Thursday, July 31, 2008

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Tuesday, July 29

Back at SF Jewfest, for just one movie last Tuesday.

That movie was "Jerusalem is Proud to Present", a documentary on the efforts to celebrate the World (Gay) Pride Week--in Jerusalem for the first time. An interesting look at the tensions between the secular Jewish state and the more orthodox, conservative residents of Jerusalem. Director Nitzan Gilady is definitely sympathetic to the organizers (he's a gay man from Tel Aviv, which he described as a much more modern metropolitan city than Jerusalem). But to his credit he went out of his way to interview and show protesters as well, to a truly remarkable degree. Whether listening to the rants of a Rabbi describing how a stabbing at a previous Pride march was all the fault of the victim, or following Jerusalem's one gay city council member through the gauntlet of death threats, his camera always seems to be in the right place.

There was a panel discussion after the movie with director Nitzan Gilady, Julie Dorf of LGBT organization Horizons Foundation, Rabbi Rosalind Glazer (who's also a lesbian), and SFJFF director Peter Stein:

Probably the best thing about the panel was that it provided a nice counterpoint to the violent opposition that's shown perhaps too much in the movie. Yes, Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular is full of orthodox and conservatives who are violently opposed to gay rights. But gay rights to immigration, adoption, inheritance, etc. are protected by the secular Israeli law. While there were a lot of threats and protests surrounding Pride Week, it still happened. And while the march was postponed for the Israel-Lebanon war, the march did happen, and happened again the next year.

Update: I completely forgot to mention the most interesting thing about the movie, how Pride Week brings people together. The gay Palestinian man partied freely with his Israeli friends, and orthodox rabbi protesters actually got together with Muslim and Christian leaders to plot against the event. It seems like nothing brings people together like buttsecks or hatred of buttsecks. The end.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Jason watches "Kabluey"

Thank you to the SF Film Society for the invite to this sneak preview of this indie-comedy that opens Friday in San Francisco.

Lisa Kudrow is top billed as Leslie, but she's the straight woman here. The comic star is writer/director Scott Pendergrast (who will be at the Friday and Saturday screenings at the Opera Plaza). He plays Salman, Leslie's incompetent loser brother-in-law. Leslie's husband (his big brother) is on and extended tour of duty in Iraq, and she's having trouble holding it together taking care of her two young boys while working at a go-nowhere web startup Bluenexion (helping people blue-nect?) He moves in to help, but isn't much help as the kids hate him. They even actively try to kill him by poisoning him in his sleep or putting thumbtacks in his cereal. He's not even bringing in any money, until Leslie gets him a job at Bluenexion. They're barely surviving the dot-com bust, and are just trying to rent out office space to keep from falling apart. So they put him in a big blue round headed mascot suit and have him hand out fliers (despite not having fingers). It's hot, it's uncomfortable, and the costume just looks incredibly sad (he can't seem to keep the head up). But kids love him, and the anonymity becomes his ticket to...something. Not quite success, but something a little better. He connects with the kids, he learns secrets, and in some way develops a sense of courage to protect the kids and even Leslie. A nice indie comedy with a sense of absurdity and heart.

Jason goes to Jewfest North--day 2

I'm starting to get dangerously behind in my updates. Anyway, I saw two more movies at North Jewfest last Saturday. Here they are:

First up was "Max Minsky and Me", which is sort of a rarity--a contemporary Jewish child's story in Berlin. Nelly Sue Edelmeister is a 12 year old know-it-all astronomy buff, teased at school more for being a nerd than being Jewish. She studies hard, gets straight A's (except for gym), and is preparing for her Bat Mitzvah. Besides astronomy, her other love (or schoolgirl crush) is Prince Edouard of Luxembourg, who also happens to be an astronomy buff. Too bad Luxembourg is like a 1000 km from Berlin. But there is a way she can make it there. Prince Edouard is also a fan of girls basketball, and hosts a junior high all-girls tournament inviting teams from all over Europe. So all she has to do is make it on the girls basketball team. She sucks now, but all she needs is a good coach. Enter Max Minsky, the new bad boy who has been expelled from every school between Munich (where his father lives) and Berlin (where he and his mother have just moved). Nelly offers to tutor him, but it's really just a front for them to practice basketball (which she pays him for with her tutoring money, completing the circle of money). Of course, things progress predictably as the two start off as antagonists but become friends. The whole thing is handled with a gentle sense of humor that rather pleasant. From a Jewish perspective, the most interesting aspect is how she ditches her Bat Mitzvah preparations for basketball. That shouldn't be a problem, since both she and her mom are atheists (and her father's not even Jewish). But her mom is still upset about it, and there's a line from her great aunt that captures perfectly what I've thought about being a self-identified Jewish atheist--"Being Jewish isn't about G-d, it's about behaving as if he exists even if he doesn't." I apologize if I didn't get that quote exactly right, but hey it was translated from German anyway.

Next up was a bit of what I call "emotional whiplash". This happens a lot in film festivals--you see one movie that has your emotions going in one direction (in this case happy and cheerful) and then the next movie goes 180 degrees the other way. This was a Holocaust documentary.

But first, the short animated film "Der Soldat", which uses tragic, silent, simple line drawings to tell the story of a young soldier who finds an older, dying man (presumably wounded in the unspecified war). While trying to drag him to safety, he comes upon an entire plain of the wounded and dying. Very moving. Here's the director (and Jewfest alum) Max Cohen:

Then that documentary I mentioned. I guess technically it's a Holocaust survivor documentary, "Saved by Deportation: An Unknown Odyssey of Polish Jews". This film is a major revelation, and tells a survival story I've never heard before. It's well known that before WWII there were ~3.3 Million Jews in Poland, and after there were only 300,000. What's not as well known (and I'd never heard of it) is how about 80% of the survivors avoided the death camps. Here's the typical story: A Jewish family is living in western Poland when the Nazis arrive. They have friends or family in eastern Poland, and flee to live there. The Soviet Union takes over eastern Poland. The Jews believe the war will be over quickly--this Hitler fellow is nobody and he'll be taken out soon, but this Soviet rule kind of sucks. So they sign up to return to their homes in the west. Those sign up sheets were a ruse used by the Soviets to identify people who were disloyal and pose a threat to the Soviet empire. So they're loaded onto trains and instead of heading west they're sent to Siberia to work in labor camps (and later moved to Uzbekistan and/or Tajikistan). Life is hard, and of course Stalin was never any friend to the Jews, but only when they finally return "home" after the war did they realize what true horror was (and is, as many Poles are now violent anti-Semites).

The other major revelation is the absolutely charming Asher Scharf--one of the survivors, now 80, and one of the kindest, friendliest people ever. With a sense of history and irony over how the Soviets accidentally saved his life, he's the star of the film and a source of constant good humor over their predicament (hearing him describe the open sewer in one village as "nothing fancy, but we survived" is priceless). Make no mistake, conditions were horrible and many died of diseases. But the third revelation is the testimonials of how, despite what government policy was--the ordinary villagers were friendly, courteous, and welcoming of their temporary refugee "guests". Particularly striking since in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan the villages they lived in were predominantly Muslim (and still are, and are still very friendly and welcoming when he comes back to visit).

An impressive documentary about a part of history that should be better known. Here's Producer (and son of a Polish Jew deportee survivor) Rob Podgursky:

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Jason watches "The Dark Knight" in IMAX

And let me just get this out of the way--it's abso-freakin'-lutely awesome! And IMAX is definitely worth it, if there's a theater near you. I have a very busy schedule, with movies, work, and personal life, but I might just have to make time to see this again.

I have to explain from where I'm approaching this movie. When I saw "Batman Begins", I readily acknowledged it was a great movie--well made, exciting, and dramatic. Really more of a drama with action and masks than a typical "superhero" movie. I fully approved of the restart to the series, and looked forward to many sequels. However, in all the drama and logistics of how to create Batman, I missed Tim Burton's sense of humor. All superhero movies previously had a healthy dose of goofy fun, and I wasn't ready to get rid of this. I know this is almost blasphemy, but for me Michael Keaton was still Batman and Tim Burton was still the best Batman director (we shan't speak of Joel Schumacher's shit-tacular sequels).

Then last December I grew worried when I first saw the teaser opening 5 minutes last year. It looked like Chris Nolan still hadn't found that sense of humor that would've made "Batman Begins" perfect. And there's something very wrong about a movie starring the Joker that doesn't have any jokes. I couldn't escape the irony of the marketing campaign asking "Why so serious?" when I was asking the same thing of the movie.

That was then, this is now. Chris Nolan still didn't put much humor in there (unless you're the Joker--he thinks it's funny), but he did something more amazing--he made me not miss it. "The Dark Knight" is a tense, smart drama with great action. You have to pay attention to understand the plot twists, and it really doesn't let up. There's practically no break to catch your breath and relax.

Now a lot of people are talking about Heath Ledger possibly winning a posthumous Oscar. I wouldn't put that out of reach--he's awesome--but I want to throw some kudos to the other actors. Gary Oldman was interesting as the young officer Gordon in "Begins" and is perfect on his way up to commissioner Gordon now. Aaron Eckhart is perfect as Harvey Dent--the white knight taken down. And his Two-Face makeup is amazing--this is not the silly Tommy Lee Jones Two-Face. This isn't even the scarier Two-Face of the animated series. This is fucked-up scary Two-Face. Maggie Gyllenhaal did great replacing Katie Holmes. Honestly, the weak link in the cast has to be Christian Bale. Sorry, but there's a part of me that still believes Michael Keaton is Batman. And there's a bigger part of me that believes Christian Bale can only really act when he's emaciated ("The Machinist" and "Rescue Dawn" are two great movies that showcase his skill much more than either of his Batman movies). Anyway, if the Academy ever wakes up and realizes they need a Best Ensemble Cast category, "The Dark Knight" would be in the running.

As a last note, I'd like to comment on a particularly stupid phenomenon I've seen where people try to read "The Dark Knight" as a political movie. Some see it as a pro-George Bush movie, others see it as more generally advocating stronger tactics in the war on terror. The first take is pretty absurd (Batman is actually competent), the second is a little more interesting but I think still misses the mark. I'll now enter into some spoilers, I'll try to keep it light. The Joker is referred to explicitly as a terrorist and someone who isn't interested in money, he just wants to watch the world destroy itself. Batman is a formidable foe, but the crime world in general and the Joker in particular see him as weak because he plays by rules--e.g., don't kill anyone. Batman learns that to fight such evil he has to make tough choices that will sometimes result in deaths (he also blatantly violates personal privacy to track the Joker). He'll be vilified and hated by the citizens, but he's the hero that Gotham needs, not the one it wants. I think references to terrorism are intentional but are simply there to better resonate with the audience. The critical point that keeps this from being a treatise on how to run the war on terror is simple--Batman is not and cannot be an instrument or symbol of government authority. Batman can do the dirty work and be hated (and hunted) because he's an outlaw and a rebel. He can be just as bad as the bad guys (but on the good side), but law and order would not survive if the government was also that bad. Government needs to be seen as clean, and needs a face like Harvey Dent (Gotham's White Knight) to lead it. People don't follow the mysterious guy who leaps from the shadows to mete out his brand of justice (or rather, they shouldn't--Batman wannabes create problems in the movie), they follow the public figure who urges them to follow their better instincts. Rather than advocating harsher, dirtier government tactics, "The Dark Knight" makes the case that without a government that strictly adheres to rules of proper conduct, society goes nuts and chaos ensues.

Of course, all this ignores the fact that it's a movie! A fantasy meant for entertainment, not as a policy statement. And as entertainment, it's top-notch. In fact, all the philosophizing on how Batman needs to be darker to get the job done, really made a case for me to love the movie despite the lack of Tim Burton's humor. So while you can argue whether or not in real life a dark knight is the kind of hero we need, "The Dark Knight" is now the kind of hero movie I want.

By the way, as for Klavan's WSJ article also mentioning that "300" is also somehow about the values of the war on terror, see my post on that movie for the complete opposite take.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jason goes to Jewfest (North)--opening night

I've struggled over the years with what to nickname the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. At first I thought to call it "Jewfest", but that isn't fair to the Silicon Valley (formerly San Jose) Jewish Film Festival. So, as clunky as it sounds, they're Jewfest North and Jewfest South (or North Jewfest and South Jewfest) to me.

Anyway, regardless of what you call it, SFJFF started last Thursday night, first with lots of speeches and thanks and applause, and finally with a movie. And that movie was worth the wait. "Strangers" is an interesting and lively improvised film. There wasn't really a script per se, as much as a premise. Two strangers meet in Berlin before the finals of the FIFA World Cup, 2006. They have identical backpacks, and accidentally swap on the train, then they have to meet up later to exchange bags. Turns out she's Rana, a Palestinian woman living in Paris, he's Eyal, an Israeli Jew, but they decide to be friendly to each other. And when it turns out neither has a place to stay, they go looking for a place together and end up having a little love affair.

Then a strange and tragic thing happened, both in the movie and in the making of the movie. Hezbollah fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, Israel responded with great force, and the Israeli-Lebanon war of 2006 started. Of course this wasn't in the script (pay attention: there was no script), but they incorporated it anyway. There's an excellent split-screen shot of Eyal (a France Fan) watching the finals and equating the pain of their loss with the pain of the just-starting war. The filmmakers could've chosen to go any number of ways at this point, but they chose to go for love. Eyal follows Rana back to Paris, despite her ordering him not to. They have to battle the prejudices of friends in order to stay together, which only gets worse when he's drafted. And come to think of it, maybe they don't stay together. I'm not giving any spoilers. Maybe love isn't strong enough to overcome this conflict. You'll just have to watch and find out!

If you do want to find out, it plays again August 2 in Palo Alto, August 9 in Berkeley, and August 10 in San Rafael.

Here's director Erez Tadmor, star Lubna Azabal (Rana), and North Jewfest executive director Peter Stein at the Q&A following the movie:

By the way, due to other commitments, I won't be able to make as much of North Jewfest as I usually do, but you should be able to look forward to a dozen or so reviews here.
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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Jason watches "Full Grown Men"

Thank you to Indiefest for getting me into this sneak preview. "Full Grown Men" opens at the Lumiere Theater in San Francisco on Friday.

This movie boasts an impressive, eclectic supporting cast, including Alan Cumming as a psychotic former moose mascot, Deborah Harry as a professional mermaid, and Amy Sedaris as a clown/barmaid backed up by three midget bouncers. But the movie belongs to Matt McGrath as 30-something child Alby Cutrera. It opens with a jaunty animated recap of how fun his childhood was, and how great he was at tormenting his parents, teachers, and best friend Elias. So it's not surprising that even when he grew up, got married, and had his own son, he still likes to play with toys and get into trouble. And when he gets into another fight with his wife, he walks out (or as she puts it, "run away from home, little boy"). Instead of immediately making good on his promise of going to DiggityLand (a fictional amusement park), he goes back home to his sick mother and looks up Elias, who now works as a teacher for retarded children and tries to pick up the friendship where they left off. As it happens, Elias is going to DiggityLand for a special education teachers convention, and he invites Alby along. On the way, in between meeting wacky characters, Elias finally gets fed up with Alby's abuse and childishness, and kicks him out.

As I said, this movie belongs to Matt McGrath, and without his ability to show the sympathetic, even enjoyable side of a rather unlikable person, this movie wouldn't work at all. As it was, it's a fun little movie that catches the oddity of a segment of the young adult generation that hasn't grown up.

Jason watches "Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead" and then eats a delicious chicken sandwich

The Tromatic minds behind such cult classics "The Toxic Avenger", "Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD", "Tromeo and Juliet", and "Terror Firmer" have topped themselves with the sickest, funniest movie I've seen from them--or most anyone--in a long time.

Arbie is a high school kid with a girlfriend named Wendy (yeah, all the names are taken from fast food places). She goes off to college, swearing she'll never change. But the next time he sees her, she's joined Collegiate Lesbians Against Mega-corporations (C.L.A.M.) protesting the opening of a new American Chicken Bunker, that happens to be built on a sacred burial ground of the Tromahawk tribe. To spite her, he gets a job in the ACB. Unfortunately, angry spirits and gross egg-thingies infect the already questionable "food", resulting in explosive diarrhea, immense amounts of green vomit, and eventual chicken zombie-ism. Yeah, good times!

Plot is not something I need to divulge further. I've also heard the argument that this is a political movie. Yeah, I can see that, but really it's more about take-no-prisoners, offend-everyone comedy (some call this "politically incorrect", but I'm tired of that term). And besides, trying to find deep meaning in a Troma movie is pretty fucking pointless. I will reiterate that this is a very offensive, very gross, and very funny movie. Intentionally campy movies are very hard to do, and lord knows Troma has failed many times, but this time they've got it right.

Oh yeah, and it's a musical!

So then I celebrated this movie by going up the street to the Monk's Kettle, an excellent but very crowded beer pub and restaurant (actually, I had a couple of pre-movie beers there, too). There I treated myself to a tasty grilled chicken sandwich, with a couple of beers just to be safe.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Jason swings into a Vortex to see Ann-Margret in "The Swinger"

Back in my favorite little movie lounge last night, knocked back a couple of martinis, and saw this little classic from 1966.

Ann-Margret is a writer. She tries to get a job working for the sexy magazine Girl Lure. But she's so pretty the editor mistakes her for a model. She writes a steamy story called "The Swinger", but the editor finds it unrealistic, especially coming from a goody-two-shoes like her. So she boasts that it's all based on her real life, then she has to get her artist friends (and her vice squad cop friend) to help her fake it. Sexy, wacky hijinx ensue, Ann-Margret is really, really pretty, and a good time is had by all. The end.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Jason goes to the Hypnodrome and sees "The Room"

Another Dead Channels White Hot n' Warped Wednesday last night. This one featuring Tommy Wiseau's "The Room", billed as either the worst movie ever or so bad it's secretly brilliant.

Oh, but first we had a rousing sing-along of "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the player piano. And apparently I'm so (in)famous for singing along that they brought me up on stage to help lead it. Awesome, now I know I've arrived! But for the record, I also can't sing, so anyone who heard me last night, I'm truly, truly sorry.

Okay, as for the movie, Wiseau himself plays Johnny, the perfect adoring boyfriend who is engaged to Lisa. He's a relatively successful banker and buys Lisa lots of gifts. Problem is, she doesn't love him, and starts an affair with his best friend Mark. Lisa's mother Claudette keeps telling her how great Johnny is and how she can't survive on her own. And there's a weird orphan boy Denny who's always hanging out (his story provides more background on what a great guy Johnny is). Now the problems: the acting is atrocious and the sex scenes are revolting. Nothing happens for the longest time, when it does it's unsatisfying, and Johnny is just too ugly and stupid to be a leading man (and his long hair prevents him from being a believable banker). Thank God there was plenty of beer at the screening. And thank God I didn't pass out on the BART on my way home.

Anyway, this was billed as possibly so bad it's brilliant. And Dead Channels programmer Bruce can comment if he wants to. But the crux of his argument, as best I could understand it, is that it might be intentionally frustrating. It gives the audience nothing to hang on to, it has no sense of time (one day the wedding's a month off, the next minute they're all in tuxedos, then the wedding is still a long way off, but Lisa is throwing a surprise party for Johnny's birthday). But if you watch it all the way through it infects you on a subliminal level (in Bruce's words, "The Videodrome signal is embedded in there"). Maybe, but I kind of hope not. I don't want this crap sticking around in my brain. But I do get a perverse sense of glee knowing I survived "The Room".

Jason watches "Hellboy 2: The Golden Army"

And it was pretty darn fun. There's some points early on where it looks to be veering dangerously (and surprisingly) into "Men in Black 2" silliness. But once they enter the Troll Market, it blows up as pure Guillermo del Toro-ana, and then it's the world I expected to love coming in, and the world I loved going out. Oh, and while the ectoplasmic character of Johann Krauss also pushes the limit of silliness, but I just love Seth MacFarlane's voice acting. For some reason, "Suck my ectoplasmic schwanzstucker!" really gets to me.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Jason goes to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Okay, I'm getting backed up on this blogging thing. So I'm going to make this a brief rundown of the weekend festival. But I do want to preface it by saying that the silent film fans in the SF Bay Area (at this festival and every week in Niles) are some of the coolest, funnest, most intimidatingly knowledgeable film fans I've ever met, and the staff has a sense of fun and showmanship unparalleled in any festival I've seen. I've wanted to make it to this festival for a few years, and now that I've been I'm hooked. Can't wait for next year.

Now, with that out of the way, on to the poorly-written capsule reviews:

The festival opened Friday, with a short from a familiar face. "Broncho Billy's Adventure". First I should mention that all the shorts this year were all restored by students from the L. Jeffrey Selznick school of film preservation sponsored by George Eastman House. In this film Broncho Billy rides into town and stays at the local inn. The innkeeper's daughter is the local beauty, and all the men in town are vying for her hand. So much it overwhelms her father, who insists that he can't lose her. He's so protective he chases away her love, turning the townsfolk against him. Broncho Billy has to play both cupid and peacemaker, getting the young lovers together, getting her father to give her some freedom, and keeping the townsfolk from lynching him.

The feature was a Harold Lloyd comedy, "The Kid Brother". But first it was introduced by a short conversation with film critic/silent film festival advisory board member Leonard Maltin and Harold's granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd. I have to make a minor digression before I review the movie. First, I'm a "Futurama" fan and I've always liked the tribute character Harold Zoid, Dr. Zoidberg's distant uncle who was one of the early silent hologram stars (I love the idea that when movies go 3-D, they had to start again with silents). Well in real life Harold Lloyd was a huge fan of 3-D stereoscopic photography, taking hundreds of thousands of pictures, including many "cheesecake" shots of his famous neighbors (like Marilyn Monroe). So I like to think that making Harold Zoid an early 3-D film star was a little sly nod to that.

Okay, enough digression, back to the movie. "The Kid Brother" is a hilarious movie in which Harold Lloyd plays the youngest brother in a family of manly men. His father is the local sheriff, his brother's are two strapping lads, and he's a little pipsqueak, but a clever guy who thinks differently (like washing the clothes in the butter churn and hanging them to dry on a kite string. His family picks on him, especially when a local medicine show comes to town and he accidentally gives them permission to perform. But when the towns dam money (money for a dam) is stolen and his father is framed, it becomes his time to shine, and like in every Harold Lloyd movie, he saves the day and gets the girl. And a good time was had by all, helped out by the wonderful live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Well then on Saturday I skipped the film festival. Instead I watched my beloved Quakes tie in a mediocre soccer game, then drank wine and hung out with my friends in San Mateo. A good time was still had, but not at the festival so we'll just move on.

On to Sunday morning, starting out with an animation program.

The short "The Bottom of the Sea" is a simple, funny line animation of a car that turns to a boat that turns to a submarine and sees a bunch of animals at the bottom of the ocean. Only a fragment exists, the ending is missing.

And then the feature, "The Adventures of Prince Achmed", which is the oldest known animated feature-length film (a good 11 years before Walt Disney made "Snow White", the first color animated feature with sound). This was made by a German woman, Lotte Reiniger, who as a little girl was always interested in cut-out silhouettes. And so she animated (with the help of several assistants) a sweeping adventure epic. The evil African Sorcerer tricks Prince Achmed into taking a ride on his flying horse so he can seduce Achmed's sister. His adventures take him to the magical land of fairies, where he falls for fairy Princess Peri Banu (after romping about with all her attendants!) In far-off China he has to rescue her with the help of the Witch of Fire Mountain and then return home to battle the African Sorcerer. An amazing achievement.

Next up, the great film historian David Shepard was given the Silent Film Award. My readers may remember him for presenting the George Melies program at Niles a few weeks back.

Then the feature, "The Silent Enemy". Doomed commercially by being designated an "educational" film, this movie shows the lives of the Ojibwa tribe of northern Canada. Particularly, during one particularly dire winter (the silent enemy of the title is hunger), when old chief Chetoga dies and the evil Medicine Man Bagwan makes a power play against the mighty hunter Baluk so that he can marry Neewa, Chetoga's daughter. Nowadays the educational aspects seem dated and questionable (could they really keep bear cubs as pets? Especially after killing the mom and only using the fur?) But the politics of tribe dynamics is actually pretty interesting and makes for an exciting story. Perhaps now this will be rediscovered (by more than just me and a Castro-full of silent film fans) and be recognized as the solid entertainment it always was and no longer be doomed to the fate of an "educational" film. Of course, it's got a double uphill climb as a silent educational film.

The next show started with a restored very rare screen test of Mary Pickford in Technicolor. That's right you losers (unless you were there), I've seen Mary Pickford--the original America's Sweetheart--in freakin' color! I've seen the red of her lips, the green of her dress (and eyes, but that might have been an artifact of the early Technicolor process), the slight pink-white of her face. It was awesome!

Then the feature was a Colleen Moore comedy, "Her Wild Oat". Colleen Moore was a famous silent film star, and practically defined the "flapper" look in "Flaming Youth". "Her Wild Oat" was thought to be lost until it showed up recently in the Czech republic, but more on that later. In this movie she plays an orphan who has grown up to run a little diner stand. One night, a rich aristocrat is mugged. Penniless he stops at her stand for a cup of coffee, and she takes some pity on him (allowing him to work off his bill washing dishes--which he promptly breaks). She advises him to get a job instead of being such a bum (she doesn't know he's so rich). He later pays her back, telling her he got a job as a driver for a rich man, and they're going away for a couple of weeks of leisure. This puts ideas into her head, so she dips into her savings for a couple of weeks of vacation herself. But she just doesn't fit in at the rich people's resort, until a writer friend spots her and makes her up as the fake Duchesse de Granville (yes, they use the french spelling instead of Duchess, more on that later). Little does she know that that's actually the name of her rich friends' new stepmother and hilarious hijinx ensue, ending with a happily ever after (even for the doggies!).

Then the movie was followed by a brief talk from a film preservationist about the reconstruction of this movie. You see, when lost silents are discovered in foreign countries, they usually have inserts and intertitles in the native tongue, and this was no exception. Creating new English intertitles can be tricky, as it's not just a simple translation job (often they were poorly translated from English to begin with). However, with "Her Wild Oat" they were blessed with the original English script. Problem is, they were blessed with many working versions of the original script, and no way to know how it ended up. But it's fascinating how they pieced together clues as to how it was originally presented. For example, the spelling of "Duchesse" with the "e" I mentioned above. That's not correct English, but it was in the script. More importantly, a contemporary newspaper account complained about just this mistake. So while you might suppose that "Duchesse" is a poor translation from Czech back to English, in fact it was that way in the original English version. Fascinating, and doesn't distract one bit from a charming, funny film.

Next up was the experimental program of the festival. First the short "Kaleidoscope", a completely abstract early Technicolor test using prisms. Pretty cool.

And then there was "Jujiro", the movie that convinced me that the Japanese have made fucked up movies from the very beginning. A lowly japanese man drinks and gets into fights. He has a crush on a beautiful "lady of the evening." He gets into fights, loses his money, and has to be bailed out by his very patient sister. When he's blinded by ashes in yet another fight, things go from bad to worse. But beyond just the story, the visuals are as stunning as anything you'd see today. Absolutely amazing.

And finally (I really lived up to my opening promise to be brief, aren't I?) the final show of the weekend.

First a short travelogue, "Lost-A Yodel" about winter life in the Swiss Alps. Cool fun in the snow.

And the final feature, the comedy "The Patsy" starring Marion Davies and directed by King Vidor. Marion is Patricia Harrington, the little sister of the Harrington family, ruled by a domineering mother (Marie Dressler, also awesome) who clearly prefers her big sister Grace. Pat is more of a daddy's girl, problem is daddy can't stand up to ma. Pat has eyes for Grace's boyfriend, who doesn't even know she exists. Grace is a big flirt and starts canoodling with the local rich playboy, leaving her former beau in the dust. Eventually he actually figures out that Pat is interested, but not before wacky hijinx and uncomfortable mix-ups. And loads of tom-foolery by Davies, including a famous scene of her impersonating other famous female screen legends of the time, that had the house roaring with laughter. An excellent way to end the festival on a high note.

And that, my friends, is that. Finally.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Jason watches "Kung Fu Panda" in IMAX

And it was okay. It was actually pretty fun. And I'm glad I saw it in IMAX. But especially, I'm glad that so many of the villagers in the movie were bunnies. It's like the town was bunnytopia. Bunnies and piggies. But who cares about piggies? The bunnies are totally where it's at.

The end.

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees "The Busher" plus a couple of shorts

Back at my favorite Saturday night silent film hangout. Okay, it's usually the only Saturday night silent film hangout in the Bay Area. But not next weekend. Next weekend there's the SF Silent Film Festival at the Castro. I'll be busy Saturday night, but I should be there Friday and Sunday.

Anyway, these were the movies in Niles last Saturday:

"Alkali Ike's Auto"--a short comedy with Alkali Ike (Augustus Carney) and Mustang Pete (Harry Todd) vying for the affection of Betty Brown (Margaret Joslin). Ike offers to take her on a horse ride. Pete one-ups with a carriage ride. So Ike buys a fancy new horseless carriage. If only he knew how to drive. Interesting trivia, Harry Todd and Margaret Joslin were married in real life.

"Saturday's Lesson" was (one of?) the last "Our Gang" silents, before they went all talkie. The gang doesn't want to do chores on Saturday morning. But a guy in a devil costume teaches them a lesson. Maybe a little too well, in fact.

And then the feature, "The Busher". A good ol' baseball story. Small town star makes an impression when the champion St. Paul Pink Sox stop in town (their train breaks down). He's called up to the majors, gets a big head, gets sent away, and returns home shamed. But when the big cross-town rivalry comes around, some unscrupulous types try to rig the game. Luckily he's there to save the day. And he vows only to pitch for local town pride ever again. A nice movie.

Jason slips into a Vortex and sees some Eddy Falconer movies

I'm still a bit behind in my posts. Last Thursday I went back to my favorite speakeasy movie lounge. They're doing a series of Thursday night movies for the next month or so. This is the first I made it to. Details at their myspace page.

Despite having Friday off, it was still a long night at work. So the first thing I did when I got there was downed 3 of their excellent martinis. Then I had to switch to beer. So I apologize for not having a crystal-clear memory of the night.

Anyway, the night was a showcase of the work of local experimental filmmaker Eddy Falconer, pictured here:

I didn't know of her work before tonight, and I only got a small taste, since I had to leave to catch the BART home (I just didn't have the stamina for an all-nighter). But here's what I did see:

"Something from Nothing" is a short film made entirely of edit effects in Final Cut Pro (I think, it might've been a different program. Sorry, I'm not a filmmaker). You'd think that couldn't be interesting, but actually it was pretty amusing (granted, I was drunk and I'm already pre-disposed to like just about any example flickering lights on a screen with synchronized sound)

"Tarot of Berlin" is her feature length film shot in Berlin when she was living there just before the wall fell. Silent footage (with music, but dialogue free), first of giant tarot cards all over Berlin. Then people modeling the characters of the tarot. Then a mix of the two.

And then I had to catch the BART home, so I missed the rest of the night. But it was a fun night, and just the wind-down I needed for the 4th of July weekend. And now that I think about it, I didn't stay long enough for the Trader Joe's enchiladas I was promised. Now I want to get some Trader Joe's enchiladas.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Jason goes to the Hypnodrome and sees "Hell's Ground"

Aka "ZIBAHKHANA", the first gore splatter film from Pakistan. Dennis Harvey has an excellent write-up in the SF Bay Guardian.

Dead Channels presents the "White Hot 'N' Warped Wednesdays", every other Wednesday at the Hypnodrome. Last Wednesday was a real treat. As I said above, it's a splatter gore film from Pakistan. Check that, it's the splatter gore film from Pakistan.

As a horror movie, it's all over the place. The gang of road-tripping (and sometimes just plain tripping) teenagers run into not just zombies, or crazy vampires, or a creepy old man, or a burqa-clad mace-wielding psycho--they run into all of the above and more.

If it was just about the story, it would be an effective horror adventure in and of itself. But the fact that it's Pakistani is important for more than just a footnote or trivia. It is in fact an interesting cultural document that shows a Pakistan that's much more complex than what we see on the news. Just showing that Pakistani kids smoke pot, have posters of American movies, speak English, etc. goes a long way towards bridging cultural bonds--not to mention that they made a horror movie with homages to American horror movie classics (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead movies, Night of the Living Dead, etc.). Hell, the fact that there are drag queens walking the streets in Islamabad makes me think the world's gonna be okay.

And that was my White Hot 'n Warped Wednesday. In two weeks (July 16th) check out "The Room" and then two weeks after that the menstrual horror-comedy "Period". Check out Dead Channels for more information.

Jason watches "Wall-E"

And Pixar still brings the magic. I can review this in two words--"I cried."

It's comforting to see that robot love is even less efficient than human love.

The fatties and pro-big box business dittoheads who are protesting the movie need to get over themselves.

The short was also awesome. "Presto" is a slickly done comedy that echoes the classic Tom & Jerry/Bugs Bunny/etc. trope of the weaker critter beating up on the bully.

The closing credits were also cool, going from cave paintings through various painting forms up to the pixel graphics of early video games.

The short and the credits bookend the movie nicely with a deep feeling of respect for the art form of animated story-telling, not just the "wow" of computer animation. That's the thing about Pixar, I really get the sense that they are first and foremost storytellers, and they just happened to have learned (and perfected) computer graphics as their storytelling method. In fact, they integrated brief live-action sequences into the movie (with Fred Willard as Shelby Forthwright, CEO of the Buy n Large company, standing in front of a suspiciously presidential seal).

Oh yeah, and this didn't really happen because it's a Disney movie, but in the movie that only exists in my mind, at the end Wall-E and Eve go off and have efficient, precise, robot sex.

Jason watches "The Incredible Hulk"

And it was okay. Actually, it was pretty darn good, just a well-executed action adventure flick, and Edward Norton makes a fine Bruce Banner. The Lou Ferrigno cameo was cool, but even better was using Lou for the voice of the Hulk. The line "Hulk Smash" did send a little thrill up my spine.

It was certainly better than the 'don't make me Ang Lee, you won't like me when I'm Ang Lee' version. But while Ang Lee made a very interesting failure, Louis Leterrier has made a conventional, somewhat uninteresting success.

On a different note, I noticed something in the credits. There was a line at the end stating that the smoking portrayed in the movie was for dramatic effect only and not intended to promote smoking. Then they repeated the Surgeon General's warning. I don't remember the exact words, and I don't know if it's shown up in other film credits.

Now here's the deal. I know smoking is bad, I know images of smoking in popular entertainment can influence kids. I know there are groups that want movies automatically rated R if there's any smoking in them ("The Incredible Hulk" is PG-13). But I also understand the free speech arguments, and the fact that the aesthetics of smoke on film is just really cool. And, for the record, I didn't see anything pro-smoking in the movie. In this debate I'm firmly in the free speech camp, let them show smoking in the movies. But if anyone thinks putting a little message at the end of the credits where nobody will read it (the theater was about half full, I was the only one left by the end of the credits) will make this issue go away, they're an idiot. It's like they've intentionally chosen the least effective way to address the issue. And that's all I've got to say about that.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Jason goes to the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival at the Niles Film Museum

I'm really becoming a big fan of my local silent film theater (the only one in the country--that I know of--that plays silent films on a regular weekly basis). Well, last weekend was their big event, the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

The theme this year was the works of the studios of the early Motion Pictures Patents Company. I made it to two of the three days (Saturday I was busy drinking heavily, but that's another story). Here's the rundown:

Friday, opening night, featured the films of the Edison Studios. Edison, of course, was the big man with most of the patents and in short the Motion Pictures Patents Company was a compromise to keep him from running everyone out of business.

They showed possibly the most famous one, "The Great Train Robbery" starring G. M. (later Broncho Billy) Anderson. It wasn't the first film or even the real first western, but it was the first blockbuster that made movies the American institution they are today. Still exciting, even if the actors in New Jersey don't know how to ride a horse.

"The Passer-By" is a sad tale of an old man invited to the empty chair at a bachelor party dinner. He tells his life story, centered around the woman who jilted him and ruined his life, only to find that's the grooms mother!

"The Simp and the Sophomores" is a funny little flick about a poor little nerd just off to college. All the Sophomores pick on him. So he enlists the help of boxing instructor Arm. Strong, who gives them a good licking. Oh yeah, and Arm. Strong happens to be a very young Oliver Hardy (before he teamed up with Stan Laurel).

Then, after a brief intermission, the feature film "The Salt of the Earth". A humorous drama about gold mining. Sinful John and Snowshoe Sam are old 'pardners' panning for gold. The evil businessman Hyde swindles their buddy Pyrite by "salting the earth"--planting gold dust on a worthless claim and then selling it to him, even as Hyde's son is courting Pyrite's pretty daughter. Years later, Pyrite is dead, his daughter is working as a nurse, and Sinful and Snowshoe have a plan to swindle Hyde back.

And that was Friday. As I said, I was drunk on Saturday, on the annual Caltrain pub crawl. I (and about 100 other drunkards) got a day pass and rode up the peninsula from Palo Alto to Burlingame, stopping at bars every few stops and drinking heavily. In fact, from Fremont I took a bus to San Jose, another to Palo Alto, Caltrain up the peninsula, and BART back home. So I ringed the Bay, drunk 80% of the way, all on public transit. What fun!

Okay, back to the movies.

I was still a little hungover at 1 pm on Sunday when they started in to the Lubin studio program. Lubin is an interesting story, because he was mostly a pirate that they included in the Patents Company because it would be easier than trying to crush him. He made his own "Great Train Robbery" (called "The Bold Bank Robbery") and copied tons of Melies films. He even fled the country for a few years when Edison had the law bearing down on him. Nevertheless, the Lubin studio of Philadelphia did make some films, launched some silent film stars, and is included in this program.

"The Beloved Adventurer Episode Eight: A Partner in Providence"--a one-reeler detective story, highlighted by a freakin' amazing train crash (really, it was awesome!)

"Until We Three Meet Again"--3 college chums vow to meet again in 10 years time. But by then, they've taken different paths. One has fallen on hard times and actually unwittingly robs another one.

"A Man's Making"--A feature length film about a young college football star with a wealthy businessman father. He's always asking for more money, until he decides to go off and prove himself without his father's help. Starting with honest work, he works his way up to become a local leader of enough esteem that he can help his father out when business rivals have a go at him.

Next up were the films of the Biograph company. The Biograph camera was invented by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, and was actually a completely different design from Edison's camera. It had larger film (68 mm vs. 35 mm) and a faster speed, resulting in clearer images and--more importantly--freedom from Edison's patent control. Actually, Dickson had also invented Edison's camera so he knew exactly how to build one that wouldn't infringe on the patents. As a result of the higher quality film, and because much of their surviving prints were donated to the Museum of Modern Art, many of the best prints from that era are of Biograph Films. Biograph in it's heyday also employed some of the greatest stars and directors, like D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennet, and Lillian Gish (and her sister Dorothy).

"Their First Divorce Case"--directed by Mack Sennet, a funny little comedy about private eyes hired by a wife to follow a cheating husband. They get the goods--too bad the husband and wife had patched things up and she was the girl they "caught" him with.

"The Lonedale Operator"--directed by D. W. Griffith. An exciting short about a woman who works as a telegraph operator at a train station. Her father is ill, and she wires for help. The next train in contains the payroll for a mining company, and also some guys trying to rob it. She has to hold them off until help arrives.

"A Dash Through the Clouds"--another Mack Sennet comedy. Chubby loves Josephine, but she's keen on Slim, the local aviator. He takes her up in his plane, while Chubby is left on the ground where he runs afoul of an angry mob. So Josephine and Slim have to save him from the airplane.

"An Unseen Enemy"--another D. W. Griffith drama. The servants attempt to steal the inheritance of two young sisters, played by Lillian and Dorothy Gish in their screen debuts.

And then the feature "Judith of Bethulia" by D. W. Griffith. A biblical epic and the movie that ushered Griffith out of Biograph (basically, the cost of feature films broke up the Patents Company studios). Bethulia is an ancient Jewish city, guarding the entrance to Jerusalem. One problem--the local well is outside the city gates. That's all fine and well, until the Assyrians come and lay siege to the city. The citizens are starving, when Judith, a local beloved widow, hears the voice of God. She undergoes a ritual cleansing, dresses in her finest clothes, and goes out to present herself to the Assyrian general Holfernes. The plan is to seduce him and then murder him. As she gets to know him, her passion is slightly aroused and she has some doubts. But luckily her resolve is strong!

And finally, the festival had to end with the films of the Essanay Studio. Founded in Chicago by George Spoor and Gilbert Anderson (later Broncho Billy), the name was a combination of their initials (S & A = Essanay). Their primary studio was in Chicago, but they opened a west coast studio in Niles, where Anderson shot their westerns (he was allegedly fond of saying he could walk off the set and right into the scenery). In fact, Broncho Billy himself came for this show. It's true I have photographic proof!

Although not in this program, for one year Essanay also employed a young comedian by the name of Charlie Chaplin, and he shot a handful of films in Niles, including "The Tramp". That wasn't on the program, but here's what was:

"The Madman"--unfortunately, the end of this film is missing, but what exists shows a madman who's also a master of disguise. He escapes from the asylum, and seeks out his father. He's a little obsessed with his father--with killing him, to be precise. He breaks in, ties up his father, and steals his identity (master of disguise, remember). He's discovered and runs away, hopping on a hot air balloon. Allegedly in the end, he's pushed out of the balloon and falls to his death, but that part was missing.

"Broncho Billy's Christmas Dinner"--Good ol' Broncho Billy is going to rob a stagecoach. Trouble is, the driver is missing and the coach is out of control (the horses got spooked at a rest stop). So Billy chases it down and stops it, and happens to save the lady passenger. She's on her way home for Christmas dinner, and invites Billy along. Her father happens to be the sheriff, and with all the loving law-abiding folks, Billy is ashamed and confesses--and is pardoned. And a delicious Christmas dinner was enjoyed by all.

"Alkali Bests Broncho Billy"--Alkali Ike (Augustus Carney) was a staple of Essanay comedies. A goofy little guy with a big hat. In this one, everybody (including Broncho Billy) is competing to take the boss's pretty niece to the dance. Billy looks like he'll win, until Ike points out that his banjo is providing the music, and unless he gets to take her, there's no dance. Billy is left with nothing.

"The New Church Organ"--A romance between an organ salesman and the minister's daughter.

"The Shotgun Ranchman"--A heartwarming comedy shot in Niles, about a gruff old ranch owner who won't let women-folk or children on his property. That is, until the little girl who lives next door befriends him, turning him into a caring person.

"Sophie's Hero"--this is the oldest surviving Snakeville comedy from Niles. Sophie wins the attention of all the local men. Alkali Ike, being a weakling, doesn't have much of a chance. But when he puts on a bearskin and scares them all away, he wins!

"Broncho Billy and the Claim Jumpers"--Shot in Niles, an exciting adventure/race of Broncho Billy trying to file a claim before some claim jumpers can. The claim jumpers get a local bartender to drug Billy's stagecoach driver. So the driver's daughter has to drive the coach while Billy shoots at the crooks from the back of the coach. Shot in beautiful Niles canyon, and if you know the area you can tell it.

And finally, "Versus Sledge Hammers" is a Snakeville comedy also shot in Niles. Sophie has inherited a million dollars. The Count hears of it, and decides to seduce her and marry her for her money. But her sweetheart Pete, the local blacksmith, won't give her up without a fight. Who do you think will win, in this battle of pompous aristocracy versus sledge hammers?