Sunday, April 29, 2012

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 11

It was the big marathon Sunday--6 films.

First up, the super-secret member's screening. All we knew was it was supposed to be ~100 minutes, so we would have time to catch the first regularly scheduled shows. Well, it turned out to be LIBERAL ARTS, written, directed, and starring Josh Radnor (HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE.) He plays a 30-something English major working in New York. When his professor from Ohio calls up and invites him to his retirement party, he returns to campus. And he meets a girl who is way too young to be so into him, meets a young but troubled alleged genius, and Zac Efron actually impressing me as a pseudo-wise stoner. It's a story of revisiting youth, and growing up. It's pretty telling of my generation that our coming-of-age stories are about 35 year olds. It's got laughs, charm, and a light-hearted moral about learning to improvise and enjoying life for what it is instead of cursing it for what it should be.

And now, as an engineer/physicist, I just have to go off-topic and explain his muddled thinking re: age appropriate relationships. He's right that as a 35 year old he shouldn't get involved with a 19 year old. But he's wrong to just calculate the 16 year age difference. The important thing isn't absolute age difference, it's half your age plus 7 years. He shouldn't get romantic with her because 35/2 + 7 > 19. But what he should calculate is that when he's 46, she'll be 30 and just in his age range. So maintain a platonic friendship, subtly sabotage her romantic relationships, and in 11 years when she's in the appropriate range--pounce. Physicists get this, I don't know what's wrong with English majors that they try to complicate things.

Anyway, then I bounced over to the New People Center to catch the kid's shorts program The Storyteller's Show. Just adorable and charming.
THE STORYTELLER:A grandpa tries to tell the story of how the coconut got its face, but his memory is failing and his granddaughter knows the story better than he does.
KEENAN AT SEA: An animated musical video about getting lost at sea, hunger, and stinky feet.
PLAY LUNCH: A charming Australian short about big lunches, (Australian rules football), friendship, and fitting in.
LITTLE BOAT: The adventures of a little boat around the world twice--once getting torn apart and once getting rebuilt.
PANYEE FC: The amazing true story of the first football club from a tiny Thai village of Panyee. They're a floating village with no room for a pitch, so they built a floating pitch out of scrap wood. Out of bounds is water, and it turns out the cramped field actually made them excel at their footwork, and when they went to a tournament on the mainland they vastly exceeded expectations.
THE BOY IN THE BUBBLE: Magic, love, heartache, and the protection of a bubble and a hard heart. Narrated by Alan Rickman.
THE VACUUM KID: A documentary about 12-year old Kile Krichbaum and his amazing collection of and obsession with vacuum cleaners. Now 15, he's the youngest owner ever of a vacuum dealership.
PAPER PIANO: The story of El Sistema, a youth orchestra organization in Caracas, Venezuela, as seen from a young girl in the program navigating the dangerous city to make it there.
THE GIRL AND THE FOX: An animated tale in a snow-covered forest. About hunting, danger, and natural foes becoming friends.
ORANGE O DESPAIR: A hilarious story about a little orange who dreams of being a pineapple. They just look like they have so much more fun.

Then the next three shows I saw constituted the DREILEBEN program. Originally made as German TV movies, three different directors tell the stories of thee different lives (aka Dreileben) that all take place in the fictional forested town of Dreileben and all deal in some way (some more tangentially than others) with a police drama about an escaped convict. In the first one DREILEBEN: BEATS BEING DEAD, young male nurse intern Johannes accidentally lets the convict Frank Molesch escape while he's viewing his dead mother's body. But that's not the real story. The real story is his tumultuous romance with Ana. Actually, let's back up a bit. Johannes is friends with the head doctor at the hospital. The doctor, in fact, would probably like Johannes to date his daughter. But the daughter has other plans. So Johannes hooks up with Ana, a girl he helps out after watching her get attacked and left behind by the bikers she was rolling with. They end up having quite a bit of sex, apologizing a lot to each other, and studying English in hopes of Johannes winning a scholarship to Los Angeles. But perhaps fate has other plans, and there's an escaped psychopath roaming the woods.

Then part 2, DREILEBEN: DON'T FOLLOW ME AROUND. I should mention that they're presented in this order, but each can stand on its own, and I think it would be interesting to watch them out of order and see if you pick up on different things. Now we get a little bit more into the manhunt for Molesch. Specifically, we see it from the point of view of Johanna--a police psychiatrist brought in to aid in the hunt. The police seem incapable of catching the guy, and perhaps even a little uninterested (the third movie turns this on its ear quite a bit). But they really show surprisingly little of the police work. It's more of a police non-procedural. It's more about how she stays with her old friend Vera who happens to live in town with her husband. Her presence, while they insist is welcome, seems to draw some wedge between them and muddle up their seemingly perfect relationship. Particularly when Johanna and Vera realize they have a remarkable coincidence in their past. Ultimately, when her work in Dreileben is done, Johanna will return to her absolutely adorable little daughter greatly changed.

And finally, we get Molesch's point of view in DREILEBEN: ONE MINUTE OF DARKNESS. We see his escape (with a brief cameo by Johannes from the first movie) and the manhunt closing in on him. Stefan Kurt is brilliant as Molesch, escaping and then inhabiting the woods in a kind of wide-eyed stupor that is alternately paranoia and wonder. Secrets from his past are revealed, and the minute of darkness in the title is revealed as the crucial minute of security video footage when he allegedly killed a woman. In fact (as contrived as this is,) the tape went dark just at the wrong (or right) moment and so he was actually convicted on circumstantial evidence and might be innocent all along. Innocent, but still crazy.

So I liked all three films, and I think I liked them in this order with increasing appreciation for each one. But I also think that's because I like the process of seeing things from other points of view and how that changes what happened before. There's actually surprisingly little of that here--it's not so much intersecting stories as much as simultaneous stories that intersect as little as possible. But what there was, I enjoyed quite a bit. But I can't help but wonder if I saw them in a different order would I have a different opinion.

And finally, I ended my marathon day with Johnnie To's latest, LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE. Some people had warned me that it's a bit of a departure for To, as it focuses very little on his trademark violence and more on the drama. Personally, I've always thought the violence in To's movies (as expertly and excitingly choreographed as it always is) is often the least interesting element. There are hundreds of filmmakers who can film violence (many of them also working in Hong Kong), but To always captured something more--be it revenge, loyalty, camaraderie, desperation, etc. In fact, LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE is a departure for To, not because there's only a little bit of violence, but because it's so aggressively, in-your-face political. It's set against the global banking crisis and the Greek bailout, and interweaves the story of a mid-level investment manager for a bank with an incredibly loyal mid-level organized crime gopher. The underlying message--there's no difference between the banks and the triads--is simply unavoidable. It's often steeped in banking jargon about products, markets, risk levels, etc. If it leaves the audience a bit bewildered, that bewilderment is reflected on the blinking, twitching face of Panther (Lau Ching-wan,) the triad flunky who seems to constantly be trying to raise money to bail his boss out of jail, or bail his brother out of debt with his creditors. He even thinks he's found the pattern in the stock market and knows when it will rise. Of course, it does have to have some trademark violence in the end, and To delivers, but never in a way that will overshadow the plot or the message.

And that was Sunday at SFIFF. Now on to the final drag through the week, ending with the closing night on Thursday.

Total Running Time: 536
My Total Minutes: 281,888

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 10

Wow, has it been going on that long already? I guess so. Anyway, 4 more movies Saturday, including my first (and probably only) trip to the PFA this festival (for the first two movies.)

First up was the epic 3+ hour documentary IT'S THE EARTH, NOT THE MOON. Corvo is a small island in the Azores. In land area, it's a bit smaller than San Francisco, and is home to one village, one street, one airport with one runway, and between 440 and 450 people (population has fluctuated from 300 to 900 over its history.) It's the ideal location for director Goncalo Tocha to spend four years making a documentary about absolutely everything there. The butcher, the fishermen, the cheesemakers, the farmers, the volcanic cone, the beach, the pigs, the cows, the...everything. Divided into chapters that don't have a thematic organization so much as a sense of an evolving story and increasing familiarity with the island, it can be an exhausting project (I admit I checked my watch more than once) but a rewarding one. It really is an exercise in trying to capture everything about a place, and it's undeniably rewarding when Tocha gets his cap at the end and is declared a real man of Corvo. I get the sense that if he could, he would've included all 180 hours he shot there from 2007 to 2011. I wouldn't have stayed around quite that long, but 3 hours was long enough (and, according to Tocha, a half-hour longer than most visitors spend in Corvo)

IT'S THE EARTH, NOT THE MOON plays again April 29 at 1:00 at the Kabuki

Next up was another documentary, a very intimate bit of hero worship with ETHEL. The Ethel of the title is Ethel Kennedy, widow of Bobby Kennedy and matriarch to 11 children (9 surviving) and 33 grandchildren. The director is the last of her children, Rory Kennedy, who was only 3 months in Ethel's belly when Bobby was assassinated. So it's forgivable that it's a uniformly positive portrait. And given the importance of the family to history, it's understandable and forgivable that it veers from Ethel to the extraordinary accomplishments and untimely deaths of both her husband and her brother-in-law Jack. But Rory manages to steer the focus back to Ethel repeatedly, despite Ethel's often cantankerous reluctance to talk about herself. Luckily, she has several other kids who were happy to talk about her, and they put together a pretty engaging, loving portrait of a woman who was in her own way more outgoing and adventurous than Bobby, who pushed him to push himself to greatness, but who usually shrank back into the shadows behind him. That is, until he was gone, and she took her own role, a chapter the movie is unfortunately light on.

Next up, I made my way from the PFA in Berkeley to the Castro for TWIXT. Francis Ford Coppola has thrown his hat into the 3-D ring and returned to genre filmmaking (has it really been 20 years since his version of DRACULA?) As well as making an oddly personal film. Actually, he only uses 3D in two scenes, kind of a throwback to some of the classic 3D schlock pictures, and really I don't think the 3D was necessary at all, but it was fun. The movie itself is an immaculately crafted surreal tale of a moderately successful horror writer Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) and his strange dream-world adventures in Swan Valley, a fictional small town in Northern California (actually, I'm not sure if they establish where it was, but it was shot is NoCal and the fact they had In-N-Out there establishes it as somewhere in the west.) He's there for a book signing, but there's no bookstore so he signs at the hardware store. And he only signs one book--for the local sheriff/aspiring horror writer (Bruce Dern) who convinces him to stay and collaborate on a tru-ish story about a local serial killer with vampiric overtones. In fact, legend has it the whole town is haunted, and there's some pretty weird stuff. Motorcycle riding goth teens across the lake who might be evil. A seven-faced clock tower with no two faces telling the same time. Ghosts, a legend of a child-murderer, and Edgar Allan Poe as a guide. They might all be there, or they might all be a dream. Back in the real world he's got a wife nagging him to get and advance or she'll sell his rare copy of Leaves of Grass, and a publisher demanding a foolproof idea, complete with an outline and a dynamite ending. In tone, it veers from classic horror to melancholy to dark humor to very personal tragedy (there's a plot element that's eerily similar to Coppola's own son's death in a boating accident.) I'm not really convinced that it works as a pure genre piece. And I'm less convinced that it works as some dark satire or deconstruction of genre literature/filmmaking. But it does work simply as Coppola playing around, and if that seems indulgent, well Coppola has earned that.

Plays again (in 2D) May 3 at 8:15 at the Kabuki

And finally, I ended the night much as I ended last Saturday night,with a Who musical, this time their classic QUADROPHENIA. What can I say? Disaffected youth, mods vs. rockers, motorcycles, pills, sex, and music. And most importantly the rowdy crowd that TOMMY deserved but didn't really get last week. What a blast!

And that was Saturday at SFIFF. Tomorrow (Sunday) is my real marathon day with 6 movies, starting with a member's screening at 10:00 am.

Total Running Time: 489 minutes
My Total Minutes: 281,364

Friday, April 27, 2012

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 9

Friday (and the big second weekend) started off with a couple of shorts programs. First up, Acting the Part, a selection of shorts showcasing the nature of who we pretend to be and who we really are. Here's the rundown:
AARON BURR, PART 2: Historical revision gets a new take, with Aaron Burr as a hero, and the founding father using cell phones. A fascinating and funny take on how history makes losers out of winners.
BEAR: A birthday surprise goes badly wrong. The ending was exactly what I was hoping for. Wonderfully sick humor.
HELLION: These kids totally live up to the title, torturing the baby-sitter and their little brother. But then they have to deal with their stern father.
THE LOVE COMPETITION: In Stanford, a group of volunteers agree to undergo an fMRI while thinking about love and see who can make their MRI light up with the most love. It's an interesting way to examine the myriad of ways of thinking about love, and the participants all come out transformed (whether the MRI has anything to do about it or it's all from focusing on love is at this point a matter of opinion.) I'd feel much better about the results if I believed that fMRI was more than just a few steps above phrenology.
MOBIUS: A hotel clerk has a unique hobby revolving around learning what he can from all the guests. You can learn a lot from how someone says hello.
MUSIC FOR ONE X-MAS AND SIX DRUMMERS: From the makers of SOUND OF NOISE, we get their percussive take on Christmas caroling in a rest home.
NOTHING: A visual story with minimal dialogue about a maid, the repetitiveness of life, and an attempt to break free.
RANDOM STRANGERS: Insomnia leads to meeting strangers online leads to an international romance. Very sweet, while also a statement on how online life can become more real than your regular life.

Acting the Part plays again April 30 at 3:15 at the Film Society Cinema (formerly VIZ, in the New People Center)

Then I caught the animation program Shanimation, yay cartoons!:
BELLY: A little elephant-faced boy goes to the beach with his older horse-faced brother, has to save him, and has to leave behind his best friend.
DUST AND GLITTER: A bit of a love letter to San Francisco and the homeless, from Slovakian animator Michaela Copikova who lived here for a year on a Fullbright Scholarship.
LACK OF EVIDENCE: A letter requesting political asylum in France, from a twin who survived an attempt at a ritual killing at the hands of his father. Very moving.
LA LUNA: Pixar's latest, an apprentice moon janitor figures out his own way of doing things.
M. WARD: THE FIRST TIME I RAN AWAY: A music video about running away and finding something (or someone) to run to.
OEDIPUS: Paul Driessen is up to his insane best, with a story of a man who kills his girlfriend's husband, but is then shocked when she freaks out just because he takes his head off to go to sleep. Why would she do that? It features a support group of characters from Driessen's previous films.
PLUME: A beautiful image of a winged man and his adventure losing his wings but finding a new self.
663114: The life cycle of a Japanese 66-year cicada, and a glimpse of 66 years in the future.
20HZ: A fascinating and beautiful experiment in the visual display of information. A geomagnetic storm seen and heard at 20 Hz.

Shanimation plays again April 28 (today!) at 12:15 at the Film Society Cinema

Next up was the feature THE LONELIEST PLANET, a story about relationships and split-second shocking change. Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg are Alex and Nica, an engaged couple trekking through the Caucasus mountains in Georgia with their guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze, who really is a guide in real life.) We get to enjoy the scenery, their leisurely pace, their sweet, romantic back-and-forth, their discussions with Dato. And then (and I have to be careful about spoilers here) there is a brief, shocking run-in. A split second of comic relief, and then shock, anger, and shame that changes and tests their relationship. I loved how realistic their reactions were, and how so much can be said with very few words (in fact, often not saying anything is a powerful statement.) I talked to some people in the festival who found it dull or slow, but I was constantly fascinated by it.

And finally, I ended the day with OSLO, AUGUST 31. Early in the film, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) weights his jacket down with stones and jumps into the water, hoping to drown himself. As it is, he just loses his jacket, but this half-comic suicide attempt will hang tensely over the entire movie. Anders is a recovering drug addict. He's been doing well in rehab, hasn't even had a beer in 10 months. And he's a smart guy, from an intellectual family and was doing well until he fucked up. He now has a one day leave from rehab, and he returns to Oslo to catch up with old friends. He's depressed about being a 30-something failure and jealous of his friends' seemingly more accomplished lives. He also feels guilt that his parents are selling their house (they claim they want a smaller place in retirement, he knows they went into debt putting him through rehab.) And, of course, he talks way too much about suicide (and how if he makes it look like and overdose no one will really be surprised or care that much.) It's an interesting and tense character study, and as a day with glimpses of hope (a job interview seemingly goes well, but he walks out after the interview gets too tense) becomes a night where everyone else is partying and it appears the temptation and despair might just be too much.

Total Running Time: 387 minutes
My Total Minutes: 280,851

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 8

This is getting to be something of a refrain, but four more movies yesterday (Thursday).

First up was WOMEN WITH COWS, a funny, sad, touching, strange documentary from Sweden. It's the story of two sisters who grew up on a farm. Inger is the younger sister. She has moved to the town where she has a husband and kids and her own life. Britt has stayed on the farm, tending to the cows as best as she can, despite being completely doubled over from spinal injuries. She looks like she would be miserable--it can't be comfortable, she's constantly covered in flies and cow dung, and she really needs help to take care of the cows (and there's really no reason to, nobody buys fresh milk anymore, even they buy 2% milk from the store.) But she insists she's happy and would never leave the farm. Inger, meanwhile, is happy to leave the farm and never wants to go back--but constantly does, even though it seems every time she insists it will be her last. It's the epitome of the "truth is stranger than fiction" adage, and a touching story of the death of the family farm system and the inseparable bond between sisters.

Next up was the film that has been burning up box office records in France and all over Europe (and which the Weinstein company is bringing to America) THE INTOUCHABLES. Based on a true story, it centers on the friendship between Philippe (François Cluzet) and Driss (Omar Sy, who won the César for his performance.) Philippe is a millionaire who is paralyzed from the neck down (and Cluzet does a great job acting with only his head and face mobile.) Driss is a Senegalese immigrant who applies for a job as Philippe's assistant/caregiver. He doesn't really expect the job, but he needs a signature to prove he applied so he can get his government benefits. But Philippe sees something in him, and gives him a one month trial period. There's plenty of fish out of water comedy and TRADING PLACES style hijinks. And Driss is such a charming character and Sy such a charming actor that he rather quickly wins over everyone. The movie is funny all the way through, which is pretty remarkable for a foreign film, especially one that plays so clearly on France's race/class tension. As a fan of humor about racism (or perhaps racist humor, the line is pretty blurry) I was pretty delighted with this film.

Next up was the on stage interview/clip show David O'Reilly Says Something. I didn't know who David O'Reilly was, although I had seen and loved THE EXTERNAL WORLD before (at last year's SFIFF, in fact.) He's best described as a low-tech computer animator. His works are often explicitly pixelated (or MS Paint, in the case of OCTOCAT), and they seem to always trick, befuddle, and (in my case) delight the audience. He also uses cats a lot, although he revealed he's never owned one. Oh yeah, and the interview and Q&A session were really interesting, talking about how little he actually knows about computer animation (he's decided to finally learn how to program) and how often he's surprised when something he makes takes off. Oh, and how awful his 71 minute feature film THE AGENCY (made with Xtranormal) really is. For what it's worth, I loved the two brief snippets they showed, but he insists that watching it all the way through gets tedious in under ten minutes.

And finally, I ended the night with a long short and a short feature. First, the long (35 minute) short, THE SHADY SAILOR. Shot in black and white (and it struck me that this might be the first B&W film I've seen this year at the festival, odd since I loved the B&W films at Cinequest.) To girls narrate the story of a road trip, of meeting the titular sailor, of love (or lust), and missed chances. Very charming.

And finally, the short (59 minutes) feature, PALACES OF PITY. We open with some pretty striking shots. Two girls practicing and stretching for soccer. Perhaps the way they're shot stretching each other is supposed to make me think they're lovers, or maybe it's just my pervy mind, because actually they're sisters. In the next shot we see an old woman, watching them while framed by rows of empty concrete bleachers. She's their grandmother, who sets up the whole movie with the line, "The country [Portugal] has changed, but we are the same." And then things get weird. There are knights, a mansion, two other girls, nightclubs, and a conflagration. And maybe I was just too tired to pay attention (I know I halfway nodded off at one point,) but fuck if I know what was going on. Many, many shots were absolutely beautiful, but I confess I was lost. Oh, well.

Total Running Time: 379 minutes
My Total Minutes: 280,464

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 7

Four more movies on Wednesday, so let's jump right in with A CUBE OF SUGAR. It's a slice-of-life tale of the preparations for an Iranian wedding. Passand is getting married, and all the family is gathering at the house of her aged Uncle Ezzatolah (the house was built for the movie, and is a classic old-school compound meant to house an extended family.) Kids run wild, the elders (especially Uncle Ezzatolah) pass on their wisdom, and everyone prepares by gossiping over food preparation, or lights, or whatever. They deal with regular power blackouts and an extended family that doesn't seem to see each other often and sometimes doesn't get along. What plot there is (at least a big twist that changes everything) I won't reveal for spoiler etiquette. But it's a colorful and food-filled slice of life. I have many times echoed Hitchcock's pronouncement that I prefer my movies to be a slice of cake instead of slice of life. And that applies here (as it applies to a lot of Iranian cinema,) but if you're a fan of slice of life movies, this would probably interest you.

The next movie was definitely a slice of cake--grand, thrilling, visceral, darkly comic cake with a plethora of plot twists. HEADHUNTERS stars Aksel Hennie (probably Norway's most famous actor) as Roger Brown, an executive recruiter who overcompensates for his 5'6" height with money. He buys his wife Diana--who towers over him--a big house he can't afford and lots of beautiful jewelry. He can't pay for that just on a headhunter salary, but he has a second stream of income--art thief. He learns about a genuine Rubens painting worth possibly $100,000 (or was it Euros? I forget the currency, but worth enough to never worry about money again) and moves quickly. Too bad the owner is a former army tracker, and the former director of development at a GPS company, and can find him anywhere and take torturous revenge. It's graphic, it's occasionally disgusting, and Roger is essentially put through various stages of hell. This is apparently the first film adapted from a novel by author Jo Nesbø, with Martin Scorsese set to direct his SNOWMAN next. Apparently I now have a new author I should get acquainted with.

Next up, a bit of Caveh Zahedi provocation and button-pushing in THE SHEIK AND I. Caveh was approached to produce a film for the Sharjah Biennial, one of the biggest and most popular art exhibitions in the Middle East (Sharjah is one of the emirates of the UAE.) At first he was told there were no rules and the theme is about art as a subversive act. So he pushes them, and finds there really are three rules. First, no frontal nudity--he has no problem with that. Second, no demeaning the prophet Mohammad--he thinks about that for a bit, thinks of what happened in Denmark with the cartoonists or with director Theo Van Gogh, and decides he can avoid demeaning Mohammad. And finally, no making fun of the Sheik of Sharjah, Sheik Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi. This rule, he obsesses over. What would constitute "making fun?" Can he mention the Sheik at all? So with no idea what to do he decides to fly to Sharjah with his family and a small crew and make a movie about his attempt to make a movie in and about Sharjah. In a paranoid moment in the car ride from the airport, he dreams up a kidnapping plot, and starts making a film about his paranoid fantasy. But beyond that, he asks everyone he meets about the sheik, about Sharjah, about their customs. There are scenes of him learning to pray, then choreographing a group of Indian children (of guest workers) using the praying moves in a Bollywood-esque dance sequence (okay, even I could understand how that could upset people.) Mostly, he sort of flaunts his American ignorance and naivety, and uses it to hold up a mirror to their culture. I get the feeling that Caveh was invited because he has a Middle Eastern name (his parents are Iranian, but he is thoroughly American) and therefore would understand the culture and what he can and can't do instinctively. Ultimately, he doesn't turn in anything that could play at the Biennial, and he even had to fight for permission to show it elsewhere. And I, for one, am glad he did because the end result is pretty fantastic.

THE SHEIK AND I plays again April 28 at 9:00 at the Kabuki

And finally, my last screening was LAST SCREENING, a French horror film for cinephiles. Sylvain is a projectionist at the Empire Cinema, showing classics like FRENCH CANCAN and displaying posters for CAPTIVE and LAST DAYS. He loves the theater, he even lives below it, and has a secret room hidden behind his poster of PLAYTIME. He's also completely psycho. So when he learns the cinema is closing he goes on a bit of a killing spree. And keeps souvenirs in honor of famous Hollywood stars. And remembers a bit of trauma with his mother (did I mention he's PSYCHO?) Pascal Cervo is brilliant as Sylvain, who doesn't really talk much but has a wonderfully intense stare. It's a pretty odd way to fight against the demise of single-screen arthouse cinemas, but at least for an onscreen fantasy, I approve. Although I do have to say it wasn't exactly what I expected, and it took me a night of thinking about it to decide I really liked it. I was expecting more of a campy feel with gratuitous fake blood. But (despite what the festival photo looks like) it's really more interesting in the restraint of what it shows, leaving just the right amount to the imagination. Like how in PSYCHO you never see the knife penetrate skin in the shower scene, but everyone thinks they remember seeing just that. It's definitely not the style of modern horror films. So not only is it about a cinema of a bygone era, it's really for people who prefer that classic cinema that relies just as much on what's implied but unseen.

LAST SCREENING plays again April 28 at 10:00 at the Kabuki

Total Running Time: 411 minutes
My Total Minutes: 280,088

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 6

A light day on Tuesday, only three films.

I started with the audacious Russian sci-fi mindbender TARGET. It clocks in at 154 minutes, and goes some pretty wild places in that time. In 2020, Russia is a land of prosperity...for some. After all, it borders China which is a huge and eminently exploitable economic engine. People are stratified in different classes, and all the "heroes" of our story are in the upper classes. But they all feel they are missing something, like eternal youth perhaps. So they travel to a remote abandoned astrophysics facility (the Target of the title because of its massive bulls-eye shape) where they believe spending a night inside will focus their Chi and make them live forever. And for a bit, it works. They feel more youthful, definitely more horny, and it seems perfect. And then it's as if the evil parts of their nature metastasize. There are a ton of wild ideas, from a mega-highway filled with semi trucks and the customs officials who patrol/prey on them. A bizarre, high-energy cooking/political talk show. Glasses that allow you to see the percentage of good and evil in all things (including an orgy that is ~99% evil.) There were moments of extreme brilliance in this movie, I'm just not sure I was able to get my head entirely around it. It's either so sprawling and unconstrained that it falls apart, or it's a cohesive work of brilliance that requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate.

TARGET plays again April 27 at 10:00 at the Kabuki.

Next up, the mindbending day continued with ALPS. I shall now visibly struggle with spoilers, as I don't know how to describe it without giving away the main conceit, but the surprise of that conceit was what made it fun. But, since the festival program gives it away, I guess I'm free to as well. So here goes: The Alps refers to a group of people who offer to impersonate the recently deceased as a form of unconventional grief counseling. The bereaved get to act out what they wanted to do or what they remember best about the deceased. But it's also about the controlling nature of the group leader (codename Mont Blanc) and mostly about the artificiality of performance. It's a movie where you can easily twist your brain in knots wondering 'is that who she really is or was that a performance where she is substituting for someone else?' It's funny and unsettling, especially when two of the Alps (a nurse and a rhythmic gymnast) try to break from the rules of the group and challenge authority. It's also no surprise or coincidence that it's the two women trying to break from the rules imposed and enforced by men.

And finally, I ended the night with the North American premiere of locally made film, CHERRY (which being released by IFC as ABOUT CHERRY.) It is, in short, a pro-porn story about a young naive girl who gets into porn. The either appropriately or ironically named Angelica (Ashley Hinshaw) runs away from home (and her alcoholic mother) and travels with her best friend Andrew (Dev Patel) to San Francisco. She had previously done a little nude modelling for pictures, but once she's in San Francisco she gets hooked up with kink.com at The Armory, and her career really begins and he name becomes Cherry. The movie also features co-starring performances by Heather Graham as the director who launches her career and James Franco as a lawyer and coke-head who picks Angelica up in a strip club (where she's working as a waitress, not as a dancer.) As I alluded to earlier, the movie is mostly interesting for it's pro-porn point of view (director/writer Stephen Elliot and co-writer Lorelei Lee both come from the sex worker world,) and how pornography is really the one stable, positive part of her life. I was also impressed with the tastefulness but undeniably erotic nature of the actual porn shoots. I don't think there was an actual "beaver shot" in the movie at all, but as someone who has watched his fair share of porn and his fair share of simulated porn in "legitimate" films, I was impressed with the...let's say...effectiveness of the scenes. Compared to say, SHOWGIRLS which came out when I was in college and still couldn't get me up, it's pretty remarkable what a shot of Cherry's face can do instead.

CHERRY plays again April 27 at 9:15 and April 28 at 3:00, both at the Kabuki.

Total Running Time: 349 minutes
My Total Minutes: 279,671

Monday, April 23, 2012

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 5

The first Monday of the festival, and I celebrated by seeing four films. That's right, I celebrate Mondays by watching movies.

First up was an absolute delight, ¡VIVAN LAS ANTIPODAS! Antipodes are spots on Earth diametrically opposed to each other. Since most of the Earth is covered in water, antipodes with dry land on both sides are kind of rare. Antipodes with people on both sides are even rarer. But this film takes a contemplative, poetic, and highly visual adventure to four sets of such antipodes (eight location in all) as a way of exploring the diversity and similarities of human existence. Entre Rios, Argentina is paired with Shanghai, China. Lake Baikal in Russia is paired with Patagonia in Chile. Miraflores Spain is paired with Castle Point, New Zealand. And the lava beds of the Big Island of Hawai'i is paired with a village in Botswana. And the film is full of beautiful cinematography, inverted cameras, clever transitions (the lava beds to the elephant's skin was my favorite.) I don't think I can tell you in words how beautiful it all was. This film doesn't just celebrate the diversity and possibilities of human life. It also celebrates the endless possibility of cinema to change the way we see the world around us.

¡VIVAN LAS ANTIPODAS! plays again April 26 at 6:00 at the Film Society Cinema and April 30 at 9:00 at the Pacific Film Archives. And the director Victor Kossakovsky is supposed to be there for those screenings. My only regret is he wasn't around for a Q&A at this screening.

But then, I didn't really have time to stick around for a Q&A, because I was off to Kirby Dick's (THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, TWIST OF FAITH) new film, THE INVISIBLE WAR. Right to the point, it's about rape in the military. And Kirby gets right in there and interviews the victims, bringing painful personal stories to light. And he backs it up with statistics, all of which come from government reports. About 20% of women serving in the military have been assaulted at some time (a smaller percentage, but larger total number of men are also assaulted.) New recruits into the military are twice as likely to have committed or attempted rape than the corresponding demographics in the civilian population. And most upsetting is how rarely anything is done about it. Since you don't report to an outside police force but to your chain of command, often the victim has to report the assault to either a friend of her attacker or sometimes (bizarrely) to her attacker himself--and then he gets to decide whether to investigate.

You know, I hate this argument but I can understand that in a macho, high-testosterone environment rape will sometimes happen. Heck, it happens in the civilian world and maybe it can never be totally eliminated. But the military can address how they respond to incidents. Some of the most distressing moments of the film is when it shows the pathetic efforts at training to prevent assaults. The words "security theater" have been tossed around a lot lately, well this is nothing more than "rape prevention theater." The best prevention is harsh punishment of rapists, not the buddy system or a cheesy rap video telling you to help prevent assaults.

I remember the Tailhook scandal being in the news when I was in high school back in 1991. And it appears nothing has changed since then. Maybe this movie, and the take action page on its website, can force some change. So far, it's a very well made movie that's painful and difficult to watch.

THE INVISIBLE WAR plays again May 1 at 9:15 at the Kabuki.

Next up, my doc day afternoon continued with AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY. Back in 2008, there was a documentary I saw at SF Indie's Docfest called BIRD'S NEST: HERZOG AND DE MEURON IN CHINA. I thought it was moderately interesting, but there was this one character--a dissident Chinese artist who helped design the Bird's Nest stadium but then spoke out against the Olympics. I thought they totally missed the boat on that movie, because he was by far the most interesting character. There should have just been a movie about him. And now, thanks to Alison Klayman, there is. At one point, Ai Weiwei describes himself not as an artist but as a chess player--his opponent makes move, then he decides his next move. His opponent, of course, is the Chinese government. He really came to prominence not from the Olympics but from his work in the Sichuan earthquake shortly before. He was upset at the shoddy "tofu" construction of schoolhouses that led to thousands of students dying in the collapsed buildings. And beyond that, the government wouldn't release the names or numbers of students who had died. So he researched it himself and on the one year anniversary of the earthquake he released his list of names. That was just the start of an ongoing career of challenging the powers. Luckily, his fame makes him a little hard to touch. Hard...but not impossible. After the earthquake incident, when he was going to testify at the trial of another earthquake activist, he was beaten by cops to the point where he needed surgery to reduce swelling on his brain. Later, he is "disappeared" for months, and when he's released the government declares he owes the equivalent of $2.4 million in back taxes (donations come in from all over the place.) Currently he's forbidden to travel outside Beijing, but that ban is supposed to be up in June, and I guess we will all find out more then. As it is, I'm very happy this movie was made, I'm happy to get a better look at this remarkable man, and most of all I'm happy that people like this exist in the world.

AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY plays again April 25 at 9:15 at the Kabuki

And finally, I saw my one and only narrative film of the day, but GUILTY was still based very closely on a real incident. Alain Marecaux (Philippe Torreton, who does a magnificent job) is a family man--a bailiff with a wife and three kids. If there's one thing wrong in his life, it's that he works too hard and doesn't spend enough time home with the kids. And then in the middle of the night he and his wife are arrested, accused of being part of a widespread pedophile ring. There's not a shred of actual evidence, just an allegation by a mother who admitted to prostituting her own children and named tons of names. An overzealous investigating judge (I don't know the French legal system at all, they call him a judge but he didn't seem to be the same as a judge in an American court) makes things worse, and Alain is in jail for years. He can't even get released on bail, despite no physical evidence against him and completely inconsistent statements from his accusers. Of course, if any cellmate finds out what he's accused of, his life could be in danger. As it is, he attempted suicide many times, including a harrowing hunger strike. Since it's based on a true story you can look up, I won't worry too much about spoilers. I'll just say it became the biggest French legal scandal in living memory. And I'll say the film is expertly made and often (appropriately) hard to watch.

GUILTY plays again April 25 at 6:00 and April 27 at noon, both times at the Kabuki.

Total Running Time: 389 minutes
My Total Minutes: 279,308

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 4

I went all out on the first Sunday of the fest, here we go.

I started off in the morning with WILL, a fun child's adventure story centered around soccer. Will is 11 years old, living in a boarding school. His mother died a few years ago, and his dad left to find his fortune. But now his dad is back, ready to take Will back into his life, back home to Liverpool, and most importantly to the Champions League finals in Istanbul (where, hopefully, Liverpool will be playing.) And then as quickly as he appeared, his dad is gone again, this time forever. He just fell asleep and never woke up. Will is devastated, but when Liverpool actually makes the finals he decides to steal his tickets back from the nuns (who are deciding what to do with them) and make the journey himself. Of course, he faces obstacles, meets interesting people, and changes the lives of everyone he meets. It's all incredibly sappy, but that's exactly what a child's road trip adventure is about. So of course I ended up rooting for him even when it went over the top with the improbability of it all.

WILL plays again May 1, 6:00 at the Kabuki.

Next up was a film I saw solely because it fit nicely in my schedule. In fact, I had to duck out of the credits and Q&A for WILL to see it, but it was either that or have hours of gap in my schedule. So I saw THE ORATOR, the first feature film shot in the native Samoan language. And I was surprised and delighted with the story, performances, and beauty of Samoa. I only wish I knew more about the Samoan culture so I could understand it better. It would work perfectly at the end of a class on Samoan culture. In any case, the story centers around Saili, a little person who gets no respect in the village. He lives with his wife Vaaiga and her daughter Litia. Vaaiga was banished from her village, for conceiving Litia illegitimately. But they make their life and their humble family, despite the shabby treatment by everyone else. Saili is also a timid man, saying very little at least in the beginning of the movie. But to face his tormentors (like the people who keep planting yams on his parents' graves) he must become an Orator, a chiefly title that allows him to confront others in open and highly ritualized dialogue (this is part of where I could really use a class on Samoan culture.) This film deals with a lot of issues--respect for the dead, respect for the disabled, family, honor, forgiveness. But more than anything it's about the struggle to force your right to exist on an uncaring and often openly hostile world. Not to spoil too much, but it's nice to see someone win that fight for once.

THE ORATOR plays again April 24 at 9:00 and April 27 at 7:00, both showings at the Kabuki.

Next up, Alex Gibney (ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, Oscar-winning TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, and GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S THOMPSON which closed SFIFF back in 2008) shows us his take on the culture of hockey fights with THE LAST GLADIATORS. Of course, coming from Gibney it's very well constructed and revealing. He interviews a lot of enforcers, but the movie is mainly about Chris "Knuckle" Nilan. And here I will reveal that I don't know a lot about hockey so pretty much all I know about him comes from this movie and the abbreviated (cut short by a fire alarm) Q&A afterwards. Gibney takes us back to Chris's childhood where he got into fights sticking up for his friends. How hockey was the one thing he cared about. How he was drafted almost at the end of draft. How in the minor leagues he got a reputation for taking on all comers, and how his heart, passion, and toughness carried him to the big leagues and made him a hero in Montreal. And it takes us to his troubles after he retired. Not to give too much away, but let's just say pain and addiction before getting his life at least tenuously back together (for what it's worth, he was at the Q&A and it was pretty moving seeing this tough guy admit to crying every time he watches the movie. I think that's pretty telling of where he is in his life now.) What I found most interesting in this movie is the first hand accounts and analysis of the enforcer role in hockey, told by the guys who lived that role. It ends up walking a fine line between glamorizing hockey fights and revealing the mindsets of the guys who glamorize it. I have no idea after watching this if Gibney is a fan of hockey, a fan of fighting in hockey, or just fascinated with the mindset of people who would do it. And I guess that's to his credit that the director steps out of the movie and lets his subject tell his story as only he can.

THE LAST GLADIATORS plays again April 24 at 6:00 and April 28 at 3:30, both as the Film Society Cinema in the New People Center.

Next up was my first shorts program of the festival so far, the eclectic group that together make up Made in USA.
BIZNESS: A music video for tUnE-yArDs (who accompany Buster Keaton shorts at the Castro tonight.) Children, painted faces, dancing, fun.
DEVIL'S GATE: A documentary about Devil's Gate in Pasadena. Named for the odd rock formations that kind of look like faces, modern day occultists believe it is a source of strong magick and that it's a portal to hell. This notion was created and popularized by Jack Parsons, an acolyte of Aleister Crowley, and founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (and, on a personal note, as a Caltech alum, I'm not the least bit surprised at the connection.)
DOCTOR: Interspersed in the program were four very short videos from the Doctor series of Front Page films. Very funny.
FIN DE SIECLE: Collage, bees, Victorian styles, etc. Pretty cool.
INQUIRE WITHIN: Jay Rosenblatt composes a new found-footage piece, this one about false choices between "this...or this." Disturbing, but playful.
MEANING OF ROBOTS: Ummm...there's a hoarder who has made tons of tiny, anatomically correct (or as he calls them, "fuckable") robots, which he plans to use in an epic film of robotic erotica. This is completely true.
THE SHRINE/AN ARGUMENT: A music video of animated animals, killing each other. Poor dead bunny.
SOLIPSIST: Beautiful, even when I don't know what's going on. Two people sitting back to back get covered with moving vines. Sea creatures dance. Peoples faces and stomachs turn to sand that flies out their back. And it all explodes in glorious color. I guess I don't have to take any acid today.
STIHL: Chainsaws, and stuffed animals. With a little fetish scene in between.
WORKERS LEAVING THE GOOGLEPLEX: In the Google complex, there are white badges (regular employees), red badges (contractors), and the rarely seen yellow badges. The yellow badges all work in one building, allegedly scanning books for Google's book search program. They are information laborers, and are not given the same perks all other Google employees get (like gourmet food, shuttle rides for the commute, access to Google bikes, etc.) Andrew Wilson, who was a red badge at Google, gets into a lot of trouble by trying to film and interview them. Very interesting.

The Made in USA program plays again May 1 at 3:30 pm at the Film Society Cinema.

And finally, I ended the night with INFORMANT, a fascinating look at a complicated and interesting man, Brandon Darby. He was a hero of Katrina, co-founding Common Ground and helping a lot of people at a community level. Going back further, he was an anarchist and a social justice activist. And then...something changed. In 2008, he spied for the FBI on activists protesting at the Republican National Convention. Specifically, he informed on a group he infiltrated from his hometown in Austin, TX and got two of them arrested for building and planning to use Molotov cocktails. Since then, he has become a darling of the Tea Party, and a villain of the left. If anything, this movie is about how difficult it is to tease out who or what he really is. It's masterfully edited to allow him to pull you into his reality (where he is, of course, the hero) just long enough to start to believe and then something interrupts (e.g., an interview from an alternate viewpoint) that calls bullshit on him. Even the reenactment scenes are broken up by "behind the scenes" footage of him discussing with director Jamie Meltzer how to do the scene. There are, of course, very difficult and troubling details about his story. Did he convince these kids to build the Molotov cocktails (constituting entrapment?) Maybe, but that's a high legal hurdle to clear, which they failed in court. Did his presence in their group (and his previous reputation, including meetings with the Venezuelan government) make them more radical than they would've been otherwise? Probably. But still, making the cocktails was a crime, and I find it hard to sympathize with those who argue that smashing a few windows and doing some property damage isn't that big of a deal compared to what they're fighting against. Yes, perspective is welcome and smashing windows or burning a cop car is less egregious than some things the government does "legally," but I just wish that statements could be made with spirited, even disruptive talk and not violence. And that goes for all sides, of course. Oh, and spirited talk should stop short of death threats. Apparently Darby received threats that at least he took seriously enough that he cancelled his plans to appear at the festival. I don't blame him, and shame on those

For what it's worth, I came away believing that at least in his mind Darby was always sincere in his beliefs. I also think (and I should stress I don't know him personally nor am I a psychologist in any way) that his views are constantly evolving and that in order to be the hero of his own story he feels he needs something dangerous to be fighting against. I also think (near the end of the movie) he touches on some important points about just trying to help out your neighbors and how direct assistance (a la Common Ground) is way more effective than government action. Perhaps if he figures out some day that you don't need a monster to fight in order to make a positive difference, he could bridge political ideologies for positive community improvement projects. But...he's probably already burned to many bridges for that.

INFORMANT plays again April 23 (tonight) at 6:30 at the Pacific Film Archives (it would be interesting to see a Berkeley audience's reaction) and on April 27 at 9:00 at the Kabuki.

Total Running Time: 466 minutes
My Total Minutes: 278,920

Jason (barely) goes to SFIFF--Day 3

I missed almost all of the festival on Sunday. I had my volunteer work at the Niles Film Museum until 4, and then I decided to stay down in the south bay to see my beloved San Jose Earthquakes take on Real Salt Lake. Long story short, the good guys won on a couple of goals in added time (actually, their first goal was in added time in the first half, so apparently they liked to wait until it's really dramatic to score.) But it never should have been that close with Real Salt Lake getting two red cards. And even though we were the bigger beneficiary, I have to say the refereeing was terrible. Not that either red card was undeserved, but the ref just wasn't consistent and generally lost control of the game and respect of the players.

But I digress. The important thing is I raced from San Jose back up to the Kabuki just in time to catch the Peaches Christ show Acid Queens: Peaches and TOMMY, in honor of Ken Russell. Peaches, of course, ran the pre-show. Her backing band did a few numbers from TOMMY--Eyesight to the Blind (with Peaches as Marilyn Monroe), Pinball Wizard (with Peaches on vocals), and finally Acid Queen. Then a quick video tribute to Ken Russell, which really made me want to see a whole retrospective of his work. At best I've only dabbled in his work--I've seen LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, THE DEVILS, and of course TOMMY, but that's about it.

But here's the thing, I never saw TOMMY on the big screen, and I saw it so long ago and was so naive for some reason all I remembered was he was a very popular pinball wizard. TOMMY is barely, superficially about pinball. It's really about child abuse and religion. And it's about wild, over-the-top costumes, set designs, and visuals. And it's about The Who's music. And it's wild, insane, and just tons of fun. Like Peaches said in her pre-show, the great thing about Ken Russell is even if you're not on acid (for the record, I was not on acid) Ken will make you feel like you are.

Running Time: 111 minutes
My Total Minutes: 278,459

Friday, April 20, 2012

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 2

I skipped opening night because I had already seen the film. It would've been nice to see the whole gang and go to the party, but there will be plenty of that in the next two weeks. Anyway, on to the movies as my festival officially starts.

I officially said hello to the festival with GOODBYE, a film by Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof. Much like Jafar Panahi of THIS IS NOT A FILM, Mohammad has received a prison sentence and 20 year ban on filmmaking (currently both are under appeal.) In fact, he smuggled this film out of Iran, and I'm pretty glad he did. It's the story of a young woman living alone (her husband, a political journalist, is absent) and desperately trying to emigrate. She enters into some shady business trying to get a visa, meanwhile the police harass her looking (presumably) for her husband's writing. And even dealing with normal business like getting a hotel room for the night or getting the deposit back on her apartment, the male-centric society insists on dealing with her absent husband rather than her. It's a pretty compelling look at a woman in a troubling situation, and the static, claustrophobic cinematography echoes and amplifies her plight. But it also suffers from a common problem of Iranian films (at least for me)--a deadeningly slow pace. I think it was said best by the couple sitting behind me--the Iranians just have a different clock from us. But still, I know plenty of people who love the slow, contemplative, slice-of-life pace typical of Iranian films, and if you like that you'll probably love this film.

GOODBYE plays again April 21 at 1:00 pm and April 23 at 6:30 pm, both times at the Kabuki.

Next up was a movie I chose as a simple guilty pleasure--ROBOT & FRANK. Frank is played by Frank Langella, an aging cat burglar with the onsets of Alzheimer's dementia. It takes place in the near future where home phones are video screens, cell phones are clear plastic, and helper robots are relatively commonplace. So when his son Hunter (James Marsden) is tired of putting up with him, he gets him one, programmed to improve his health and keep him active and engaged as long as possible. At first Frank objects, but when he finds out that its programming doesn't include following the law, he starts to like the thing. The movie is a crowd pleasing treat with some silly conceits that I was basically happy to overlook in service of the fun. And underneath the fun there's a pretty touching story of a family dealing with a proud father losing his memory. Oh, and the cast is rounded out nicely with Liv Tyler as his daughter and Susan Sarandon as the librarian he has his eye on. Quite a cast for a first time director.

ROBOT & FRANK plays again April 22 at 7:00 pm at the Kabuki.

Next, after a couple of free beers at the festival lounge (shout out to Grolsch as the beer sponsor, and extra shout out for having a resealable cap so that someone could close it up and sneak it into the theater in the pocket of his trench coat...if he was so inclined) I saw a wonderful oddity in THE FOURTH DIMENSION (produced, appropriately enough, by Grolsch filmworks.) The fun started with a creative brief that set out the rules the directors were to follow. You can see them all by clicking here.

Okay, with that done the film was three vignettes by different directors. First up was Harmony Korine's LOTUS COMMUNITY WORKSHOP featuring Val Kilmer as motivational speaker Val Kilmer (according to the Q&A, which I don't know if I can trust, his name was Hector in the script but on the day of shooting everyone just started calling him Val.) He spouts nonsense, rides bikes, and plays video games. Then Alexsei Federchenko gives us my favorite of the three, CHRONOEYE. It's about a guy who invents a device that allows him to see any point in time, but is frustrated that he only gets banal views of people looking in random directions and not appreciating the historic impact of the moment (I love the joke about a God's eye view.) And finally Jan Kwiecinski directed FAWNS about a group of friends playing around in an abandoned town that's about to get flooded out.

So does it add up to something magical? I don't know. It's baffling, it's whimsical, it's quite possibly meaningless, or maybe it's a deceptively deep statement on the nature of meaninglessness (or meaninglessness of human nature?) Maybe it exists solely to make me write that last sentence. Or maybe it exists to make me write this one. I can say when I saw it I wasn't sure if I liked it just because it frustrated my expectations (which is maybe the point.) Perhaps I got too hung up on the creative brief (which cracked me up) and so I was looking for the hero to have a missing tooth, etc. Or maybe because I'm a time-travel geek I was hoping they all would interpret the fourth dimension as time (undoubtedly, this is why I prefer CHRONOEYE.) But whether I like it or not, I'm sure it's infected my mind now.

THE FOURTH DIMENSION plays again April 21 at 10:00 pm at the Kabuki.

And finally, I ended the night with WU XIA, and that was quite an enjoyable and exciting way to end it. It's best encapsulated as A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE reset in 1917 China. One day, in a peaceful village, a couple of robbers come to extort money from the paper mill owner. A worker there named Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) fights them, and despite all odds beats them, even killing them. To all witnesses it was pure luck, but the killing must be investigated and so detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) comes to town with his almost superhuman keen intellect and concludes (at least to himself) that Liu Jinxi is more than he appears. Of course, both Liu and Xu have a past, a past that they're both trying to escape from. And while the drama of the two men, their pasts, and their cat and mouse game is intriguing, of course it needs some high action fight scenes. It's got plenty of that, choreographed by Donnie Yen.

WU XIA plays again April 23 at 3:45 pm at the Kabuki.

Total Running Time: 411 minutes
My Total Minutes: 278,344

Jason blasts off in the Starship Vortex and meets a STAR PILOT

Tonight was opening night of the San Francisco International Film Festival. But I had already seen the film, and I knew the sort of crowd I prefer, so I went to my favorite underground film venue and caught some ridiculous 1960's Italian sci-fi.

At least the aliens actually land in Italy, on Sardinia to be precise. And the hot lady alien pilot has a great uniform--a clear circle in the center to show off her cleavage. Beyond that, well...they believe the atom bomb takes an infinitesimal amount of Uranium, weightlessness is the same as bouncing on a trampoline, you can breath through a little mouthpiece but don't need a space suit....and women can drive. Beyond that, beats me what happened. Oh yeah, there are Chinese agents who where suits and fedoras--I call them the Brues Brothers (Bruise Brothers?) And for some reason the aliens need humans to help them repair their ship...and after they succeed the aliens just take them captive. But the humans mutiny and I guess all is well. Honestly, it's one of those movies where you could walk in at any moment and ask, "What's going on?" and someone like me who had been watching the whole time can honestly answer, "I have no idea!" And that's not just the three martinis (and one beer) talking.

Oh yeah, and it was preceded by my new favoritest cartoon ever--DESTINATION EARTH. Financed by the petroleum industry, it's the story of a dictatorial communist Mars and their exploration of Earth for insights into new energy sources. Previously all power was created by dear leader Ogg whipping his subjects and/or some sort of dynamite rocket fuel. But Captain Cosmic discovers that on Earth, at least in the great land of The United States of America, they produce energy through petroleum...and through free enterprise!

Total Running Time: 103 minutes
My Total Minutes: 277,928

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jason watches CABIN IN THE WOODS

Well, that was a lot of fun. It's a horror movie, it's a comedy, it's an homage to a ton of horror movies and horror movie cliches, and it's even a cheeky deconstruction of the act of watching a horror movie. And you can probably tell from the ads that there's some mysterious organization that is torturing the kids in the titular cabin. But that's already knowing too much. It's the kind of movie where it's best to go in knowing the least and being surprised by it. So I'll leave it as it's just a lot of geeky fun for horror movie fans. And a question: Why did they have a button in there that just released all the...oops, I've already said too much.

Running Time: 95 minutes
My Total Minutes: 277,824

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Jason previews SFIFF--HYSTERIA

Well, that was fun. I could say a lot about how it mixes a costume drama with a modern ribald romantic comedy. Or I could write about how the gender issues it plays with have all the more resonance in the current political climate where so many women's rights are being rolled back. Or I could mention the great acting, especially Maggie Gyllenhaal but also Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, and a profoundly bearded and delightfully witty Rupert Everett. But I'm only allowed a brief capsule review, so I'll let my inner 13 year old self write it:

Tee hee hee! It's about the invention of the vibrator! Tee hee, guffaw snort!

HYSTERIA plays in the festival twice:
Tuesday, May 1 at 9:30 at the Kabuki
Thursday, May 3 at 6:00 at the Film Society Cinema

Festival description and link for tickets here.

And if you miss it there, it opens in Bay Area Theaters May 25th.

Running Time: 99 minutes
My Total Minutes: 277,729

Monday, April 16, 2012

Jason goes to the Dark Room and sees GOODFELLAS: LIVE

Wait a minutes, GOODFELLAS was a serious movie, with lots of death and crime and whatnot. How will the gang at the Dark Room turn this into a comedy? In what way will they be funny? Will they be clowns to you?

Ummm...yes, they will be like clowns. And make the most out of the story with lots of actors playing multiple roles (allowing them to drag the same dead body off stage multiple times while noticing how all dead bodies seem to weigh the same.) And the tiny stage frames the frenetic action very well, keeping it all the more ludicrous. And, of course, they snort a ton of cocaine...I mean, they simulate snorting a ton of cocaine.

Oh, and it's all anchored by Dark Room regular Tim Kay, given what I think is his largest role yet as Henry Hill. He's supported by fellow regulars Damien as Jimmy Conway, Jay Huston as Tommy DeVito, and Elaine Gavin as Karen Hill. Everyone else plays a multitude of roles.

GOODFELLAS: LIVE plays at the Dark Room Fridays and Saturdays through April 28th. Details here. Tickets here.

Jason goes to Bad Movie Night and watches THE GAME OF DEATH

I've been to many Bad Movie Nights at the Dark Room, some of them truly, truly awful (awfulness of say, DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS proportions.) This is the first film I've seen that offends me by its existence. Bruce Lee shot ~30 minutes of fight footage, then died. So they wrote a plot around that, about a kung fu movie star who fakes his death to find out who is trying to kill him. Then they inserted footage of Bruce Lee's actual funeral and finished the movie with two stand-ins covered by ridiculous facial hair, big sunglasses, or at one point a fucking cardboard cutout of Bruce Lee's face. And, of course, none of them can fight like Lee.

I'm sorry, I have nothing funny to say. It's just bad, bad, bad, bad, bad.

Oh yeah, and Bruce Lee fakes his death by being shot with a real bullet from what's supposed to be a fake prop gun. Just like his son Brandon Lee actually died while shooting THE CROW. Creepy!

Running Time: 85 minutes
My Total Minutes: 277,630

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for the big Earthquake Show

It's a big tradition at Niles, on the weekend nearest the anniversary of the April 18, 1906 earthquake, we do an earthquake themed show. And it's a tradition for the show to sell out, which it did again.

We start with A TRIP DOWN MARKET STREET (1906): This is a film we're awfully proud of, since our historian and projectionist David Kiehn did a ton of investigative work to prove it actually was 1906--specifically, April 14th 1906, just four days before the quake. I've now seen it many, many times, and it's always amusing. Especially with a good audience like we had at the show. They gasped at people narrowly missing getting run over, and they laughed when the same derby-sporting driver keeps cutting in front of the camera.

Next up was THE DESTRUCTION OF SAN FRANCISCO (1906, of course): Footage shot by Edison, Pathe, and Biograph companies. It's pretty incredible to see not just the utter destruction but the work of people who are getting back to normal-ish life.

Then an intermission, and the feature.

THE SHOCK (1923): Lon Chaney. I don't really need to say more. I've seen this at least once before at the museum, possibly multiple times. Lon Chaney is a shady cripple working for the crime syndicate in San Francisco. They send him to Fallbrook to lay low. Instead he falls in love, and when he's really there to take down his girlfriend's father, well he has a choice to make to stand up to Queen Ann, the boss of San Francisco (or at least SF Chinatown) crime. Oh yeah, and the earthquake plays a deus ex machina role in the climax, and was pretty perfectly timed. But heck, this movie is really about Lon Chaney losing himself in yet another incredible role.

Total Running Time (estimated): 120 minutes
My Total Minutes: 277,548

Friday, April 13, 2012

Jason blasts off in the Starship Vortex and lands on FLASH GORDON

A few manhattans, and we were ready for blast-off. We actually started with an episode of the 1936 serial starring Buster Crabbe. In particular, episode 7: Shattering Doom. They're held captive by King Vultan and Flash is forced to work in the Atomic Furnaces, shoveling fuel in. But he escapes when he throws a shovel in and blows up the whole thing. Yeah, that made sense.

Anyway, on to the much more "impressive" 1980 version. I could watch it over and over again just for the Max Von Sydow as Ming. Having Brian Blessed as Vultan and Timothy Dalton as Barin is just a bonus. Oh, and princess Aura (Ornella Muti) is pretty hot. No offense to Melody Anderson as Dale Arden, but if I were Flash I'd have run off with Aura.

[Update: Oh yeah, and I forgot to point out earlier that in the opening scene Ming unleashes a series of "natural" disasters on the Earth. Even though he only that moment was told the inhabitants call it Earth, he still has a button that says "Earthquake." Shouldn't it just say "Quake" of "Planetquake?"]

Sadly, I didn't stick around for BARBARELLA. But I should be back next Thursday for STAR PILOT (1966) and maybe STAR ODYSSEY (1979). I know, it's also opening night for SFIFF, but I already saw the opening film so I'll probably skip it.

Total Running Time: 129 minutes
My Total Minutes: 277,422

Jason watches THE ISLAND PRESIDENT

I missed this at Cinequest, and when it had a special showing at the SFFS screen. But now that it's well into its theatrical release, I finally found time for it. And it's pretty much worth the hype as a hero worship piece about Mohamed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives. Actually, after a coup d'etat, he's the former President of the Maldives. And if global warming continues, he may be the former President of the former nation of the Maldives. With it's highest point under 2 meters above sea level, climate change is an existential threat, and so Nasheed, shortly after taking office in the first democratic election in the Maldives history, became a crusader and champion of the international talks in Copenhagen in 2009. The details of those talks could easily have become very tedious, so the film is smart to not focus on the details as much as the process, the exhausting late nights, the bitter compromises, his 11th hour plea to continue working for a document, etc. At the end, it's easy to question whether he really accomplished anything (an agreement on goals, but nothing binding...) but it's impossible to doubt his effort.

To frame it, the story of the democratic revolution and the atrocities of the previous regime (supporters of whom are now back in power) make for a dramatic story in and of itself. And the cinematography is quite beautiful at times, making a powerful visual argument that The Maldives is a wonderful little spot on Earth worth saving.

Running Time: 101 minutes
My Total Minutes: 277,285

Jason previews SFIFF--WHERE DO WE GO NOW?

I'm only allowed a capsule review, so I'll just link to the festival page and add a couple of comments. Mostly, it's cool to see a film (especially from the Middle East) about the strength of women. And it's interesting to see a town from that region (specifically, from Lebanon) where different religions--Christians and Muslims in this case--coexist mostly peacefully. It does rely on some silly stereotypes of men as easily fooled aggressors and women as the much smarter peacemakers. But that's the world of the film, and it works.

It plays at SFIFF twice:
Friday, April 27th at 6:45 at the Kabuki
Monday, April 30th at 3:15 at the Kabuki

Running Time: 100 minutes
My Total Minutes: 277,183

Jason previews SFIFF--FAREWELL, MY QUEEN

The 55th annual San Francisco International Film Festival will kickoff next Thursday, April 19th, with this film. If you can't make it there, or don't have the money to shell out for what I can attest is a great film and sure to be a kick-ass party, it also opens in the Bay Area on July 13th, just in time for Bastille Day!

Oh yeah, that works better if you know it's a film about the French Revolution, in particular the last days before the fall of Versailles, told from inside Versailles through the eyes of the Queen's reader Sidonie Laborde (a fictional character invented for the novel by Chantal Thomas, on which the film is based.) Anything more than a capsule review must wait until the theatrical release, so I'll just point you to the festival page and say they've pretty much hit on everything I would say about the film.

Instead I'll philosophize a little bit about the role of a festival's opening night film. It's an odd role, since it ends up being the talk of that night and of course its on everyone's lips at the party. But since it has no further festival showings, the next day talk quickly turns to other films, in particular what films you'll choose to see next, what are the "can't miss" screenings, etc. So rather than being the film everyone talks about, it has to be the film that gets everyone excited to see a ton of movies over the next two weeks. A great opening night film celebrates and showcases (at least in some way) to powers and possibilities of the medium of the moving picture. And on that front, I think the festival will be off to a great start. It's a period costume drama, if you like that sort of thing. And if you don't, there's still enough palace intrigue, excitement, and hints of lesbianism (oh, yeah!) to keep just about anyone interested.

Running Time: 99 minutes
My Total Minutes: 277,083

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Jason watches THIS IS NOT A FILM

This is the story of director Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker whose latest script was not approved by the authorities. In fact, for his...well, the idea of such censorship is so foreign that I don't know exactly what for, but he has been sentenced to a 20 year ban on making movies. No writing, no directing, no interviews, etc. But he thinks he has found a technicality. He can still read his already written script on camera to his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. Part day-in-the-life of a stymied and frustrated filmmaker, and part retelling of his banned screenplay, we see him field phone calls and play with his pet iguana in between bouts of film-telling (which remember, isn't technically filmmaking.) And we also see from the windows the chaos and rioting in the streets right after the disputed elections.

As for a re-telling of a never made film,...well, the process of telling a film doesn't work. And that's the point and the frustration. As a day-in-the-life of a censored filmmaker...well, he seems to live in enough luxury (his place looks pretty nice, and he has a rather expensive looking big flat-screen TV to show his movies on) and there's just not enough context (at least, not enough for this typical America) to show his frustration (there is, of course, an important difference between comfort and happiness.) But as a bold statement of "fuck you" to the censoring authorities, it works brilliantly. And I instantly liked Jafar enough that I hope nothing bad has happened to him as a result.

Running Time: 75 minutes
My Total Minutes: 276,983

Jason previews SFIFF--THE WAITING ROOM

What an excellent cinema-verite look at a day in the life of Oakland's busiest emergency room. This could easily have been made as a polemic about the problems of the health care system--how the poor and indigent use the ER as their only source of care, how the system is overwhelmed and underfunded, etc. But instead it steps back and just looks at the caring people who work there and the range of patients they see.

As far as the staff, I particularly liked nurse Cynthia Y. Johnson, who always seems to have a sweet disposition even when she's scolding someone for coming in three days after he ran out of his medication. The film is smart to basically open and close on her. I also liked Dr. Doug White, who looks like central casting sent him over as an ER doc admits that most ER docs of his age got into it because they wanted to be like George Clooney on ER. But I think what I liked the most was in the credits they're all listed by name but no title--the doctors don't get "Dr." before their name. It gave me the sense that everyone is equally important there.

As far as the patients, they're a wide-ranging set. There's the young man with a testicular tumor who had surgery scheduled at Kaiser until they kicked him out because he wasn't a member (they knew that all along, but scheduled the surgery anyway?) There's the middle-aged guy with agonizing back pain whose mortgage is underwater and can't stop working, but also can't get treatment for at least a month. There's the dad with his scared daughter with swollen tonsils. And, of course, there's the regular--a repeat patient who the staff knows by name, an addict who was brought in off the street with trouble breathing.

THE WATING ROOM screens 3 times in the festival:
Saturday, April 21, 3:50 pm at the Pacific Film Archives
Monday, April 30, 1:00 pm at the Kabuki
Tuesday, May 1, 6:30 pm at the Kabuki

The director and possibly some subjects of the film are expected at some of the screenings.

Running Time: 81 minutes
My Total Minutes: 276,914

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Jason previews SFIFF--BERNIE

For those who only have perused the mini-guide, Richard Linklater's latest film, the dark comedy BERNIE is a late addition to the festival, screening once on Saturday, April 21st, at 9:30 pm at the Kabuki.

I went into this press preview knowing nothing about the life story of Bernie Tiede. I didn't even know this movie was based on a true story. So I enjoyed the mystery and discovery, and if you want to enjoy it the same way don't click here.

Bernie (Jack Black,) as we are told by countless people in semi-documentary style, is just the nicest guy to ever live in Carthage, Texas. He's an assistant funeral director and always makes sure to give people the nicest funerals possible. He even follows up with the widows and makes sure they're doing okay. They build up how nice he is so much that you know something has to give. For a good length of the movie I figured the big reveal would be Bernie is gay, and there is a part that discusses that--particularly district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) who asserts that Bernie converted two previously straight men--but in general the people just think he's really, really nice.

Let's see, what else can I say without spoiling it (or going beyond the "capsule" reviews only rule?) Shirley MacLaine is great as a rich widow who everyone else thinks is a total bitch but Bernie manages to charm. But what I found most interesting was the statements of the townspeople (mostly actual Carthage residents) that gave it not only a semi-documentary feel but made the town gossip pool the main narrator.

Oh, and Jack Black's performance of 76 Trombones is worth the price of admission alone. Perfectly timed in the movie for maximum dark humor, and executed brilliantly.

Running Time: 99 minutes
My Total Minutes: 276,837

Monday, April 9, 2012

Jason goes to Bad Movie Night and watches BLACK BELT JONES

Must...not...say...anything racist....

Jim 'Dragon' Kelly plays Black Belt Jones, who doesn't appear to have any other name. No one calls him anything but "Black Belt Jones" or sometimes his friends just call him, "Belt." Which makes me think that his real name is Belt Jones, but there's another well-known Belt Jones in town who is white, so they call him Black Belt Jones to distinguish him. Hell, it makes more sense than believing he mastered karate and then legally changed his name to Black Belt.

Anyway, kudos on being the first movie I've ever seen to figure out a way to use girls on trampolines to foil a crime lord. That's even more bizarre than Scatman Crothers as the old gambling-addicted karate master who taught Black Belt Jones everything he knows.

Now (based on a split-second shot of a sign) where can I get me some shrimp chili?

Running Time: 87 minutes
My Total Minutes: 276,737

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

The second Sunday of every month is Laurel and Hardy talkies at Niles, and even if it's Easter they still do it, just with a slightly smaller crowd. But there was a still a good number of people there. I guess people like me who want to celebrate the holiday with a few good laughs (and there were some kids there that were really laughing hard, and that makes these shows even better.)

WILD POSES (1933): An Our Gang short (with a half-second Laurel and Hardy cameo) in which Spanky and his family go to a photographer named Otto Phocus to get their pictures taken. The other Our Gang kids mess around and sabotage the camera and film plates while Spanky just doesn't cooperate at all (even punching the photographer in the nose.) Of course, wacky hijinx ensue, and Otto Phocus' business is ruined. Hilarious.

HOG WILD (1930): Regarded as among the best of the Laurel and Hardy shorts, and I can't say I disagree. The simple task of attaching an aerial antenna to the roof (for their short wave radio) gets the best of the boys, as they spend more time falling off the roof than on it. And they manage to do a good job of destroying the house, too (which was a set built to be destroyed, not a real house that they accidentally destroyed, according to the possibly apocryphal story behind BIG BUSINESS (1929))

Then after a brief intermission, on to the rest of the show.

CAME THE BRAWN (1938): Another Our Gang short, this one a one-reeler so it's really quick with no wasted action. 'Wildcat' Alfalfa is set to prove his mettle in a highly touted wrestling match with the Masked Terror. Now all they need to do is find the wimpiest kid in town to don the mask. And they succeed, but then Butch steps in to take his place, giving Alfalfa a run for his money and little luck at winning the heart of Darla. Pretty darn funny.

And finally, the 'feature,' BEAU HUNKS (1931): It's actually somewhere between a short and a feature, running approximately forty minutes. It was originally meant to be a two-reel short but kept growing during production. That was bad financially for Hal Roach, who pre-sold distribution in order to finance his films, and pre-sold it at a two-reeler price. But his commitment to quality won out, and the longer running time is used well. Ollie is set to marry his sweetheart Jeannie-Weenie (Jean Harlow, seen in an old publicity photo only.) But when she jilts him via letter, he goes where all men go to forget--the French Foreign Legion. And of course Stan goes with him. And of course they find out that everyone is there to forget Jeannie-Weenie. While they're not suited for the hardships of the desert or discipline of the Foreign Legion, they aren't allowed to leave. But they do manage to get lost in a sandstorm and be the first to arrive at the besieged Fort Arid, where they become the unlikeliest heroes.

Total Running Time: 86 minutes
My Total Minutes: 276,653

Jason watches ROBIN HOOD (1922)

At the Stanford Theatre, with Dennis James rockin' the Mighty Wurlitzer organ with the original score written for the movie. He introduced it as a score that many self-professed scholars claim is lousy. It's repetitive, it sets mood more than matching the actual action. But Dennis didn't care, he's a purist and historian who will play the original music. And for what it's worth, I thought the score worked just fine (with Dennis livening it up a bit so it wasn't quite so repetitive.)

As for the story, Douglas Fairbanks plays Robert, Earl of Huntingdon who later becomes Robin Hood (but not until halfway through the movie.) Wallace Beery plays Richard the Lionhearted. Against them are Prince John (Sam De Grasse) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Dickey.) Maid Marian is played by Enid Bennet, who is appropriately in danger quite often, but not given much more to do. The first half is pretty slow, as King Richard and Huntingdon lead their army on a crusade, Gisbourne and Prince John plot against them, and when Huntingdon escapes and finally returns to England, he finds a band of men opposing John's tyranny hiding in Sherwood Forest, just needing a leader to guide them. So he becomes Robin Hood, and the fun really starts. The sets are huge and grand (it was the first movie to cost over $1 million) and while allegedly Fairbanks was afraid he would be overshadowed by the sets, ultimately he has a grand time as an eternal child climbing the walls and sliding down the curtain.

Oh, and as someone who grew up with the Disney animated Robin Hood, I can say that the Merry Men in this version are even merrier with all their dancing, jumping, and pirouetting.

Running Time: 127 minutes
My Total Minutes: 276,570