaining how skeletons in their closets, if profitable enough, should be thought of as "golden skeletons", literally linking death t profit. They also go on BBC worldwide to announce that Dow, three years after buying Union Carbide, will finally take full responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, liquidating the Union Carbide assets and using it to pay $12 billion to the victims (and causing their stock to lose $2 billion in value). They take the gross route by making human flesh candles (no, not really) as the fuel solution of the future. They even print their own newspaper--which they call The New York Times--announcing news in the future they hope to see (banner headline: Iraq War Ends). I even got a copy of that paper for a small donation afterwards. The fascinating part is how far they can get before people find them out (Reuters had picked up their Bhopal story before anyone found out it was a hoax). When they present patently ridiculous ideas like a Halliburton "survival ball", industry people love it. Another interesting point was the question of "false hope" that's raised. After the Bhopal story was revealed to be a hoax, a BBC interviewer asked if that wasn't more cruel. So they went to Bhopal and found...everyone loved them for what they did, showing just how easy it would be for Dow to do the right thing. At least, everyone they showed on camera loved them. But if you think for a freakin' second, of course they'd be more loved than Dow spokesmen who brush Bhopal aside. A funny movie that doesn't quite fix the world, but gives it a pretty good shot.

Next we dove into the world of anti-semitism with DEFAMATION. Israeli director Yoav Shamir has always lived in Israel, and never experienced anti-semitism. But he was accused of anti-semitism (i.e., being a self-hating Jew) for his 2004 film CHECKPOINT. So he picked up his camera and decided to make a film about how contemporary Jews in Israel. Europe, and America perceive anti-semitism. He goes straight to the leading light, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, and follows their mission. He tries desperately to get on a case, but doesn't really find much (despite a reported rise in anti-semitism in recent years). A talk with black youth living near a Jewish neighborhood in New York either reveals anti-semitism, or the difficulties of living in a multi-cultural society. Meanwhile, back in Israel a youth group travels to Auschwitz (just before joining the army), torn between a cathartic desire to feel the
pain and anger their parents and grandparents feel and wanting to look forward. He also interviews prominent Jewish critics, such as Norm Finklestein who argues that Holocaust obsession is unhealthy (he's on the ADL's list of anti-semites for that) or professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt who wrote "The Israel Lobby". And those are the two topics that keep coming up. First, is an obsession with fighting anti-semitism (and Holocaust obsession) and seeing it in the smallest thing really healthy? An Orthodox rabbi observes that while fighting anti-semitism is good, it seems that secular Jews seem more attuned to it than religious Jews, as if seeing and fighting anti-semitism is an important part of their Jewish identity that religious Jews don't need. And the second, humongous question is whether criticizing Israel is anti-semitism. Perhaps it is, perhaps (probably) it isn't, and perhaps (almost surely) it's a mix of both. It's a question the film raises, but never really answers (as I've heard in other movies, ask 3 Jews a question and you'll get 5 answers). Still, it's engaging enough just to ask the question.

I have to say, this movie and it's questions resonated with me on a personal level. I'm a half Jew. My dad is Jewish, my mother isn't, so I'm not a "really real" Jew (even ignoring the fact that I'm not at all religious). Still, I'm proud of my Jewish heritage, and honor it in my own way (I fast on Yom Kippur, but break the fast with bacon). I've never been the victim of anti-semitism (that I can recall), but when my Jewish "credentials" are challenged, I fall back on the fact that those who want to kill all Jews, both today and in history, would count me as a Jew. Only in recent years have I come to an understanding of how much of my Jewish identification has to do with persecution and victim culture. And I'm really coming to not like that (I suppose that makes me a self hating Jew, and will put me on the ADL's shit list). I'd rather express my Jewish-ness by, say, supporting the SF Jewish Film Festival (and also the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, or Jewfest South), than by pretending to be a victim of something I've never really experienced.

Anyway, I was pretty loopy by the time we got to the final program, which started with a short, SIDNEY TURTLEBAUM. In more of a character study than a story, Derek Jacobi plays a bitter, lonely old homosexual who scans the London Jewish Post and finds obituary listing. Then he goes to the grieving families sitting shiv, comforts them (pretending to be an old family friend), sings for them, and robs from them. The filmmakers hope to turn this character into a feature film, and I'd want to see that film.

And finally, a very French romantic comedy with Jewish (and Israeli) trappings, HELLO GOODBYE. Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant play a very secular french couple. Gisele is a lawyer who converted to Judaism to marry Alain, a gynecologist who hardly knows how to wear a yarmulke or say a prayer. But when their son marries a non-Jew (in a church!), they decide to move to the holy land. She's enraptured immediately and throws herself into creating their new Israeli life, not even blinking at hardships like when all their belongings are lost at sea while being shipped over. He, on the other hand, hates it. His job falls through and he ends up cleaning cars. He's constantly "not Jewish enough". She even convinces him to finally get circumcised. He accuses her of having an affair with her teacher (and she considers it--she is catching on in class very quickly). Meanwhile, has barely learned a few words of Hebrew. Their marriage was already missing a spark, but now Israel might tear them apart. The acting, of course, was great--two masters working their craft effortlessly. But I thought the story was just okay. There were funny bits, but in the end it's just a standard French romantic comedy with "Jewish" as the twist. It could've been anything to create a "fish out of water" setup. I don't know, maybe I was just tired after two long days watching movies. I didn't even have time to eat anything but a bag of popcorn on Sunday.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 2

First, let me say that the frustration of last Thursday is all in the past, and I'm in full enjoying-the-festival mode.

First up on Saturday, a pair of movies by Israeli director David Ofek, starting with his old short movie, HOME. Set during the 1st gulf war, a family has moved from Iraq to Israel, and watches the war on TV. A fascinating question of what is "home." Is it the building with a sealed room (for Scud missile attacks from Iraq) where they currently live in Israel, or the building they see getting blown up on TV?

Then we saw Ofek's new feature, THE TALE OF NICOLAI & THE LAW OF RETURN. It's told as a fable--it actually starts with "Once upon a time"--about the immigrant laborer experience . The fable starts in Romania with factory worker Nicolai. Actually, it starts with the factory being shut down and Nicolai looking for work. He ends up taking a job as a construction worker in Israel. The Manpower company that hired him and contracts his work out took his passport and most of his paycheck. Basically, he's treated like a slave. That is, until the foreman compliments his floor planning work by saying "you have the brain of a Jew." Turns out, he has a Jewish grandmother--his mother's mother, in fact, making him legally Jewish. He knew nothing about the Law of Return, allowing any Jew to become an Israeli citizen. But this knowledge sets his wife back in Romania on a quest to find some documentary proof. Never before has a simple transcript with the words "Religion: Jewish" brought so much joy. The moral--it's much better to be Romanian with a Jewish grandma than a foreign worker. Later, as a citizen he starts his own renovation business and hires some Romanian workers. And he plasters David Ofek's walls, tells him his story, and Ofek makes this movie. Although it's a recreation, he cast all the real people to play themselves, which makes it almost a documentary. A documentary fable--a really unusual beast, that hides serious questions/critiques of Israel beneath a lighthearted tone.

Next up was apparently a controversial program that ignited calls for boycott of the festival, and I can't really say why. I've seen far more controversial films, both in other festivals and in previous years of SFJFF. Heck, if you're talking about criticizing official Israeli policy, I think the previous film THE TALE OF NICOLAI & THE LAW OF RETURN was more critical in it's attack on the treatment of foreign workers.

But I get ahead of myself. First there was a short, PRRRIDE. An experimental documentary about a drummer/soldier, and his first-person testimony told while he's drumming and with his head just off screen (we see his body drumming, but no head, making him in effect anonymous).

The feature was RACHEL. In March 2003 (days before the Iraq war knocked it out of the headlines), Rachel Corrie was killed by an IDF bulldozer. She was in Gaza with an organization called the International Solidarity Movement (a peace movement or terrorist sympathizers, depending on who you ask), and was there that day specifically to try to stop the bulldozers from destroying Palestinian homes (or terrorist bomb making or weapon smuggling operations, depending on who you ask). Eyewitness testimony from her ISM friends and the Palestinians claims her death was a deliberate, criminal act and she's a martyr (posters of her were plastered everywhere). An official Israeli investigation ruled it an accident, that she was crushed beneath dirt and rubble the bulldozer was pushing, but the crew couldn't see her and the bulldozer blade never touched her. Director Simone Bitton gets remarkable first hand accounts and crafts a cinematic essay that's about as dispassionate as it could possibly be with this incident. She interviews ISM members, her Palestinian host, the Palestinian doctor who first tried to save her. But she also interviews the Israeli side--the IDF spokeswoman, a military investigator, the doctor who did her autopsy (concluding she was suffocated, not crushed by a metal blade), even the bulldozer drivers (who wish they had never been there). She weaves these with passages from Rachel's diary, which are often touching, just as often incredibly naive in their idealism, and at times plain goofy (I didn't know anyone still danced to Pat Benatar songs in 2003).

Before the film, a counterpoint was made by a representative of the San Francisco Voice For Israel, and was sadly too often shouted down by the audience. It made me ashamed and angry to see so many Jews (or anyone) against free speech. And this doesn't mean I agreed with him. I've already said I don't think the film is that controversial and arguments against playing it are pretty weak. But I still wanted to hear what he had to say.

I remember a story I heard in college (possibly apocryphal) about a neo-Nazi group that was denied a permit to hold a rally. So they went to the ACLU for help fighting this in court, thinking if the ACLU wouldn't help, they could at least accuse them of hypocrisy. But he ACLU did help, and provided them with lawyers who won them the right to hold a rally. And then the ACLU revealed to the neo-Nazis that those lawyers who won their case for them were Jewish. This story makes me proud as an American, as a huge believer in free speech, as an ACLU member, and as a Jew.

Afterwards, Rachel's mother spoke and took a few questions, which was fascinating and moving.

I do have to agree with one woman afterward who said it would've been better if both sides had spoken afterward, instead of one first and one after. That is, I think it would've been more interesting (although the screening already had plenty of drama), not that he got of free by speaking first and leaving before hearing the other side.

And finally, to the woman up front who kept yelling "We have a right to criticize Israeli policy!" (as if official Israeli policy was "We must kill Rachel Corrie")--I agree with you. But just because you have the right to criticize a policy, it doesn't mean nobody has the right to defend it. With all that shouting down your enemy, you're worse than Fox News.

We stuck with Israel and drama one more movie, ZRUBAVEL (incidentally, my 300th feature-length movie program of the year). It's a beautiful slice of life of an Ethiopian Jewish family in Israel--an under-represented group. Made with all non-actors (the female lead, who was there for the screening, is a singer). Like most slice-of-life movies, it's hard to summarize a plot. There's a family. A youngest boy who wants to be filmmaker (the next Spike Lee). An older brother who (kinda) wants to be a fighter pilot, but really just gets into trouble a lot. There's a daughter sneaking off to the roof with her boyfriend Tupac, who's actually a distant relative which is okay with him but the family is a stickler for the 7 generations removed rule (not sure where the rule comes from). And there's a proud patriarch holding the family together while working as a street sweeper and learning Hebrew. There's also seemingly racist cops, a good mix of joy and tragedy, and some great music.

Then we finally got into lighter fare for the evening, starting with the Natalie Portman's directorial debut, the short film EVE. A young woman goes to visit her grandmother, who's a bit of a hard-drinking broad and has a hot date tonight. So the young woman ends up being a chaperone while desperately trying to talk about her mother (about what is never really clear, although hints are dropped that she's hooked on speed). It was great to see classic actors Lauren Bacall and Ben Gazzara stealing some scenes (as the grandmother and her date, of course).

And appropriately, EVE was paired with the feature film ADAM. This has a release from Fox Searchlight, and I've been seeing the trailers pretty regularly at the Landmark Theaters. I'm happy to say that the movie itself is not as cliche as the trailers make it seem. It's a movie that Nancy Fishman programmed as "Jewish because I said so"--the female lead's family is Jewish, but it's not really a plot or character point in the movie. It's about science (which gets my interest) and about love and the difficult process of trying to get out of your own head and make a connection with someone else, which I can certainly relate to even if I don't have Asperger's syndrome. Oh yeah, Adam is an astronomy fanatic with Asperger's. His father just died, and he has no one to take care of him. He has a job designing microchips for talking dolls, but is too much of a geek and makes chips with too many features (voice recognition that adapts the doll's speech to whoever talks to it). Beth moves into his apartment complex, and there's instantly some chemistry. He's taken with her, and she thinks he's sweet but weird. When he reveals and explains his condition, she becomes more patient, and eventually they do become a couple. Of course, his Asperger's makes things difficult, but the big wrench in the works is her father. He's an accountant who's going on trial for some fraud he might have committed to help out the daughter of an old family friend. Interesting contrast, while Adam can basically never lie, the father seems to always be lying. Anyway, this isn't really a romantic comedy, although the trailer might make you think so. It has it's comic moments, and it has it's romantic moments, but it's really about interesting characters and how they struggle. I'll say again, I liked this much more than I thought I would from the trailer.

And finally, we ended the night with some claymation twisted comedy, MARY AND MAX, by Academy Award winning animator Adam Elliot (HARVIE KRUMPET). Mary Daisy Dinkle (voice of Toni Collette) is a little girl in a small Australian town. She's teased a lot because of her brown birthmark on her forehead, her mom's an alcoholic, and her father works in a factory attaching strings to teabags and then stuffs roadkill birds when he gets home. She writes a letter at random to an American she finds in the phone book. That American is Max Jerry Horovitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman)--a loner New Yorker who was born Jewish (hence it fits into the festival) but is now an atheist. And, we find out eventually, has Asperger's, matching it well with the previous film. They remain pen pals, mailing different chocolate treats and letters back and forth, and alleviating their own loneliness, although Max has a panic attack with every letter he receives. As Mary grows up, goes to University, uses Max as her thesis project on Asperger's, and marries the greek gay-boy next door (voice of Eric Bana), Max has his own adventures. He spends some time in the loony bin, is acquitted of manslaughter when his AC unit falls and crushes a mime (he's ruled mentally deficient and incapable of having a motive for killing a mime--unlike everyone else), and wins the lottery (and spends his winnings on a lifetime supply of chocolate before giving the rest to his neighbor). Whether silly or tragic, Adam Elliot has a twisted sense of humor that teases the best laugh out of every situation. This is not a safe, gentle comedy, this is a comedy where jokes are made about people dying. Although I hesitate to call it "dark" comedy. There's a lightness to the touch, even when people die. I don't know how to put my finger on it. Maybe it's just Australian (Barry Humphries narrates, and probably has the most to do voice-wise with keeping the tone where it is). Anyway, I loved it.

And that's the end of the first full day of Jewfest North. Just in time for me to catch BART back up for today.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Jason watches CORKED

So right after THE KID BROTHER at the Cal, I rushed over to the Camera 3 (I'm still a little giddy that it's back open) to catch a screening of CORKED, a new mockumentary about Sonoma wine country made by people who work there.

The key to a good mockumentary is it should be believable enough that you could be fooled into believing it's real. And this movie gets it just right. It follows the guys behind 4 very different wineries. There's the big, elitist winery, led by Donald Smythe (co-director Ross Clenenden). Best line (paraphrased): "The wine business is full of underdogs trying to take down the big guy. And that's not what America is about. I think it's about quality--for the right kind of people." There's the exhausted one-man winery, based on John Hawley of Hawley Winery (and father of co-director Paul Hawley). There's the old, established winery that just got new management--a spoiled rich brat whose father bought the winery to force him to take responsibility. Of course he clashes with the professional winemakers ("We're not gonna make Burgandy because we're not in fucking France!" "Hey, we should make Sake!"). And maybe strangest of all are Scogar--Scott and Gary, who've never been to wine country and just buy wines in bulk and put their own label on it. They're marketers, and are currently working on a wine for the urban hip-hop community, "Shizzle Creek".

The acting is all pretty good. As I said, for about 90% of the movie I could fool myself into believing it was a real documentary. There's also some great supporting characters. There are tourists who wanted to stomp grapes and are disillusioned by the reality of winemaking (they do get to spend a day on the picking crew, though). Vineyard manager Dane "the Dane-meister" Philips pretty much steals every scene he's in just by being himself (I think they said he's Paul Hawley's uncle). And I should mention Sara Woo as Allie, the spoiled rich brat's model girlfriend (and a total bitch on screen, but very nice in person).

Oh yeah, Paul Hawley, Ross Clenenden, Sara Woo (Allie, the art director, and San Jose native/publicist), and a producer (I think it was Brian Hoffman, but I'm not sure) were there for a Q&A afterwards. And they were all cool.

Jason watches THE KID BROTHER

So the gorgeous California Theater in San Jose is doing a summer movie series, and tonight I was down there for Harold Lloyd's THE KID BROTHER. This was great, since I'll be at the Jewish film festival tomorrow night I won't get my normal weekly dose of silent film at Niles. Plus we had Dennis James rockin' the Mighty Wurlitzer (complete with the Harold Lloyd hat and glasses).

The program started with a Laurel and Hardy short, BIG BUSINESS. I had seen it previously at Niles, and it's still hilarious. Dennis had a slightly different version of the destroying-the-wrong-house behind the scenes story than the one I heard in Niles. I had heard the house they were supposed to destroy was occupied, but the owner was away for a while and was okay with them destroying it so long as they fixed everything up. Dennis had heard (from someone who worked on the crew) that it was a house that was scheduled for demolition anyway. Who cares, it's still hilarious. Oh, and I'll also add that I've seen enough silent film since I saw this last that I now recognize Jim Finlayson as the irate homeowner (last time I saw it, he was just "some guy" to me).

As for the feature, I'd also seen it before, last year at the Silent Film Festival. Also still hilarious, and seeing it again I could better appreciate the balance of comedy and pathos (as opposed to the pathos just being the setup for the comedy), and the well crafted characters throughout. This was Harold Lloyd's second to last silent film (he made a handful of talkies, at least one--MOVIE CRAZY--I've seen on the big screen), and his "glasses" character was very well established (and very popular) by then. Lloyd himself thought there wasn't enough action in the movie (I presume he means stunts like the famous dangling from the clock in SAFETY LAST), but it was well reviewed at the time and deservedly so still today.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Jason doesn't go to opening night of the SF Jewish Film Festival

So as I type this, the 29th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (which I used to just call "Jewfest" but now qualify with "Jewfest North" to distinguish it from the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival) is playing (probably just about finishing) it's opening night film, HEY HEY, IT'S ESTHER BLUEBURGER, and I'm not there. I was briefly. Here's how today went.

First, it was a madhouse at work. Won't bore you with the details, but I will say I got there shortly after 7 am and stayed until about 5:40 pm. The only relevant point there is that I got out of work way too late to make it to the kickoff party at 6:00 (I work in San Jose, with no traffic it's an hour to SF. During rush hour, no chance). But I raced home and catch the BART and Muni to the Castro theater about 25 minutes early for the film (7:35, film starts at 8:00). I had a opening night ticket and all-festival pass waiting for me at will call. The will call line is halfway down the block. Orders of magnitude longer than the ticket holder line (for all I know, most ticket holders already went in). No problem, I knew they wouldn't start the movie people still on line for will call. And opening night is assigned seating. Not great, since they won't give me front row center (although I did e-mail their support line a week ago...and got no answer). Still, I had to wait in the will call line for a half hour before getting served, and it was kinda cold (I think I'm finally losing my Alaskan blood) and starting to drizzle. Then the lady who served me thanked me for being patient. I know she meant well, but this is my new pet peeve--if I have no choice but to wait, don't thank my for being patience. Say, "Thank you for not having any fucking choice but to wait".

So as I said, opening night at SFJFF is assigned seating (I'm not sure why, but it sure doesn't prevent it from being a clusterfuck). Normally this pisses me off through the opening comments, while I lurk in my seat eying myalways empty front-row-center seat. As soon as the lights go off, I bolt right down there, sit, and enjoy the movie. Well, that doesn't work so well if they stick you in the balcony. And I know I ordered early enough that wasn't my assigned seat when I ordered. Because the will call line was so long and moved so slow, they opened up the day-of ticket sales counter to take some of the will call patrons. So (I assume) instead of getting the ticket originally assigned to me, I got the shitty balcony corner seat that would be assigned to someone who walked up and tried to buy a ticket 5 minutes after the movie started. I complained that I can't see from way back there. They said I could try to sell my ticket to someone in line, but of course there was no line of ticket buyers anymore, just a will call line (that was still nearly as long as when I got there). So I walked back to BART, crumpled my ticket up and threw it out on the way there, and returned home.

HEY HEY, IT'S ESTHER BLUEBURGER plays several more times in the festival, and I'll probably see it in Palo Alto a week from Tuesday. Still, I wish I hadn't wasted all that time getting up to the Castro and back for nothing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jason watches DØD SNØ

Or, in English, DEAD SNOW.

This Norwegian gorefest makes it very (even insultingly) clear in the opening scenes exactly what it's influences are. As a group of friends (all medical students, but other than justifying some first aid that doesn't really need justification, they could be any college-aged group out for a party) heads out to a remote cabin, they just happen to mention that A) there is no cell phone coverage up here, and B) discuss horror movies that start out just this way (although all their examples pre-date cell phones).

For the first half hour or so, it was in serious danger of boring me. It wasn't about to bring anything new to the genre, other than the one-line pitch for the movie--undead Nazis--and I knew that going in. But then through a relentless, go-anywhere-and-never-stop pace, it actually broke through and entertained me. By the end, it entertained the hell out of me. Maybe for no reason more than the joy of watching undead monsters in Nazi uniforms get chopped to bits, but that's reason enough for me.

I still think it could have used a better editing job--it tends to jump around pretty clumsily. And overall, it's formulaic, but it shows that the formula well executed can be a hell of a lot of fun.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for a night of doggy movies

I've been going to the Niles Film Museum for Saturday night silent movies for about a year now. Well, last Saturday I finally upped my involvement and spent the day volunteering there. For now, I just work in the gift shop from 12-4 (when I have the day free. So the next two weeks I'll be gone at the SF Jewish Film Festival). Soon I plan to work my way up to docent. First step--read David Kiehn's book on the history of the Essanay Film Company in Niles (you can follow the link to, but it's better to buy it at the Museum, where you can get David to sign it).

But, of course, I still go there to watch movies. And last weekend was the Niles dog show, and the Niles Film Museum celebrated with a night of doggy movies! Yay doggies!

TEDDY AT THE THROTTLE (1917): A Keystone comedy starring Gloria Swanson as Gloria Dawn. Her sweetheart Bobbie Knight stands to inherit quite a bit of money, and his scheming guardian has his eye on controlling/stealing his fortune. Oddly, the will has a clause that Bobbie must get married. And there's an addendum that complicates that marriage further. Ultimately, the villain actually ties Gloria to the railroad tracks. But Teddy the dog saves the day, stops the train, and catches the bad guy. If there's anything better than a dog, it's a hero dog!

DOG SHY (1926): Charley Chase stars as a man who's terribly afraid of dogs. Hiding in a phone booth, he accidentally takes a call from a lady in distress who's being forced to marry a nobleman she doesn't love. Charley, always the romantic (up until he's married) steps in to help, and stumbles into work as the family butler. There's a hilarious scene where he's ordered to give The Duke a bath (The Duke is the family dog's name...Charley doesn't know that). Then a bit of midnight hi-jinks, as everybody likes to use a howl as their signal. Hilarious.

By the way, Charley Chase is an excellent, hilarious, and often overlooked comedian. Sony owns the rights to all his work at Columbia Pictures. A while ago, they did some market research and determined that a box set of his comedy shorts wouldn't sell well enough. Please go here and sign this petition to convince them to change their mind (it doesn't obligate you to buy any DVD, it just expresses you might be interested).

Back to the movies.

FROM HAND TO MOUTH (1919): Harold Lloyd starving to death. He teams up with a homeless little girl and her dog to try to get a bite to eat. A wealthy heiress (Mildred Davis, who later became Lloyd's wife) notices their plight, and helps them out. Of course, she's in a bit of trouble herself, as if she doesn't sign her inheritance papers (another theme of the night) by midnight, she'll lose her inheritance. Snub Pollard plays the leader of a gang who kidnaps her (at the behest of a crooked lawyer) to insure just that happens. But Lloyd saves the day by inciting cops to chase him until the entire force converges on the hideout. And, like always, Lloyd gets the girl.

DOG HEAVEN (1927): An Our Gang short, it opens with Petey the pup putting his neck into a noose. Another dog stops him, and he tells his story. He was Joe's dog since he was a little baby. Joe grew to be a big, pudgy kid, but always loved Petey. That is, until The Girl got in the way. Now Joe doesn't want to play or go fishing, he just spends time with The Girl. Which would be fine, if it weren't for the fact that The Girl hates Petey. At first she says Petey scares her little kitty-cat. Later, a different dog pushes The Girl off a bridge into a lake. Petey saves her, and Joe arrives just as he's dragging her out. She wakes to think that Joe saved her and that Petey was the pusher. So Joe sends him away, saying he's a bad, bad dog. The other dog (the one that Petey's telling his story to) agrees that that's pretty terrible, and offers to help him with the rope. The end.


Not! Actually, Joe learns the truth and arrives just in time to save Petey and they become friends for ever and ever. Really the end.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Jason watches BRÜNO

And it's funny, at times very funny. And at times shocking. At least, for a wide release "mainstream" movies it pushes the limits of taste far beyond anything that came before.

A lot of the gay-panic shock scenes are actually the least interesting scenes in the movie. So he has an exercise bike rigged to a dildo. So he pours champagne out of his pygmy lover's ass. Yeah, it's shocking, but there's nothing else than shock, and so it was sort of ho-hum (except for the reactions in the theater, those were pretty funny).

When he has ordinary people react to him, that's when it's the funniest, and it works much better as a mockery of celebrity obsession than as gay panic. His attempted seduction of Ron Paul is more painful than funny (the only joke is Brüno thought he was Ru Paul), but the reason behind it--he thought a sex tape would make him famous--is hilarious. Same for his attempt at bringing peace to the Mideast (although he does get representatives of both sides to at least touch hands, in an oddly beautiful scene). His attempts to become straight (motivated by the realization that all the biggest stars like Tom Cruise and Kevin Spacey are straight) is pretty funny, and give him some of the best opportunities to play with homophobic reactions (although again, the reactions are usually funnier than his stunts). There is an excellent climactic scene which I won't spoil other than to say he whips a crowd into an anti-gay frenzy. But then he caps the movie with a celebrity send-up charity video "Brüno, Dove of Peace", reminding us once again that the celebrity satire parts are funnier than the gay panic. Snoop Dogg says it best ending the video with "Hey, Hey/ He's gay, He's gay /[shrug] Okay"

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jason finishes the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

All right, it was another lovely day in the Castro. And a light day, just 5 movies.

First up was a presentation of OSWALD THE LUCKY RABBIT cartoons. This was Walt Disney's character before he started his eponymous company and created that mouse character. At the time the films were distributed by Universal Pictures, who held on to the rights and distributed the original silent films with new sound as well as producing new cartoons. But what we saw Sunday morning were the original silent cartoons produced by Disney and drawn by Ub Iwerks, introduced by Ub's granddaughter Leslie Iwerks (who is also a documentary filmmaker who made THE HAND BEHIND THE MOUSE: THE UB IWERKS

A lot of gags were re-used throughout the films, and really it doesn't make a lot of sense to recap the plots, since a lot of it is just free-wheeling, not-quite narrative logic fun. So I'll just list the films (from the program guide)

ALL WET (1927)

Donald Sosin accompanied the films on Piano, with his wife singing, his son doing vocal sound effects, and the audience joining in as instructed. For example, for ALL WET, we'd make ocean noises, for TROLLEY TROUBLE we'd be a clanging trolley bell, for OH TEACHER we'd be a school bell, etc. Lots of fun, and a good pick me up to start a long day of film.

For the next show, we started with a short that took us all the way back to 1900, THE BARBER'S QUEER CUSTOMER. A man sits in a barber shop chair, but before the barber can shave him, he turns into a monkey. And every time the barber turns around, he changes to a different face.

Then the feature was a Czech classic, EROTIKON. (I's not quite what you think, but it is pretty darn frank). George (Olaf Fjord) has a train to catch, but the rain slows him down, so he spends the night at a local house (once the master of the house sees his fine brandy, he's a welcome guest). That leads to an encounter with the man's daughter, Andrea (Ita Rina). But the next day he's on his train, and although she never forgets him (thanks no doubt the the baby growing inside her), he's soon on his way to other conquests. These lead to no end of complications. Well, Andrea tracks him down to Prague, but their baby (really hers, since he knows nothing about it) is stillborn. Meanwhile he's in all sorts of romantic troubles, dallying about with married women. The plot gets pretty convoluted, but needless to say it does not end well for him (or anyone, but most importantly for him). Of course, the love scenes are nowhere near as explicit as modern film, but it more than makes up with it in evocative sensuality (a simple closeup of a raindrop on a windowpane is actually very impressive).

The Mont Alto Orchestra once again provided the music, and I can just repeat what Dennis James said--they were perfection!

Next up was the Director's Choice, where the festival invites a famous director to choose a silent film to play in the festival. The director this year was Terry Zwigoff (GHOST WORLD, BAD SANTA), and he chose a W. C. Fields classic (interesting to see Fields without hearing that famous voice. Other than in my head, that is).

But first a short, THEIR FIRST DIVORCE CASE, which I had seen at the Broncho Billy Film Festival last year. Directed by Mack Sennet, it's a funny little comedy about private eyes hired by a wife to follow a cheating husband. They get the goods--too bad the husband and wife had patched things up and she was the girl they "caught" him with.

The feature was SO'S YOUR OLD MAN, and showcases classic Fields as a good natured, rough-edged drunk. Although he's also a genius glazier, who has invented an unbreakable glass windshield which will make him a fortune. But for now, he's a rough-edged drunk, much to the chagrin of his wife, who comes from a high class family but now has no social life between the laundry and the stove. However, that might all change since the son of the classiest family in town has his eye on their daughter. But then Fields meets the snooty, stuck up mother, and of course that destroys any chance. In the meantime, Fields goes to Washington for a meeting of auto makers to show off his windshield. The windshield really is unbreakable, but his car is towed and he accidentally smashes the windshields of a couple other cars, both destroying his deal and leaving him running for his life. On the train home, he contemplates (and comes close to attempting) suicide. Finally thinking the better, he meets a bored woman and talks to her (seeing a bottle of iodine labelled "poison", he thinks she had the same idea). Turns out, she's the princess of Spain, and is sad because she's bored and feels useless. Turns out helping Fields is just the pick-me-up she needs. To bad their close talking is witnessed by busybody ladies from his town, so by the time he gets home his 'philandering' is the talk of town. But when the princess shows up to visit him, suddenly the snobs who would cross the street if they saw him coming all want to be his best friend. Hilarious, ending with some fantastic physical hi-jinks on a golf course (with a caddy who really doesn't like him).

The film was accompanied by the always excellent Dr. Phil Carli on piano.

Next up was THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. The original preceding short was supposed to be GETTING EVEN (1909, D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford), but the print that arrived was 16 mm, and the Castro does not play 16 mm. So pianist Stephen Horne had a bright idea, play the abstract surrealist short THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1928 by James Sibley Watson). Of course, no time to get a film print, but it's on the DVD set Treasures from American Film Archives. Ummm...I couldn't tell you what happened, it's far too abstract. But it was beautiful.

Oddly the feature THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, was made the same year by Jean Epstein in France, and is considered a classic of surrealist cinema (Luis Buñuel was assistant director until Epstein fired him...let's say for "creative differences"...and told him to stay the hell away from surrealism). Odd that this one was made by the famous surrealists, because it was far more straightforward than the American short version. It takes quite a few liberties with Poe's story (Madeline Usher is Roderick's wife, not his sister, and they both actually survive the fire and collapse of the house), but it keeps a creepy, dreamlike (that's surrealism for you) look, feel, pace, and logic throughout.

Stephen Horne (now an unofficial assistant festival programmer) accompanied again on the piano.

And finally we came to the last show of the festival (12 movies crammed into one dense weekend).

First the short, THE LESSER EVIL. Again, a Griffith Biograph short, and like so much cinema of any era, it showcases a girl and a chase. The girl is Blanch Sweet. The chase comes because she's kidnapped by smugglers when she accidentally overhears their plan. Her boyfriend and the police are chasing them, but on the boat the crew is eager to have a little fun with her. But the captain will have none of it (making him, I suppose, the titular lesser evil). Interesting that while her boyfriend and the police finally catch up and arrest the smugglers, it's the captain who fended them off and really saved her. In thanks, she keeps him hidden and lets him escape (presumably totally reformed, never to break the law again).

And the final feature, LADY OF THE PAVEMENTS, brought us back to the leading lady of the opening film, the Mexican spitfire Lupe Velez, this time teaming with director D. W. Griffith. It also brought us to 1929, the year when all studios were transitioning to sound. Griffith shot this as a silent, but then had to go back and shoot a little dialogue and record some songs to make it a "partial-talkie". About half the songs are lost, but one--Irving Berlin's "Where is the Song of Songs For Me?"--is well known (and was sung by Lupe Velez herself for the soundtrack). Problems with the sound recordings made this film a flop on the initial release, and caused UA chief Joseph Schenck to issue ultimatums about the technology for sound recordings in the future. The version we got thankfully had no recording glitches, because all the sounds were live, provided by Donald Sosin on the piano with Joanna Seaton singing the few of the songs that are known (including, of course "Where is the Song of Songs For Me?")

The story is about Karl (William Boyd), a German diplomat in Paris, who is engaged to the height of Paris social circles, Countess Diane des Granges (Jetta Goudal). When he catches her cheating on him, he'll have none of it, even if she's cheating on him with the Emperor of France himself (which she is). He calls off the wedding and insists he'd rather marry a girl from the streets than her. So she arranges just that, hiring cabaret singer Nanon del Rayon (Lupe Velez) to pose as an aristocratic lady and make Karl fall in love with her to teach him a lesson. Her plan works perfectly--too perfectly, as both Karl and Nanon fall for each other (in no small part due to the song she sings). Diane lets it go way too far before she reveals her trick in the cruelest manner possible. But, to no one's surprise, love conquers all. The final scene, where she's singing "Where is the Song of Songs For Me?" and all the bar customers are turning into Karl is really quite beautiful.

And that's the way SF2F ended. it was just one weekend, but still a really exhausting, intense festival. On the one hand, I'd love it to get so huge that it plays a full week or more. On the other hand, I don't think I could survive that.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Jason goes to the Silent Film Festival--Day 2

Saturday was a grueling marathon day in which I entered the Castro Theater about 9:30 am and didn't step outside once until after midnight.

The marathon started with a program of "Tales From The Archives". Fascinating pieces of film restoration, starting with Anne Smatla, the winner of last year's post-doctoral restoration grant. She restored SCREEN SNAPSHOTS #7, one of many "behind the scenes" shorts that mixed skits with an inside look at the studio. This one starred Lloyd Hamilton in blackface(!) being treated as a stranger on set until he washes it off and is once again a recognizable star (yikes!)

Joe Lindner and Heather Olson of the Academy Film Archive (mostly Heather) presented the rest of the restorations. The second restoration was Thanhouser's THE ACTORS CHILDREN, a nearly complete "fragment film" with a few frames too badly decomposed to see (although the scenes in general are intact) and the end missing (although the story is pretty close to resolved). An acting family struggles to make rent, and in fact while mom and dad are looking for work they're evicted and the kids are thrown on the street. But the kids are natural dancing hams and
are taken in by an organ grinder. When they prove successful, they're stolen again by the local theater and put on stage. Meanwhile, mom and dad are fantically searching for them, when he gets a telegram that a wealthy relative died and left him $1 million. Eventually they find their kids on stage, take them back and...the ending is missing.

Then we were treated to a Trailer of POLLY OF THE FOLLIES, a film that is otherwise completely lost. Constance Talmadge in her "best, longest, and DOUBLE role" as both a Ziegfeld engenue and as Cleopatra (there's some time travel involved, at least in the imagination).

Then we got into even smaller fragments, as only a few isolated frames were left of the trailer to Coleen Moore's (star of last year's restoration showcase HER WILD OAT) HAPPINESS AHEAD. Not much to say...just a few frames of Moore.

There was another one...that slips my mind right now. Dangit, again it was just a few frames from a trailer to a lost film.

And finally, we reversed the trend with a fully intact Edison short (but one that was completely unknown) HOW THE HUNGRY MAN WAS FED. A poor, starving man begs for coins, but keeps begging the same people. They switch hats and coats and keep giving him coins until know he has plenty of money for food. So they take him to a fine restaurant and fill his belly, then force him to pay up.

Stephen Horne provide piano accompaniment for the whole program.

Then there wasn't much time to turn the theater over to the next show. First up was a short THEY WOULD ELOPE from the American Biograph company (you can see their logo on set as a copyright protection), directed by D. W. Griffith and starring America's sweetheart Mary Pickford. A young couple in love, but her dad ostensibly doesn't approve. So they decide to run off, and she leaves her parent's a note. Turns out running off doesn't quite work, as they have a variety of transportation troubles, culminating in a capsized canoe. Meanwhile, turns out mom and dad are thrilled their little daughter is getting married, and plan a giant party. They return completely dishevelled after their elopement failure, and are surprised to see a wedding party waiting for them.

And then the feature, another restoration project, BARDELYS THE MAGNIFICENT starring John Gilbert (whose daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandson were in the audience) and directed by King Vidor (their final collaboration). Long thought lost, a print was found and restored by David Shepard last year. It was missing one reel which is filled in with stills and intertitles. The print was found in France and the French intertitles apparently were much different from the original English, which was still available from the MGM archives. Funds have not yet been raised to strike a new 35 mm print, so this restoration was shown on video (BetaSP I think David said, but I could be wrong). Anyway, it still looked great.

John Gilbert plays the titular Bardelys, the greatest lover in all French aristocracy. Such a great lover that his prowess stirs the envy of Count Chatellerault (Roy D'arcy). He has just failed to seduce Lady Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman), who doesn't spend much time in the royal court, and so isn't much of a liar. When Bardelys mocks Chatellerault's failure at a party, they get into a fight that ends with a bet. If Bardelys cannot get Lady de Lavedan to marry him, Catellerault will get Bardelys's entire estate. It's an outrageous tale that of course involves double-crosses. Bardelys makes it to Lavedan's estate, but is badly injured. Hiding out as the leader of the anti-royal renegades (lucky, since the Lavedans are sympathetic), his "recovery" takes a long time so he can spend more time with Roxalanne. Seduction achieved--almost. Turns out the real rebel leader has a fiancee who writes to him. Roxalanne betrays him to the Royal authorities, where despite his pleas of mistaken identity he's sentenced to death. Carrying out the sentence--Count Chatellerault (Boo! Hiss!) But with a bit of Fairbanksian acrobatics, Bardelys stalls until the king arrives and recognizes him. Chatellarault gets his comeuppance, and Bardelys and Lavedan are married (oh yeah, he had actually fallen in love with her).

The costumes were outrageously foppish, the dialogue was hilariously bawdy (you fight so hard, I'd swear you were fighting for someone else's wife!), and all in all it's a delightfully silly adventure.

Music was again provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, who were again awesome.

Next up we went to China for WILD ROSE. But first, there was a special first ever SFSFF "Living Legends" award presentation to Qin Yi, the widow of star Jin Yan, and a famous actress in her own right. She spoke briefly about Jin Yan, his charm, and his perfectionism.

As for the movie, it's a beautiful romance and a great look at pre-WWII China. Particularly, Shanghai--the cosmopolitan city of wealthy businessmen from around the world, and the poor people of the countryside just out of town. One of those country girls is the young, beautiful, and vivacious Xiao Feng, nicknamed the titular Wild Rose (playced by Wang Renmei, nicknamed the "Wildcat"). In the opening shot her adoring father is looking for her while she's sneaking around outside to surprise him. She plays general to all the kids in town, leading them as they pretend to march in the army defending China (and the "Do you love China?/I love mommy!" is adorable in any language). Xiao Feng catches the eye of a handsome artist from Shanghai (Jin Yan, who married Renmei after filming, so there's some real chemistry on screen). When her father runs off, (presumed dead, after fighting with a local bar owner who wanted to marry her) she moves to the city with her artist boyfriend. But her country ways displease his father, and when she can't pass for a cultured city lady, his father (and the source of all his wealth) tells him to either get rid of her or leave. He chooses the latter, and for a summer they live the bohemian lifestyle with another friend of his (a failed artist who now paints billboards). The summer is great, but the winter is impossible. In a moment of weakness she steals a dropped wallet. He takes the rap, and she goes to his father to plead for him to help his son. He insists he has no son, until she agrees to go away and never see him again. Only in a romance like this could a war (the Japanese invasion) be a good thing, as he remembers how she lead the child troops back in her village. Assuming she'd enlist for the love of China, he leaps from his father's comfortable house to join the marching volunteers, and finds her immediately. The ending is very abrupt, perhaps the only weakness in this otherwise beautiful film.

This show featured piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

The next show started with another Biograph short by D. W. Griffith, THE VOICE OF THE VIOLIN. A weird story of a music teacher spurned by his lovely student Helen. In despair, he joins an anarchist group and draws the short straw for the mission to bomb the capitalist's house. But when he finds out it's Helen's house, he has a change of heart and now has to stop the bomb.

And that brought us into the world of noir (or least one of the earliest gangster films), with the feature UNDERWORLD (introduced by Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir, and host of the excellent Noir City Film Festival in January). Written by Ben Hecht, the Chicago newspaperman who became the greatest noir writer (or writer, period) in Hollywood history. He went on to write SCARFACE, but he won his first Academy Award and the first Academy Award ever for screenwriting for UNDERWORLD. The film was directed by Josef Von Sternberg (THE BLUE ANGEL), and while his visual style was excellent his sentemantility pissed Hecht off so much he insisted his name be removed from the finished film (remember, Hecht went on to win the first screenwriting Oscar ever for a film he wanted to disown, that's how freakin' hard-boiled he was).

It's the Chicago gangster story of Bull Weed, king of the underworld. As the movie opens, he's robbing a bank and is witnessed by a down on-his-luck drunk bum, who insists he's a "Rolls Royce" at keeping quiet. With that line, he earns Bull's friendship and his nickname. Later at the bar Bull lords over the other gangsters, especially rankling
Buck Mulligan. Yup, Bull's got the brains (especially with the help of Rolls Royce, who turns out to be a very well-read lawyer) and the brawn to rule the underworld, but like all good gangsters his weakness is his dame. In this case, Feathers, his gal with a penchant for feather boas. For a time it looks like Feathers might be getting a bit too friendly with Rolls, but the bigger problem is the big underworld party where all the rival gangs call a truce for the night. Specifically, the problem is Buck, who tries to force himself on Feathers. In a drunken rage Bull chases Buck all the way to his flower shop Yup, Buck's cover business is a flower shop, where in the back he's planning an arrangement to put on Bull's grave. But Bull guns him down right there in his shop, and even the king of the underworld can't escape the law on something like that. Stewing in prison (BTW, up to this point, every feature included a jail scene. The theme didn't last), Bull is sure Feathers and Rolls are cheating on him and will leave him to hang while they run off together. In reality, they're plotting to bust him out, but their plot is foiled while Bull breaks out on his own. It all leads to a climactic shootout that rivals anything in modern film, and Bull learns his obligatory lesson. Awesome.

Stephen Horne (the indefatigable) returned to do the piano accompaniment.

Once again the next show opened with a Griffith Biograph short, this time THE TRICK THAT FAILED. Mary Pickford is Nellie, a struggling artist who refuses to marry until she proves she's a success. Her wealthy, handsome suitor Billy hatches a plan to pay his servants to go buy up all her paintings. At first she's thrilled and will marry him, until the trick is discovered and she's so offended that she instead accepts the proposal of his rival (a goofy looking, bald man. Ooh, burn on Billy! BTW, an excellent message that even the ugliest man can land Mary Pickford. I'm sure that helped her popularity)

The feature was a Lillian Gish drama, THE WIND. This was Gish's last silent film, and the last film in Hollywood for Swedish director Victor Sjöström. When it was released (in 1928), it was critically mixed and a commercial flop, and ended Gish's relationship with MGM. However, she got the last laugh when it was added to the National Film Registry in 1993. Gish always talked about how this was her hardest film to make, and well in to her 80's and 90's (she lived to be just short of 100) she was touring with this film and others. In those tours the accompaniast was the acclaimed organist Dennis James. For the performance last Saturday, the accompaniast was also acclaimed organist Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer, plus sound effects artists on two wind machines (plus a few other effects, like a cap gun that did a great job of making the audience jump). By the way, Dennis performed for two films of the festival, but was in the audience watching the other 10 (for at least a few, in the row right behind me). He's a fan, he's very personable, and told some funny stories about Lillian Gish (like how she advised him never to get married). He's not just a great musician and silent film accompaniast, he's officially a cool guy.

Now (finally) to the film. Gish plays Letty, a girl from Virginia who's moving out to Texas to live on her cousin's ranch. While still on the train, the fierce winds appear as a character as much as a force of nature. When she arrives, as the beautiful new lady in town she attracts the attention of all the neighbors. That's not so bad. The bad thing is she attracts the wrath of her cousin's wife, Cora. She's not just jealous of the attention her children pay to Letty, she's jealous of the attention her husband pays to her (um...nothing happens. And gross, they're cousins!) She's kicked out of the house with no place to live and the relentless wind driving her madder and madder every minute. She agrees to marriage, but it's a loveless marriage of convenience. At least, it's loveless on her end, he loves her but she's disgusted by him. In a way, her home becomes a prison with the wind as the ever watchful guard (there, I kept the prison theme going one more movie!) Well, there's a climax with yet another suitor who just can't give her up no matter how married she is, and finally she learns to love the wind (after all, any force of nature that will bury a body is a friend of mine).

The version of THE WIND we saw had a happy ending, but an original ending--with Letty going mad and walking off into the wind--is rumored to exist (and there are also rumors that the original "going crazy and walking off into the desert ending is just a rumor and never existed).

And finally, this incredible marathon day (15+ hours without even leaving the theater) came to an end in Russia (and worlds beyond) with AELITA, QUEEN OF MARS. A Soviet scientist intercepts a mysterious radio message, and sets to work decoding it. He quickly discovers it's not from earth, but from Mars, and his mind goes wild searching for answers. Meanwhile, on Mars queen Aelita rules over the totalitarian society/cubist wet dream. Although she's on the throne, a council of elders really rules the society. She watches earth as much as she can, but the council locks her out of the observatory. Meanwhile, they've decided to cut costs they'll keep half of their slave laborers in the refrigerator for later.

So far I've described mostly what's happening on Mars, but actually most of the movie takes place in Moscow. That's because the Mars scenes were awesome, and the Moscow scenes bored and confused me (hey it was late, I hadn't left the theater for 15 hours at this point). There's an affair (I think), some crime trouble...I don't know, eventually the scientist builds his rocket and he and a couple other men travel to Mars, meet queen Aelita, and provoke a Bolshevik Revolution. Damn straight, they turn it into the Soviet Socialist Republic of Mars!

Dennis James was back on the Mighty Wurlitzer (for the Moscow scenes) and a Theremin (for the Mars Scenes), and Mark Goldstein was on Buchla Lightning sticks.

Awesome, and as I drove home, I end the night with this image and thought:

Does Queen Aelita have 3 boobs?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Jason goes to the Silent Film Festival--opening night.

The 14th San Francisco Silent Film Festival (or (SF)2 Fest) started Friday night, and we jumped right into the action with a gorgeous restored print of Douglas Fairbanks in THE GAUCHO. Although one part that hasn't been completely restored is the two color (red and green)Technicolor scene of Mary Pickford as the Virgin Mary. It was in black and white in the film, but we were treated to a 6 minute reel of two color Technicolor outtakes of the scene. Mary Pickford standing tall looking divine with a rotating ring of pliable metal stick blasted by a floodlight creating a holy aura around her (not, as an early critic surmised, a penny sparkler behind her head).

Anyway, on to the movie, which takes place in the city of the Miracle. It is so named because when a young shepherd girl fell from a cliff rather than dying she saw a vision of the Madonna (Pickford) and was unharmed. Moreover, her prayers could heal the sick. They built a shrine, and then a city around it where pilgrims would come to donate their gold and pray (and, of course, be healed). However, as the shrines coffers (used to aid the poor) grew, a usurper named Ruiz seized control, demanding that every transaction be done through his agents.

Enter the Gaucho, a dashing Douglas Fairbanks who showcases his athleticism just as much as his skill lighting a cigarette (there's not a move he makes that doesn't flash somehow). He's an outlaw, but an incredibly popular one. When he rides into a mountain town with his gang, he ends up disarming the local authority, getting a round for everyone at the bar, and signing his own wanted poster. He also gets a new girlfriend, his ardent admirer played by the spitfire Lupe Velez. When she isn't fast enough finishing dinner, he hitches his men's horses to the floorboards and drags half the bar with him, creating (I suppose) the world's first mobile home.

Back to the city of the Miracle. Ruiz's troops are in control, but with a little daring-do, The Gaucho changes that and seizes power. Although he's an outlaw, he doesn't tolerate one of his men attacking the priest of the Shrine. It's not about religion, he's just against beating up an old man. But he's intrigued by the padre's decision to forgive his attacker, so he insists the padre attend a feast he's throwing that night.

Anyway, I don't want to recap the whole plot. There's some double-crossing, some black doom (a slow, lingering death), and a showdown with Ruiz. The Gaucho decides to follow the padre's holy book, and I decide I want to be Douglas Fairbanks when I grow up.

The Gaucho is a distinctly darker story than most of Fairbanks' other swashbucklers (although Fairbanks keeps it pretty light, clowning through the movie with ease and grace up until the Black Doom gets him), and Lupe Velez, the Mexican Spitfire, is a more spirited heroine than just about any other actress (no damsel in distress, here). All this makes for a film that is definitely still enjoyable for modern audiences (you could even argue it works better now than it did when it was released--to more or less mixed reviews).

The film was accompanied live by a brand new score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and afterwards they (and the film) got a standing ovation. Awesome opening, can't wait for the rest of the festival.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Jason goes to Thrillville and sees SUGAR BOXX and ISLE OF THE DAMNED

So Thrillville was an institution at the Parkway (R.I.P. No, wait, rise from the dead and live to the end of time) and Will "The Thrill" Viharo and his wife Monica the Tiki Goddess would play crappy movies from the 50's, 60's, and 70's (okay, and sometimes the 40's and 80's). But last Thursday night in San Jose (conflicting with music in the park, making parking a fucking mess) they played new crappy grindhouse movies. In fact, it was a pair of world premieres.

First up was a Women In Prison (WIP) flick, SUGAR BOXX. A TV reporter gets a letter from an old friend who says her niece is in trouble in the Sugar State Correctional Facility, so she decides to go undercover. Almost all the inmates are there for prostitution and drugs, and almost all from Tallahassee (oh yeah, it takes place in Florida). So she dresses up like a whore, and drives there. She doesn't even get to town before the corrupt sheriff pulls her over, plants drugs in her trunk, and gets sent up for 15 years (with the help of a judge played by Jack Hill). Sugar State is supposedly not an easy place to survive, despite apparently not having an actual prison facility (she has the choice between either a camp or essentially a whorehouse). Yeah, the lusty warden is a corrupt, thieving lesbo. And so, apparently, are most of the inmates. Well, she survives, the plot progresses kind of predictably (i.e., there are lots of excuses for tits to come out on screen). This was not actually all that bad. It was cheap, sleazy, and I still can't quite get used to seeing a 70's style grindhouse flick shot on (rather poor) digital video. But at least it was a fairly faithful homage.

The second film I started out wanting to like much more. ISLE OF THE DAMNED is a "newly discovered" 80's Italian cannibal flick. And when it opened with text explaining how the director Antonello Giallo fled the country rather than produce proof that the actors were actually alive, and then it launched into the cheesy synthesizer score, I was all on board. The opening credits had me hooked, and then they started talking and quickly went full retard (you never go full retard). Okay, I'm fine with the bad dubbing, that's part of the genre, but don't dub such ridiculous voices. Likewise no need for the ridiculous fake mustaches or the semi-retarded kid. This is a perfect example of where less could be much, much more. The plot involves explorers--a greedy treasure hunter, his guide, and his (the guide's) troubled adopted son searching for the treasure of Marco Polo. There's only one island they haven't searched, and the guide refuses to go because it's inhabited by cannibals. But the greedy bastard forces them to go anyway, and havoc ensues. They meet one daughter who survived her father being eaten (and de-phallused) in front of her, and an eccentric aristocrat with a yakuza assassin sidekick who rescues them. The aristocrat is always talking about how "civilized" man is the real savage (another Italian cannibal flick cliche). More havoc ensues, lots of death, lots of ass-rape, and lots of tedium. I was just left with profound disappointment that the filmmakers obviously had the technical skill to make a good homage/tribute (some of the gore special effects were spot on), but instead chose to go too far in the campy/parody vein. And they decided to parody Italian cannibal movies without actually putting in any jokes. Hell, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST was funnier than this (and I claim intentionally so). I'm left wishing someone would make a new Italian cannibal flick for real, instead of this half-assed crap.

Jason watches COMING APART

The Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley has just started up a series of Eccentric Cinema: Overlooked Oddities and Ecstasies,1963–82. It started up Wednesday night with Milton Moses Ginsburg's COMING APART, starring Rip Torn.

Rip Torn (excellent in his first starring role) plays Joe Glazer, a psychiatrist with issues. He has set up a video camera inside behind a one-way mirror in a "kinetic art" piece, so he can voyeuristically film himself and the parade of people in his apartment. The movie is all stuff he filmed with this hidden camera, mostly from his coffee table (only a few times does he pick up the camera and change views to see out the window or to the side), complete with the pops and breaks of film. And what the film captures is a parade of perversion, degradation, humiliation, misogyny, and (maybe/barely) repressed homosexuality. Nobody comes off looking good in this movie (least of all Torn), and that can make it hard to enter its world--there's simply no one to sympathize with. And at times, it can make the parade range from tedious to unbearable (although there are moments, the party scene among them, where it reaches a height of lunacy that becomes psychological slapstick).

In the end, I found the framing the most interesting about it. Nearly always the camera is on the coffee table, facing the couch. Behind the couch is a full-wall mirror. So someone (usually Torn) will be sitting on the couch, in the foreground. The woman of the moment will usually be behind the camera, and all we see is her reflection in the mirror. This creates a disorienting, fractured space where the woman looks to be standing behind the couch, and Torn never turns around to face here. I'd have to watch again to make sure, but I don't think there was a connected eyeline in the entire movie (if there was, I'm convinced it was unintentional). It also means that in the cataclysmic ending scene (warning, spoilers) when an angry female ex-patient trashes the apartment and smashes the mirror, she literally smashes the entire (on-screen) world. Interestingly, Rip Torn is not even present for that scene, perhaps the only time the camera operates without him. And typing that, I just realized that means she found the camera, turned it on, and that's why she's trashing the place. I'm an idiot for not catching that sooner.

Okay, that's all I can say. I can't say I really "enjoyed" the film, but I can say it's hard to get it out of my head.

Jason watches FOOD INC.

And yeah, as advertised, it puts me off highly processed foods. Although most of the revelations I already knew from reading Eric Schlosser's excellent Fast Food Nation (Schlosser is a co-producer and appears as a font of information for much of the film). Reading his book I already knew about the unsafe, unsanitary, factory "disassembly" line process for slaughtering meat and creating uniform (uniformly bad) food. And I knew how it has led to injury and death of workers and customers (there's an interesting line in the movie that asks if the companies have so little regard for the animals they raise, what makes you think they'll care about their workers or customers. A bit over-the-top, but interesting).

One new bit (or at least a bit I had forgotten if I ever knew it) was about the patenting of life. Monsanto Corp. won a case in the Supreme Court (majority opinion written by former Monsanto attorney Clarence Thomas) that it can patent a gene as intellectual property. For generations, farmers worked by saving the best seeds from previous years and planting them next year. This ruling rendered seed saving illegal--at least if you're using Monsanto seeds. Now here's the kicker. If you don't plant Monsanto seeds, but your neighbors do, and their seeds blow over onto your property, you've got Monsanto seeds in your fields. If you save your seeds, and don't (because you can't) filter out any Monsanto patented genes, you're breaking the law, and Monsanto will come after you. If you clean seeds for farmers who don't plant Monsanto (again, a practice for generations), you can be sued for promoting a technology that encourages law-breaking. This absolutely shocked me.

But overall, I found this more fearmongering than informative. It ends on a hopeful note, that consumers have more power than we think--Wal-Mart has a large organic section, and milk with growth hormone is almost non-existent. But it's remarkably short on specific actions you can take to affect the system and/or at least eat healthier yourself. When you say "read the labels", why don't you tell me what to look for (is all the information you want even on the label)? The movie is clearly pro-organic, but how big of a difference is there between the organic section in your supermarket vs. a farmer's market (for example)? And then there's my biggest question. In Fast Food Nation, In-n-Out was singled out as a rare example of a good fast food company. They use fresher ingredients, treat their employees better (higher wages and benefits), etc. Are they still one of the "good guys"? What I really want to know, would this movie regard me as part of the problem if I continued eating there (occasionally). Because if loving In-n-Out is wrong, I don't want to be right!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for some 4th of July Fireworks

Metaphorically, on the screen. They didn't shoot of any actual fireworks in the theater. That might've been cool, but seeing as how the old Niles theater burnt to the ground, it also might've been very uncool.

Anyway, I spent my country's birthday eating popcorn, drinking Coca-Cola, and watching some movies, because that's America to me.

DON'T SHOVE: Harold Lloyd, early in developing his "glasses" character, goes after the girl and against his rival. This is one of his "go-getter" comedies, and when some treachery gets him kicked out of his girl's birthday party, he ends up on the run from a cop and finally in a skating rink, where most of the slapstick takes place. Turns out, after the birthday party the girl and all the guests decided to go skating. As always for Lloyd, he gets the girl at the end.

LIBERTY: The Boys, Laurel and Hardy, are great proponents of liberty. You would be too, if you'd just busted out of prison. First things first--they have to change out of their prison uniforms and into street clothes. Problem, the accidentally switch pants (so Stan can't keep Ollie's giant pants up, and Ollie barely fits into Stan's), which leads to a lot of comedy based on them trying to disrobe and trade pants in public. Eventually the action takes them onto a skyscraper under construction. A common element of comedies of the time, and as someone with a slight fear of heights, these always get me.

And then an intermission, and the feature presentation:

DOWN TO EARTH: Before his swashbuckling days, Douglas Fairbanks made his name as a leading man in comedies, particularly "social" comedies. In this case, he takes on hypochondria. He's an active, manly, guy. As the film opens, he (as Billy Gaynor) is making the winning play in a football game. Ethel Forsythe (Eileen Percy), a friend from childhood, is in the stands watching and cheering for him. Afterwards, before he sets out to make his fortune, he asks for her hand in marriage. But she refuses, insisting that they have nothing in common. He likes adventure, and she likes partying in the upper crust of society, and she has a beau who can give her that, Charles Riddles (Charles K. Gerrard). So Gaynor goes off in search of adventure--climbing mountains, exploring jungles, etc., trying to forget, while she stays home and "forgets to try". When he gets news (out on his ranch) that she's suffered a nervous breakdown from partying too much, he goes to visit her in the sanitarium. He finds it's full of idle rich with "ailments" that could be cured with nothing less than a little exercise--a dyspeptic who can't even eat a raspberry, an alcoholic, an old man with a hacking cough, a full blown hypochondriac, etc., and of course Ethel (all have humorous names like Mr. D. Speptic, Gordon Jinny, Ms. Fuller Jermes, Mr. Hackincoff, etc.) He decides to cure them all, and buys the sanitarium from the wealthy owner. He hatches a plan, with the help of the lead doctor, to usher them out of the city (under a fake smallpox scare) and crash them on a desert island (a bit of beach just over the hill from a city), and force them to fend for themselves (or at least exercise to get his food). 2 months later, they're all healthy as horses, but Riddles finds out about the ruse and tries to steal Ethel away. So Gaynor beats him up with one hand tied behind his back--literally. Awesome, fun action.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Jason watches MOON--again

I already saw it at SFIFF. It's awesome on multiple viewings, too. The end.


And the movie is about as subtle as the title would suggest. Men in a small Iranian village plot against a poor woman to frame her for adultery so that her asshole husband can be rid of her and marry a 14 year old girl from town. This is all told after-the-fact by Soraya's aunt Zahra (Shoreh Aghdashloo), to passing French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam (played by Jim Caviezel. The movie is based on a real story, which was first written up by the real Freidoune Sahebjam).

As I implied, the movie is not subtle. I would even call it ham-fisted at times, but for the fact that that's not halal. But despite that, there were two things that really impressed me. First, in an industry that is notorious for creating good roles for men but nothing for women, it's notable that the best roles in the movie were the two main female leads (Shoreh Aghdashloo as Zahra, and Mozhan Marnò as the titular Soraya). And I don't just mean they're the only sympathetic characters, I mean the they're fully realized people while the men are almost cartoonish villains or at best willing "dupes." And both actresses are fully up to the task--both Academy Award nominee Aghdashloo (BTW, there's no way she should've lost to Renee Zellweger. I'm okaywith her not winning, but Renee Zellweger pisses me off) and relative newcomer
Mozhan Marnò (full disclosure, I've never met Mozhan Marnò but I recently learned that she's a friend of a friend. I like to think I would've praised her work anyway).

The other remarkable thing about this movie was the actual stoning scene. All the ham-fistedness in the rest of the movie can be totally forgiven for this, one of the most excruciating prolonged gut-punches ever put on screen. I can't describe it in any words other than they make the audience feel every stone that's thrown, and it's brutal, painful, and brilliant.

I want to end my review with that, but the movie ended with something that really bothered me. It shows
Freidoune Sahebjam getting away with the tape of Zahra's testimony, and then in closing text reveals that this became a book that was an international bestseller for him. But absolutely nothing about what happened to everyone else. Do the asshole men in the town get their comeuppance? I don't know. Does Zahra avoid punishment? I don't know. It's no stretch to say Freidoune is the least important character in the movie, so why do we only get his resolution? WTF!?

Anyway, THE STONING OF SORAYA M, is a so-so movie, with great actresses (and great roles for them), and one powerful scene that transcends all the other flaws. And Mozhan Marnò is a good actress who I'd like to see in more movies.