Saturday, February 28, 2009

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 3

Three more movies last night, let's get to it.

First off was the Mexican coming-of-age drama How Could I Not Love You?
(Como no te voy a querer)
. Hugo's a huge futbol fan, cheering for his local Pumas team with a group of hooligans. In fact, he dreams of someday playing for them. His family and his girlfriend Julia have other plans. They want him to study, get an education, and have a good career (instead of driving a bus like his dad). He wants nothing to do with that, preferring to pay a hooligan friend to "fix" his grade. His laziness especially causes friction with his sometimes abusive father. Especially because his father drives a bus and every week the hooligans hijack a bus to go to the Pumas game. I suspect he'd be okay with Hugo just being a soccer fan, but it's really rolling with the hooligans that upsets him.

When I first saw this, I thought it was just okay. It's well put together, with some fine acting, but nothing I haven't seen before. The themes--young love, family obligation, cycles of abuse, learning (too late) from the mistakes of your father, etc--are all things that are very common, universal themes in movies (probably in all art). But as I think on it more this morning, there's a level of realism that puts it a little notch above. It explores all those themes, but wraps none of them up cleanly. It's as messy and complex as real life. Well done.

So then, after a quick appearance at the Vivid nightclub for the official VIP Soiree, I was off to the fabulous California Theater for The Birth of a Nation. Now I must join the ever growing fraternity of film reviewers who have to reconcile the technical brilliance of this film with it's abhorrent subject matter. First for the brilliance. D.W. Griffith practically invented editing as we know it today (him and Eisenstein). The Birth of a Nation was the first "blockbuster" film, and the first to establish feature films as the standard filmgoing experience. In a time when people went to nickelodeons (i.e., paid just a nickel to get in) to see 20 minute 2-reelers, he unleashes a 3+ hour 12-reeler and people lined up to pay $2 each. 40 times the average movie rate. That's like charging $400 to see one film today, and people did that (you and 2 friends could see everything in Cinequest with a film and forum pass for that price!). And still today, the story moves along, and everything flows with a dramatic purpose. There can be no doubt that this was not just a breakthrough for its day, but dramatically (but not thematically) still holds up today. And it was the highest grossing film today until another Civil War/Reconstruction epic surpassed it--a little flick called Gone With the Wind.

Interesting, I noticed that I just raved about its technical brilliance without ever mentioning the plot. Reminds me of all the book reviews of "Lolita" that praise the language without ever mentioning it's about pedophilia. Here's the capsule summary--A northern and southern family are friends. The Civil War tears them apart. Reconstruction is even worse, as carpet-baggers and the newly enfranchised Southern black voters "crush the Southern Whites under the heels of the Southern Blacks". Finally, the Ku Klux Klan is formed to fight for the supremacy of the Southern Whites, finally ruling the day. The Union is reunited symbolically with two marriages between the Northern and Southern families.

Okay, now you should understand the moral abhorrence side of this. I can't be a Griffith apologist. This was not just a product of a different time and place, the racism isn't incidental it's intentional and the entire political point of the movie is White Supremacy. When it premiered, the fledgling NAACP protested the film, and still protest it today. And they should--it is still used as a Klan recruitment tool today, in fact its premiere spawned the creation of the modern Ku Klux Klan (the original Klan had pretty much died out, and the new Klan was about hating everyone--Jews, Catholics, etc.--not just blacks). Now I wasn't alive in 1915 when the film premiered, so I can't speak directly to the state of race relations in the U.S. at the time. I know they were much worse than today. But I get the sense that while white supremacy wasn't the radical, insane, paranoid, fringe position it is today, that Racial Equality wasn't such a radical idea, either. This was a time when we had a serious debate in our country (for several decades) about racial equality, and Birth of a Nation solidly and intentionally (not incidentally or obliquely) came out against it. There's no two ways about it, and it sickens me. That's all.

Now I'm looking forward to Intolerance next Friday. Hopefully even more impressive and a little better on the morality side.

Oh yeah, and Dennis James rocked the mighty Wurlitzer organ, as he always does!

Anyway, after all that I needed a drink and a samurai flick. The drink came courtesy of the Mosaic lounge (formerly Paragon) in the Hotel Montgomery. Sadly, since changing from Paragon they somehow got rid of any bartender who can make a decent martini (okay, in fairness I only had one. Maybe there's another bartender there who can make one).

Anyway, the final film was Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf. It was freakin' awesome. A low budget B-movie mashup of a spaghetti western and a samurai epic. Of course, these two genres naturally go together, just ask Akira Kurosawa (and that's the last time I'll compare this to a Kurosawa film). This "Sushi Western" is the desert quest of a blind man looking for vengeance. 8 years ago, a horrible criminal named Nathan Flesher raped and killed his wife, forced him to gouge his own eyes out, and then killed his daughter. He survived, trained, and is out for revenge. There are 7 assassins between him and his goal. Kill each one in turn, then kill Nathan Flesher. He gets some help from the mysterious Drifter (Jeffrey James Lippold, who was in attendance and had girls in the audience swooning over him). Crazy fun with witches, samurai C-sections, zombie warriors, and hypno-boobies! Yeah, hypno-boobies!

And that was Friday night at Cinequest.

Oh yeah, I saw my pass! It still exists, and is getting passed around. I saw there were a number of comments, and I'll have a big task transcribing all of them at the end (especially if this is just what I got in 3 days). Here's a little blurry sneak peak of the first page of the notepad:

Thank you everyone who has written in the notepad so far! And also feel free to e-mail me your comments on the movies. That will get them up online much earlier.

Anyway I'm off to more movies in just a bit. You probably won't read much more from me for the rest of the weekend (except on my Twitter feed). I have a massive 7 movie day today, 5 more movies tomorrow, and I'll have almost no time to write until Monday.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 2 (extra notes)

I've already reviewed the films I saw yesterday, but I forgot to mention all the other partying. I didn't make the VIP Soiree (but hope to hop in to Vivid Lounge for a minute or two tonight before heading to the California for Birth of a Nation). I did make it to the nightly "watering hole" at the E&O trading company. It was great hanging out with not just the CQ staff and fellow fans (the people I see every year), but also some filmmakers. I had a drink with Jeffrey James Lippold of Samurai Avenger: Blind Wolf (looking forward to your film tonight!). Director Julian M. Kheel and his crew from Capers were there, including Cinequest Maverick award winner Blanchard Ryan (Emerging Maverick, CQ15). And director Mike McKeown and Master Roshambollah from Rock, Paper, Scissors were there. Really cool night, that kept me out way too late.

Other notes. They're playing trailers for festival films between the movies this year (instead of just a real of sponsor's ads). I like this a lot. Also, if you go to and search for "inside Cinequest" you can see video clips of the action from the festival. I personally haven't done this yet because my regular day job blocks I hope to have time to check it out at home. In the meantime, any readers who go there and check it out, leave a comment telling me what you think.

Speaking of day job, looks like next week it becomes a night job. I've managed to justify being on the midnight shift next week (only time I can get enough time on our equipment), which means that I'll be seeing more Cinequest matinees starting Monday. It also means I'll stop sleeping, and my reviews will descend into an incoherent mess. A prize to the first person to pinpoint the moment I lose my mind!

Yeah, that's it for now. Tonight I'm off to see How Am I Not Going to Love You? followed by Birth of a Nation and Samurai Avenger: Blind Wolf. Then I have a 7 film lineup planned for Saturday. That is, unless anything changes between now and when I leave for work.

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 2

Now the reviews start in earnest. So let's jump right in, starting with Short Program 5: Letting Off Steam. This is their collection of shorts about tension and the release of tension. A pretty intense program, here's the lineup:

Dead Dog: Don't mess with this guy's dog! Seriously, he really loved that dog.
Eiko: A beautiful, mysterious girl shows up in the back of a man's truck. A road trip about sex and suicide, with an even more mysterious ending.
La Hora de la Muerte (The Hour of Death): A guy calls a radio station's late night "Hour of Death" show. He's in a supernatural heap of trouble. Good scary effects, although the sound levels were way low (not sure if that's the movie's fault or the projectionist's fault).
Love You More: Punk love (and lust) set to a Buzzcocks soundtrack.
Rip and the Preacher: Tell me preacher, if fear is just a lack of faith in God, would you care to play a little Russian Roulette?
Twoyoungmen, UT: It's tough to be gay and a Mormon. Even tougher when your just in high school. Even tougher when the guy you just picked up at the bar has no interest in keeping it secret.
Water Pills: Winona Ryder plays a pill-popping mom forcing her daughter into auditions. But when she finally gets a break, she'll have to choose between career and family.

Then it was right over to a different screen in the Camera 12 for Pazar Bir Ticaret Masali (The Market: a Tale of Trade). This was one of my "take a chance on something different" screenings. A comedy about a Turkish market trader? That could go a number of ways, many of them not good (e.g., I was afraid that substantial cultural differences could keep me from getting the humor in the movie. Or it could be a slow, aimless "slice of life" movie instead of a "slice of cake" movie--to borrow a Hitchcock quip). Well, it turns out I had no problem revelling in this movie that was surprisingly active, funny, and morally complex. Mihram (Tayanç Ayaydin) is a small time trader in his local bazaar. He's known for being able to get anything, but he refuses to work with local crime boss Mustafa (Hakan Sahin, whose introduction is actually one of my favorite scenes in the movie). Of course, as Mustafa says, "In trade, everything is connected". For example, in the opening scene Mihram is selling some wire to a friend whose wire was stolen. Turns out (unbeknownst to Mihram), the wire he's selling is the same wire that was stolen.

While Mihram is a good trader, he never keeps much money because he has a bad habit of drinking and gambling it away. Still, underneath it all he's a good man--or so his wife insists. He has the chance to prove that when the local doctor tells him how the supply truck was robbed and they desperately need medicine for the sick children. He has to cross the border (the IMDb summary says into Kazhakstan, but I could've sworn it was Azerbaijan) to get a better price. He has to make a few trades on the way, smuggle in some goods, and partner with his feisty uncle Fazil (Genco Erkal). And even then, forces conspire to thwart his mission, and he's forced to make some troubling moral choices (troubling even for a professional black marketeer). Very enjoyable, a good balance of intelligence and humor.

And then a movie that had most of the audience guessing, "Is this for real?", Rock, Paper, Scissors. This is (I'm not kidding) a documentary about the world championship of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Plenty of people asked if this was actually a mockumentary (not in the Q&A with the director, but amongst ourselves), and I'll go on record as saying I believe it is a real documentary. The premise (guys taking a simple activity way too seriously and competitively) reminds me a lot of Air Guitar Nation (the world championships of air guitar), which also had a strong 'is this for real?' vibe. Anyway, the RPS championship is the brain child of brothers Douglas and Graham Walker. They didn't know if anyone would show up, but instead it turned into a niche cultural phenomenon (and a huge money sink for them), with larger than life figures like the zen-like Master Roshambollah (who was at the screening) and C. Urbanus--who becomes the sympathetic hero for promoting the sport, teaching the strategy, and then always losing in the first round. Oh yeah, strategy. It does exist, and surprisingly more than you'd think. Ideally, perfect randomness is a zero-sum strategy. But people can't truly be random, so the trick is to guess your opponent's non-randomness, and counteract it. And, of course, he or she is trying to do the same. Basically I'd sum up the strategy as "out think your opponent, but not yourself". There are even terms for series of throws--Avalanche (Rock, Rock, Rock), Bureaucrat (Paper, Paper, Paper), Scissors Sandwich (I can't remember if it was Scissors, Paper, Scissors or Paper, Scissors, Paper), etc. Seriously, mathematicians and game theorists write papers on RPS strategy. And if all this wasn't weird enough, the Walker brother's World RPS Society gets challenged by the flashy upstart USA RPS League. That's right, a former potential business partner starts a commercial league that gets sponsorship, actually makes money, uses Playboy Playmates as RPS models. The Walkers refuse to go along, claiming they're destroying the purity of the sport. A truly bizarre story, where the humor comes from taking something silly way too seriously.

As I think about it, there's actually a small niche of films like RPS. Anyone up for a trilogy of RPS, Air Guitar Nation, and Pizza! The Movie (the documentary that includes competitive pizza dough tossing, not the narrative comedy that I haven't seen)?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jason goes to Cinequest--Opening Night

And for the first time since I've started this blog, I don't have to write about the movie because I've already reviewed it. So instead, I could just sit, back, relax and enjoy the party. I met old friends. Halfdan joked that this must be my 9th year (I didn't have the heart to tell him that actually it was only 8). I ran into Cullen Hoback, who showed Monster Camp here two years ago, and still comes back for the parties (he had to return to L.A. to finish cutting his latest movie, so he was only here opening night). I gave away the traveling pass (to this guy. And he said he had friends who could use the pass after him, so it's off to a good start. Look for it, get it, and see a free movie).

Having a Press Pass means more filmmakers come up to me and want to talk to me (either that, or I've just been doing this for so long I've become Cinequest famous). I chatted with the producers of New Brooklyn, and I've tentatively adjusted my schedule to see that Saturday night. I chatted with the makers of All About Dad as well, so I'll have to try and fit it in my schedule. I got a button from the makers of Billy Was a Deaf Kid (which I had already identified as a must see when I read in the program guide that it was "The classic, I hate your guts, no wait, I like you, my brother is deaf, let’s ride a couch down the street, love story."), so that's my first official festival flair. Looking forward to collecting a lot more.

I ran into Phil, my Cinequest buddy and fellow front row aficionado who got me hooked on the Niles Film Museum last year. I beat him by three movies last year (43 to 40) and he's determined to beat me this year. Fool, you can never defeat me! BTW, I might have talked him into blogging Cinequest as well, and I pointed him to

And, of course, I watched Wake again. I'd already seen it and enjoyed the screener. Seeing it again, it was still fun. In fact, it was more fun seeing it on a huge screen with an enthusiastic audience. And I wasn't jet-lagged and drunk on Mai Tais this time (just a couple small glasses of wine, courtesy of Vino Tabi in Santa Cruz). So it was even funnier this time. I can't believe I forgot about the zombie scene--a tiny, unnecessary throw-away scene that made me laugh out loud. The Q&A was good. The director, writer, and producers were there, as were Bijou Philips, Danny Masterson, and Marguerite Moreau. My highlight of the Q&A--when Danny made a random joke about a "brutal Russian sex" scene that was cut out. That was actually a reference to Capers, his other movie in Cinequest this year (I've seen the screener, and it's hilarious). I wonder if anyone else in the audience got that reference.

Then off to the after party. I chatted with a lot more friends. Had a few drinks, then caught the last bus home. Now I'm in work, no worse for wear, doing my day job. The real Cinequest coverage starts tonight. I'm planning to see Shorts Program 5, The Market, and The Investigator. See all my Cinequest friends there

Monday, February 23, 2009

Jason watches The Reader

And now I've actually seen all the best picture nominees, just one day after the Oscars. Whatever.

Okay, The Reader is just as good as everyone says. A complicated, multi-faceted story about love (and underage sex, to boot), the Holocaust, the law, secrets, and how certain decisions haunt our lives forever. Kate Winslet earned her Oscar, and the rest of the cast was great, too. And the story takes enough turns I was rarely ahead of it (other than the big twist in the middle, which I don't think was supposed to be much of a surprise).

Okay, it's a general release movie, so I'm not holding myself to writing much about it. It's good, and I'll end with that.

Jason announces some exciting Cinequest news

Okay, so a lot of my friends already know this, but it's official and I'll announce it to the world. I have joined the fourth estate. For the first time at any film festival, I have a press pass.

This all started a few months ago when someone from the Cinequest publicity department contacted me. They're trying to increase their Internet presence by reaching out to bloggers, helping us get the word out on Cinequest and helping us get our blogs seen more. And so after some e-mailing, begging, arm-twisting, etc., I managed to parlay that into a press pass. By...asking.

Well, this also means I have to step my game up some. I'll still do basically the same thing--write about everything I see and do at Cinequest. But I'm not just blogging here anymore. I've also joined a Cinequest group blog, Most of what I do there will be re-posts of stuff I write here, but better organized. I've already posted a couple of my Cinequest screener previews, and if you look carefully you'll noticed I've read through them again and cleaned up some of the grammar. More importantly, I've added links to official sites and the Cinequest page where you can order tickets online. My background is as a scientist (in my day job, I'm a physicist for a medical imaging company in Silicon Valley), and I think of Jason Watches Movies as sort of my lab notebook--I write anything and everything that I might want to remember. But now I think of CQCentral as the place for my "publishable results". The reviews I'm the most proud of will go there, with extra care taken to link where readers will want to go. Also, you might notice I wrote a really mushy love letter to Cinequest that I published exclusively there (it has since gone on to be used as Cinequest promotional material, which I'm very proud of).

Okay, so that's what it means for me, but what does it mean for you? That's the really exciting part of this. You see, before I knew I could get a press pass, I had already donated at a level that got me a festival Premier Pass. Now with a press pass, I have no need for it. So I'm sharing it with all of you. Here's how it will work.

On opening night I will give the pass (and a notepad) to a lucky film fan. That fan will be chosen simply as the first person who will agree to these simple rules:
  1. You must write in the notepad (or in an e-mail to me), what you saw, when you saw it, and at least a brief message about it. It can be as short as "I liked it" or "It sucked". Or it can be a full-fledged review, rambling on for pages and pages. Your comments will be published at Jason Watches Movies and at If you include your name, I will credit your comments by name, unless you ask me not to. Comments e-mailed to me will be posted as soon as I can. Comments written in the notepad will be published after the festival (I hope, assuming I get the pass and the notepad back).

  2. After seeing one movie (or Maverick Award event, etc., that pass gets you into everything) you must give the pass to someone else (and that person must agree to these same rules). It's a "pay it forward" system. That means if you accept the pass for the last show of the night, you might have to return the following day to pass it on.

  3. No backsies--I don't want to touch the pass again until closing night.

  4. If you get it for the closing night film, it will get you into the after party, too. Find me there and return the notepad to me.

Pretty simple, right? I think it'll be cool to see if we have a strong enough community to keep the travelling pass alive for the whole 12 days.

Oh, and I have noticed that the pass says it’s “non-transferable”. I’m going to assume that means you can’t sell it to anyone else. I assume you can still loan your pass to a friend if you can’t make it to a show...and I assume everyone at Cinequest is my friend. And I assume the Cinequest officials will be cool with this, since I’m not making a buck off it and it’s just generating more buzz for them. Please, everyone be cool with this?

See all you Cinequesters Wednesday!

Jason goes to Indiefest--Closing Night

The real closing night (if you ignore the Sugarbowl weekend of skiing and free movies next weekend) in Berkeley.

First up was The Men's Story Project. It's a taped performance, closer to a concert film than anything else. The brainchild and labor of love of Josie Lehrer (and yes, she's a woman, putting on a performance of men's stories, deal with it). She brought together 16 men to tell personal stories that men never tell in public. The premise being that by confronting that which we're afraid to talk about we can conquer it, and that men are just as much victims of the macho patriarchy as women are. It's a wide array of stories. There a dissection of the roots of violence. There's a crippled black man talking about sex. There's a guy talking about how he loves men--not gay, just has close male friends whom he wishes he wasn't afraid to say he loves. In fact, that was pretty common--there was another pair who did a piece about "bromance" and "bromoeroticism" (personally I think Jay and Silent Bob have made the "hetero life mate" pretty mainstream). There's a female-to-male transgendered. There's a guy who talks about the anxiety of testicular cancer and getting his ball amputated. And sometimes it's kind of silly, like the guy talking about anxiety peeing at a urinal in a public restroom. And there's lots more. As a film, I've already mentioned that it's a tape of a performance, and that includes all the foibles of that genre. One interesting choice, there were no reaction shots from the audience. The few reaction shots were from the other performers (who sat on the stage while others performed). It really lets the performances speak for themselves, rather than showing you shots of how the audience is reacting (and by extension, how you're supposed to react).

And then I ended the night--and Indiefest 2009--with a second screening of Deadgirl, because sometimes you just can't get enough zombie rape.

Don't forget, there's still one last chance to see a few Indiefest films next weekend at Sugarbowl in the Judah Coldstream Room. Friday night you can catch Waiting at the Gate at 6 pm and Woodpecker (highly recommended) at 8 pm. Then Saturday you can catch Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush (not an Indiefest film, but still pretty damn cool) at 4, The Full Picture at 6, and Route 30 at 8. Then Indiefest will really, really, really be over. But it's already over for me. At least for this year. Now I can finally focus on Cinequest.

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum Midwinter Comedy Festival--Sunday

The final day of a long weekend of silent (and a few early talkies) comedies.

The 10 am Sunday show was for the true die-hard fans only, and so they called the show "What We Darn Well Feel Like Showing". Particularly, this focused on a lot of the lesser known comedians.

Vacation Waves: Edward Everett Horton in a slapstick marriage comedy. He takes his wife for a fishing vacation. At the last minute his mother in law comes along and, of course, ruins everything.
Curses (aka The Last Serial): Al St. John stars as a bandit in this spoof on serials. In this 18 minute short, there are something like 8 serial episodes, complete with cliffhangers.
Jonah Jones: Lloyd Hamilton abandoned his scoundrel Ham and Bud character to play more likable characters, like in this movie. He plays a farm hand who helps out a lady with car trouble (who then drives through a fence dumping him in a mud puddle). He finds out she's the daughter of a wealthy family, and he goes to call on her. Unfortunately, she's engaged (by her father's decision) to an aristocrat. But she clearly prefers Hamilton, so he has to go on a wacky chase to rescue her.
And George Did: Syd Saylor in an oddball short where he's working on a construction site. He starts off operating the elevator, but is forced to go up on the girders and catch red hot rivets, even though he's afraid of heights. Some good dizzying girder work. Especially when he swallows some chewing tobacco accidentally (showing off his trademark bobbing adam's apple) and gets really dizzy (good vertiginous camera effects, too).
Red Suspenders: Slim Summerville, a tall, gangly comedian, battles the actual fire department to save his love from a fire. He also gets help from Fanny, the kicking mule.
Battling Sisters: Lupino Lane (of the huge Lupino entertainment family, uncle of Ida Lupino) made this weird bit based on the what-if premise that women fight wars and men stay home and keep the home fires burning.

Then there was a little break for lunch, then a feature and a short, both with an electrical theme.

The Live Wire was the feature, and stars Johnny Hines, who when he's remembered is remembered as one of the kindest, gentlest comedians of the era (Richard Roberts mentioned that he saved and invested his money well, never had a scandal, and lived a long, happy life--kind of boring). In this feature he plays The Great Maranelli, a circus performer famous for sliding on his head down a wire (the "Slide for Life"). He catches the eye of a nice young lady named Dorothy Langdon (Mildred Ryan) while he's in town for a circus, but soon neck problems and age force him to retire. He's a hobo, and survives with a little good-natured thievery. But when he and his friend Sawdust Sam (also cast off from the circus) help Dorothy get her car out of the mud, they recognize each other and she suggests they go work for her dad, which he does (after a comic stint as a bouncer in a bar). Her father owns the Meadville power company, and although he knows nothing about electricity Maranelli is a good salesman, and soon has electric signs on every business. Dorothy wants to open her own amusement park (left unfinished when her dad gave it to her), and Maranelli and Sam know a bit about selling concessions, so pretty soon they're ready to open the park. But her fiancee has other plans--like stealing the power company and running her father out. Yeah, he's enough of a jerk to kidnap her and try to force her to sign over a controlling share of stock. But Maranelli comes to save the day, with one last Slide for Life. Funny, and very nice.

Then the short, Buster Keaton in The Electric House: A mix up with diplomas has Keaton mistaken for an electrical engineer (really, he has a degree in botany), and he's hired to install all sorts of electrical convenience in a wealthy man's house. He's actually reasonably successful (the stairs become an escalator, an electric train serves dinner, etc) with just a few comic screw-ups. That is, until the real electrical engineer arrives to get a little revenge. Then things get really wild.

And finally, we ended the day and the festival the same way began the festival--with talkies. In this case, talkies from Hal Roach studios, the king of silent era and early talkie comedies.

The Shrimp: Harry Langdon is a timid little shrimp who gets a gland transplanted from a bulldog and finally stands up to (and knocks down) those jerks who have always picked on him.
Hasty Marriage: Charley Chase needs to get married quickly to get a job on the streetcar line (interesting, Charley more often played upper middle-class well-to-do people. It's weird to see Charley playing an unemployed man). He's got a girl he likes (Kitty), and her father (who conducts the streetcar) likes him, but her mother doesn't. She prefers Eddie Dun, the streetcar inspector who could get Kitty's father fired for talking to passengers. A fantastic cameo by Billy Gilbert as a very...fey...streetcar passenger. I did a bit of a double take and asked myself "am I seeing a random gay joke in a 1931 film?)
Taxi Barons: I said before this weekend is partly laughs and partly education. Chalk this one up as educational. Billy Gilbert is paired with Ben Blue as taxi drivers. Richard Roberts railed about how unfunny Ben Blue was, and I saw nothing to convince me he was wrong. They run around, get sprayed with water trying to fill the radiator, get into trouble with the cops, and pose as aristocrats. They do just about everything but get a laugh. Set up to be the new Laurel and Hardy, they both played everything so broadly that it just wasn't funny.
The Tin Man: An odd Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly robot comedy. Lost, they pull up to a house in the middle of a rainstorm. The house is owned by a mad scientist, out for revenge against women for some reason, and he's created a ridiculous looking robot to attack them (voiced by Billy Bletcher, voice of many cartoon villains including the Warner Brothers wolf.) This was more just odd than funny.
Their First Mistake: Now this was funny. Laurel and Hardy adopt a baby. I think that's all I need to say.

And that was the end of the Niles Film Museum Midwinter Comedy Festival, 2009.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 17

I skipped out on the late Saturday show in the Niles Film Museum's Midwinter Comedy Festival to catch one Indiefest show up in Berkeley.

The short was I Own You, a funny take on the repercussions when a mixed-race couple (expecting a baby) finds out that her great-grandfather owned his great-grandmother. At first it's funny, but when his friends give him a hard time, he goes all African on her. Directed by and starring Gary Anthony Williams ("Boston Legal") with a supporting role by Cedric Yarbrough ("Reno 911"). And some other fine actors, but those were the ones I recognized.

Then the feature was about more family strife, The Full Picture. Mark and Hal Foster (Daron Jennings and Joshua Hutchinson) are brothers living in San Francisco. Hal is married with a son, but still prowls for women (he doesn't cheat, he just likes the hunt. He gets their phone number and then throws it out). Mark has been dating his girlfriend Erika (Lizzie Ross) for a few years. It might lead to marriage, but he's afraid to pop the question, even though he knows she'll say yes. Turns out he has reason to fear commitment, what with the family history. Something happened with their father, and now their mother (Bettina Devin) is overbearing, insufferable, and manipulative. Oh, and she takes lots of pictures. Even though clearly their father was flawed, Hal still sides with him. Mark, on the other hand, is still under his mother's thumb. So when she comes for a visit, it's going to be pretty tense. Especially since Mark hasn't told Erika about their dark family secret. Oh yeah, and Erika suffers from panic attacks and is already freaking out even assuming his mother is normal and nice. It's a well acted movie, and surprisingly funny given the realistic portrayal of traumatic family secrets.

And no, you won't get me to reveal here what that family secret is.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum's Mid-Winter Comedy Festival--Saturday

First off, since I forgot to mention this in my Friday night update, I want to thank film comedy historian and member of the silent comedy mafia Richard M. Roberts for hosting this weekend. This hasn't all just been laughs, it's also been an education, particularly on the lesser known silent comedians (once you get past Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd there are still hundreds of great comedians, and I learned a lot about a few of them this weekend.

Saturday started with a program entitled "Mack Sennett and the Keystone Influence". Keystone studios (famous still today for the Keystone Cops) were famous for making more vulgar, low-brow movies. Really, what's exceptional is how quick the editing is in their movies. Keystone comedies are all about speed and action, and can be exhausting to work.

Having Their Picture Took: As a comparison, the program started with this more traditional, polite comedy. A family comes to a photographer to get pictures of their youngest son and daughter. But the kids won't behave, and wacky hijinx ensue. It's funny, but it's almost all in a single, static shot. Not a lot of editing. Compared the the Keystone movies we watched next, it almost felt like a stage production instead of a movie.
The Speed Kings: This film immediately showed the difference with the Keystone style. Papa wants Mabel to marry Earl Cooper. Mabel prefers Teddy Tetzlaff. They're both race car drivers, so they let the results of the race decide. And, of course, there's a bit of sabotage. A lot of fast cuts between the race action and Mabel and Pa's reactions.
Ham's Whirlwind Finish: A Ham and Bud short (Lloyd Hamilton and Bud Duncan), with some horribly dated Italian stereotypes. Ham and Bud are incorrigible ne'er do wells, and they flirt with Bambino Souptureeno while avoiding her boyfriend Tony Slambango, who eats knives and plays with bombs (not a good guy, Italian or not).
The Beauty Bunglers: A Charlie Murray short where he and and his wife play some the most incompetent beauticians every.
The Surf Girl: Fast pace and confusing, with tons of characters running all over the place. Raymond Griffith plays a lifeguard's assistant on the prowl for a lovely young lady. There are different plots all between a swimming pool and the beach, so of course there are lots of water-based gags.
Hungry Lions in a Hospital: Lloyd Hamilton of Ham and Bud is back. The title pretty much says it all, and of course it's a fast-paced romp.
School Days: Larry Semon was a protege of Mack Sennet. He was also an insufferable jerk, and couldn't stay at one studio very often. Those who worked for him called him "suicide", but he was a comic genius. In this film he plays a schoolboy who's constantly getting into trouble. Then it jumps forward a decade when he's a farmhand working for the father of the girl he has a schoolboy crush on. One of the weirder films in this program.
Nip and Tuck: Billy Bevan plays a poker game with a couple of cheats. He's clueless, but luckily his dog Cameo is the best cheater of the lot.

Then the late afternoon program was a feature with two shorts. The feature was the Chaplin film The Man on the Box. However, it's not Charlie Chaplin, but his big brother Syd Chaplin, who also had a successful career in film, but just isn't remembered today. Syd plays Bob Warburton, the son of a wealthy investor. He's investing his father's money in a new invention that will revolutionize aviation--the helicopter. But through a misunderstanding the inventor is convinced he's having an affair with his wife. Plus, he's got an eye for the lovely Betty Annesly, daughter of Colonel Annesly, who wants to buy this helicopter. After being mistaken for a horse drawn carriage driver, he gets a job as a groom for the Anneslys. When they host a big party for the inventor and his investors (including Bob's father), Bob first has to hide. But when he learns that foreign powers are trying to steal the invention, he dresses as a maid (drag acts were and still are a staple of many British comedians) and eventually saves the day. Lots of good, funny gags.

Many Scrappy Returns: Charley Chase and his wife (of course if it's Charley Chase, it must be marriage problems) have dinner with friends, who start fighting. They decide to teach them a lesson by pretending to fight themselves. But the fight turns real and life-threatening when the maid (incorrectly) accuses Charley of getting fresh with her.

Putting Pants on Philip: A hilarious Laurel and Hardy short. Laurel plays Philip, Hardy's nephew from Scotland. He comes right off the boat wearing a kilt and doesn't fit in. He likes chasing girls (and has a trademark leap and run when he sees a cute one), but gets nothing but laughs. Including some risque scenes of him walking over air vents and his kilt blowing up.

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum's Mid-Winter Comedy Festival--Friday Night

My favorite local silent movie theater is doing a weekend of comedy. Awesome! It all started Friday night with a series of talkies. Yes, talkies...they occasionally play talkies there. And this was a chance to see many of the great silent comedy stars in rare sound roles (some rarer than others).

Palooka from Paducah: Starring Buster Keaton and almost his whole family (he came from a vaudeville family and his parents and siblings were all performers). Buster Keaton actually had a long career in sound film (and TV), so it wasn't unusual to hear his voice. But this is a rare talkie with his father, Joe Keaton. The family plays the Diltzes, a clan of hillbillies (which was apparently very common when the whole family made movies together). Their moonshine operation goes bust due to the end of prohibition, so they need a new racket. They decide to go into wrestling, with brother Elmer Diltz (the giant Dewey Robinson) as the wrestler and and Jim Diltz (Buster Keaton) as the referee--just to keep it safe. Turns out the toughest one is actually Ma (Myra Keaton).

The Sleeping Porch: Raymond Griffith did very few talkies for a simple reason. He had a very hoarse voice, no more than a loud whisper (probably from childhood diptheria). They got around it in this movie by casting him as a man with a cold. The doctors order him to sleep outdoors (on the titular porch) and his wife is enforcing that even though it's the middle of winter and freezing outside. Plus, they live near a prison, and what if an escaped convict comes and mugs him in his sleep? Griffith hatches a plot with a friend to fake just that occurence, but an actual escaped convict messes everything up.

Counsel on De Fence: Harry Langdon, one of the weirder silent comedy stars, plays a junior defense attorney in this courtroom spoof. In fact, he's so junior the partner of the law firm only hired him as a favor to his dad. Still, when all goes awry, he wins the case even if he has to get his stomach pumped again and again and again. Hilarious.

The Grand Hooter: Good old Charley Chase and his cynical comic take on marriage (interestingly enough, he was only married once, for 26 years, ending with his death. So it must have agreed with him in real life). He plays a guy who goes drinking with his buddies (something else that agreed with him in real life) in a club known as the Hoot Owls. His wife hates the Hoot Owls, thinking he spends too much time with them, even though he only goes out drinking all night 5 times a week. She insists that he either give up the Hoot Owls or she leaves. He agrees to give up the Owls (even though he was planning to run for Grand Hooter), but that turns out to be more difficult than you'd think. But in the end, the Hoot Owls save his life.

Buzzin' Around: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle made a half dozen talkies as part of his on-screen comeback (after his rape and manslaughter trial--and eventual acquittal--he directed under a pseudonym for many years). In this short, he invents a formula to apply to china to make it unbreakable (and demonstrates by bouncing a vase off the ground). But in his rush to sell it, he accidentally grabs a jar of cider instead. Plus, on the way there a beehive falls in his car, causing havoc with himself and anyone he comes near, including a football game.

Come Clean: And finally the night ended with The Boys--Laurel and Hardy. It opens with the line, "Mr. Hardy holds that every husband should tell his wife the whole truth- Mr. Laurel is crazy too." They're both married, of course, but one night they come across a suicidal woman named Kate (Mae Busch). They save her life, but she's a little crazy and insists they're now responsible for her. She's moving in whether they like it or not, or she'll scream and claim they tried to drown her. And she's moving in whether or note they decide to tell their wives (spoiler warning--they don't).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 14

Yup, it's been going on for two full weeks, and it's not over yet.

I saw two more programs last night, starting with the documentaries about graffiti/street art. Stories of graffiti have been a staple of Indiefest for some time (and not just Indiefest, other festivals as well. It's pretty clear that independent film and renegade art has an affinity for each other). This program consisted of two short films, and one short-ish feature (about an hour long).

The first short was The Reverse Graffiti Project. An artist named "Moose" paints pictures by cleaning walls in San Francisco. Particularly, on the filthy walls of the Broadway tunnel, he used stencils to clean silhouettes of plants that would exist there if not for the tunnel. It's really pretty ingenious. Who can complain about cleaning?

The second short was Flipone. "Flip One", aka Charles T. Henry, was a graffiti artist in Brooklyn in the 70's, particularly fond of tagging subway cars. Now he's living in Los Angeles, has a regular job, and has put that part of his past behind him. But filmmaker Jan Arnold interviews him rather nostalgically about his youth and art (the Shea Stadium story is pretty good). He also had some video footage of himself and his cohorts tagging, which Jan used in the movie. He seems like an interesting guy, and the movie was okay, although the audio levels need to be adjusted--it went from normal conversational to blaring music pretty sharply.

And then the feature was Abraham Obama. Shepard Fairey's "Hope" poster became perhaps the most iconic symbol from the 2008 campaign. But another more enigmatic icon was Ron English's melding of Barack Obama's and Abraham Lincoln's faces. Ron English is known as a pop culture street artist (although he has a gallery, he prefers his art to be on the street where people will see it) who mocks brand images (he did the obese Ronald McDonald poster for Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me). He's famous for covering up or subverting the messages of billboards (one of his election 2008 campaign stunts was a fake Viagra ad showing John McCain with the tag line "I want to be erected"). The Abraham Obama exhibit caused a huge stir when it premeired in Boston. A little too much, as his fans were pasting posters all over the place, including a local politician's home. They decided to take the exhibit on tour, ending up at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Along the way, they paste it all over the place (including, of course, San Francisco) and meet fellow artists (Shepard Fairey, Morgan Spurlock, and others have cameos in the movie). It's a fun ride-along of some creative people having a laugh and hopefully getting people politically active.

Next up was a movie I've had a surprisingly hard time reviewing. Skills Like This is definitely a crowd-pleaser, and that's kind of the problem. It has a ridiculous premise, it's a straightforward zany comedy, the characters aren't really believable, and it feels more like a mainstream movie than an "indie" film (in fact, it has a theatrical release lined up for the spring). The problem is, I really liked it, and I'm afraid I'll lose my indie cred by saying how much fun it is. Okay, Max Solomon is a struggling writer. In fact, he's struggling so much he's decided to quit, and is depressed because he's no good at anything. Then, after a lighthearted discussion with his friends Tommy (the brainless one) and Dave (the spineless one), he decides to rob a bank. Turns out he's good at it. He doesn't need the money, but he becomes a kleptomaniac because it feels so good to be good at something. He ever starts an affair with Lucy, the teller at the bank he robbed. And in a more Hollywood, lowest-common-denominator movie, this unbelievable silliness would piss me off (Tommy's bike, in particular, was completely out of place but always made me laugh). But this film walks a clever path, making it about Max's character rather than just the capers.

There's a point in the movie when Max is talking to Lucy about how good it feels to be good at something, and she's trying to convince him that if he just works harder he could be a good writer. She admits she's a terrible dancer, he suggests that if she practiced really hard she could become a world class ballerina. She mentions something like 'that would be a fate worse than death' (I don't remember the exact words). And that to me was the whole heart of the movie. We're all told that if we work really hard we can be great at anything, but we also all know that if we don't have some immediate facility, working really hard at a skill we don't like is torture. It's a brief moment in the movie, but to me it summed up everything the movie was about.

So yeah, Skills Like This is a film that's easy to like.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 13

I can see the end in sight. It's kinda sad, but I've gotta make way for Cinequest anyway.

First up was a short and feature of documentaries made (at least in part) here in the Bay Area (so filmmakers were around and there was an enthusiastic crowd).

First up, an absolute SF institution, The Bush Man. Some 25+ years ago, Gregory Jacobs was coming home at night. His front door stuck a little bit, and as he was wrestling it open a cat jumped out of the bush and scared him shitless. All night he laughed about it, and the next day he grabbed a few branches of leaves, set up on Fisherman's Wharf, and started sharing that experience with everyone else. I've seen his work before, he's a lot of fun, and he certainly deserves the (pretty good) living he makes snapping tourists out of their complacent stupor.

And the feature was not exactly a Bay Area product, although the subject is near and dear to a lot of Bay Area residents and artists, and director Harrod Blank is the son of local (prolific, award-winning) filmmaker Les Blank. Automorphosis is a film about art cars, and especially about the people who make and drive them. Harrod himself drives a famous van covered in cameras (that actually takes pictures as he drives), and that van was in front of the theater for the screening. Cars are a very American obsession, and art cars are a very American form of folk art. Even the German guy who built the Hamburger Harley came to America because he was obsessed with America and, of course, hamburgers. The movie plays out like a gallery where every few minutes you see something more amazing than before. There's a car covered with buttons. Another covered with brass ornaments. There's one covered with spoons. Uri Geller has one covered in bent spoons (and forks). Then there's the Big Horn (that guys story is particularly inspirational), the Carthedral and on and on and on. I'm not sure if it has a point beyond "these cars (and sometimes, these people) are cool!" But if that's the only point, I'm still sold.

Then the late show started with a short that really speaks to me--Asshole. A guy goes to the doctor. His problem is he's an asshole. No wait, his problem is that his asshole hurts. Finally, he gets some good advice.

And the feature was one that I probably should've liked more. The 27 Club is the (fictional) story of Tom, member of the popular band Finn. Tom has drug problem, and OD's on his 27th birthday. Tom's best friend and bandmate is Elliot, who was born just 6 days after Tom. Eliot is devastated. They've always done everything together, and in many ways the obvious choice would be to also die on his 27th birthday. The title refers to the collection of artists who've died when they were 27--Jimmy Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, etc. I can't put my finger on why, but this story just didn't grab me right away. I struggled to stay awake for much of the first half. It's just Eliot being really depressed, and then a road trip with some stranger and a hitchhiking girl. There are some good performances, but some that just make it clear I'm watching a low budget film. It didn't really interest me until the end. I will grant that the ending was satisfying, and kind of made me wish I'd paid closer attention throughout the film. So yeah, this didn't quite do it for me, but I'm willing to chalk that up to my own failings rather than the film. Perhaps if I saw it again when more rested, I'd like it more.

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 12

President's Day. Since the movies didn't start until 7:15, I spent my day off not sleeping (that would've been smart) or writing these reviews (would've also been smart), but going to the Toronado for their Barleywine festival (not smart, but fun and delicious). By sheer force of will I mostly stayed awake through all the movies.

Those movies which I stayed awake for started with the short The Party, about a group of women getting together for a sex-toy party. Some are into it, and happy just to be able to talk openly and comfortably about sex and toys. Others want no part of it.

This was the lead in for the surprisingly funny mockumentary RSO (Registered Sex Offender). An unnamed 20-something anti-hero (Gabriel McIver) has just been released from prison after a 3 year sentence. We never really get a good explanation of what he did (we get several possible crimes, but I chose to believe they were all bullshit), but we know he's now on the Texas Registered Sex Offender list, and has to go door-to-door in a 3 block radius telling all his neighbors. At the same time, he's trying to pick up where he left off with his girlfriend (Kristen Tucker, who's way too hot for him. That was the hardest thing to buy about the movie). She still supports him, while he tries to look for work, attends mandatory meetings, and just tries to navigate through the world. This could be an interesting look at redemption, rehabilitation, the fairness of sex offender registries, whatever. But instead it focuses on him being a smart-ass and not getting his life together. Same with all the people in his support group. In fact, while it's alternatively funny and hard to watch, that's really the point of the movie. The offenders are smart-asses who won't turn themselves around until they hit rock bottom. So in the meantime, let's laugh at them? Maybe I missed the point, but I enjoyed the movie. Plus it has cameos by directors Andrew (I defined "mumblecore") Bujalski, Richard Linklater, and San Francisco's own sex addict, Caveh Zahedi.

And then it was time for some Plymptoons, from Indiefest's favorite animator, Bill Plympton. First up, he continues his Dog series (Guard Dog, Guide Dog) with Hot Dog. Now that annoying yappy dog wants to be on the fire department. With predictably hilariously tragic results.

And finally, the Plymptoon feature Idiots and Angels, a surprisingly moralistic, even religious film. Angel is a jerk. He hangs out in his local bar, berates his fellow patrons, and is an all-around miserable guy. One morning, he finds angel wings growing out his back. At first he wants no part of this, but once he learns to fly he thinks the world is his. He can soar through the air, moon passing jets, and swoop down and snatch a lady's purse. Wait, check that last one, because the wings come with their own conscience, and force him to be good. Well, now he wants no part of this, and tries to remove them. But what's worse than having wings that force you to be good? Someone else having the wings and learning to use them for evil. Finally Angel has to become a hero and save the beautiful lady (and, oh yeah, his own soul). Plympton works his typical minimal dialogue (actually, to my memory there was absolutely none in this film) to tell a solid story. My one complaint could be that the music was so soothing that in some of the early parts it was hard to stay awake (but again, I had 11 barleywines in me).

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 11

A shortened Sunday at the festival, since I had a lunchtime engagement with a beautiful young lady. Really young, like 100 days old. Congratulations to the proud parents.

Enough of that on to the movies:

First up was the "romantic" shorts program, "Meet Cute, Love Hard". Of course, this being Indiefest, there's as much bitter cynicism as romance.
Fun on Earth: If the girl says she's from rural Alaska, but shape shifts and needs to take a special powder to keep from turning into a gelatinous goo, don't believe her. But after you get over the trust issues, no reason you can't have a little fun.
Rope: That's one mighty fine looking rope. One you can spend the rest of your life with.
Love at First Sight: Fun with movies. Although I couldn't bring myself to believe the male lead was actually straight.
Young Love: A discussion of fantasies. By Emily Carmichael, who also made the very different The Adventures of Ledo and Ix in the animated shorts program.
Anatomy of Numbers: Who's keeping score, anyway?
Rancid: The night after a threesome can be quite awkward.
Green Door: Dark comic story of mistaken identity, apartment rentals, and a love triangle...quadrilateral...pentagon? I lost count.

The next program started with the short Sometimes We Hum. An excellent tutorial in the proper way to deal with noise disturbances. Step 1: find ammo.

Then the feature, Woodpecker, was one of the nicest, funniest surprises in the festival (mostly because I didn't read the description in the program guide. They actually give away an important point that was a fun surprise for me). In the 1940's the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was declared extinct. And it was assumed to be until very recently, when sightings were reported in the bayous of eastern Arkansas. Suddenly birdwatchers from around the world appeared trying to catch a glimpse, which was a huge boon to the local economy. Along with the birdwatchers, filmmaker Alex Karpovsky showed up to document the excitement. He interviewed many locals and birdwatchers from all over. They all are brimming with excitement, but none more than house painter/poet/and intense birder Johnny Neander. Somehow the movie naturally gravitates to him sitting for hours in blinds or trudging through swamps with his sidekick Wes. Wes is actually an even more interesting character. He's a recent Korean emigre and had hired Johnny to paint his house in preparation for his wedding. However, halfway through the job his fiancee called it off. Wes isn't a birder, but asked Johnny if he could tag along just to take his mind off his troubles. While Johnny practically never stops talking (it's sometimes a wonder his mouth doesn't scare off all the birds), Wes never gets a word in edgewise.

And then...the story gets weird. I really don't want to give too much away, but events happen that make you question everything that came before. Is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker really back? Maybe. What's definite is there are some odd birds in this movie.

And then the last film of the weekend (not counting President's Day) was the international love/death story, I'll Come Running. Pelle is a Danish tourist in Texas, tired of the gaudy "culture" and ready to leave and head back home for a lucrative job offer. In the weekend before he leaves, he meets Veronica, a waitress at a Mexican restaurant. Having little in common beyond a love of "The Simpsons", (they start referring to each other as "Milhouse" and "Lisa") they start flirting and have a steamy weekend long fling. And then he has to return home. Or maybe not. There's a huge plot twist (I love the unpredictability of the story), and she ends up going to Denmark to meet his family and friends. She's bewildered and can't navigate, but finds her way to his apartment where she meets his best friend and later his family. I'm not doing a good job of describing this (mostly because I'm avoiding spoilers), but I was impressed with the unpredictability, the odd confluence of a story that takes place in Texas and Denmark, and especially by the great acting (and especially especially by Melonie Diaz as Veronica).

And that was Sunday at Indiefest. I'm almost caught up.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 10

This was my big marathon day of the festival--6 movies (not anywhere near my record, but still pretty tiring).

First up was Waiting for the Sun, a story of an odd night in a hotel somewhere in Italy. It all starts with a bunch of drunk friends driving through town, looking for hookers (or any other sort of amusement). They stop at Hotel Bellevue, home to several colorful characters. While they spend the night harassing the poor night clerk, an odd collection of people are up all night. There's a film crew shooting a porno film and ordering pizza between breaks. A heartbroken man calls his ex-girlfriend. A pair of thieves hide out in a room waiting for their accomplice who never shows up. An odd man harboring a dog (which is not allowed in the hotel). The dialogue is sharp and very clever. Many performances are strongly over-the-top. I sort of wish there was more crossover among the rooms--almost the only knowledge of the outside world comes from screams heard through the walls. Through it all, the night clerk seems like the calm, serene straight man, but then you learn what he's hiding in a cage, and he suddenly becomes the strangest of all. Very amusing.

Next up was the shorts program, "A Scream and a Half". Yeah, I guess it's horror shorts, they were...
Cantata in C Major: A musical piece compiled of screams from horror films throughout history. More experimental than horror. Amusing.
Mombies: The most terrifying terror that ever terrified.
You Better Watch Out: Santa's real, and the fucker's gonna pay for those crappy gifts!
Dead Boyfriend: Pandora with puppets. Her boyfriends have no luck.
Side Effect: An excellent payoff shot makes up for the predictable "twist" based on a common urban legend. And making it about an overachiever instead of a drug addict is a good twist, too.
Dans La Corde: Surreal French film of a man escaping from a wooden box to find--an island, and a tightrope to another island. And no escape.
The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon: I saw this at Dead Channels last year, and it's still funny. A million spoonfuls of terror!

The next program started with the short Mondo Penguin. With the recent resurgence of penguin films (March of the Penguins, Happy Feet) it's good to look back on cinematic history and recognize those classic films made about, for, and by penguins. And oft-overlooked part of our history. Although I have to point out, because I'm a pedantic jackass, that penguins are antarctic, not arctic (they got it wrong at least once).

Then the feature, and this is a little unusual to play a documentary feature with a narrative/mockumentary short. Circus Rosaire is the story of the Rosaire family, a longtime circus family dating back nine generations and starting in England. Once upon a time, the circus was a high form of entertainment. People would dress up, and circuses would perform for royalty and Presidents. Now, they're a dying art form. Partly because of competition from film and TV, partly because they're seen as quaint. And in large part because animal rights/animal welfare organizations have organized boycotts and protests of animal performances. That's especially bad for the Rosaires, because starting with patriarch Derrick Rosaire, Sr. they've become animal training experts. He could famously train practically any animal, and always did it with gentle persuasion rather than coercion and beatings. The movie is really about how well they take care of their animals and the bonds that form. When you see a PETA member argue that if an animal can't survive in the world you should euthanize them rather than train them to perform in a show, I just had to shake my head (for a lot more on the animal rights/animal welfare debate, see Your Mommy Kills Animals from Indiefest 2007). Each of Derrick's children has become an expert in specific animals. His son Derrick Jr (and his son, Derrick III) trains bears. Pamela Rosaire Zoppe trains chimpanzees, and takes care of them way past the performing age of any other trainer (the story of Newton is beautiful and heartbreaking). Kay Rosaire trains big cats (lions and tigers, oh my!) which are beautiful animals. Linda Rosaire used to train dogs but is mostly retired (she did come out for the first all-family act in decades, though). She works at Wal-Mart now and takes in animals on her property. And finally Ellian Rosiare Dymek, the youngest, trains horses. They're an amazing family, and their love for the animals is palpable. As is their love for the art form of the circus, which comes with a healthy dose of nostalgia and sorrow at watching their art form die off (and in watching their animal acts be crowded out by cheaper acts who don't take good care of their animals). This is another movie where I went in with no expectations, and came out amazed.

Next up was perhaps the greatest (and least the most fascinating) documentary on homelessness I've ever seen, Great Speeches from a Dying World. Shot over years on the streets and shelters of Seattle, director Linas Phillips really got into the world and won over some extraordinary trust from his homeless stars. As a result, he gets past the easy "woe is me" story of bad choices (drugs and alcohol) and bad luck, and instead finds dignity, humor, and some surprising self-aware intelligence (usually not enough to get them off the streets, but enough to know how fucked up they are). Without that underpinning, the gimmick of the movie wouldn't work nearly as well (if at all). He asked each person to recite a famous speech or work of literature, reframing both their stories and the famous words. Hamlet's soliloquy takes on a new meaning when recited by a homeless man who has actually attempted suicide a half dozen times. Similar JFK's "ask not what your country can do for you", Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address, or Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" take on new significance, if not new meaning. A powerful work that finds the human dignity in the least of us.

So then it was clearly time to watch some Japanese porn. The second Pinku films program of the festival, courtesy of (whom I believe I forgot to credit last week). First up was The Bedroom, directed by Hisayasu Sato (Naked Blood, Rampo Noir). I hate to admit it, but I had trouble staying awake in this one. There was something about a woman who goes to a club and takes a drug called Halcyon (drug use is the theme of Naked Blood, too). Halcyon puts her into a comatose state, whereupon the men at the club rape her. That's the point of the club, and she's a willing participant (so I guess it's not really rape). Eventually she stops taking the drug and just fakes being comatose, so she can enjoy it more. But then there's a murder mystery or something. As I said, I couldn't stay awake.

The second pink film, Sexy Battle Girls, had no problem keeping me awake. Mirai has been trained since birth for revenge. A very specific revenge, involving very specific muscles very reminiscent of Teeth. See, the headmaster of a school stole her mother from her father before she was born (while making fun of his tiny penis). She's trained her whole life to seduce him and destroy him with her Venus fly trap. It only helps our sympathy that the headmaster has been pimping out his students to politicians. Sexy comic battles ensue. Lots of fun, and apparently a parody of a famous manga series. Cool.

And finally, the night ended with a french vampire flick, The Teeth of the Night (aka Les Dents de La Nuit or Vampire Party). A fromage-y (french for cheesy) good time, the hero is a huge party animal named Sam Polisatokoniminsky (Patrick Mille). Every night, he must find out what the hottest party is and how to get an invite, with his two lady friends (Frédérique Bel and Julie Fournier). One gets an invite to a very exclusive "Medici" party, so Sam has to steal a couple more. The invite takes them to an exclusive building, where they then board a helicopter that takes them to a remote castle. They go to the regular party room, while others go to the VIP room. In the VIP room, the VIPs watch the party until they get bored. Then they turn into their vampire forms and attack. Chaos ensues, it's silly, bloody fun. Just my kind of flick. The end.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 9

Three more movies on Friday, starting with the DIY punk doc, Let Them Know: the Story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records. It all started in the late '70s/early 80's in Los Angeles with the Stern brothers--Mark and Shawn. The punk scene was notorious for riots and getting into fights with (getting beaten up by) the LAPD. That's when Mark and Shawn of the band Youth Brigade founded BYO--Better Youth Organization. At first it was just to organize events. At a time when traditional venues wouldn't host punk concerts, they booked their own venues and held their own concerts (and again, got hassled by the cops all the time). This DIY attitude carried over to everything they did--scheduling their own tours (and at a time when long distance calling was expensive, they couldn't do that without stealing calling card numbers) and eventually producing their own album. The first one was a compilation of southern California punk, but the second was their own Youth Brigade album, followed swiftly by albums from other punk bands. Today they still live as one of the oldest and most influential independent punk rock labels. Now I personally am not big in the music scene, but I can appreciate the rebellious nature of punk, and definitely appreciate the DIY spirit. In this age when the Internet makes DIY so easy, it's nice to see a compelling memoir of when it was hard (and therefore, only happened when it was really worth it). Oh yeah, and of course the story ends the best way possible--with bowling!

Next up, sadly, was the first (hopefully only) really big disappointment of Indiefest, Make Out With Violence. It should've been great, a dark comedy rock & roll zombie teen romance flick. And the problem isn't that they mixed genres--that totally works for me. The problem is that the performances were pretty universally flat. I think they were going for an enigmatic Twin Peaks kind of feel, but instead it was just a "bad acting" feel. It's narrated by a young boy named Beetle, with his elder twin brothers Patrick and Carol (his parents weren't ready for twins, they had one boy's name and one girl's name ready). Patrick likes Wendy, but Wendy has gone off to boarding school and started dating Brian. More importantly, Wendy has completely disappeared, and the authorities have just given up the search. Meanwhile Carol likes Wendy's best friend Addy, but Addy likes Brian, too. Addy's friend Anne Haran (always referred to by both names) likes Carol. Now re-introduce Wendy back into the mix. She's found, and is a barely re-animated zombie (not a threat, and barely moving at all). The brothers keep her in a friend's house (the family is gone for the summer and they're dog-sitting). As I said, even writing this up the idea still intrigues me, and there are isolated scenes I liked (The underwater kiss is impressive, and the line "Let's get awesome!" drew laughs. And the term "comfort sleaze" for sympathetically seducing a grieving friend was clever.) But for the most part it was just flat and uninteresting. As one friend said afterwards, "There was no violence. And hardly any making out!"

But then, it'll be playing at SXSW, a festival with a pretty good reputation, so what do I know?

And then the midnight movie, which was good, kinda cheesy fun. First the short Murderabilia, about the dangers of selling serial killer memorabilia. Oh yes, the top collector will get his comeuppance. And the DP was longtime Indiefest and Holehead alum Jay Lee (Slaughter, Zombie Strippers)

Then the feature, I Sell the Dead opens with notorious grave-robber Willie Grimes (Larry Fesenden) getting the old extra-close shave courtesy of the guillotine. His partner Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) is interrogated by a monk (Ron Perlman). He tells the story of how he became a grave-robber, but insists he was framed for murder. He apprenticed himself to Grimes at a young age, acquiring corpses for Dr. Vernon Quint(Angus Scrimm of Phantasm fame). There good money to be made in dead bodies, but even more to be made in undead bodies. Oh yes, it's a zombie flick. But moreover it's a well-crafted and funny medieval comedy, with a stellar craft. And when the grave-robbing competition enters the picture, it gets good and wild. Lots of fun, a great cast, and a nice way to end the night.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 8

A night of sick and twisted horror movies. Starting with Strange Girls last night, Indiefest has been feeling a lot like Holehead.

First up was the Belgian nasty punk comedy, Ex-Drummer. For the record, Jeff Ross, the founder and director of Indiefest, said this is his favorite film in the festival. I knew he was kinda twisted, but I didn't know he was this sick. Good for you, Jeff!

Anyway, the movie is about a punk band of disabled men. Except they all have really lame disabilities--the lead singer has a lisp, the lead guitarist is hard of hearing, and the bassist has a stiff arm. They just need a drummer, so they turn to a famous author Dries. His disability--he can't drum (never mind that they turned to him because he was recommended as a great drummer). He joins the bad to mine them for ideas, and they name themselves "The Feminists" (because even handicapped men are better than stupid feminist bitches. Yeah, that's the sense of humor here). What follows is a sick and twisted. It delighted me with it's visual gags (the guy walking on the ceiling seems to be an invitation to Trainspotting comparisons, which have been made and totally work). But it might offend you if you're: gay, female, handicapped, Jewish, old, political, punk, a victim of child abuse, a child, well hung, or in any way human. Oh, and it has my new favorite gross slang term for vagina--"exploded rat". And the ending is even better than everything leading up.

And continuing with the horror/comedy theme was Home Movie. David and Clare Poe--a Lutheran minister and his child psychologist wife--move out to the country to enjoy the simple life with their twins, Jack and Emily. The movie's told entirely through their home movies, starting with their Halloween birthday. You gotta watch out for people born on Halloween, they're a little messed up. And sure enough, a game of baseball ends with Jack throwing a rock at his dad; Emily catches a frog that ends up in a vise; etc. Soon enough they're crucifying the family cat and biting kids at school. And there might be more than just bad kids, there are elements of the supernatural. It's a good enough setup. Found footage horror isn't exactly new, and I've seen it done better and worse. The kids are excellent, perfectly cast. But some things just don't feel right. David doesn't seem to be much of a man of God, and Clare doesn't seem to be much of a woman of science. They try to play up that tension, but I find them more convincing in their parental roles than career roles. It's like they decided he was a minister and she was a scientist just to set up that conflict, but that doesn't seem to carry over to the rest of the characters. Moreover, the horror is foreshadowed way too much. I'd overlook that if it had a better ending, but that's where they lost me. They built up the escalating horror all though the movie, and in the end...well, I don't want to give it away, but there wasn't a money shot. I give it an A for concept, C+ for execution (A+'s for the two kids), and D- for the ending.

And that was Thursday at Indiefest. Now time for a long weekend of films.

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 7

Two more movies last Wednesday (I think...all the days are running is Friday, right? Yeah, today is Friday because there were free donuts at work).Big weekend coming up, but apparently now is the time when my festival coverage devolves into less and less coherence.

First up was the local magic-realist urban fairy tale, Harrison Montgomery. Martin Landau executive produced and played the title role of an odd, obsessive resident of the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. More on him in a moment, because the real main character of the story is Ricardo Papa (Octavio Gómez Berríos), an artist and pot dealer. He's made some bad choices in his life (which probably is how he ended up in the Tenderloin), he owes a very bad guy a lot of money, and the big drug deal his friend sets up ends poorly (they're robbed by a pair of Asian seductresses). Plus, the delivery he threw from his window to a customer has landed on the balcony of the tenant below him. So he has to go talk to that tenant and get his pot back. That tenant is...Harrison Montgomery. Harrison is an old man, obsessed with watching game shows and finding patterns. He also claims that he won the lottery years ago and has $5.8M. But that can't be true, because he lives in an absolute dump. Ricardo also meets Lattie (Krista Ott), the 13 year-old daughter of Margo (Melora Walters). Lattie hangs out on the fire escape and barges in on Ricardo all the time. She tries to get him to let her smoke or drink, but he refuses. Meanwhile Margo is dating a real loser.

Oh yeah, I mentioned something earlier about Ricardo being an artist. He's pretty talented at sketching local Tenderloin residents, and the sequences of his sketches with the voice of Harrison Montgomery giving their back stories are the more charming parts of the movie. Margo is also an artist, so they have something of a connection (although she doesn't like her little girl hanging out with a drug dealer). It all leads to a magical ending where Harrison finally finds the purpose he's been looking for in the secret messages embedded in the game shows (secret messages in TV that a mini-theme of the festival?)

Next up was one of the movies I was most looking forward to, Strange Girls, and it did not disappoint. The Gruczechy twins, Georgia (Jordana Berliner) and Virginia (Angela Berliner, yeah, the actresses are twins, too) have been in a mental institution from a very young age. They do everything exactly the same--even standing and walking in sync. They have their own language, and almost never speak to anyone else, although they do write notes. They desperately want to get out of the institution, even if it means doing a little doctor-killing. Once out, they will become a famous romance novelist and be rich and marry rich famous men. Or they'll taunted and have to react by killing lots of people. Worse yet, a man could come between them. Oh no, that won't do. In some ways, the less said about this movie the better, since you really should enjoy this twisted horror-comedy for yourself and I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise. But I will reveal (since I'm such a fan), that it features trepanation! BTW, Jordana Berliner was there for a Q&A. I didn't get into it, but Georgia is supposed to be the "evil" twin (they're both pretty evil, though), and she acknowledged that they both agreed she was the more "Georgia-like" sister. She also confessed that as kids they fought all the time, and she even force-fed her sister a bottle of aspirin and peed on her (I assume in separate incidents). I thought you'd all like to know that for some reason....