Thursday, November 27, 2008
Last night I went to the fabulous Parkway Theater, the original Oakland speakeasy theater where you can get a pitcher of beer and a pizza (or nachos, sammiches, etc) to enjoy during the movie. And this was a movie that goes very well with beer.
It's very, very difficult to intentionally make a cult classic film. Cult film fans can tell when you're pandering to them, and they don't respect it. In fact, most cult classics are films that are so far out there that you can't imagine the filmmakers thinking about an audience at all--they make the film for themselves and if a cult finds it, good for them.
With that said, "Repo! The Genetic Opera" is still perfectly primed to become a cult classic (and judging by the members of the N. Cal Repo Army singing along last night, it already is). Sometime in the near future, organ failures have become an epidemic. In steps Geneco, the corporate answer for organ transplants. You can even finance your transplant at a reasonable rate. However, if you can't keep up the payments they send in a Repo Man to take back their property (organs with ubiquitous bar codes, gotta love it). There's also a powerful (and powerfully addictive) painkiller harvested from corpses. And the founder of Geneco, Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) has a terminal disease. Problem is his two sons (Bill Mosely and Nivek Ogre of Skinny Puppy) are either obnoxious or hideous, and his daughter (played by Paris Hilton) is a total skank (big stretch for her, but I actually have more respect after her self-mocking role). There's a battle for his inheritance, and there's a love triangle from 17 years back, with murder, revenge, and a poor imprisoned daughter who might just be the perfect heir (and her father, Anthony Head, as the ultimate secret Repo Man). There's also Blind Mag, the voice of Geneco and recipient of their first eye transplant. And as if the plot wasn't operatic enough, it's an actual opera, so it's all sung. And it's directed Darren Lynn Bousman who also directed Saws II through IV, so you know the set design is appropriately gory and creepy. But it moves along at comic-book pace (in fact, with comic book intertitles to move it along faster) so that the gore is presented as comedy more than horror. Think a sensibility more akin to Peter Jackson's "Braindead" (or "Dead Alive" as the US version is called) than any of the Saw movies.
So yeah, it was perfect to watch while drinking beer, but I assume I would've enjoyed it sober, too ('cuz I'm that kinda guy). So maybe it doesn't have a beerequisite, but there's certainly beer-hancement to be had.
Oh, and if I happen to have any readers who live in the Anchorage area and have nothing to do after say, the end of this month, "Repo!" will be playing at the Anchorage Film Festival. It plays December 6 at 10:15 at the Bear Tooth Theater. Coincidentally, that's another theater where you can get beer and pizza during the movie. I think this film has found it's type of venue.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
The night started with a couple of Hal Roach shorts. First up was Our Gang in "Election Day". Apropos to recent history (or to show how far we've gone), it's election day and the kids are bullying Farina (the black kid) not to go to town until election day is over. Never mind the logic that kids can't vote, there's a pretty clear racial element to it--suppress the black vote. Trouble is, Farina and his sister need to deliver the laundry to their customers. So they come up with wacky schemes and costumes, scare the crap out of a bunch of people, and end up breaking up a gangland plot to steal the election.
Of course, election day is history, but Thanksgiving is coming up. So in a Niles Film Museum tradition, they played the hilarious Max Davidson short "Pass the Gravy". Max plays the head of a household. His neighbor Schultz is a chicken farmer with a prize winning rooster Brigham (a poke at Mormon leader and infamous polygamist Brigham Young). Max's daughter and Shultz's son are engaged, and so Max sends his son Ignatz to get a chicken for a feast. But Ignatz pockets the $2 and grabs whatever chicken he can find running around...and you can guess which one he grabs. One of the funniest things I've ever seen.
Then an intermission, and then Helen Holmes in "The Lost Express" (with her great-granddaughter in attendance). Helen Holmes was a famous actress/stuntwoman who starred in the "Hazards of Helen" series (a competitor of the more famous "Perils of Pauline"). This is a few years after her height of fame, and not a "Hazards of Helen" movie. But it is an exciting railroad action flick, based around a millionaire named Morgan inheritance. He doesn't like his son-in-law Arthur Standish, so he cut him out of his will, bestowing his inheritance on his granddaughter Alice, who's travelling to meet him by train (he's on his own train). However, the Standish tracks her down and tries to steal her back. Meanwhile robbers hijack Morgan's train, Morgan's daughter (Standish's wife) and her brother are travelling to find Morgan and convince him to reconsider. And finally, Helen Holmes appears as a railroad employee who tracks down the robbers and (along with everyone else) saves the day using her trademark jumps onto trains (Holmes did most of her own stunts). Pretty cool.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Naomi is the daughter of a famous rabbi, and an excellent student. She's arranged to be married, but begs her father to study for a year in an all-girls seminary first (which is frivolous, since women can't become rabbis, but she always loved studying so much). There she meets Michelle, a french student who's a bit of a rebel. As part of their duties, they bring groceries to a secretive shut-in woman named Anouk. Anouk is very sick, and can barely walk. But Naomi has been secretly studying Kabala (the seminary is in Safed, which was an ancient Kabalistic city), and devises a cleansing ritual for Anouk. All they have to do is sneak into the (male only) baths after hours. During this ritual they have to bathe naked together, and that awakens a little something in Naomi and Michelle. Okay, this will always be pitched as a "lesbian" movie but really the lesbianism is very brief and handled very sensitively. It's more a movie about overcoming fears and being true to yourself and to your faith. From that point of view it's a very well made, and extremely well acted movie. The story is sort of slow ("deliberate" is the polite word), and the ending is a bit ambiguous. I'd give it high marks for production design, very high marks for acting, and middling marks for story.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Wiesenthal was, of course, best known as the world's biggest "Nazi Hunter", and the center that bears his name created the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (it also produced this film through Moriah Films). I learned about Simon Wiesenthal mostly in the 80's and 90's, when he was an old man receiving many awards for a life of great work. But I had never really heard his whole story. I knew he was a Holocaust survivor. I didn't know he was an architect (the two of his buildings that still survive are shown in the film). I didn't know about how he became a Nazi hunter, working with the American officers investigating war crimes. I didn't know about how his testimony was invaluable because he took such detailed notes (and drew pictures of it all). I didn't know how after the American office closed, he opened his own office. I didn't know about his struggles to keep his office open, I'd figured who wouldn't fund an office of Nazi hunters? I didn't know how he struggled in anonymity until the famous arrest of Adolf Eichmann. I especially didn't know (and was disturbed by) how he was a controversial character in Vienna, Austria, where he settled with his wife (who also miraculously survived the Holocaust) and opened his office. Politicians vilified him (even to the point where a Jewish politician questioned how he could've survived the Holocaust, implying he might've been a conspirator), and alternatively he got in trouble for not attacking a politician who had been a low level Nazi foot soldier but not a war criminal. The most illuminating point was that Nazi-hunting was not widely respected or revered. When the majority wanted to forget, he refused to. And it was decades of struggle before he was widely recognized as a hero. Well, after watching this I will never forget him.
After the film, we had a discussion with a pair of special guests. The producer/director Richard Trank and local businessman Jack Tramiel, who survived the Holocaust, moved to America, learned to fix typewriters, and eventually founded Commodore Computers and now is the majority owner of Atari. Here are Jack and Richard talking with the audience:
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Anyway, enough of remembering Tommy, lets get to the movies, starting with a little Chaplin in "The Adventurer". Chaplin is an escaped convict running from the police. After a wacky chase, he ends up in the water where he rescues a beautiful lady (Chaplin's longtime leading lady Edna Purviance), her mother (Marta Golden), and her suitor (common Chaplin heavy, the gigantic Eric Campbell. They take him into their home, not knowing he's a wanted criminal, and a lot more wacky hijinx ensue during a fancy party.
Next up was Buster Keaton in "Convict 13". Keaton is an inept golfer who knocks himself out with a ricochet ball. An escaped convict sees him lying there and switches clothes with him. The police chase Keaton, ending with him in jail first as a prisoner, then a guard, then assistant warden (obviously it took an extreme series of wacky hijinx to pull off that transition).
Then an intermission, and then back with Keaton and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in "Coney Island" (shot on location in Coney Island). Fatty's trying to escape from his wife and pick up another girl. Keaton is one of his rivals (specifically, the one with no money). By the way, this is so early in Keaton's career that (according to IMDb) he was uncredited in the role (and the role of the mustachioed policeman). But not only that, this was so early that "The Great Stone Face" actually cracked a smile and laughed. That was a little freaky. Oh, by the way, at various moments people end up in jail--because that's the theme of the night.
And then "The Second Hundred Years" starts with Laurel and Hardy in (surprise) jail! They escape, and the first thing they do is steal clothes from a pair of visiting dignitaries. Those dignitaries happen to be visiting french policemen, who are there to visit the prison. So after some high society hijinx, they end up right back in prison.
And finally, one last movie was added in honor of Tommy Andrew. I didn't know that Tommy was an avid roller skater, both a professional in his younger days and a volunteer and a judge in his later day. In honor of that, they played Charlie Chaplin's "The Rink". Charlie's a waiter, but passes himself off as Sir Cecil Seltzer (C.O.D.), and causes quite a bit of havoc in a roller skating rink--almost as much havoc as he creates in the restaurant. The leading lady is once again Edna Purviance and the heavy again is Eric Campbell.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Also, along with the "gritty" look the Bond franchise has officially fallen pray to the "shaky-cam" action scene cliche. I miss action movies where you could actually follow the action. A good filmmaker can convey that a scene is exciting without shaking the camera around like a drunk baboon.
Or maybe I'm just jaded. They say actresses win awards for crying and actors win awards for not crying. She does both at various times, so maybe she's a shoe-in. Or maybe it looks so much like asking for an award that she and the whole movie come off as desperate. Anyway, John Malkovich was cool as the radio preacher/anti-corruption crusader who takes up her cause. Oh yeah, I guess I should mention the plot. Angelina Jolie's son is kidnapped, the police bring her one who looks kind of like him, and throw her in the psycho ward when she insists he's not her son. Again, based on a true story.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
I snuck into this movie after "Rock n Rolla", and I still want my money back. Add this to the list of lines I never thought I'd type: "Mark Wahlberg, this is beneath you".
Sunday, November 9, 2008
Last Sunday I saw three shows (the fourth one scheduled was one I'd already seen at the SF Jewish Film Festival). First up was the family program "Sixty Six", based on "true-ish" story. Bernie Reubens is an unathletic little nerd, picked for sports after the kid with polio. His brother is a bit of a bully, and he's doomed to a life of miserable anonymity. Then he learns about the Bar Mitzvah--the day you become a man and when all your friends and relatives throw a big party where you're the center of attention. So he throws all his effort into planning the greatest Bar Mitzvah--nay, the greatest party of any kind--ever! And things are going along okay, despite some financial setbacks from his dad. That is, until he finds out that his Bar Mitzvah is scheduled the exact same day as the World Cup Finals. Oh yeah, the title comes from the year--1966, when the World Cup was held in England. Oh yeah, the movie's British. So yeah, everyone is nuts about the English team--heavy underdogs, but they're playing at home. So if England makes the finals, no one will be at his party. So he throws himself into becoming the ultimate football (soccer, for us Americans) expert, and is the only Englishman cheering against England. Well, if you're at all a soccer fan (or know how to look stuff up online), you know how it ends. But the trip there is a funny story of finally learning to grow the hell up, even if it's a bloody miserable experience.
The next show started with a short, "A Trip to Prague". Neil Needleman tells the story of how he goes to visit Prague after his parents die (they loved Prague). He meets a nice couple who tells him "You know what a good Jewish boy like you needs? A good Jewish girl!" Too bad he's not into girls....
Then the haunting historical epic "Villa Jasmine", about a young Jewish man named Serge travels to Tunisia with his pregnant wife. His father (also named Serge) lived and died in Tunisia, in a home he dubbed "Villa Jasmine". He was a newspaper writer and a communist organizer (decrying at night with a pen name what he celebrated in the social column during the day). As a young man in Tunisia in the 1920's he was a well-known part of the Jewish community, and life was good. But the 20's became the 30's, and that became a time when it was not good to be a Jew. Tunisia was a French colony, and soon became a Vichy French colony, and soon became a Nazi stronghold in North Africa. The movie glides back and forth from modern day with Serge the son looking for stories of his father and Serge the father speaking up for his Tunisia. Parallel love stories develop as young Serge all but ignores his wife in his obsessive quest, the same way his father did for his cause. It took me a little while to get into the story and understand what the movie was doing, but it was ultimately rewarding.
The theme of the day--and I suppose a theme of a great deal of Jewish film, as well as film in general--was family, specifically how your dysfunctional family messes you the hell up. And in no movie was that more clear than the hilarious, "My Mexican Shiva". Moishe Tartakovsky dies of a heart attack, and all his family and friends gather for the traditional 7 days of mourning and remembrance. And that's when we learn how messed up they all are, starting with his gentile mistress. His daughter is so stressed out she flips out over a loose tooth. His grandson returns from Israel as a devout Jewish scholar, but is picked up for an outstanding drug rap. Meanwhile his granddaughter has a crush on the grandson (her cousin) and flirts with him. His son is looking for a doctor for a rather delicate favor. And the guy giving the toast feels like the family is treating him criminally (for getting distracted and never letting him finish the toast). And then there's some craziness. Over all of it, the angels Aleph and Bet watch and count his good qualities (light angels) and bad qualities (dark angels), kind of like a Greek chorus. Hilarious and all over the place, but it somehow all ties together in a funny little package. And an interesting look at Judaism in Mexico (and the Catholic maids who don't understand what the heck is going on).
Here's the 90-year young Diana Carey, still spry, still beautiful, still very funny, and still with dimples when she smiles:
Yesterday there were three programs of her movies. First up in the morning program was a documentary "Baby Peggy in the Vaults", made for her 90th birthday party (and, BTW, they were still shooting the documentary at her party, as well as new silent film footage. So yours truly is a silent film extra!) Fascinating look at film preservation in a vault in the Netherlands. A strange thing about silent film preservation, often Europe was the end of the line for silent distribution, and the films stayed there because either the studios didn't want them back or the exhibitors in Europe didn't care to ship them back. Luckily, Europeans were typically much better at storing and archiving the films, so a good many of the films I saw yesterday were intertitled in Danish, or Czech, or French and German. And translating 1920's American slang into Czech and back into modern American English is pretty tough, so we had some interesting translations. Anyway, it was fascinating to watch footage from the original stored nitrate prints. And every time the nitrate broke, my heart froze up for a second.
Then we saw a couple Baby Peggy shorts, "Circus Clowns" and "A Muddy Bride". "Circus Clowns" was missing the beginning, where Peggy was apparently kidnapped and forced to work in the Circus with her trained dog Brownie (a common co-star of hers). "A Muddy Bride" was missing even more, but what was there was still pretty funny.
Then a break for lunch, and then the afternoon program, starting with the short "Miles of Smiles". It starts with twin babies, one sneaks off and is almost run over by a train. The train conductor adopts her, and in a few years she becomes Baby Peggy and is taught to drive a train (a lot of the Baby Peggy humor is based on her doing adult things). However, she gets mistaken for her twin, and wacky hijinx ensue (with some pretty cool trick photography to allow Peggy to play both twin parts).
Oh yeah, did I mention that Diana Carey herself introduced each movie and told funny stories about it? Well, she did.
Then the afternoon feature was "Helen's Babies", which is famous for being one of Clara Bow's earliest works. And Carey had funny stories about how Clara was making so many other movies and didn't really know what she was doing so she'd come in with different colored hair every day. Anyway, Peggy plays the youngest of two girls. Their uncle Harry (played by Edward Everett Horton) is a famous child psychologist who has written a book on child-rearing that their parents live by. Funny how he can know so much, being a bachelor who has never spent any time with children. So when he comes for a rest at their place, the parents decide it's safe for them to take a little vacation and leave the girls in his care. Oops! Clara Bow is the neighbor, and love interest for Uncle Harry. Very, very funny.
And then another break, go get dinner, run some errands, and then back for the evening show. Oh, but first I bought her autobiography Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy? and got her to sign it. Cool!
First short of the evening was "Peg 'O the Mounted". Shot in Yosemite (standing in for Canada), she's in camp when a Mountie comes in badly wounded. Seems he's overcome by the fumes as he was chasing some moonshiners. Well, Peggy's daddy made her a little Mountie uniform, so she puts it on, runs off, and catches the moonshiners herself. By the way, I should mention how many gags in all her movies involve her (obviously a dummy model) being thrown around. Nowadays, these scenes get a gasp and then a chuckle. I assume violence against babies used to be much, much funnier.
Next up was a truly bizarre short (possibly missing half the footage, or maybe just a bizarre movie). "Carmen, Jr." is sort of a children's version of the opera Carmen. In that it has the characters--the toreador, the beautiful lady, etc. And it has the beautiful costumes. But it doesn't have the story. The story is that Baby Peggy is a tough, butch girl who beats up the boys. Then she decides to be a beautiful lady and enter into romance. She dances a tango, then passes out and dreams she's a bullfighter. That captures pretty much all the characters, and none of the story. And it was hilarious (especially the bullfight scene)!
And the final short was "The Kid Reporter". Peggy is the secretary to a mean editor at a newspaper. A woman comes in with a story of a stolen pearl necklace. The editor offers a reward to the first reporter who solves the case--he will be made chief editor. Peggy's just a little girl, but if she dresses up as a man (complete with mustache and monocle--which is hard to keep on while being thrown upside-down) she can crack the case. Not just a funny movie, but a sly take on women's lib (that what's keeping her down isn't that she's 4 years old, it's that she's a girl).
Then we took a brief intermission to sing Happy Birthday to her and eat some birthday cake. That's right, a day full of movies--and cake! What could be better?
And finally, the feature was the heartwarming story of "Captain January" (remade a decade later by Shirley Temple). Peggy plays the title character, the ward of the old lighthouse keeper Daddy Judkins. She washed up from a storm 5 years ago, and has been the light of his life (and an able and strong helper) ever since. Busybodies in town think that's no way for a girl to grow up, and want to take her away to an orphanage. They fight them, with the help of the town preacher, who is a decent, honorable, and honest man. But when a yacht runs aground and a passenger recognizes Peggy as her niece, she's taken away to live in a Boston mansion. Both her and Judkins are heartbroken, so she sneaks away to come back to him. A beautiful, charming tearjerker.
And then more cake. And that was the end.
Friday, November 7, 2008
So now that Docfest is finally over, I thought I'd look and see what movies to watch this weekend. Maybe catch a few general release movies, but also check out what's going on in film fests.
Well, both the American Indian Film Festival and the Latino Film Festival opened today (Friday). I've wanted to go to the AIFF for several years. Maybe I'll make it up a night or two next week, but I can't this weekend. I finally made it to some of the Latino Film Festival last year (when it came down to San Jose). Hopefully I'll make a little more of it this year. But I do want to tell all of my readers to go see my favorite movie of the year. Sunday night, 8:30 at the Brava Theater is "La Antena (The Aerial)", which I saw at Cinequest (scroll to the bottom of the page) and is brilliant.
Right in my backyard, the Niles Silent Film Museum is holding a 90th Birthday Bash for Baby Peggy. That's all day Saturday and a matinee show on Sunday. I'm planning on doing that Saturday.
Then I've already missed half of the Silicon Valley (formerly San Jose) Jewish Film Festival. But I plan to make up for that by seeing a few films on Sunday and maybe a couple more next weekend.
I'm sure I've missed some. I haven't even looked at the new schedule for the PFA. And I still have general release movies I want to see. And I might just want to get some rest. I remember what rest feels like.
Anyway, happy movie watching and good night!
I propose a new contest. Go on IMDb and find the movie with the strangest pair of recommendations. "Christmas on Mars" gives you "Elf" and "Eraserhead". Beat that. Ummm...I have nothing to give away. So whoever wins gets...one thousand Internet points?
First up was the short "With a Stroke of the Chaveta". A chaveta is the knife used in cigar making to cut the tobacco leaf. But this movie is only partly about cigar rollers. Really, it's about a profession I've never heard of--professional reader (or "lectora"). Dating back over a century ago, the cigar rolling houses would have rows and rows of tables where workers roll cigars. And they'd have one person sitting above them and reading to them. Classic literature, novels, newspapers, whatever. This was standard from Cuba to New York. Now, it's really only done in Cuba, but they are holding on tightly to this tradition. The movie interviews a handful of readers and the cigar makers, who talk about the democratic process they use to select a reader and the reading material. Very interesting.
And finally, the last feature I saw at Docfest was "The Rich Have Their Own Photographers". For the rest of us, we have Milton Rogovin. Milton was an optometrist in Buffalo, NY. He was also a radical organizer in the 40's and 50's, and the HUAC fingered him as "the top red in Buffalo". He was blacklisted and his optometry business folded. His wife Annie supported them as a teacher (she passed away recently, but had won awards for pioneering work in sepcial education techniques), and he took up photography. There's a balance in his work of art and social documentary. He started with social documentary photography, capturing the poor people of Buffalo's lower west side (In a series which he just called lower west side, making it Every City, U. S. A.). He photographed the working class, especially miners. There's a brilliant series he did of miners at work and then at home, showing the contrast between work and home life, and also showing why they worked as hard as they did. There's an amazing quality to his photographs, one that's best shown than described. My favorite is the little angry looking girl in Appalachia (third row down, second from the right). I can't really express why it moves me so much. I think there's a mix of poverty and dignity, pride despite hard times, a bent but not broken spirit. There are quite a few interviews in the film, but for the most part they let Rogovin and his photographs speak for themselves. Rogovin is probably the best at explaining and describing why he took the pictures, so most of the interview time is spent on him. BTW, Rogovin is still alive (but not working), and looking forward to his 99th birthday next month.
And here's a really lousy, unlit cell-phone snapshot of director Ezra Bookstein:
And that was Docfest, 2008.
Monday, November 3, 2008
And that is that.