Monday, December 22, 2008

Jason watches "Slumdog Millionaire"

So I'm a victim of the storms in the Pacific Northwest. I should be in Anchorage with my family right now, but my flight was canceled. Now I fly out tomorrow morning (I hope). But I took advantage of my time home in the bay area to catch a really good movie.

Danny Boyle goes to Bollywood to make his best movies since "Trainspotting". Jamal is a poor, uneducated "slumdog" from Mumbai who somehow got onto the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and won it all. After winning 10M rupees his first day, he's apprehended by the police who believe he's cheating and try to beat a confession out of him. But instead he spins his life story--a story of unbelievable hardship, trouble, and narrow escapes that just happened to coincide with all the answers he needs. Like it was fate for him to be on the show. It's also a powerful life-long love story, as he pursues the poor girl he met as a child. In fact, he doesn't even care about the money, he's only on the show because he knows she watches.

Danny Boyle, to my knowledge, has made one great movie ("Trainspotting"), and a few movies that were ~80-90% great, with some silliness thrown in. To be fair, I haven't seen "The Beach" or "Millions", but "28 Days Later" was mostly good except for "They're infected...with rage!!!" and other silliness. "Sunshine" was nearly the best sci-fi movie in a decade or so until it turned into a horror movie in space. Well, finally he's made another movie that keeps up the quality all the way through. No scene made me cringe or shake my head. It's a great movie all the way through.

As a final note, I was a bit surprised by how powerful and well done the love story was. I heard that it was about a poor kid from the slums winning millions on the game show, but nothing about the love story. So it was a great movie, and a surprising one. Well done all around.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Jason watches a special preview screening of "Fruit Fly"

Sponsored by the Center for Asian American Media, this is the directorial debut of H. P. Mendoza (writer/star of "Colma: The Musical"). It was held in the Poleng Lounge, a bar/performance space which is featured in the movie.

L. A. Renigen (Maribel in "Colma") stars as Bethesda, a Filipina performance artist who does works based on her identity as an adoptee and her search for her parents. She's just moved to San Francisco to do a show. She moves into a house with a wacky array of artistic tenants--Windham, the gay set designer; a pair of lesbian artists who live together; the runaway who's just; and the mysterious Dirty Judy who lives upstairs. She spends most every night partying with Windham and every morning trying to remember what she did last night. This earns her the title of Windham's "fag hag" (in a very memorable musical number...oh yeah, like "Colma" this is a musical and features Mendoza's particular brand of fast paced musical comedy. The soundtrack alone is worth the movie).

So yeah, the movie follows Bethesda comic, musical misadventures as she tries to find her place in the world, and particularly the art world of San Francisco. It's funny, sometimes a little cheesy (you can tell some of the actors are just local friends and non-actors). In the intro, they said they hoped it would get into SFIAAFF next March. Considering that CAAM also produces the SFIAAFF, I'd say it's a sure bet. So look for it there (festival is March 12-22, 2009).

Jason is Santa Claus?

Ho ho ho...

Yeah, I was conscripted to play Santa at work for the kid's party. I bleached the heck out of my hair, but still couldn't quite get it white (and the white colored hair spray at Party City is pretty worthless). But the kids didn't seem to care, and a good time was had by all.

Yeah, you better freakin' watch out. I'm coming to town!
More pictures later. Possibly much later.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jason watches "My Name is Bruce"

As in, Bruce freakin' Campbell, the B-movie god who was there to introduce the movie and chat with SF drag queen/cult movie icon Peaches Christ. Oh yeah, it was a hell of a great night.
First Peaches and her horde of zombie dancers did a little show:
Then a montage of Bruce Campbell highlights, and then the man himself sat down with Peaches for an interview and some questions from the audience:
This is actually the third time I've seen Bruce Campbell live. If you've never seen him live, his "interviews" are more like interactive stand-up comedy. He'll joke with/on the audience (this is the first time I haven't seen him grab someone's cell phone and make a prank call). He likes to repeat every question sarcastically, harangue star-struck fans, hit on the hot girls (even if his wife is in the audience, we all know it's a joke, wink wink), etc. And the combination of the San Francisco audience, Peaches, and the late night really put him at the top of his game, keeping the crowd laughing for a good 45 minutes or so.
Then finally the movie. Bruce Campbell stars as Bruce Campbell, arrogant, drunken b-movie star (I assume an exaggerated version of himself). Some kids in a small Oregon town of Gold Lick desecrate a Chinese-American graveyard, unleashing the Taoist war god Guan Di, who starts killing everyone. The one kid who escapes is a huge Bruce Campbell fan, and assumes based on his cinematic monster-slaying he can save the town. At first Bruce wants nothing to do with it (he wants to stay home and drunk-dial his ex-wife...what a Birthday!). So the kid kidnaps him and drags him to town. Once there, Bruce assumes it's all make believe, a birthday present set up by his agent (played by the ultimate ham Ted Raimi, who is usually hilarious but only gets starring roles in Bruce Campbell productions). So he leads the town on a monster hunt, until he finds out that the monster is real, and he runs the hell away. Hilarity ensues.
It really is a very fun movie, and absolutely full of splatstick comedy and inside jokes for Bruce Campbell fans. As an interesting aside, Guan Di is a real god in Chinese folklore, the spirit of Guan Yu aka Lord Guan of The Three Kingdoms, which I'm almost done reading (this makes the "Guan You, Guan Me, Guan Di" refrain an extra pun). And a little googling revealed that apparently he is the protector of bean curd and bean curd sellers, which is really played up in the movie (his early life as a bean curd seller is not mentioned in The Three Kingdoms). So that was really amusing.
I guess to be a real reviewer I have to mention a couple of things that bug me. First, I have a little pet peeve about scenes where a character is locked in a car trunk. As someone who has ridden in many car trunks (ah, my college years...) I can guarantee the latch mechanism is always easily accessible from inside, and it's never taken me longer than about a minute to find it and let myself out. I know this is just my hang-up, but there's no reason for any character to ever be locked in a car trunk...unless maybe you tie up his hands first.
But the real painful scenes are the ones of Ted Raimi under heavy makeup as an old Chinese man. It's a horrible, horrible stereotype, and I know it's meant as satire and I could try to defend it but the fact is it went over like a lead balloon with this audience and some of the biggest cheers were when he got killed. For people who are sensitive to such racist stereotypes, this could easily kill the movie. For me, it only killed all the scenes he was in (when he isn't on screen, the movie still rocks).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Jason goes to the Hypnodrome Holiday party and sees "A Junky's Christmas" and "Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny"

So I spent last Sunday afternoon in one of my favorite spots, the Hypnodrome. Despite the light rain, they had the BBQ going and lots of food and drink. I was driving, so I stuck to a couple of glasses of wine and then switched over to soda. But it was cool hanging out with all the great people there.

Then, as the afternoon moved into evening, Dead Channels provided some cinematic entertainment. First up was an excellent short, a claymation version of William S. Burrough's "A Junky's Christmas". The story of a junky let out of lockup on Christmas day, and his wanderings through NY City trying to score a fix. A story of the kind of people who are out at that time, and how for a Junky trying to score, Christmas is any other day, just harder to find a dealer. And a surprisingly sincere ending that might just show the true meaning of Christmas.

And then there was the feature, "Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny". An example (a bad example) of regional cinema, this was made in Florida by Barry Mahon, who specialized in two things--cheap soft-core skin flicks and kid's stories for the "Pirate World" amusement park. Santa Claus gets his sleigh stuck in the sand in Florida, and the reindeer all flew away because it was too hot. Unless he extricates himself, Christmas will be cancelled. Local kids show up and try to help with all sorts of animals--horses, sheep, pigs, a gorilla? Nothing seems to work, and they're about to give up. So Santa tells them the story of Thumbelina (insert Barry Mahon's "Thumbelina") to teach them the power of believing in yourself and never giving up or some such crap. So they run off and find a giant bunny rabbit who drives some sort of fire engine--ish truck. He rescues Santa and Christmas is saved. There's singing, the dialogue all sounds like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons, and there's absolutely no ice cream in this movie. The end.

Oh yeah, and the version we watched actually didn't have "Thumbelina" inserted into the right place, it was tacked on to the end. Hopefully they'll have that fixed for next year, as this will obviously become a tradition. Next year I'll be sure not to drive so I can be completely shit-faced.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for Comedy Shorts Night (December 2008)

Always the most popular night of the month in the nation's only (as far as I know) theater that shows silent movies on a weekly basis.

Comedy night has to include Chaplin, and we started the night with the mostly restored (it's still in the process of restoration) "Police". Charlie plays an ex-con released back into the cruel world. He's swindled by a fake parson, fired by a cook, nearly robbed in a flophouse, and finally runs into his old cellmate, who convinces him to help him rob a house. The house happens to be home to the hard-working girl from the kitchen where he worked briefly (Edna Purviance, longtime Chaplin leading lady). She recognizes him, and after convincing him to go straight and chasing off his cellmate, she helps him out with the police. This was the last film Chaplin made with Essanay, and showcases his little tramp character (created here in Niles) and his developing directing style.

Next up, keeping with a law enforcement theme, was "Cops" starring Buster Keaton. Keaton, in the course of trying to become a big businessman, accidentally runs afoul of many policemen, who chase him all over Los Angeles in one of the most impressive extended chase gags ever (still). A Keaton classic.

Next an intermission, and then on to Harold Lloyd in "Bumping into Broadway". Lloyd is a struggling playwright, living in the apartment next door to a struggling actress (Bebe Daniels). Although he can't make rent, he pretends he's rich and pays her rent for her. So now he has to escape the building without the landlady and her hired muscle catching him. Once there, he can't get a producer to look at his musical comedy script. But he's become more interested in the girl, and follows her (in the arms of a high-rolling playboy) into a secret gambling club. He accidentally wins big at roulette, but just as he's raking in all the money, the cops break the club doors down. More running from the cops (a definite theme of the night). But one thing you have to know about all Harold Lloyd movies--he always gets the girl.

And finally, the boys Laurel and Hardy in "Big Business". They play Christmas tree salesmen... in Los Angeles... in July. Obviously not a good business model, and when they encounter a truly irate customer a war of destruction ensues--they destroy his house while he destroys their trees and car. Hilarious. On a side note, when making the movie producer Hal Roach secured a house they could destroy while the owner was away so long as they fixed everything when they were done. However, when they arrived at the spot the cast and crew mistakenly destroyed the house next door--apparently not realizing anything was wrong when the key didn't work, they just broke in through a window. So not only did they have to pay rent for the house they didn't destroy, they had to pay to fix the house they did.

Jason watches "JCVD"

As in, Jean-Claude Van Damme. And he's a total trouper in this self-mocking movie where he plays himself, struggling with aging, divorce, custody, and legal debt. So he takes a little vacation to his native Belgium, where he's still a hero. He goes to the post office to pick up a wire money transfer, and stumbles onto a robbery/hostage situation. Worse yet, when the robbers force him to help move a cabinet to block a window, the cops mistakenly think he's the robber, the news gets word of this, and legions of his fans show up outside. He has some ideas from his movies to help (help the robbers, so they won't make a bad situation worse), but mostly he's as powerless as any hostage. It's really a long joke about the difference between movies and reality, and at times it gets surprisingly bitter (there's a breaking-the-fourth-wall monologue that's the heart of the movie and seems shockingly sincere and angry). Yeah, I have new respect for the Muscles from Brussels. Maybe not enough to look forward to "Universal Soldiers III", but enough to enjoy this movie.

Jason watches "The Day the Earth Stood Still"

And it sucks.

Okay, I've come to terms with the fact that Hollywood feels it has to remake everything. I don't like it, but I accept that these things happen, and they happen for a good reason ($$$). And if you're going to remake a movie, you might as well have a different take on it, bring something new to the table. So I'm not going to rant about the differences from the original.

However, if you're going to remake a movie (or for that matter, make any movie), you might as well make it good. All "The Day the Earth Stood Still" has going for it are special effects that would impress anyone who hasn't seen a blockbuster SFX movie in 10 years. Things dun git dee-stroyed reel good! And I guess there's something poetic about Keanu Reeves playing someone who doesn't know how to be human--finally a use for his "I don't even know how to stand around and talk" acting style. But the moral is all wrong. We don't need to destroy all humans to save the planet, just the guy who wrote this crappy dialogue. They even made Jennifer Connelly sound stupid.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Jason watches "Rachel Getting Married"

The point of this movie is that not everything revolves around Anne Hathaway's character, and she has to learn that. However, this movie totally revolves around Anne Hathaway. She's no longer the little girl in "The Princess Diaries" (which I never saw). And she's not just the pair of tits that straight men used to justify watching "Brokeback Mountain". Now she's a great actress, and pretty damn cool.

She plays Kym, who gets out of rehab for the weekend to attend her sister Rachel's wedding. Of course, everything should revolve around Rachel, but that just doesn't work for Kym, and hilarious dysfunctional family antics ensue. Okay, maybe not always so hilarious--the description of how she drove off a bridge and killed her little brother is not played for laughs (how the hell could you?), and there's a hell of a lot of pathos and fighting. What's really interesting is the depiction of how addiction and the horror it wrought continues to tear the family apart, even though she never goes back to using. The movie leans on a great many cliches, but thankfully doesn't fall back on that one. Anne Hathaway is the star, but it really is an all-around excellent cast that mostly overcomes the cliches of the story. Even the supporting players are interesting, especially the groom and his odd assortment of friends and family. And the wedding itself was very inventive, with a musical mix of all sorts of styles (African American, Indian, Jewish, etc.). It's a bit overrated (87% on the tomatometer), but still pretty good.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Jason watches "W"

And the acting is great, it's very well made. W's daddy issues are pretty obvious, and I suspect a bit of fiction. His young wild days are well known, and therefore not too interesting. Probably the most interesting side story is Colin Powell, and particularly his relationship with Dick Cheney (how the architects of the first gulf war split over strategy in the second gulf war).

But ultimately, I found out I don't care about W, in the movie or in real life. This guy is still leader of the free world, and he's been rendered irrelevant. So no matter how well made it is, my response is still "so what".

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Jason watches "Milk" and drinks martinis

A small group of my friends from work decided to go up and see "Milk" at the best possible venue for it--the Castro. So we got there early, had a few drinks and dinner before the movie, and lots more drinks after, ending with my passing out on a bus and waking home! Woo hoo, my blotto-pilot works! But that's another story, let's just talk about the movie.

Gus Van Sant starts the movie with the assassination of Harvey Milk (mixing in archival news footage of Dianne Feinstein, who was then president of the SF Board of Supervisors, announcing the tragic news). This is a very good move, starting with getting us past his death so we can celebrate his life. Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn, in a role that will probably win at least an Oscar nomination) was a gay man, business owner, and activist, known as the "Mayor of Castro Street" in 1970's. He ran for the SF board of supervisors many times, finally winning in 1977 (after redistricting put the Castro together with the Haight, so he only had to win the gays and the hippies to get elected). In office he passed a strong gay rights law, and quickly became friends with most of the board and mayor George Moscone. Dan White (Josh Brolin, who also deserves award consideration for his great job humanizing the villain) was another supervisor, an ex-cop and a conservative Irish Catholic. Milk tried to work with him (and there's speculation in the movie that he was a closeted homosexual himself), but ultimately the working relationship soured. In November of 1978 Dan White resigned from the board, only to reverse his decision days later. Too late, mayor Moscone was not going to give him his job back, so Dan White snuck into city hall (prying open a basement window to bypass the metal detectors at the front doors), emptied his gun into mayor Moscone, reloaded, went to Milk's office, called Milk into his office, and emptied his gun a second time into Milk. He was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder on a plea of temporary insanity.

The movie only mentions the trial in a brief postscript, in which is mischaracterizes the famed "Twinkie defense" (Snopes has a good article about it, and there could be a complete movie just about the trial). For the record, I'm not saying it's right that Dan White wasn't convicted of murder, I'm just saying that the story of the case is a lot more complicated than "jurors bought this ridiculous twinkie defense".

Anyway, the movie is fantastic, and there's no better place to see it than the Castro (which is featured in the movie), and of course there was a big, enthusiastic crowd there. In fact, it was a sell-out even though it's been out for more than a week (although I can attest that there were a few empty seats left in the corners up front. I've still only ever seen one completely full I-can't-find-an-empty-seat-anywhere sellout at the Castro).

Jason watches "Australia"

Baz Luhrmann is probably the most highly regarded director who consistently frustrates me. His first film, "Strictly Ballroom", was a masterpiece. And since then he's failed to match it, despite all the promise. His movies always look beautiful, stunning even, but the story has consistently let me down. His "Romeo + Juliet" was visually great, but shoe-horning it into a modern setting (while staying strictly faithful to Shakespeare's text) came off as silly more often than clever. "Moulin Rouge" amped the visuals up even more, but there were barely even characters, just larger-than-life emotional archetypes and the modern pop songs in a musical was silly (again). But still, I have enough hope that when I hear of a new Baz Luhrmann movie, I want it to be great.

And "Australia" is...not great. But I'd call it his second best after "Strictly Ballroom". The visuals are still there, of course. But now he again has a story that almost matches. The story is still rife with silliness, but if you look at it as an homage to movies of the late 30's/early 40's ("The Wizard of Oz" plays a prominent role in the movie), the silliness almost works in context. Nicole Kidman plays and Hugh Jackman break the monopoly on Australian beef by droving their herd to Darwin. David Wenham is the baddy (and quite a bit over the top in the role). And it's all told through the eyes of a half-breed boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), ridiculed as a "creamy" and not welcome in either world (except, of course, by Nicole Kidman). Aboriginal magic (e.g, the magic of song) plays prominently. BTW, this is one of my pet peeves, assuming that native people are more magical or spiritual than the white invaders. It's just so freakin' cliche. And that's really what holds this movie back--storywise it's a string of giant cliches. But as I said, if I think of it as a 30's or 40's movie, it works better. Oh yeah, and the bombing of Darwin that's featured so prominently in the trailers--that's really just the final act. It's far more a cattle drive movie than a WWII movie.