Monday, November 30, 2009

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

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

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

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

Then after the intermission, the feature...

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

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

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

Jason watches a rough cut of CORNER STORE

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest South--Closing Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2009

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

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

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

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

Then after intermission...

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

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

And that was last night in Niles.

Jason watches PIRATE RADIO

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

Jason watches ANTICHRIST

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

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

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

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

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

Chaos reigns.

Jason watches THE BOX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 9, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 2, 2009

Jason goes to Docfest--Closing Night

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

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

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

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

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

Jason goes to Docfest--Day...?

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 11

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

Last Monday started with the World Wide Shorts program:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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