Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jason hasn't had time to try Motionbox himself, but you should and let me know

Got this e-mail from Lowell Dempsey at Motionbox. I haven't had time to try this myself (and I'm not a filmmaker, so I don't really have videos to share online). But it looks like something I should give a shout-out. So any of my readers who try this out, leave a comment or send me an e-mail letting me know what you thought.
Now that it's almost Halloween, I wanted to try you one last time and let you know about a great Halloween promotion that our partner Shutterfly is running. From now until November 8th, you and the readers of Jason Watches Movies can get up to 60 free 4x6 prints just for posting and sharing a video! It would be fantastic if you could let your readers know about this.

You can check out the site that I put together which explains everything - feel free to use any of the images or videos on your site:

Motionbox makes it easy to share your videos online and is a great alternative to YouTube; better quality, more privacy settings and even editing features. I've also included a $10 off link to our Premium membership on the site for you to share.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 10

So as I explained in my previous post, I had to split about 15 minutes early from WATCH HORROR FILMS: KEEP AMERICA STRONG to make it to the Roxie for the 7:00 show (thanks for the ride, Ira). What documentary could possibly tear me away from that? Two words: RABBIT FEVER (theme alert--another animal movie). I like bunnies. But there are people who take their bunny love to extremes, competing in rabbit shows and (for the youth) competing to be Rabbit King or Queen. ARBA, the American Rabbit Breeders Association, holds national rabbit conventions, much like the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Judging the rabbits proceeds much like in dog shows, with different breeds, classes, and finally Best in Show (note, my knowledge of Dog Shows comes strictly from the Christopher Guest movie BEST IN SHOW, so I'm assuming a lot here). Joseph Kim is the eccentric star of the movie for that half of the competition. But the really interesting competition is the youths (under 18) competing for Rabbit King and Queen (or, in younger age groups, Lord and Lady or Duke and Duchess). The competition is in several parts, including a written test, oral interview, rabbit judging (comparing the youth scores to the official judges), breed identification, etc. (I feel like I'm missing one part. Whatever). The kids competing for King and Queen are the best (and biggest) part of the movie, with returning champions like Jenna, fierce competitors like Jessica, longtime runner-ups like Jeremy (whom I really felt for, but I think he always blew it in the interview), or newer competitors like Paula or Johnny. Their preparation, focus, and drive makes this movie, and it's interesting to see how a casual affection for the cute fluffy animals turns into a lifelong obsession (in a good way).

This was actually screened as a work in progress, so I don't know when it will be released to a wider audience or how it will change by then, but if you want to learn more about bunnies the ARBA national convention is in San Diego starting next weekend (Nov. 1-5).

Oh yeah, and I got a free set of bunny ears at the screening. Woo hoo, I'm a bunny!

Oh, and one final note about RABBIT FEVER. There's a scene where Joseph Kim is breeding his rabbits. For all their reputation, I've never actually seen rabbits fuck...until now. And it was fascinating to watch. They go at it for a bit as expected, and then at the "magic moment" the male spasms, falls on its back, and twitches for a few seconds. I don't know if this is typical or if this was a particularly special male, but it was a scene of sublime beauty. Just put that clip on Youtube and everyone will want to go see RABBIT FEVER.

Well, now that I've injected a note of lurid sex into this post, I just need to add drugs, Rock 'n Roll, and poster art to lead into the next film, AMERICAN ARTIFACT (Docfest theme alert: art). This movie tells the history of the rock concert poster, done by fans to publicize shows for very little money (at least originally). It's chock full of examples of the art, and is something of a crash course on the art and some of the big names, like Winston Smith, Victor Moscoso, Gary Grimshaw, Jim Sherraden & Hatch Show Print, and Frank Kozic (the man who really went national and made good money at it). Tons more can be found on the films website. It's also a crash course in the history, starting at the Filmore in San Francisco with the brightly colored psychadelia of the 60's and 70's, going through the economical black and white xerox art of the punk days, and finally the current resurgence and the creation of, which has turned it from a few isolated obsessives who built local reputations to a community where you know what artists are doing across the country. There are also brief mentions of the greater community, especially in regards to telephone pole flyers and "post no bills" laws. And I think director Merle Becker loses focus a bit when she talks about her own journey (either insert yourself fully as a character or take yourself out. I don't care that you're ending the movie because you ran out of money). But when it's all about the art, that's impressive enough.

Artists Ron Donovan, Chris Shaw, Dennis Loren, and Paul Imagine were there at the screening and got a bit rowdy for the Q&A (Ron Donovan even donned bunny ears and had the front row pose for pictures with then, so somewhere I'm on video clowning around with him in bunny ears). Meanwhile Dennis Loren actually brought examples of the art and various overlays and instructions he'd send to a printer, and that was fascinating.

Jason watches WATCH HORROR FILMS: KEEP AMERICA STRONG, Watches horror films, keeps America strong.

I haven't been to the Niles Film Museum in a couple of weeks, what with Docfest. But I had to be there last Sunday for this. Not just the documentary about Creature Features, but for the opening act--Ernie Fosselius and his cult classic HARDWARE WARS, George Lucas's personal favorite Star Wars parody. I remember this as a kid, and if you haven't seen it you should just go get the DVD (you can also see it on YouTube, but it should be seen in the best possible format. Big screen is ideal, DVD is second best). I'm now awesome enough to have seen it on the big screen now. And I have to say, for all the times I've seen it previously, I never caught that the C3-PO parody (who was dressed as the Tin Woodsman from THE WIZARD OF OZ) was called 4Q2 (i.e., "Fork" You, Too). Sneaky, Ernie, Sneaky. Oh yeah, and Ernie Fosselius was there to talk about the film, tell stories about how he made it and how everyone told him all the fans would hate him and he'd never work again (well, he wasn't already, so what the hell). And he told about his career in sound effects editing, which included working on SPACEBALLS, which actually stole several gags from another (unproduced) script he had written. He was pretty awesome to meet.

Then the other big celebrity was John Stanley. I didn't grow up in the Bay Area, so I didn't know about Creature Features with Bob Wilkins and later with Stanley until I saw the documentary AMERICAN SCARY about late night local TV horror hosts across the country. Creature Features was the Bay Area one, and it was hosted by the "normal guys" (meaning they weren't ghouls or vampires, not that they were particularly normal). This movie gave me a crash course, and now I wanna see more. Bob Wilkins (who passed away from Alzheimers just in the past year) and his extremely dry sense of humor and ubiquitous cigar. John Stanley and his encyclopedic knowledge (he started out by writing letters to Bob correcting him or adding interesting facts about the movies, which Bob would read on the air). Eventually when Bob retired John was a natural replacement and filled time with cheesy "mini-movies" before the feature. And the guest interviews they got were pretty unique, including Boris Karloff(!), Christopher Lee, Ernie Fosselius (again!), and an extremely young Penn and Teller (why'd you ever trim that Jew-fro, Teller?)

Sadly, I had to leave with about 15 minutes left to get to the city for a 7:00 show at Docfest. So now I have to follow up and get the DVD and anything else about Creature Features.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 9

The second weekend begins, 4 movies on Saturday, and the best day of the festival so far.

First up was NURSERY UNIVERSITY, the story of the cutthroat competition of Manhattan pre-school admissions. I'm going to say that again, emphasizing the important words. It's the story of the cutthroat competition of Manhattan pre-school admissions. If this weren't in a documentary festival, I would believe it's an extremely well made mockumentary. Tuition can run upwards of $20,000, and getting into the right "feeder" school can get you into the best grade schools, etc., all the way up to Harvard. Or so some of these parents think. In fact, the pre-school administrators know that their school doesn't guarantee an Ivy League education in the future, but it can give the kids a small step up. Anyway, assisted by the post-9/11 baby boom, the competition is tighter than ever. On the day after Labor Day, parents call as many of the best pre-schools they can to get applications. Often all they can do is enter a lottery for the chance to fill out an application. They take lessons in how to behave in interviews, they are actually encouraged to call the schools every day just to register interest (but not 17 times a day--that's just annoying). They go to extreme lengths for the opportunity to pay $20,000 a year so their kid can play all day. And then there are scenes with the kids, who What do they know? They can't tell the difference if they got into the 92nd St. Y or the co-op nursery around the corner. It's all a little ridiculous, and the movie is pretty darn funny.

This made me reflect a bit on my younger years. I actually remember my pre-school, out in the countryside of Everson, WA. I remember one day we were playing outside and found some recently poured (and dried) concrete that had marbles in it. Someone dropped marbles in the wet concrete where they were making the sidewalk, and we decided we wanted the marbles. So we were hitting the sidewalk with rocks, trying to break the marbles out. The teacher saw what we were doing, so she told us maybe it would work to get a big bucket of hot soapy water and dump it on there. So she did, and we scrubbed at the sidewalk trying to get the marbles. I remember thinking it wouldn't work, but not wanting to contradict the teacher. The lesson I learned (quite a bit later) is that adults are pretty silly when they're humoring children, but children are even sillier and can get duped into washing sidewalks.

Next up was APOLOGY OF AN ECONOMIC HIT MAN, based on the life of Richard Perkins. As a young man, Richard was very smart, and had some classic weaknesses--desire for money, power, and sex. And so he was recruited by the NSA to become an economic hit man. Basically, he inflated the cost and value of projects funded by the World Bank so that borrower countries would be saddled with untenable debt and have to do whatever the U.S. wants in order to get that debt forgiven (meanwhile, those projects happen to go to U.S. corporations). That's just the first step. As he tells it, when a new leader comes to power in a third world country, he'll get a visit from a man who will make him an offer--play ball and become incredibly wealthy. If he refuses, that's when the covert assassins come in. The movie focuses particular attention on Jaime Roldós Aguilera, the populist President of Ecuador, who refused to deal and then happened to die in a plane crash (his daughter confronts Perkins in the movie). The movie glides between recreations that portray the world of economic hit man as film noir gangsters, monologues by Perkins, and--most compelling--events where he's confronted by his victims in Latin America. Those scenes are by far the most powerful. Without them, it would be easy to look on Perkins fondly as a man who did bad things but repented and is trying to make things better--a character that makes for a compelling character. But when appearing at what is essentially a town hall meeting in a giant theatre, he's confronted by people who are still angry. I suppose they're glad to know exactly how they were made subjects of the stealth U.S. empire, but they're (rightfully) still angry. It really brings home how easy (and shallow) it is to forgive someone who didn't actually hurt you, and how hard (or unnecessary) it is if he actually hurt you.

Let's take a break to review Docfest so far. Some of the emergent themes in this year's Docfest are animals, artists, and reuse/recycle. A common theme that is not so prevalent this year is music, particularly odd or obscure music. Okay, back to the reviews

The next film, TRIMPIN: THE SOUND OF INVENTION, definitely fits in the Artist theme, and adds that missing music. Trimpin is an artist living and working in Seattle. He's a German emigre, and has taken as his art the creation of devices and musical instruments largely from found or scrapped items (reuse/recycle has been another theme). The film mixes old footage; interviews with friends, colleagues, and collaborators; and a 2-year cinema-verite "ride-along" as he collaborates and creates kinetic sculptures, musical instruments, and one remarkable concert with the Kronos Quartet. A fascinating and thrilling look at creativity freed from such limitations as a fear to fail. Interesting side note--Trimpin doesn't like recorded music, so the performances caught on tape by director Peter Esmonde (in Dolby 5.1) are some of the very few recordings of Trimpin's music, making this not just a fun and fascinating ride but an important artifact of art and music history.

And then the art theme continued with the first of two printing movies PROCEED AND BE BOLD, starring Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., a true Maverick in life. He was a successful programmer for AT&T, and was basically living the upper-middle class African-American dream. And then he quit it all to take up the letter press and became a simple negro printer. And he started wearing denim overalls and (more recently) a pink shirt every day. He's been an assistant professor of art (at the University of Indiana in Bloomington), and is occasionally a visiting art professor. But he'd call himself a printer or bookmaker before an artist. At Bloomington, he would speak out against policies or issues that bugged him by producing "nappygrams", rpurposing racist images (aunt Jemima, little black Sambo, etc.) and messages for his own purpose. And that's his sense of humor--straightforward, in your face, with a wink and a smile. Personally, my favorite poster of his is FUCK YOU/I'll Fuck Myself (and yes, if you look at the poster right next to it in the gallery, he's a geek, too!) I might just make that my new motto.

Amos was actually there, along with the director Laura Zinger, and they did a great job entertaining the audience during the Q&A, and then they packed the lobby selling posters, a few of which I bought along with the DVD. Sadly, he had no FUCK YOU/I'll Fuck Myself with him, but hopefully he has some I can order online. That was a fun movie about a great guy whom I'm very happy to have met.

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 8

Two more movies, starting with one of the best of the festival, MINE.

MINE is the story animal lovers, and particularly of pets and owners separated during Hurricane Katrina. Director Geralyn Rae Pezanoski keeps the story very personal, focusing on a handful of evacuees returning home and looking for their animals (she is an animal lover herself, and makes it easy to sympathize). During Katrina, many people had to evacuate without their animals--some were ordered so by the National Guard, some had no room in their vehicles (20 people in 2 cars, no room for a dog), and they all thought they'd be back in a day or two. Well, of course it didn't turn out that way, and many pets suffered. Oddly enough, in the first days after the storm, residents weren't allowed back in but if you slapped an "animal rescue" sign on your van, you could go right past the National Guard checkpoints. So animals were rescued, many in awful shape, and to make room for all the rescuees many were shipped all over the country to shelters where (if the shelter cared about the original owner) they were fostered out or (if the shelter didn't count on the original owner coming back) they were adopted out. As I said, many of the rescued animals were in awful shape, and so it became easy for the shelters to assume all New Orleans residents were awful, neglectful pet owners and didn't deserve their animals back (I remember a lot of awful things being said about the evacuees, seems they got the shaft over and over again in this ordeal). Anyway, this is the point where the movie really comes in. Residents returning home, living in FEMA trailers, and looking for their lost pets. It's sort of a heartbreaking story on both sides, since many of these animals were adopted out to loving families who take great care of them and don't want to give them up (hence the title). But when you see the dogs returned to their original owners, and you see them perk up and jump up and down (Bandit, probably the cutest, jumps up and starts wagging his tail blocks away from home as soon as he recognizes the neighborhood) it's clear whose doggy they are. Well done, very emotional film.

And then I saw OCTOBER COUNTRY, a year (from Halloween to Halloween) in the life of the Mosher family--a walking catalog of PTSD. The Mosher family has a few more ghosts than the average American family--war, teen pregnancy, child abuse, etc. The film simply gives them a voice, lets them talk about their problems, their past, their future in an honest and haunting manner. The cinematography is beautiful, and provides the right counterpoint to their stories. And the stories, though painful and sometimes shocking, are very real and it's important to give them voice. This is the sober counterpoint to THE WILD AND WONDERFUL WHITES OF WEST VIRGINIA.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jason urges you all to put THE END on your Netflix queue

Back in Cinequest 2008, I saw this brilliant little no-budget thriller, and loved it (scroll down for my review). Since then I've been waiting for it to come to DVD. And just a couple days ago I got an e-mail from the director Jeremy Thomas announcing my wait is (almost) over. Cinequest is actually releasing it on their own DVD label (good for Cinequest!) No firm date yet, but could be early December (in time for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Solstice Festival/Festivus/whatever else you celebrate in winter)

But the size of the DVD release depends on pre-orders, and the best way to get pre-orders up is for more people to put it in their Netflix queue. So if you have a Netflix account, click here and click Save.

If you don't have a Netflix queue, then follow these instructions:
  1. Go to (US residents only)
  2. Register for a free-trial.
  3. Pick a plan (one DVD at a time, 2 at a time, unlimited, etc.), and enter billing info.
  4. Click "Get Started"
  5. Click tab reading "Your Queue"
  6. Type "The End" in the Search Box in the upper right corner
  7. Click the second title (the one directed by Jeremy Thomas)
  8. (Optional) It would be great if you gave it a 5 star rating!
  9. Hit "Save" when the confirmation box comes up!
If enough of you do this, it'll get a bigger DVD release. So let's show 'em what my army can do!

Okay, enough of my shilling for others, let me talk a bit about my favorite subject--myself.

In my review I mentioned that I was telling everyone else at Cinequest to go see it. Well, a few of them took my advice and came back to me thanking me for recommending it. That was really cool. In fact, I realized that's what I want to do with this blog and all my movie watching/reviewing. I love it when someone sees a movie on my recommendation and comes back and tells me they liked it. In fact, I realized that is exactly what I want to do with this blog (how to do it is something I haven't figured out yet). So the reason I'm pushing you to see THE END is:
  • If you read my blog regularly I assume you're interested in strange, obscure, independent movies. And if that's the case, I think there's a good chance you'll like THE END.
  • You'll be helping a young independent filmmaker who I want to see succeed so he can make more movies that blow my mind.
  • I hope some of you who see it will let me (and more important, Jeremy Thomas--you can find his contact info at the film's website) know what you thought of it. Even if you hated it, and hate me for telling you to see it, go ahead and let me know (and tell all your enemies to see it out of spite)
Well, that's pretty much all I have to say. Other than re-posting my review from 2008:
...I ended the night with "The End". I am so grateful that I ran into Jeremy at the VIP party [earlier that night, where he convinced me to see his film instead of whatever else I was planning on], because this ended up possibly being my favorite film of Cinequest. Absolutely awesome. In this no-budget existential thriller/comedy Jeremy stars as Joseph Rickman, a schoolteacher with a legendary past. Years ago, he could see what no one else could see, and as a result saved a girl. Now he's got the same feeling again. Pulled by some force, he wanders into the woods and witnesses a shadowy figure lobotomizing lawn gnomes (yeah, and it hasn't gotten weird yet). Perhaps he's going crazy, and if it wasn't for his past, the local detective (and sister of the girl he saved way back when) would have him locked up. But she goes with it, at least for the time. And then...there's a huge freakin' twist, and I won't tell you what it is. This actually put me in a weird position, because for the rest of the festival I was telling people to see this movie and also telling them to not be afraid to walk out. You see, when the twist happens you'll know, and if you're not ready to follow the premise to well beyond it's logical conclusion, this movie will be painful for you. So just go ahead and walk out. And that's all I can tell you of the plot. I'll just tell you it's weird, it's original (although I could name a half dozen movies that employ some part of the twist, I haven't seen it handled quite like this), it's funny, and it's exciting. It keeps you guessing, and just when you think you know the next twist, something even stranger happens.

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 7

Another day, another 2 movies. That's what life is like when you're as awesome as I am.

The first film was WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? I haven't read the provocatively titled book the film is loosely based on, but I understand the premise--the Republican party has convinced much of middle America to vote against its economic interests for culturally divisive reasons (again, I haven't read the book so if I'm off the mark I apologize). Directors Joe Winston and Laura Cohen follow along several Kansans (without much context it's hard to tell if they're typical) through the summer and fall of 2006 (the midterm elections play heavily). There are an assortment of political-religious types, a church that's had to move to an amusement park (now that's a weird story). There is a creepy amount about Dr. George Tiller (abortion doctor who was recently murdered, but was alive and active at the time of the film). And there are surprises, like the ex-Republican farmer who now claims to be a "populist without a party" and who learns about the history of populism in Kansas. It might surprise you (it certainly did me) that much of the New Deal rose from Midwest populism that flourished in Kansas. Going back further, there was a county in the 1910's where nearly every political office was held by socialists. So what changed? I don't know, and the movie wasn't interested in telling me. And that's a major problem. The filmmakers obviously are trying for a hands-off, let-the-audience-decide approach, but they back away so much that the film doesn't even have a point of view. When a film poses the question in it's title "What's the matter with these people?" it should at least make a case that something is the matter. Look, I believe there's something not-too-smart with a lot of these people. Particularly people who lost a lot of money on poor investments from church and chalked it up to "God's will." But if they lose the same money on a religious-inspired cause I believe in, it's called charity and it's a good thing. I'm pro-choice, but I don't begrudge anyone for being pro-life or voting pro-life if that's what they believe. I can chuckle at the implications of a mom being worried that college makes kids less religious, but if you believe your religion is right isn't it right to worry that your child might stop believing? You shouldn't belittle their beliefs, you should vigorously and intelligently debate their beliefs and beat them in the battle of ideas and at the ballot box. This movie's title makes a claim that there's something the matter with Kansas, and then so studiously avoids answering its own question that the only thing a viewer will conclude is the matter with Kansas I what already exists in his or her own mind. So of course the San Francisco audience ate it up.

Then I saw a short and a feature about the art and persistence of the deal. In SELL IT TO THE HEDGE FUNDS, director Haven Pell spends all the time on the phone calling up potential investors just to try to set up a meeting to pitch his software data-crunching solution. Pretty funny.

And in THE ENTREPRENEUR, director Jonathan Bricklin follows around one of the fastest-talking, gamblingest, most persistent businessmen I've ever seen-his dad Malcolm Bricklin. Malcolm has gained and lost a few fortunes (and a few wives) in his life. His main business is cars. He founded Subaru USA, and made his first fortune. Then he founded Bricklin motors, manufactured his own cars, and filed for his first bankruptcy. Later he came back making his name in the cheap-car market by bringing the Yugo to America (joke if you want, he was laughing all the way to the bank). Now, well past middle age, he's looking to economically priced cars again. But now he's looking to luxury--find the best designers and a cheap overseas manufacturer and bring luxury cars to America with a $30,000 price tag. He has a (ahem) unique style that basically amounts to talking and talking until the deal is made. He yells, he gets excited, he insults people, he embraces people, and somehow over and over at the 11th hour he gets the deal done. And he's found his deal this time. He will team up with Chery, a Chinese automaker to bring their cars to the market. After tense negotiations--deal looks certain, then it's off, then back on--he makes yet another miraculous last-minute deal. Only one catch--he has 12 months to make $200M investment in Chery or the deal is off. But he has a plan. His plan is to be the first auto manufacturer who has dealers investing directly in the company. He just need 100's of dealerships to buy in at $2 million each. So now it's more deal after deal after deal as he attempts to meet the deadline. The movie's like a freakin' business thriller, complete with a charismatic, eccentric hero. Of course, if you remember the hype over China entering the US automobile market, you know sort of how it ends. But it sure was thrilling along the way, and given Malcolm's persistence it probably isn't over yet.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 6

You may notice I did not attend day 5. There's a good reason for that, but it's a secret.

Anyway, two more programs on Wednesday, starting with the program of Bay Area Shorts. All these shorts were made locally:

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEARDS--I like my beard, don't think it weird.... Beards of all shapes, for all reasons, with all meanings ranging from religious to lazy. Includes the world beard champion.
ANSONIA HOSTEL--Hilarious look at the Ansonia Hostel at Post St. And Jones. Friends And funny cartoons.
THRIFT TOWN: GET USED--An extended commercial for a cool chain of thrift stores started in San Lorenzo. Thrift is good, reuse and recycle is good.
SHELTER--A fascinating look at the home built by Lloyd Kahn. He was an originator of the geodesic dome movement in the 70's, but eventually abandoned it as impractical. But he's still a fan of building things with his own hands.
LONE WOLF--Josh Wolf was sent to prison for over 200 days for refusing to surrender footage from a G8 protest in San Francisco. An interesting look at the man and the question of what makes a journalist. I just wish this movie had been longer.
SCRAPER BIKE KING--The trailer for this, with the song that's a hit on YouTube, has been annoying me all through the festival. Now the story of kids in Oakland decorating their bikes and riding around finally got to annoy me at full length. Actually, it's a fine movie, I am just really tired of the trailer.
SF MESS--A really interesting look at San Francisco bike messengers. The people, their jobs, the dangers, and the efforts to unionize.

The next program was for animal lovers, starting with the short MOUSE RACE! In a town in Australia, at the local pub, mice are raced for entertainment and gambling (although they get around the law by not betting dollars but fake "Rodent" currency (essentially, Monopoly money. The exchange rate is $1R = $1AU).

And then an examination of feline obsession and stereotypes with CAT LADIES. Through interviews and home footage director Christie Callan-Jones examines what exactly it means to be a "crazy cat lady" (the movie was inspired when she had to go home to feed her cat and someone casually called her a crazy cat lady). Margo has only three cats, but loves them very intensely. Jenny is a young real estate agent and has 16 cats. She acknowledges that's a lot, and of course she'd like to have a boyfriend, but she's not a crazy cat lady--she decides--unless she has more than 30. Diane was a successful banker but has crossed the line to "rescuing" cats and now that's a full-time job. She has over 100, and is constantly exhausted. She never sleeps a full night, just a few hours at a stretch and she realizes she's working herself to death at this and would rather not be doing it but feels compelled anyway. And there's Sigi, the unrepentant cat-rescue crusader. Don't even try to count her kitties, she estimates over 3,000 have passed through her place. But she'll never say she's crazy. Everyone else is crazy. And when she makes the case that she's giving cats a home while the supposedly sane are dumping them on the snowy streets of Toronto not caring if they die, she's at least compelling and sympathetic, if not correct. The filmmakers do a good job of not being judgemental, although everyone but Sigi manages to be at least somewhat of a harsh judge of themselves. The one constant theme is a sense of isolation from normal human relationships, creating a need that is met by a community of cats. An interesting, well-made movie with characters who disturb me even more than the Whites of West Virginia (but then, I'm more of a dog-dude, so what do I know?)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 4

And I believe it was the best night of the festival so far. I saw two features and one short, starting with the short AMONG THE GIANTS. In New York City there's a workshop that teaches and practices adaptive design. It's partly a story of people with unique disabilities (although I hesitate to use that term). Tamara Morgan is a little person with a brittle bone disease. She gets around okay in her wheelchair, but on the bustling streets she's often nearly tripped or run over. Raven DeSayles is a young girl, very athletic despite having no use of her legs. Her chair in school isn't even tall enough for her to see her work. And so the workshop designs and builds tools to help them, while also serving as a creative outlet for the students there. It's pretty amazing what you can build out of scrap cardboard.

That led into BETWEEN THE FOLDS, perhaps the definitive movie on modern origami. This isn't folding crude swans, this is incredibly detailed art and science. The film follows some fascinating people--people who make their own paper, artists who craft intricately detailed figures, scientists who study the math of origami (including the youngest professor ever at MIT), even post-modernists who rebel against traditional technique and discover what shapes can be made with a single fold. And there are Les Anarchistes, who crumple and wave paper around and still end up with bizarre mushroom creations. I can't do this movie justice. It really has to be seen to be appreciated. I can tell you it inspired me to fold my audience award ballot into a 5 (top score. I'm glad we don't rate them on a scale of 1 to 10).

And then I went over to the Little Roxie to complete a night of extreme art (odd, this year's Docfest has had more art and less music than typical) with WAITING FOR HOCKNEY. Billy Pappas is an artist from Baltimore who has always been good at realistic representation of figures. Working as a waiter, he met the...eccentric architect Larry Link. They got to talking, and Link encouraged him (and financed him) to spend full time drawing and find a new hyper-realism in his work. Billy re-taught himself everything. He learned to draw hair not just as a shape but as individual strands. He re-learned eyes, lips, everything. He learned to not just draw skin but to detail every pore. And he spent 8 1/2 years recreating a famous photo of Marylin Monroe in greater detail than the photo ever had. He's spend months drawing with a superfine pencil under a 20X magnifying glass. After four years, his arm was so sore he had to suspend it in a sling to keep working. He created something that has never been done, and it's amazing. But all that is past by the time the movie starts. At the opening credits he's already finished the drawing and is searching for his audience. Specifically, art superstar David Hockney. Billy believes if Hockney sees his work that A) he'll be amazed and B) he will make a phone call that will result in a commission for his next work and he'll finally be a working artist (oh yeah, the $300,000 Link gave him over the course of the drawing is a loan). So the movie follows him as he meets and amazes influential people in the art world who become his small support group trying to get him his audience with Hockney. The movie becomes something of a suspense thriller, as we hope desperately for all his work to pay off. This is heightened by the fact that the audience is only told of the drawing. We won't get to see it until/unless Hockney sees it, and dammit I wanted to see it! But no spoilers, you'll have to see it yourself. Of course, you could just click here.

Monday, October 19, 2009


In IMAX, no less. I slipped this little gem in as a matinee screening before my Sunday at Docfest

Okay, the book is a beautiful piece of childhood escapism that embraces and faces the crazy, angry, wild Id that is a part of everyone, and scarier in kids.

Confession, although I loved the book as a kid I haven't read it in decades. So any comparison I make to the book is inherently flawed. With that said the look of Max and hos wolf costume/pajamas is perfect. The Wild Things, created by the Jim Henson workshop, are straight out of the book. And Spike Jonze did a great job of expanding it to a feature length story without losing the simplicity, sweetness, and heart of the original. The real-world bookends do a great job of setting up the frustrations and fears every child feels (I think it was Bill Maher who mocked the idea of psychiatrists finding trauma in childhood by pointing out "You're little, everyone is bigger than you, and you have no idea what's going on. How hard is it to find trauma in that?") and the lessons he learned by being King of the Wild Things.

The message of the movie--maybe parents would be better parents if they remembered what it's like to be a child (not just childish, but remember how scary it was to be a child) and maybe children would be better children if they knew how hard it was to be a parent. On the other hand, I'm neither a parent nor a child, just a very childish middle-aged dude. So what the hell do I know?

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 3

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 3

4 more programs on Sunday, starting with a triple bill (2 shorts and a feature) of incredibly personal movies.

JENNIFER: Stewart Copeland made this film about his mother, shortly after her death. She was a schoolteacher, and the movie focuses on one special day when her class got to talk to the crew of the space station.

THE STORY OF MY CANCER: A surprisingly funny story of a mother's (successful) round of chemotherapy to treat Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

And finally, the world premiere of WE SAID NO CRYING. The title is a bit ironic, given there is a ton of crying in this movie. It was directed by Israeli filmmaker Assaf Gafni and follows him and his wife Hila as they try to have a baby through in-vitro fertilization. The movie focuses solely on them (almost always on Hila, since Assaf is operating the camera) no doctors, nurses, etc. shown. They are a very likable couple, and they're love is palpable on screen. The film takes follows them through sadness (failure to get pregnant traditionally), to joy
(IVF succeeds), to tragedy (they have twins, but one fetus is not developing right and threatens the health of both) and beyond, but always stays on their emotionally story rather than the medical side of it. I'm always amazed on the rare occasions when there are filmmakers and documentary subjects brave and open enough to share all the little moments in their life. It's rare (no more than once a year, and regular readers will now how many movies that is) to see such powerful, raw intimacy in a movie. Both Assaf and Hila were there for the screening, and I just have to thank them for sharing so much of themselves with us strangers.

So coming off that, I took a look at the death (or possible survival) of an American institution with I NEED THAT RECORD! The small record store has been a community touchstone in big and small towns across the nation, and more and more of them are closing. Director Brendan Toller does a good job of mixing personal stories of independent record store owners (all of whom have an obvious love of music and most of whom have a pretty wild streak) with interviews of musicians and a history of the music industry and how it got where it is (with enough statistics to make my head spin). There's an obvious animosity towards the major labels who are charged of the crime of knowing nothing about music and caring only about money. But the record stores sort of need the major labels for sales, and the decline of the record stores directly tracks with the decline of music sales overall. Along with the labels and their crappy business sense (letting young artists develop pays off in the long run. Suing fans for downloading music just pisses off your customers. Charging $20 for a CD that took 80¢ to produce is bullshit), big box stores (Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer of CD's, and sell them at a loss to lure people into the store) and media conglomeration (i.e, Clear Channel and the relaxed monopoly rules from the Telecommunications act signed into law by President Clinton) also come under the gun. Coming away mostly clean are the fans themselves. Sure, it's ultimately their buying choices that are directly to blame, but can you blame them for getting the music cheaper elsewhere (and more portable on their IPod)? Perhaps the one bright glimpse is a surprising resurgence of vinyl, at least among collectors (I confess, I knew nothing of this, but the movie says it's so, so it must be true). And perhaps the culture of the indie record store has simply gone online, and depending on your point of view, that might be a good thing. In any case, the movie raises lots of questions and shows the struggle of a lot of really interesting people.

The next film was a rather odd coming-of-age story. OFF AND RUNNING is the story of Avery Klein-Cloud, born (she discovers) Mycole Antwonisha. She's the adopted daughter of two Jewish lesbians. Her older brother Rafi is mixed-race, her little brother Isaiah (Zay Zay) is Korean. And she's the African-American member of this United Nations family. She's in High School, and is a track star. After thinking about it her whole life, she decides to try to contact her biological mother and find out where she's from. She writes a letter and gets a reply (learning, among other things, her birth name). But the letters stop coming, she's feeling abandoned again, and her two mommies are feeling a little rejected by her efforts (although they try to be supportive, fights erupt). To make it worse, Rafi is leaving for college at Princeton so she's losing the brother she used to talk to all the time. Things get pretty tough for her--she moves out of the house (meaning poor sweet Zay Zay has lost both his siblings) and struggles just to survive. She drops out of High School and takes the GED (which she aces, she's not dumb she just has a lot of issues). It's a difficult coming of age, with a lot more complex issues than most people her age have to face. And it's a very well done movie.

And finally, I don't even know how to describe VAMPIRO: ANGEL, DEVIL, HERO. Ian Hodkinson, aka Vampiro, was born in Canada but grew up to become one of the biggest stars of Mexican wrestling. Now he's announced he'll retire. At least, retire as talent so he can become a bigtime promoter, uniting Mexican, Japanese, and European leagues (as he says, everyone but the WWF). The movie cuts between his troubles as a promoter (36 hours to go, and if he doesn't come up with $18,000 the show is off) and his early life. The fame, the fans, the small venues in Ireland and Germany. The really early years living on the streets beating up and robbing pimps and drug dealers (I gotta think there's more to that, but it's somehow appropriate that he later joined Curtis Sliva's Guardian Angels). He even worked for a time as Milli Vanilli's bodyguard. He's still a guy who knows how to put on a show. And even though he's obviously near the end of his career, he has that one thing all showmen need--an undying belief that he is the most interesting person to ever walk the earth. He's a legend in his own mind, for a time a legend to a lot of other people, and for perhaps the final time, a legend in this movie.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Jason goes to DocFest--Day 2

Four movies to start the first weekend of Docfest. Here we go:

First up was THE DRUMS INSIDE YOUR CHEST, which apparently played to a packed house the night before, but was nearly a private screening for just me today. Probably because the core audience was busy with the Litquake poetry crawl (final day of that, and I didn't even know until it was too late). Anyway, a few years ago a group of performance poets had the idea to take the energy, vibrancy, and humor of performance poetry from the clubs and put it on stage. This is the concert movie of the result. Fundamentally, the goal is to overcome the stereotype of "poetry is boring". In fact, the "concert" footage is very fun. It almost plays like stand-up comedy but with rhythm (and with a goal beyond just making you laugh). The performers riff on the nature of being "deep", imagine alternate worlds where Batman doesn't exist because Bruce Wayne is a poor loser, or give acceptance speeches thanking everything that is and has ever been wrong with their life. The film breaks the performances with short interviews with the poets, but for the most part let's the work speak for itself. And while the poems and poets are quite varied, the one constant is the performances are always entertaining and usually funny. It made me interested in actually seeing one of these performances live. And, incidentally, there was talk of making it part of LitQuake next year. So if that happens, and I remember next year, I may be in luck.

And then, from a surprisingly funny movie I went to a predictably depressing movie. But first the short TAKE MY HAIR. Filmmaker Cat Del Buono has really, really long hair. She has decided to donate her hair to make a wig for Sue, who has has cancer and has lost her hair to chemotherapy. The art both of having long hair and of wig making is playfully explored, until tragedy cuts the process short. Dedicated to her wig maker.

The same themes of tragedy, beauty, and body image are at the heart of FINDING FACE, along with a little tragically non-existent concept
called justice. When Tat Marina was just 16 years old, she was a karaoke video star in Cambodia. The Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha fell in love with her and seduced her, which was bad news since he's married. The "other woman" is always blamed there (rather than the philandering husband), and she was stuck. If she broke of the affair, he threatened both her and her family. If she continued the affair, his wife threatened her. And, in short order, the wife made good on her threat, getting a few thugs together to beat her up and then throw acid on her face (although the movie didn't say, the official website says it was nitric acid). There were a few repercussions, beyond horribly disfiguring her for life. First, her brother returned to Cambodia from America, and took her back to the U.S. with him, where she got the best possible care (but is still badly disfigured). Second, nothing happened to the Undersecretary or his wife. Third, as a result of the publicity and lack of criminal charges, acid attacks in Cambodia increased significantly. The film follows Marina and her brother in the U.S. As she tries to build a new life there, now centered around her son (due to her wishes, nothing is revealed about the father beyond that he's a legal U.S. resident). There are efforts by various organizations (and some very brave victims) to not just get justice for Marina but to end the culture of "revenge mutilations", but there doesn't seem to be much hope on the horizon. The movie is very well made, and emotionally powerful, but very hard to watch.

And then I moved directly to a world of hillbilly-sploitation and outright insanity with THE WILD AND WONDERFUL WHITES OF WEST VIRGINIA. If you ask anyone in Boone County about the White family, they'll either tell you some outrageous story or just won't want to talk about them at all. I don't even know wher to start. The drugs? The murders? The attempted murders? The welfare fraud? Maybe I should start with the tap-dancing. Patriarch XXXX was a mountain tap-dancing star, inventing dance moves only he could do (or so goes the legend). And then he was shot dead. Of the sons he taught to dance, only Jesco survives and carried on the tradition. He was the subject of a PBS Documentary THE DANCING OUTLAW, and often tours with family friend Hank Williams III. The other family members booze up, smoke up, snort crushed Xanax, and generally raise hell (except for one brother who moved away to Minnesota and is a proud hard-working man, despite the minor scrapes with the law in his past). At times the film plays like simple crass hillbilly-sploitation, but it's sort of hard to find much sympathy for a family that takes such obvious pleasure in their notoriety. Sometimes you gotta think they're playing it up for the cameras, like when they turn mama's birthday party into a drug orgy (mama, aka "The Miracle Woman" for all the kids--including orphans--she raised, does not seem amused), or when one snorts crushed pills in her hospital room just after giving birth (she has to go to rehab just to get visitation rights for Child Protective Services). But there are little glimmers of sympathy, like when one of them is shot in the face by his nephew. Okay, that's not sympathetic, but when he says "Part of me knows when he gets out of prison I gotta kill him, but I know I won't 'cuz I love him", well...that's sympathetic for this family. And then there's Jesco--remember he's the successful one--talking on the one hand about loving to get fucked up every night but then philosophizing how the whole family is already dead and just doesn't know it yet. I watched this movie like a car wreck, fascinated, enthralled, and relieved no one I care about is involved. I've never been more thankful that no one from the film was in attendance.

And finally, the night ended with DUST AND ILLUSIONS. I've been going to Burning Man actually longer than I've been going to film festivals (since '98). And I've seen a number of Burning Man documentaries. And so far they've all sucked. Because they've all been 'I went to Burning Man and this is all the cool stuff I did' and none of them look anything like my Burning Man experiences. To believe these movies, everyone is super-cool and we all get along. Maybe I'm a jaded old timer, but I've met lots of attention whores who piss me off out there and I've taken to calling Black Rock City the world's shittiest gated community. And don't even get me started on Center Camp Starbucks. Sometimes I feel like the only one in the whole nudist colony who can see that the emperor has no clothes.

Anyway, that was to set the stage to tell you DUST AND ILLUSIONS is a very different Burning Man documentary. It's not a party film, it's not "spiritual journey", it's a history lesson. It goes back to the first burn 30 years ago on Baker beach, when a few friends got together and built and burnt a wooden man. Director Olivier Bonin traces the origins back not just to the Baker Beach burn but to John Law, Micheal Mikel, and the Cacophony Society (and before that, the Suicide Club), it traces the move to the desert and the wild recklessness there (e.g., the drive-by shooting range). Then the art (sculptor Pepe Ozan is featured) and finally the population pressures that forced it to morph from a survivalist camping/radical freedom event into Black Rock City (fittingly, next year's theme is Metropolis). He mixes in interviews with some of the people who've made BRC pretty awesome--the Flaming Lotus Girls, Adrian of Piss Clear (their complete archives now available as a book). And it takes a critical look at what it's become, covering the split between Larry Harvey and the John Law/Chicken John contingent who formed Borg2. You can draw your own conclusions, and obviously it can't be the same thing with 50,000 people as it was with 100, but is it what it should be and can it be something better?

The next day, thinking about DUST AND ILLUSIONS and the changes I've seen in Burning Man in the past decade, I got what might be a great idea--Olde Towne Black Rock. A small region of the open Playa where people only camp in tents around a modestly sized man who stands on the ground. Maybe we can even bring back the drive-by shooting range with paintballs.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I'm trying to sneak in a few screeners I have at home, before I get too busy with Docfest. Full disclosure, this movie was made by a man I once publicly described as a giant, empty scrotum. Further disclosure, I never feel like I can give a movie a fair screening on DVD at home. My opinion may change greatly when I get a chance to see it on a big screen with an audience. Anyway, here we go:

Morty is a sad, lonely, pathetic man. In the opening scenes he takes what might be the saddest bong hit I've ever seen. It's not just sad in that he a loser sitting around wasting his life, it's that he gets no visible joy from the bong hit. He doesn't even have another loser friend to smoke with and giggle like a retard.

Instead of friends, he has an ex. And she has friends who occasionally talk to him, but more often talk about him to each other.

If there's one thing sadder than his loneliness, it's his faltering, incompetent attempts to alleviate his loneliness. He delivers cringe-inducing lines like "What? I don't think it's weird to say I love you? What's so weird about that?" Or he awkwardly tries to talk to the receptionist at his psychiatrist's office.

To top it all off, he's unemployed and broke. More awkward painfullness comes from that. Early on there's a scene where he meets a friend (okay, more his ex's friend) and tries to convince her because he did her some unnamed favor recently she owes him some money. Eventually, his money problems become so untenable he actually has to perform a little side work in the dirtiest, most unscrupulous profession ever--he becomes a back-alley psychiatrist (more disclosure, I fucking hate psychiatrists). Okay, really he just gives advice to a friend (of his ex) and agrees--just so that it's not awkward--that he should give him some money.

You know, I'm afraid I'm giving you a view of Morty that's all bad. And actually I'm pretty sure in real life I would have a hard time if I were Morty's friend. But I should make it clear--I feel for Morty. I see a lot of my insecurities, fear, self-loathing, and simple poor social behavior in Morty, and I understand him. Yet more full disclosure: I wasn't always (and am not always now) as awesome as I'm sure everyone thinks I think I am. In fact, I've been known to be more than a little bit self-loathing at times.

I also want to make clear, no matter how many times I've used the word "painful" to describe Morty's life, this movie is also pretty funny. It's painful humor, but I like it. Prime example from early in the movie: Morty gets a job working for an artist (cleaning out her basement after a flood). She's describing her new shot which is extreme close-up photography of male genitalia. She describes projecting these penis shots on a wall 8 feet tall. Morty perks up a bit at the thought of giant genitalia. Then she describes how you can see tiny hairs and bits of disgusting crud and crust, and Mort tries not to look sickened. That's supposed to be funny, right? I'm not the only one, am I? Anyway, if you find that funny, this movie is funny.

It has occurred to me that this movie has made me want to reveal more about myself than I usually do. I don't know what to make of that.

Jason goes to DocFest--Opening Night

The third leg of the SFIndie trifecta (Indiefest, HoleHead, and Docfest) started last night. I've only once did a clean sweep (all movies in all 3 festivals. I did it in 2007, and fell one movie short in 2008.) Docfest has been my week link, and as I've already pointed out it's impossible this year. As it turns out, what with other commitments I'll end up missing about 7 films this year. But I'll keep you posted on the ones I do see,!

Opening the Festival (in the little Roxie) was the war photographer story SHOOTING ROBERT KING. It opens in 1993 with Robert King outside of Sarajevo covering the civil war that split Yugoslavia apart. It's his first work (free-lance) and he doesn't know how to survive in a war zone. His photographs are overexposed and blurry. He doesn't even know the political leaders behind the various factions (or even the factions. Colleagues have to explain there's a difference between Croatians and Serbian Croats). Cut forward to 2007, in the woods of Tennessee. King is deer hunting and talking about how naive and idealistic he used to be. At first glimpse, he doesn't seem to have gained any competence--he can't even setup an automatically unfolding deer blind. The movie cuts across 14 years, going back and forth between young, stupid Robert King in Sarajevo and older King in Tennessee. In Sarajevo he learns a bit about survival (don't wear white shirts, etc.) and gets his first break--photographing French UN soldiers procuring prostitutes with cigarettes (his photograph made the front page of the Guardian).

About a half hour in, the 2007 Tennessee Robert King is talking about his self-destructive temperament and how that probably drew him to war zones and made him so good at what he did. I had the laugh, because so far the movie hadn't shown him as very successful or even competent. Only then does it flash to Chechnya, where he was one of the only photographers who stayed when they kicked the press out. Suddenly he is really good (helps to be the only one there). The movie then takes us on a whirlwind career spanning Chechnya, Rwanda, Iraq, etc. and juxtaposing war with drunken party photos from the time he lived in Russia. A prime opportunity is missed in Iraq when they only brush on the topic of embedded journalists. King was embedded, and had to stay in camp shooting shit (literally) while the troops went to investigate IED attacks. Perhaps that could be an entire second movie. But what is in the movie is the story of a young, self-destructive man who found a way to make a living in an extreme proffession. And the bond between his fellow war journalists (many of whom thought he'd never make it and now give him great respect) is palpable. Probably nothing short of actual soldiering matches or exceeds it.

Then I stayed in the Little Roxie (well, I went and had a quick beer at Dalva, then went back to the Little Roxie for the energy doc HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM. By interviewing tons of oil executives, environmentalists, scientists, etc. the film gives a good look at the history of energy (i.e., oil) in the U.S. and the future (i.e., alternatives). The stories of the history--rise and fall of U.S. oil--was the second most interesting part of the movie. We often hear (sorry, I'm not old enough to have lived it) of the gas crisis of 1973, and the deals Nixon cut to get us through it. Ford, interestingly enough, comes off pretty well at least in terms of talking the talk. Carter likewise talked a big game, but failed to deliver. The big surprise (to me) was how Reagan brought oil prices way down (basically by strong-arming the region and cutting back room deals) and the repercussions. This didn't just lower the price of gas. Because the Soviet Union was such a huge oil exporter, the price drop crippled their economy and (in part) won the Cold War. But it also crippled nearly all the domestic oil companies. It was no longer worth it to explore either new oil fields or alternative energies. But this was the time of "Dallas" on TV, so no one sympathized with the evil oil men, even if--as one executive claims--the layoffs in the oil sector in the 80's dwarfed the layoffs in Detroit today.

The other interesting point is that every oil exec talked about alternative energy as the only hope for the future. Not of the planet, but of their businesses. It's sometimes hard to tell if their serious of just "green-washing" (there's a great scene on a private jet when some executives laugh about how Sierra Club activism is helping keep prices artificially high, and that's good for everyone). But they are in the business of being in business, and the film makes a compelling case that oil is unsustainable as a business in the U.S. as well as unsustainable for the global environment. Now the only question is what will replace it? Solar, wind (an eyesore to some, but there's an amusing scene with Joanne Herring talking about how she finds the windmills beautiful like ballerinas), even algae that creates oil much faster than rotting dinosaurs do. And with the likes of T. Boone Pickens making serious investments in renewable energy, I'm reasonably optimistic.

I guess the biggest surprise is how reasonable, charming, and not-at-all villainous these businessmen appear. I don't know if I should feel dirty being charmed by an oil executive, but given that they have the power, capital, expertise, and seeming desire to build the renewable energy industry, it seems like we should make friends with them. After all, they're going to be taking some of the biggest risks--the film dubs them the new wildcats--and some technologies are bound to fail and some of them will lose everything.

And that was a pretty nice opening of DocFest 2009.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Jason goes to the SVJFF patrons event and watches EL BRINDIS

So many film festivals are starting up right now. The Arab American Film Festival started last night. Docfest starts tonight. And the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival (aka Jewfest South. Who, BTW, have just entered the world of blogging) starts tomorrow. Just to let you know my loyalties, I'll be spending most of my time at Docfest. Hope the other festivals aren't too jealous.

But this post is about SVJFF, because this is the first year I became a patron of the festival (as opposed to just a fan). So I got to go to the pre-festival patron event last night. There was good food (really good food), and it was cool to hang out with my festival friends there, and the highlight was a secret film not playing in the festival. Incidentally, this was my 365th movie of 2009 (not the earliest in the year I've reached 365, but only because Docfest used to start earlier).

That film was EL BRINDIS (literally, THE TOAST but translated as TO LIFE. Jews get that.) It's a Chilean movie, about a tight-knit Jewish community in Valparaiso. Isidoro is a kind, beloved old man, who decides to go through his Bar Mitzvah at the age of 80 (not too strange, my grandpa has actually said he'll have a second Bar Mitzvah at 113). His not-really-Jewish daughter (the result of an affair in his past) comes to visit, and is immediately a fish out of water. She knows nothing of the prayer over the wine on sabbath, so when the glass is passed to her, she simply raises it and says "Salud!" (the traditional Spanish toast, literally meaning "Health!"). The one who treats her the nicest is David the rabbi who is way too cool for the town (and so he's planning on moving away). In fact, he treats her a little too nice. That whole affair should've either been removed or gone somewhere. David's behavior has already riled the community leader, and there's some pretty obvious tension (that also didn't go anywhere).

The camerawork is beautiful, the acting is good, and there are quite a lot of individual notes that I liked (without giving anything away, I did like the ending, although the big twist was completely predictable). But there's a lot of tangents in the story that could either be fleshed out or dropped entirely. Not bad, not perfect.

As I said, I'll miss most of the first two weeks of the festival, but should be around for most of the rest. As for films I've already seen and can vouch for, check out THE WEDDING SONG (my review), FOR MY FATHER (CQ audience award winner. My review), and LOST ISLANDS (my review)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Jason goes to Bad Movie Night and watches QUEEN OF THE DAMNED

Stuart Townsend plays Lestat, a vampire rock star who is so gay everyone calls him the Queen of the Damned (Lestat was originally played by Tom Cruise in INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. Do you have any idea how hard it is to "gay up" a Tom Cruise character?) There's also a scantily clad lady vampire or something. She kills and drinks the blood of mortals and vampires alike, and for some reason is totally hot for Lestat. I didn't care, she was such a lousy actress I actually wished she was dead.

I got drunk, mocked the movie, and had a grand ol' time. The end.


It's a Michael Moore movie, so the film making will be technically excellent, the politics will be leftist, the arguments will be tenuous, and the tactics will be questionable. That's pretty much all you need to know.

Look, I've defended Moore before, and I tend to be sympathetic to leftist causes. And he makes some excellent points here. The comparisons of modern America to the declining years of ancient Rome are apt, at least on the surface. And he gets some juicy sound bites from a pro-capitalist who argues that capitalism is better than democracy. To extend the metaphor, democracy might sometimes be two wolves and one sheep deciding what's for dinner, but capitalism is often two wolves vs. a hundred sheep and the wolves still decide because they control the means of production.

He also gets some great sound bites from religious figures who claim that capitalism is inherently evil (his re-dubbing of a scene where Jesus will only heal a cripple if he pays for the costs out of pocket is pretty funny), although at the same time he sort of goes off the rails with a radical "we must completely destroy capitalism" message.

Moore goes on to suggest that capitalism must be replaced by something else, and that something should be...democracy. I guess he didn't have the balls to say he really wants socialism/communism. Although he does gleefully let slip that a recent poll suggests opposition to socialism/support for capitalism in the U.S. is at an all-time low, and he does play a swingin' version of Los Internacionales over the end credits. Anyone with eyes even a little bit open will realize what he really wants. And again, I'm not unsympathetic I just wouldn't go as far as Moore.


Well, this can pretty much serve as the canonical example of "high concept" comedy. In an alternate world, humans never developed the capacity to lie. Don't think about that too hard. Enjoy the little throw-away jokes, like how advertising works in this world ("Coke. We're very famous." or "Pepsi. For when they don't have Coke.") Don't question how advertising would even exist in a world without lies.

In such a world it sucks to be short and pudgy with a snub nose, like Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais). Everyone tells him what they really think--that he looks like (and therefore is) a loser. After the girl of his dreams (Jennifer Garner) rejects him, his boss fires him, and his landlord evicts him, he goes to the bank to withdraw his last $300 so he can start his new life as a homeless man. The system is down, so the teller just asks him how much is in his account. And something in his brain snaps. Instead of telling the truth, he says there's $800--just enough to pay his rent. And it works.

He uses his new super power to get a lot of money, (almost) have sex with a strange woman, and even start a religion. That starts with him trying to comfort his dying mom, and leads to him presenting his version of the 10 commandments on pizza boxes. But it's a surprisingly kind comedy. Mark is fundamentally a nice guy (probably comes from being kicked around so much, he can empathize with the miserable losers), and he doesn't take full advantage of his power. While he makes life nice for himself (mansion, fame, etc.) he simply doesn't have the killer instinct to use it to hurt anyone else. And in the end, the movie makes the case that a judicious amount of lying is good for the world.

It's a ridiculous concept that shouldn't work, stretched way too thin, and completely toothless. But the comedy works because of a very talented cast. Besides Gervais, Rob Lowe stars as his nemesis, Louis C. K as his best friend, and cameos by Tina Fey, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jonah Hill, Jeffrey Tambor, John Hodgman, and others. Enjoy their performances, just don't think about the concept for more than a few minutes, or it will collapse.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees A WOMAN OF THE WORLD

The series of movies shot in Pleasanton continues, but first a couple of shorts.

LIZZIES OF THE FIELD (1924): Billy Bevan in a Mack Sennet comedy. He's a mechanic in a fight with the auto repair shop just across the street. Wacky hijinx ensue, and the rivalry can only be resolved through an even wackier car race. Every car gets destroyed, and it's pretty hilarious.

SLIPPING WIVES (1927): The Niles Film Museum has also been doing a series of shorts starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy before they were a team (both were working for Hal Roach, but Roach hadn't figured out to put them together yet). At the time, it was advertised as a Priscilla Dean comedy. She plays the wife, Herbert Rawlinson plays her husband, who barely pays attention to her. She hatches a plan to find a man who will woo her, making her husband jealous. Enter paint deliveryman Stan Laurel, who immediately runs afoul of the butler (Oliver Hardy). She ends up paying Stan to "make love" to her (although it involves just flirting and a little snuggling, so I assume it meant something different back then). And wacky hijinx ensue as the result of Stan mistaking the family friend Winchester Squirtz (Albert Conti) for the husband. Pretty funny, and it's pretty obvious that Stan and Ollie had excellent comic timing together.

Then intermission, and the feature presentation.

A WOMAN OF THE WORLD (1925) stars Pola Negri as a European countess who just had her heart broken. Even though she tattooed her beloved's crest on her arm, she catches him kanoodling with another woman. Heartbroken, she goes on vacation to the small American Midwestern town of Maple Valley (Pleasanton), where she has a cousin Samuel Poore (Chester Conklin, an odd comic choice. The pairing makes the movie swing from melodrama to slapstick comedy a little inelegantly). While Maply Valley has small town charm, it also has small town gossip and small town moralist hypocrisy, led by Attorney General Richard Granger (Holmes Herbert). It's a fish out of water comedy, a comedy of manners, a love triangle, and a surprisingly modern satire of small town America (I could easily imagine modern politicians still holding up Maple Valley as an example of "Real America" while failing to notice the message about the moral hypocrisy).

And that was last night in Niles. Today (Sunday, Oct 11) at 4 pm there's a Laurel and Hardy/Our Gang spooky shorts show. And next weekend the Pleasanton movies continue with Rod LaRoque in GIGOLO. The October 24th show is a Halloween comedy shorts night, then the 25th they have WATCH HORROR FILMS, KEEP AMERICA STRONG along with HARDWARE WARS.

So there's a lot of cool stuff in Niles for Halloween. See ya there!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Jason watches the Primitive Screwheads do BRAINDEAD ALIVE

It's been a long two years since the Primitive Screwheads drenched me with blood, but last night they were finally back, and with a vengeance.

Their show was an adaptation of Peter Jackson's Braindead (aka Dead Alive), often called the goriest movie of all time. First, I have to make a diversion because this movie is very important to me.

Some of you might have noticed that I watch a lot of movies, and in particular I go to a lot of film festivals. So a lot of people ask me what my favorite movie of all time is. I can't answer that question, but instead I explain the Braindead/Dead Alive is the movie that really started my obsession. You see, when I first saw the American cut of DEAD ALIVE (someone played it in the lounge at college), I loved it. I hadn't even really seen a gory movie before (Seriously, I grew up without watching a lot of movies and kind of a chicken. I made up for it fast). Well, I loved the movie enough I sought more information about it on the ol' Internets, and I found it was originally called BRAINDEAD. I also found there were a number of sites where I could get bootleg VHS copies of the New Zealand/European cut called BRAINDEAD (many of these sites, like Gorehound Video or Blackest Hearts Media, folded their VHS copy business once a lot of these cult films started being released on DVD). Well, the BRAINDEAD cut has a few extra minutes of footage that tie up a few loose ends and just make for some good gags. It's still my preferred version and thanks to Indiefest 2003 I'm one of the few American audiences to see that version on the big screen. Anyway, in searching for the best copy of BRAINDEAD on bootleg VHS I learned about a lot of other cult movies available at these sites. One that impressed me greatly was CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. In 2001, shortly after I had moved to the SF Bay Area, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST did a tour of the U.S. on the big screen. In San Francisco, it played at a little theater in the Mission called The Roxie. After watching it there, and thoroughly enjoying it, I figured I should keep tabs on what's playing at a theater that's cool enough to play such an extreme movie. Well, the next February they played something called Indiefest. By this time I was already seeing a movie or two every weekend, and was gravitating towards independent film rather than the blockbuster of the week release. But I hadn't really done a film festival before. And I also figured out that in the 2002 Indiefest schedule it was possible--but not trivial--to see everything. I figured that's the thing to do. Sure, some people would go just to see the movie their friend made, or see a few that seem interesting, but there would be a number of people who were there to see everything. Turns out, I was the only one (by now, there are at least one or two more people who do that), and now I've seen everything in Indiefest since then (the streak is still alive!) And the rest, as they say, is history.

So this rambling tale of my personal history is just an introduction to say, I KNOW THIS MOVIE PRETTY DAMN WELL. So I can tell you, the Screwheads did a very faithful, and pretty damn funny adaptation of it. Actually, they did a stage parody of a radio-play parody of it. That's right, they present it as a radio play, and make jokes about 1950's style radio. The old-timey microphones are a nice touch, and the joke about cigarette advertisements never got old (okay, they got old, but I still liked them. Makes me want to get a pack of Sammy's cigarettes). And the live Foley effects were really cool. It does mean that a lot of the action is narrated rather than acted (as anyone who has seen the movie knows, there's a lot going on that would be rather difficult for a non-profit theater troupe to put on stage) and so I think it helps a lot to know the movie beforehand (I'd be interested to hear from anyone in the audience who hadn't see the movie).

Oh, but let's be honest, I was there for one thing--blood. Gallons and gallons of blood dumped on the audience. Reportedly, their previous record was 80 gallons of blood in a show. Last night, they used 200 gallons. I believe it. My soaked hair believed it. My soaked clothes (all the way to my freakin' taint) believed it. I was literally left with no bit of surface area not soaked (something that hasn't actually happened since their Chainsaw Massacres show back in 2006). So, Mission 100% Accomplished! My only complaint, I got plenty soaked, the rest of the audience (including my friend Ira) got plenty soaked, but the cast members got away relatively clean. They're playing 4 more shows--on the 10th, 24th, 29th, 30th, and 31st (my birthday, and the extra-bloody closing show!), so hopefully they'll find a way to soak the cast more before then.

Then of course, was the walk to the BART (that blood is cold, by the way), and the long ride back to Fremont. I got a few odd looks, but given that the blood shows up more pink than anything, maybe they figured I had dressed myself as a giant breast cancer awareness ribbon or something.

Anyway, you should all see their show. Tickets are only $20, and are available here.

[Update: I completely forgot to mention how much the Primitive Screwheads love me back (I am, after all, an honorary Screwhead). They made my involvement a little bit of the show, including making me an example of a "not-well-maintained frontage." I <3 @primitive_screw]

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Jason watches WHIP IT

It's a sport movie. It's a coming of age movie. It's a grrrl power movie. It's a cliche, but it's more or less a fun cliche.

Ellen Page (JUNO) stars as Bliss Cavendar of Bodeen, Texas. Her mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) was a beauty queen before she got pregnant and married Earl (Daniel Stern). Now she's a letter carrier who lives her beauty queen fantasies vicariously through her daughters (Bliss and her little sister Shania). Bliss's best friend is Pash (Alia Shawkat of "Arrested Development"), and far more of a wild child than Bliss. Case in point, she convinces Bliss to die her hair blue for a beauty pageant--impressing neither her mom or the judges.

No big deal, Bliss obviously isn't that in to beauty pageants anyway. And on a night out with Pash, she finds out about Roller Derby--a raucous sport where teams of girls in fishnets skate around a track and score points by passing the other team (it's a contact sport, and blocking and hitting the other team is a big part of it). On a lark she tries out for the worst team in the league--the Hurl Scouts. Turns out, she's a really fast skater and would make a good jammer (the player who scores points) if she just toughens up--becomes ruthless. And since she needs a skating name, she becomes Babe Ruthless.

The plot points are cliche--she learns to be tough, the team comes together and starts winning, she gets into trouble with her family and her heart, lessons are learned and people come together.

But screw the cliches. The performances are great. Not just Page and Shawkat, but her others including teammates Zoe Bell (as Bloody Holly), Kristen Wiig (Maggie Mayhem), Eve (Rosa Sparks) and director Drew Barrymore (Smashley Simpson) or rival Juliette Lewis (Iron Maven of the team The Holy Rollers). Even Jimmy Fallon as a tasteless announcer 'Hot Tub' Johnny Rocket was pretty good. And with this cast and this obvious joy in the project, I can overlook the cliches.

One other thing that struck me as odd. Most of this movie--the parts that aren't in Bodeen--takes place in Austin. I've never been to Austin, but it's somehow oddly familiar. I recognize the Alamo Drafthouse. I recognize the "Hi, how are you?" picture by Daniel Johnston. I even knew that the modern incarnation of Roller Derby originated in Austin. It's weird that I know so much about Austin without ever having been there. I've learned this all through movies. Weird.

Jason watches SURROGATES

Yeah, I was in the mood for cheesy sci-fi, and I got it.

This is not a great movie, but mostly delivers on its promise (cheesy sci-fi fun) with a few twists that surprised me (mostly because they made very little sense).

In the near future, 98% of the population lives entirely through surrogates (or "surries"). Originally invented by Dr. Canter as a way for the disabled to lead a normal life, now nearly everyone uses them as a means to safely (and numbly) go through life as whoever they want to be. Bruce Willis stars as a FBI agent Tom Greer (BTW, for those who remember Willis's reported vanity about his bald spot while shooting HUDSON HAWK might enjoy the visual joke with his surrogate having ridiculous hair) who investigates something that hasn't happened in years--a murder. Turns out, there's a weapon that can kill people through their surrogates.

And the plot spools on from there. Whatever, I actually want to talk about the 2% of the population not using surrogates, because that's the part I found the most interesting. That 2% live in "Dread Reservations" led by charismatic leader The Prophet (Ving Rhames). But these are not just the people who see through the madness and prefer to live a life experiencing reality. These are asshole fringe wackos. They don't just eschew surrogates, they don't drive cars. When Greer's surrogate crash lands in their reservation, they don't ask/encourage him to leave, they pull out their shotguns, hunt him down, beat the crap out of him, and crucify him. When Greer comes back as a real, live human being (i.e., a "meatbag", and yes, they stole that term from "Futurama"), they don't treat him much better.

I'm not sure what the intention of this was. The idea of surrogates is pretty extreme, and of course I'd prefer to experience life for real, so I'm all ready to sympathize with the Dreads. But as soon as I meet them, I don't. There's really very little sympathetic about them. And I found that...interesting, even if I don't know why. Certainly more interesting than the rest of the movie (which is, again, good cheesy sci-fi fun).

Jason goes to Bad Movie Night and sees 30 DAYS OF NIGHT

Bad Movie Night is something my friend Ira has known about for a while, but I finally made it out to my first one last Sunday. And it was one that was a little special for me, as an Alaskan and a sorta vampire fan--30 DAYS OF NIGHT. I've seen and reviewed this movie before, but am too embarrassed to quote my review here (just click that link). Let me just defend myself by saying that I saw it and SAW IV on the same night, and I'll still say it's a great movie compared to SAW IV. As for my statement that Josh Hartnett is an underrated actor...oops? Actually, I don't think he's always bad, and I think I had recently seen a short independent film he was in that impressed. Whatever.

Anyway, bad movie night was fun. I didn't get drunk (I had been drinking all weekend before, so I think I was the only one there sobering up). Next week (for QUEEN OF THE DAMNED) I promise to get wasted. At bad movie night you're encouraged to make noise, mock the movie, etc. Kinda like MST3K but with drunk amateurs (okay, exactly like MST3K). And definitely on second viewing, this movie is ridiculous. There's long pondering, actionless moments. Motivations are stupid, the heroes are cowards, and there's never an explanation about why it's still light enough to see even if the sun has gone and power is cut (my explanation--the Aurora Borealis). And I'm now convinced there's no vampire rampage ever that can't be improved by a little Yakkety Sax.

See ya next Sunday at the Dark Room.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Jason watches TEMPESTOUS(NESS) or HIStory is Told by the Victors

Wait, two nights in a row I went up to the city for live theatre? This is supposed to be a blog about movies. Whatever, I'm sure I'll get back to movies soon enough.

Anyway, Performers Under Stress put on this inspection/re-imagining of Bill Shakespeare's "The Tempest" (oh yeah, I actually read "The Tempest" before the show, but no need, it starts with a quick synopsis to get you up to speed). The main issue--where is Sycorax, the "witch" who ruled the island of "The Tempest" before Prospero? And so playwright Scott Baker imagines not just a back story for Sycorax, but a back story for why Shakespeare left her out of the story. His supposition: Shakespeare initially intended her as an homage to the "dark lady" of his sonnets, but when she broke his heart he wrote her out and left just one monologue describing her as a witch. As for Sycorax's back-story, rather than an Algerian witch, he makes her a Patagonian victim of Spanish Conquistadores. She's just looking to get home, but along the way picks up some magic, saves Algiers from a Spanish seige (by sneaking a powerful laxative to the Spanish army), becomes a single mother (through the help of her God Setebos), and ends up ruling an island. That is, until deposed duke and tiresome windbag Prospero arrives and fucks everything up for her.

The play is funny and brisk. 90 minutes without an intermission and barely a gasp for air. I don't remember the final scene count, but I believe it was close to 30. And it was pretty effortless at blending high-falutin' humor (Shakespeare, of course) with the low-falutin' (jokes about a eunuch's missing balls or "The Song of the Shitting Spaniards"). And anyone who can mix the high-falutin' and the low-falutin' that well deserves a select cult following that includes me.

Oh yeah, and tonight (October 3rd) is their last show, so go see it. Tickets are only $10, and you can get a beer or wine there for $3. Info here.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Jason goes to the Hypnodrome for Shocktoberfest '09: THE TORTURE GARDEN

Last Thursday was the opening night/sorta-preview of the Thrillpeddlers newest Shocktoberfest show (BTW, Shocktober is just about my favorite month, competing only with Scotchtober). This was their first time performing this show in front of a live audience, so there were just a few stumbles and missed lines, but not enough to detract from the fun.

The show consisted of two plays, starting with an original story THE PHANTOM LIMB, set in a New Orleans 'house of ill repute' just after the Civil War. Madame du Charmes runs a house that bears no ill will against either side of the war. The war is now over, and the country (or at least her house) is united under one flag--the flag of money. She's an honest businesswoman, taking money from Confederate and Yankee veterans alike. Sure, she had some trouble back in Kentucky, but that certainly won't come back to haunt her. While she employs a team of whores, their services are not always of a sexual nature. They also tend to the wounded, like using voodoo magic to remove shrapnel or scratching phantom limbs. Really, most of their services involve serving "punch" until the customer is too incapacitated to notice his wallet being lifted. Fun story, good payoff, and a surprisingly powerful dénouement in the form of a song. And now that I know the story, I can go watch it again and just focus on the two whores who are always making out with each other [insert "the south will rise again" joke here]

So then during intermission I got a chance to be guillotined. That was a lot of fun. Officially, my capital crime was "being too fluffy":
He's too fluffy! Off with his head!Wait, I see why the blade is stopping. Le me fix that

I am proud that I was the only one that night with the guts to go into the guillotine facing up so that I could see the blade. But I completely wussed out and closed my eyes when the blade dropped. Gotta try that again. Still it was lotsa fun.

And then the second show was an old Grand Guignol classic from 1922, based on a novel by Octave Mirbeau which was once described as “the most sickening work of art of the nineteenth century” (woo hoo!) It's an example of "Orientalism", an artistic movement in 1920's Paris that depicted the far East as a savage, ruthless land of endless depravity (I could go on about how in my modern, enlightened view I abhor the racism and enjoyed the show more as an artifact of European attitudes of the time than for the story itself. But that would sound like I'm so in love with the smell of my own farts that I've stuck my head up my ass). Instead, I'll just tell you it's a story of a mysterious, dangerous woman, the man she seduces, the Prince Li-Tong he (sorta accidentally) kills, and a garden where the blood of tortured prisoners feeds the most beautiful flowers. Oh yeah, and there's rebellion, politics, intrigue, and death.

And that is that. Shocktoberfest is officially on, and officially awesome. Shocktoberfest plays every Thursday and Friday through Nov. 20th. Oh yeah, and Pearls Over Shanghai has been so popular it plays every Saturday and Sunday through the end of the year!