Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jason slips into a Vortex for PSYCHOMANIA and DIVINE EMANUELLE: LOVE CULT

The Vortex room was rocking last Thursday and I was there. And this time, I stayed more or less lucid--just one martini and one beer. Probably had something to do with how I was still nursing a hangover from the night before. Anyway, on to the movies.

PSYCHOMANIA: A motorcycle gang in England called "The Living Dead" finds the secret to immortality. You just have to kill yourself and truly believe you will come back. And most of them do, and they become a little more than the annoying punk thugs they were before. It all has to do with the power of guitar, motorcycles, and frogs.

Which reminds me of the Japanese TV show they played to lead into the movie. I'm not sure what it was called, but a nice guy who plays guitar turns into a cyborg and battles an evil giant frog who is made entirely of land mines. It left with a cliffhanger, and they eventually played the next episode at the end of the night, but I was beat and had to leave.

DIVINE EMANUELLE: LOVE CULT. I think it's an "Emanuelle" movie solely on the basis of starring Laura Gemser. She plays The Divine One, the leader of cult (okay, sex cult). Dorian is her top acolyte/moneymaker, and he's seduced the daughter of a Senator. That might just cure the cult's money problems. Of course, anyone can leave the cult at any time, but they will be killed by oily, muscly Tanga and thrown down a pit. Little plot, tons of nudity, badly simulated sex, hilarious.

And that's that.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Jason Watches FUNNY PEOPLE

Actually, I watched it several days ago, just been too busy to blog.

Just a few comments:

It's funny, but it's not a comedy. It's a drama about how people use humor in everyday life, especially the painful moments. I think that throws a lot of people for a loop. It's actually a good story that happens to be about people who make people laugh for a living.

Aside: I want that Super-Jew t-shirt Seth Rogen wears in the movie (Superman's S in a Star of David).

My friend Ira has started his own movie blog, and wrote a great post about this movie. I'm going to start calling him "Shmyra". A good deal of his post is about how tickled he was that Adam Sandler kept calling his name (Ira is the name of Seth Rogen's character). Well, the weirder part is the character's name is actually Ira Wiener. Okay, it's pronounced like someone who whines a lot, not a slang term for penis, but there is a scene of Adam Sandler taunting him by intentionally mispronouncing it and yelling "Ira Wiener, Ira Wiener, Ira Wiener!" Now that caused quite a bit of cognitive dissonance in me. I know it's just a movie, but I couldn't help thinking:

A. Ira and I would never get married. He's a nice guy and all, but gay marriage is still illegal and neither one of us is gay.
B. Even if we did get married, I wouldn't make him take my name, and I can't see him wanting to become a Wiener.

By the way, best cathartic movie for Wieners has to be WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (all about how much it sucks to be a Wiener in junior high).

And now that I'm completely off topic, I shall end this post.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for HANDS UP + a couple of shorts

The weekend before was officially comedy night, but last Saturday also happened to be all comedies. That's always fun, and I learned that more people know about Raymond Griffith than I thought. Awesome.

First up a couple of shorts:

THE NOON WHISTLE (1923): Stan Laurel (before teaming up with Oliver Hardy) causes quite a bit of chaos in a lumber yard. There are some pretty funny gags here, but of course it's not the same as his later work with Ollie. First, he's a lot more athletic and acrobatic here. But more importantly, he's not as sympathetic. Rather than the put-upon Stan who's bullied by Ollie and others, he's a lazy but clever lumberyard worker who is just trying to avoid his boss. Ripe with comedy, but not the kind of character who's sympathetic long-term.

HIS MARRIAGE WOW (1925): Hapless Harry Langdon gets married (once he finds the right church). Langdon is typically funny as his bumbling character. But this movie is totally stolen by Vernon Dent as the wild-eyed Professor Looney McGlumm, professional pessimist, who convinces Harry that Agnes is only marrying him for his life insurance. Surely she will kill him soon!

Then an intermission and the feature.

HANDS UP (1926): Raymond Griffith in a slapstick Civil War comedy (released the same year as Buster Keaton's Civil War comedy classic, THE GENERAL). Griffith plays Jack, a dapper Confederate spy. The Union is on the verge of bankruptcy, so Captain Logan is sent to retrieve gold from a mine out west that will save the Union. Jack is sent to steal the gold (or at least prevent Logan from getting the gold). Griffith is a funny, charming, witty little cad. Even when he's closed to getting scalped by an Indian, he manages to win his headdress by shooting dice. Even romantic scrapes with both of the mine owner's daughters, he never loses his cool (and sets up a final gag that's funny but completely out of left field). Very funny.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Jason slips into a Vortex for RACE WITH THE DEVIL and WICKER MAN

So of course since I was at the Vortex Room, I had to fill myself with martinis to the point where I don't actually remember much.

RACE WITH THE DEVIL--Peter Fonda witnesses a murder by a Satanic cult. He reports it to the sheriff, who does nothing. So he and his friends and family continue their vacation. The cult appears and terrorizes them. Kills his dog, I believe.

THE WICKER MAN--This is the original, not the Nicolas Cage remake that I'm trying to forget ever happened. And it's one of my favorite movies ever. Especially when I go to Burning Man (I leave in a week). I always think how much better the Man would be if he were crammed full of a cop and other farm animals.

And then somewhere around Friday afternoon I shook off my hangover. Thanks for the ride home, Ira. I owe you (again).


I actually saw it last Wednesday at a sneak preview (courtesy of Indiefest) at the Castro with Quentin Tarantino in attendance (who was entertaining, although much of the Q&A were fans slobbering and asking him "How did you get to be so awesome?") Then I saw it again on Friday with a friend. And I've been slow to write about it. I think I've actually had writer's block. And I think I've figured out why.

At first, I couldn't write about it without sounding like ridiculous ad copy. Something like, "It's a bad-ass Nazi-killin' Jewish revenge fantasy" (and it is). But I couldn't put into words how it's something more than that. How the Basterds are just one part of the story. How the opening line--"Once Upon a Nazi-Occupied France" would be a more appropriate title (not that INGLORIOUS BASTERDS isn't the coolest title ever). How the opening scene with Col. Hans Landa, the "Jewhunter" (Christopher Waltz, who is the most amazing revelation in this movie. I predict big things in his future) interrogates a French dairy farmer to find the Jews hiding under his floorboards is so tense I held my breath at times. How it's a propaganda film about Nazi propaganda films. How it's very much about cinephilia, how it literally uses film as an incendiary device, and how the climax literally burns down the screen. And that's not even getting into the actual Basterds themselves. A team of Jewish-American soldiers undercover in France killing as many Nazis as possible. How can you not love that? Plus there's Brad Pitt doing an outrageous accent as Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine, there's Eli Roth (director of CABIN FEVER and HOSTEL) as "The Bear Jew". I know plenty of people who either love or hate Eli Roth, but you at least have to give him credit for bulking up for the role, and seeing him prancing around after beating a Nazi skull in with a baseball bat is pretty amusing ("Teddy fuckin' ballgame knocks it out of the park!") At times (in fact, quite a lot of the time) it devolves into a weird style of near-slapstick (especially when the Basterds go under cover as Italians). There are little moments I love. Like applying rouge as war paint--short, not at all-subtle, but effective and makes me laugh. There are so many more things to love. I haven't even talked about Hugo Stiglitz. And I haven't (and won't) talk about the surprising ending. In fact, a lot of this movie surprised me. You can go in expecting just the Basterds, but you get so much more (the main reason I think ONCE UPON A TIME IN NAZI-CONTROLLED FRANCE would be a more appropriate title).

In the Q&A afterwards, Quentin talked about story, and while there are some great movies out there, too many Hollywood movies don't really have a story, they're 90 minute sitcoms. I.e., they set up a situation in the beginning, and the rest of the movie is living up to that situation. There isn't a winding path it goes down where things happen to move from one situation to another. And that's really what impressed me. That if you just see the beginning, you can't guess how it will end. If you just see the beginning and the ending, you would have to wonder how it got from A to B. The ending is far from inevitable, and the route there is far from direct.

And if none of what I wrote about made any sense, then I'll just end by saying it's the fact of Jewish vengeance, and I loved that.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Jason watches G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA

And (with one glaring spoilerific exception) it wasn't the disappointment I expected. In fact, it was mostly very enjoyable. And it's one of the movies I've decided not to write too much about. I guess if you want to find opinions on this movie, you'll just have to look everywhere else on the Internet.

Jason watches DISTRICT 9

And yeah, it's pretty freakin' awesome.

So producer Peter Jackson and director Neill Blomkamp were on board to make the movie version of "Halo". When that fell through, they made DISTRICT 9 for a paltry $30 million instead. The success of this movie likely means HALO will get made. It also means that I won't look forward to it as much as I'll look forward to DISTRICT 10. Yeah, I already want a sequel, and it's more than set up for one.

In the best traditions of sci-fi, it uses the characteristic elements--the future, aliens, spaceships, advanced weaponry--to tell a story that's an obvious allegory for contemporary issues--apartheid, the treatment of foreigners, immigrants, refugees, etc. The aliens (called "prawns" for their exoskeleton anatomy) came to earth as refugees 20 years ago, and settled near Johannesburg, South Africa (making the Apartheid connection pretty obvious). Out of fear, humans have kept them segregated in a filthy slum (the movie was shot in a real slum. I wonder if after SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE there's a new and disturbing film trend). Wilkus Van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is a mid-level bureaucrat for the corporation in charge of relocating all the Prawns to a new, bigger district (District 10). Wilkus is essentially a good guy. He's got a job to do, is totally opposed to military force to accomplish it, but definitely sides with the humans over the Prawns. Without giving anything away, things go wrong, his life changes, and he ends up on the side of the Prawns. In particular, one Prawn named Christopher Johnson (I assume not his birth name).

The story unfolds in a semi-documentary fashion, with a mix of faux-documentary/news footage and traditional narrative. This gives it an immediacy, a realism, a brisk pace, and allows for quite a few teasers (interviews early on with Wilkus' family talk about how "this sort of thing only happens to other people"). It also helps them to make the film on the relatively-cheap. I kinda wish the whole thing was faux-documentary, as I found myself wondering during the traditionally shot scenes 'Who exactly is supposed to be recording this?' But that's a minor quibble (and little more than a personal hang up) in an otherwise excellent film.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for Comedy Shorts Night

Comedy shorts night is always a big hit in Niles. I knew this was going to be a crowded night when I sold ~30 pre-sale tickets while working in the museum store from noon to 4 pm. Not bad for a 120 seat theater (the final crowd was just shy of 100).

And it was a good program, celebrating the humor of 1921.

THE IDLE CLASS: Charlie Chaplin in a dual role. As the Tramp, he causes a ton of chaos on the golf course. And as an absent-minded alcoholic husband he gets into quite a bit of trouble himself. When they meet, the prospects for mistaken identity just add to the chaos.

I DO: Harold Lloyd says those words that doom a man to marriage. They don't have kids right away, but they get a taste of what the future can hold when his brother-in-law asks him to watch his kids for the night. The 4-year old boy is the most destructive force ever unleashed.

BE REASONABLE: Under-appreciated Billy Bevan in a typically hectic Mack Sennet comedy. He's a beach bum trying to pick up a girl. But when she goes for the lifeguard instead, he demands she give back the string of pearls he gave to woo her. And since it's a Mack Sennet it's fast-paced and ends with Billy being chased by about 100 cops.

THE BOAT: Buster Keaton's classic of destruction. Just trying to take his boat the Damfino on it's maiden voyage, he destroys his house, his car, the dock, and more. He ends up soaked, the Damfino does somersaults on the waves, and when he sends an S.O.S and they ask what boat is calling, answering "Damfino" doesn't result in help.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Jason goes to the Hypnodrome for some PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI

And the Thrillpeddlers have out-outrageoused themselves again. This time by reviving the Cockettes gender-bending comic sex farce set in 1937 China.

There are sailors on leave, innocent singing girls, Chinese gangsters, Chinese peasants, Chinese whores, Russian whores, love-struck millionaires (okay, just one of those), and lording over it all, Mother Fu (Thrillpeddlers fearless leader Russell Blackwood).

There are outrageous costumes (even more than any previous Thrillpeddlers show), drag quuens, innuendo coming out your end-o, sadists, masochists, partial nudity, more-than-partial nudity (warning to any squares--that includes male nudity), lights-out hallucinations, and singing. Oh, so much singing. The Thrillpeddlers haven't done this much music in their shows before. The songs are funny, and they keep everything moving very, very briskly, but you can tell the troupe has practiced acting a lot more than they've practiced singing.

And it's funny. It's hilarious. And even if you've seen everything else the Thrillpeddlers have done before, you haven't seen anything like this. And it even has a moral.

Oh yeah, and this was supposed to be the closing weekend, but the show has been such a hit that their held over until September 20th! So 5 more weeks for all y'all to go out and get some culture.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Jason watches THE HURT LOCKER

"War is a drug"

These words open THE HURT LOCKER, and that makes Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) an addict. Many critics have written about how great this movie is (98% on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing), how it's brilliantly acted, incredibly tense, and has a clear claim to the best Iraq war movie to date (Not that it has much competition. Chattering pundits were fond to point out in recent years how poorly Iraq war movies did at the box office as if it was a cultural/political indicator, and didn't pay much heed to the fact that many of those movies were actually really bad). But this movie might be even more interesting as a study of addiction than as a (anti-)war story.

James comes in to lead an EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) team hunting and disposing of IED's in Iraq. The previous leader, Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce in a cameo) was killed on their last mission. James comes in and immediately makes it known he's a bit of a wild man--he takes the boards off the windows, indifferent to the protection they provide. And on their first mission rather than send in the robot to investigate and possibly explode it from a safe distance, he dons the big padded suit, walks up to the bomb, and defuses it himself. He doesn't tell his team what he's up to. He keeps souvenirs from the bombs he defuses (he keeps them, and his wedding ring, in a box of "stuff that almost killed me"). Although the bomb scenes are plenty and are full of some of the tensest moments I've ever seen on film, the real drama isn't the threat from his enemies as much as the pain he causes his friends (or teammates at least)--just like an addict. He knows what he's doing will kill him someday, but he can't stop--just like an addict. His response to the shit caused by his reckless behavior is more reckless behavior (going from bomb disposal to urban warfare)--just like an addict. His behavior costs him all chance at friends or a normal family life--just like an addict. When he gets out, and has a chance at a safe, peaceful life, he returns to his destructive behavior--just like an addict.

I think that's enough. War is a drug; addiction is warfare, and this is a great movie that explores the nature of both addiction and war.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest North--The End

However many days that was, I ended on Sunday, August 9. The festival actually continued for one final day in San Rafael, but I'm done.

4 movies at the Jewish Cultural Center of San Francisco (JCCSF) last Sunday. Here we go:

First up was an interesting pair of ~hour-long historical documentaries. And not just documentaries about historical events, but documentaries about the writing and recording of history, and who gets to do it.

The first one was HERSKOVITS AT THE HEART OF BLACKNESS. Melville J. Herskovits was an American anthropologist. He was a Jew, and through his work at Northwestern University practically invented the field of African American studies (starting with his book The American Negro, published in 1928). That's right, a Jew was the founding scholar behind African American studies. At the time, anthropology was really the study of race, with physical measurements of body parts and racist theories of how Caucasians are the superior race dominating thought. It was a racist world that gave no favors to blacks or Jews, so in a sense it was a somewhat natural, if controversial choice of research for him. The movie also made the interesting point that Jews in that time had no homeland, so especially American Jews were very interested in figuring out how they fit into society (this is put forth as a reason for him to pursue anthropology). Beyond the choice of studying black people, Herscovits really caused a revolution by showing how old theories of race were wrong and pioneering the field of cultural relativism--that you can't judge one culture by the standards of another. And in particular, he found distinct cultural links between black Americans and Africans--e.g., the way they moved (dance particularly). It's an interesting story, and while praising an interesting man, it also raised tricky questions about who has the right to define a people and tell their history.

That question is explored more directly is JERUSALEM CUTS. A documentary about pictures, and in particular the 1948 battle for control of Jerusalem (when the Jews were kicked out by the Arabs, before they later came back and recaptured it). For the longest time, the only pictures seen from the conflict came from John Phillips, a British photojournalist embedded with the Arab army but who was sympathetic to the Jewish side. His photos, published in Life magazine, showed defeated Jewish refugees, arrogant Arab soldiers, and (most striking) Arab families looting the abandoned Jewish homes. But this movie questions that telling of history. Ali Zaarour is a Palestinian man, perhaps the only one with a camera at the time. And he took several pictures. His son remembers the stories, but doesn't have the album. Amazingly, the album exists, in the archives of the Israel under "Arab sources". The filmmakers follow Zaarour's son as he looks over the album (eventually the album was released to him, after the scenes shot for the movie). This album, of course, tells a different story--proud Arab soldiers stand in one photo just hours before Phillips photographed Jewish refugees walking through the same arch. There's a the third point of view in the movie--a fictional point of view in the first successful Israeli film, HILL 24 DOESN'T ANSWER. Producer Jack Padwa, a proud Zionist, rewatches this 1955 film while ruminating on how children today don't know this story, and how their history is so important. It's a quaint, ironic counterpoint to a movie that's all about how history can be so hard to pin down.

And speaking of history, the next film was a rather daunting achievement in that.
(punctuated like that. The title is two lines) is Péter Forgács’s documentary re-telling of practically the whole life of Tibor Von Höfler. From his birth as the son of a Christian leather tanner and a Jewish woman. The whole thing is 160 minutes long, told in two parts with a brief intermission. Tibor Von Höfler was a chemist, a womanizer, a disappointment to his mother (well, she's Jewish--all her sons were disappointments). He had a son out of wedlock, finally married (a different woman) many years later. He was estranged from his brother for many years. Oh yeah, and he witnessed Germany invading Hungary, the institution of Jewish laws, the Germans losing the war, Hungary becoming communist, and finally the fall of communism. And it's told mostly through home movies (oh yeah, Tibor was fond of making home movies) with old letters telling the narration (so many are either his baby-mama begging him for money, or his mother nagging him about what a disappointment he is). Oh yeah, and as for the "Variation on Werther" part of the title--legend has it that an old relative was the real inspiration for Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther". Perhaps if I knew that story, Tibor's life would have resonance, too. As it is, from perusing the Wikipedia article, perhaps the only parallel is both stories are told through letters.

Next up was perhaps the sweetest program in the whole festival, starting with the short. MAMA, L'CHAIM! (TO LIFE!) It's a short documentary about 95 year old woman who survived the Holocaust but still has a zest for life and a joy and optimism she shares with her son who takes care of her.

That was the lead-in for THE GIFT TO STALIN. Set in (and made in) Kazakhstan by the award-winning filmmaker Rustem Abdrashov (now I have to find his REBIRTH ISLAND and watch it). In 1949, Stalin was shipping Jews out to Siberia. Little Sasha is one of them. At a stop in the middle of the Kazakh steppes, the Russian operators unload the dead. Sasha is hiding among them, and old Kasym (veteran actor Nurzhuman Ikhtimbaev) notices and rescues him by not pointing him out. And so Sasha becomes the adopted child of a small village, raised as a Muslim among Kasym, kindly and beautiful Verka (the wife of a traitor), Polish doctor Ezhik, and a gang of orphans. In that town, they have to avoid corrupt officials and a truly nasty cop (Verka has to "take one for the team"--so to speak--a few times). Meanwhile, the whole town knows the news of Stalin's upcoming 70th birthday, and the news is that whoever comes up with the best present will get to deliver it to Stalin personally. So Sasha makes it his goal to come up with the best present ever, so he can meet Stalin and ask him to spare his parents. It's a sweet story of a village raising a child, and an interesting look at finiding where you belong. There's a framing device where the middle-aged Sasha recounts his childhood while walking through the market in modern Jerusalem, and a recurring motif of a lone goat--removed from his flock--mirrors Sasha's situation.

And finally, the last film (for me) in the festival was EMPTY NEST, an Argentinian comedy of writing, fantasy, and middle-aged male angst. Leonardo Vindel is a famous playwright. His children are grown up and gone. His wife Martha is still beautiful, but they don't quite see eye-to-eye anymore. Mostly because while he's starting to feel old, she's going back to school and partying with much younger friends. So he escapes to his fantasy life, where people burst into song around him and he's having an affair with his dentist's assisstant. And he discusses this fantasy life with his imaginary friend (who advises him to fantasize more). Meanwhile, he's avoiding reading his Israeli son-in-law's novel, despite the universally great reviews. Finally they (Leonardo and Martha) take a trip to Israel to visit their daughter and their famous author son-in-law, and a little bit of floating in the Dead Sea brings his mind back to an okay place.

And that's it. It's over now. For the record, here's the list of films I didn't see at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival:
MENACHEM AND FRED (which will play at the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival)

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for Fritz Lang's SPIES

And that's after a full day of volunteering in their gift shop.

First, a couple of shorts:

ORANGES AND LEMONS (1923): Stan Laurel (before teaming up with Oliver Hardy) causes a great deal of confusion and chaos in a citrus orchard. Lots and lots of people get pelted by oranges.

OUR DAREDEVIL CHIEF (1915): A Keystone Cops comedy. Crooks plan to rob and blow up the mayor, and even frame the police chief (Fred Sterling) for it. The chief helps them out by being a bumbling idiot. Lots of slapstick gags, mostly funny, and an excellent example of Mack Sennet's Keystone philosophy that if you keep the gags coming fast enough, no one will have time to notice if they're bad.

Then an intermission, and then the feature presentation of Fritz Lang's SPIES (1928). This is the genesis of a genre, the movie that started it all. Spies (of course), gadgets, subterfuge, secret identities, femme fatales (but no double-entendre names), etc. There's even the femme fatale falling in love with the good spy. The plot revolves around a secret treaty and an evil mastermind (oh yeah, in a wheelchair!) stealing every copy of it for his own nefarious purposes (which were never quite clear. They can't just send another copy of the treaty?) Oh yeah, the treaty is between an unnamed country (I assume either the UK or USA) and Japan, which does lead to a pretty spectacular seppuku scene. And this was just the 90 minute version. There's a ~145 minute version on DVD that I haven't seen. Awesome.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Jason watches THE BLACK PIRATE

The California Theatre summer movie series had another silent film gala last night with Dennis James rockin' on the Mighty Wurlitzer. $5, free popcorn, awesome classic films. Can't beat that.

It was a true silent movie show, with a comedy short and an action feature. The comedy was provided by Laurel and Hardy with TWO TARS. As two sailors on shore leave, they pick up a couple of girls in their rented car, and head out for a trip. But a traffic jam slows them down, and they start a riot which ends with every car getting destroyed--much to the delight of the ladies. This was a storage prints, so all but one or two frames of the titles were removed (so foreign distributors would know where to put their titles). So we couldn't read anything, but you really didn't have to. It was hilarious as it was.

And then Douglas Fairbanks wowed the crowd with his trademark daring-do--in Technicolor. That's right, all the way back in the silent days (THE BLACK PIRATE was made in 1926), there were some color films. Two-strip Technicolor was the new thing then, although it was very expensive and some projectionists had a hard time with it, so it was released in color and black-and-white prints. We got the color version.

Fairbanks plays the title role (of course), but he doesn't start as a pirate. He and his father are the only survivors of a pirate attack, and are marooned on an island. He swears revenge, and as luck would have it the pirates show up to hide their treasure. But instead of a straightforward attack, he uses his cunning. He joins the pirates, and kills their leader in a test of strength and skill with a sword. To most, he becomes the new leader, but there's a faction that is loyal to the old ways. He wins most over by taking a merchant vessel single-handed (a showcase of his acrobatics). But then when it's discovered that there's a beautiful young lady on the ship, he must protect her--both because of his sense of honor and because of love at first sight. And this leads to more cunning, more acrobatics, and more heroism.

Douglas Fairbanks was famous for doing his own stunts, and watching him is pretty amazing. One thing I really love is his way of standing with his hands on his hips--probably the only Douglas Fairbanks "move" I can do. But something occurred to me on the way home last night. I've seen that pose before--in someone who's arguably more famous for it than Fairbanks, but someone who came along much later. He must have been copying Fairbanks all along, and the only thing that makes sense is this:

Friday, August 7, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 14

Just one show last night. I went up to Berkeley to see the shorts compilation "Jewtoons". Here's the rundown of the lineup:

SAND BOX--kids playing, while missiles pick them off one by one.

HARDCOVER & PAPERBACK--Origami love. Paperback is a total slut.

TRACE--A woman fantasizes about the hell her life would be if she got married...and the hell it would be if she didn't.

THE DEMON BRIDEGROOM--A stop-motion classic Jewish mystic folk tale. Hypnotic flowers, demons, robots, and warping of time.

I WANNA BE FAMOUS--A music video for comedienne/singer Jessica Delfino. A young woman wants to be famous. And she has a sure-fire plan.

THE OPTION OF WAR--Kafka's story of the psychological battle between the jackals and their meat.

WOODS--A woodsman silently surveys his forest. He has chopped down so many trees. And he's building a damn cool tree fort.

TRUE LOVE HOTEL--3 part story of a lonely man. Sex is full of blinking red lights.

BETON--Get serious, man, we're at war against kites!

THE FOXHOLE MANIFESTO--A frank, funny look at the nature of G-d.

IN APORIA--Scratch the skin, pull out a bunch of red string. This one freaked me out.

LINE 9--Stalking is the sincerest form of love.

ESCAPISM--An IDF soldier escapes into his fantasies--and then some.

MY MEMORIES ARE ENTWINED WITH YOU--Oddly, I couldn't remember this one. I might've slept through it. But I just watched it on Youtube and it's a sweet story of young love in 90's Israel. Now that I think about it, I think it played without subtitles last night. Now I know what it's about.

HEART OF AMOS KLEIN--The life and heartbeat of one-armed proud militant Israeli Amos Klein.

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 13

Another night, another movie. Actually, a short and a feature, both from the U.K.

First up, in the short MY AMULET, Leah Thorn uses family home movies and rhythmic spoken verse to humorously explore what it means to be a British Jew.

Then the feature, BROKEN LINES, is a story of love, grief and loyalty. When Jake meets B, two things are immediately obvious--they will have an affair, and it will not end well. He's a wealthy real estate developer, he's engaged, and his father just died. She's a waitress, and married to a paralyzed ex-boxer (Paul Bettany, in a darker role than I've ever seen him in). Jake only stopped into the cafe where B works because he was settling the affairs with his father's old shop. And the quick, illicit attraction is heightened when he discovers that the upstairs window of the empty shop has a clear view into her apartment. While the affair isn't physical at first--they just meet after work and talk--there's still a clear understanding that this is cheating, and they both lie to their partners. And B lies to Jake, telling him she's not married and the ring is just a family heirloom, although he quickly learns the truth by spying on them. As I said, it's inevitable that they will get physical, and it's inevitable that it will be a horribly painful choice. I can't think of another romance where I was rooting against the leads more. At least they learn a lesson--Jake's dad always used to say that "all choice results in a loss". Jake learns that only the bad choices do.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 12

Just one movie last Tuesday night. Back on opening night, I refused to sit in the balcony to see HEY HEY, IT'S ESTHER BLUEBURGER. If I had, then Tuesday night would've been free for more. As it was, I went to Palo Alto to catch this Australian coming-of-age comedy.

Esther goes to a very clique-y private school, where she definitely doesn't fit in. She eats her lunch alone watching all the popular girls eating together. She and her brother are preparing for their bar/bat mitzvah, but the coming-of-age comes a bit later. On the way home from school, Esther meets Sunni (Keisha Castle-Hughes, the WHALE RIDER all growed up). Sunni goes to public school, her mom is a stripper, and she's just about the coolest kid Esther has ever met. So she transfers schools...sort of. Every day she goes over to Sunni's house, changes into a public school uniform, and goes to a school where she's not enrolled and pretends to be a Swedish exchange student (meanwhile, at her old school everyone thinks she's on vacation in Sweden, and her parents are so clueless they don't know anything is going on). In the public school, Esther falls in with Sunni's group, The Lions. But ultimately, she won't fit in there, either. In a way, being welcomed into a group causes more pressure, as now she actually has expectations to live up to. So she engages in a little kissing, a little bullying, and even giving a boy a little "mouth to south" resuscitation.

It's a pretty standard "learn to be yourself" message, and there are some stereotypical moments ("No, mom! Look at me! Look! At! Me!"). But it's got enough going for it--some funny moments (pretty much everything with her brother) and some good acting by Keisha Castle-Hughes, Danielle Catanzariti as Esther, Christian Byers as her brother Jacob, and Toni Collette as Sunni's mother.

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 11

I'm going to pretend that's right and I haven't really lost count.

Two more movies Monday night, back up in Berkeley. First was HEART OF STONE, a film that I was very sorry to miss at Cinequest. It's a definite "real life hero" documentary--that hero being Ron Stone, principal of Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey. Weequahic in the 1950's and early 60's was a predominantly Jewish school, and routinely produced great successes, including famous alums Philip Roth (Pulitzer Prize winner), Rabbi Michael Lerner (famed civil rights activist) and Al Attles (NBA star, and no he's not Jewish, but did learn football signals in Yiddish). However, the success stories tended to move to the suburbs, and over the decades Weequahic became an "inner city" school, with loads of gang violence. Enter Ron Stone, a tough but fair principal who earns the students' respect by not lecturing but working with them. When he sees that Crips vs. Bloods battles are deeply entrenched, rather than just having the cops round up all the kids, he starts a conflict resolution program and gets the gangs to declare the school a no-violence zone. He works hard to make sure they see the value of an education, and he partners with the Weequahic Alumni Association to ensure that any student who gets into college will be able to afford it. That Alumni Association is the second half of the story--mostly Jewish alumni reaching out to help their old school 40 years later after witnessing what it's become. It was co-founded by Hal Braff, father of Zach Braff (who came on late in the editing process and became an executive producer. He was also there in Berkeley to briefly introduce the film). While they recite old Jewish school fight songs and reminisce about tailgating with kosher franks, they get personally involved with the school as well. While Stone makes sure the kids know the value of a college education, the Alumni Association is there to make sure they can get it. The film also follows three students--all gang members, all with a history of violence. But also all bright kids who are trying to survive and are good kids if given a chance. If nothing else, this movie shows that gang members aren't monsters, they're regular kids who usually have no dad and a busy or indifferent mom, and so turn to gangs as a form of support structure. Hopefully, this movie and the Weequahic Alumni Association can provide a model for a new, better kind of support. In particular, it's about the Alumni reaching in to support a neighborhood that bears little resemblance to what they remember or what they live now.

After the film, there was a panel discussion with Al Attles, Hal Braff, Rabbi Michael Lerner, and director Beth Kruvant, which was interesting and a passionate call to action.

Then I stuck around for the second movie, the Israeli coming-of-age hit, LOST ISLANDS. Set in the 80's, it's the story of an eccentric tight-knit family. The Levis have 5 sons--the eldest David, teenage twins Ofer and Erev, and two little kids. The story centers mostly on Ofer and Erev (the coming of age story). When they were born, Ofer nearly died, and their mother never lets them forget, doting on Ofer while making Erev fend for himself and help Ofer. This despite the fact that Ofer works out all the time and is easily the stronger brother. But this doesn't really cause problems, it's just a source of comedy. What does cause problems is when Erev and Ofer fall for the same girl, Neta. While she obviously likes Erev more, the twins have a system for sharing everything--whoever calls it first gets it. And Ofer called it first, so that's that. Despite some obvious tension, they go out partying all the time with their wacky friend Boaz (aka Savta, or "Grandma"). But things really get out of hand when their dad Avraham gets into a car accident and is paralyzed. Erev blames himself (and without giving away spoilers, he has reason to). Suddenly the fun, wild days of youth turn into the depression of young adulthood. Ofer becomes the loyal son staying home to take care of his dad. Erev volunteers for the commando unit of the IDF (which used to be Ofer's dream) in a none-too-subtle bid to get himself killed in combat, no matter how ill-equipped he is for the physical rigors of training, much less combat. It's a story of family, love, cheating, and of course, growing up. And it's remarkably funny and has a cool 80's pop soundtrack. It's not hard to see why it was so popular in Israel last year.

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 10

I think...anyway, it was last Sunday, and one of two days I'm spending in Palo Alto.

The day started with a Molly Goldberg-palooza, starting with four archival episodes of "The Goldbergs", the very first TV sitcom, running from 1949 to 1956 (with a hiatus due to blacklist issues, which cleared a spot for a show called "I Love Lucy", but I'm getting way ahead of myself). The show focused on a Jewish immigrant family in the Bronx (and in the final season, the suburbs), but their stories are all-American (Molly, the matriarch of the Goldbergs, even once mentions how Christmas is just around the corner. I've always secretly believed some Jews love Christmas more--they can enjoy the presents and parties without worrying about the religious meaning). Anyway, Molly (Gertrude Berg) was famous for calling "Yoo hoo" to her neighbors out the window, and for giving advice about anything--especially Sanka instant coffee (her sponsor). We saw four episodes:

Matchmaker: Her cousin comes to visit with her unwed daughter (a fact that gives her no end of worry). Molly's friends, neighbors, and relations have all sorts of fix-up ideas, and they end up having dinner with 4 eligible bachelors. Which just overwhelms and enrages the young lady.

Mother-in-Law: A newlywed couple (including Anne Bancroft in her TV debut) come to visit, but her mother-in-law is furious. She thinks her daughter-in-law won't call her "mother" because she hates her.

Molly's Fish: A suburbs episode, where Molly's famous fish balls are such a huge hit that a local Pied Piper grocery store owner wants to mass produce them. If only she had ever written down the recipe.

Rent Strike: Molly's husband Jake (Philip Loeb, who was blacklisted for his work with actor's equity, eventually leading to his suicide) tries to organize the building against the new landlord, who's done a horrible job with repairs. Molly's meddling just makes everything much worse.

I feel like before all that, I should've written up the second show of the day. YOO HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG is Aviva Kempner's excellent and thorough documentary on Gertrude Berg, the woman behind Molly Goldberg. Not just the actress, she invented the show (on radio for a couple of decades before she it came to TV). She was always head writer, and has been called the Oprah of her day and "The most famous woman you've never heard of." In her day, she was the second most recognized woman in America (behind Eleanor Roosevelt), and the number one highest paid (just ahead of Eleanor Roosevelt). She wrote 12,000 scripts for "The Goldbergs", and introduced America to Jewish immigrant (but still totally American) life. The movie follows her whole career, from her home life to putting on plays for guests at her father's Catskills resort (rainy days she's keep the kids entertained--and the families there--by writing plays for them to act in). Although she practically invented the TV sitcom, her career was marked with struggle--most notably the blacklisting of co-star Philip Loeb. She stayed by him, and lost sponsors (although Sanka instant coffee enjoyed a 60% increase in sales among TV viewers). The show, and her career, never really recovered from the forced hiatus. By the time "The Goldbergs" was back on the air (sadly, without Loeb), Lucille Ball (who had inherited her time slot) was the queen of TV. Still, she was a much-sought after guest on countless programs, she won a Tony award (she conquered radio, TV, and the stage, but never made it in movies). The movie interviews a wide range of people who knew her or were inspired by her, from Norman Lear to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who laughs about a time early in her career when a judge called her Goldberg by accident--she took it as a compliment). And it also used tons of archival footage (not just her TV show, but a lot of her guests spots joking with the likes of Groucho Marx, Milton Berle, or Perry Como). Excellent fun.

And then the third show of the day (and the last I stayed for, since I had already seen the remaining ones), started with the short WITH A LITTLE PATIENCE. In one unbroken 14 minute shot, a young woman goes to work (she's an office clerk), files papers, goes about her business, looks out the window, and stoically observes a scene of shocking brutality.

That led in to the feature, CYCLES (LES MURS PORTEURS). A story of a middle-aged woman's losses. Judith (Miou-Miou) has already lost her husband to divorce. Now she's losing her mother, as her memory is fading into the past and she is constantly wandering around trying to get into buildings she swears are her old ghetto home. Meanwhile, she's also losing her daughter to adulthood and independence. Her brother Simon is so absurdly out of touch that losing him might not seem to be much of a loss. She makes some attempts to reconnect, even looking up her old boyfriend, who is now married with children, but that doesn't stop one little fling. But ultimately, it's family that clings together even as it slips apart. If nothing else, Shulamit Adar (as Judith's mother Frida), shows the fragility of memory and heritage, and thereby why it's so important to record survivor's stories while we can.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Jason goes to Jewfest--Day...whatever

I've lost count. Anyway, it was last Saturday in Berkeley, and I just went up to see three shows.

The first program started with the short GROWN UP. An Israeli story of adolescence, as a 15 year old girl and her friend entertain her mom's date until she shows up. A serious film, but there are some very funny moments.

This was the lead in to the documentary LADY KUL EL-ARAB. Duah Fares is a Druze Arab from Galilee, and a real beauty. She's doing very well in the Lady of the Arabs beauty pageant. But she knows that this pageant won't get her noticed and won't get her the modeling career she wants. So she makes a controversial decision to enter the Miss Israel pageant. The controversy comes about from the swimsuit competition and the fact that the Druze are a conservative community that consider it immoral for a woman to appear in public in a swimsuit. It's a tense story as she has to drop out of the Lady of the Arabs pageant (although I wasn't quite clear as to whether she really had to do that and why) and essentially go into hiding while her family deals with death threats over matters of honor. The Miss Israel pageant provides for increased security, which means for the most part she can't even visit her own parents (who I should stress are totally supportive of her decision). Nevertheless, at one point, her own uncle and two conspirators are arrested for planning to kill her to protect the family's honor. A fascinating and heartbreaking story, and very well made.

Next up was another program in this year's Social Justice series. Starting with the short 575 CASTRO STREET. That was the address of Harvey Milk's camera shop, and while Gus Van Sant had recreated it for MILK, they asked local experimental filmmaker Jenni Olson to make a short film they could use in the promo. What she made is a series of shots in the empty set, while playing the audio of the original tape Milk made to be played in the event of his assassination. It's a chilling feeling, like listening to a ghost. Particularly when he talks about who he'd want mayor George Moscone to appoint to replace him (Moscone, of course, was assassinated at the same time).

That was the lead in to the documentary SHOUTING FIRE: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF FREE SPEECH. Director Liz Garbus starts by interviewing her own father, famed first amendment lawyer Martin Garbus (yup, with this and the William Kunstler doc, the festival has two civil rights lawyer documentaries made by the daughters of the lawyers) . But this movie is more all-encompassing than just Martin Garbus. She interviews people from both sides of the issues, talking about free speech, security, and especially political pressure and censorship after 9/11 (e.g., the University of Colorado firing Ward Churchill for his essay critical of the U.S.) There's a wide range of cases--Garbus talks about the ACLU defending the neo-Nazis in their case to hold a rally in Skokie, Illinois. To me, the movie is really at it's best when they focus on cases where I don't really agree with the central figure. Like the high school kid in Poway who wore a t-shirt in protest of a school-sponsored Day of Silence (to protest bullying and harassment of gay students). It are these cases that remind us that if we only support free speech for those we agree with, then we don't really support free speech. Lest there be any doubt where I stand, let me reiterate the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution (as best as I can remember):
Those assholes in Congress shall make no god-damned law respecting an establishment of any shitty religion, or prohibiting the free cock-sucking exercise thereof; or fucking abridging the freedom of speech, or of the motherfucking press; or the right of the shit-for-brains people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the son-of-a-bitch Government for a redress of their fucking grievances. Ya got that, bitches!?
(Interesting note, the movie completely skipped over the religion clause in the first amendment. Not really the point of the movie, but it's interesting in repeating the first amendment they took that out).

And then I ended my night there with ZION AND HIS BROTHER. This first feature by Haifa native Eran Merav is a knockout in more ways than one. It's a movie that eschews traditional plot structure to instead build the love/hate (mostly hate, but sometimes it comes from a place of love) relationship of two brothers. Zion is the younger brother, and is generally a sweet, timid mama's boy. Meir, on the other hand, is angry, and at no one more than his own mother. While their mother dates Eli, a pretty nice guy with his own auto shop (i.e., a way out of poverty and into a nice apartment for her family), Meir jumps to the conclusion that a) it won't work, and b) mom's a bitch for trying to use Eli like that anyway. One night, Meir bullies an Ethiopian kid who Zion (incorrectly) thinks stole his shoes, leading to a tragic end. And that strains their relationship more, with Zion getting moodier and Meir getting angrier and more violent. It's an excellent story of how violence belittles us all, and ultimately Zion proves to be the more mature brother.

Jason goes to Jewfest North and sees some Rockin' Puppet Mayhem!

For the first time I can remember since I started attending the SFJFF (about 7 or 8 years now), they've done a program on a Friday night, encouraging their audience to come to a show instead of staying home and having Sabbath dinner with your family. Fine by me, I'm by no means religious.

The Puppet Folk Revival is already a huge hit in Israel, with their TV show Red Band and their unique mix of foul-mouthed puppets and folk music. They're led by Red, a big purple guy (named Red because his mother was color blind and his father was a vindictive bastard) and his paranoid drug-dealing rat named Phillip who threatened to kill all us "white motherfuckers". They put on a damn good show that moved with along at a fast clip with a healthy mix of somewhat offensive jokes and folk rock standards. There are many more puppets than just Red and Phillip, and the three-man team made the transitions as best as they could (while making self-deprecating jokes about it the whole time). The live show was broken up with a short video, which included a recap of Red's difficult life, but the live show was definitely where all the energy was. And it was pretty fuckin' awesome.

Oh yeah, this was their sort-of-official U.S. premiere (although they've played a few very underground shows in New York before), and they pretty much rocked Cellspace. Oh yeah, and the other thing I learned that night was He'brew (The Chosen Beer) Messiah Bold is pretty damn good.