Saturday, January 31, 2009

Jason plugs the DVD release of The Village Barbershop

I saw this movie back in Cinequest last year, and since director Chris Ford was kind enough  to let me know it's getting a small theatrical run and a DVD release (March  3rd), I should revisit it.  Here's what I wrote at the time:
The title and setting is a quiet barbershop in Reno, where Art Leroldi (John Ratzenberger, exuding stoic dignity with flashes of brilliant sarcastic wit) has cut hair for decades with his partner Enzo. He's already a widower who hasn't gotten over the loss of his wife to breast cancer, now Enzo dies, and he's left to run the struggling barbershop on his own (while Big Mart is buying up properties all over town). He never knew how to do the books, and his new landlord (son-in-law of the old kind landlord) is a real prick. And besides, even if he knew how to do the books, he still drinks and gambles all his money away at the track. He basically needs a miracle. Equally in need of a miracle is Gloria (Shelly Cole), who has just found out she's pregnant and her boyfriend is leaving her for a new woman (and demands his trailer back). She's a licensed cosmetologist. Only problem is, Art has never hired a female barber. In fact, he's never even cut a woman's hair. But, she does know how to do the books, and in a fit of desperation, he finds out she's just what the barbershop needs. And so begins a funny, sweet path to recovery.
Yeah, I'll stand by that review.  And if you want a heartwarming, character-based story, this one's pretty good.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Jason shows you how to see everything at Indiefest

Or rather, how I plan to see everything at Indiefest. It's actually pretty easy, what with it going on for 2+ full weeks, and the weeknight films not starting until 7:15. As you can see below, there are many time slots when I have a choice of two movies (although those choices affect what I see later). Considerations that went into this schedule:

1. Start with the films that only play once (that's a given)
2. Try to make time to attend more parties. This is still difficult, but I managed to not schedule an 11:45 movie during the Lebowski party. So I can party with the dude!
3. I had a special commitment on Sunday, Feb. 15th from 1-4 pm. This made me juggle my schedule a little bit and add two shows at the Shattuck on the final weekend. This will actually cause me to miss 1 (or maybe just 1/2) of a show at the Niles Film Museum Midwinter Comedy Festival. And it'll cause me to miss the live Oscar telecast. But I've already determined that I don't care about the Oscars this year, so no big deal.

Anyway, if you want to stalk me from Feb. 5 to Feb. 22, this is how to do it:

Jason is a twit

Or a twittererer? Tweeter? Twitteratti? Whatever you call 'em, I've joined Twitter. Mainly for the Cinequest review contest. I'll figure out what more I can do with it later.

Jason previews upcoming event--Indiefest, Cinequest, SFIAFF, and more

So much coming up.

Noir City continues through the weekend, but I'm out of town.

Indiefest starts next week Thursday. The schedule is out, and as always it's possible but not trivial to see everything. There's also a special free screening of the skateboarding movie Mind Field this Sunday (Feb. 1). However, again, I'm out of town. I suppose this might count as the first Indiefest film I've missed since I started going in 2002. On the other hand, maybe it doesn't really count as being "in the festival" since it's a special free screening a good 4 days before opening night. Also, for the film fans who ski, Indiefest is taking the show to Sugarbowl on Feb 27-28. They haven't announced what films they'll play yet, but as soon as I know I'll let you know.

Overlapping the final 3 days of Indiefest my local Niles Film Museum is doing a Midwinter Comedy Festival. I'm contorting myself in a pretzel to see both (and fulfill other commitments). I think I can still see everything in Indiefest and all but one of the Niles shows (the late show Saturday night I might have to miss).

Oh yeah, and that weekend is also the Oscars. I should comment on what's been nominated, what was snubbed, what should win, etc. Here's my comment: I don't care. This might be the first year since 1997 that I don't even see all Best Picture nominees before the ceremony (I haven't seen The Reader, and I might not have any time to do so. Nothing personal against that movie, though). The fact is, traditionally I knock myself out trying to see as many nominees as possible, then after the ceremony I don't care anymore. This year, I'm saving time by jumping ahead to not caring.

Cinequest starts on Feb. 25th, and their schedule is out earlier than ever. I haven't had time to study it, but I did get a pile of screeners at the launch party last night. So I'll have more to say about it later. I will say that I'm already excited for two things: 1) the silent film night double feature of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, and 2) a live interview with Diablo Cody, the writer of Juno. That should be cool.

Then looking way ahead, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (abbreviated SFIAFF, pronounced "Asianfest") plays March 12-22. The schedule isn't out yet, but will be out in the middle of Indiefest (I believe the schedule is announced Feb. 10). So that gives me something to study (alongside the Cinequest schedule) between movies at Indiefest.

It's exhausting being me. I need a vacation. Oh yeah, I'm going on vacation tomorrow!

Jason goes to the Cinequest 19 Launch Party

Normally I don't blog about parties I go to. I figure no one really cares that I went to the Indiefest Launch Party last Friday night, or that I went to a smaller (more exclusive) Cinequest Launch Party last night. However, I wanted to mention it for two reasons. First, because I mentioned recently (and repeatedly) that Berlin and Beyond has the best food. Well, that's not true. The mango and cheese wrapped in prosciutto.... The seared ahi tuna with caviar.... The rosemary chicken skewers.... Maybe it doesn't really count because it was kind of a VIP party, but it's the best I've been fed by a film festival. And second, apparently the entire Cinequest PR department reads my blog. Awesome! I managed to score a press package with about a dozen screeners for films that will be playing this year, and hopefully I'll view a good number of them and write about them before the festival. Hopefully more exciting news along that lines soon.

Cinequest 19 starts Feb. 25th. The schedule is out (earlier than ever), so start marking your calendars now!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Jason goes to Noir City--Monday, Jan 26th

This is the last I'll see of Noir City, as I'll disappear on vacation for a week before returning for Indiefest (however, there may be several posts on vacation). I have to say Noir City has been great fun, and I hope I can make more of it next year (hopefully enough to justify getting a pass). Anyway, I saw two movies last night, so let's get to it:

First up was the supernatural Faustian noir, Alias Nick Beal. Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell) is a district attorney in an unnamed state, and as good and honest as the day is long. In fact, the reform minded Independence Party is considering running him for governor. He's been going after the biggest crook in his city for a long time, and has built a pretty strong case. But he unwittingly mentions off the cuff that he'd "sell his soul" for a conviction. Enter Nick Beal (Ray Milland), who manages to provide just the evidence he needs, even though a) it was allegedly burnt, and b) he doesn't have a search warrant. Quickly cleaned up, though, and now his political career is off and running (for governor). Of course, he can't win without the support of the crooked machine in another part of the state. He refuses to make a deal, but luckily Nick Beal makes a deal on his behalf. Add to that his new secretary Donna Allen (Audrey Totter) who was hand picked by Beal is tempting him a little too much. The story becomes a struggle to keep his soul, although Beal outmaneuvers him at every move (even to the point of framing him for murder). A really cool story, albeit a very heavy-handed morality play.

And finally, Night Editor which Eddie Muller introduced as "clunky". That was an extreme understatement. It has a ridiculous framing device, being told late one night in a newspaper office, as the editor tells the inside story of a small old piece of news (it was originally a radio play, and later a TV series, but this was the B-movie in between). This time he tells the story of a cop who's always working the night beat. And by "working", I mean sneaking off with his rich, socialite mistress. One night while making out in a secluded place, they witness a murder. Problem is, he can't come forward without admitting his affair. Trouble's worse when an innocent guy is convicted and sentenced to the chair. But he collects "evidence" to put the wrong guy away. All is going well, until the murderer provides a perfect alibi--the rich mistress who's now dating him. Almost as sleazy as it is clunky. But still, I regret nothing.

And that's my experience at Noir City 2009.

Jason goes to Noir City--Sunday, Jan 25th

Just two films (one double-feature) on Sunday. By the way, I should mention that beyond "newspaper" noir, the festival is also focusing on showing double features with an "A" and "B" movie (B movies don't necessarily mean bad--just shorter, cheaper films meant to be the second half of a double feature).

We start with the hilariously homo-erotic Cry of the Hunter. Described as "swamp noir", it's the story of Jory, a Cajun criminal in L. A. He was the driver for a robbery, but he was the only one caught. He refuses to rat on his colleagues, and in fact the only person he'll talk to is Lieutenant Tunner (Barry Sullivan). Ostensibly because Tunner treats him right, but really because Tunner isn't afraid to have a little fistfight with him--followed by a smoke (did I mention it was hilariously homo-erotic). After agreeing to talk to the D. A., the car transporting him gets into an accident and Jory escapes. He goes home to the bayou of Louisiana, but Tunner follows him there. On the surface it's a cat-and-mouse chase story, but really it's a love triangle with Jory torn between his wife and Tunner. Ultimately it becomes a story of overcoming fear and surviving together in the harsh swamp environment. Very, very weird, and not at all subtle.

And speaking of unsubtle, we followed that with one of the most cynical movies I've ever seen. Kirk Douglas plays a fast-talking newspaper reporter in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. He's been fired from every newspaper from New York to Chicago, and now practically begs for a job in Albuquerque (line of the movie: "I'll write big news or small news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog!"). For a year he labors in the small town, waiting for his big break. And he gets it, when he stops at a small service station/souvenir stand and finds the owner got trapped in a cave-in while searching for old Indian clay pots. He writes it up, jazzing up a few details (like the curse of the Indian spirits in the mountain, the grieving wife, etc). More importantly, he wraps up exclusive rights by getting in good with the sheriff (by promising enough good press to guarantee re-election). But the real kicker is that he convinces the engineer in charge of the rescue that rather than bracing up the tunnel and digging him out, he should drill in from the top. Sure, it'll take longer but be "safer" (for his career, since it means he can milk the story for another week). Yeah, that's pretty fucked up. Very cynical, (depending on your opinion) quite prescient, and left me feeling just a little bit dirty. In other words, a perfect noir film.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Jason goes to Noir City--Saturday, Jan 24th

So I've wanted to go to Noir City for several years, but something came up every time. Finally I've managed to squeeze some time for a little over a weekend at the Castro watching Film Noir. Still sad I'll miss the second half of the fest, but it's been a great time. The weird thing is, it becomes difficult to describe the films without just describing them as "noirish". But, I'll do my best.

First up on Saturday was Blind Spot, a clever mystery story that's also a deconstruction of clever mystery stories. Written by Martin Goldsmith, who was an accomplished crime novelist (and writer of Detour) himself. It's the story of a critically acclaimed but commercially lacking writer. He goes to his publisher--whom he (and everyone) hates--to beg for a loan. While there, he talks to a not so talented but very commercially successful crime novelist. He talks about how crime novels are easy--not real art. You just come up with an odd crime--say a murder in a locked and bolted room. Throw a few red herrings in, then come up with a twist ending. Easy as pie! The crime novelist is oddly not offended. See, he's actually a fan, and knows crime novels are kinda cheesy. So then they go down to the bar (along with the leggy secretary) to have a few drinks. He discusses his crime novel idea more. The next morning, the publisher is found murdered in a locked and bolted room. Guess who's the only suspect. Very clever, and full of the cool, witty dialogue that I love in noir film. Best line--"I'm all out of proportion. That means I don't frame easy!"

Next up was Chicago Deadline, which reminds me to mention the theme of the festival--newspaper noir (stories of reporters and crime). Alan Ladd plays the intrepid reporter. Stumbling across the body of a young woman in a cheap hotel, he steals her diary. Whenever he calls any names in the diary, he gets stonewalled. Everyone claims not to know her, and hints he's in danger for even asking. Going through the names, he pieces together a story of a good girl (Donna Reed) who falls in love too easily, and with the wrong guys. From titans of industry to gangland thugs, the story slowly unfolds. Really cool.

Then there was a long break before the start of Arlene Dahl night, starting with a sold-out showing (which for the Castro means 1400+ seats) for Wicked as they Come. A classic "bad girl" movie, Dahl plays Kathleen Allen. Her gold-digging career begins much as Dahl's acting career did--by winning a beauty contest (although in real life, presumably she won legitimately instead of by flirting with the vote counters). She wins a shopping spree and a trip to Europe, where she attracts the attention of many men before finally settling on an English businessman. While he's out of town, she runs up a huge bill of credit and skips town, getting a job for a major company (after learning to type). She's good at her job, and even better at seducing her boss. She even has him ready to leave his wife for her, until she find out his wife is the company owner's daughter. Simple to remedy, she leaves her boss in London and starts dating the owner in Paris. He's old, so he'll naturally die soon. But when threatening letters appear, you know it's bound to end poorly. Hints of childhood abuse lead to sort of a cop-out ending, but still it was full of cool bad-girl style.

And the, Arlene Dahl was actually in the house for an interview with Noir City host/god Eddie Muller. She was glamorous and funny (particularly the story of the drag queen who was impersonating either her or Rhonda Fleming), and very fond of speaking about all her romances with her co-stars (including, but not limited to Fernando Lamas, with whom she had their son Lorenzo Lamas, who was in attendance. Also including--I'm not kidding--John Fitzgerald Kennedy). Most of her work was actually as the red-headed cutie (a look made for technicolor) rather than noir, but her noir work establishes her acting credentials perfectly.

And finally, the last film of the night was Slightly Scarlet, again starring Arlene Dahl and her fellow red-head Rhonda Fleming. This was noir in technicolor (an odd combination), and Dahl joked that she and Fleming wanted to play sisters so people would see them on screen together and finally see they're different people. Dahl was originally offered the role of the good sister, but insisted on playing the bad one (really her first bad-girl role). It starts with her (as Dorothy Lyons) getting released from prison (she's a klepto- and nympho-maniac). Her good sister June (Fleming) picks her up and takes her home. June works for a reform-minded politician and mayoral candidate Frank Jansen. The real corrupt power of the town is Sol Caspar, but his "brains" guy is Ben Grace. Ben has a plan to get rid of Sol, take over the gang, and while he's at it get Frank elected and take behind-the-scenes control of city hall. All's going to plan until June screws everything up by seducing him. Dahl is brilliant playing a woman who is obviously psychologically ill but still very fun (the girl who it's fun to meet one night but you regret having met the next day), and the story is top notch. Lots of fun.

And that was my introduction to Noir City. It was aweseome, except for running about 45 minutes late. So instead of having a leisurely hour to walk to the BART station, I had to run to catch the last BART home.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jason goes to Berlin and Beyond--closing night

B&B 2009 is over. But mark your calendars for January 14, 2010, when it all starts again (with stereotypical German organization and efficiency, they've already scheduled the days for next year).

I saw just one movie, the closing night special of Melodies of Spring (Märzmelodie). This is very unusual for a German film--it's a musical. At least sort of. People break into song for a few lines, but quickly return to regular life, since I guess impromptu singing is not a very German thing to do. It's a romantic comedy--emotionally damaged people get their hearts broken, find love with someone else, etc. It's funny, and sometimes weird (even if true, has "I sometimes have blackouts and just forgot you were there" ever worked as an excuse for leaving your date at the restaurant and running off with your friends?) It was fun, and probably a good decision to end a festival with something easy to digest.

Which reminds me, once again for the closing night party Berlin and Beyond has the best food. Too bad it disappeared so quickly. At least there were still plenty of drinks.

And with that, Berlin and Beyond 2009 is in the books.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Jason goes to Berlin and Beyond--Day 6

After celebrating inauguration day by...going to work as usual but checking in every so often on the feed of the festivities (which froze up during Obama's speech), I went back up to the Castro to celebrate Wim Wenders night at Berlin and Beyond.

First up was the U. S. premiere of Wenders' new film, Palermo Shooting. Now I have to confess that Wenders is a director I've always known of, but I'm not really familiar with his work. I think I saw Wings of Desire on video a long time ago, but that's about it (other than Kings of the Road last Sunday night). Well, after seeing Palermo Shooting, I went and added everything he's made to my Netflix queue. It's the story of Finn, a famous and very successful photographer. He takes digital photographs and manipulates them (say, by putting one city's sunset on another city's skyline, and adding a few buildings, etc.) His life is fast and chaotic. One of his techniques is using a 360 degree rotating camera to photograph the scenery as he's driving. However, he's haunted by nightmare images of death and a world literally turned upside-down (the opening credit scene alone blew me away and had me hooked through the whole film). As his life is spiralling beyond his control, he leaves town and ends up in Palermo (Italy). He doesn't speak the language, but meets a beautiful artist whom he can speak to in English, and they become close. Sleep deprived, he has a habit of falling asleep on public benches and waking up to what he thinks are arrows being shot at him. In fact, they're very vivid images--a ghostly white figure in a grey cloak, shooting arrows that quickly disappear. The movie becomes a sort of metaphysical, religious thriller. That cloaked figure is the image of death in a painting his artist friend is restoring. So he's actually being hunted by death. The end scene with death is a bit over the top (kind of has to be, since it's a Dennis Hopper cameo), but the mystery and the strong visuals had me transfixed the whole time.

So after the movie we had a conversation with Wim Wenders. He's a very funny man, and spoke about his criticisms of digital photography. He's a big fan of film for still pictures, although he quickly adopted digital effects for his movies. That was an interesting distinction. He argued that still photography captures truth, and digital photography is a) too easy to manipulate, and b) too easy to toss out the pictures that don't come out the way you want. However, movies were from the beginning about make-believe anyway, so digital is not a problem--you want to be able to manipulate the image to be not quite real. He also spoke very eloquently about the message of Palermo Shooting, which he said was about an affliction he sees in nearly everyone, himself included. And that affliction is not living in the moment, but always thinking ahead to what's next. That's so true, and I feel it in myself (right now I'm thinking I better finish writing this so I can hop on the BART to go to the Noir City Film Festival). I...don't know how to cure that. But at least I can now definitely see that I have a problem.

Anyway, just to prove that not everyone throws out their digital photographs just because they look lousy, here's a shot of Wim Wenders in conversation at the Castro, taken of course on my cellphone:

Jason goes to Berlin and Beyond--Day 5

Okay, 2 more movies last Monday. Here we go.

First up was the classic old film that introduced Marlene Dietrich to the world, The Blue Angel. However, this was the rarely shown English version (not sure if that's a good thing, but it's a different thing. There was an interesting introduction to the film where I learned a few things. First, early sound film did not capture the higher pitched voice of women very well, and Marlene Dietrich was cast in part because her voice was lower and was captured well on film. Second, the film was shot in German and in English with the same cast. The idea was that the German version would have exclusive play in Germany (and not have to compete with Hollywood films) and the English version would play in America to try to break into the American market. It was a success in its time, but the quick advent of subtitles doomed it to obscurity. However, because so many prints were made of the German version, the original negatives wore out and now every print is a copy of a copy, while the English version languished in a vault and is more or less pristine to make more prints from the original negative.

Now on to the film. I'm ashamed to admit I've never seen the German version. I can guess what's different. In particular, Emil Jannings' character (Professor Immanuel Rath) is a professor of English in this version, and forces his students to speak English. Second, Marlene Dietrich's showgirl character Lola Lola is an English speaker and forces people to speak English to her. I assume these are both adaptations for the English version. Other than that, I assume the story is the same. Rath's students sneak out to the club "Blue Angel" to see Lola perform. Trying to catch them in the act, Rath goes to the club, only to be embarrassed and smitten by Lola. Over several visits (and several drinks), he falls for her and proposes. She laughs hysterically (not the desired response), since she's pretty much a...well, they couldn't actually show true sluttiness back then, but she is by profession a woman of loose morals. Rath spends so much time at the Blue Angel his life falls apart and he loses his job. But he doesn't care, he marries Lola and starts life as a performer in their travelling show. A few years later, they return to his hometown to do the triumphant return show in the Blue Angel. Everyone's excited--except for Rath, who's mortified.

It's a good story, with a good moral (if a girl laughs at your marriage proposal, just walk away!), and somewhat shocking considering the era. But there are problems with the English version. Primarily, the German accents are so thick sometimes I wished it was just in German and subtitled. Second Dietrich has a thick enough accent that it's not so believable that she's a native English speaker who doesn't understand German. Worst, Kurt Gerron is almost unintelligible. For that matter, ever since seeing Prisoner of Paradise, I find it hard to watch Kurt Gerron without thinking about his tragic end in Theresienstadt, but that shouldn't be a criticism of the film. I'm just saying, is all.

Next up was a well done and exciting if somewhat standard bank robber thriller 12 Winters. It's based on a true story (but admittedly jazzed up for entertainment) of Klaus (Axel Prahl) and Mike (the always awesome Jürgen Vogel). They're two criminals who meet in prison. After they get released, they happen to run into each other (through a common friend) and start talking about what they've been up to. Turns out one (I think it was Klaus, but I might be wrong) has been up to robbing banks. They start plotting how to rob banks better, more efficiently, with no risk of getting caught. And, most importantly, without killing anyone (which is true of the real story, and one reason they're more sympathetic than the typical bank robber). For 12 years, working only in the winter (hence the title) they went on one of the most infamous bank robbing sprees in German history. They wore masks and although they were both middle aged jumped over counters like young men (one element that confused the cops and kept them off their trail). Klaus is very low key (in fact, he's in hiding), and rarely spends any money. Mike, on the other hand spends freely, and enjoys his wealth with the company of several women (another true element that was allegedly toned down for the film because his real lifestyle would be too over the top). A fun thriller. As I said, a little standard (there's hardly anything new about bank robbers on film), but fun nonetheless.

Jason goes to Berlin and Beyond--Day 4

Der erste Film, den ich sah, war am Sonntag Silly's Sweet Summer (der deutsche Titel war Blöde Mütze). Allerdings, durch Fehler der Printmedien keine englischen Untertiteln, so dass ich mir die ganze Sache darn in deutscher Sprache. Ich glaube, ich weiß, was passiert ist, aber nur, um diese interessanter ich meine Übersetzung ins Deutsche Überprüfung der Verwendung von Google Translate. Here we go:

Martin ist das neue Kind in der Schule, aber auch zeigt, bevor er sich für den ersten Tag der Klasse, er fängt Oliver stehlen Zigaretten und Ratten auf ihn. So hat er einen Feind erst einmal, und er ihm Spitznamen wie "Stupid Hat" (Ich weiß, dass dies nur wegen der Einführung in den Film). Dies geschieht, obwohl Oliver Martin kauft eine Packung Zigaretten (die sagen, dass sie sich für seine Mutter) - er kann einfach nicht finden Oliver und geben Sie sie ihn in der Zeit.

Martin ist auch der Umgang mit neuen Gefühlen, die durch ogling eines Sonnenschutzmittels Anzeige mit einer Frau "oben ohne" (die nur von der Rückseite, dies ist ein Kinder-Film). Allerdings, wenn er sieht, classmate Silke, sie beginnt an die Stelle der namenlosen topless Küken in seinen Phantasien. Problem ist, dass sie Oliver's Freundin. Aber sie werden Freunde und ein bisschen Liebe Dreieck entwickelt.

Mal sehen, was sonst noch passiert? Martin liebt seine Fische, aber Angst vor dem Wasser (er kann nicht schwimmen). Also, wenn sie zu den geheimen Versteck von einem See, er gehe auf die Reihe, aber nicht schwimmen. Schließlich Oliver und Martin machen sich Freunde, aber ich kann mich nicht erinnern, wie. Oliver's Mutter ist mit einer Affäre, ich kann mich nicht erinnern, was mit seinem Vater. An einer Stelle Silke und Martin haben ein Kampf, aber das ist der Punkt, den ich nicht wirklich herausfinden, aus dem Maßnahmen-und Körpersprache. Aber sie sich wieder zusammen, und sie sind alle Freunde in die Ende. Martin selbst überwindet seine Angst vor Wasser und lernt schwimmen. Dann Ende.

Interessante, vielleicht habe ich einige Fähigkeiten entwickelt, indem sie so viele Stummfilme (danke Niles Film Museum), aber gerade das wirklich zeigt, wie die meisten Fremdinteressen Dialog in einem Film. Obwohl die Beurteilung durch das Gelächter im Publikum, wenn ich die Sprache, hätte ich bekommen viel mehr aus ihm heraus.

Okay, back to English. Next up was the Short Film Program, which broke down as follows:
Bende Sira – Ich Bin Dran--Actually, this one didn't have subtitles, either. But it was still pretty easy to follow the story of a bunch of boys (and one sister) who pool their money so one can watch a movie and describe it to the rest.
Sommersonntag--A heartbreaking story of a drawbridge operator and his adorable deaf son who wanders under the bridge mechanism just before it has to be lowered for the passing train.
The Girl With the Yellow Stockings--The perfect love story. Girl tortures guy by forcing him to propose over and over again just so she can say, "No!"
Die Begegnung--A visual poem in (mostly) black and white, about a couple who meet, lose each other, meet themselves (possibly a time travel interpretation?). Very weird, but beautiful.
Felix--The best of the shorts, the story of a young boy who starts an online relationship with a deaf girl. He even learns sign language for her. He also pretends to be deaf, but has trouble keeping that secret.
Big Plans--A charming animated film about a young genius trying to build a machine to dispense apples.
Dog Food--Two youths, one kind of a thug and one more of a wannabe. The thug convinces the wannabe to break into an old woman's house and steal something. He chooses her...dentures? Oh yeah, and watches her die (sort of).
Illusion--You know what's better than having a job you love as a train ticket taker? Getting fired for roughing up a passenger, and then returning to work anyways on your own. Hey, they can pay the fine to you, or to the transit agency.
Samsa – Hommage An Kafka--Ah, Kafka. An animated interpretation of "Metamorphasis" as a Gregor Samsa writes out his story on a typewriter/cockroach that eats him alive.
On the Line--A security guard falls for a woman who works in one of the stores he watches. They take the same train home every night, and not by accident. But when he sees her board the train with another man, he makes a decision with tragic unintended consequences.

And that was the short film program, and it was a very good program.

Next up was the Berlin and Beyond tradition of playing the audience award winner from Kinofest Lünen. And by coincidence, Evet, I Do! also won the audience award here (not really a coincidence, it's a wonderful, adorable movie). A simple, romantic premise--various couples hoping/planning to get married. The twist--at least one of each couple is Muslim, and they're either Kurds or Turks ("Evet" is the Turkish word for "yes"). Turks and Kurds are large ethnic minorities in Germany, and people that have not historically been friends. But that all changes in the liberal, free world. Turks can marry Kurds, Muslims can marry atheists, etc....except their parents tend to have problems with it. There's the Kurdish man and the Turkish woman who are madly in love, if only they can get their parents to stop fighting. There's the liberal German man who's willing to give up his parent's anti-marriage values to marry his his girlfriend. He's even willing to convert to Islam (at least in name). But when her father requires that he's circumcised--that's a different question. There's the man coming from Turkey to marry anyone just to get a green card. Problem is, he wants a pretty wife. And finally there's Emrah. His parent's have arranged a very nice wife for him. Trouble is, he loves his friend Tim. All the intersecting storylines are handled with humor and a deft steady hand that's all the more impressive if you know it's director Sinan Akkus' first feature film. So far he's shown at Lünen and here, and he's two for two in audience awards.

Next we transition from light romantic comedy to a much darker drama,
Jerichow. In a slightly violent opening, Thomas is in his childhood home (in the tiny town of Jerichow, hence the title) talking with his brothers. Their mother has just died and left them some money. He wants to keep it, move into the house, and fix it up. But he owes them money, so they beat him up and take it. He's broke, but gets a menial job picking cucumbers, making just enough to get by. He has a bit of a sketchy past--he is an Afghanistan veteran, dishonorably discharged. So he can't get better work. But a lucky break strikes him when he helps Ali. Ali was driving drunk and crashed, Thomas talks to him and takes the wrap--claiming he was driving. Turns out Ali runs a bunch of local fast food stands, and when he's again caught driving drunk, he loses his license. So he hires Thomas to drive his van for him. That's great, Thomas is making better money, has a good friend in Ali, is learning the ropes, and is getting along great with Ali's hot wife. In fact, maybe a little too great...make that, way too great...they're having an affair. Thing is, when Ali gets drunk he gets violent. He can be sweet at times, but overall Laura only stays with him because she's deeply in debt (and due to their pre-nup, she will be again if they divorce). Well, their affair gets more serious, and they start hatching some dangerous plans. A pretty good drama with some elements of a thriller.

And finally, Berlin and Beyond started their Wim Wenders tribute with an early road epic,
Kings of the Road. A three-hour, more or less plotless work of beauty, if you can endure the length. Bruno repairs movie projectors, and travels along the border with East and West Germany (oh yeah, this movie's from 1976). At one stop by the lake, he witnesses reckless, crazy, suicidal Robert drive directly into the lake. So of course first he busts up laughing, but then he helps him to shore and lets him borrow clothes while his dry. And now they're best friends travelling along the border and having weird adventures and weirder conversations. I'm honestly not sure if I can say I "got" this movie, but there are parts that amazed and amused me (the shadow theater particularly is a little piece of brilliance). I'm not sure if it was worth the 3 hour running time for most people. But hell, I started the day watching a feature film in a language I don't understand, so I might as well end it this way.

Jason goes to Berlin and Beyond--day 3

Okay, I'm several days and 10 films behind. Works been busy, but I've still been going to Berlin and Beyond every day. Saturday I just saw two movies, and here we go.

First up was the documentary La Paloma about the song of the same name. "La Paloma" is an incredibly popular song by the Spaniard Sebastián de Iradier, and this movie is about its history and its fans. It's unclear whether Iradier wrote it in Spain or in Cuba, but it was inspired by his visit to Cuba and its popularity definitely took off there. From there, it swept the world, first becoming a political anthem in Mexico after Emperor Maximilian let it be known that it was his favorite song (and it was then adopted and modified by his enemies). With the lyrics modified, the tune is still used politically today in Mexico. It travelled to Hawaii (along with the guitar) with the Mexican ranch hands brought in from California by King Kamehameha III to handle their wild herds of cattle (originally a gift to Kamehameha I from Captain Vancouver). But back to the song--it's been recorded possibly thousands of times (arguably a record), including by Elvis. And of course it was translated to German (otherwise it wouldn't make much sense that it's in Berlin and Beyond--other than it was produced in Germany and director Sigrid Faltin is German). It's very popular in Germany, and one of the most famous recordings is by Hans Alber in Große Freiheit Nr. 7. Honestly, I had heard the song before but didn't know it was such a big deal before seeing this movie. But beyond the specific song, it's an interesting story about how a small cultural icon travels the world (at least, before the Internet. Now memes travel worldwide overnight, and there's no epic story behind them).

So next up was a romantic drama of wartime Germany, The Invention of Curried Sausage. It's near the end of the war, the Allies are approaching Berlin, or at least bombing it on a regular basis. A few citizens are still very gung-ho to promote the party line, but the heroes in this movie just want it to end. Particularly Lena Bruecker, manager of a local commissary, and for all intents and purposes a widow. Her husband and her son are off in the war, and she never expects to see either. To pass the time, she goes to the cinema. No sooner than the newsreel starts than the bombs fall, and she finds herself huddling in a shelter with Petty Officer Bremer, who's off on leave. But after she takes him home, that leave quickly becomes AWOL, as she hides him in her apartment while they carry on a love affair. They survive the war, and they survive the nosy neighbors (and the gung-ho Nazi landlord). But really, it's the peace, and return to reality that threatens their love, which is a pretty interesting (and in retrospect, kind of obvious) turnabout on the expected "love in wartime" dynamic. It's a well made, well told story with tension and humor--I have to give big praise to the cook (I believe the character's name was Holzinger), who provided the best subversive humor in the movie.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Jason goes to Berlin and Beyond--day 2

Aka, First Feature Friday. Both the movies I saw were debut features from their directors, starting with the festival's award winner for best first feature, Micha Lewinsky's The Friend. Incidentally, this is the first time a Swiss German film has won this award, and this is also Switzerland's entry for best foreign language film at the Oscars. So good luck to them. It's the story of Emil, an awkward, shy student in Zurich. He has a crush on Larissa, a singer at a club he frequents. He's never had the courage to say anything more than "hi" to her, and she's never acknowledged his existence. So it's strange and thrilling when she approaches him and asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend. Seems she told her parents she had a boyfriend and that they were very happy, so just go along with it. But when he first calls her home, he gets her sister who delivers some bad news--Larissa's dead. He shows up anyway and plays the role he's been dreaming of forever. He's quickly accepted by the family and finds a new sense of confidence, becoming less of a wallflower and more of a man. Man enough to catch the eye of Larissa's sister Nora, who was always jealous of being in her shadow. As more information comes out--like that her death was a suicide, not an accident--it becomes an awkward, dysfunctional comedy-drama. It's a story of losing something you never really had and finding something in yourself that you had all along.

Next up was Brigitte Maria Bertele's A Hero's Welcome. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) is talked about quite a lot in America, but to hear Bertele, it's not talked of much in Germany. So she made a drama about David, an Afghan war vet returning home. He's learned the swagger and easy camaraderie of a soldier, and so he can fake his way through his return and the congratulations he gets for his medal. But it's clear that there are problems, starting with how he can't look his little brother (who idolizes him) in the eye. Then he can't make love to his girlfriend, he wets the bed, his temper blows up at the slightest provocation. Clearly he's troubled, but he refuses to see the army psychiatrist (a common element of PTSD is denying you have a problem). Eventually he warms up to his brother Benni, but only to semi-torture him--playing far too rough in soccer practice, making him kill his sick pet bunny, even giving him a gun and telling him (Benni) to shoot him (David). It's all on the pretense of teaching him to not be afraid, but it clearly shows the cycle of passing the trauma on--and passing it on to the weakest person around you. It's a powerful story with some fearless acting and no easy answers.

And one final note, for my longtime readers. Both filmmakers were there and had very interesting question and answer sessions afterwards. Longtime readers will know I've always tried to get a photo of the filmmakers with my low-quality camera phone, and I've posted them on this blog. Well, I've finally decided that they always look so bad I'm not even going to try anymore. I did it the first few times as an experiment, then kept it up for 2 years because I thought it'd be unfair to the filmmakers if I showed some but not all. Well, after 2 years I'm callign the experiment a failure. It's a year of minor changes to this blog.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Jason goes to Berlin and Beyond--opening night

Berlin and Beyond traditionally opens the Bay Area start of the year film festival glut. It's followed immediately by Noir City, then Indiefest, Cinequest, SFIAAFF, and...then maybe I get to rest. Oh yeah, and I'll fit the Niles Film Museum's Mid-Winter Comedy Festival in there, too (sadly, I'll miss their Pre-Code Follies).

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Berlin and Beyond 2009 started last night. First with a little party in the Castro mezzanine. Berlin and Beyond's opening party always features two things--the best food, and the least room. It's crowded, but worth it, and I drank just enough that I had to struggle to stay awake through the film, but was successful in that struggle (with thanks to Foosh caffeinated mints).

And then the film, Cherry Blossoms, by Doris Dörrie (whose The Fisherman and his Wife played at Berlin and Beyond a couple years ago). Again, she focuses on love and marriage, with a German/Japanese twist. Trudi and Rudi are an old married couple. Trudi is sort of a free soul, into Japanese modern dance (called Butoh). Or rather, she was free soul. Rudi is more conservative, and would prefer that nothing ever changes. So when Trudi learns that Rudi has a serious disease, she knows he won't take the news well. She doesn't tell him, but instead convinces her to take a vacation and visit their children in Berlin. They have a son and (lesbian) daughter there, but they don't really get along. So after an awkward visit (where we learn that they have another son in Tokyo, but Rudi never wants to visit there), they head off to the Baltic Sea for a vacation by themselves. But Trudi suddenly dies there. Rudi is left alone and heartbroken, more so when he learns about the secret life Trudi wanted for herself in Tokyo, and how much she sacrificed to be with him and raise their family. So Rudi screws up his courage and goes to Tokyo to see their other son, and as he goes to another world this becomes another movie and he becomes another person. He starts wandering around Tokyo, although he can't read a word. He wanders into strip clubs (awkward), and meets a Butoh dancer and begins a friendship with her. He in a way becomes the adventurous soul that Trudi was, and in her passing her character actually becomes more important and more fully realized and Rudi becomes more like her. There's a powerful sense of loss and loneliness, but it's interesting how in opening up and moving on, Rudi becomes a celebration of Trudi's spirit. A sad movie to be sure, but one with a sense of hope, beauty, and sweetness and one that exhorts the audience to appreciate what they have right now.

And that's how Berlin and Beyond 2009 started.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Jason is featured on another blog

Hell on Frisco Bay, a very good local cinephile blog (one that's much better than me at publicizing upcoming events), has published it's year in review "best of" lists from local movie blogger, and was kind enough to invite me to contribute. If you want to skip everyone else (although I'd never suggest you do) you can go right here.

I should specify that he asked me to weigh in on my favorite repertory/revival screenings. I took that to mean that even if my favorite film of the year had premiered in 2007, it was still in it's initial festival run and doesn't really count as a repertory/revival show. Same with a film like Teeth, which premiered at Sundance in January 2007, but finally made an art-house theatrical run in early 2008. It wouldn't even be eligible for this list, no matter how much I loved it. I could go on. Point is, if he hadn't asked me to keep it to repertory or revival screenings, I probably couldn't have done it.

But, in any case, I'm pretty proud of what I chose for my favorites, and I'll stand behind it completely. Thanks again for letting me contribute, Brian.

Jason Watches Happy Go-Lucky

And I liked it, but don't feel like writing. You can check out the reviews here. I'm counting this as one of the 10 movies I'd watch but not write about. That's 1.

Jason watches Synechdoche, New York

Faux-profundity wrapped in a thousand onion layers of excruciatingly clever, obfuscating obviousness. In other words, it's not just a Charlie Kaufman movie, it's a Charlie Kaufman movie without the filter of a more restrained director (and when Spike Jonze counts as "restraint" you should seek help).

I won't bother trying to tell you what this movie is "about". If you've seen it, my previous paragraph says it all. If you haven't, nothing I write will ever explain it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees The Scarlet Car, The Non Stop Kid, and The Taking of Luke McVane

Another night in the only theater in the country that plays silent films on a regular basis. And I finally one the raffle! I'm now the proud owner of a silent film calendar (you can get your own here). Anyway, on to the movies.

First up was a Harold Lloyd short, The Non Stop Kid. Like almost all Lloyd films, it's about him trying to win the girl (and he always does). In this case the girl, Bebe, already likes him. The problem is her father--he's already decided she'll marry professor M. T. Noodle. So Harold kidnaps the professor, steals his clothes, and impersonates him. Wacky hijinx ensue.

Next a western, The Taking of Luke McVane, starring William S. Hart. Hart plays McVane, a rough guy spending his time in a saloon and his money on drink and women. A dirty gambler cheats McVane at cards, there's a fight and McVane kills the cheater. The sheriff is after him so McVane flees to the desert while his girl sets a false trail for the posse. The sheriff is ambushed, but McVane isn't really a bad guy. He takes the sheriff and nurses him back to health. The sheriff says he'll help McVane if he turns himself in. McVane agrees, but on the way back they're ambushed by Apaches and both die. There's a nice memorial where everyone agrees he was actually a good guy. The end.

Then and intermission. And finally the feature, The Scarlet Car. There's a banking scandal, something about $35,000 missing. To be honest, the banking part of it confused me. But two crooked bankers frame an old cashier, Paul Revere Forbes (Lon Chaney). He's a huge fan of his famous ancestor, the Paul Revere. They kill him because he knows too much. Unfortunately, they don't know he's Lon Chaney, the greatest freakin' actor in the world. So he plays dead pretty convincingly. Luckily the boss' son Billy wants to marry Forbes' daughter. So when he finds exonerating evidence, he sets out to clear her father's name. They find he's not actually dead, but he's just gone insane and thinks he's in the Revolutionary War awaiting a message from Paul Revere. Awkward. Lon Chaney doesn't have a lot of screen time, but his role is pivotal and he totally steals the movie.

Jason watches The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

And it was good, but long. I was going to make this one of the 10 movies I'm requiring I don't review this year. But there is one point that seems out of place, so I want to blog about it. The story is set up with a framing device where Cate Blanchett's character is elderly and in the hospital. She has her daughter read to her from Benjamin Button's diary. This all takes place in her hospital room, in New Orleans, as hurricane Katrina is bearing down on the city (and she decides not to evacuate). Why put Katrina in the movie? Was this a cheap emotional punch? Or is it more vital to the theme of impermanence in the film? I suspect David Fincher believed it was the latter, but it comes off playing like the former. That is all.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Jason watches Valkyrie

And the crazy Scientologist pipsqueak can...actually bring it. There's a fundamental, almost insurmountable challenge to making a thriller about a true historical event where absolutely everyone knows how it must end. You'd think there can't possibly be any suspense, so it's a testament to some fine filmmaking that there's real tight tension there, and for a moment you can fool yourself into believing the plot to assassinate Hitler and take over his government might work this time.

So yeah, it's actually a pretty good film, but I want to harp on one thing. There's another fundamental challenge in filming a movie for an English-speaking audience that takes place in a foreign land. How do you deal with the language? There are generally three choices you could make (in order of my preference): speak the foreign language and subtitle it, speak English without an accent, or speak accented English. Accented English standing in for a foreign language didn't use to bug me, but the more times I see the first two options work well, the third option bugs me more. There's no reason for an actor to speak in accented English unless the character is a person speaking English with an accent. Now Valkyrie starts with an interesting way to address this problem. Tom Cruise as Col. Stauffenberg is writing in his journal, and a voice-over is speaking his words in German, with subtitles. It slowly morphs to Tom Cruise's voice in (unaccented) English. It's a clever way to tell the audience English = German in this movie, and we're not bothering with accents. Inside, I applauded that, thought it was a clever way to approach it, and I hope it will catch on. My problem is that while most of the characters speak unaccented English, a few (most notably David Bamber as Hitler, but most egregiously the judge at the end) speak in accented English. It left me confused. Did Bryan Singer not adequately instruct everyone to speak without and accent? Or is accented English standing in for accented German? Did Hitler have an accent from his native Austria, and is that what's being depicted in the film? I'm confused.

But yeah, otherwise the film was pretty good.

Jason watches Gran Torino

And the old man can still fucking bring it! So Clint Eastwood made his fortune playing tough guys, then grew into an excellent, excellent filmmaker. Now we get to watch Clint step back into a tough guy role and direct himself in it. It's like slipping into a comfortable old pair of shoes, and then slowly learning all the great features you never knew or had forgotten about those shoes. Yeah, it's good, and it's smart, and it's surprising.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Jason watches Frost/Nixon

And it's pretty good. The story, of course, is compelling, and the acting is great. Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost are good, but Sam Rockwell as the temperamental James Reston, Jr. (the most political, we-have-to-destroy-Nixon guy on Frost's team) is great. The integration of news footage from the time is good. There's a faux-documentary framing device where the characters talk about their experiences. That would be more jarring if they didn't prime you by starting the movie that way. Although I couldn't help but feel that it would've been better if they could've gotten the actual people--not just the actors playing them--for the faux-documentary parts (like how the real Harvey Pekar was integrated into American Splendor). But the only thing that really struck me as odd is that some of the dialogue sounds really, really stagy. I didn't know going in that this was actually based on a stage play based on the original events. They stuck too close to the stage dialogue, and there are times you can tell that. But still, that's a minor quibble in an otherwise great film.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Jason reviews 2008

First, by the numbers. Here's the number of movies I saw each day (click for bigger):

Max was just a measly 7 movies. That might seem like a lot, but not compared to the 10 I saw on one day in 2007 (and that was part of my kinda stupid and incredibly exhausting 14 movies straight with no sleep marathon). An integral part of that was the Santa Cruz midnight mystery movie marathon (6 movies, starting at midnight, the mystery being what the movies are--not that they're mystery movies). Simple reason I didn't repeat that feat--they didn't have it this year (or they had it and I didn't notice).

So how does that look as a histogram? Like this:

A total of 396 movies. Less than 2007, where I topped out at 431. However, I did see movies on more days in 2008. In fact, out of 366 days (leap year), I saw at least one movies on 184 days, just over half. In 2007, I was just under the halfway point. So for the first time, if you chose a random day last year, chances were (slightly) over 50/50 that I'd see at least one movie that day. I...guess that's something to be proud of?

But overall, how does it compare to previous years?

For the first time since I started tracking it in 2005, I saw fewer movies than the year before. And...I'm okay with that. Really.

I've thought about it, and there are some reasons for why I saw fewer movies last year than in 2007. First, 431 movies is a hell of a lot. I suppose I could try to see more, but why would I want to. Second, while I was still interested in all the major film festivals here in the bay area, I was less interested in the general release movies. I haven't actually broken out the numbers to see if more or less of my film-going was at film festival movies vs. general releases in the theaters. I suspect I saw a little less of both types, but probably a sharper drop in general release movies. Just a theory.

But mostly I noticed one pattern of behavior. In 2007 this blog was fresh and exciting and I saw more movies I was only marginally interested in just because I thought it'd be interesting to blog them. However last year was just the opposite. I'm a busy man (yes, I hold a real job), and sometimes I thought about seeing a movie and then decided not to because I didn't want to have to blog about it. That's just stupid, and that attitude has to stop, especially since last year I swore I'd let myself right very brief reviews when I saw a wide release movie and couldn't think of anything interesting to say about it. So my new year's resolution is this: at least 10 times this year, I will not review a movie I see. I'll blog that I saw it, but not waste my time writing unless I'm really inspired.

Finally, most years it's really, really hard for me to say what my favorite movie of the year is. I love many movies every year, and it's really hard to choose. But for the first time in a while, I clearly know my favorite movie of last year. La Antena (aka The Aerial) amazed me more than anything in a long time. I saw it at Cinequest (scroll to the bottom), and it still amazed me when I played it for my family just a week ago. As far as I know, it's only available on Region 2 PAL DVD so far, so here's hoping it comes to American DVD (or better, gets a big-screen release) soon.

And lastly, without a doubt my favorite blogging moment of the year was my review of Iron Man. Yeah, I was trolling, but I thought I made it pretty obvious and enough people got the joke to really make me proud.

BTW, my other new years resolution is to start writing movie titles in bold and underlined, instead of in quotes. I believe that's the correct way to do it (grammar nazis feel free to correct me), but in my pre-blogging days I wrote my reviews as text-only e-mails to friends and family, necessitating quotes instead. I just kept the tradition on my blog good reason. But just because I've made the same premeditated mistake for >2 years doesn't mean I shouldn't stop.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Jason watches "The Spirit"

Actually, I watched it a week ago, on vacation with my family in Alaska. So this was my last movie of 2008.

Frank Miller can, and probably always will, make beautifully visual movies. That's his background as a cartoonist graphic novelist. And "The Spirit" is visually interesting, and has some scenes with good action. Newcomer Gabriel Macht is fine in the title role, the babes (Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Paz Vega) are beautiful, and Samuel L. Jackson devours the scenery like Dave Chappelle doing a Samuel L. Jackson impersonation (and for this type of movie, that's a compliment).

However...there is so much awkward exposition that stops the action dead in its tracks. I assume this is also a function of Frank Miller's graphic novelist background. A good screenwriter could work the Spirit's origin stories in there a little more cleverly. Actually, to that point, it was a curious decision to make a movie about a lesser known superhero and not make it all about his origins. I suppose I can give Frank Miller high marks for that ambition, since it seems like a very conscious choice. But the execution is so awkward it feels like watching a sequel to a movie I haven't seen.